Magic Café Columnist
SF Bay Area
Posted: Aug 25, 2007 1:36pm
Actually, this is more about how I did do it, twice actually, although the personas were essentially the same. But a bit of history is in order first.
Back when I was a teenager, and especially in my late teens, my goal was to become a professional magician, as in start at Vegas and then go touring full-time. There are a few, funny stories about my first few stage characters.
When I was around fourteen or fifteen, and inspired by P.C. Sorcar, I developed an act named “Magic from the Land of Fantasy.” I researched Sorcar, India, the Middle East, and so forth, and built a bunch of special props. Then I had this beautiful (for the time) Nehru jacket and turban made. This was before the late 60's and early 70's when Nehru jackets became fashionable. The act was generally well received, until someone finally told me that I looked a little pale to be playing an Indian, especially since I was playing the character seriously.
That’s when I started thinking about stage personas. Sure, makeup and some coaching from a dialect coach would have helped, but something just didn’t feel right. I dropped the Sorcar outfit right then and there. Then I bought a tux with a white dinner jacket and a real, honest-to-goodness fez, made a few changes to the act, and continued on.
That went well for a while too, but one day I realized I was a fifteen-year-old kid wearing a white dinner jacket and a fez. Darn, I looked good in that outfit and I loved that fez, but it was all out of whack.
Eventually, I hit on the cards-and-doves act and it all came together for me. Things were going really well, but that was also when I decided that the backstage part was more fun than the on stage part. One of the reasons for this was that I was a very private person and didn’t want to be “on” all the time. If I had known then what I learned later, I would have stayed with it, and right now I’d probably be writing this column while on tour somewhere. I really haven’t regretted my choice, but sometimes I catch myself wishing I could turn back the clock.
Anyway, at that point in my life (right around 1969-‘70) I was a kid: a good-looking, nineteen-year-old kid who looked really sharp in white tie and tails, but who was still a kid and looked like a kid. Yet the type of magic I was doing (cards and doves a la Chavez and Pollock) was what used to be known back then as “sophisticated.” Hmmm... a little problem here. My solution was to play it lightly; I didn’t pretend to be Benny or Channing, and I totally refrained from any mannerisms or facial expressions that would make me look like I was trying to be “sophisticated” or “mysterious.” Actually, there were one or two other kids my age doing a similar act, but “playing it older,” and I always thought they came across as very arrogant. I smiled a lot, looked at the audience a lot, paused a moment when they clapped, and generally let them know I was with them, not just in front of them.
The persona I was trying to develop at the time was basically “the kid next door, who just happens to be a fantastic magician.” And it was really funny, because this was how my neighbors on both sides saw me: I was the kid in the next house, who had a VW Super Beetle, mowed the lawn, and did other stuff, but who went out and did these magic gigs with the birds.
I dropped out of magic for a number of years with college and so forth, but then found myself getting back into it in the late 1980’s. By that time the cards-and-birds act was “old news,” so I started working up a new routine blending dancing with stage manipulation. At that time I was in some dance class or other three or four nights a week, and then I’d go ballroom dancing on weekends. My old goal of going full-time pro and touring came back, but by now I knew more than back in the old days… so I started working up a new persona.
This time, since the kid had grown up, I would be “the guy next door,” who just happened to make a living as a professional magician. But even so, who was this “guy next door?”
Well, I figured I would just do the exact same thing that other entertainers have done over the years (and that movie studios used to do with stars and to a point still do), and see who I am, what I am, and what I have that I can use. Why reinvent the wheel?
So here’s what I saw. I’m about five-nine, which isn’t very tall, but still okay; however, it pretty much leaves me out of the “leading man” category, especially on stage where I can’t stand on a box or dig a trench so taller people can walk beside me and look shorter. At the time, I was in my middle thirties, which, again, was a little old for the leading man role, but also for some of the “trendy young person” types of wardrobe in fashion in the late 80’s. On the other hand, I never saw myself as a leading man or trendy dresser, so that was all okay by me.
