S. Leo Horowitz (1894-1971) was a noted magician in the New York area in the 1930s and 1940s, working for cafe society and most of the better parties. He had a gracious style and an intriguing personality, but as he said above, he depended on the simplicity of his magic to make most of the impression of his performances. The same intent has been echoed for a hundred years by other magicians as well.
To get the most out of a trick, simplify the method as well as the effect; it should be as easy as possible for you to perform it, and it has to be easy for your audience to follow. The rule of thumb is that if you’ve come up with three methods for making a trick work (an electric motor, a clockwork mechanism, or a thread), you use the simplest, a thread. There won’t be any batteries to replace or go dead when you least expect them to, you don’t have to wind anything or take a chance on someone hearing the mechanics, and you can control both the speed and tension.
It doesn’t apply just to the mechanics of magic, either, as the principle is just as easily applied to manipulations. If you do a card trick that has three sleights or secret moves in it, try to figure out how to eliminate one of the moves. Then, if you still like the trick, see if you can eliminate one more move to make it even more perfect. Remember, the more sleights you have in a trick, the more times there are for someone in your audience to catch you. They may only catch you in one of the three sleights that you have to do, but they only need one in order to destroy the mystery of the effect. Keep your movements as natural as possible and your sleights to a minimum.
Now many beginners interpret this to mean that all of their magic should be done with mechanical means. Not at all, it’s almost just the opposite. Your two hands, when properly trained and in perfect synchronization with your mind, can duplicate any mechanical means of doing a magic trick. Señor Mardo said, repeatedly, that his hands could duplicate any trick deck on the market, and he was right. What you have to do is strive to reach that same level of skill and knowledge.
You should, in the beginning in any case, spend as much time as possible analyzing and practicing how to do basic movements with the the least amount of effort and the largest amounts of entertainment and psychology. The master of any craft or art doesn’t use any unnecessary actions, and the ones used are direct, and usually in a flowing manner. Watch a classical musician as he plays his instrument; see how an artist approaches a blank surface as he begins a drawing; learn why a cabinetmaker handles a piece of wood in a certain manner before he marks it for cutting and shaping. Any beginning involves in getting your mind in tune with the object, making sure that all is present and ready for working, and, in our case, how best to present it in a pleasing manner.
Drop a card face down on the table. Now reach over with one hand and turn it over so it’s face up. Did you turn it sideways, or lengthwise? Would one way look better than the other? Would it be dramatically better to delay the showing of the face until the last split second? Should you use your whole hand, or just the first two fingers to do the move? Which fits best with the way you’ve handled the cards up to now? What is the next move you have to do, and how is the best way to get from here to that position?
There’s more to the simple move of turning a card face up than is apparent, isn’t there?
What about your other actions? How do you give the deck to someone else? How do you take it back? How do you remove something from your pocket, and how do you put it away? How do you move an object from one spot to another on the table? How do you ask for the helping hand of spectator?
Learn to analyze every little move you make as you’re putting a routine together. As you progress, the process will become easier and more automatic so it will eventually become second nature to you. Keep analyzing; keep looking at the table top and try to see it the same way your audiences will; keep in mind the thought that what you do isn’t as important as how you do it. Will you please your audiences? Will they like what they see? Will you always be putting your best foot forward? Do these sound like a lot of probably unnecessary questions? Well, they’re not!
The problem is that most amateur magicians are dull to watch, they don’t have any life in them. It seems as though they believe that cards and paddles and gimmicks will automatically make a magician into an entertainer. Not so! You have to work to be an entertainer. Even the so-called naturals of show business WORK at their specialties. The fact that it seems to be effortless is proof of how hard they’ve worked.
Regardless of your style of magic, you have to move in order to affect your audience in a positive manner. When you don’t move for periods of time is when their interest begins to lag. Since you’re working close-up instead of on a stage, you’re limited as to the amount of moving you can do─but only in the distances travelled.
When working, have your hands travel from one position to another in rounded movements. They should flow from one movement into the next without any jerky corners or sharp actions. They’ll be easier to watch and understand, and a smooth flow makes them look graceful. Also, when your hands move from one spot to another on the tabletop, do so in a slight curve. Nature, very rarely, produces a straight line, so, psychologically, a straight movement is jarring and, therefore, very strong. To keep making straight line movements is to continually push at the sensitivity of your audience. Save the direct moves for strengthening the finish of the trick.
