Take Two #4: Lance Burton

November 18, 2016

As I write this I am on a train returning to San Diego from a brief trip to Los Angeles, where last night I attended the premiere of the documentary feature film, “Magicians: Life in the Impossible,” produced and directed by my friend Marcie Hume and Christoph Baaden.

One of the film’s associate producers was my longtime friend Lance Burton, and an added surprise and pleasure of the evening was that Lance and I both met up with Marcie at the Magic Castle at about 4:00 pm, and Lance I got spend most of the evening together, before and after the screening, talking shop and sharing memories –  “cutting up jackpots” as my carnie pals like to say. Later that night over dinner, at one point Lance said, “I’ve never understood the idea of someone phoning in their act. When you’re doing a show twice a night, don’t you realize that someone who came from far away and bought a ticket just to see you, that’s the one time they might ever get to see you, and if you don’t do the very best show you can, that guy is gonna go home and say, ‘That Lance Burton, he sucked.’  You can’t let that happen. I gave every show I did everything I had.” This reminded me of so much that I loved about Lance’s work, and inspired me to devote today’s Take Two to this man’s work and legacy.

Lance is simply one of the greatest magicians of our era, who in 1982 won the most prestigious international prize in magic – the FISM “Grand Prix” award (he was the youngest to ever win it and the first American to do so) – and went on to star in his own show (and theater) at the Monte Carlo Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas from 1994 to 2010. The show was a great favorite of mine and I had the pleasure of seeing it many times, and bringing along many friends over the years.

One of the great features of Lance’s stage show, that set it apart from any of the other big illusion spectacles in Las Vegas, was the fact that Lance opened it with a segment of pure sleight-of-hand magic, drawn from the act that initially made him famous. By opening with a few moments of that kind of magic, Lance quickly established himself as much more than a guy who put women in boxes; rather, he was clearly a true master of the art, and this set the stage for the rest of the show.

Lance Burton: The Act

I could easily write several thousand words about what made Lance, and his work, so distinctive (and I also did a lengthy interview with him in Genii magazine years ago). For this edition of Take Two I want to feature his signature silent act – what magicians call “manipulative magic” or simply, “manipulation.” The core of the act was done with silk scarves, candles, playing cards, and live doves, and Lance’s skills with these elements are literally unsurpassed. Another day down the road we will look at his few most important and influential precedents, but for today, let’s just look at Lance and his act.

This is the act that I first saw Lance perform live at the Tannen’s Jubilee in October of 1981 in upstate New York, the same year he won the Gold Medal at the IBM (International Brotherhood of Magicians) national convention. He then performed at the annual It’s Magic show in Los Angeles, where he was spotted by the bookers for The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Carson was an enthusiastic amateur magician, and when Lance came to the studio for the run-through, in a now legendary story, after struggling with the producer about how to cut the act for time, Carson himself watched the act and insisted that Lance do the entire ten-minute performance.

That spot is available when you purchase the Tonight Show DVDs, but is not online in its entirety. However, the six-minute performance below is the entire act absent the closing routine of the Floating Ball. There is no speech in this kind of act, there is no literal narrative here, and admittedly, this style of magic can often seem banal and rather pointless. But Teller, in House of Mystery: The Magic Science of David P. Abbott (2005, The Miracle Factory), writes that, “The creation of beautiful things is really the only reason on earth for producing silks. … there are times in magic when we can give priority to the simple contemplation of beauty.”

As I often caution viewers: Please, take these six minutes and put aside your multi-tasks, put down the smart phone, expand the browser window to the max, turn up the sound, and contemplate magic that is truly beautiful and, dare I say, enchanting.


Lance Burton: The Cups & Balls

Lance – much like Teller – has pretty much been a stage magician all his life. Surely, every magician begins by learning “pocket tricks,” but some gravitate to stage magic very early in the game, and some find early on that this is their medium and they stick with it from there, even if they find themselves doing a little professional close-up magic for a time along the path. And Lance could always do a bit of small magic if called upon, as after all, he is a sleight-of-hand artist first and foremost: a manipulator par excellence, before he began to enlarge his shows in Las Vegas with the addition of grand illusions.

But when Lance did a series of four network television specials, he elected to include some segments of very high quality close-up magic. With the assistance of Lance’s and my mutual friend and mentor, John Thompson, Lance put together a number of beautiful close-up segments. This one features Lance performing the magical classic, the Cups and Balls, for which I also lent an infinitesimal bit of assistance when Lance, John and I worked on elements of the routine together for an evening at John’s home. It’s interesting to note that stage manipulators often have a hard time executing some of the particular kinds of naturalistic sleight-of-hand necessary for close-up magic, but Lance was a strikingly quick study the night we worked together on some of these techniques. I like Lance’s performance here as well as his personality, as his genuineness and nice guy nature comes across readily and effectively.


Lance Burton: Roller Coaster Escape

While on the subject of Lance’s television specials, here’s an optional viewer bonus for you. Let’s face it: most of these big escapes and “dangerous” mega-tricks that magicians use to conclude television specials are rarely particularly convincing or thrilling. But I think this one is an exception. Created with the help of John Thompson (who is the world’s top magic consultant, having worked with countless magicians around the world, and who has been a steady consultant to Penn & Teller for more than twenty years), I think this escape has some real tension to it, but also, it probably has the best concluding reaction by the performer to any such stunt I’ve ever seen.


On another note...

I mentioned the new documentary, debuting this week, Magicians: Life in the Impossible. The film tells the stories of four professional magicians, and offers a sometimes comical, sometimes terribly serious, contemplation of the lives of these professional performers and their devotion to their art. I highly recommend the film to you, and you can get it now on iTunes, which includes a lot of additional special material (including some interview time with yours truly), although it can also be streamed via Amazon Prime. 


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