Imagine my delight at being able to interview one of my heroes. Even better, seeing him perform magic tricks on the hop, via Skype. This definitely made my day. However, behind all the mystery, the performance and the glamour, there is an industry where the people involved are never able to relax,
“If you’re a magician, you’re always a magician. 24/7.”
Jeff Mcbride is one of the stalwarts of the magic industry. He has been leaving audiences stumped in theatres and stadiums, in front of their televisions, via skype and in person for decades and it seems like there is no intention of him ever stopping.
“I’ve just finished a tour that’s taken me to China and to Europe,” he opens up, “And it included two very differently styled shows. In Europe I arrived with my show in my hand luggage and for China, my show arrived in a container full of illusions and is a ten-person event involving dancers, big screens, giant illusions and a helicopter!”
Our Skype conversation was briefly interrupted when a sudden torrent of playing cards came cascading out of his mouth.
He apologised, explaining, “That happens sometimes.”
MAGIC IS FOR EVERYONE
Jeff is busy. When he isn’t touring the world, performing, his schedule is packed into 30-minute blocks covering everything from interviews to private training sessions and even teaching an entire school of magicians, via Skype. Before our interview, he revealed he had already had five training sessions.
“I have a magic school in Las Vegas and when I am off the road, I do Skype classes. We have different classes, for different types of magicians at different levels. We also have classes for people who want to learn magic for other reasons.” Jeff says.
I enquired what he meant by ‘other reasons’, and he explained that throughout his career, he has found uses for magic in so many facets of life beyond mere entertainment.
“Magic and the art of illusion has uses everywhere,” he exclaims, while making a glass orb float in front of him, “We teach card magic for business people wanting to leave a lasting impression on clients. We teach techniques to speakers and presenters to give them the fundamentals to keeping a crowd’s attention and we teach doctors how to use magic in therapy, to build on a patient-doctor relationship. Medicine and magic can work together.”
“It is a way to humanise and make a personal bond.”
His Magic Mystery School has also opened up many doors and opportunities to young magicians wanting to make a name for themselves. It doesn’t have to be complicated, he explains, but the result is that you take a young magician and you show them how to put a show into a backpack. Suddenly, he or she is able to take their own show out on the road.
He offers winter training, spring training, teaching tutorials and gatherings for women only. He even works with presentations that have been sent to him to be refined and turned into something polished and slick.
“The humanising aspect of it is important to me,” he says, “I work with someone who fundamentally understands the ‘three D’s’; debt, dementia and death, and he uses magic to put fun back into funerals.”
With the demands on his time and the high value of his performances, Jeff says that not being flown business class and put up in a good hotel can be a deal breaker for accepting a gig.
“It’s demonstrative of the sort of standards of the show and if things are taken seriously,” he points out. “Shows take organising and planning and things need to be taken very seriously for things to run smoothly.”
Sometimes things don’t go to plan, however. Jeff fondly recalls how, on one occasion when touring in Russia, the luggage containing the props for a show were lost in transit. He still had to step up and complete a show without anyone knowing that this was not supposed to happen.
“A magician is a magician 24/7,” he reveals, “I always carry an emergency prop case with me.”
This is an attaché spectacles-case and can be hidden in his pocket, containing what appears to be some handkerchiefs and knick-knacks.
“I call it my ‘commando show’. I was able to put on a full show for 2000 people with just the contents of the case. Nobody knew that it wasn’t intentional, but that’s normal for a magician…pulling something out of the hat.”
He makes another mention about how he once lost the rabbit from the hat in another show and had to improvise.
“There are two sorts of on-stage mistakes,” he explains, “The type the audience sees and the type only the performer sees. The first could be where something goes bad on stage, like knocking over table. The performer gets frustrated and if you’re good at improvisational theatre you can get through it. Then there is the kind that only the magician sees but he can’t get frustrated about either of them; you have to be able to go with a flow. Mistakes and challenges are diffused greatly by a sense of humour. My teacher Eugene Berger, said that a magician’s quality is dependent on how they handle obvious mistakes.”
Improvisational theatre skills are essential for Jeff. Particularly when fans approach him on the streets in Las Vegas, or in the hundreds of cities around the world where he is recognised at a glance.
“Everyone wants to be amazed,” he remarks, “It’s the magicians job to do that. To mystify and amaze.”
At that point he casually stuck a drumstick through the middle of a handkerchief without making a hole. It did make me think; when was the last time you heard of a successful magician who left impromptu fans disappointed?
HOW MUCH PLANNING DOES IT TAKE?
“Shows generally take six months to prepare,” Jeff relates.
“Inspiration comes from music, often as not and visual contexts, like a painting or a sculpture that deals with death. This was my target for Halloween. I started assembling music, props and masks and taping experiments with friends. I’m lucky enough to have a nightclub, Wonderground, where I can test material. It all takes about six months.”
I tried to get him to explain some of his illusions, but alas, he just smiled and said no.
I also pried and asked if he ever felt he would reach a retirement age and he replied:
“Old magicians become wizards. So no.”