by Scott Wells
I’m texting it in. Oh My Gosh What A Great Convention! Home to Dell computer and several other software and computer related companies; some consider Austin, Texas the new silicon valley. Couple that with the city’s tag line of “Keep Austin Weird” and you have the perfect combination for something new, innovative and different. And they delivered in spades (pun intended). This was as close to a ten for a T.A.O.M. convention I have ever attended. I’m sure that many of the nearly 600 other registrants agree.
The organizers pulled out the stops and made this year’s convention one for the ages and one for the pages by re-writing the textbook. President Hull Youngblood and his band of merry men and women tried and succeeded on so many levels. From the programs to the dealer’s room to the show rooms and everywhere in between, every detail was finely tuned. Like any successful event, it always looks smooth while the workers are paddling like heck under the surface. Let’s start with the dealers.
The small cadre of dealers was put in a long banquet room which was located on the main floor and near all of the activities. But the first of the innovations was the dealers’ show. Not that the show itself was innovative but where they placed it on the program was rather unusual and helpful. The dealers’ show was scheduled for the opening day (Friday) for two hours with 20 minutes slated for each dealer to have time to talk about their wares. There is nothing new about that, but consider that the dealers room didn’t even open until 6:00 that evening. The organizers arranged this event first not only for the benefit of the registrants who arrived early, but they also used that as the tech rehearsal to set the sound and lights and to practice with the video cameras and to check angles and operations. What a concept! Making sure that everything works technically BEFORE the evening shows!
At the registration desk, one was offered the option of receiving texts throughout the convention. These were updates and reminders of upcoming events. These friendly reminders went out about 15 minutes or so before the events began. It was a great idea and wonderful because of several reasons. First of all, if you were chatting with friends or in the dealer room and the time slipped up on you, the text was a good way to let you know that it was time to head to the event. Second of all, since the rooms were sealed after the event started, it was important to get to the room early and find a seat. Thirdly, the texts included the name of the next lecturer was so you could decide if you wanted to attend that event or not. Finally, the texts were customized for the color on your badge. So, those who were scheduled to be seated in one show rather than another were not accidentally going to the wrong room. You always knew where to go and you would be there on time.
Throughout the convention there was a treasure hunt with rare silks as final prizes. Clues were texted to all who were signed up for the free text service. There were also periodic texts that went out about special dealer promo deals.
Max Maven offered an “extra cost” four hour workshop Friday afternoon. The afternoon lectures were by Shawn Greer (on street magic) and Doug Gorman (on parlor magic) which were both full of great ideas. That reminds me of an event that should be discussed here, too.
Although not officially part of the convention, Thursday night kicked off the first annual Street Performer Festival. I did not arrive early to attend, but I understand that it was a rousing success despite the torrential downpour at 8:00 p.m. I heard that there were dozens of street magicians and others who came in for the festival and entertained the masses of the public. Hopefully this new idea will also be a new tradition. Now back to Friday’s activities.
After dinner, registrants were encouraged (and reminded via text messages) not to have dessert because plenty of sweets and coffee were to be served before the evening shows. I say shows because there was not one, not two, but three Friday night shows. Registrants were divided into two groups, orange and blue, so as to keep certain events more intimate.
Eric DeCamps performed his full evening show “Pure Magic” in one show room while Whit “Pop” Haydn performed his full show in the other room. The shows were repeated on Saturday night so the groups switched rooms to see the other performer. Each show was a delight and allowed the performer to fully develop his character and entertain their respective audiences. Eric’s show has only been seen in New York City plus a special engagement at Hollywood’s Magic Castle so this was indeed a true and unique event for the lucky registrants. The third show was the stage contest which was presented on Friday night only.
The rooms were oriented in the same ballroom with a sound barrier between the two that actually worked. Beautiful sound stages were constructed in each room with image magnifiers on both sides of each stage. It was interesting too that they had black ceiling to floor drapes on three walls which eliminated any outside ambient (and unwanted) light plus it helped to keep sound from bouncing off the walls. There were several cameras in each room including an overhead camera so registrants could see everything plainly wherever they were seated. The HD quality allowed you to even see the invisible thread used when it was explained in the lectures. There was a technical director in each room who switched among all the cameras to keep it visually appealing. The scaffolding on the stage supported the necessary stage lights while twin spotlights were operated from the back of the room by the technical “ninjas” who were everywhere but never seen.
