Two exotic chicks

Gary Ouellet continued his astonishing run of televised magic specials with a May entry on CBS featuring a single magician, Melinda. The Little Egypt Gazette is pleased to take a closer look at this lady and her magic.

Two cartoon characters
What sexy legs! Jessica's aren't bad either!
Let's get my bias out in the open, right off. If an incredibly beautiful female magician not only wears, but does extraordinary justice to, a slit-up-the-side Jessica Rabbit dress, I'm going to like her television special. A lot. This confession out of the way, let's take a quick rundown of the show for those who missed it, and then on to a few observations.

Disney's Melinda: First Lady of Magic aired on CBS at 8:00, on Friday, May 30. Produced by Gary Ouellet and Stephen Zandrick, the television special was a fast concoction of dance and illusion and costume changes, beginning with the roar of a motorcycle and climaxing nearly an hour later with a race car revved up to "180 miles per hour." And so we begin . . .

The Motorcycle Vanish -- In a tight black body suit, Melinda opens with the vanish of herself on a motorcycle, with our girl reappearing from an empty box. Appraisal: "she" was too far away from the camera when the rider and bike vanished for this to be effective on tv. In addition, I don't think straightforward black art vanishes fool anyone. It's nevertheless an upbeat opener that gets the show off to an energetic start. (Melinda has outgrown, especially in this Disney context, the bump and grind opening sequence she featured years ago on stage and on her Dick Clark Presents appearance, in which her black outfit vanished, via a full light seance gimmick, to reveal her in a shiny string bikini. There is a world beyond Las Vegas, and times change, but that opener remains one of the most memorable openers to a magic act I've seen.)

Opening Chat -- Gorgeous in a black strapless evening gown, Melinda introduces the fact that the show will be framed as "weaving my magic with a special story about a little girl who has a big imagination." The little girl is Kelsey Mulrooney, who with her screen mom, Shelley Long, dreams up a female magician named Melinda. I found this a challenging premise -- that a famous female magician can exist only in a little girl's imagination.

The Winged Horse Vanish -- Melinda rides into Kelsey's fantasy on a winged white horse, and the horse vanishes. Again, I don't find black art vanishes believable. Roy Horn also uses black art to vanish himself and steed, on the Mirage stage, and it doesn't work for him either. But I've always liked Melinda's entrance on that horse, as well as Roy's (a better rider, he compels his horse to dance). In each case, the horse is a beautiful accessory in search of a stronger illusion in which to use it.

Melinda Meets Her Prince -- One of the strongest illusion sequences and one of the most Copperfield-esque. It's a sexy, romantic number in which Melinda turns a cleaning maid into her boyfriend, and later back into the cleaning lady. Both exchanges were fast and startling, and Melinda looked lovely for this segment in an extremely short blue dress. (I immediately thought of it as her Becker dress, as it threatened to expose all her secrets.)

The Honeymoon Prediction -- In the black evening gown, Melinda flirts with a fellow from the audience whom she has lured on stage to participate in a prediction of where and how she and the guy will spend their honeymoon. Such a segment (flirtation) has always been a part of Melinda's stage show, often via the context of a guillotine illusion.

The Redcoats Are Coming -- In a red Revolutionary War jacket, and with great legs, Melinda dances her way through a piece that includes a cannon ball zombie, a dove production and vanish, and Melinda being shot from a cannon. Zombie is of course out of fashion in magic circles, but I still recall a day in junior high when I had inadvertently missed the Neil Foster episode of Don Alan's Magic Ranch. "They had this guy," my buddies said, "and he had a floating ball that floated all around his arms. It was really neat. It must have cost $10,000." In one unusual move, Melinda bent backwards toward the audience and let the ball float across her chest. I'd like to have seen Neil Foster do that. More on the cannon trick below.

Sword Suspension -- In the black body suit, Melinda announces an illusion with a gender switch. Following some more dancing, she hypnotizes a male dancer and uses him as the "victim" or subject in the classic sword suspension illusion. Very nicely done.

Asrah and More -- Magicians familiar with Melinda's stage show know this one as her "Phantom" illusion, because she used to perform it to Phantom of the Opera music. It's a switch illusion, in which Melinda is hypnotized by a witch and levitated via Asrah. When she vanishes in mid-air, the witch suddenly turns out to be Melinda.

