It’s Almost Like Christmas
By Scott Wells
With this much planning, not much could go wrong. That conventional wisdom proved true for the T.A.O.M. 2009 event in Houston. It was nearly flawless, well, with some obvious and glaring problems such as sound issues in the evening shows and lack of video in the close-up rooms. But everything else seemed to fall into place even though some of the events were a bit unconventional. Such was the case with the opening evening show that featured stage contestants. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I will try to make an unbiased report on this convention even though I was intimately involved with many aspects. Furthermore, due to my responsibilities I was unable to make it to many of the lectures and some of the shows. But I still want to give a flavor of the event especially for those unfortunate souls who did not attend. This year’s convention was dedicated to Ramon Galindo who has been the official videographer for the T.A.O.M. for over 30 years and who is a multiple award winner and consummate magician. Not to confuse the dedication with a tribute, we knew that we had to recognize Roger Klause who died just one year earlier. He passed away in his home in Borger, Texas on the Friday night when the T.A.O.M. 2008 convention was just starting in Ft. Worth. Roger has been a long time fixture of the T.A.O.M. hosting late night sessions where he created his own “underground”. He was also the host of the long running Midnight Madness event.
But to start at the beginning we need to go back in time a bit. T.A.O.M. President Scott Hollingsworth and Registration Chairman Judy Donaldson spent the past year preparing for this and championing the event at every occasion. They personally visited nearly every magic club in Texas and even one in Louisiana throughout this past year where they sold raffle tickets and encouraged everyone to register for the upcoming convention. As an economic gloom hung over the globe and our event was scheduled to follow the MAGIC Live! convention in Las Vegas, there were valid questions and concerns about the economic viability of Houston hosting this convention. But our trepidation was abated as the numbers slowly but surely rolled in and the convention dates neared. In the end we had over 700 attendees plus evening show tickets sold that packed the 900+ house. The publicity certainly helped as we had media coverage from the Chronicle (our local newspaper) and live and taped television news reports from the ABC and Fox affiliates. We also had a video blog from the Chronicle that was posted online that helped announce our event. You can read, see and hear some of these stories at:
The Omni Riverway Resort Hotel was a bold new move for Houston this year as we moved from our traditional downtown Hyatt location to a more modern, newly remodeled resort hotel in the Galleria area. Even with the increased hotel room charges, we attracted many families who really enjoyed the facilities and proximity to shopping and restaurants. In particular, the compliment most often heard was about the congeniality of the hotel staff. They could not have been more accommodating. The service was outstanding at every level all day and all night. We had plenty of area to spread out throughout the hotel and in the lobby and outdoors plus they provided buffet “grab and go” meals every day. And the bars stayed open late to accommodate the late night owl sessions.
The T.A.O.M. 2009 convention opened with the Dealers Room at 10:00 on Friday morning. We had over two dozen dealers from all over the world selling a real variety of items. There was not much, if any, duplication of magic paraphernalia from thumb tips to large scale illusions and dealers from Korea, Japan, Hungary and across the U.S. including Honolulu and San Antonio! This year’s schedule for the Dealers’ Room was more abbreviated than in past years. The hours were cut so as not to conflict too much with other activities where a large attendance was expected (i.e. lectures, Roger Klause tribute, etc.) Furthermore, the dealers were closed on Monday because people usually head home that day and traditionally don’t patronize the dealers that day very much anyway. People are anxious to get on the road and back home. Furthermore, when there are fewer hours for the dealers to be open it encourages the registrants to “buy now” and more impulsively rather than putting it off for another day. Dealers seem to like that, plus they like to attend some of the convention activities that would otherwise conflict with their open hours.
This brings up another observation. It seems that the shift is going more towards people coming early and leaving early. In other words, with “casual Fridays” and half day work days for some people on Fridays and still others taking 9/80’s (nine days and eighty hours leaving a free Friday every other week), they now seem to arrive earlier to the T.A.O.M. convention. Also, after the late night shows and other activities are over and they make their last purchases from the dealers, they are ready for bed with a view for getting home early Monday. With that in mind, we had a lot of activities slated for Friday with only one lecture planned for a Monday activity. I think this new schedule worked.
