We have been reading The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards and enjoying every page. Jim Steinmeyer could have made his living writing books and wouldn't have needed to be the prodigious inventor of so many game changing illusions. We are fortunate as a community that he lost his way and fell victim to Magic's seductive call.
After Kellar's passing, there was a heated contest between Houdini and Thurston to assume the position of Dean in the Society of American Magicians. The debate was ugly and filled with attacks founded and otherwise to prove or disprove worthiness to the throne. One of the knocks on Thurston was his alleged violation of Magic's sacred rule against exposure.
Audiences could purchase candy in specially printed containers that taught basic magic tricks. Some of Magic's elite branded this activity evil and worthy of disqualification. Others saw no problem with the general principle of teaching very basic tricks to young people. The case apparently turned on a bizarre technicality: because the candy was being sold, there was no offense. If the same candy had been given away in the boxes, the case would have gone against Thurston.
In the midst of the debate, the magician and historian Henry Ridgely Evans penned his essay "Is Magic Decadent?"
Ah, for the good old days, when magic was a genuine mystery, and one had to learn it from a professor of sleight-of-hand; when books and boxes of magic did not exist, and stage secrets were as closely guarded as the formula of certain patent medicines.
Magic has been on the cusp of ruin for centuries and apparently the advent of mass production of magic kits and publication of magic books indicated the last days in 1923.
In an article published this weekend in the online journal, Salon, writer Santiago Willis voices concerns almost identical to those of Evans. His article, The Internet Makes Magic Disappear runs parallel to Evans' concerns and is familiar.
Magic depends on secrecy, magic shops controlled access to secrets, brick and mortar magic shops are shuttered by the internet outlets, youtube.com exposes all to everyone with a computer; and therefore, magic will die out from over-exposure.
The writer notes New York City had 16 magic shops in 1960, three in 2003 and now only two. Willis quotes Jamy Ian Swiss for the proposition that the decline in brick-and-mortar shops portends the erosion of one of our art's essential support structures.
We cannot disagree that youtube has permitted really bad magicians to expose what could be really great tricks. But magic has been with us for a very long time and it has never been just about figuring out the secret. Magic in its truest form focuses on the performance, the give-and-take with an audience of one or a thousand, and the experience shared.
The arc of history does bend towards good and right. Magic as an art form survived the new technologies of each era and remains special because of the people who elevate it beyond solving puzzles and clever moves to something greater than its component props and sleights.
These people do not expose their secrets on youtube and even if they did, their talent could not be duplicated or mimicked regardless of how many times a video or DVD is watched.
Evans' comments gives us hope that we are facing what has been faced before and survived. The great performers of our time and the time to come will use the environment (youtube and all) to make an even greater contribution to magic's history. Just you watch. It's going to be great.
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