Category: Magic News

News from the World of Magic

Couldn’t Have Happened to a Nicer Guy: Johnny Thompson Honored by LA Critics

Johnny Thompson and Pam as Great Tomsoni & Co.A while back we gave our review of Teller and Todd Robbins disturbing but very entertaining show Play Dead then showing at The Geffen Playhouse here in Los Angeles.

The writing was fantastic and matched the outstanding performance given by Mr. Robbins.  The magic was, though, was truly magical.

Today we learned through Teller’s contribution to Alan Watson’s always jam-packed with goodness Magic New Zealand newsletter that Johnny Thompson’s work to make the illusions and effects so effective has been recognized with a LA Drama Critics Circle award.

Mr. Thompson has an encyclopedic knowledge of our wonderful art and its history.  According to Penn Jillette, there is no one who knows more about the subject.  With his wife Pam, Mr. Thompson often performs as the hysterical and technically brilliant The Great Tomsoni & Co.  Though we have seen the act many times, we still embarrass ourselves with our high-pitched, almost girl-like laughing fits each time.

For as good as he is – and we agree with Mr. Jillette that he the elite of the elites – he does not engage in the type of self-promotion and chest-thumping we see from lesser-lights in our industry.  He does not even make a big deal of the fact that he is modest.

We get that “business” is an integral part of the term show-biz and that self-promotion is often the only type of promotion available to a young performer.  We accept that hiding one’s light under a bushel basket is an inefficient career move and only adds to one’s carbon footprint.  But it is refreshing to encounter performers who are really, really good and are not afraid to be judged solely on their work.

But Mr. Thompson could be modest, talented, lack the need to proclaim his superiority and still be a jerk.  In fact, he would deserve to be a jerk if he wanted.

But Mr. Thompson is decidedly not a jerk.

He is not dismissive of magicians who are just honored to meet him at a regional magic convention – say in Toledo – and seem unable to speak in complete sentences in his presence.  He does not dismiss those same magicians who encounter him, say, in Dallas at a national convention.  In fact, he is the kind of person who would invite that lesser-talented magician to sit and take part in a late-hour conversation in the lobby area with professionals the gawking magician had only seen on television or read about in magic magazines.

Mr. Thompson must have off-days.  He must occasionally feel it is unnecessary to cross a room to introduce himself – as if that would be necessary – to a magician/fan at a magic conference  set in some bucolic Michigan magic mecca setting like the Abbott’s Get-Together.   There must be times when he does not feel the need to engage in conversation with lesser magicians about their shared roots in Chicago.  We have never seen him on those days and, significantly, never read of others seeing him in that way.

Congratulations to Mr. Thompson for his award and recognition from a notoriously tough group of people to please, The LA Drama Critics.  We, as magicians, are fortunate to have people of his ability and demeanor in our art.

Pepper’s Ghost Key in New Lawsuit Against Cirque du Soleil

Inside Magic Image for Tony Spain's Seance for ChildrenIt is not often when the worlds of west coast rap culture and classical illusion come together.  It is an even more rare event to have those two spheres of history collide with patent law.  Today, then, is a special day for fans of the late Tupac Shakur, Pepper’s Ghost and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

According to industry magazines (the entertainment industry) a company is suing Cirque du Soleil and MGM Resorts for their alleged infringement on a patent it owns.  The suit claims Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson: One uses its patented technology to “create a hologram” of the late King of Pop for one of the final scenes of the show.

FilmOn  and hologram-maker Musion filed suit against the defendants in Los Angeles yesterday alleging Cirque du Soleil and MGM Resorts bring Michael Jackson back to the stage by an unlicensed use of their technology.

The complaint gives a little background on Pepper’s Ghost in its opening paragraphs – before getting to the meat of the issue:

“In 1862, John Pepper and Henry Dircks invented ‘Pepper’s Ghost,’ an illusion technique, which, over the last 150 years, has appeared in movies, concerts, magic shows and amusement park rides,” says the lawsuit. “Today a new incarnation of Pepper’s Ghost exists — Musion Eyeliner technology. Musion Eyeliner uses a patented system to project three-dimensional images virtually indistinguishable from real life bodies.”

