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"Use Your Illusion" - Metro Magazine Article

Magic tricks seem quaint in a high-tech age but they can still enthrall children — and mystify adults. Greg Dixon reports.

Where’s Harry Houdini when you need him? Right now, as the clock ticks towards the start time of the Shore City Magicians Club monthly meeting, the famous escapologist’s power over locks would certainly be handy. The door to the club’s magic meeting place — actually the Takapuna Senior Citizens’ Hall — is soundly locked and it appears it may stay that way despite the best efforts of the club’s secretary and stalwart BJ Allan.

It turns out Allan’s been given the wrong key, leaving him to attempt a little magic before the evening’s even begun. We’d just seen a demonstration of the difference between illusion and reality. And magic — or at least stage magic — is both of these things.

The illusion is the public performance, the capturing then holding of an audience with what seems to be effortless, spontaneous artifice. The reality is that it’s a quiet, often solo discipline requiring huge commitment and careful preparation and practice in private, where hours and hours of time are put in for a public performance that lasts minutes.

For a modern audience, one used to all the visual tricks that technology can deliver, stage magic inevitably has something of a quaint quality about it. But then it is as old as time. The arts of deception and sleight of hand practised by the members of the Shore City Magicians Club began even before the Greeks pulled a horse-shaped swifty on the Trojans.

It's modern history begins more or less with Harry Houdini, whose big, crowd-pleasing stunts find their modern equivalents in the flashy, big-bang (usually many big bangs), Las Vegas-style extravaganzas of TV acts like David Copperfield, the copper-toned American who famously made the Statue of Liberty "disappear" back in 1983.

Yet traditional stage magic, with its top hats and tails, its cards, rabbits and doves, still has the power to entertain, probably because its gentle, happy surprises can still excite the child in us — and, of course, excite children. This is evident among the Shore City magicians.

The club’s adults — some of whom make a living entertaining kids with magic — all caught the bug in their youth and were nurtured by the club. The SCMC is one of three magic clubs in Auckland and has the strongest emphasis on teaching kids. That philosophy goes back to 1974, when the three adults who founded the club decided the secrets of the art needed to be passed on to the next generation if the craft was to survive here. And, though the SCMC nearly disappeared — or should that be vanished? — itself in the 1990's through lack of membership, it’s been pursuing its nurturing brief ever since, through people like BJ Allan.

A gentle chap with light voice and cheery, round face, Allan runs a magic shop in South Auckland and works as BJ the Magical Clown. His business card also says — and how many people can claim this — he is a "balloonologist". A founder member of the club, he joined when he was eight. Now he’s teaching magic to eight-year-olds.

Mick Peck, a fresh-faced, self-assured 25-year-old, is also typical. He joined the club in 1994 and through some personal magic of his own has been the club President since 1997. He first performed at school, at Pukekohe Intermediate in fact, aged 11, and now makes his living from his magic act, doing children's birthday parties, corporate gigs and comedy magic shows. "I was given a magic kit one Christmas," he says, "but unlike most kids I was still using it by New Year’s."

The sharp, unsympathetic strip lighting in the Takapuna Senior Citizens Hall hardly seems the right sort of place to be perfecting the pulling of surprises from hats or hands. However, tonight’s club meeting assumes a greater importance than is usual because for
the first time in several years the club is preparing for public shows. The Rose Theatre in Belmont has been booked by the club for the last weekend in September and the Dolphin Theatre in Onehunga for the last weekend of October. In a matinee and evening show, the club showcases more than a dozen of it's members in a production called The Shore Is Magic Family Comedy Magic Show.

This Tuesday night is an opportunity for some members — in particular young Mark "Doves" Robinson — to rehearse their acts before the curtain goes up on a paying audience.

But first the formalities. The 18 or so people who have turned up, including visitors, sit themselves down in a tiny anteroom on one side of the hall so that Allan can take apologies, accept the minutes from the AGM and encourage members — "We need the whole club involved"— who won’t be on stage at the Rose or the Dolphin to help out behind the scenes.

After some show-and-tell by club members — which includes a coin trick and a spot of "mentalism" (in this case involving precognition using numbers, crayons and envelopes) from one father and son — everyone files into the main hall. The room has a small stage with a framed photo of the Queen and the Duke to its right. However, the stage goes unused. A small stand, with an illustration of a rabbit popping out of a top hat on its facing, is set up on the polished floor, together with a small PA speaker on a stand. Everyone drags a seat out from the anteroom. More than half the membership here tonight is under 18. One kid is dressed in a long black trench coat, white shirt and a very large purple tie. "You look more like Harry Potter every time I see you," Allan tells him.

Half a dozen members perform short tricks tonight, including the only female here, teenager Natasha Babich, a highly professional Mick Peck and BJ Allan, who does a comedy ventriloquism act with his dummy Moses (catchphrase: "Moses, don’t keep saying sorry!").

The star turns are 19-year-old Mark Robinson and his mini-me, 11-year-old Aaron Konings. Robinson — who does his act twice because he’s not completely happy with his first effort — is given the sobriquet "Doves" by Allan during his brief introduction. It
doesn’t take long to figure out why. He begins by producing a bright yellow dove from thin air, turning it into a white dove and then producing and making other doves disappear using a small cloth and a later a foundation of coloured silk cloths. He performs each with a blissful smile. "I found when you use live animals, it’s got that extra impossibility about it, that extra edge," he says. "It makes the audience go ‘Wow!’"

Wow indeed. It is a curious thing to be in the audience at a magic show. Inevitably you’re aware that what you are seeing is sleight of hand, and you watch carefully hoping to see strings attached or a brief glimpse of a secret pocket — you want to be able to work out how it’s done. But at the same time, as each dove or ball or coin appears or disappears, you catch yourself believing that perhaps there is something more mysterious at work. It’s more than just suspending disbelief, it’s also about engaging that inner child.

The evening’s highlight is definitely Aaron Konings’ first performance in front of an audience. He too uses doves — given to him by his mentor Robinson — but also uses lights and the rings that link and unlink. Not everything goes to plan, but he shows considerable maturity as he keeps going despite the hitches. The applause at the end is loud and warm for a remarkably good first effort; Konings has been coming here only since the beginning of the year. He got into magic after Robinson visited his school, Wairau Intermediate, about a year ago to show off his doves and do a few tricks. He clearly idolises Robinson. And Robinson clearly considers Konings a protégé, and one who needs firm guidance. "I only saw a little bit of Aaron’s performance," Robinson says later. "I know he chewed gum on stage and I had to tell him off about that."

If you wave your magic wand right, a hobby can turn into a career. Both BJ Allan and Mick Peck have done this. The club’s most famous ex-member, a bloke called Paul Romhany, who now lives in Canada, performs magic as Charlie Chaplin and has worked in some 50 countries and has also done cruise-ship work.

"I couldn’t have done anything without the club because of the support and stage time I get," Robinson says. "You learn from it and get feedback you can’t get from an audience." The club’s mentoring of Robinson is echoed in his own tutoring of Konings. It seems to be conjuring up some results: the week after the practice at the Senior Citizens Hall, Konings’ magical performance won him a youth talent quest at his North Shore church.

By Greg Dixon. Originally Appeared in New Zealand Metro Magazine 2007, reproduced with permission.

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