“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 

That photo, which shows an elegant little chrome and teak drinks stand, is the very first Hospitality prop, the act that allows the magician to pour a number of drinks from an ordinary cardboard milk carton. I came up with it, sketched it out, and the table was designed and built by John Gaughan for Doug Henning… And if any of that doesn’t quite sound right to you… like, you never saw Doug Henning perform it… there’s a story about all of that.Doug’s last tour, which was put together in 1986, was filled with all sorts of great magic. Doug had booked a couple of theaters in the round, so he wanted new material that would work in that setting. In the show was Origami, the Pole Levitation, the Little Doll’s House, the Surrounded Disembodied, the Magical Puppet Theater, and other new effects. Including Hospitality… almost.

When we planned the tour, I went through a number of new ideas with Doug. Hospitality was something I’d been working on, a different approach to an “Any Drink Called For” act. Years earlier, I’d done a version of this act—one that I didn’t like—for Jim Royal’s show in Chicago. This was my chance to start from scratch, create the act that I knew it always should have been, and come up with a neat piece of apparatus to accomplish it all.

Doug loved it, but I have to say that the achievement of Hospitality, for Doug, was the routine. Everything in the routine was about pointing you in the direction of “soft drinks,” and to discourage anyone from expecting a glass of beer or a Martini. Doug would start it with a boy from the audience, and show a cardboard milk carton. He explained how he never trusted those cartons, because he liked chocolate milk, but you couldn’t see inside the carton. This was illustrated by pouring a glass pitcher of chocolate milk into the cardboard carton, then folding the top closed. The rest of the milk, in the pitcher, was poured out for the boy assisting him.

Doug would swirl the carton around in a clockwise circle, as if mixing what’s inside. When he poured out a glass, it was now white milk. He swirled it again, in the opposite direction, and it was now a glass of strawberry milk. An assistant came out, took a tray with the white and pink glasses of milk and the pitcher. That left Doug with the cardboard carton, and a number of clear plastic glasses recessed in the top of the rolling table.

And, of course, at that point the actual routine started, with six different drinks were poured out from the carton and distributed to the audience. But all of the fussing with the different milks in the carton was to send the audience in one direction, and make the second half of the trick seem incredible.

The trick was beautifully built by John Gaughan, who wanted to treat it like a piece of furniture and finished it with teak veneer, black formica and chrome. One of the interesting details of his design was a “nautilus shaped” cam inside of the table to hold the drinks tray; if you’re familiar with the trick, you’ll probably have an idea of how this worked. We rehearsed it in Los Angeles before the tour began. But when the show ran long, this long, small routine was the first one cut, and it never actually was performed in front of an audience. When Doug retired, I bought the table, because I didn’t want it to just end up being owned by another magician. That’s why Doug never actually performed it in front of an audience, and this particular prop has never been included in a show.

But it’s had an impact! I later wrote it up, with a simpler design for the table, and described it in my book Modern Art. Shortly after that, Lance Burton told me that he wanted to perform it. That drink table was built by Bill Smith. Hospitality really became Lance’s trick. He found a number of really interesting touches and improvements, and used to discuss his philosophy of the trick, the elements that he felt needed to be emphasized to the audience. If you ever saw him do it, you’ll understand. It suited him perfectly, and Lance turned it into a marvel. I’m sorry that Doug never saw Lance perform it, because he would have loved it, and appreciated how much Lance got out of this very simple premise.

I was particularly proud that my version was so unconventional; it didn’t work like any of the previous acts, and didn’t use any of the long-established  principles. The idea of pouring different drinks from one container, of course, has a long history in magic. Versions were performed by Robert-Houdin, Anderson, Devant, Levant, and Charles Hoffman in vaudeville.

Strangely, I wasn’t quite done with the “Any Drink Called For” act. When I later wrote the book of Alan Wakeling’s magic, he described his drink act (this one centered, very squarely, on cocktails), and discussed a number of really elegant, theatrical  touches. Alan’s act couldn’t have been more different than Hospitality, but it demonstrated the durability of the concept. It really was Alan’s insight that let me understand the concept behind the act, and the why it had been so successful over the years.

And then, strangest of all, a good friend of mine, Alton Sharpe from Chicago, provided the final chapter, when he explained how he met Charles Hoffman (who performed as Think-a-Drink Hoffman in vaudeville) and how he bought his act! It’s a great story and I don’t think Al Sharpe ever really told it to anyone else. I’ll save that for the next blog. 

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