Four modern-day Auckland magicians tell
have plenty of tricks up their sleeves
I must confess, I giggled.
Which only bemused the pensioners in the cafe further. Come on people, it's free and there isn't anything else going on, Pukekohe at a lunchtime should be gagging for magic.
But no. The moment a collection of baby sponge rabbits (I'd have sworn there was only one rather large one) tumbled from my hand, Mick Peck was up to accept the applause that was surely his due. Then ... silence. Just blank looks and my strangled cackle.
In far less time than it had taken for my coffee to arrive, Peck had pulled three card tricks and had rabbits jumping through space. He'd re-proven the fact that few things in life beat being surprised. In a good way, of course.
I must also confess that the biggest surprise was that this is how Peck earns his living. He's clearly very good but surely his old gig of playing Gene Simmons in a Kiss tribute band was more rewarding than trying to impress the gentle folk of Franklin district, I say.
There's no need to leap to his defence, he wasn't offended. Such responses are the magician's curse.
"Every time I tell people what I do," says Peck, "I get the same thing, 'cool, what instrument do you play?' 'No, magician', I say. Then it's: 'oh, so what do you do for a proper job then?"
I suspect that's because most people have spent years thinking the glory days of magic were gone, especially given how we're well into the digital age of CGI and 3D.
If you haven't attended a children's birthday party recently or have only dim memories of David Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty disappear on television, you'll probably think magic had been reduced to opening for mime acts at street theatre festivals. Not so. It would seem that magic is in particularly rude health.
Veteran magician Wayne "Chicane" Rogers reckons more new tricks are being "invented" now than ever before. And he should know - he offers lectures on them.
The old style of magic, featuring the slightly camp guy in a satin shirt and his barely-dressed assistant all but ended in the 90s, when David Blaine introduced fans to edge and danger. These days, the money gigs are no longer on stage - the magicians are at kids' parties, private functions and entertaining corporate types as they nibble on canapes.
Still, there seems to be plenty of work. Peck says he performs about 250 shows a year, which works out to ... lots, every week.
If his shows are often small, they still require an enormous amount of practice to carry them off. Peck's ability to smuggle sponges into my hand requires an ongoing regime of rubber ball-squeezing to build up his muscles and Van Halen guitar licks to maintain dexterity. Then there's the mindnumbing repetition. Those few minutes of magic took two years of practice before they were ready for his public. Audiences are cynical and easily distracted - one slip-up can send a party of pre-schoolers back to their gaming consoles.
The 29-year-old has been working on getting it right ever since he got a magic set as an 8-year-old.
He started off impressing his schoolmates at lunchtimes and was soon doing parties for his teachers' children and helping out at fundraisers. But it was a hobby, then in 2001, he went to check out some big-name Americans at an Auckland magic convention. "These guys were top pros, it was a whole different level to anything I'd ever seen here and looked like something that was really worth pursuing," says Peck.
He worked up a double act with a new set of tricks, placed a few advertisements and went pro. He's been making a living via word of mouth ever since, which, while admirable, may be his second greatest achievement after reviving the Shore City Magicians Club.
You see, magicians are something of a secret fraternity. Once past the audition - where newbies have to impress the old hands who know everything you're doing as you do it - budding magicians join an eccentric in-crowd, where ideas and criticisms are swapped, support is offered and the knowledge behind sawing people in half is jealously guarded.
Undeterred, he helped reboot the North Shore club, which had folded because of low membership. It was touch-and-go whether the new club would fare much better - its first meeting drew four people : the Peck and Walker team, BJ the Clown, and an 8-year-old named Mark Robinson.
"I'd seen The Masked Magician on television," says Robinson, now 23. "It was this show where he revealed how all these different tricks were done. Everyone in magic hated him but I loved it and I picked up all my earliest tricks from that. Then I remember going to the Easter Show, where Paul Romhany was doing his Charlie Chaplin magic act. I spent the whole day watching him ... that was it for me."
Magic opened a new world for Robinson. He is dyslexic and struggles to read or write anything longer than four letters. Happily, performing tricks requires neither.
"In a way, I think dyslexia made me find magic, it was something a little bit different I could do that no one else at school knew about. With reading and writing, that's where I fell over. I couldn't write a speech let alone read it out in front of the school, but by learning magic and working hard I've been able to stand in front of thousands of people and show them what I've got to share. It's given me the confidence to do things I'd have never dreamed of doing before."
His gospel is catching and he's now mentoring a few new novices, which has, in turn, helped swell attendances at Shore City's monthly meetings to around 40.
But this growth brought new problems. Peck has had to expel several people who joined only to pass the secrets on to their friends - something a true magician should never do or tolerate. In fact, everyone must sign a secrecy pledge before being accepted to the club, which is rather quaint given the details of any trick can be purchased from websites such as lybrary.com.
Such spoilsports are only ruining their own fun, says Robinson, because, like professional wrestling, magic is about sitting back and enjoying the pretence. "If you ask me, I'll tell you magic isn't real," he says. "But if you're willing to suspend your disbelief for a while and go on a journey, then I'm more than happy to take you along. Because I'm on that journey as well, the best magic is always the next trick I'm learning, the one that will make you stop and go 'wow, that's real magic'. And if that's what you see and that's how you react, isn't that real enough?"
Having seen his act, there's barely time between tricks for thinking about what's going on. Robinson crams more magic into a six-minute performance than many others will learn in a lifetime.
If he were a DJ, Robinson would be called old school - he sticks to the classics, performs in tails and has a passion for dove magic. Once his dander is up, birds seem to pop out of hats, sleeves and thin air.
