Photos by Damon Webster.|
HOLLYWOOD September 17, 2006 — It's daunting to sit at a keyboard and attempt a review that, if things could be the way we all wished them to be, should rightfully be written by Bill Larsen. Throughout the formative early years of Milt Larsen's grand It's Magic! run, Bill was Milt's most enthusiastic supporter, his mantra being "I'm pretty darned proud of my brother for producing this show every year. It has become a Los Angeles institution." It has indeed, though Bill himself probably never dreamed that the run would extend to half a century, with a golden anniversary performance emceed by one of television's top stars and showcasing 14 top acts in the classy digs of Hollywood's top theater. It was a show that would have thrilled him, and he would once again have been "pretty darned proud" of his little brother.
|It's Sunday night, September 17, 2006, at the Kodak Theatre, crown jewel of Hollywood's Hollywood & Highland redevelopment. As we assume our seats in the first mezzanine (there are three, in addition to the orchestra and parterre sections, plus stacks of box seats — I counted at least a dozen on each side — flanking the massive 120-feet-wide stage), we hear music from West Side Story. Later the music segues into "Singin' in the Rain," and I realize we are hearing music from the movies, for the Kodak is the permanent home to the Academy Awards. You can't help but wonder which star, or at least which star's family member, sat in your seat at the last broadcast. Throughout the theater the wooden appointments are in cherry, and the seating upholstery is a deep plum. Ovals of lighting hover over you in the audience chamber, and all the seats seem to float, with no bad sight lines. It's ultra-modern, not retro, like something out of science fiction. Indeed, you could imagine that you were seated in the senate in Star Wars I/The Phantom Menace. My immediate seating companions for this extravaganza are Shawn McMaster and his fourteen-year-old daughter, Hannah, and Magic Castle librarian, Bill Goodwin, excellent company with which to watch a magic show. John Lovick sits nearby, and directly in front of us sits a family with two small children. It's Magic! has always been a family show.|
Although Milt has always been a stickler for shows starting on time, this one gets off about 15 minutes late, to allow the laid-back L.A. crowd to lollygag into their 3400 seats. The curtain rises to reveal former It's Magic! posters — the poster art for Milt's entire run has been incredible — suspended from the ceiling. As the audience absorbs this showcase of history in art, the posters themselves rise into the rafters, to reveal emcee Jason Alexander reclining on a box.
I became aware that Jason Alexander was interested in magic from his role on the television program Remember WENN, when he played a mentalist. Later he told Erika Larsen that he had based the role in part on Max Maven. More recently Jason has participated in Magic Castle award ceremonies and, to record crowds, served a week's stint in the Castle's Parlour as a mentalist. It's to our benefit that he is a magic junkie, for he gets the show off to an energetic start with a song and dance number, "Magic to Do" from Pippin. He is aided by two dancers for this and produces two more from a tip-over box illusion. Nice work.
Our first clue that this might be a long night at the end of a long day for Dale Hindman is when Jason announces, "Nothing is going perfectly," to knowing laughter. Indeed, he adds, the fact that we are having a show at all is "proof that God exists."
For the Milt Larsen-Terry Hill era of It's Magic!, since 1994, Dale Hindman has been the stage director working behind the scenes, so he knows what he's doing. But consider his challenge on this day: twice as many acts as usual, many with staggering technical requirements, no true access to the theater until this morning, a huge budget crisis if the show runs into overtime, and only one shot to get it right. Buy that man a drink!
Music from Pippin
The gold medal act.
|Jason removes cue cards from his pocket. Given the demands of the evening, it would have been unreasonable to expect him to memorize 14 introductions. And besides, he jests, in his best George Costanza grumble, "These people are all in magic. They don't mean anything to me!"
You hear Vivaldi, and all is right with the world. This means that Lance Burton is performing his FISM-winning dove act, and magic just doesn't get any better. Lance is opening the show! I would have closed with Lance, but this apparently wasn't an option, as Lance has to return to Las Vegas immediately. He can't even stick around for the group bow at the end of the show. But for now, he is with us, and doves, cards, candles, and cigarettes are appearing from the ether. Classic magic, classically presented, the best since Channing Pollock. Lance then steps into the audience to invite a spectator on stage for his Instant Magician routine, in which Lance stands behind the guy and it's really Lance's arms and hands doing the magic. Always a funny routine, it plays great this evening, and the fellow returns to his seat just in time to avoid the swordplay to follow. Jason Alexander isn't so lucky, as he briefly gets caught up in the melee between Lance and a black-masked swordsman, and the duel continues until the mask is whipped off and the assailant has become Lance. Many in the audience will recall the first time they were taken in by this switch. I am thinking, a lot of minutes passed here, and we've a long night ahead if everyone gets this much time, but, hey, this is Lance Burton, whose big break in show business (with that associated day in Burbank with Johnny Carson) could be said to have come during It's Magic! '81, so it's nice that Lance could share this many minutes with us.