The complaint then alleges that it is “widely acknowledged that Defendants employ the technology to create a three-dimensional hologram of Michael Jackson in Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson: One, Defendants do not possess a valid license to practice that technology.”

One wonders what they mean by “widely acknowledged.”

This will be an interesting case to watch.  Patent law is an intricate and difficult world to navigate.  We make no claim of expertise and it is always tough to judge a claim by the opening salvo.  As we write this, the defendants have not issued a statement in reaction to the complaint but when they do, we will provide coverage.

We note that despite the headlines and the loose text that floats through coverage about the lawsuit, Pepper’s Ghost is not a hologram – not even a little.  It is – as the complaint notes – a method of projecting an image.  Plaintiffs complaint is that the method used to project the ghost onto a live stage is protected by their patents and therefore Cirque and MGM have infringed.  Perhaps our beef is with the misnaming of the illusion.

Read more about the lawsuit here: http://m.hollywoodreporter.com/entry/view/id/268549

David Blaine: Waiting for the Wheels to Come Off

One must love an article that begins thusly:

The first time I meet David Blaine, he is weird. Zoned out, distracted or high on something. It’s a private dinner in an upstairs room at a London hotel and he enters without small talk. Dressed all in black with a black baseball cap, the American illusionist is big, bulky and intimidating.

The article in today’s The Evening Herald profiles magician David Blaine from a distance – at least emotionally.  The writer is clearly not one of the millions sold on the concept of David Blaine.  He views the performer as an oddity; hence an appropriate topic for a news story, we presume.

Mr. Blaine performs some pretty amazing effects for the reporter but he does not seem overly impressed.  The tricks he describes seem great but as the writer notes, “wImage of David Blaine on Inside Magice expect to be astonished.”  He does not say if he was astonished though.

Mr. Blaine confesses that despite his reputation as a performer of death-defying stunts, he is “obsessed with magic.”

He considers magic as a grounding center for his peripatetic life.  “It’s what drives me. It’s my favorite thing. It’s my saving grace. Like a meditation. I don’t even know what I would do without it.”

We know the feeling.  Give us a deck of cards and we are content.  Take away our deck of cards or our two silver dollars and the panic comes back.

Mr. Blaine teased his fans with scant information about an upcoming performance.

“There is a very big idea that I am going to do in London for the first time ever,” he says. “It’s a very simple idea, but it will be the best thing I have ever done. The most exciting. I know that it will drive me and I will push myself in a way I never would if it was not in front of me.”

It is scheduled to happen sometime in 2016 and in a football stadium.  That’s all we know so far.

We were thinking it would be the world’s longest performance of The Six Card Repeat.  That would have a lot of magicians watching for sure and there would be drama as he risked paper cuts and wrist injury.  Perhaps it is something different.

“No, an event. It is different from anything I have ever done, but combines everything. It will make sense out of everything I have spent my career working towards. If it works.” Continue reading “David Blaine: Waiting for the Wheels to Come Off”

Don’t Mess With Teller: Copyright Claim Upheld

Inside Magic Image of TellerDo not mess with Teller.

The silent half of Penn & Teller is an amazing writer, fine magic historian and incredible inventor of magic effects.  You put those three talents together and you have someone you do not want on the other side of a lawsuit.

Beginning with the premise that a magic trick is not per se protectable by the Copyright Act, certain aspects of the magical presentation may be.  Most lawyers would attempt to dissuade a client hoping to sue another performer over an alleged copyright infringement.  The burden of proof is tough, the case law does not support that type of claim (in most cases) and because the case will rise or fall based on the facts developed through litigation, it will be expensive to pursue.

U.S. District Judge James Mahan of Nevada agreed that in most cases a magic trick is not subject to copyright protection but, he observed in his ruling on Teller’s behalf, pantomimes are explicitly protected by the Copyright Act.

The effect at the center of the dispute is Teller’s famous and baffling Shadows.  Teller even registered “Shadows” with the U.S. Copyright Office in 1983.