Roger Rabbit and Company -- Melinda is billed as Disney's Melinda for this special, and this extended segment exhibits the most overt Disney influence. Various Disney characters are eliminated in a touch screen effect, which homes in at last -- as predicted! -- on Cruella de Vil. Cruella is vanished from a large (really large) cloth, to be replaced by Roger Rabbit in an airplane. Whew! As impressive as the production of an airplane and a popular cartoon character might be, the magic in this playlet paled next to the sight of Melinda, with her hair straight, wearing the red dress once worn by Jessica Rabbit, the toon femme fatale from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Wahoo. Roger Ebert describes Roger Rabbit's curvaceous wife as "the improbably pneumatic" Jessica, and the same might be said of Melinda. Three dimensions, amply filled out by Melinda, are far more impressive than Jessica's two.

The Drill of Death -- This is the industrial strength version of Impaled that was the surprise hit of World's Greatest Magic II, with all the sparks and grinding gears of its original television premiere. Melinda casts this illusion as being "about not giving up -- even when things seem hopeless." It's one of my favorite illusions, alongside Copperfield's Death Saw and Lance's original dual levitation and the Pendragons' Metamorphosis. Melinda looks vulnerable and terrific in this one, and my only disappointment is that it didn't have, from the WGM II version, (a) the suspense of wondering if she would fall out of her costume and (b) the kittenish pose at the finish.

Pete Biro's favorite zombie performer From a previous WGM II review: Tonight, Melinda was the best of the best . . . This year she returned to premiere the Drill of Death, an astonishing new illusion, a major updating of the spike-through-back penetration that has been performed by major illusionists from David Copperfield to Siegfried and Roy (in their act the "spike" is a horn on the giant mechanical dragon). This is the strongest version yet, an incredible hunk of machinery with the longest and widest spike, in this case a gigantic drill bit (movie fans may be reminded of the gory murder in the movie Body Double). Melinda's first illusion, if it is one, is created by her new wonder bra, and that long blond hair flipping like a whip, and suddenly you aren't going to take your eyes off her. As the drill penetrates Melinda and then rises to a vertical position, with her limp impaled body spinning twenty feet in the air and everyone wondering if anything is going to fall out of that costume, the production values are awesome: sparks flying as the machine fires up, the deep rumbling of an eight-ton mechanical contraption in motion, ethereal religious chanting as Melinda spins in death, and first-rate camera work. . . It should be noted that, in addition to her world-class looks and charms, Melinda brings considerable dancing and athletic talent to this particular effect. The illusion tonight concludes with Melinda crouching, restored, in a pouty, kittenish pose, the blond hair draped over mostly-visible breasts, looking like the heroine in a Frank Frazetta painting. This is exciting, baffling, sensual magic -- as good as it gets. -- The Little Egypt Gazette, December 1995

Al Unser Vanishes -- Yes, Al Unser, in a race car chained to a table (the car, not Al), vanishes, even though the vehicle is surrounded by spectators from the audience (who walk to the stage like hypnotized converts at a tent revival). Am I watching a Melinda special or a D.C. special? Ah, at least we're watching the one who looks best in black leather. I've no idea how this works, but have been conditioned to be highly suspicious of any produced or vanished object being surrounded by audience members. The coolest scripting of the show: Melinda breaks all the rules and never brings Al back! Perhaps she requires a second special to pull that off.

Twin Levitation -- As the show, and its dreamlike metaphor, closes, Melinda causes a sleeping Kelsey Mulrooney to float off the bed. In order to pass a hoop over the child conveniently, Melinda herself rises into the air.

Best Irish export since Sinead O'ConnorA lay friend asked after the show: "So what was with all the dancing?" As mentioned at the top, David Blaine and Melinda emerge from two different worlds, the street and the Las Vegas stage. The shows in which Melinda has headlined at the Landmark, the Sands, and the Lady Luck have all been tight, fast-paced variety shows, including additional performers such as juggler Anthony Gatto, comedic bolo twirlers Los Latin Cowboys, and unicycle-riding basketball players the King Charles Troupe. These shows, originally produced and choreographed by Melinda's mom, Bonnie Saxe, have also heavily featured dance numbers, common to Las Vegas revues and Broadway musicals but somewhat unusual for the typical tv viewer's concept of a "magic show." (Pure dance numbers are suddenly rising in popularity with the success of such shows as Stomp and Riverdance (see poster at left), so in a way Melinda is on the cutting edge by landing a television special that could easily have been billed as starring "dancer Melinda Saxe" as it was "magician Melinda Saxe." Indeed, TV Guide hyped the show as "Melinda: First Lady of Magic dances with her entourage of male assistants . . .") Although male magicians, from Doug Henning to David Copperfield, have occasionally attempted to dance, Melinda is the first magician since Peter Pit who actually can dance, and I enjoy this part of her show. Partly, she simply looks great, but there is also a planned functionality. The dance routines enable her to establish moods and scenes that create context for the illusions that follow. Dancing is as integral to Melinda's magic as, say, buffoonery is to Tom Mullica's.