He also dismembers his sister and keeps his cabinet prop stashed in his mum's spare room. "Whenever people ask if I've ever wanted to chop my sister in half, I tell them I can do a lot better than that, I chop her into quarters."
Boom boom. Although the joking around doesn't extend to letting me see how it works.
They do seem an odd bunch, magicians. Much like stand-up comedians really, although Robinson prefers to think of himself as the normal one out. Still, he is obsessive about what he does and, like Peck, spends most days struggling to make the difficult look easy. He'll stand in front of a mirror practising a trick until his hands shake too much to continue.
The pay-off is when someone asks what he does, because magicians love to prove themselves. They're always packing. And whether it's a pen, paperclip or the rubber band he sometimes wears on his wrist, anything can be used in an emergency trick.
"Those moments can be as rewarding as a show because I don't go on stage just to get the applause," says Robinson. "I'm not all that interested in milking the crowd for more than I deserve. Just seeing all the hours of practice pay-off is self-rewarding. It's a great buzz."
As is geeking out on magic. Not only is there a 24-hour, all-magic internet radio station and sites like insidemagic.com to feed off, Robinson is still in raptures over a recent online magicians' seminar, only the second ever held. For a small subscription, he downloaded 72 hours of shows, lectures and discussion forums, which he will scour for the tiniest tip that might improve his show.
This is their future, says Rogers. While magicians are fairly thin on the ground, they pool into a large community on the web and he's one of a growing number who make a living from selling to them.
As Chicane, Mystery Entertainer (he avoids saying magician to skip the "well, I'd better watch my wallet then" gags), he lectures at seminars around the world while pushing his books and products. He is most likely New Zealand's only magic exporter and the garage of his Beach Haven, Auckland, home is crammed with stagecraft paraphernalia. He even does a little special effect consulting and helped create the Ronald McDonald Roadshow.
He adopted his stagename (from chicanery) in the 70s because everyone associated Wayne Rogers with the actor who played Trapper John on M*A*S*H. While he has performed just about every type there is, he now mostly works as a mentalist - think British magician Derren Brown or the character from the television show of the same name (incidentally, Rogers' guilty pleasure).
He's collected a variety of unusual skills along the way and, like many, he's now finding new markets willing to pay for them.
Some magicians have given up public performances completely to concentrate on inventing new tricks to sell, while others sell DVDs showing how mentalism's stock techniques of persuasion, misdirection and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) can be applied to the corporate world.
Then there are those who go to the dark side - people like the so-called psychics who appear on programmes such as Sensing Murder and claim to have real "powers". One of Rogers' favourite quotes is "a magician is an actor playing the part of a magician".
Yet, in the middle of all this evolution is one unchanging constant. Magicians are overwhelmingly male and it's no accident that the biggest magicians' club in the world is called a brotherhood.
The New Zealand branch does boast one solitary sister though.
Paula Wray admits her first magical experience was hardly life-changing. Actually, she couldn't wait for the magician to finish so she could rip into the party food.
She wanted to be an actor and, in 1991, Wray swapped Hawkes Bay for Auckland where she applied for drama school.
In the meantime, she took a job as a puppeteer who did the odd trick and was performing at a school when Walnut the Clown suggested she had the makings of a great fairy.
A few twisted balloon animals and better tricks later, she was being booked as Trixie the Fairy.
It was fun - "all I wanted was to be the best fairy anywhere" - but four years of childrens' magic burned her out and she took to sea to work as a croupier on a cruise ship.
That's where everything changed. She was hooked on ship life and dropped her acting ambition for entertainment. She just needed a proper act, so she returned home, strapped her wings back on and joined the New Zealand affiliate of the International Brotherhood of Magic. (They even offered to do something about the name if it bothered her.)
Sometimes such words do matter, especially magic words, so most performers now avoid the classic "abracadabra".
When he's with small kids Mick Peck employs "smelly jelly", while Robinson avoids the problem altogether by remaining silent. For her part, Wray started off with the unwieldy "twinkle, twinkle, crash, crash, crash" but now invites her host to make up their own, usually a favourite colour and animal. "So I get a lot of pink bunny rabbits and green ponies."
Unsurprisingly, the cuteness factor can be wearying when you're 38. "I do think [fairies] have a shelf life," says Wray. "I don't want to be a 40-year-old fairy. I could become a Fairy Godmother, I suppose, but I don't really want to."
Instead, like Rogers, she is diversifying. Trixie works best with pre-schoolers, so she created SuperTrixie, a magic superhero, for the under-10s, and is now working on Dizzy Summers, a burlesque magician for adults.
All going to plan, Dizzy will become her ticket back on to cruise ships. "The problem will be keeping it classy. Being a childrens' performer, I don't really want anyone getting the idea that I'm a stripper."
Perfecting enough tricks for three different acts means serious work but there are always moments that leave her feeling very lucky.
One came during a visit to this year's Easter Show. "I was amazed by how many people, especially children, knew me. Just walking through the carpark and it was "hey, Trixie!" and "look, there's Trixie". I was like 'wow, I've met a lot of Auckland children ...' and of course that's really fulfilling.
"But, you know, I used to get really excited about doing those shows. Sure, they're still enjoyable, but I feel like I'm nearing the end of that. I want to keep progressing and I think that's the same with all magicians.
"I want to be inspired by a trick and then try to make people feel the same way I did when I first saw it ... That's the pay-off: when you hear the gasps, 'cool, you really are magic'. Then I can think to myself, 'why yes, yes I am'."
By Alan Perrott.
Originally Appeared in New Zealand Herald Canvas Magazine September 2011, reproduced with permission.