|Jason returns to introduce another masked magician, Jeff McBride. First Lance, now Jeff? Both these guys could have closed the show. This is some start. Jeff's mask work, surely familiar to all Little Egypt Gazette readers, is riveting, dramatic entertainment. Jeff follows the mask number this evening with a boy from the audience for his Miser's Dream, a lesson in both how to create a sense of real magic and how to treat a young person from the audience. For a finale (Jeff is also allotted a generous number of minutes), Jeff works solo again with card manipulation and scaling, earning a huge round of applause for skipping cards off the Kodak stage and high into the audience.|
Dream of a miser.
A random spectator please ...
|A red balloon in his hands, Jason Alexander is back. He tosses the balloon into the audience to fairly select a non-stooge, for it will soon come into play for a fellow resident from Jason's home town of Livingston, New Jersey — Rich Bloch.
When we were preparing the Amazing Johnathan cover story for Genii, Johnathan told me that the funniest opening act he ever used was Rich Bloch. The routine Rich does tonight, more than any other, justifies that accolade. It's his video of himself as a wacky mentalist, full of squirrelly logic and facial tics, with video cutaways to celebrities whose response to questions from the Great One are along the lines of "Get out of my face!" For the It's Magic! version of his video, Rich's celebrities included Bob Barker, Milt, and Irene Larsen. Irene's bits were so funny that Rich even left in the outtakes. Getting back to the routine: a fly that buzzes around the poor guy's head eventually, and successfully, reveals a thought-of card. Called back to the stage for a final bow, Rich makes a cheesy appeal to patriotism by unveiling a huge American flag backdrop, large enough to take up most of the Kodak stage. It's the most expensive sight gag in magic.
|Jason Alexander returns, trussed up in a straitjacket. (This looks interesting!) Many comedy straitjacket routines require extra props or at least an audience member to do the trussing up. A consummate actor, Jason doesn't need props to get laughs. It's all body language and body English as he stomps, twists, and shimmies his way out. (I hesitate to equate Jason with his Seinfeld character, but, if you can imagine George trying to get out of a straitjacket, you'll come close to the idea, the only difference being that Jason actually manages to escape.) A very funny bit, so well done it makes you wonder if there is some venue out there where Jason is doing this shtick, or perhaps he is just working up new stuff for the Castle.
Not everything goes well on every It's Magic! (see Milt's interview for some lulus), and the worst luck on this evening has befallen Juliana Chen, whose luggage (and therefore her act) was lost en route. Jason introduces her anyway (with a nod to her astonishing good looks), and she treats us to her fairy-like card manipulation. Later, at a post-show party for cast and friends, autograph collectors gamely seek the signatures of everyone involved, even Siegfried's, but pause in trepidation at Juliana just because she is so darn beautiful.
|And now, step into the strange world of Kevin James. For Kevin's opening number he assembles, body part by body part, a doll-sized version of Charlie Chaplin, which then comes to life in an incarnation played by Antonio Hoyos. Antonio's "Chaplin" pesters Kevin for great comedy. This is the classic bit that first propelled Kevin into the big time. And then the act takes a strange turn. A young black man pushes a cart onto the stage. A buzz saw gone awry slices through him, and his top half tumbles over onto the cart. The small children in the row in front of us become agitated. "Did he die?" one says. But the man's legs still move, are clearly alive. Okay, this can be done: think Rudy Coby's Nikki Terminator illusion. The man's torso and head become vertical again, and this much of him slides about on the surface of the cart. Okay, this too can be done: think of all the clever ways Jim Steinmeyer can hide body parts. But then the guy is lifted off the cart, and there is nothing beneath his torso. You could do this sort of thing with mirrors, but there is no place to conceal the mirrors. Okay, this can't be done, unless ... The children in the row in front of us are now out of their seats, in their parents' laps, and hugging them tightly around the neck. Kevin concludes this Johnny Eck-like interlude by reassembling the man into a complete, walking whole, but the kids aren't buying it. They still cling to their parents' necks. What they saw was real. The act concludes in fantasy, with Kevin's take on Snow, which, with commendable plausibility, he remembers from his childhood in Michigan. The blizzard looks great, and the lighting guys must be very pleased.|
Science is so cool.