The first scheduled lecture of the convention was Yannick and Huot from Canada who delivered what was reportedly an excellent lecture and I know they did well on their lecture sales. I have seen these talented young men each year at the F.F.F.F. in New York and I know them to be both clever and capable. Paul Green’s lecture followed with great tips on booking shows and the “business of magic” followed by some of his commercial working material that makes him the popular and “in demand” performer he is in Los Angeles. Paul was voted the Close-Up Magician of the Year at the Magic Castle (The Academy of Magical Arts).
One of the new things tried this year that proved successful was having a “host” who introduced the emcee each night to announce housekeeping issues and schedule changes. Houston’s Magical Host was me, Scott Wells. Another change was to add the stage contestants to the Friday night show. The idea was to give the competitors a better audience rather than the sleepy families and friend who traditionally show up on Saturday mornings for the stage contests. So the first half of the Friday night show featured the professional performers first followed by the contestants after the interval. We knew the show would run late so we should have adjusted the printed program accordingly to reflect the three hour show.
One of the sad things that I am sorry to see go is the theatrical experience. Specifically we traditionally host evening shows in legitimate theatres at our conventions. With the rising costs of bussing to and from the theatres, the cost of renting the theatres themselves and the union fees, it is getting increasingly difficult logistically and more expensive to continue this tradition. As a result we have to build small theatres in the hotel banquet rooms to put on our evening shows.
We have experimented with a variety of stages and curtain configurations but one thing is certain, we do need to keep large screen projections in the banquet rooms near the stage. This helps everyone to better see what’s going on up on the stage even if you are seated behind some fat head. The rental and construction of these stages, lights and sound systems are not inexpensive, but one additional advantage is the multiple uses we can get out of the stage. We can use it throughout the convention for other events like lectures, panel discussions, etc. Furthermore, we do not have to worry about transporting people back and forth and the time delays after the shows for shuttling people back to the hotel for the late night lectures. With everything staying in the hotel, things seem to run smoother and we can keep closer to the program schedule, except this year.
This year the evening shows went on a little longer than scheduled which delayed the start of the next activities (i.e. strolling magic, lectures and meetings) that were slated too close to the end time of the shows. The strolling magic was a nice touch each evening after the evening shows that was intended to entertain not only the registrants but also the hotel guests in the lobby bar and hotel registration areas. It featured an hour of close-up by some of the talent from the convention plus some local magicians as well. This helped put magic in a good light plus it helped sell public tickets to those staying in the hotel who had never seen a live magic show.
Before the evening show began, President Scott Hollingsworth welcomed the registrants to Houston then citations were read and presented from both the Mayor of Houston and the Governor of Texas. Following a few announcements, Host Scott Wells introduced Bev Bergeron who emceed the Friday night opening show with his usual delightful and playful manner with in-between bits that kept the show moving. Phil Kampf and Ariana were the perfect openers with a well staged and fast paced dove routine. Their act seemed in need of additional light, but that was adjusted after the first act. Last year’s adult stage contest winner, Michael Tallon presented a very funny silent act that was completely made up of quick sound bites from popular musical numbers. Last year’s junior stage contest winner, Rachel Dunn presented her award winning act as a fairy in a garden. This cute act was also done silently to music and was thoroughly charming. Walter “Zaney” Blaney was the fourth act to work silently to music as he presented his “Swan Song” with his sawing illusion. Last year was Walter’s farewell performance of his Ladder Levitation and this was his last public showing of his original sawing. I am glad that I was there for both of them. We will miss seeing Walter at our annual conventions.
