Disappearing act

By Sue-Anne Webster 1 July 2009
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White rabbits and magic wands are falling victim to today’s workplace rules and regulations.

“Whose bag is this?” asked the airport security officer, staring suspiciously at the image on the X-ray machine. “Mine,” I nervously responded. The wicked-looking wire coils inside the bag belonged to my treasured Chinese Linking Rings. I slid the rings from their cover, taking care not to reveal their ancient secret. “I’m a magician,” I explained. With a raised eyebrow and a curt nod, the officer let me pass. The mystery remained safe – this time.

Sadly, the golden days of enchantment are gone. Legendary Irish magician Billy McComb, who died in 2006 at the age of 83, once told me: “Back in my day, a touring magician would earn enough money at each performance to buy a house.” Today, there are less than 100 in Australia eking out a living from full-time sorcery. People have been lured from theatres by a variety of technologies that move faster than a sleight of hand. Not only that, but safety laws, high insurance premiums, vigilant immigration officials and animal activism threaten to strip magic of its mystery.

In his heyday (1920-40), Australia’s favourite magician Les ‘Levante’ Cole performed with kangaroos. Today, a magician can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat without having to provide photos and statements from animal authorities reporting the animal’s care, handling and means of transport. Immigration officers demand such close inspection of wooden illusions that their secrets are at risk of exposure. Tricks involving fire are banned in most venues unless permission is granted, and then only after a fire inspector has witnessed the trick before the performance.

“It has definitely changed the magical community,” says Jason Varga, president of the century-old Australian Society of Magicians Inc. “There are fewer full-time magicians now, and there’s been a decline in stage performances. But at the same time, there’s been an increase in close-up performances, like table card tricks and sleight of hand. The industry’s still strong – it’s just changed.”

Cigarette bans and strict gun laws have left wizard gangster Al Cappuccino (Enzo Ficco) almost without a performance. “Lit cigarettes are crucial to my character and the structure of my act – as are my fake pistols,” he says. “I had to swap real cigarettes for fake ones – a poor substitute – and surrender my imitation pistol. Once, my violin case passed through X-ray at the airport. It was empty, but they found wires, batteries and a concealed micro-switch inside. I had a lot of explaining to do.”

World-renowned Aussie magician Tim Ellis recalls a show at which he performed his “bill to banana” trick. “When I took out a pen to sign the $50 note, a lady rushed out of the room,” he says. “She apologised after the show, explaining that she worked for the Treasury. ‘If I saw you deface that note, I’d have to report it, as it’s considered treason,’ she told me. I’m glad she didn’t see me cutting it up.”

Source: Australian Geographic Jul – Sep 2008