$300, and that's all that thing does.
|Next up, with no doubt a sigh of relief from Dale Hindman, is Michael Finney. Guys like Michael and Mac King can walk on, perform their acts on a stage the size of a closet, and walk off, with no technical demands other than a microphone. Although most of the magicians are familiar with Michael's act ("They said to learn only six tricks," he often quips), he surprises us tonight by showing up in living color, in a bright red suit and red shoes, purchased especially for the occasion. You know the bits — Michael's Cane to Table, his line about getting into magic because he heard his sister was getting a hundred dollars a trick, his Six Card Repeat, and his Card on Forehead. Michael proves that you don't need large, high tech illusions if you have personality, timing, and a strong comedic sense. His is a screamingly funny act, and it's dead on tonight.|
Do you see your card?
|Jason returns to introduce the closing act of the first half, Mark Kalin and Jinger. I love this duo because, in addition to Mark's proving that magicians sometimes do wind up with the beautiful girl, the act has bite. Mark and Jinger banter back and forth during the show, as a real couple might. The Kalins are staying at the same hotel as I, and Mark tells me over continental breakfast that he is introducing a new Jim Steinmeyer illusion in the show. It's called Op-Art. The illusion's theme is that of a puzzle, and puzzling it is. In a small box with six partitions (cubes, if you will), Jinger enters the contraption — she is seated and seems to fill all the available space — and then simply seems to evaporate, as Mark allows full viewing through each opening. I appreciate that she is agile, but I regard it from every possible angle and cannot fathom where she can be hiding. And then the Kalins' closer, surely one of the top five illusions of all time, the Selbit Sawing. It's amazing that a sawing in which the girl is completely covered by a wooden box can be more convincing than one in which she is fully exposed, such as the buzz saw versions, but it is. The reality builds slowly as Mark introduces the Civil War era operating table with holes "for drainage," as leather straps are applied to Jinger with which two audience members can tug to render her immobile, as a blade definitely seems to rest on her tummy, as really creepy music plays in the background. The full insertion of the blades and subsequent separation of the box halves leave no room for theories. Once again, the children in the row in front of me have their arms around their parents' necks. This illusion is also too real.|
Hey, this next act is hot.
|Whew. As the first half, the longest half, closes, Dale Hindman must be looking at his watch with relief. It's just under 9:00 o'clock, and we just might make it. Juliana Chen's luggage problem aside, very little went wrong in the first half. A maverick dove here, a dropped prop there, but nothing that professionals with years of flight time couldn't deal with. The audience is dismissed for a 15-minute intermission, and the partying Magic Castle regulars no doubt appreciate a fully stocked bar on every floor.|
|The first act opened with one of the strongest dove acts around, so why not open the second act with another? (Milt's long-time vaudeville rotation is out the window with 14 acts on the bill.) And that act is Dimmare, assisted by the very lovely Monique. This well-loved Fred Astaire of magic leads us with birds and music and flying canes to his incredible climax, a shrinking and vanishing dove cage, and then his raised-fists, full-body exclamation point pose, and blackout! Dimmare transports you to another era, to the swinging nightclub haze of my parents' generation, and it's a treat to go along for the ride.|
Life from thin air.
Maybe I could hire on with Cirque du Soleil.
|Jason Alexander hangs in for Act II, and he is back to introduce the evening's only novelty act, the well-known jugglers, The Passing Zone. Citing Jon and Owen as gold medal winners from the International Jugglers Association, Jason says, "There's a fun group. Right after the Friars and the Shriners." Joking aside, Jon and Owen are funny, very. The last time I saw these guys, they were juggling Richard Kaufman. Tonight, they lure a fellow to the stage for a you-had-to-see-it demonstration of simultaneous fire-torch hats, spinning plates, and flying sickles. Lots of flying sickles. No one dies; Dale Hindman breathes easy again. |
Not to be outdone, Jason Alexander returns and he juggles. First one item, then two, and then, to huge applause, three food items from the kitchen which Jason refers to as "tossed salad." Okay, let's see: this guy is a mentalist, he can sing and dance, he can do illusions, he can escape from a straitjacket, and he can juggle. Maybe Jason Alexander can carve out a career in magic.