My daily work uniform back then consisted of a suit and tie, and I had several that looked really good on me – both the “corporate pooh-bah” look and the “young professional” look. I also felt very comfortable in them, so wearing one on stage part of the time was not out of the question. In fact, it led to some interesting ideas. I also looked good in a tux and in tails (I knew this from wearing them to formal dinner dances now and then), so that was an option too. But my “at home” dress was mostly blue jeans and loafers, with either a T-shirt or a golf shirt – and that look was definitely going in the show.
That gave me three different looks that I could use in the show, still keeping within the “guy next door” persona.
Next I looked at my personality. I’ve always had a sense of humor that tends to be on the dry side. In fact, I’ve been told many times about my “deadpan delivery” and my fast comebacks. I can’t hold a candle (lit or otherwise) to Robin Williams, but occasionally I do get punchy and go on a roll. So, although the show would of course have been tightly scripted, this personality characteristic would have had to come through – and appear totally spontaneous.
Then there's another side. I spent six years in the military and several in college theater departments, so I’ve probably heard and used every cuss word imaginable, and made up a few of my own. Yet, in real life, I usually don’t like to cuss, so when something bad happens I’ll usually just stand there with this look on my face – which is funny too, because people who know me have a very good idea of what I’m saying internally. This gave me a few ideas, like to have this “moment” now and then when something goes wrong and I stand there wanting to let go and knowing I can’t. I could see this tying very well into the “guy next door” character if I developed it slowly over a period of time.
The funny thing about this is that stagehands do tend to use a lot of foul language… which just reminded me of a funny story.
One day years ago, when I was at the architectural firm, I visited a job site. It was winter, so I was in my suit and trench coat, and carrying a roll of drawings and binder, looking like the “architect” with a capital A. I happened to poke my head in a room where some of the drywall guys were taking a break, just chatting casually among themselves, and let’s just say that their language would have impressed my old drill sergeant. I didn’t think anything of it and just went on my way, but a few steps later this one young guy came over to apologize for the language: he hadn’t seen me, and so forth and so on. So I looked at him deadpan, and very quietly said something like, yeah, watch your (colorful qualifier) mouth, ‘cause I’m a (colorful qualifier) gentleman.
He looked at me, very still, and a moment later said, oh, okay, and went back. A few moments later I heard howls from inside the room.
Needless to say, every time I went back to the job site after that, I was one of the good guys.
See, this is the type of thing where I get inspiration!
But back to creating a persona...
At the time this all happened (which was long before I met Donna), I was thinking in terms of a two-person act to begin with. So I was looking for a singer-dancer with some background in gymnastics, a dry but wicked sense of humor, and a girl-next-door, laid-back personality. I didn't want an “assistant” or a box jumper: I wanted somebody who would be the other half of the act even if she didn't actually do any magic as such.
I never found her, but the interaction I was visualizing helped define my own persona even more. I'm an Aries, so I tend to be impulsive and stubborn, among other endearing qualities. She would balance me there, bringing a sense of calm and reason to the act. She would also add physical charm, balancing out the fact that I'm “the guy next door” and don't always think in terms of looking sharp. I could see her doing little things on stage like surreptitiously straightening out my bow tie – which is a stretch from reality, because, when I wear a tux, I like to use a real bow tie (not the pre-tied kind), and am very fastidious about how it looks.
Anyway, there's a lot more to this whole story of how I was going about defining my persona, but I don't want to rattle on and on. I know you get the idea: I started with who I was and what I was, and went from there. But the interesting thing here was that, once that persona was clearly established for the audience, I could play different “characters” in the show, such as the “sophisticated cards-and-doves magician,” and still keep everything consistent.
I mentioned somewhere in a thread that Red Skelton was a master at this, and Jackie Gleason was very good at it too. We watched their shows (some of us older folks, anyway) knowing that underneath Freddie the Freeloader or Joe the Bartender was this very likable real person who was there to entertain us.
If you have any thoughts on this article, or want to suggest some topics you'd like to see me cover in my column, feel free to PM me.
That's Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine
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