The disappointing recent box office performance of “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” a movie about dueling magicians on the Strip, has prompted speculation that the art of magic has become passe.
As someone who has performed illusions in clubs, onstage and in streets and is now preparing for a new Spike TV magic “docuseries” this fall, I can tell you that magic continues to exert a strong pull on people, even as the art itself morphs to reflect its cultural context. The evidence is in how magicians continue to pack in crowds on the Strip, where I am fortunate that my show “Believe" still draws huge audiences to the Luxor’s 1,533-seat theater.
Magic speaks to the child in all of us. No matter how sophisticated we become, there’s still a part of us who wants to believe in an alternative reality, where we can defy the laws of nature. Indeed, most magicians catch the bug as kids. My first audience was my family in Long Island. My first “assistant” was my mother, whom I levitated on a broom in our living room.
Magic also speaks to the adult in us. We are not just captivated by the illusion but how the illusion connects to us in a bigger way. When a demonstration can transport us beyond questions of how it is done, then it becomes the purest form of magic -- the magic of emotion.
Most of all, magic is in our cultural DNA.
I like to say magic is the world’s second oldest profession, a mystical and often awe-inspiring spectacle that, throughout the ages, has blended superstition, trickery and religion. Ancient priests held believers spellbound with their “supernatural” powers. Secular magicians amused crowds in the streets and the market. Kings counted magicians among their court entertainers and advisers.
In our modern era, magic has captivated audiences by blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.
One of my inspirations, Harry Houdini, remains an icon of the art because he defied our primal fears. His demonstrations in the early 20th century, especially his escape from the Chinese water torture cell, represented triumph over suffocation, drowning, disorientation and helplessness. Not only were his demonstrations cutting edge for the pop culture of the day, they also gave people hope that anything was possible in their own lives.
After Houdini’s untimely death on Halloween in 1926, the art of magic faded from the spotlight. Practitioners in stiff tuxedos who made the rounds of nightclubs, dinner theaters and, eventually, “The Ed Sullivan Show,” produced magic.
Then came Doug Henning, who recast the ancient practice as a colorful production. On his groundbreaking 1975 live NBC special “The World of Magic,” Henning not only assumed Houdini’s mantle, but he also resurrected the genre with his hippy-like hair, sequin costumes and unbridled joy. It was perfect for a new medium -- television -- and a new generation weaned on the tube.
His heir, David Copperfield, went farther by combining illusion with storytelling. Siegfried & Roy became Las Vegas personified with their over-the-top act that combined magic with exotic animals.
Enter David Blaine, who took magic in a different direction. While melding the theatrical presentation with Houdini-like physicality, Blaine took the art of close-up human magic off the stage and back on the streets. He made the audience the star by focusing the camera on its reactions.
Meanwhile, “Mindfreak,” my TV series for A&E, placed demonstrations in the real world and in real environments, whether it meant levitating 550 feet above the Luxor or walking on Lake Mead. Blaine and I took magic out of the box of staged entertainment and made it relevant to a younger audience.
My Spike series will push that boundary with 117 even more challenging demonstrations, as well as glimpses into the secrets behind them. Preparation and performance will be part of the magic.
It was the shift from Copperfield and Siegfried & Roy to Blaine and me that “Burt Wonderstone” tried to capture. The fact that it was not well received as a movie is no reflection on our enduring fascination with magic itself.
Magic will never disappear. The only mystery will be what form it will take and how it will amaze us by remaining relevant to the culture it reflects.