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Scott Wells
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Houston, TX
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Profile of Scott Wells
I have tried a variety of methods of both accepting and rejecting tips. My friend Charles Greene III used to say he refused tips because he didn’t want to accept anything, say even $20, for 10 minutes at someone’s table. When they call about a show and you quote a price that’s multiples of that for an hourly rate, they gasp. The patron (potential client) then says, “Wow, we were expecting maybe $50 or $100 but what you’re quoting is too much for our budget.” In other words, you are creating a financial expectation by accepting ANY size tip. Even if they tip you $100 or more for 10 minutes at their table, you may be severely “under-quoting” them when (and if) they call. As I said, Charles SAID he didn’t accept tips and he preached that in his lectures, but in reality…well…money does talk.

I understand this philosophy but I don’t subscribe to it. I believe it would be rude not to accept tips. Moreover, in the American culture, tipping is expected practically every time you open your wallet: the barber, the valet, the hotel maid, the waiter, etc. Even wandering mariachis get tips in restaurants (though my hidden thought is they are being paid to leave your table). This tipping convention is not practiced in many countries outside the U.S. such as England and Australia. The audiences are appreciative, but not “financially responsive,” if you will.

When I lived in Omaha and replaced Pat Hazel at his restaurants as he left for Los Angeles, I used to have a pin attached to my close-up pad saying, “I Accept Tips”. My thought was (and is) that most people, a) have not seen a magician perform live in a close-up situation, and b) they don’t know the convention for tipping an entertainer e.g. how much. Although it was a bold statement, it was not immediately obvious because I had a stack of napkins on top of the button. It was not revealed until part way into my routine when I picked up the napkins to do a trick. Also the tip money wasn’t on the table or in my pocket. I laid them flat under my mat on top of the table. I guess I should add that I actually carried around a tri-fold rabbit table (perfect for “table hopping”…get, it? forget it) that was the same height as the tables at the restaurant. My close-up pad was laid on top of that.

Anyway, as people gave me tips, then I lifted the close-up pad from the front to (not too) subtly show the tips I have received then added their tips to the rest. This was particularly effective if someone from a previous table came over to me to deliver a tip. I would stop, thank them, lift the pad and place their tip along with the rest of the bills. The current audience would see that indeed tips are accepted.

One of the reasons I carried around a table was so I had my own performing area. I did not have to intrude on their table space or ask them to make room for my magic. Also, when I was finished, I could make a hasty getaway to avoid any awkward moment while they were fishing in their pockets for money to tip the magician. I used to feel funny about that. I could then move my “mess” that was left on my table and retire to the side or corner of the restaurant to clear my table and reset for the next group.

For the last several years I have been working at a restaurant with a hot grill (like a Benihana where the chefs prepare your food in front of you.) I have a special table that sits up off the grill. I have a business card holder sitting in the bottom right corner of the pad. As I receive tips, I fold them in half and put them under the business card holder. This does two things, a) by folding the bills, it appears that I have more bills under there and people don’t want to appear cheap so they give bigger tips, and b) they see when I walk up to the table that I obviously accept tips. They now know a) tipping the magician is acceptable, and b) the bills under the card holder give them a “gauge” of how much they should tip.

On this latter point, I only leave fives, tens and twenties on the table. I always, always pocket the ones. If you leave out the ones, then people won’t feel cheap if they, too, tip you a buck or two.

I should mention here that I “stock the till” or “prime the pump” with bills before I ever approach my first table. This is not dissimilar from bartenders or piano players who put out a tip jar with money already in it. But here is a little tip I use: the bills I use as seed are phony. I have a fake five, ten and twenty folded and glued together to look like a scattering of bills. This gives the patrons the indication that that is what others have tipped me. More importantly, if I leave my table to work in the sushi bar from my pockets, I’m not leaving real money on my table for someone to come by and steal while my back is turned. So, when I leave my table unattended, I put the real money in my pocket and leave the fake bills under the business card holder. I want people to take my business cards, but I don’t make change.

It is true that people are more likely to pay for something tangible they receive. In other words, magic, like music, is intangible and is ephemeral. You can’t take it home. You can only carry home the experience and memories. But if you leave them with something…anything such as a balloon sculpture, fortune telling fish, a napkin rose, even a signed playing card…anything that has a perceived value, then they are more apt to pay you for that “gift”. You can find inexpensive trinkets at party supply warehouses and dollar stores. You will receive multiples of your cost when you give out these “gifts” at the end of your show.

Some say to finish with a bill trick so the money is left on the table. I tried that, but I felt as if I was begging for their money or holding them up and causing an embarrassing situation. I now do two things: first, before my last trick I state that I am going to leave their table and I hope they enjoyed my magic and the restaurant but I am about to do my last trick. This gives them a signal to reach in their pockets now rather than fumbling at the last second. It also gives them time to actually think about how much they want to tip me rather than making a rash decision. If they don’t have time to think, they will often tip with ones. But if they have time to think and look at what others have tipped (by seeing the bills under my business card holder), then they are more likely to tip with larger bills.

Secondly, my last trick will often end with stuff all over my table. Perhaps there are cards spread out, napkins torn, small props left on the table, etc. So when there is a clear ending with my magic and I say thank you, I begin to clean up the table. I put the cards back in the box, pick up the trash, and generally reset my table and pockets for the next table. This takes no more than about 10 seconds but is long enough not to make it awkward for anyone but enough time for people to put cash on my table. And if I am distributing giveaways, like Fortune Telling Fish to all the little kids, or twisting a napkin into a rose, that gives them even more time and incentives to tip me with a five or larger.

As I have refined my methods, I have noticed that my take-home pay has steadily and seriously increased. I don’t think my magic has improved proportionate to the tips but I believe my tips have improved as I feel more comfortable about accepting them.

I have always felt that people are more likely to tip you and tip you well if you take a natural, more nonchalant attitude of appearing to not care if or how much they give you. Indeed, tips are not indicative of your value but are a nice way of thanking you for the time you give people.

And that’s what we’re all about…giving people a great time.
"A magician who isn't working is only fooling himself." - Scott Wells, M.I.M.C. with Gold Star

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