Each of the show rooms (and close-up rooms) had wooden risers constructed to hold the group. This was so much better than the traditional metal risers that make so much noise when people walk up and down the steps and back and forth to and from their seats. They were also much sturdier. It really made for closer experience to being in a legitimate theatre rather than being in a hotel banquet room. Those risers were no cheap deal, I’m sure.
Organizers also made sure that when the events began, the doors were closed and locked so as to avoid unnecessary and unwanted noise attributed to late arrivals. This may have been inconvenient for those who traditionally wander in and out of lectures or show up “fashionably late” but it certainly was much appreciated by the lecturers and those who were in the rooms on time who truly wanted to enjoy the lecture without interruption.
I should also mention here that the close-up rooms were also draped on all four walls with floor to ceiling black drapes and can lights flanking the close-up tables. Each of the five close-up rooms were intimate in that they only seated about 30-40 people giving everyone a perfect, intimate and true close-up experience. I’ve never seen a finer set-up at any magic convention anywhere.
Concurrent with the Friday night shows, the public was invited to sit in and enjoy the professional close-up show by Bill Goodwin, John “Handsome Jack” Lovick, Paul Vigil, and Alfonso.
After the show rooms were cleared, registrants could visit the dealers while awaiting the beginning of the stage contest. Nine well-qualified contestants put on their best for an appreciative audience all being capably compered by Michael Tallon. After the contest show Max Maven presented a much anticipated, well-attended and most excellent midnight lecture. Activities went on until way past the 2:00 a.m. closing time in the lobby bar with young and old swapping stories and card tricks. I believe the younger set particularly enjoyed entertaining the university coeds who dropped by the hotel lobby bar.
Saturday morning arrived all too early for the 8:30 close-up contests. Although not a strong line-up of contestants with original material this year, each challenger was solid and entertaining all vying for not only the prestigious trophy and associated honors but also a cash prize which hasn’t been offered at the T.A.O.M. for many years. In addition to the contestants’ routines, the registrants enjoyed the performances of the 2009 T.A.O.M. close-up winners, Vincent Villamonte (Junior winner) and Marc Andre Rayle (Senior winner), who performed between the acts of the other contestants. This was a good way to recognize the prior year’s winners.
9:00 also saw the opening of the Magic Camp which ran two full days for youth aged 5 to 12. More than just a child sitting service, there were real hands-on activities that focused on magic, juggling and puppetry. Magic Camp included games, snacks, and other engaging activities that were staffed by adults and teen counselors who had been part of the award winning program since childhood.
Michael Weber was the first Saturday lecture. This was one of Michael’s rare convention appearances and much anticipated (and thoroughly enjoyed) by all of us. His lecture was perhaps my personal highlight of the convention. Not only full of practical, commercial ideas and performing tips, but his engaging personality, quick wit and intellect proved why he is in such demand as a corporate entertainer, script writer and attorney.
Marshall Brodien, aka Bozo’s Wizzo the Wizard and creator of TV Magic Cards, was the guest of honor at the Order of Willard brunch. This annual event recognizes those who have 25 or more years of membership in the T.A.O.M. Mark Holstein hosted an enjoyable look at Marshall’s fantastic life and adventures as he showed pictures of his life while Marshall regaled us with fascinating stories of his illustrious career.
Richard Garriott packed the house as everyone hung on his every word while he lectured on his adventures in space. How many magicians’ conferences include an astronaut who is also a magician, avid magic collector, computer gamer, developer and corporate magnate and, well a multi-millionaire? Nowhere but Texas. After the lecture, attendees enjoyed a two hour close-up lecture that was divided among six, count ’em, six, all-star lecturers doing about 15 minutes each. Following dinner the two groups switched from the night before’s show attending either the DeCamps or Haydn show. Again the public was offered the opportunity to enjoy the professional close-up shows.
Jeff McBride gave a late night lecture at 9:30 for a full house that was thoroughly entertaining and educational. The late-late night lecture was hosted by the best twin finger flickers in the world, Dan & Dave Buck. If you wanted to learn the skinny on how and where to hold your pinky and flourish with the finest, then this lecture was for you with great HD camera work that afforded everyone the opportunity to see everything as if they were watching the filming of a DVD. Cards were again flung far into the wee hours of the morning in the expansive lobby and bar area. Additional entertainment was provided around the bar by Jason England and Jimmy Fingers.
