Welcome to the third instalment of this series of interviews that originally appeared in Rubber Chicken magazine. Editor and publisher Peter Aubery has made them available for the Kids Entertainer Hub audience.
In this series, Peter Aubery picks the minds of kids entertainers Charlie Frye, Jimmy Carlo, John Kimmons, Michael Diamond, Paul Daniels, and Sylvester the Jester. In this episode, we feature comedy magician and magic effects inventor Bill Abbott.
You have created many different magic effects. Do you sit down and try to come up with new ideas, or do they come to you whilst out working?
I do both. I have a notepad with me 24/7 where I write down things that pop into my head. When I get an idea that I can add to an existing routine or use to create a routine from scratch, I’ll give it more thought and try to flush out a premise or hook for the piece as a whole. Then if it’s still any good, I will unleash the piece on an unsuspecting audience. Based on their reaction/response/feedback, I’ll work on the script, method, etc.
Who are your magical heroes and why?
Eugene Burger – For his philosophical approach to performing and for elevating the performance of magic (in my mind)
Don Alan – Because he epitomises what the Chicago Golden Age of Magic was
Lance Burton – He’s the magical persona I always wanted to be but never could be.
Paul Gertner – He was the first professional magician that I could call a mentor. I was 12 years of age and my father’s company hired him for their trade show. I watched him12 hours a day for three days straight on the trade show floor and the hospitality suite at night. Paul was/is the consummate professional.
What are the best and worst gigs you have had?
I’ve been onstage since the age of 5 and there have been so many audiences and so many shows that any gig where I’m performing for an appreciative audience is the best gig.
After I said yes, the magician added that in addition to my regular show, I would have to communicate with Santa “via satellite” (I later found out this meant pressing ‘Play’ on a VCR and pretending to speak and interact with a TV screen that featured one of the worst Santa impersonators I have ever seen) and then “magically produce” the real Santa from a large box.
The magician dropped the box off at the church the morning of the show. I arrived to find the box ready backstage, along with a TV and VCR onstage plugged in and perched atop a four-wheeled cart. A note stuck to the TV stated that Santa would be arriving 30 minutes prior to my performance to run through the illusion and to get into costume.
The kids and parents arrived, ate pizza, drank pop, inhaled Christmas treats, and began to run incessantly around the large basement of the church. It was 20 minutes to showtime and Santa was nowhere to be seen. I checked backstage, in change rooms, washrooms, closets, and Saint Nick was a no-show.
One of the parents corralled the children to sit on the floor in front of the stage and I made my entrance. The show had begun, and it went well. There is usually a tremendous amount of excitement and energy at Christmas parties that involve kids, mostly because they are anticipating the big man bringing the gifts. They know that after the magician, the man in red suit will be there with the loot, so if you keep the show moving along they’re more than happy to put up with 30 minutes of minor miracles.
I concluded the show with Chico the Mind Reading Monkey who stole the show as usual. After I put him away, I moved over to the cart with the VHS cassette ready to roll. I declared to the crowd that we would be contacting Santa via satellite to find out his location. I pressed play and some poorly created graphics gave us the faint impression that we were attempting to contact Santa using the TV screen and some (then) unknown technology.
Well, the over-acting of a middle-aged man in an ill-fitting Santa suit had some of the youngest kids convinced that Santa was very close and would be landing on the roof of the church at any moment. And then the screen went blank. This was the cue to produce Kris Kringle from the magic box. I scurried backstage to find the big magic box empty. I ran from the change room to the closet to the washroom to find no one.
After a couple of minutes, panic set in. Three hundred kids had grown impatient and were chanting “Santa, Santa, Santa” in a unified chorus. I ran out into the parking lot and witnessed an overweight man struggling to squeeze into a red suit while seated in a small Toyota. I banged on the window and gestured for him to come quickly. He literally rolled out of the tiny car onto the pavement. I grabbed his arm and helped him up to his feet and introduced myself. He grunted and I took him through a backstage entrance into the darkness of the wings. He started to walk out onto the stage when I grabbed his arm and told him that he had to get into the magic box.
“What?!” he huffed.
He clearly had not been informed. I explained that he was to be magically produced from the box beside us in the darkened wings. At this point, the kids were in hysterics. They were screaming, “We want Santa, we want Santa” with an intensity that had me concerned for our safety.
“Okay. What do I have to do?” heaved Santa. I quickly explained that he had to lie down inside the box and squeeze himself in as tightly as possible. I would tip the box over and a flap would hide his body from the eyes of the audience, making the box seem empty. I would then give him a verbal cue to stand up and reveal himself. Simple.
Somehow Santa squirreled himself into the box after some serious effort. I pushed the box on caster wheels out into the stage lights and the crowd went crazy. Kids were literally screaming themselves hoarse and a mosh pit of sorts had formed at the front of the stage.