|If the Selbit Sawing is one of the top five illusions in magic, Metamorphosis is surely another. The Pendragons own this illusion. No one has ever come close to what they do with it. (And yes, I was watching television live the night that Charlotte was so fast she even left part of her costume behind. It was a moment emcee William Shatner will never forget.) Tonight is perfection: in one instance Charlotte is standing atop the box, and then she is Jonathan. Physicists claim that nothing is faster than the speed of light, but Jonathan and Charlotte pay that line no heed. She emerges from the box in an obvious (and successful) costume change to a brilliant red leotard and to heavy applause.|
The fastest couple ...
... in the world.
That would have been cool though.
|If you are sending friends to Las Vegas, you can give them no better advice than to go see Mac King. No matter how much they lose at the tables, they will remember that for at least an hour they had a really good time. Mac opens his spot on the It's Magic! show by tossing a rope into the crowd. You can't toss a rope into this crowd without hitting a Larsen, and it's Blair Larsen, Dante's wife, who comes up with the prize. Up on stage, she will have nothing to do with Mac's Houdini Challenge Naked Rope Escape, and so Mac has her take a card. Now, of course, the girl is headed down the twisting, shocking, gooey, mysterious path of Mac's Thumb Tie-Card from Zipper-Fig Newton Production-Card in Cereal Box routine. I am a veteran of dozens of Mac King performances, and I don't think I've ever seen a lady so freaked out by touching a Fig Newton.|
|Blair is beautiful and charming and funny, and Mac's task of creating mystery and comedy is easy with her as an assistant. Having returned her to Family Row, Mac encores with his Hiccup Cure, in which he vanishes his head inside a grocery bag with a shocking smush! "Oh, yeah," he says as he removes the bag. "My hiccups are gone, and so am I."|
She wants me to do it again.
Difficult to photograph, stunning to witness.
|Jason returns to introduce another Jason, Jason Latimer, the young 2003 FISM Grand Prix winner for his Crystal Cups and Balls. Jason is now creating stage illusion with laser light, bringing his physics major background to bear on his magical skills and making him something of a 21st-century Marvyn Roy. The act is dazzling. With the house lights dimmed, Jason suspends a hoop on a beam of light that rides down the beam. He hangs a coat hanger on a laser beam, and it falls when the beam is extinguished. And then things get very science-fictionish as he manipulates the laser beams themselves, as though they were emanating from his hands, maneuvering them as a baton twirler would a baton, except that these brilliant pencil-thin beams reach to the farthest recesses of the theater, and Jason can bend the beams with his hands, even fashion them into a circle. I don't know where the lines of science and magic cross, but this is a spectacular thing to watch.|
|Las Vegas star Rick Thomas opens his spot by slicing a girl into (if I counted correctly) 9 sections and restoring her, then invites a little boy on stage to assist in a Blaney suspension of a showgirl. Rick is a really nice guy, but the little boy's reticence fails to get the laughs Rick is shooting for tonight, and Jason Alexander jokingly chides him about it. For a spectacular conclusion, the act resumes with what was for many the magical highlight of the show, an amazing levitation dream sequence in which a lady floats high in the air, returns and is covered with a cloth, floats again to the same height, at which point Rick himself soars into the air like Superman, and, descending, whips the cloth away to demonstrate that the lady has vanished. Those of us expecting a simple Asrah are seriously surprised and amazed. Bravo!|
This is more fun than card tricks.
She's more popular than my tiger.
|Jason returns to introduce the final act of the show, a surprise to those of us trying to guess who it would be, and it's Darren Romeo, the "Voice of Magic" whose Branson show features such musical numbers as "Dream Lover" and "Phantom of the Night." On this show Darren chooses not to sing, but instead to perform Blackstone's Floating Light Bulb. Blackstone was a big influence when Darren was a youngster, and Darren begins the spot by talking, introducing a video clip featuring Gay Blackstone and establishing Darren's relationship to Harry. Although a minor technical glitch with the video leads to an unfortunate adlib, the introduction continues, the clip runs in full, and the curtain rises to reveal Gay herself offering Darren the Light Bulb. As a boy I owned a Floating Light Bulb, and on my first performance the thread broke and the treasured miracle shattered as it hit the hardwood floor, reducing me to tears. I am more than aware of what can go wrong as Darren launches into the routine, but he rises to the occasion, and the bulb floats gracefully above the stage and finally majestically out over several rows of the theater. It's one of the magic's greatest tricks.|
Passing the miracle.