Sunday morning came all too quickly as the traditional magic gospel service began at 8:00 that was hosted by David Hira. Following the general meeting of the T.A.O.M., registration opened for next year’s convention at San Antonio. I understand that by the convention’s end, San Antonio had pre-registered well over 200 people. At 9:00 the Magic Camp again opened its doors for the day to the youth and Toby Travis began his show and lecture, “Magic for the Heart.” Eric DeCamps filled the room for his 10:30 lecture that not only fully taught many gems from his commercial corporate repertoire but also let people see his personal side and get to know the sweetheart that he is.
Following lunch everyone reconvened in the Main Hall for Whit “Pop” Haydn’s lecture. Filled with commercial ideas and practical performing tips he also threw in several scoundrel stories from the streets. Then it was time for the Orange group to line up for the buses which took us to the famous Austin City Limits. This intimate theatre has been featured on PBS for many years and hosted many of the world’s greatest musicians from Willie Nelson to Dolly Parton to Stevie Ray Vaughn and Neil Young. Tonight we were in for a unique treat the full evening show of Max Maven. Interspersed with mental mysteries, Max’s show was truly theatrical with many obscure references and verbosity that was quintessentially Max. The small theatre that only seated 250 made this a truly intimate experience.
We returned to the hotel where the Blue group was waiting to reload the buses and head back for Max’s second show while we went to see the public had been witnessing the past two nights, the professional close-up show. But we were treated to two additional performers: Chad Long and Lance Pierce who provided more texture and variety to the festivity. When the Blue returned from Max’s show, everyone was seated in the Main Hall for the President’s party where the gavel was passed to next year’s President, Justin Botter, then trophies were awarded to the winners of the contests.
First place for Senior Close-Up went to Sam Sawyers. Since there were not enough junior contestants, the junior close-up trophy was not awarded this year. Senior Stage honors went to Hiroshi Yamamoto and the Comedy award went to Fumio Inagaki. This was Fumio’s seventh T.A.O.M. trophy. Marcus Eddie took the Club Act award. Each winner received $500 cash in addition to the trophies and medals.
Following the official ceremonies, it was time for magic and there was none better to open it than Trigg Burrage, the T.A.O.M. 2009 Senior Stage Contest winner. His youthful energy and innovative manipulation act has taken him across the country winning competition after competition for good reason. Then it was time for the special surprise act, Jeff McBride. Jeff did his card manipulation act, abbreviated Kabuki mask act, water bowl and Miser’s Dream routine closing with flying and bouncing cards. It was a spectacular finish to a wonderful day. Indeed the perfect coda to the convention. We adjourned to the lobby for cake and coffee to assure that we would be wired with a caffeine and sugar high for the rest of the night. Sunday night was the last night for the dealers to be open and many had already packed up (and lost last minute sales, like mine). For a second night, Jason England again held court in the bar area regaling passers by with unique encounters. As usual, no one wanted the feeling to end so we danced all night until we welcomed the sun.
The last official activity of the convention was the Texas Collector’s Meeting at 10:00 on Monday morning. Claude Crowe hosted the “Old and Seldom Seen” magic show that featured just that. Among the presenters was Richard Garriott who talked about and demonstrated two automatons from his collection of over 750. The afternoon was all Jeff McBride and his four hour “extra cost” workshop which was to scheduled to give participants a taste of his Mystery School in Las Vegas.
There are well over 100 people who made this convention a success and all should be congratulated on making this the success it was. No small amount of thanks should go to Talent Coordinator, Roger Gorss, who booked the great acts, but I know that it was the “Evil Geniu” (as so titled in the program) Brad Henderson who pulled off coup after coup in bringing in such top talent. I thought that each performer would top the previous, but that was not to be. Each had their own unique talent that ensured continuity and gave total enjoyment and perfect satisfaction throughout the weekend. In other words, there were no bad acts. And everyone was so friendly and accessible interfacing with any and every person and being available for advice, pictures and autographs at all hours. It was cool to see people like Max Maven and Michael Weber hanging out at a table just outside the dealers’ room where everyone walking by could stop and chat or just say “hi.” And there were several other magic notables who just came in because of the talent and the reputation of the T.A.O.M. Those seen included Bill Malone, Bob White, Oscar Munoz and so many others.
But the real winners were the registrants who were part of history. Certainly there were new and old friends who will come back next year to San Antonio to see their BFF’s (Best Friends Forever).
TTFN (Ta Ta For Now) and “Scotty out.”