In the hot seat this week is one of the most sophisticated magicians in the world. His relaxed demeanour and unmatched skill has taken him across the globe. He is the magician of choice for some of the brightest and wealthiest people in the world and it is easy to see why. We are THRILLED to welcome to the Fest, Eric Mead.
You lectured three years ago at Magi-Fest on three routines by Tim Conover, your dear, departed friend. What will you lecture on this time around?
I honestly don’t know, and probably will not know until very close to the lecture. I don’t have a prepared lecture on magic, I have no products to sell, no dealer demo stuff I need to squeeze in. So I tend to talk about whatever tricks, problems, strategies etc. are on my mind at the time. And six months from now I hope to be thinking about entirely different things than I am today. That said, there are things I almost always include in a lecture. So I can say there will be sleight of hand magic, some of my favorite fixes to known tricks, a lot of information and emphasis on performance, some of my philosophy and stories from my career, and audience questions answered. I always end my lectures with a session of Q&A. Not as it is the jargon of mentalism, but just taking any and all questions from the audience and answering them as completely and as honestly as I can. Frankly, I think this should be the whole lecture, but the few occasions I’ve tried it there is a segment of the audience who leaves disappointed because there weren’t enough secrets.
And since I’ve been working on the Conover book for nearly four years now, and it’s constantly on my mind, I’m sure a little bit of Tim’s fabulous work will make an appearance in the lecture too.
Can you tell us about the Tim Conover book that you are working on?
Yes, I can. What do you want to know? As I just mentioned, I’ve been working on it seriously for almost four years. I have a family and performing career and other projects, so it can’t be a full-time job, but it has been, and continues to be my spare time labor of love. It is an awesome collection of magic and mentalism, as anyone who was lucky enough to see Tim work will attest. I am very nearly done with the writing. I hate to put time frames or make promises on things like this, because three years ago I was very confident the book would be out by now. But I hope I will be able to finish the writing completely by the end of this year. First quarter of next year at most, and that’s the final draft of the manuscript. We have shot the photographs for nine of the routines, I have two more long photo sessions of several days each scheduled this fall, we hope with that, the photos will be done. Then the design, layout, proofing, research to make sure all the references and credits are correct, etc etc etc. It’s coming. The part that my magician friends care about most, the material, is amazing. Truly. Tim was a brilliant magician.
One thing that might be a sour note for some, we are seriously considering pulling Tim’s mnemonic deck material from this project and releasing it six months or a year later as a separate book. It would be bound in the same style and be part of the set, just not come out at the same time. We may not end up doing this but it is an option on the table. Our reasoning is that Tim’s memorized deck really is a book of its own in size and scope, it will add months to the production schedule that’s spiraling out of control, and the books are already huge. Physically I mean, they are going to be big books. Another 150-200 pages under the same hard-cover just seems crazy. So we are discussing the possibility of putting out the close up magic and mentalism in two volumes as soon as we can, and then the mnemonic deck down the road a little bit. There are also many reasons not to do it this way that are compelling, so we haven’t decided.
That’s the current state of the Conover project. We are inching forward. It will prove to have been worth the wait, I assure you.
You often pay homage to your influences in magic. Who are three magicians who have influenced your work the most and why?
So many teachers, mentors, magicians who have influenced me personally and from afar. So many – Goshman, Del Ray, Richiardi, Canasta, Malini, Hofzinser, Benson, Slydini, Wonder–oh I can talk endlessly about all of them and dozens more, and why they are important to me and my magic. I have to choose just three?
Dai Vernon — I hate to go with the crowd and give the standard answer, but it’s just true. He was and continues to be a strong influence on my thinking and my magic. I am lucky enough to have actually met and spent a great deal of time with the Professor at the end of his life, and talking with him about all aspects of magic were truly formative experiences. So my belief in classic effects, natural looking and motivated actions, direct plots, and my understanding of the theatrical magical experience is largely rooted in his thinking, his books, his construction, and his kind (and often not so kind) guidance. But the most important lesson I got from my time with the professor was that magic can be a deep and serious art if you approach it as such. As important as literature, film, theater, sculpture, music or painting. He taught me magic needn’t be trivial. That if I treated magic as a high art, I could communicate that notion to smart and sensitive people through my performances. At a time in my life when I would sometimes balk at the question of “What do you do?” he made me proud to say I’m a magician.
