Guest Magic Essay: Paw Lawton

Inside Magic Image of Wonderful Poster Promoting Harry Houdini's Incredible Milk Can Escape - Failure Means a Drowning DeathPaw Lawton has been associated with Inside Magic since we started.  A former assistant to our father and advance man for circuses, carnivals and a few magic shows, he knows his stuff.  His take on the stuff he knows is often jaundiced and embittered by years of seeing the shady side of our magical arts.  Ironically (or fittingly) he actually recorded the song “Shady Side of Our Magical Arts” and was involved in lengthy litigation with the songwriter of “Sunny Side of the Street.”  He ultimately lost but as he noted, “you can’t win if you don’t play.”  Such is the philosophy of Paw.  We asked him to pen a short essay on the current state of our art.  That essay, edited to remove libelous and offensive sections, follows.

There is no magic now that is not the best ever.  The Internet has demolished the traditional magic store and replaced it with email touting (like a real tout would do) “The Best Trick” or “The Most Amazing Illusion Ever!” If the ads don’t come with those titles, we get testimonials from people we don’t know (or know too well) saying, “I was fooled so badly, I bought three of _____!” “This trick had me from the start.  I had to buy it just to learn how it works!” “This is the illusion I carry with me at all times!”

I haven’t seen a trick I had to carry at all times since my Color Changing Knives.  That’s it.  I can use the knives as knives so that makes them something I would want to carry.  I don’t even carry cards with me.  Does my impromptu audience care?  No, not one of them has asked me to show something else with props I should be carrying.  It makes sense that I would have a knife with me and because I am a magician, it makes sense I could do something magical with the knife.  I can make it change color and then change back and hand it to my spectator to see if he can open it.  He can’t.  I can, end of story.

I have been in the business long enough to know that advertising is a different animal than talking or writing or drawing.  You have to create the need.  Fill the need.  Move on.  You move on because 8 out of 10 times, the need you created wasn’t there to begin with, didn’t need filling and the thing you sold couldn’t fill it – or would break the second it was used.

When I advanced for a show, I created the need for folks in a new town to see the show that was coming.  It was the best entertainment they would experience this or any other year.  It was cheap enough for the entire family and was perfect for a special night out, they likely had not had in a while.  For the most part, I was dealing with towns where people worked hard all day (factory or farming communities) and they knew they should take a break with the family for some entertainment.

Once the need was created, I told them (usually through posters or for the more expensive shows, call-ins by the key performers to local morning shows) that the show coming soon would fill the need.  We’d sell tickets and if we sold enough, it made sense for the show to visit the town.  We could also depend on more tickets being sold the day of the show but there was no sense in coming if the advance sales were so low that day-of sales couldn’t make up for it.

It was up to the show or the performer to fulfill the need.  I wasn’t involved in that.  I had moved to the next town to put posters, window signs, give out comp tickets to folks willing to give space for advertisements and try to build enough advance interest to justify the show coming to that town.  I’d secure a night at the local theater or school, report back to the show and move on.

When I was advancing for magic shows, I would find the magic shop or shops (there were towns that had more than one in those days) and get them to help to build the hype.  On occasion, I would get younger magicians to help with the show – guaranteeing their family would buy tickets to see them – or provide comps for the local magic club.  They knew what I was there for and did what they could to build a potential audience large enough to ensure we would come.

Those days may be a memory but it is my memory.  I can’t remember a single advertisement received by email.  They all have the same titles or subject lines and all include videos that I can’t stand.  The first third of the videos are usually credits, titles and obscure clips of people (usually young women) being amazed by what they just saw.  The viewer doesn’t get to see the effect (if at all) until the last few seconds before the closing credits and call to action, “Buy Now!  Limited Stock!”

It could be people love those videos and the advertisements as entertainment.  They don’t __________ what the ad is about.  They have their needs fulfilled by seeing a magician appear to fool young women in a bar.  I don’t know.  If that’s the case, fine.  I can’t do anything about those types of [people].  But if the point of the advertisement is to build a need for the product and get the viewers to buy the product, it is way different than the way I used to work.  Yes, our posters and window cards could be over the top.  We might have a drawing showing a stage far bigger than what they would see when they went to the show.  We might have drawings of assistants as attractive as any Hollywood actress and a magician drawn with little devilish imps whispering secrets in his ears, but the audience never once asked for their money back because the stage wasn’t as large as they thought, the assistants weren’t pretty or there weren’t any imps (devilish or not) whispering in the magician’s ear.  The audience either enjoyed the show or didn’t.  But to be honest, I don’t remember many or any asking for their money back for any reason.

But the ads I have been complaining about must work or they wouldn’t be out there.  When I go to magic conventions, I am interested in the newest tricks and am one of the crowd around a popular booth.  I rarely buy anything but I am entertained usually.  Maybe that is the same thing as being entertained by a video that briefly shows an edited version of the trick they want me to buy.  If that’s the case, I missed the parade.  If that’s what sells, good luck with that.

I know we can’t go back to the way it used to be.  I know we can’t have nice (but usually cluttered) magic shops where kids can hang out on a Saturday with the older magicians and learn the essential sleights of hand they need to learn.  I don’t want to seem like a bitter old man but I guess I am.  I am also inclined to believe I am bitter because the things and places I used to love are gone.  There is nothing I can do about it.  It is the way it is.  But I feel the need and want that need to be fulfilled.  I just know there is nothing about the way magic is sold and advertised that can fulfill the need, provide the new friends and give me a chance to cut-up jackpots with those new friends about shows we’ve seen.

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