Closing the show was a unique for of magic, Dan Dunn, a free-form artist who painted a huge picture of Ray Charles while accompanied by Ray’s music as he painted. Part of the beauty of this was that no one knew what the picture was until nearly the last brush stroke on a six foot square black canvas. As he completed his work, he spun the painting in a giant clockwise fashion that was affixed to the easel. He brought the house to its feet. As an encore he painted the Statue of Liberty in about four minutes to another standing oh. The first half of the show complete, Bev let the audience take a short break then return for the rest of the show which was the seven stage contestants. This bold change to tradition actually worked out quite well and may be duplicated by future T.A.O.M. conventions. But it is recommended that the show be shortened by opening and closing with a professional act with the contestants in between the two paid performers.
Michael Ammar’s lecture, slated for 9:30, was delayed for about 45 minutes awaiting the end of the stage show next door. Many people had already begun filling his lecture hall and I understand that he gave a little mini-lecture by answering questions prior to his official start at 10:00. His all-new lecture had a lot of really practical, commercial effects (as you would expect from Michael) that was supplemented with special video that showed his handling in detail and in slow-motion when necessary. He lectured and described what was going on as the video showed how to do the moves. Brilliant idea from a great magic teacher. Michael is always on the forefront of modern magic.
Just days before the convention we were disappointed to learn that Bebel would not be able to attend due to being hospitalized for a health issue that has now passed. But we were able to have a coup by confirming Bill Malone at the last minute as a fill-in for Bebel. Bill was to have been a surprise host for the Roger Klause Tribute so he agreed to give an impromptu chat/lecture for the Friday night crowd. And it was a crowd with a couple hundred in attendance. Bill rarely makes convention appearances and rarer yet ever lectures. But his talk was thoroughly entertaining as he told funny stories and answered all questions on all topics until well past midnight.
Early Saturday morning Kent Cummins gave a presentation on the status of Austin’s proposed T.A.O.M. Magic Center in Austin. His speech was given to the members of the Order of Willard at their annual breakfast meeting honoring those with 25 or more years of membership in the T.A.O.M. Next on the schedule was the close-up contest which had a large field of competitors again this year. Oscar Munoz delivered the first lecture of the day which I heard was not only well attended but included a lot of really good and diverse material. The special spouse event was offsite at a boutique restaurant and attended by several ladies. They were entertained by ventriloquist Mark Merchant. Back at the hotel, the dealers closed as the banquet room filled for the Roger Klause Tribute.
This special service was more like a memorial for Roger Klause with sincere stories told from the heart of many of Roger’s closest friends. It opened with Lance Pierce (author of “Roger Klause In Concert”) who talked at length about his long time relationship with our venerable friend of magicians everywhere, Roger Klause. His introduction was supplemented with clips from a new video, “Friends of Roger Klause”. Bill Malone kept the mood light by injecting humor as only he can do it to an otherwise somber memorial. He introduced several people including Frank Price, Bob White, and many others before introducing Roger’s wife, Wanda, and their daughter.
Following the Tribute, Mike Bent lectured on comedy scripting followed by some very commercial creative comedy ideas for family entertainers. After dinner the Saturday stage show opened with a short montage of video footage (produced by Gene Protas) of Ramon Galindo down through the 50+ years of his performing career. As the video ended I brought out Ramon who received a fitting and well deserved standing ovation. I conducted a short interview with Ramon then Scott Hollingsworth presented him with a special citation for his many years of service to the magic community.
As a special treat, Dan Dunn returned to paint a new masterpiece; one which he had never done for any group before. It was to be a big surprise, and it was. When he was finished and spun the huge canvas, it was the face of Harry Blackstone, Sr. and he received another standing ovation.
Mark Merchant was introduced as the emcee who had wonderful bits in between acts with a variety of vent figures and puppets. First up was David Boyd with an entertaining act as an old time newsboy that put him on television’s “America’s Got Talent” program. Glenn Strange traveled all the way from South Carolina to get our sides aching with his home spun, NASCAR-loving, red-neck humor. He kind of got off to a bad start with the string breaking on his floating plunger but he wore on like a trouper and got lots of laughs.
And speaking of problems, almost from the start Oscar Munoz’s microphone started popping and going in and out. He quickly did away with it completely and spoke loud enough for the entire audience to hear. His timing and aside remarks and glances at the sound booth guy were priceless. He showed what a true professional he is by giving a performance of a lifetime for most, but just another stellar show from a consummate pro. He received a long and well-deserved standing ovation. It was later determined that there was a short in a mic wire connection that was remedied before the next evening’s show. But still, it was annoying at this show.