Shadows essentially consists of a spotlight trained on a bud vase containing a rose. The light falls in a such a manner that the shadow of the real rose is projected onto a white screen positioned some distance behind it. Teller then enters the otherwise still scene with a large knife, and proceeds to use the knife to dramatically sever the leaves and petals of the rose’s shadow on the screen slowly, one-by-one, whereupon the corresponding leaves of the real rose sitting in the vase fall to the ground, breaking from the stem at exactly the point where Teller cut the shadow projected on the screen behind it.

Gerard Dogge offered to sell the secret behind Shadows via an advertisement on YouTube for $3,500.00 and included plenty of Penn & Teller keywords to lure the curious to his page.  Mr. Dogge claimed Teller’s copyright is not valid “because (A) it is registered as a dramatic work rather than a magic routine, (B) Teller abandoned his copyright, (C) Teller ‘openly challenged others to copy’ the work, and (D) Teller did not inform the public that Shadows is copyrighted.”

The judge wasn’t buying such foolishness.  The court wrote, “despite Dogge’s numerous attempts to utter an incantation to make the copyright disappear, the court finds that Teller maintains a valid interest as the creator and owner of Shadows.”

And as we wrote, do not mess with Teller.  He hired a private investigator to serve Mr. Dogge personally.  Mr. Dogge tried to hide and allegedly evaded service in Belgium, Spain and other locations on the continent.  Mr. Teller finally convinced the judge that Mr. Dogge had at least opened an email containing the service of process and complaint.  That was sufficient for jurisdiction and Mr. Dogge was forced to answer the complaint.

The best line of the court’s opinion granting Teller summary judgment against Mr. Dogge came near the end:

Dogge contends that the works are not substantially similar because his secret to performing the illusion differs from Teller’s, and because he uses a clear glass bottle instead of a vase in his However the court finds that these reaching arguments by Dogge exceed his limited grasp of copyright law. By arguing that the secret to his illusion is different than Teller’s, Dogge implicitly argues about aspects of the performance that are not perceivable by the audience. In discerning substantial similarity, the court compares only the observable elements of the works in question. Therefore, whether Dogge uses Teller’s method, a technique known only by various holy men of the Himalayas, or even real magic is irrelevant, as the performances appear identical to an ordinary observer.

The judge got it exactly right.

It is rare that being a copyright lawyer / magician gives us a chance to write about a combination of our favorite subjects, but this case did it for us.

Continue reading “Don’t Mess With Teller: Copyright Claim Upheld”

Houdini’s Magic Scrapbook – Now Available Online

Inside Magic Image of Wonderful Poster Promoting Harry Houdini's Incredible Milk Can Escape - Failure Means a Drowning DeathThe Harry Houdini Scrapbook Collection is now available for perusing through the Harry Ransom Center Digital Collections at the University of Texas. The institution received the scrapbooks indirectly from Bess Houdini who sold them to a New York lawyer in 1926, the year of the great magician’s passing.

The Ransom Center did painstaking digitalization work on the ten books to let researchers see what Houdini collected over his globe-trotting career.  The collection includes scrapbooks purchased from others and offer a great insight into the real-world of magic at the turn of the century.

Included in the collection are scrapbooks from performers such as mentalist and hypnotist S.S. Baldwin, who performed as “The White Mahatma,”  and on divergent subjects related to Houdini’s passionate study of frauds, spiritualism, magic history and other ephemera.

An amazing resource for fans of Houdini, magic, theatrical history and the best practices of scrapbook digitization can be found online at the Harry Ransom Center.

Teller Wins Copied Magic Trick Lawsuit

You might know Teller as an excellent magician part of the Penn and Teller couple. But more recently you might have heard news on his lawsuit against a Belgian entertainer who used YouTube to post a copycat illusion belonging to Teller. James Mahan, the Nevada District Judge who ruled the case decided that Teller had every right to sue the copycat entertainer. As you might already know by now, magic tricks are not technically allowed to have copyrights. Pantomimes, however, can be protected with the help of copyrights, and Teller used this information to his best advantages. He used the idea according to which magicians convey their emotions and feelings using gestures, just like pantomimes, while performing their magic acts.

