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Dale Harney &
The Magic Palace
by David Ben | An excerpt from Magicol No. 191
The most successful performers wear many hats, and perhaps no hat is more important than that of entrepreneur. It doesn’t take long for a performer, particularly one who does a full evening show, to become a producer, the person who organizes and mounts the production. So, having toured extensively, and having performed on numerous television variety shows, Dale Harney thought it was high time to pitch a television network on his own weekly television show—The Magic Palace.
Dale pitched his program, a weekly half-hour television program of magic, to a Calgary television station, one that was part of the Global Television Network. Global Television started in 1974 as the first new television network in Canada in years. A hodge-podge of local stations, it went bankrupt within thirty days. Allan Slaight, lifelong magic enthusiast (and, at that time, budding broadcasting entrepreneur) took it out of bankruptcy, and turned the fortunes of the network around. He sold his interest in the network in the mid-seventies to his partners.
The program was pitched as a co-production. Dale would assemble the talent and host the show. Each episode featured two guest artists and Dale. In turn, the station would provide the crew and pay the performers’ fees. Each act was given $1,200 for appearing on the program on a “buy-out,” plus travel to and accommodation in Calgary for the taping.
This all occurred in an era before the use of mobile phones and emails. So Dale, who was out on the road touring, as usual, telephoned the station every few weeks to find out if any decision had been made regarding his pitch. Much to his surprise, while Dale was in Chicago, the station said that it was a go. Not only was it a go, the station also wanted to begin shooting in two months.
There was a lot to organize. And with Dale on the road, he needed help. While in Chicago, Dale turned to John Shirley. Dale had first seen Shirley on the The Ed Sullivan Show. In the intervening years, Shirley became a talent agent in Chicago. It was settled; Dale engaged Shirley to be the talent coordinator for The Magic Palace. In addition, Shirley negotiated all of the fees with the individual performers.
The production process was always the same. The magicians were flown to Calgary and accommodated at the International Hotel. Dale and Lynda would greet the performers at the hotel and, along with the director, have the performer run through his act so that they could discuss how it should be shot for television. When the performer required an assistant, Lynda would play the part. She would learn what was required (especially the blocking) from the performer, right there and then in the hotel room.
At the time, videotapes were massive reels and quite expensive. Video was also extremely difficult and time-consuming to edit. So the goal would be to record each performance just once, and have those performances presented in front of a live, studio audience. Even though Dale had a director on board, more often than not he would be the de facto director. He was acutely aware of angle requirements for filming magic for television and when, or when it wasn’t, advisable to cut to another camera angle in order to preserve the integrity of the effect for both the performer and the audience.
After the first year, a new talent co-ordinator came on board: John Thompson. It was the first time Thompson had served any production in this manner. Thankfully, armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of show business, and the contacts to match, he was a perfect choice for the job. In particular, John had a great relationship with the resident performers at the Magic Castle, and he brought them in to Calgary with regularity to tape the The Magic Palace.
The roster of artists who appeared on the show represents a Who’s Who of magicians of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, many of whom are regarded as past masters, or today’s living legends. They include, (alphabetically) Allan Ackerman, Don Alan, Steve Baker, Pete Biro, Harry Blackstone Jr., Mike Caldwell, Mike Caveney, Bruce Cervon, Bill Chaudet, Daniel Cross, Daryl, Bob Downey, Ricky Dunn, Glenn Falkenstein (and Francis Willard), Karrell Fox, Al Goshman, Paul Harris, Bob Higa, Ricky Jay, George Johnstone, Chuck Jones, Mark Kalin & Lynda, Kirk Kirkham, Jules Lenier, Nick Lewin, Jay Marshall, Max Maven, Billy McComb, Charlie Miller, Harry Monti, Martin Nash, Earl Nelson, Patrick Page, Peter Pit, Jack Pyle, Marvin Roy, Dale Salwak, Ron Wilson, Dick and Diana Zimmerman, and many others. John Shirley also performed, as did Johnny Thompson. Thompson, in particular, performed numerous sets as both himself and as the Great Tomsoni.
Dale also performed on each show, acting as the host and bridge between acts. His magic was dictated by the circumstances. He literally posted cue cards on a corkboard, one for each act, listing what the act performed. He would then rearrange the cards, pairing performers for each show like he was pairing fine wine with individual courses. He would also factor in what was required to complete the show. Although his own performance repertoire was quite broad, he often had to learn a new effect for each new show.
Sometimes, particularly with new material, mistakes would creep in—the kind of mistake that a television director would have no hesitation to include, as stopping to reshoot could throw off a tight production schedule. As such, when Dale knew something was not up to his standards, he used a creative technique to ensure that the cameras would stop, and that the piece would be reshot. How? He would simply turn his head slightly away from the audience and swear into his microphone. The live audience would not hear the expletive, but the audio engineer sure did. The recording immediately stopped in order to reshoot the trick and take out the offending word, thus giving Dale second chance to perform the piece perfectly. It is a testament to Dale’s professionalism that he seldom had to resort to this ruse.
Most importantly, the show was a hit. Over ninety-six half-hour episodes were filmed, and it wasn’t the only series Dale had in production at the time. He was also hard at work on Lynsky and Company, a children’s show featuring Dale performing magic, Lynda singing and playing a couple of songs, and a mascot—Ralph, the dog—that got in the way of everything. Some 130 half-hour episodes of this program were also recorded. So, at peak production, Dale and Lynda would shoot three Lynsky and Company programs in the morning, meet the guest performers of The Magic Palace in the afternoon, work through the transitions, and then tape a Magic Palace episode that evening in front of the live audience.