Take Two #22: Gaëtan Bloom
In 1985 I was hired by Bob Sheets to become the Magic Bartender at the Inn of Magic in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC (formerly the Brook Farm Inn of Magic, that was to be relocating from Chevy Chase to Wheaton). After auditioning at the Brook Farm and waiting several torturous months for a decision, I was finally offered the job, and promptly told I had less than three weeks to move. Somehow, I managed it—flying to DC to take two days to find a place to live within a few minutes of the club, flying home to pack up my entire life, and enlisting the help of two friends to drive two trucks for me and my then wife (being native New Yorkers, neither of us had drivers licenses at the time) from Brooklyn, New York to Wheaton, Maryland.
The gig changed my life, performing five nights a week behind the world’s largest magic bar, with about 35 bar stools plus two-tier bleacher seating for another 150 people, and every seat was filled on most Friday and Saturday nights when I performed for the arriving crowd that would then proceed to the 350-seat dinner theater to see the stage show. It was only four years since I had changed careers, and this was my big break. I learned a lot. Bar Magic is like Street Magic, and much like Trade Show Magic as well: the battle for people’s attention, whether it’s amid alcohol, sex and music at the bar, or passersby on the street or the trade show floor, it is a battle where only the strong survive. In any of these three arenas, you either get good, or you get run over and tossed aside.
One of the many factors that helped me along was that since we had multi-act stage shows that changed about once a month, there was a constant flow of great magicians through the club, and they stuck around for a while. There were nights that felt like a non-stop magic convention, not only because of the changing stage acts, but also because of resident acts that included Bob Sheets, Scotty York, and a small slew of regular close-up workers.
One visiting magician who had a profound impact on me was the Parisian prestidigitator, Gaëtan Bloom. Although we are the same age, Gaëtan was substantially ahead of me in experience, having been performing professionally since his teens, and designing effects for film and theater since his twenties. (While I had also begun in magic in my childhood, I literally did not do my first paid magic gig until the age of 29, which had started me on the road to my third career, only a few years before moving to Maryland.)
In the few weeks that Gaëtan was performing at the Inn, we spent a great deal of time together both at the club and outside it. Gaëtan’s range of knowledge was vast, from skilled close-up magic to sophisticated mechanical stage magic, along with a seemingly boundless repertoire of incredibly inventive methods and effects of every conceivable sort. I had been privileged to grow up around many great magic performing artists in New York City. But after only Slydini, Gaëtan was probably my next encounter with true genius.
I don’t use the term lightly. I’ve known a few: Vernon, of course. Among contemporaries, besides Gaëtan, I include my great friend Tommy Wonder, and of course the maestro, Juan Tamariz. It’s rare company, and I absolute believe Gaëtan has a seat at that table, although many American magicians may be somewhat surprised at the statement, since his work is not really as well known or appreciated here as it is in his native France, and elsewhere in Europe where, for example, in 1992 he starred in a television series in Spain along with Juan Tamariz entitled Chantatachan, performing in each of the show’s 26 episodes.
Magic is a field that suffers from a paucity of “effects,” for which there are a plethora of methods. Classic theories of classifying magical effects posit the total number of basic effects as anywhere from six (Sam Sharpe) to seventeen (Winston Freer) to nineteen (Dariel Fitzkee). Experts vary in their choices; myself, I’m strictly a Sharpe follower; Gaëtan is a Freer man; and Fitzkee was just plain wrong. (A subject for another day, albeit I have written about this subject in my books.)
The reason I mention this subject however is that most advances in the art of magic occur in the performance and “presentation” side (how performers frame and interpret classical material and makes it their own), as well as on the methodological side. Those few basic effects don’t change much, but the methods are constantly being and refined, elaborated upon, and advanced.
While many magicians contribute original work in these areas, rare indeed is the magician who creates a new effect, even just now and again. And the artists who create bodies of work that include multiple original effects are rarer still. The nature of magic is such that no magician can create a body of work built entirely on original effects; even the greatest originators and inventors mix their work with the classics. Teller, of Penn & Teller, is a fine example of this, working out original variations and approaches to classic effects, while also creating innovative effects of his own distinct invention.
I’ve only known a handful of other such innovators, including Tommy Wonder and Scotty York, whose repertoires were a mix of ingenious original methods for classic effects, original approaches and innovations with classical plots; and the occasional original effect.