Shadows – Tellers Four-Decade Magic Trick

The magic trick that has been under trial has been created and performed by Teller for more than four decades. The act itself requires the use of a spotlight that is casted on a bud vase which encompasses a rose. The light falls so that the real rose’ shadow can be projected onto a white screen placed at a distance behind. The magician uses a large knife to cut off the leaves and petals of the rose’s shadow on the screen, while the genuine corresponding leaves of the flower start to fall.

Penn, Teller’s partner said that the secret of the act has never been revealed and no one knows how it is done. However, a Belgian entertainer named Gerard Dogge tried to replicate the exact same act in a YouTube video called “The Rose and Her Shadow”. Plus, he stated he will reveal the secret for $3,050. The lawsuit soon followed and Teller finally came out with flying colors.

Was Murray SawChuck Ripped Off?

Inside Magic Image of Magician Murray SawChuckLas Vegas Magician Murray SawChuck is justifiably peeved to learn his spectacular Steam Train effect has been appropriated by The Illusionists.

You recall the Steam Train Illusion, right?  Mr. SawChuck performed it on national television a few years back.  It was pretty cool and perhaps that is why it is featured in The Illusionists’ act.

Mr. SawChuck told Vegas News, “You will also notice the train is an exact copy of MY steam train illusion I designed and invented in 2010 for America’s Got Talent Semi-Finals being seen by more than 22 million viewers.”

We have no information that would cause us to doubt Mr. SawChuck.  But to be fair, we have not heard The Illusionists’ side of the story.

Mr. SawChuck said, “Most of the The Illusionist cast is from Las Vegas and they are well aware that the Steam Train Illusion is my idea yet I didn’t receive ONE phone call from anyone giving me the heads up or a nod that they wanted his idea of a steam train locomotive on stage.

“It’s a fact there has never been an illusion with a steam train locomotive inside a theater before I created mine for America’s Got Talent in 2010.  In this business you can’t patent an idea so it’s very easy to have your brand or idea ripped off without any credit!”

Actually, one can never patent an idea but we get his point.  A patent protects only new, nonobvious and useful item.  A great idea is a great idea but unworthy of a patent until it is utilized in an invention.

That being said, Mr. SawChuck could have applied for a patent for the trick and if we were wearing only our Intellectual Property Attorney hat (it is a nice bowler-style with a dark blue feather stuck in the band) we would have said he could pursue it.

But if we wear our magician hat (a collapsible fez – sort of a cross between Cardini and Tommy Cooper), we would tell him to not apply for a patent.

A patent allows its owner to exclude others from selling or using the invention.  That’s great but to receive this time-limited protection, the application needs to specify the method and construction of the device in excruciating detail.

Good news: no one else can use the device.  Bad news: everyone knows how to build the device.  As we say around the office, you can take a secret to your grave, but not to the Patent Office.

Mr. SawChuck really had no way – short of depending on the good intentions of his colleagues in our wondrous art – to keep others from performing the exact same effect.

A wise judge once told us, “the thinnest piece of bacon has two sides.”  We thought he was talking about the rather miserly portions available to prosecutors in the courthouse café, but it turns out he was advising us to always get both sides of any story before making up our mind.  We have not heard from The Illusionists yet but when we do, we will update this story.

Mr. SawChuck will be headlining his own show at The Tropicana in Las Vegas this spring.  You can check out his home page here.

A Whole Bunch of Magic For Sale

Rich Bloch /  Collector's Workshop Perfect Time IIIWe are winnowing down our extensive magic stores.  Over on eBay, we have two lots up for sale as we type and a third is going up this evening.

How do we know we are selling a lot?  We ran out of room to post the pictures of the items in our first lot.

We had questions from buyers asking for images of the Collector’s Workshop / Rich Bloch Perfect Time III.  It is used, has very slight scratches on the back and needs a new battery.  Fortunately, it is a real watch so your neighborhood jeweler has the battery and can even replace it for almost nothing.  It cost us $7.00 for the battery and the installation.  We also had to explain to the jeweler to why the watch looked different on the inside than others she had seen in her 22 years of jewelry work.  But we didn’t give up the trick, we explained it was an invention we were working on to allow for easier use of the watch by people who are lazy.