I clapped my hands and shouted into the mic, “Ladies and gentleman, I know you have been patiently waiting for a very special guest!”
Several kids were stomping in unison in front and many were being pulled back by their parents from climbing onto the stage.
“Let me see if I can make him appear by magic,” I exclaimed.
There was a sudden hush over the audience. I grabbed the top and sides of the large colourful box and began to tip it over to show an “empty” interior. I’m not sure how I managed to screw up the illusion, but for some reason, the extra wall or flap that was supposed to hide Father Christmas simply wasn’t there. So as I tipped the box over to display the “vacant” insides of the box, all the audience saw the panic-stricken, poorly-attired Santa in a foetal position trying with all his might to look small.
There was a moment where you could hear a pin drop while the audience was trying to make sense of the strange and terrible image they were witnessing compressed inside of a box decorated in circus paint.
Suddenly a small boy in the front cried out “It’s Santa!” and all hell broke loose. Kids broke free from their parents’ arms and took the stage by force. I dropped the box back down and turned to face the throng head on. There was a muffled scream from inside the box and I realized that the bottom edge of the box had landed directly on Santa’s ankle. I held a couple of kids back and proceeded to lift the contraption off Santa’s ankle, and he gingerly pulled his foot back into the safety of the box.
In an attempt to gain control, I grabbed the mic from the stand and called out in desperation to the parents.
“Please help get the children back to their seats or Santa will not appear,” I said.
It took a few moments to clear the stage and regain a certain sense of calm, but it happened and I began to make some magical gestures over the box. I probably looked like the saddest magician in all the world at this moment. Everyone had already seen Santa in a crumpled form at the bottom of the box, and now I was pretending that they hadn’t, that the illusion was still a reality for me, and that it would take all of my magical movements and passes to conjure up Old Saint Nicholas from the “empty” magic box.
Well after my charade of stupidity, I finally called in a loud stage whisper for my assistant to rise up. With some considerable strain, our Santa rose to his feet. The audience burst into immediate applause and shouts.
Now Santa didn’t look good. He didn’t even look passable by any child’s standard of a regulation Santa Claus. But the journey had been a long and arduous one and nobody seemed to care that Santa’s beard had come loose and was dangling by a sagging white elastic hanging from his left ear, or that the corner of a pillow was peeking out of the bottom of his red suit. In fact, Santa looked more like a man on the brink of a heart attack than the right jolly old fellow we were hoping for.
Nonetheless, I offered my arm to Santa and helped him out of the box. We walked over to a large chair by the Christmas tree and mountain of gifts he would soon be passing out to the excited boys and girls.
There was a moment of complete silence in the room and then a collective “oooooooohhhhhhhhh” came from the adults. I stood frozen in time, still pathetically holding Santa’s hand. I dropped to one knee and asked if he was okay. Nothing but rasping breaths was coming from the big man and I gathered that it would take a few minutes for him to resume composure after being completely winded by the fall.
We all waited with baited breath. Finally, Santa struggled to his knees and allowed me to help him the rest of way to his feet. While leaning on me, he hobbled painfully to his throne.
Some quick-thinking parents began to announce the names of the children so they could come, one at a time, to the tree and receive their gift. The children took compassion on Santa and when they approached him to accept their handout, they averted their gaze. It was impossible not to feel the pain, the shame, and the utter defeat in our Santa, but we survived yet another Christmas and celebrated it to the best of our collective abilities.
What would your epitaph be?
Have a nice life until we meet again.
Have you always been a magician? If not, when did you start to get involved with magic and what made you turn to magic as a career?
I took up magic when I was 12. Before that, I studied the violin, piano, and percussion and put on puppet shows in the backyard.
I’ve worked as a professional (by that I mean I made money from shows) since I was 14. After university, I went into the social work field for two years, and then I became so busy with magic gigs to the point where I had to make a decision to start turning away shows or quit my day job and go full-time. That was in 2000, and here we are celebrating 13 years of full-time performing!
Do you always have magic on you for unexpected performances?
I do and I don’t. I have my Pack Smart Play Anywhere show in the glove box of my car and in my carry-on whenever I fly. I also have three pieces that I can do anywhere with anyone and anything in the environment I’m in. And I do them frequently for people. (By ‘people’ I mean nonmagicians.)
What is your favourite effect to perform?
My centre tear routine.
And your favourite style of magic to watch?
Any pro who has performed any particular piece for at least 10 years.
Who would be the one person from history that you would love to perform for and why?
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I think as smart as he was, he would be easy to fool and he’d love it.
You’re trapped on a desert island with a magic wardrobe (closet) from which you can pull out ANY magic prop ever invented. Rescue is on its way but you have to entertain 30 children until it arrives. What do you pull out of the wardrobe?
A pair of elastic hairbands. I have 30 minutes with these things that kids go crazy over.
When you are getting dressed in the morning, which sock do you put on first?
I’m wearing flip-flops. It’s spring here in Canada.