To add emphasis to a move, add a small gesture at its finish. If you’re drawing attention to a coin, have your hand travel to the coin, and then tap it once. If you’re asking a question, time the move of your palm-down hand so the move and your question end at the same time, then turn your palm upwards.
Everything you do has a meaning; facial expressions, hand gestures, body positions─all mean something to the people who are watching you. So, again, analyze what you’re doing and what you want to convey. Are the two of them in agreement, or are you sending conflicting signals?
“Pointing” is the show business term for signalling that something is important, but without verbally telling your audience to remember it. In other words, a certain action or spoken phrase is slightly accented to make it memorable. Later, when you reach the climax, the remembered action or phrase strengthens the finish by reminding your audience of the previous problem or point.
Timing helps to strengthen the pointing that you do if you change the speed of your working as you approach the climax. A very few times you will speed up to the finish, but usually you only do that if you are uncovering a number of surprises at the same time. You have to let your audience catch up with you visually and mentally before you show the big climax.
Timing is also important in your overall show. For example, you can do your first trick at a normal speed, and the next trick is done a little faster, but slow to a normal tempo as you approach the finish. Now you can do a slower trick, overall, than the first two in order to build a certain amount of drama into the plot.
As you can see, you keep your audience moving mentally. You keep changing the pace to keep their interest up, because if you keep working at the same speed you will become boring.
Watch the top people in show business and see how they constantly vary their pace and tempo. Listen to how they vary their voice and its timbre. See how they move to point up an action here, and don’t move here so they don’t detract from the speech or a bit of action. All of this pointing is done, in the right spots, to insure understanding, to add surprise now or later, to sustain laughter, to build suspense, or to develop additional punch to the finish. All of them are tools that you can also use.
Personality is what makes magic work. Two magicians can do identical effects, and if one of them is a dolt, that version falls flat, regardless of how good his routine is. Those elusive qualities of humor, intelligence, caring, attitude, and other human characteristics, are mixed in varying degrees in all of us. Keith Clark (1908-1979), a very classy and successful nightclub magician, considered the voice the most important ingredient of one’s personality.
“If the room is completely dark,” he maintained, “you can still tell the personality by the voice.” If not completely true, it is close enough. The voice is certainly important, and it can be manipulated even easier than the fingers. Look at the spells that a radio actor can weave, and we know that the actor’s personality isn’t like the character being played.
If you’re honest with yourself, you already have a good idea of your basic personality because we all, constantly, try to project ourselves in a certain way to other people. We all have varying mixtures of good and bad traits, plus our own philosophies and prejudices that become evident to our audiences. Pick the ones that will build a simple character for you to use for your shows. You can usually make changes to create what you consider a better entity, but don’t try to change too many, or try to change them too much. Remember, these traits are the result of your everyday living for many years─they are second nature to you. Humor is probably the most important part of that personality that you’re going to put before your audiences. Each of us has a different style of humor, and once you know your type, then the lighter side of the personality retains believability because none of the humor is forced. It’s so easy to use proper grammar, but if you’re not sure, ask around until you can find a friend who will know. Write down your patter (what you want to say as you do a trick), exactly as you say it, and have it corrected. When you find something in their critique that you don’t understand, ask why it should be done that way. Then, when you realize what the mistake is, you won’t repeat it in the future.
And, please, drop the words “right?”, “okay?”, and “all right?” from the ends of your sentences. These tacked-on and completely unnecessary inquiries seem to become code words to people who don’t really hear what they’re saying. The use of one or more of these phrases will quickly set up a situation where the spectator addressed is required to reply, and he may not always give you the answer you want! If you say, “So I put the Four of Hearts into the center of the deck, right?”, you psychologically create a challenge in the spectators’ minds. They aren’t sure either that it’s really the Four of Hearts, or that it really went into the center of the deck. So avoid the possibility of having someone say, “No, it’s still on top of the deck,” by getting rid of those dangerous and superfluous endings.