Gaëtan Bloom tops the list as an innovator, and I don’t know that there’s anyone around who can match him in that category. The two-volume hardbound collection of his work, Full Bloom (The Miracle Factory, 2013) comprises a staggering testimony to his creative output, containing as it does more than 150 items, covering the gamut of stage, close-up, cabaret, mentalism, and grand illusions. And the only reason the material was capable of being packed into a mere 700 pages is that most of it is described in frustratingly abbreviated descriptions drawn from lecture notes, instruction manuals, and magic journals. While the material is accompanied by the marvelous illustrations of the artist James Hodges, who illustrated most or all of Gaëtan’s publications over many years, unfortunately the descriptions were not rewritten or fleshed out to include subtleties, theory, presentation or performance, and so much of the work exists as little more than blueprints and challenges to be puzzled out by the devoted student, and as a result, many magicians have overlooked the scintillating density of ideas within those pages. But a four-page essay on creativity provides a starting guidepost to Gaëtan’s approach to generating new ideas, and anyone who makes a serious study of these books will have their brain stretched to the limit to try to imagine how one person could possibly create such an incredible array of ingenious ideas. Not to mention that any serious student can open a page almost at random and come up with a clever new routine to work on and develop that in all likelihood no one else in magic is doing. (Magicians: What exactly are you waiting for?)
But, I digress.
During Gaëtan’s 1985 stay in Maryland it seemed we never stopped talking magic every spare moment we had, and I was drunk on the sheer joy and inspiration of it. I learned a great deal from him, about everything from the Vanishing Bird Cage to the Ambitious Card. It was a non-stop magic session that fueled me almost daily.
While Gaëtan and swapped a lot of close-up magic in our down time, I also got the chance to watch his stage show many times. It was a tour de force of conjuring and comic originality. Never before—and never since—had I seen a stage act filled with moments and effects that relied on the kind of muscular and carefully engineered misdirection that is a mark of the very best close-up magic. Gaëtan’s act fooled the bloody hell out of me, night after night for a time. It was only after repeated study that I began to piece out some of the methods. And then, eventually, Gaëtan was kind enough to share some of the deeper secrets, which housed within themselves profound lessons in conjuring wisdom and brilliance.
In 1991, when I did an extended European tour (nine countries, 29 cities, 43 days…!), I concluded the tour with a two-week stay in Paris, much of which I spent crashing at Gaëtan’s then Parisian home. Despite long nights of dinners at countless fromagerie of which I would never tire, late-night drinking in Pigalle and Montmartre, daily visits to museums and magic shows alike, it seemed that most every night would end with a session, and Gaëtan showing off his latest creations. The degree of his obsessive creativity was astonishing—again, traits he shares with our mutual friends Tamariz and the late Tommy Wonder. It seemed to me at times as if his brain was a magnificent faucet that could not be turned off.
It was not long after that visit that Gaëtan would begin what would turn out to be a fifteen-year run at the world-famous Crazy Horse nightclub in Paris. There he performed a tight ten-minute act of remarkable visual and comedic magic every night, twice a night, seven nights a week. And while Gaëtan is French, and speaks several languages fluently including English, along with comedic pseudo-languages (à la Sid Caesar) that sound like German, for instance, he actually performed the Crazy Horse act primarily in Spanish, in a manner that was actually cleverly designed to be appreciated by audiences from all around the globe. You will see him performing in this manner in two videos below, and the language will not detract from the magic; if anything, its exotic and cleverly comic nature serves only to enhance the impact.
Although since that time, Gaëtan and have crossed paths only now and then at conventions and lectures, those two intense visits, decades ago now, left tremendous lasting impact that has never faded for me, either in my personal affection, or my professional esteem. Here, now, are a few examples why. Please do your part in making the most of the experience: Expand the browser, turn up the sound, and put the smart phone away for the duration. Enjoy!
Here is Gaëtan doing a guest spot on a television series entitled “Un, dos, tres” recorded in 1985, the year we met. The main routine here is a classic trick that Gaëtan has performed in many clever and different guises over the years.
This video essentially picks up in the act where the previous one concludes, but recorded several years later circa 1990s, when he was performing at the Crazy Horse, and the combination (with the preceding video) represents the core of Gaëtan’s stage act that he performed at the Inn of Magic in 1985. Please do yourself a very important kindness and do not pause this second video once you start it. There may or may not be things you will want to go back and look at again, but please watch straight through the first time—and be amazed, and delighted, as I was my first time, and many times thereafter.
While Gaëtan has, as mentioned, a gigantic repertoire of close-up magic, very little of it exists in online video (although there are several sets of instructional DVDs produced for magicians). This, however, is one of Gaëtan’s most famous creations, and justly so. I performed it for many years, having first learned it some years earlier, but then adding it to my bar repertoire after he generously taught me his full presentation (which is absent from the book) to me in 1985. I love this piece, for many reasons.
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