WHAT WE HIDE: JARRETT SPEAKS, PART ONE

“Andre Malraux said, ‘You are not what you show; you are what you hide.’ This is a blog for magicians who regard the art of magic, and how its history is still an important element of that art.” —Jim

JUNE 2022 

This blog and the next blog will revisit Jarrett, his influence, his viewpoints, and a few observations about him that didn’t make it into the previous books.

“Jarrett Talks” is a short video, taken from Jay Marshall’s 1956 interview with Guy Jarrett. It’s interesting to hear him talking about the old days, and hear his distinctive voice and phrases; fans of the book will recognize the distinctive and opinionated Ohio boy who became a success in the big city.

“Jarrett Talks to 2011,” which appeared in the June 2011 Genii Magazine. It was an interesting to go back and reassess Jarrett’s controversial opinions, and compare them to current magic. At that time his book was 75 years old. (It is now 86 years since it was published, but it’s interesting to see how right he was about specific attitudes.)

I often hear from magicians who are in need of new material for their acts. Invariably, if they are neurotic about the business or doubtful about their own choices, it manifests itself when it comes to new material. Or maybe I should say, “old material,” for it takes only a smidgen of self-doubt for magicians to go running back to material from twenty, thirty, or fifty years ago, quickly pushing the public perception of magic in the wrong direction.

As magicians we all seem to know, in our hearts, that old material is the most dependable. The public sees magic infrequently, and can often be tricked into feeling that popular tricks from twenty years ago are suitable classics. But the producers and agents who book magic acts get to see those tricks over and over again on promotional dvds. I’ve been told, hundreds of times, that no magicians perform anything different, original, or innovative. Magic is perceived as stagnant, and loses many opportunities to be put in front of an audience. As one head of specials from a major television network once told me, “The problem with magic is the same problem with ice skating on television; there was too much of it and it didn’t change.”


Magicians aren’t any more enlightened. One popular star of magic said to me, in a meeting with his producers as they began planning an expensive new show, “Go ahead and tell them! I keep telling them, but they don’t believe me. There’s nothing new in magic. It’s the same tricks, over and over again!” Of course, I consider that remark a particular kind of idiocy, but it’s indicative of the way magicians think. I know that there are new ideas out there; I know that there is new material that would attract an audience. Producers and audiences want it. Magicians are skeptical. And the pace of magic is perceived to be trudging slowly forward—an ancient chilly glacier, when it could be deftly dancing around the market difficulties, like quicksilver.


As I was explaining this situation to a friend, he suggested, “Now you know how Guy Jarrett felt.” And I realized that he was right. Exactly! Seventy-five years ago, Jarrett composed his iconoclastic little book on stage magic by setting the type and printing and binding the book himself. That dense and mysterious little blue volume, Jarrett Magic, slapped the contemporary generation of magicians for their lack of originality and imagination. In his essays in the book, he pointed out that magic wasn’t just dying, it was being strangled by magicians.


Was that true?


I’ve returned to Jarrett’s text many times over the years (I annotated his book twice). But when I recently re-read his admonition to magicians, I was taken by the relevance of his homily.
So forgive my selected phrases and annotations, which are a little more than just clarifications this time. Here I’m actually nudging Jarrett into the 21st century, not only explaining where he stood, but translating the sentiment for modern magicians.

 
How many magicians of the thousands of professionals and amateurs, are doing a show tonight? Just a little handful, and how few people they are playing to. Yet a magician can give a half-hour to a two-hour show for less money than any other group of entertainers. Also, they can play for all kinds of people, and other entertainers cannot. So, why are not all magicians in demand?

Jarrett made a brilliant point to his readers. A magic show is an economical marvel. It offers production value, visual appeal, comedy and surprises. Instead of relying on elaborate scenery or costumes, a magic show offers production value by the nature of the apparatus. We can see this in shows from Robert-Houdin, Kellar, Blackstone, Virgil, and even Doug Henning.  Magicians historically boasted about the tons of apparatus they traveled with, and a show like Thurston’s was dependent on dozens of elaborate props. B ut most magic shows made effective use of only a few large illusions to add color or spectacle. And, of course, the featured effects (in Thurston’s case a deck of cards and a thread; for Blackstone, a piece of rope) formed the anchors for the show.

Magicians today recognize that they can carry a magic show in a briefcase. But it’s ridiculous to point this out to the audience. If magicians believe it is a badge of honor if they entertain with “nothing,” remember that audiences like to feel that they’ve been indulged. This is the cleverness, the economy, of a magic show, as Jarrett wrote. 

I’ve worked on magic effects that were given beautiful, elegant production value just by using the right props to show off the magic: an illuminated board for The Magic Square, a raised platform to show off a ring penetration. Remember, audiences don’t actually score you points for your cheapness or lack of effort—those points are rewarded by your fellow magicians. And no one ever said, “That Ziegfeld is a clever guy, but why does he need all that scenery and all those costumes?”

There are millions to be entertained and collected from. If there is a man like Kellar, a gentleman, an intelligent businessman, who can meet and associate with intelligent people, he can go out and collect. But, he must give a good show.


The model of the Kellar show might seem to be a surprise, for it was truly old-fashioned when Jarrett was writing about it in 1936. Notice that he doesn’t use Thurston’s elaborate, apparatus-heavy show as his ideal, the closest thing to the Broadway spectacles that Jarrett would have encountered with The Greenwich Village Follies, George White, or Ziegfeld. Instead, he focuses on a personality-driven show, that can accommodate smaller features and novelty acts, and focuses on several strong illusions. Most important, Kellar was a notoriously hard worker when it came to acquiring new material. He knew that the success of his show depended upon the latest wonders, chosen so that they not only exceeded the audience’s expectations, but provided surprises and distinguished him from any other magician.