We don’t know if she believed us but she still replaced the battery and watched us leave without comment.

Here are images of the watch for those who have visited eBay and wondered.

As we type this, there is a mere 10 hours remaining in the sale.  If you are interested it the watch or any of the other stage effects, you should get over there quickly.

Magician and Priest Fr. Jim Blantz Takes on Magic Castle

Inside Magic Image of Magician Father Jim BlantzMagic has a proud history of Catholic religious personages in its midst.

Father Cyprian Murray, a past national president of The Society of American Magicians and the late Brother John Charles Hamman S.M. to name just a couple.

Well, we heard of a third for the list.  Fr. Jim Blantz,  a member of the Order of the Holy Cross, served mass at the  Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills and then went to The Magic Castle to start his week-long lecture series for Magicians only.

The 81-year-old priest and performer will soon celebrate 60 years in the clergy and more than 40 years as a magician.

Fr. Blantz’ first show was a one-trick command performance for a family friend.  Their 12-year-old girl asked, “Do you know any magic?”  The priest said he knew one trick.  he performed for her.  “I knew one trick. So I did it, and she was thrilled.”

He performed for kids during a subsequent mission trip to Uganda for a large audience of kids who didn’t speak English.

Fr. Blantz is a cardworker with a relatively stable and successful routine.

“I’ve done the same act for 41 years,” Fr.  Blantz said. “I think I’ve got it down.” Continue reading “Magician and Priest Fr. Jim Blantz Takes on Magic Castle”

UPDATED: How to Close a Show in 10 Days

Inside Magic Image of Writer and Performer Maren Wade

Maren Wade is a gifted performer, singer, dancer, skilled author and a really nice person.

We went over-the-top in our review of her essay on Robin Leach’s Vegas DeLuxe site.  Ms. Wade wanted to make sure readers understood she was not criticizing any particular producer or show.  She wrote:

“My intention on writing How To Close A Show In Ten Days was to poke fun at experiences that many performers have encountered in the entertainment industry and to praise those producers who have had successful shows.   I don’t, nor have I ever claimed my outrageous stories to be true much less to be true based on my own experiences.

“Much of what I wrote was apocryphal, over the top exaggerations of “war” stories swapped by various entertainers over drinks.  It was never intended as a criticism of any producer in particular or any producer with whom I have ever had the honor or privilege to work.

I have to make clear that I did not write the editor’s note and I did not mention anything about my credits.  The fact is over time shows can close regardless of how long they were running no matter how successful they may have been.

“Where there is a beginning, there is an end.  I acknowledge there are many factors at play and that producing is a challenging business with lots of hurdles to overcome.  It has been an honor to have performed in every show for which I have been credited.

“I have developed deep and meaningful relationships with many people from the production teams, cast and crews that I have worked with and feel inspired every day to be surrounded with so many talented people who have such enormous ambition, drive and success.”

She is not only a great writer, she is classy and kind.

Personally, we would never put up with our hijinx and wise acre ways.

In fact, we would have been a lot less diplomatic and probably gone over the top again by attacking our own writing for being unprofessional  and taking great liberties with the original story.  Fortunately, we are so lazy we likely would not have even bothered to write us.

Ms. Wade  shared what she learned from her friends in the business in a satirical piece on Vegas DeLuxe.  She served as a guest essayist whilst Robin Leach is on his annual summer vacation.

While her helpful instruction is not directly related to magic productions, her instruction can help any show avoid a short run and embarrassing close.

For instance:

What is the No. 1 rule of business? Keep costs down. Here are some effective ways to do this: Advertising is completely overrated. Why should you spend money to make money? Your show should be Vegas’ best kept secret, so secret that no one knows about it.

Read her full post here.

We hereby extend an offer to Ms. Wade.  Please join Inside Magic’s writing team.  We love snark and especially well-written and insightful snark.

You’ve got what it takes to make it in the magic writing biz, Ms. Wade.  Give us a call.

[ Edited 4:23 pm]