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George Ledo
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I remember when I was starting out in magic, a long time ago, thinking that we were supposed to use tricks the way they came in the box or were described in a book. I don't have a clue why I thought so... it was like this was a magic trick and therefore this was how we were supposed to use it. Other local magicians were doing this too, especially at magic club meetings, so it seemed like a rule.

Nobody ever told me that the magic police wasn't interested in this, so I just went along with it. Until I finally figured out that there was no such rule. Duhhhh.

So, if there is no such rule, why do we still continue to use tricks the way they come in the box?

We hear so much about creativity here in the Café, yet a lot of questions are basically asking the same thing: how to use a prop the same way, only differently.

For instance, why does the dancing cane have to be a cane? If we look at the idea of the thing, it's basically a stick that floats in the air. Maybe the originator wanted to float a cane for his or her own reasons, but the principle of the thing applies to a lot of other possibilities.

Back around 1988 I was working on a routine involving a standard piece of equipment I ordered from Abbott's. It turned out the silk provided with the effect (36" square) was too large for my purposes, so I picked up the phone, called the shop, and asked if they could cut it down and re-hem it for me. The guy I spoke with didn't threaten to call the magic police: he just quoted me a price and I mailed the silk back. About two weeks later, I had my customized 27" silk and I was in business.

If I wanted to do the Dancing Cane today, I would sit back and look at the thing in terms of what it is: a floating stick. Because that's all it is: a floating stick.

Then I'd think about different kinds of sticks that could possibly float under the right circumstances: Harry Potter's broom, a Jedi Knight's weapon, a sorcerer's staff, a magician's golf club, a fallen branch from an enchanted tree, a fantasy warrior's weapon, a rifle, a snake with rigor mortis (think of the scene in "The Ten Commandments" where Moses turns his staff into a snake) -- or a curtain rod, pointer, flag staff, rolled-up poster or architectural drawing, muffler pipe, piece of thin-wall conduit, fishing pole, baseball bat, T-square, and lots of other things.

What grabs me? What fits my persona, my on-stage character, the magician I want people to think I am? Why would I have such a thing with me on stage? What kind of a story would I tell with it?

Hmmm... that's a good question: What fits the magician I want people to think I am?

In any case, the idea is the same (a floating stick), and the method is the same. But the effect can be totally different. What if the guy who came up with the floating cane had been inspired by one of today's home-makeover TV shows? Would we all be doing the floating yardstick? The floating 2x4?

Zombie is another one. I used to love doing Zombie. I did it for years. I bought the Abbott's skull silk, I started to make a case for the ball, and I traded the small silver base for a red cushion. I found just the right music. I had light cues. And so on. But what the heck was that silver ball supposed to be? I didn't have a clue. I was just doing it out of the box.

The biggest problem I've seen with Zombie is that the presentation is usually too long. The thing floats. And hides. And disappears. And reappears. And floats some more. So where's the story? Where's the punch line? As a spectator, once I get the idea that this thing floats, the novelty is worn off. I know it floats, so show me something new, or at least tell me why it's floating,

And get rid of that darn cloth, willya? Why do you need it?

There's no logical reason for that cloth (except to hide something), unless we create one. We've seen lots of variations on Zombie: a skull, a large ball, a table, a Jack-o-lantern, records and CD's, a birdcage, a light bulb, and others. But what exactly is Zombie? In its simplest form, it's a thing that floats on top of and behind a cloth. Period. If Joe Karson had been inspired while visiting an Italian restaurant, we would all have been doing the Floating Meatball for years.

So what can float on top of and behind a cloth? And why would it? What kind of a story could we build around a thing that floats behind and on top of a cloth? And why would our persona have such a thing on stage? Why is our persona showing us this story?

Okay, so let's think about this...

How about a store mannequin’s head and a scarf... a small boom box and a beach towel... a mummy's head and its wrappings -- or a book, a brandy snifter, a popover, a stuffed animal, a picture frame (there's a spooky thought...), an old bellows-type camera, a telephone, a broiled chicken, a teapot. And so on.

Hmmm... a store mannequin wearing a scarf, in a dark storage room. The performer removes the scarf, not realizing the head is now missing. It turns up behind the scarf. Some back and forth, a boy-meets-girl routine, the head flirting with the magician, all in mime. Finally he places the head back on the dummy, covers it, and it turns into a real girl. This could turn into a real story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, with conflict and resolution, some comedy, and a surprise at the very end. All done to department-store music that somehow, eerily, jives with the action. Could even have an announcement or two ("Silk scarves are now on sale on the second floor: a perfect gift for Valentine's Day").

Ideas like this come from just sitting back and thinking about a thing that floats over and behind a cloth, instead of opening the box and doing the trick per the instructions. Not all ideas are good: some are terrible, and the first pass often stinks. Ernest Hemingway himself said it very bluntly: "The first draft of anything is s**t."

But by getting enough of these ideas, letting them simmer, and working on them, we can develop fresh and exciting new approaches to magic, to using standard tricks, and to entertaining our audiences.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

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