A long time ago in a theater in a nearby city, you would see magic live on stage and that was about the only time audiences were able to view magicians and their shows.
What a golden age of magic though.The 1800s and early 1900s featured some of the most innovative and amazing magicians in our modern history including Harry Kellar, Howard Thurston, the Herrmanns, Lafayette, Chung Ling Soo, Blackstone and of course the legendary Harry Houdini who was more of a showstopper than a pure magician.Many of you probably only recognize one or two of the other names in that list unless you are a magic enthusiast.
To place this in perspective, let me equate these conjurers to the music world, which is more familiar to most of us.Kellar, Thurston and the others would be similar to musicians like Pink, Bruno Mars, Florida Georgia Line, Sugarland and such.
All are top performing acts in the world today just like the magicians of the Golden Age, but they cannot match the spectacle of The Beatles at Shea Stadium, Hendrix at Woodstock or Pink Floyd's epic Wall concerts.Those are at a different level and that is the spectacle that was Harry Houdini.Surprisingly though, I'm not writing a column about Houdini or any of those acts in particular.
What I am writing about is the evolution of magic in the 21st century and offering my opinion on it.
In the Golden Age of magic, the audience saw spectacular illusions live including floating women, a disappearing elephant, people being sawed in half, submerged in milk cans and so on.When the selected cards rose out of the pack, it happened right in front of the gas lights on stage mere feet away from the spectators.
When the performer plucked large silver dollars or cigarettes out of the air you could see them and smell the smoke. That was magic in the most classic sense.
The advent of the camera though morphed magic in good ways and bad.Thanks to the marvel of television, the magician could now appear in your living room and still make magic happen right before your eyes.
Those of you who are old enough to remember the birth and early days of the silver screen may recall Mark Wilson's Magic Circus or Don Alan's Magic Ranch.Both shows delighted children of all ages with magic and fun in the 1950s and 1960s.
As we moved into the 1970s, the leading magicians on television became Doug Henning. In the later years of that decade a young magician named David Copperfield began appearing in annual specials.Both of these magicians continued to delight new audiences.
A syndicated program on Sunday evenings called Bill Bixby's World of Magic featured cabaret acts as well as magic you could do at home.The world of magic changed though in 1983 when the most spectacular act of sorcery ever seen on television occurred before our very eyes, sort of.That was the year David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear from Liberty Island to the amazement of a live audience at the island as well as those of us at home.
If you recall that evening on April 8, 1983, Copperfield's special culminated with the live outdoor effect.An audience sat on a platform outside on Liberty Island.In front of them was a large scaffolding whose purpose was to raise a curtain for a moment. Beyond the curtain was Lady Liberty in all her glory.
Copperfield raised the curtain and when he dropped it the impossible happened, the 151-foot-tall, 225-ton-statue was gone.Helicopters flew through the night sky shining lights on the base where she once stood.At the conclusion of the show though he raised the curtain and returned her to her rightful place.
Prior to that special, Copperfield made a jet disappear, a train car and some other large scale items, but this eclipsed those previous effects and brought magic to a whole new level.
Unfortunately though, I think it also put pressure on Copperfield to develop even more over the top illusions which included producing a ship in the Bermuda Triangle, "Walking Through The Great Wall of China" and floating over the Grand Canyon.
A later special though was one called Flying which featured a fantastic illusion that had no spectacle for a backdrop. It was just Copperfield on a stage and he began flying around a large stage through hoops and other obstacles.It was quite impressive.
The 1990s saw a new revival in magic with several years of "World's Greatest Magic" specials that contained magical performances in a variety of venues and at a level that was more theatrical and back to "normal" per se.
Toward the end of the 1990s and dominating the early years of the 21st century was Criss Angel whose "Mindfreak" series totally shifted magic away from the theatrical performances on television that even Copperfield continued to perform.Angel's magic was bizarre, in-your-face and provocative to a degree.On his heels though was another magician and bizarrist that changed the image of the magician yet again.
David Blaine was a shock to the traditional magic world.He discarded the theatrical trappings and elaborate tricks for simple, in-your-face styles of no-nonsense performances of magic.His bizarre magic was even a part of the millennium New Year's celebration.
I know I cannot forget when he made Peter Jenning's daughter's name burn onto his arm and then swallowed a thread only to pull it out of his stomach on camera.
This is a brief journey through a modern history of magic on television but it is necessary for the second part of this column as to whether television is a benefit or is it in some ways a detriment to the magician?
Til next time…