Lighter than air.
|Darren has one more surprise up his sleeve, which is to introduce his more recent supporter in magic, Siegfried, who with little persuasion joins him on the stage to an appreciative audience. Siegfried quite emotionally enjoys the outpouring of love from the crowd. As he resumes his ability to speak, he cheers us by telling us that Roy is much improved, that he goes to the gym three days a week, and (something I never thought about Roy doing in the best of times) that he goes bowling. A longtime friend of the Larsen family, Siegfried closes by offering his thanks to Milt and Bill and Irene for all they have done over the past 50 years. The ensuing applause is intense.|
|Jason Alexander brings the entire cast (sans Lance who had to depart early) back on stage for a group bow. If you aren't staring at one of your favorite females in the show, the performer who really stands out in this lineup is Michael Finney, in that bright red suit. Money well spent!|
|And so (at a very palatable 10:30!) it's a wrap, not just a 14-act one-night performance, but 50 years of the best in magic. How did tonight's edition stack up? This is a question that was asked throughout the evening, for there was a cast and friends party at the Magic Castle that lasted until past 2:30, when the valet parking guys started handing out what was left of the car keys. The first to be asked in my proximity was young Hannah McMaster. "Michael Finney and Mac King were the funniest, and Rick Thomas was the most magical," she said. Her response launched what would become a consensus. The posters had billed the evening as "The Most Exciting Event in the History of Magic." (Those aware of the situation with the Kodak jokingly called it "The Most Exciting Dress Rehearsal in the History of Magic.") While some may have regarded these lines as standard magic poster hyperbole, consider what we actually saw. Here were 14 top magic acts, some young and some mature. All performed their signature material. If you were a youngster, or simply someone young-at-heart and seeing your first magic show, this show might have ruined you for future magic acts. Here you saw life created out of thin air in two of the best dove acts in the business. Here you saw two of the most chilling sawings ever performed. Here you saw two FISM Grand Prix winners. Here you saw the fastest Metamorphosis in the history of magic. You saw playing cards plucked from nowhere and hurled into space, and you saw a card merely thought of revealed by a pesky insect. You saw two of the funniest acts ever to grace the stages of comedy clubs across America, in the grand tradition of Ballantine and Jay Marshall and Billy McComb. You saw a man soar into the air to vanish a lady, and you saw a lit electric light bulb float over the heads of people in the audience. You saw magic as old as the Six-Card Repeat and the Miser's Dream and as modern as laser beams. An exciting magical event indeed.|
|On a personal note, I have attended as many It's Magic! shows as I could for someone not based in California, and I am thrilled to have attended this one. (Bill Larsen in the pages of Genii kindly filled me in on most of the ones I missed.) The day before the show, I had the pleasure of meeting Bill Chaudet, the only surviving member of that first show, back in 1956. Milt had promised to have 1957 alum John Calvert on this year's show, but John couldn't make it, as he was busy working, in Singapore. (And David Copperfield thinks he has discovered the Fountain of Youth! Or, as an alternate consideration, it's 49 years later and Milt still can't afford John Calvert.) If I had been Siegfried, I would have found a few more people to thank: Oliver Berliner, who helped Milt get the original shows off the ground, and Terry Hill, who had the nifty idea to revive the shows in 1994; the directors over the years, especially Dick Zimmerman who directed most of the shows I attended and the indefatigable Dale Hindman for the recent batch, especially tonight's; the artists who drafted some of the most exciting posters in the history of magic; the orchestras from the days when unions permitted the excitement of live sound; and the hundreds of magic and novelty acts and guest celebrities who worked for scale or below scale or occasional huge losses to help make a 25-year-old television comedy writer's dream come true. For it all comes back to Milt, and a big brother who could easily say, on this golden anniversary evening, that he is still pretty darned proud of him. Thanks to all!|
|Ed. note: Before I moved to California in the late sixties, the only way I had to experience It's Magic! was through Bill Larsen's eyes in the pages of Genii. I especially appreciated it when Bill ran "large" (for Genii) photos of the event. With that in mind, I am thrilled to have been able to bring you the photos above, which are just stunning. For these, huge thanks to Damon Webster. I appreciate his generosity and am in awe of his skill.|
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Text Copyright© 2007 by Steve Bryant