Tamariz – Another of the now standard answers, but Tamariz is the greatest magician I’ve ever met, and arguably the most complete magician of our time. Performer, thinker, writer, historian, inventor – he does it all and at a very high level. Part of what Juan instilled in me is the desire to do miracles. Not good tricks, not surprising things that leave an audience guessing. Miracles. That difference Simon Aronson so perfectly summed up: “There is a world of difference between a spectator not knowing how something was done, versus him knowing that it cannot be done”. More than any magician I know or know of, Juan Tamariz fills audiences with the feeling that they’ve just witnessed the impossible. Flat out, “no way!” impossible miracles. And once you really get the taste for that kind of thing, well, packet tricks with lots of Elmsley counts and one odd backed card start to feel like a waste of time. (And then, just to make the point, Juan does a packet trick with an odd card and Elmsley counts, and completely blows your mind. But he’s the only one who can manage that, I’m pretty sure). Add to this the fact that he is unique in his ability to transmit this feeling of wonder to his fellow magicians. Yes, we all occasionally get fooled by tricks, but Juan can make the most jaded magician feel like a layman. Miracle Man. And he’s an absolute joy to be around.
Tim Conover — It’s not just that I was friends with Tim or that I’m working on this book. Tim exerted a huge influence on me from the moment we met way back in the 1980s. The main thing Tim did for me was to help me understand that magic is a process, and there is never an end point. The show is never finished, the individual tricks are never finished, no method is ever so good that we stop working on them, and if you’re doing the same script for this trick that you did a decade ago you’re probably not trying hard enough. To take one example: Tim had the best version of Ramsay’s Cylinder and Coins I’d ever seen. He used the Downs’ Palm and wand to conceal the coins, and so his version looked cleaner and more delicate than any other with open and empty looking hands. Never mind that placing those coins in and out of that position silently made the trick ten times harder to do, that didn’t matter to Tim. The effect for an audience was the only consideration. He performed that masterpiece for most of his career. Then one night in my hotel room he announced he had a new method for the trick and asked me to sit down across the table. What I saw then was magic. Pure, impossible magic. Gone were the beautiful sleight of hand manipulations and silent transfers of coins, and in their place a handling devoid of any hint of manipulation, so clean and pure that my eyes welled up. Understand that this was a trick he’d been doing professionally for 20 years or more, with an original and highly acclaimed method. Yet he had scrapped the entire thing and built it over again from the ground up. He did that with all his material, constantly working to improve every aspect, and never satisfied that anything was finally done. I have adopted this same attitude, that nothing is ever finished, that perfection is unattainable, and art is found in the journey, the process.
I cannot leave it at that though. I need to mention that Michael Weber’s fingerprints are all over my professional work. Not just a dear friend but perhaps my most valuable collaborator. The most brilliant creative “idea man” and problem solver in my circle of professional colleagues.
Billy McComb, Patrick Page, Paul Harris, John Carney, Chris Korn, Jamy Ian Swiss, Johnny Thompson, Al Baker, Brother Hamman, Dani DaOrtiz, David Williamson, Daryl Martinez, Bob Cassidy, Mike Skinner…and on and on and on into the sunset.
You’re one of the most versatile performers in the industry. Do you prefer close-up or parlor?
Every venue I perform in has it’s own charms and challenges. Most magicians probably aren’t aware of this, but I make most of my living on stage as a mentalist. I’ve built a really strong show of mostly classic mentalism with interesting twists, and that’s probably 70% of my professional performing work. But my preference is for close up magic. You just cannot beat the energy and excitement of people crowded closely around the performance space and in arm’s reach of the action. I spent 14 years performing close up at the Tower Comedy/Magic Bar, and became addicted to the freestyle improvisational nature of that venue. I can get some of that vibe when doing formal close up, and audiences are often more strongly affected when the magic is in their hands, right up close where they can touch it and be directly involved. Close up is where the real power is. Yes.
You began your career performing magic behind the bar. Do you miss it?
I most certainly do. Yes. Very much. The Magic Bar was like graduate school for me. Six hours a night, four nights a week for fourteen years. There is just no way to get that kind of real world performing experience without a gig like that. As measured in actual performance with real audiences there aren’t many people who can come close to my hours of flight time, and there is no situation or audience I haven’t dealt with. That kind of experience makes you feel bulletproof, and confidence is one of the most important elements audiences sense and respond to. Also, the Tower was a high energy venue where people came specifically to see the magic show. People would arrive early to get good seats, and be chanting our names before the show even started. Rowdy, ski resort bar, filled nightly with tourists from all over the world. It was intoxicating – literally and figuratively. But like many things in life, it’s important to recognize when we’ve outgrown something. I had probably learned everything the magic bar had to teach me several years before it closed, and I loved it so much I would probably still be there were I not pushed out of the nest. It was also incredibly valuable for working on new material, a place to test and refine and polish without consequence if it went badly. That’s something I don’t have anymore and really really miss. But I realize now that it was a pair of golden handcuffs. I needed to break free and do new things in order to grow as a performer. So as much as I miss it – and I get genuinely giddy every time I’m invited to do a long set behind a packed bar – I wouldn’t choose to go back.