Out of the resurgence of novelty acts on “America’s Got Talent”, you can almost be assured that at least several magicians will make it into the finalists each year. Last year, we saw several, including a teenager by the name of Collins Key who probably made the mistake of using a complicated name that people on Google accidentally pluralize. It seems he was the new face of magicians in America, even if it seemed to be decidedly male if perhaps a bit of a throwback to the old close-up magicians of the past who took their time with a trick.
As far as the life of a professional magician, I have some firsthand experience since my dad worked as one for years. My mom worked as his assistant part of the time, though didn’t continue forever due to holding down another busy career. But I grew up seeing how the inside of the business works, even if my birth might have prevented them from reaching the cusp of national exposure. Nevertheless, I learned how organized you have to be in that business and how many things can potentially go wrong if you don’t pay attention to details.
It’s one reason I can more or less guess what’s going on behind the scenes whenever a magician (or magician team) perform on “America’s Got Talent.” I also notice that some things don’t seem to change when it comes to magic, including continuing the male dominance and back to more traditional tricks that were done long ago.
The Male Dominance and Female Assistant Trend
There was a time for a while when more women were starting to break through in the magic industry. However, that seems to have waned in more recent years as the decades-long male dominance took over again. At the heart of it is the tradition of the female being the assistant, who I can tell you does much more of the hard work than the actual magician does. If you had to fit into some of those illusion apparatuses, you’d see why some of them end up with back pain later in life. When seeing a magician’s assistant today, though, it seems to be playing up old stereotypes that go back to the days when Houdini and his wife, Bess, dominated stages around the world.
If the married teams usually work the best, the Vegas magician persona has taken over in America where the female assistant is just hired and told to be the “victim” in a lot of the illusions depicting decapitation or torture. Rarely do you see a husband-wife magic team where the female is the lead magician and the assistant is the husband. Occasionally you’ll find one like that in local cities and towns, yet none become nationally famous.
On “America’s Got Talent”, you’ll see plenty of the standard Vegas magician husband-wife teams, some who work alone, and even the rare all-male team-ups akin to Siegfried & Roy. In recent years, the magic business has gone full circle to a point where everything old seems new again, including the tricks.
Making Old Tricks Look Fresh
David Blaine has been the true master of taking old magic tricks that have been on the market for years and making them seem new and different. Because most of the people on the streets he visits likely haven’t seen those tricks before, the reactions become all the more intense. Also, with Blaine’s subtle performance twists, it turns something old into something brilliantly new. The same goes for many of the card and mental tricks you see from magicians on “America’s Got Talent.”
All of the mental tricks Collins Key did on “Talent” last season were basic tricks that have been around for years, with some modern twists to make them look contemporary. And he was smart to do the mental tricks, because those seem to be the most popular today. This isn’t to say the big Vegas illusion shows still aren’t doing well based on how many magicians have million-dollar shows along the Vegas strip. This includes David Copperfield who still does his grandiose and eye-popping illusions to sellout crowds there every night.
Eventually, some magician will audition on “America’s Got Talent” that reinvents the magician persona and brings a gender reversal, plus new creative ideas. Some ultimately try, yet come off as being either too crude or offbeat to capture a mainstream audience. Since my parents came from the traditional school, it’s good to see traditions come back again after a time of more experimentation in the 1980s and 1990s.
As with the movie industry, however, there seems to be a male club that keeps certain gender restrictions going generation after generation. Attempting to change it is going to take someone who goes dramatically against the rules, which some of the household names in magic inevitably have in other ways.