Melinda received early magical grounding from the likes of Gary Darwin and Geno Munari and Jimmy Grippo, and her stage magic has been audience tested for years. Could Melinda's magic have been stronger in this television special? Yes, in places. As mentioned above, black art is weak methodology unless you are Omar Pasha. I've also seen a couple of Melinda's switch illusions (the shot-from-cannon routine and the Asrah switch) play stronger on the confines of a medium-sized stage than they played here on television. Television consumes performance material at an alarming rate, and audiences are quickly becoming familiar with most of the trends in modern illusions. It's difficult to pull off a switch illusion without tipping that a switch is about to occur. (It's also difficult to misdirect a camera. Only a few magicians have been truly successful in recent years with switches, the two that come to mind being Lance Burton's gramophone illusion and Rudy Coby's Puppet Boy switch.) On the other hand, several of Melinda's illusions worked quite well, including the sword suspension and the inimitable Drill of Death. As an illusionist, Melinda shares the charisma and savvy of the best, including Siegfried and Roy and Lance Burton and the Pendragons: she knows how to keep the focus on herself rather than on the boxes, and she knows how to take credit for the magic. If you think what any of these performers do is easy ("it's just box magic"), go watch a few amateur illusionists have a go at it.

Melinda is a stunning blonde who more resembles the stereotype of a magician's assistant than of a magician, only better looking. Her stage persona is indeed that of a cutesy blonde, to wit she uses a twist on a Dolly Parton line, something about it taking years to get that ditzy and months to get that blonde. One reader wrote that he found her "fluffy," and I couldn't help but think that she had worked hard to be that fluffy. She intentionally conforms to the stereotype of the conventional male fantasy. It is perhaps a less-than-pc stereotype. The modern American girl has a degree in engineering and opens her own doors and goes to the Olympics and wins the gold medal in basketball and softball and soccer. I like this modern girl too, but you work with what God gives you, and Melinda works with extraordinary physical assets, combined with a love of dancing and magic. I easily buy into the fantasy she creates on stage, and judging from her success many others do as well. (Her success of course is anything but stereotypical, as she continues to carve a lucrative niche in a male dominated business. As Cindy Crawford once said, roughly, "I'm CEO of a corporation whose chief product is Cindy Crawford.") While a couple of Melinda's stage illusions failed to translate to television as well as, say, the Drill, her looks nevertheless translated fabulously. She proved to be remarkably photogenic, and the camera adored her, from the full-body dance numbers to the close-up head shots.

Is Melinda indeed the First Lady of Magic? An unqualified yes. Show business is a total package. It includes the entire look and personality and likability of the performer, and it includes and all the hard work and rehearsals that make everything look easy. Through her assets and her hard work -- endless hours of dance rehearsal, getting the magic right, doing two shows a night for six nights a week for years, and never missing a show -- Melinda has achieved greater show business success than any female magician in history and greater than all but a handful of male magicians. In a city known for thousands of beautiful girls and thousands of dancers and some of the finest magicians on the planet, her name is a household word. She's earned her bragging rights. A television special in cahoots with CBS and Disney only further extends the mark others will have to reach, male or female, to equal her accomplishments.

I'm a longtime Melinda fan and enjoyed this special, but perhaps you aren't and didn't. No problem! Here's your opportunity to share what you think of Melinda's first tv special. Just check off your opinions on the following form and click the submit button. Only one click per reader, please. Your opinions will be kept totally confidential.

My favorite outfit in Disney's Melinda: First Lady of Magic was:

The strapless black evening gown
The black body suit with silver sparkles over her breasts
The gold top with harem pants that she wore in the winged horse segments
The top half (only!) of a Revolutionary War outfit
The extremely short wisp of a blue dress
The red slit-up-the-side Jessica Rabbit dress

My favorite Melinda hairstyle in the special was:

The ponytail in the Revolutionary War sketch
Long and straight as in the Roger Rabbit segment
High and elegant as in the honeymoon prediction
With bangs, and naturally flowing about her shoulders, as in the blue dress segment

My favorite Melinda line in the special was:

"I want you to know, that when I was growing up, my dream was to become a lady magician, and this evening you're watching that dream come true."
"Oh, and by the way, all the magic you see tonight is being done without any camera tricks."
"Sometimes, when you unmask your nightmares, the results can be surprising."
"I'm looking for the man of my dreams."

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Copyright© 1997 by Steve Bryant