Children show entertainer, Ken Scott, followed in that unenviable spot but his mic worked and he delivered another professional and polished performance. Closing the show was Garry Carson and Kelsey with their Las Vegas illusion show. Wow, I don’t think the audience was expecting what they saw, big cats! And not just one but a couple of large cats. The Carsons really put on a show with one big illusion after another. They really seemed to have pulled out all the stops.
The back stage crew worked with aplomb many of them having no experience there before this convention. Everything on and off stage seemed to work in perfect harmony, well, most of the time. There were occasions when the stage crew didn’t have the props in the proper places or they crossed in front of the MC, but aside from that, they were great.
This evening show ran a little late as well but the Collector’s Meeting waited until it ended before they began. The big surprise at the meeting was the appearance of Adele Friel Rhindress who was Harry Blackstone Senior’s main assistant for three years in the 1940’s. Claude Crowe conducted an interview with her for an enwrapped audience. Conflicting with that event was the Banachek lecture in the main showroom. This well attended lecture taught subtleties as only Banachek can teach. It also marked the release of his new book, “Psychological Subtleties”. Immediately following this lecture, Ron Wilson hosted the Midnight Madness where the Collectors had just met. Just as Roger Klause used to do it, several people were called upon to perform their pet effects on a cabaret stage. This went on into the early hours of the morning as people retired to the lobby bar for even more magic until the dawn.
I think it is important to note here that we had a good representation of young people at this convention. They were nowhere more evident than in the lobby late at night. And I’m talking about dozens of youth here moving in packs or herds. They all were having fun and sharing ideas and showing and enjoying magic. The plan for this convention was to be a bit of a passing of the old to the young, or the classic to the nouveau. We booked talented classic magicians such as Bev Bergeron and Walter “Zaney” Blaney along with the next generation of magicians like Daniel Garcia and John Born. And it seemed to work with these younger names drawing a large following.
After the Sunday gospel service and the T.A.O.M. general meeting, the Austin group opened registration for their convention next year. I understand that due to space constraints at the hotel they will be limiting their registration to 500. Ken Scott was the first lecturer of the day at 9:00 but it was still too early for me. I heard it was a wonderful lecture. I hope to hear his lecture next year when he comes through for a lecture tour. Ice McDonald’s lecture followed which I understand was inspiring. People tell me that he could be an inspirational, self-help, motivational speaker as some of the aspects of his lecture and his delivery on the business of magic were superb.
Following lunch the professional close-up performers rotated among four rooms doing 20 minutes each. They had been promised a camera and projection screen in each room but such was not the case. This is one of my pet peeves but I won’t stand on my soap box for long. But for close-up to be seen at magic conventions and not to completely wear out the performers, a camera must be available to capture the magic and project it on a screen large enough for people to see. We should not be encouraged to stand up or, worse yet, stand on our chairs, to watch the magic. I understood that everything was planned to be shown on the screens right up until the last minute. This was poor execution of good planning. I don’t know what went wrong but it could have been avoided and there is no excuse. This was my biggest disappointment of the convention. So much so that since I couldn’t see, I left after trying to watch the third person in my room. To the credit of some of the performers, I think they changed some of their planned material to allow more people to see by doing more things at eye level. Well, enough of that. But boy that was frustrating and inexcusable.
I really wanted to watch these close-up performers because they are among the best in our craft. They included Michael Ammar, Suzanne, Ali Shelly, John Born and Paul Green, T.A.O.M. close-up winner, Ben Jackson, and T.A.O.M. comedy winner Michael Williams. After the show, the dealers reopened until just before the evening show.
