Deep in the Art of Magic
By Scott Wells, A.I.M.C.

Yeehaa! I seen goat ropin’, toad throwin’ and biscuit stompin’ but I ain’t never seen nothin’ like this! Or so might go a colorful colloquialism by some Cretan who attended the 2002 Texas Association of Magicians annual convention in Ft. Worth over Labor Day Weekend. This one seemed to really have it all, and I mean all. This was one convention that was really outside the traditional box, of Trix. So, what was different? How about a one-ton longhorn? A fast draw cowboy? Street magicians? An all-you-can-eat buffet? All these plus some super magic at a great price. It was all in there, or should I say, out there.

Registration was considerably down this year with only 675 registrants, over a 40% decline from our last convention in Cowtown. Perhaps the disappointing numbers can be justified in a variety of ways: post 9/11 resulting in travelers staying closer to home, downturn in the economy, non-existent advertising, no one really knowing the schedule or who was booked, etc. Whatever the reason, the few who made the trip seemed to be very well pleased with the outcome. To begin with, all activities took place in one ballroom: lectures, contests, close-up shows, collector’s meeting, everything. If we hadn’t gotten out of the hotel for some of the events, one could have felt rather claustrophobic. I was expecting military efficiency in keeping to a set schedule, but surprisingly some of the earlier events at the hotel did not start promptly, there was no moderator for a few events, and it took a while for registrants to realize that everything was going to take place in the same ballroom. There was no program or detailed schedule of events and shows provided to the registrants except for a small piece of paper stuck behind the registrants’ badges. Two large Image Magnifiers (I-Mags) were set up that allowed everyone to see regardless of where they were seated in the oversized ballroom. The Radisson Hotel was an efficient operation complete with a pre-pay deal (a Ft. Worth original idea) that got registrants in and out quickly. Dealers had to deal with the smaller attendance and slower sales along with events that conflicted with their hours of operation, a traditional complaint/problem with most conventions. The dealers were distributed among three rather inadequate conference rooms and some even set up in the hallways, but they made the best of what conditions the hotel could offer.

Friday afternoon started rather different beginning with the collector’s event that is usually reserved for the late evening hours. Three diverse lectures followed including: Howard Hale, on showmanship and performing; Bob King on close-up and parlor, and; David “Silly Billy” Kaye with one of the best lectures on today’s touring circuit on working with children. Since there are so many children’s entertainers in the T.A.O.M., it was an error in judgment by not scheduling Silly Billy in a weekend slot after all the registrants had arrived. The evening show was unique in that it didn’t start with a bang, no glamorous production numbers, not with a South of the Border flavor, not even with local talent, but with the stage contest. Although low-key and certainly not flashy, this event allowed time for registrants to socialize at the hotel, have a drink and get comfortable and to see the contest acts that are usually overlooked due their time on the schedule and/or their quality. To brighten the amateur show, David Kaye performed a clever piece as “Og” the Caveman Magician. Closing the show was another ringer, Kohl & Company, who are Internationally known for their hilarious, bumbling magician parody. Some attendees actually thought they were part of the competition and felt they should be disqualified for going over their allotted time!

Saturday morning began with the close-up contest that was rather unusual. First, the contestants only gave their show once, second, they performed on-stage with cameras projecting on the I-Mags and third, there were only three competitors, all seniors. This was the lowest turnout of contestants in my recent memory. In the afternoon, the ladies went to the Cowgirl Museum while the rest of us enjoyed John Shryock’s enthusiastic, enjoyable, and perfectly commercial lecture on close-up. Lee Freed and Chuck Lehr followed with some practical applications for the real performers. And in that regard, another “out of the box” experience was held out of the hotel, at the theatre, with David Seebach where illusionist wannabes were given the hands-on chance to load-in, set-up, construct, strike the set and load-out all of David’s illusions. A great idea for both – good experience for the novice to see all the “behind the scene” nitty-gritty stuff, and free labor for David! It was a win-win!

The evening public show, capably emceed by Joe Leffler, was a non-stop thrill ride (compared with the Friday night show) complete with two standing ovations. Busses efficiently whisked the crowd across town to the Will Rogers Auditorium that proved to be a wonderful venue.  The show started with Funtasio who delighted the audience with comical conjuring using unexpected twists to old tricks. Placement of this act might have been the only glitch as I felt the act would have played better if the show opened with a strong magic act such as George Saterial then placed Funtasio in a later slot after the format was established. Greco presented entertaining hand shadows he learned from Fu Manchu; Michel Clavello gave us a delightful manipulation act with silks and truly engaged the audience with his infectious smile; Shawn Farquhar turned a young volunteer into an “Instant Magician” (by kneeling behind the lad and using his hands as if they were the child’s arms) and completely destroying the audience with his antics and jokes. Shawn next used the large screen projector to display a card trick where his 22-month old daughter “picked” the correct card several times and he finished with a beautiful Ambitious Card routine performed to music. Shawn received the first of the two standing ovations of the evening. George Saterial’s elegant dove act proved why he was a multiple winner of international acclaim. It was a very solid, beautifully routined performance complete with great music and original dove productions. He got the second standing “O.” David Seebach closed the show in traditional style with adequate yet uninspiring illusions that included “Through the Looking Glass” wherein an assistant was laid on a table and easily slid through a mirror then back again. He concluded with a dramatic production of “Things that Go Bump in the Night” where ghostly apparitions appeared from an empty box, the final one being Seebach himself.

