I’m often asked by the public to name my favorite magicians. And typically my first response is to explain that they would be hard pressed to name more than three or four magicians to me, and those will start with Houdini and end with several TV performers of the past 40 years or fewer. The point being that anyone I name will be unfamiliar to them.
And this is even truer when it comes to professional close-up magicians, because the very best in the world are generally making their living performing at corporate or private events that are rarely if ever advertised to the public, or perhaps performing in an intimate venue like a high-end restaurant or lounge. And yes, I do mean the best in the world.
One of the greatest close-up magicians I’ve ever known was my friend, Michael Skinner, a living legend in his own time who performed several times on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. But Michael earned most of his living as the resident performer at Lilly Langtry’s, an upscale Chinese restaurant and steakhouse in the Golden Nugget Las Vegas casino and hotel, where for many years Michael was retained at the personal direction of owner and legendary Vegas entrepreneur, Steve Wynn. Other than those couple of fabulous appearances on the Carson show, how would anyone outside of the magic world have known that the man doing card tricks at their table was a world-class performer?
Truth be told, when today’s international superstar Derren Brown’s first TV special aired in the UK, he was still performing close-up magic at a local restaurant!
I’ll visit the work of Michael Skinner and Derren Brown in the future. Today I want to talk just a bit about my longtime friend, Eugene Burger. One of the most influential performers, writers, lecturers and teachers, of and about close-up magic in the past thirty years, Eugene made his living for many years performing at private and corporate events. Based in Chicago, he also performed regularly at a number of upscale restaurants and lounges over the years, as a way to showcase his work. (Today he devotes much of his time and energy serving as dean of the McBride Magic & Mystery School in Las Vegas.)
I’ve written a great deal about Eugene’s work over the years, and we’ve been friends since we met in November of 1984. I had read his first booklet, Secrets and Mysteries for the Close-up Entertainer upon its release in 1982, which was just around the time I was changing careers to become a professional magician, and that little book changed my work and my life. I am fond of all of Eugene’s works, but the collection of his early booklets, gathered in one volume as Mastering the Art of Magic, is a remarkable manual for the performance of close-up magic, as distinct from other branches of magic, and I recommend it to all of my students. That having been said, this isn’t an essay about Eugene Burger as writer, thinker, and teacher. Rather, this is about performance. And so I’ve found two videos to consider, each of which offers a valuable perspective on his work.
Remember, magic is a performing art meant to be experienced live. Recorded media does magic poor justice, so make your best attempt to make this performance into an experience: Pause your multi-tasking, turn up the volume, expand the browser … and really WATCH.
Eugene Burger performs behind the bar
Eugene Burger is one of the world’s finest professional close-up magicians. He combines powerful, clear magical effects with a multi-faceted persona. As the publisher of his first book described him, Eugene has the appearance of “a slightly malevolent Santa Claus” (a description I once invoked when sending a non-magician friend to pick him up at the airport), a hypnotically appealing baritone voice, an endearing Chicago accent, and an engagingly playful approach to his interactions with the audience—all this, along with a serious (“serious, but not solemn,” as Derren Brown has often quoted Eugene) commitment to the power of magic, and as well to the use of performance art as a revelation of self. This delivers a textured performance and a layered experience for his audiences, and I’ve chosen this sample because indeed, here is one of the world’s greatest magicians, performing (years ago) behind the bar for patrons at an upscale Chicago lounge. Here you can see how Eugene is very much a “people person,” who uses magic as a form of adult play. This is real close-up magic.
The Burnt & Restored Thread
Eugene was once an instructor at the Yale Divinity School, before he changed careers (like me, if memory serves, at the age of 29). He is unafraid to address serious subjects in his work, which give his performances breadth and texture. Yet despite the misperception of many magicians, he uses stories—narrative stories, such as this one—extremely rarely in his work, a wise choice that students would do well to keep in mind. Not every magic trick requires a story—and indeed, more are damaged by excessive, self-indulgent narratives than are enhanced, and what magicians call “presentation” is, in the end, intended to enhance and to clarify magic, not muddy or weigh it down. That said, this is a perfect example of the use of story and metaphor in magic, accompanying a classical effect in a manner that authentically reflects the artist performing it. And what makes this story particularly effective, I would suggest, is not the writing (effective as it may be), but the editing. Art is about making choices, and more often than not, the most important choices are of what the artist decides to leave out. Given Eugene’s background, he could easily conduct a class of many hours talking about Hindu mythology. Instead, he manages to construct just eight magnificent sentences. And so, less is more – and truly, Eugene leaves us, “pleased with his eternal play.”