Jim Steinmeyer
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Magic Magazine Article

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Magic Magazine Article

Jim Steinmeyer: Deviser of Illusions
By T.A. Waters, MAGIC Magazine, September 1996

Magic MagazineIn the chill of an early April night she stands there, as if her great copper eyes could see she would be gazing across the water to the glittering city beyond. She is gigantic, over 150 feet high and weighing more than 22 tons; a helicopter darts around her, as a hummingbird might attend a princess. Far below, a darkly handsome young man gestures--and before the unbelieving eyes of assembled witnesses and the viewing millions, she is gone. The Statue of Liberty has vanished. Soon she returns, appearing in the same miraculous fashion. From that moment onward, something has been added to her century of myth and legend. For the young man, a new myth has been created--from this night forward, no longer will he be "illusionist David Copperfield." He will be David Copperfield, the man who vanished the Statue of Liberty.

Copperfield knows the value of mythmaking, and his performance of this feat captured the public imagination in a way not seen since the days of Houdini. It would be fair to say that it may be the single most amazing magic effect of the latter half of the 20th century. But what sort of person would have the imagination to conceive of such an epochal effect? And what kind of mind would have the ingenuity and expertise to take this notion and actually devise a way to perform it?

When Jim Steinmeyer was born just outside Chicago in 1958, it was not with a silver T-square in his mouth. You will be relieved to learn that--for a time at least--he was indistinguishable from the rest of us. Yes, he did the church basement shows, and the birthday parties, and relied on the "Egg Bag" and the "Linking Rings," just like we did. It was, he says, a very standard talk-magic act, and he did it for about a decade. It is interesting to note that the man destined to become known as perhaps the best living originator of stage magic hated to do new material; he would fret about it all during the act, perform it, then analyze it instead of concentrate on the rest of the show. He finally decided that being a performer took a certain quality of irrationality that he didn't possess. "I was much too rational," says Jim. "I was much better offstage, planning the stuff." Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Of course, during that same time Jim devised his own version of the classic "medicine show pitch act"--of the kind made famous by Tommy Windsor and Sid Lorraine--and it was so unusual that his performances garnered several awards in the magic community. Out in the real world, however, there was not a huge market for a high-school kid doing a pitch act. Jim continued with the "standard" act through his college years, graduating magna cum laude from Loyola University in 1980.

Magicians first began to take serious note of Jim in 1981, with the publication of Jarrett--his annotated edition of Guy Jarrett's 1936 tome Magic and Stagecraft, Technical. The annotations revealed a mind fully as astute as Jared's own, and constituted a compact syllabus of illusion magic of the early 20th century. A few magicians, however, already knew about this marvelously inventive mind; Jim had been working for some time with well-known Chicago pros Bob High, Jim Royal and others--and his illusions, notably the "Elevator" and "Walking through a Mirror"--were being featured by a young man named Doug Henning. Not surprisingly, when Doug found himself faced with preparing a new television special and getting ready for the Broadway production of Merlin, he knew he'd need expert help. Jim signed on Doug Henningfor a six-month sting, and worked with Henning for the next six years. On that special, Jim was credited as "magic coordinator," a title that still amuses him; it sounds, he says, like "...enchanted...bureaucrat!" For Merlin he was the Magic Designer; working in close conjunction with John Gaughan and Doug's staff, Jim was able to recreate Devant's "Mascot Moth" illusion, a miracle reincarnated after 75 years. Other startling illusions were integrated into the scenic design; for Jim it was "a dream project." Reviews of the show were mixed, but there was no ambivalence about the work of Jim Steinmeyer; he received his first Drama Desk nomination. (Over a dozen years later he would receive his second nomination for his work on Beauty and the Beast; this Disney production now has eight touring companies featuring the Steinmeyer/Gaughan illusions.)

In the early 1980s, Jim came up with the concept and method for the vanish of the Statue of Liberty, and thereby hangs a tale of an odd sidelight in magical history. Being employed by Doug Henning at the time, he naturally brought the effect to Doug's attention--and Doug didn't want to do it. "It's easy now to look back and say, why would you not want to do that?" says Jim. "But in 1981, before the era of mega-illusions, it was a big step to consider something like that. Camera trick? Too unbelievable? Going from live to tape?" These were all very valid considerations, and played their part in Doug's decision. In time, David Copperfield became aware of the effect, and through a complicated series of negotiations with Jim, David was able to acquire the rights. It was almost certainly the wisest purchase David has ever made, and would have been a bargain at any price. "Historically, we can see that it's a good trick to have done," Jim points out. "David had the foresight to understand that he was going to create a show that was a creature of television and, in that sense, it was a great trick."

During his half-dozen years with Doug, Jim devised several new illusions. In coming up with a modern version of the venerable "Doll's House" illusion of Fredrick Culpitt, Jim had the rather quaint notion of crating one that actually looked like a real dollhouse--that is to say, tiny. Magicians, how had for years been doing versions of this illusion with props the size of Manhattan apartments, sat with jaws agape as mounds of flowers were produced, and then Debby Henning, from an enclosure that would have given claustrophobia to a Chihuahua. Fooling magicians with principles they already know--or think they know--is business as usual for Steinmeyer. Doug Henning recently said, "I consider Jim the most brilliant mind in magic. He's a very deep thinker, and he understands the psychology of magic and how to create wonder."