Have our magicians had any training or direction in the art of magic? Have they stage presence, or can they act? Have they studied the intelligent public to know its capacity for thinking, to judge what will mystify them? No, they have not. They just got hold of a bunch of tricks and walked out on the stage, a bunch of “drugstore magicians.”


Jarrett became infamous for his sniffy remarks about magic, and “drugstore magicians” earned his disdain. But you have to carefully examine how he’s using this remark. He’s not critical of amateurs. He writes about the “drugstore magicians” getting work in vaudeville. Instead, he’s discussing professionals who are performing derivative acts, piecing together routines from other performers and buying the tricks that are handy. In Jarrett’s day, he was probably writing about performers who opened with the Vanishing Birdcage, performed the Cards and Envelope, and closed with a Doll’s House Illusion.  When I was a boy, the act was Professor’s Nightmare, Torn and Restored Newspaper, Zig-Zag. Today, I’d describe that act as opening with Kevin James’ Bowling Ball trick, performing The Invisible Deck, and ending with (I’m sorry to say) Origami.

You know the act. You’ve seen it a hundred times. And, of course, each performer who does it becomes indistinguishable from the last. When something becomes a standard, a strong performer avoids it, using it as a pivot point or a directional marker to take another route. A “drugstore” magician adds it to his repertoire.

Now let’s try to be fair here. Jarrett was frustratingly idealistic, and not every magic act is going to be groundbreaking. Not every magician is going to be inspired. For each Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin, there were hundreds of lounge singers, across the country, who performed their songs in nice little showrooms to appreciative audiences. Open with “New York, New York,” close with “My Way.” The nature of these acts is that they’re indistinguishable. They’re filling a need. But without the men at the top, the innovation, these acts have no cache. And that’s just what happened in the last ten years: no one at the top. Media’s been fractured, for better or worse, and neither Criss Angel nor David Blaine can be imitated to provide production value or define a fashion. So magicians are treading the same water from thirty years ago.

A bum fiddler in no way hurts music, but ‘drugstore magicians,’ making a bum out of magic, have killed magic.


This is one of Jarrett’s most trenchant observations. The public evaluates magic in terms of the last magician they’ve seen. If they see a lousy magician, they think that magic is, inherently, poor. Perhaps it’s because they see relatively so little magic, over an average lifetime, so performances aren’t always put in context. If you only heard three or four violin selections, over a lifetime, and two of them were scratchy and out of tune, “bum fiddlers” might have a similar deleterious effect. 

We’ve all had similar experiences, like the spectator who tells you, “Oh, my nephew does card tricks, too,” or “You guys must have trick apparatus to do that.” Of course, magic is flexible and durable enough to knock these assertions on their ears. A strong performer emphasizes the differences in a routine, scoring points for these distinctions (as in Alan Wakeling’s Sawing Routine), or accentuates the miracle (a Brainwave Deck, not the now-standard joshing routine that’s become The Invisible Deck.) Interestingly, Jarrett’s remark ends a section, and he pointedly can’t offer any solution to the problem except the obvious one…. Don’t do bad magic!

I have ideas for half a dozen new illusions. Mostly new principles, attractive titles, too. But I won’t put them in here. Some drugstore magician would seize the title for publicity and do a lousy abortion and disgrace magic some more. Same way with the small stuff.


It always astonished me that, after Jarrett published his book, he had additional ideas that were lost because magicians didn’t inquire about them! To me, his mention of “titles” proved how cleverly he’d thought through his material; he knew that a good illusions needed to be promoted with an appealing title. What were these six or seven effects that were never used, and never recorded? We’ll never know, because magician weren’t interested.

But I now understand. Vaudeville was dead. Magicians were out of work and were faced with the Depression, eliminating opportunities for work. Instead of developing shows that accommodated changes in the market—innovating—magicians reverted to comforting, secure and unimaginative material. Jarrett urged them forward. They ran for the hills.

“It’s an ill wind that blows no good,” according to the old saying. Now that magic is in the same sort of recessive cycle as Jarrett’s time, 75 years ago, fewer magicians are working. Less competition. Yet we know that the need is still there for economical, surprising entertainment. That means a potential for a bigger result, and it’s easier for a strong magician to have impact in the marketplace. But it’s not going to happen with a “drugstore” act. Or “drugstore” thinking.

There could be good magicians and good magic shows. Where would they play? Broadway stars go out and get it. Good stars, good shows, good casts. That is the formula. Maybe you think I’ve only talked of things that happened long ago. You know, history. Well, magic is history.


Jarrett’s phrase, “magic is history,” near the end of his book, has always seemed chillingly insightful. His text didn’t wallow in the past. He compared magic to the great Broadway shows of the 20s and 30s. But he was mindful of the great magicians who had preceded him, and the lessons that could be learned from their examples. Great magic is truly the work of details.

It’s also the work of perspective. When Jarrett wrote, “magic is history,” he wasn’t advocating just the experience of the last ten, or twenty, or thirty years. He was sweeping together the memories of Herrmann, Kellar and Leipzig. We can learn from Robert-Houdin, Maskelyne, deKolta, Devant and countless of others, including Guy Jarrett. Their successes are inspirations, and their failures are educations. He wasn’t promoting a devotion to old tricks; he was pleading for magicians to develop perspective.

Seventy-five years ago, Guy Jarrett selected the letters of type, and included the phrase, “magic is history” on his final pages. I’m sorry to say that magicians of 1936 weren’t listening. But magicians today still have a chance of getting it right.

In the next blog, we’ll have a chance to look at some little-known Jarrett trivia, and appreciate some of his work that was never understood by magicians. Come to think of it, it still isn’t understood

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