This month's guest essayist is Pete Mills. When I learned more about Pete, his selection for the BoM became much less of a surprise. In fact, it makes all the sense in the world. During his formative years, spent studying under the wing of Howard Hale (while working at Jeffries Magicland in Dallas, Texas), Pete clearly learned to be quite discerning about his magic--especially sleight of hand magic. Hale steered him toward the work of Slydini, Fred Kaps and Ken Brooke, which led to his highly developed sense of awareness at a young age. Reading through his thoughts and observations on The Magic of Alan Wakeling, you will see that this sense of awareness has continued to develop and mature. And, while Pete performs semi-professionally, he remains a student of magic. So, without further interference on my part, I happily give you Pete Mills, Jim Steinmeyer and Alan Wakeling.
The Magic of Alan Wakeling was written by Jim Steinmeyer and published in 1993. The first printing was published in a limited edition of 1,000 copies. It contains 345 pages of magic that encompasses illusions, stage material, mentalism and close-up items. The first edition cover is maroon with gold titles and cover illustration of the books subject performing the multiplying billiard balls.
It looks and feels like an important book.
The overwhelming feeling one gets when reading this book is respect. Alan Wakeling has a deep and profound respect for his art and his audience. He proves that if you take your art seriously your audience will as well.
Because the scope of this book is so broad I will confine my remarks to a few items primarily those that I have had the pleasure of performing.
In the various introductions to the book by names no less than Mark Wilson, Mike Caveney, Norm Neilsen, Ricky Jay and Channing Pollock, we get a very solid sense of the seminal role Mr. Wakeling played in the construction of trademark routines in the acts of those listed above. I'm not talking about a few lines or bits of business, I mean trademark effects or a spin on an effect that is now solely associated with the artist in question. Mr. Wakeling is the progenitor of some heavy stuff.
My own epiphany came quite indirectly as they so often do.
Greg Wilson performed the Wakeling billiard ball routine on one his fathers "Magic Circus" specials. I immediately hated this kid. His dad was one of the most well known magicians in the world. He was a good looking kid and he was doing this killer routine with billiard balls. What's not to hate? Heck, my dad sold medical supplies.
During Mark Wilson's introduction to this segment I believe he mentioned Alan Wakeling's name. I thought to myself, "I don't know who this Alan Wakeling guy is but that's a cool routine." Cool indeed. Cool in ways I couldn't begin to know.
While Mr. Wakeling certainly was highly inventive he has a particular genius it seems for routining, not only his own magic but that of others as well.
The "Alan Wakeling Billiard Ball Routine" is an excellent example of this very economical yet elegant skill. This piece is framed by Alan's introduction and outstanding use of theatrical elements to lift this routine above the ordinary. Music, lighting, and the performers' carefully choreographed movements make this a showpiece that if rehearsed well will garner enthusiastic applause from an audience.
Technically this routine is interesting as it never uses the shell for open productions. And the shell itself is rung in only after the opening flourishes establish the magician's skill. The subtext being that no subterfuge is required if the performer's skill and two billiard balls can be entertaining.
This thoughtful and economical use of the shell gives this routine a decidedly different texture. The beats in the routine have a rhythm like no other ball routine I know of.
It is worthy of performance and more importantly-study by all. Not solely because it is a great billiard ball routine but because the shell, the modus operandi is rung in at precisely the right time and then maximum use is gained from its utilization. This is the Erdnase quote proving itself yet again. To paraphrase-The astute performer failing to improve upon the method, changes the moment.
"Aces Front" is an effect that has much to offer the close-up performer. In my own work I have used this in restaurant and intimate standup situation with success. Earl Nelson is mentioned as using this as a closing routine in his work at the Magic Castle, often closing his act with it.
This routine contains all the elements the discerning performer values in a close-up routine: Novelty, humor and, if performed well, a climax that looks like real magic. This routine also contains an innate charm. By referring to the cards as "young" and because they are small they take on an anthropomorphic quality. You can almost hear the audience break out in a spontaneous "Awww" when the playtime size cards are brought out. This routine also demonstrates proper timing. The introduction to the trick frames, creates anticipation, conflict (a favorite motivational element of Tommy Wonder's) and a bit of tension.
The performer states that among laymen the fallacy long-believed is that magicians must practice endlessly to be proficient as skillful performers. Not so the performer states. The playtime cards are introduced and the performer then delivers the tension release--"You just have to train them when they're very young." This line has never failed to get laughs. Even among what I would diplomatically refer to as "challenge" audiences (I'm referring to restaurant/bar patrons who are drunk, rowdy and ready to take on all comers, least of all the house magician).
This routine also plays well up and off the table so that the performers face is part of the audiences visual field. I chose this routine to perform on a local television appearance. It packs quite economically as well. The performer who makes this a part of his act would do well to stock up on the proper glasses when he finds them. This is one of those "pack rat items."
Working magicians will be familiar with the scenario in which an item required for a favorite routine is no longer available or worse, even manufactured any longer. When you find a good sized glass, buy several as they may not be available forever. (See the Don Alan book regarding the Allerton aspirin tin routine!)
Early in his career Alan Wakeling performed in a world that "flashlight-beneath-the-covers-looking-at-magic-catalogs" kids like me only dreamed of. He actually performed in those places that seemed to only exist in Nelson Hahne illustrations-nightclubs. Places where men with brilliantine hair and beautiful women drank martinis, danced the night away and elegant performers dazzled the audiences. These audiences were very discerning and were used to seeing only the best in entertainment. From the names of the places and more importantly, the length of his contracts it is evident that Mr. Wakeling did not disappoint.
A section of the book mentions a number effects that were not specifically mentioned as part of finished acts or act that Mr. Wakeling performed and could easily become a feature routine in a stage performers repertoire. Effects like the "Liquid Sands" and the "Wakeling Egg Bag" are eminently serviceable routines.
We also learn the origin of the original "Hip Steal," this item being closely associated with Marvyn & Carol Roy. The original routine for this method is an elegant production of silks from an artists' palette climaxing in the production of a glass of wine.
In writing about Numerology a psychic routine Jim Steinmeyer writes of," ...Alan's ability to keep things elegantly simple yet always theatrically intriguing."
This for me forms the new definition of the oft used phrase "commercial." If the effect isn't simple enough to be followed by the slowest of audience members it won't be watched and if not theatrically intriguing the performer will be labeled a bore. Mr. Wakeling was neither ignored nor boring.
My discussion of Mr. Wakeling's contributions to the area of stage illusion will be brief. It certainly isn't for lack of material to write about. I count in the contents section, well over twenty illusions that were either invented or improved significantly by Mr. Wakeling. That may seem an oversight since Mr. Wakeling is most closely associated with illusion design and staging but again, I feel poorly qualified to comment. As I understand the BoM, the purpose of the opening post is to invite discussion. The invitation has been extended.
In closing I would also like to mention that the book is richly produced and engagingly written by Jim Steinmeyer whose illustrations also serve to make the routines and concepts clear.
There are few people qualified it seems to both write and illustrate a book of this magnitude. Mr. Steinmeyer is the clear and natural choice. This was an obvious labor of love for the author and his respect for his subject is evident not only in his words but in the high production values of the finished publication.
When I first read this book it had the Jack Nicholson effect on me--It made me want to be a better magician.
It still makes me feel that way.