Doug Henning

In 1987, when Doug Henning abruptly retired, Jim was instantly scooped up by Disney's Imagineering division, at first as Concept Designer, and for several years now as a Consultant on projects ranging from EPCOT to theme parks to Toontown. For many of these, he has written outlines, treatments and full show scripts. In the space here allotted it is impossible to give more than a suggestion of the many accomplishments of Jim Steinmeyer--but think of it this way: if he were to be divided into three parts, each part would still have more credits than many "consultants" whose creativity seems most evident in their self-promotion. Jim's television credits alone would make a respectable career for anyone else: consultant on Blacke's Magic, Young Harry Houdini, The Barbara Mandrell Special, Magic at the Magic Kingdom, Ricky Jay's Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women (also co-produced), Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants, and on and on. Oh, and then there are the television shows he's produced: Britain's revolutionary Secret Cabaret series, the acclaimed Hidden Secrets of Magic NBC special, and a forthcoming four-part A&E series on the history of magic. Books, I hear you ask, what about books? In addition to the previously mentioned Jarrett (now being revised by Jim for a new edition), there is Device and Illusion (1991) and Strange Power (1992). I reviewed both books, saying they were "a gift at the price," but I have to admit that I've since changed my mind. These books are a gift at any price. Let's be clear about this: if Doug Henning, David Copperfield, Lance Burton, the Pendragons and a long list of top professionals pay attention (and money!) to Jim Steinmeyer--gee, maybe he's worth a look and a listen. Jim's recent work includes The Magic of Alan Wakeling (1993), a meticulous and loving tribute to a man Jim admires and respects--and Modern Art, his 1995 book which details (with plans) a bisecting illusion which may well be to the early 21st century what Harbin's Zig-Zag Girl was to the 20th. As a bonus, Jim includes a baffling new version of the "Drink Act," and "Shadow Theatre"--in which an assistant or partner is folded up into nothingness.

OrigamiFolded up, did I say? That would bring us to another of Jim's brainchildren, a little thing called "Origami." For those of you just emerging from a 20-year retreat on a mountaintop, let me explain that actually, it starts out as a big thing, a box just large enough to hold an assistant--but once that assistant is inside, the box is folded own into a space that might hold a basketball. Of course, running three rods through the box wouldn't do a basketball any good, but it seems to have remarkably little effect on the assistant, who later emerges from the box unharmed. "Origami" has become one of the most popular illusions of modern times.

InterludeAnother Steinmeyer creation takes the notion of penetration to its ultimate; in his "Interlude," one person passes directly through he chest of another. This, too, has become a feature for many of the world's top illusionists. Creating what have been called the defining illusions of contemporary magic; consulting for magic's foremost performers; working with such companies as (in addition to Disney) Universal Studios, Imagination Arts, and SKG Dreamworks; producing major television specials and series; writing on the history of magic (automata, The Howard Thurston Work Books, etc., as well as the books mentioned above); lecturing on magic at theatre conventions....all this has left Jim with a very serious problem. What to do with his spare time? He has solved that part by becoming an organizer of the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History. This gathering, held every tow years, is regarded by its lucky attendees as quite simply "the best, classiest and most enjoyable convention in magic." For the most recent such event Jim decided to re-create the famous "Disappearing Donkey of Charles Morritt"--and it is typical of his dedication that for the eight-minute illusion he spent literally months of work; this work, be it noted, often began with the 5:30 a.m. braying of a donkey in the backyard.

In his book Strange Power: "Most magicians find it hard to believe just how long I will be working on an idea before I'm happy with it, and how much work will go into the development before there is a finished product. ...Those unthinking magicians are quick to say, 'Well, I could have thought of that,' but they didn't, mainly because they don't bother thinking. Too bad." And: "I've found that most magicians are genuinely intrigued with new ideas, [and] value them right up until that point that they want to steal them...there is little thought necessary to heave a brick through a window. Most criminals don't get much farther than this. Neither, in equivalents, do most magicians."

If, reading these lines, one can detect a bit of irritation and annoyance in the Steinmeyer point of view, then we can add to the list of his other qualities that of restraint; most of us, in his position, would be screaming our lungs out. Very, very few magicians have any idea of the creative process of invention. Any one of us can, by luck or chance, get a happy inspiration that seems to work. A career with the consistency of quality and productivity--a career like Jim Steinmeyer's--is not the result of waiting for inspiration; it's the result of--surprise!--work and more work. It comes from knowing the history of your subject forwards, backwards and sideways; from solving a problem and then tearing it apart and solving it again; from working a hundred hours to a dead end, retracing your steps and starting all over again; and from knowing when, despite all your efforts, the project won't come together and it's time to shelve it for now, no matter how much you may love it. Magical creativity, like any other kind, doesn't come from sitting next to the pool, sipping a margarita and waiting for the idea to come flitting into your brain like a demented butterfly. It may well be that, because magicians have this notion that ideas are something that happens to you, rather than something you create by your own efforts, they can rationalize that an idea has no value--and hey, if it has no value, what's wrong with taking it? Take it they have; it's a perverse measure of Steinmeyer's stature as a creator that probably more unauthorized copies of his illusion shave been made than those of anyone else since the days of Robert Harbin. It's a distinction he could well do without. Having to devote time to tracking down the rip-off artists, rather than working on creative projects, has to be doubly frustrating--not unlike Donna Karan having to leave the design rooms to go wash the dirty laundry.