Before the evening performances began, pomp, ceremony and tradition dictated that certain honors and awards be presented. Don Billings donated a beautiful, diamond encrusted custom made ring to the T.A.O.M. for a special drawing. He drew Jim Wicker’s from the drum as the lucky raffle winner. National S.A.M. President Mike Miller and President Elect Vinnie Grosso presented special citations to Chuck Lehr and Bruce Chadwick. T.A.O.M. Trophy and Awards Chairman, Trixie Bond next announced the contest winners as: Vincent Villamonte for Junior Close-Up; Marc-Andre Rayle won Senior Close-Up (from Montreal); Trigg Burrage took Senior Stage, and; no award was given for Junior Stage; however, a special recognition was given to Miss Yamaguchi, a six-year old from Japan. Scott Hollingsworth then passed the T.A.O.M. presidency to Hull Youngblood who then invited everyone to register for next year’s convention in Austin. Ken Scott was introduced as the emcee for the evening. He was a perfect last night MC but I must say that all three emcees were very good. In particular, Ken had a bit with a little girl from the audience who stole the show. And being the consummate children’s entertainer, he knew how to milk it for all it was worth. There were so many precious moments there. During one interval between acts he called upon Adele Friel Rhindress to assist him. It was great to see Blackstone, Senior’s assistant back on stage helping this performer.
The first act on the bill was Ice McDonald who presented a commanding performance of a dove act. You couldn’t help but applaud and applaud wildly for his act. I don’t remember the details of his act but his character was riveting. To provide much needed comic relief, Yannick and Huot came on as the Human Deck of Cards. I have seen them present this at the F.F.F.F. convention and it was better appreciated there by a group of card magicians. But the inside humor (Mercury Card Fold, rough/smooth, etc.) seemed to go over with the registrants here. The basic gag of their act was that each were dressed in black with yellow sticky notes affixed all over their bodies that each had a different card written on it. They came on with one carrying the other on his shoulder and announced, “stacked deck”. I think you get the idea from there.
Banachek was introduced but entered down the aisle from the rear of the theatre. Unfortunately he, too, was experiencing microphone problems. He usually starts to get volunteers as he enters the theatre but because of the sound problems he got off to a rather rocky start. But being the professional he is, no one could tell that he had to improvise a bit. His mic soon started working but not until a couple minutes into his performance. The problem this time was apparently that the receiver was knocked off the sound man’s table and the batteries fell out. It was quickly remedied when they identified the problem and his performance went on without further incident. He devined words from a book and cards thought of by people in the audience. While this was taking place, everyone in the audience jotted down certain facts that were later collected and placed in envelopes. Without ever opening any envelopes, Banachek was able to reveal their contents.
Mike Bent next displayed why he his comedy writing class is one of the more popular subjects in college. His original and offbeat humor kept everyone laughing at his sight gags and his double entendre jokes. Closing the show was Michael Blanco and Jessica who presented the “Rhythm of Magic”. Their ballroom style magic was right on target with fast paced music and dance that had people tapping their feet. They are not only excellent magicians but they are nationally ranked ballroom dancers who compete on an international level. They were fantastic.
As registrants went to the Dealers’ Room to make their last purchases, strolling magicians filled the hotel lobby and other registrants filled the John Born’s lecture which start was delayed about 45 minutes. After seeing him perform his “any card and any number” effect earlier in the day during the professional close-up show, people were anxious to learn his secret. Daniel Garcia followed with a late night lecture that was also well attended and delivered some real punch for the street savvy magicians as well as the older guys. This was the perfect way to hand off the old to the new with the last two late night lecturers being from the next generation of magicians. Magic went on again into the wee hours of the morning.
Closing the convention on Monday morning was Bill Palmer who talked about that classic trick: cups and balls. He brought several examples from his world famous Cups and Balls Museum. A few who remained were invited to visit his home and the museum.
And with that, poof, it was over. A three day convention that vanished in what seemed to be a few moments in time. I think it was a little like planning for Christmas. We buy the gifts, decorate the tree, bake and eat cookies, plan and attend parties and attend to all the details for one big day. After it is all over, everything goes back in boxes and back to the attic or garage in preparation for next year. In a way, the day after Christmas is a letdown. But the afterglow and memories last a lifetime.
And so will these.