Back at the ranch, er, I mean, hotel, Roger Klause hosted his traditional Midnight Madness that featured a few friends such as Jay Zugai, Mago Jim, Danny Garcia, Eric Evans, and Brian Nordstrom, but it was Bill Malone who stole the show with his hilarious antics and trademark routine, Sam the Bellhop.

The David Regal lecture was one of the highlights of the convention being placed in a prime spot and given two hours complete with an intermission. David did not disappoint as he discussed some of his latest and some of his “classic” effects mostly using gaffed cards and decks and switches. The afternoon professional close-up show was indeed that, professional with one standing ovation! John Shryock’s enthusiasm engaged the audience and brought everyone along for the ride for a triumphal finish with his classic rendition of the cups and balls done silently to a Mozart piece. Shawn Farquhar’s award-winning act included two tricks, but what tricks they were. The first was a spectator’s signed selection being lost then found in a sealed deck and the second was a beautiful cup and ball routine with a kicker where he showed two of the three cups to be solid. This brought the audience to its feet for a hearty round of applause. Bob King next presented some marvels with the pasteboards followed by David Regal (interesting and subtle juxtaposition with “Regal” following “King”) who performed some of his wonderful card work then finished with what was becoming a convention theme, cups and balls.  His kicker was the production of smaller, plastic cups and balls that he had shown at the beginning. Another wild ovation for a close-up job well done. Jay Schwausch slowed things down considerably with a long mentalism routine that did not add to the afternoon. Bob White got things back on track with some more nice card work but it was his egg bag routine that everyone really wanted to see, and for good reason. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see anything because the egg kept appearing after the bag was continually shown empty and inspected so many times that I was convinced that it must have truly vanished. The afternoon was closed with Michel Clavello lecturing on the Invisible Hand, or the holdout, which was very interesting and I wouldn’t be surprised if he sold out.

Buses left the hotel early to get to Billy Bob’s, the world’s largest honky-tonk, where we got to wander around what seemed like a couple of acres of bars, dance floors, game tables and even an indoor rodeo arena. A Bar-B-Q buffet was set up that efficiently fed the entire group in record time complete with pecan pie. The evening’s show was a veritable cavalcade of wonders from the Wild West to the New Frontier of magic. A couple of cowboys opened the show with a few sing along cowboy songs (not to be confused with Country Western music). Tommy Worrell brought out Sundance, a one-ton longhorn steer who actually did a few tricks of his own. Throughout the evening, Jerry Guyer, attired as a medicine show pitchman, bound the show together as the emcee. Kevin Fitzpatrick was another of the true cowboys that evening. His trick rope routine was reminiscent of the old Will Rogers act and he included some fancy whip cracking, too. Tommy Worrell returned to demonstrate some quick draw skills along with some fancy gun twirling. And what followed was a perfect compliment to a cowboy, an Indian. Ken Wallace had the makings of a potentially good act with an authentic native Indian magic act but didn’t quite meet the evening’s expectations. I just don’t expect to see an Indian performing card manipulations in full headdress and Indian regalia. Todd Charles was the perfect act to segue from one style to another. Todd’s performance is hard to explain other than to say that it’s not magic but certainly zany and full of laughter. He started with some incredible banjo playing and topical humor, but to see him beating on the heads of dolls and mannequins as if they were a xylophone, well, I hate to say you had to see it to believe it, but,

John Shryock and Mari Lynn closed with a high-energy show that included a fast-paced dove routine and the production of Mari Lynn, an Origami illusion, a rope escape, another rope routine and a Cremation illusion that finally brought everyone to their feet. It was a wonderfully well-rounded show where for once it wasn’t the juggler who stole the show. Busses ran hotel throughout the evening and gave time for those who wanted to stay and play or two-step the night away before returning to the hotel.

Monday morning is the traditional time for everyone to say their goodbyes, but not at this convention. It was far from over. We walked a couple blocks away where we were entertained for two hours at the famous Water Garden Park featured in the 1976 film, “Logan’s Run” that starred Michael York and introduced Farrah-Faucett Majors. That Monday morning it featured celebrities of another kind, world-renowned street performers. This collection of performers included jugglers, unicyclists, magicians and musicians that delighted the registrants and passers-by as well. Cellini “King of the Streets” was the featured performer who, along with most of the rest, featured cups and balls (remember that theme?) in their acts though each with their own personal twists. Others who busked the streets included Eric Evans, Merlin (not Bill Palmer as Merlin, but the one from Dallas), Jimmy Perini as Stringbini and the Side Street Circus that included not one, but two past presidents of the T.A.O.M., David Hira and Gerald Edmundson. It was a delightful respite from the droning of the air-conditioning and fluorescent lighting of the hotel ballroom. The weather was quite cooperative that morning, too. Registrants returned to the hotel to catch the final show of the convention that featured the winners of the senior close-up and the senior and junior stage competitions, Syd Beckman, Brian Brushwood, and Alex Hardaway, respectively. This was a unique opportunity to see some of the acts that are usually only heard about and usually not seen until the following year’s T.A.O.M.

Overall, I have to give this convention a rating very close to a seven out of ten for trying bold ideas that for the most part succeeded. I would have thought less of the event had we not gotten away from the hotel but the choice of various venues around the city gave us a real flavor of the city unlike most any other convention. Perhaps future hosting cities will take note and not be afraid to push the envelope and bring us from the old days of the Wild West to the New Frontier.

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