It must be small consolation to know that his illusions are being ripped off by the magicians how have seen them done by the "big boys"--and who think, with an almost childlike innocence, that if they do the same tricks, in the same way, they'll be stars too. It's an inane notion, of course, and never works. "Magicians think if you act like a star, you will be treated as a star," says Steinmeyer. "They schmooze with the audience the way Sammy Davis Jr. used to do--but very few people can do that; only the really big stars. When the lounge singer at the Holiday Inn tries it, it's hilarious: what kind of jerk is this? Magician's haven't learned that lesson. Maybe the lounge singer will someday become a star by singing great songs with talent, and then he can indulge himself. Magicians not only imitate the magic, they imitate the success and all the trappings, and it looks ridiculous. Who cares? Do the magic. Get on with it." The Pendragons, he points out, have become one of the most sensational acts in all of magic and what do they feature? The "Broom Suspension," the "Indian Basket," and the "Substitution Trunk!" "It cannot work, on paper," he says, smiling. "If you told me years ago that someone could become a star, a hot act doing those tricks--impossible! But the Pendragons made those illusions distinctive and unique, stylish and spectacular. Sure, they've done other stuff, but they still do those pieces. The Pendragons are proof that solid material wins out." It should be pointed out that the "other stuff" mentioned includes several Steinmeyer illusions, among them a startling and visceral "Interlude."

Even though his Hidden Secrets of Magic was the most critically acclaimed of the recent spate of magic specials, Steinmeyer's views regarding magic on television are perhaps not what you'd expect. "Magic doesn't work on TV. We should all say our prayers that the public has accepted it; we're lucky because no art will survive [in the commercial showplace] without TV." The proof of this is the reaction of a layperson to magic done live: the magician was right there in front of me. They're stunned, because they've seen magicians on TV, and accepted them--but you can do anything on TV; magic is a live art. If laypersons have some misconceptions about magic on television, magicians have even more. "Magicians are still desperate to be on network television, but it simply doesn't have that power any more; it won't make you a star. It would be possible to come up with a long list of performers for whom it has done nothing. Magicians have to be much more clever, more judicious, as to just what their TV appearances are." With just a tinge of cruelty, he adds, "If you're over 30, you will still buy the notion that network TV will make you a star." "That there are now 'rules' for how you do magic on television," says Steinmeyer, "is simply inane; it's a product of thinking of ten years ago, only useful if you want to try to be one more David Copperfield clone."

IndianThe whole idea of Secret Cabaret, the spectacular British series which he produced with Frankie Glass, was to "pull the rug out from under notions of how magic is presented on TV. It was aimed at a different audience, and the pacing, the effects and presentations, the music, the cast, the suggestion of backstory reflected that. It was told in the vernacular of MTV--not magic shows." Steinmeyer thinks--or perhaps hopes--that there will be a learning curve for magicians. "They'll have to get TV savvy, and part of that is not just saying, Where do I sigh?, but understanding how they look the best, what the best material is, how it's being staged and photographed. When it gets to the point at which magicians are spending $90,000 to have gigantic props built, with the notion that this will make them stars, it's completely laughable. That's a freight train out of control--and on the wrong track."

As a perfect counter-example, Steinmeyer cites Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants: "Thank God it happened when it did. Right at a time when people are saying how big can you get, how much production value can you squeeze in, how much spectacle--there he is in a drawing room with a deck of cards, talking about magic and doing sensational stuff--and people saying this is the most incredible theatrical experience they've ever had. What a great relief for all of us to see that the core of this art is intact, and what a great example that it's the cult of the personality again. Here is a great personality who can hold an audience with conjuring tricks." And what, finally, is the value of magic? "In our time, science has made wonders unspecial. You're at the checkout counter, the clerk passes a pattern of lines through a beam of light, and there it is, beef stew, $S1.59. Now that's astounding, but you don't notice it, the clerk doesn't notice it, the people waiting behind you in line couldn't care less." "But magic makes you notice things--see how they're special--and now things become unique and special, and you see the world in a new way." It would be nice to end with that gentle philosophical observation, but I can't resist a somewhat more characteristic quote from the estimable Mr. Steinmeyer, this in response to criticisms of what is sometimes pejoratively termed box magic: "If the red and chrome boxes are more interesting than the performer on stage...well, the problem isn't with the paint job."

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