Take Two #40: David Williamson
In 1985, shortly after I moved to the Washington D.C. vicinity to be the Magic Bartender at the Inn of Magic, another magician at the club, John Ekin, introduced me to a local working pro named David Williamson. As we shook hands, I said, “Striking Vanish, right?” which I had learned from Michael Ammar’s 1981 booklet, Encore II. David seemed almost embarrassed that I knew the reference, and shyly minimized his invention. I reiterated my appreciation for his original sleight.
At the time, David was performing regularly at a local dinner theater, doing close-up magic at tables at the start of the evening, during dinner and before the stage show. Indeed, restaurants served as the laboratory where he developed much of his signature repertoire, including his two-cup routine for the Cups and Balls, which won him the prestigious national IBM Gold Cups award in 1981.
But while he may have created and refined his repertoire in restaurants and at the dinner theater, his character and style at the time was not entirely unlike the shy, quiet fellow who had demurred when I complimented him for an original creation. He was soft spoken and gently humorous, belying his lanky, outsized six-foot-six frame.
It seemed to me that would all become notably altered when in 1986 he went to work as a demonstrator for Magic Masters, a small chain of high-end retail magic outlets that had begun in Atlanta and expanded to a handful of other airports, Amtrak stations and hotel retail stands around the country. Magic Masters was not so much a magic shop as it was a pitch store—albeit gorgeously appointed in wood and glass—selling primarily to tourists and traveling professionals and business people with money to spare for an appealing impulse sale. The catalog was extremely limited, and all of the salesmen—pitchmen, more accurately—learned essentially the same entertaining pitch routine for a small selection of high volume, high-priced, quality neo-classic tricks. (Indeed, I dropped those tricks from my repertoire as Magic Masters prevalence and visibility expanded during that period.) The founder and owner, Ken Fletcher, was an experienced magic hand, and he handpicked young professional performers who could be turned into effective salesmen.
One of the core items in the Magic Masters pitch catalog—their number one item in fact—was a spring-loaded furry animal puppet of sorts called Rocky the Raccoon. It was an old idea—I had bought a skunk version from Tannen’s magic as a boy—but in the hands of David Williamson (and an early predecessor, another talented pro named Jeff Justice), the little animal came to life and became a spectacular comedy prop. As David would recount in a 2013 interview, two top Magic Masters salesmen, Dennis Sowers and Mike Abston, would teach him how to handle Rocky.
Along with developing his own Rocky routine, my impression was that Williamson’s character was somehow unchained from his previously retiring nature, and by the time he quit the retail job a couple of years later, he was on his way to becoming the most uniquely improvisational comedy performer in the entire world of magic. (Then again, confluence not always coinciding with causality, I could very well be mistaken in drawing this connection.) He would subsequently become known for his incredible comic spontaneity, which can at times overshadow his prodigious conjuring talents. He has sometimes been dubbed “the Robin Williams of magic,” and that simply reflects a complimentary and desperate attempt to find someone and something to compare him to, in the face of his unarguably incomparable performances. At a magic convention show I once saws him pick up a kid from the audience, wrap him around his neck, and, as he made his way back to the stage thus decorated, declare, “Act like a mink!”
And outside a major magic convention in the early ‘90s in Washington, I was lucky enough to be present when a local TV reporter came by to do what she likely figured would be a cute if trite little story on the magic gathering. She was mildly patronizing and clueless and pushy (shocking, I know) and she found herself in for much more than she had bargained for when David did a card trick for her. It quickly became the most hilarious, physical, and virtually unrecognizable take I've ever seen on Dai Vernon's "Fingerprint Trick," and it all but terrified the reporter, while the rest of us were left breathless and choking with laughter. Truly unforgettable.
In 1989 I was working a magic convention in Japan, along with the marvelous magician, Daryl (Take Two #14) and Williamson, and at breakfast in the hotel, Daryl—one of the most charming and delightful performers I ever knew—asked David, “How did you do it? How did you manage to cut yourself loose like this?” David didn’t have a clear answer, and Daryl shook his head in puzzlement. “I wish I could do that, I wish I could be that loose.” I found it wondrous to see this conversation between two extremely accomplished and admired performers. How could Daryl, of all people, be frustrated and mystified as a performer?
Since then, David Williamson has gone on to many more achievements, not the least of which include multiple Academy of Magical Arts (Magic Castle) awards as Close-up Magician of the Year, Parlour Magician of the Year, Lecturer of the Year (having twice won each of the three categories), and a Performing Fellowship as well. Professionally he has made countless television appearances around the world, hosted “The Magic Comedy Strip” series in the UK, and performed in the World Tour of “The Illusionists Live” touring Australia and Europe.
Sometimes genius can become so familiar, we take it for granted; familiarity may not always breed contempt, but it can lead to complacency. It’s been awhile since I last saw David perform, but last week in Las Vegas I went to see “Circus 1903,” a touring circus show that is currently a resident production at the Paris Hotel & Casino. David Williamson performs as the ringmaster of the show, and he is—as ever—hilarious, delightful, and amazing. He still has Rocky with him, this time with no less than four tiny children out of the audience, an act, at least from my perspective, far more dangerous than any lion or tiger act. I thoroughly enjoyed the show, and spending a bit of time with David before and afterwards.
David has come a long way from doing close-up and card magic at restaurant tables, and winning close-up magic contests and awards. Today he plays on a world stage. Along the way he produced a best-selling book of magic back in 1989 that remains profoundly influential in the magic world today—not because it included lengthy essays on theory or detailed examinations of performance craft, but because the cut-and-dried descriptions of his core repertoire included a handful of tricks that have since become neo-classics among working close-up magicians of every stripe, from restaurant workers to television superstars.
I remember that day in Nagoya, Japan, after Daryl and David and I finished out breakfast, and we went for a walk. Standing at a street corner, waiting for the light to change, I turned to the two of them—it was my first time in Japan—and said, “Can you believe that we are standing here on a street corner half way round the world—because we do nice card tricks?”
David Williamson’s done pretty well with his card tricks, and much more. He’s one of my favorite performers in all of magic, and he might be about to become one of yours.
As mentioned, although David Williamson has gone very far in his successful career, he began as a fine, and eventually award-winning, close-up magician. He is, in reality—although it’s easy to forget this when watching him, because of the size and scope of his performance and persona—a spectacularly skilled sleight-of-hand artist. This trick, developed decades ago in his work as a close-up magician, remains a staple of his repertoire—and since it was described in that book back in 1989, has become a staple of countless magicians’ repertoires around the world today. It’s only fitting that you get to see it here performed, and fairly recently, by the master magician who created it.
Here’s an offbeat but fine example of how a unique performer takes a classic magical routine and makes it truly his own in every way imaginable.
In recent years, David has been a featured performed on Disney Cruises. One of David’s greatest strengths, in addition to his indescribable spontaneity, is his ability to work with children. He looks to get four- and five-year-olds up on stage with him, and the results are invariably spectacular. Here’s a stellar example, with a routine he is featuring in “Circus 1903,” and co-starring his longtime collaborator, Rocky Raccoon.
As a bonus, here’s a feature story about “Circus 1903,” which shows off some of the acts, and features David in his persona as Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade.
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