Last night I watched a National Geographic documentary called America’s Book Of Secrets – Area 51. I’m a nut for UFOlogy, and this one was quite engaging. Just the thought of all of those secrets buried beneath the Nevada desert is so interesting! Area 51 kept such secrets as the U2 Spyplane and ”Project Oxcart” so completely under wraps that no one knew about them – not even the people working on them! It all reminds me of something David Copperfield once said about how no one member of his crew knew everything about the secrets of his show.
When I was a little boy of three years old, I had a neighbor named Larry, who worked for Lockeed International in Burbank. Since Area 51 has been “declassified” it is a well-known fact that know that the facility had a “black projects” division that engineered and constructed many of the secret aircraft that were later transported and tested at Area 51. In fact, one such project that was worked on from 1962-1975 was for a secret spyplane called, “Project Oxcart”. I now realize that Larry must have been working on this project the whole time I knew him. Imagine what he would have done if while I was playing in his yard at the age of three I had said, “Oxcart”! An interesting thing was that he believed the moon landing to be a complete hoax. I later found that there’s a growing number of people who agree with this. You can read about them at www.moonconnection.com/moon_landing_hoax.phtml. The Book Of Secrets special shows that “Project Oxcart” was built in separate parts in Burbank and then secretly trucked to Area 51 where it was assembled and secretly tested. Amazing!
This reminds me of magician Jasper Maskelyne, who was asked to make an entire city invisible during World War II. Maskelyne joined the Royal Engineers when the Second World War broke out, thinking that his skills could be used in camouflage. A story runs that he convinced skeptical officers by creating the illusion of a German warship on the Thames using mirrors and a model. Maskelyne was trained at the Camouflage Development and Training Centre at Farnham Castle in 1940. He found the training boring, asserting in his book that “a lifetime of hiding things on the stage” had taught him more about camouflage “than rabbits and tigers will ever know”. The camoufleur Julian Trevelyan commented that he “entertained us with his tricks in the evenings” at Farnham, but that Maskelyne was “rather unsuccessful” at actually camouflaging “concrete pill-boxes”.
Brigadier Dudley Clarke, the head of the ‘A’ Force deception department, recruited Maskelyne to work for MI9 in Cairo. He created small devices intended to assist soldiers to escape if captured and lectured on escape techniques. These included tools hidden in cricket bats, saw blades inside combs, and small maps on objects such as playing cards. Maskelyne was then briefly a member of Geoffrey Barkas’s camouflage unit at Helwan, near Cairo, which was set up in November 1941. He was made head of the subsidiary “Camouflage Experimental Section” at Abbassia. By February 1942 it became clear that this command was not successful, and so he was “transferred to welfare”—in other words, to entertaining soldiers with magic tricks. Peter Forbes writes that the “flamboyant” magician’s contribution was either absolutely central (if you believe his account and that of his biographer) or very marginal (if you believe the official records and more recent research).
Maskelyne’s nature was “to perpetuate the myth of his own inventive genius, and perhaps he even believed it himself”. However, Clarke had encouraged Maskelyne to take credit for two reasons: as cover for the true inventors of the dummy machinery and to encourage confidence in these techniques amongst Allied high command. His book about his exploits, Magic: Top Secret, ghost-written, was published in 1949. Forbes describes it as lurid, with “extravagant claims of cities disappearing, armies re-locating, dummies proliferating (even submarines)—all as a result of his knowledge of the magic arts”. Further, Forbes notes, the biography of Maskelyne by David Fisher was “clearly under the wizard’s spell”. In his book, Maskelyne claims his team produced dummy men, dummy steel helmets, dummy guns by the tens of thousands, dummy tanks, dummy shell flashes by the millions and dummy aircraft.
Because of the nature of the magician’s work, secrecy is important. The magician depends upon mystery, which in turn depends upon mystery. Magic is interesting as long as an audience can be puzzled. If you stop and think about it, we’re really making something happen that others know cannot happen. This is not easy. Some people want to show their brilliance (?) by performing a mystery and then showing how it’s done. Muhammed Ali used to do this a lot.
Noted dramatic critic Ashton Stevens once said, “I have faith in magicians and I believe in them – but I was the most disappointed man in the world when Thurston had me come on stage with him and I discovered how one of his mysteries was done. I would rather believe that magicians perform miracles”.
The magician’s art is to take people to land of mystery. A land of “Arabian Knights”. A fairyland of wonder. In the human mind, in the faculty of reason a three divisions. Analysis, synthesis and judgment. Analysis takes things to pieces. Synthesis puts them back together and judgment weighs the matters at hand. The interesting thing about synthesis is that once the mind has put things back together and solved them, it loses interest and looks for something else. Remember this power of synthesis in humans and keep them interested and amazed without giving them the solution to the problem.
Never explain to a lay audience how your mysteries are performed and, protect your fellow magician by protecting his secrets. In the training I provide you through my free magic tricks the inner secrets of magic are entrusted to your care. You owe it to your fellow magician as well as to yourself to protect the profession.
Earlier I described magician’s tricks as, “puzzles”. While puzzles do engage the human mind, if you want to to impact your audience on deeper levels, more thought has to be put into the magic you perform. There are many elements that make up a theatrical experience, be it magic, a musical like Wicked or Cirque De Soliel. A good magician should strive to move the audience beyond intellectual engagement, towards a deeper, emotional experience. This is usually not something a beginner thinks about. Usually he just wants to make people go, “Wow”. When David Copperfield was merely a teen, he was frequenting Broadway musicals like Pippin and A Little Night Music and trying to make his magic have the same emotional impact. Pretty mature for a 15 year old new to magic don’t you think. Did that unique perspective pay off? You take a look at his career and tell me for yourself.
One of the things my neighbor Jeff McBride teaches at his Magic & Mystery School in Las Vegas is how to help his students transport their audiences beyond the mundane and into an experience of the miraculous. This is easier said than done. To do this special conditions are required like understanding and control of the performance environment, the ability to adapt to the live performing situation as it develops, and mastery of the technical dimension of magic. Let’s be honest without excellent technique, there can be no experience of mystery for the audience. Full awareness of how the audience’s mind-set helps to create this magical experience. Remember analysis, synthesis and judgment? The combination of physical, mental, and technical preparation creates a context where the miraculous can be experienced.
An interesting thing about McBride’s stage magic is the way he handles the fourth wall. People are always involved in what he is doing. He believes in transforming an audience of individual “objective witnesses” into a cohesive group of “subjective participants.” A magic show has a power all its own that very few other art forms have. It has the potential to break the fourth wall, and have the audience be directly involved in co-creating the experience. People support what they help to create, whether it is a political party, a charity or, for our purposes, a theatrical experience. If people are engaged and invested energetically in a performance, they will feel like they are “part of it.” I feel that this is what separates an average magic show from a great magic show.
People should always leave a good magic show having something to think about. They should have a strong feeling since the performer had guided them through a travel into the unknown. Dr. Stanley Jaks once said “If you really want to know what an audience thinks of your show, hide in the bathroom stall of the men’s room after the show and listen in.” He’s right and I’ve done this. Everything from, “I know how he did that hat trick” to, “he was okay,” will emerge. “I saw a magician who’s better,” etc. Suffice it to say you should give your audience something to talk about. Ask yourself. Does your magic have a special message or a feeling you want your spectators to leave with?