MAGIC: I can only imagine how difficult the Billiard Ball
routine was. It was hard, wasn't it?
WAKELING: Technically, it was. But at the same time, I had
reduced it to a direct effect and I was comfortable with it. I'll give
you an example. I once saw a juggler take a top hat and, extending his
arm, tip the hat, somersaulting it down his arm until he caught it in
his fingertips. It was a beautiful move, I thought, "That's the perfect
finish to the billiard balls." I practiced for months on that flourish.
Even though I never wore a top hat, I decided to wear one for the
billiard balls. For the finish, when I had five balls held high in my
right hand, I'd somersault the hat onto my left hand, drop the balls in
it, and bow. I did it once. I sweated the entire routine, hoping that
the hat bit would work. It did. It worked perfectly, but I never did it
again. It was such a dangerous move to finish with. It could have messed
up the entire routine, and I was not at my best, worrying about that one
move when I should have been concentrating on expressing my feelings
toward the audience.
MAGIC: Was the billiard ball routine your most successful act?
WAKELING: Let me see... Certainly it was a successful routine
for me. I think that technically the "Bar Act," pouring out many drinks
from a cocktail shaker, was the best act that Helen and I ever
performed. The magic in that was very solid and I was always confident
with it. In terms of excitement, the "Circus Act," an illusion act, was
successful. And probably the most glamorous presentation was the "Fan
MAGIC: Tell me about the "Fan Act." Was it really as elegant
as that photo suggests?
WAKELING: Well, you have to understand that the "Fan Act" was
designed to be elegant. It was the first act that Helen and I performed
together, shortly before we were married. At that time, around 1951, it
was very hard to get club engagements with magic. So it was designed as
a novelty act, very simple and elegant. I think that it was often booked
as a novelty act, because calling it a magic act didn't sell it to
bookers back then. I opened with the bare-hand production of four fans,
a manipulative sequence. There were several effects, closing with the
production of a large fan, then a mutilated fan routine. All the colors
were carefully chosen, as was the music and the choreography.
MAGIC: I want to change the subject a bit, because at a
certain point in your career you chose to change the subject. You're
probably best known for your work in illusions over the last 30 years.
How did you get from a pin spot, chandelier, and nightclub floor to
WAKELING: Certainly Dante was an inspiration. I saw that show
many times and he was such a grand figure on stage. When I put together
my illusion act, the "Circus Act," the Dante family was so helpful; they
were really responsible for the success of the act. But I think Jack
Gwynne was a very important inspiration, too. When I saw Gwynne perform
illusions, he didn't do them in the old style. He handled them like a
cabaret performer, as if they were small props. He emphasized the
performer, not the prop, and was involved with every element of the
routine. That was the first time I had really seen that done.
MAGIC: What was the "Circus Act" like?
WAKELING: It was an act in the Dante tradition, a family act.
Helen, along with my three sons, John, Tommy, and Peter, made up the
nucleus of the cast, beautifully augmented by Irene Larsen, Harlan
Towner, and Jack Hines. The goal was to create a lot of excitement with
the staging, to capture the fun of a circus. Peter was a little clown
that was produced from a small but elegant puppet theater, and Tom was
magically transported from one side of the stage to the other. The
Finale was the Crushing: a lady crushed flat under a gorilla in a cage.
MAGIC: Was the Crushing your first original illusion?
WAKELING: The "Circus Act" had four illusions in it,
variations and combinations of some older ideas. The Crushing was an
unusual effect, quite a bit different from the Selbit Crushing of the
MAGIC: Over the years there have been quite a few new
illusions. I know that many of
them have come out of your association with Mark Wilson, like the modern
Backstage, Girl Through Glass, the Spiker, Excalibur. How do you come up
with a new idea?
WAKELING: That's a hard question to answer. Basically, to
create something you need a thorough background in magic and a good
memory to draw upon elements that are successful. Everything I've done
in magic was inspired by other ideas. I was given a "toolbox" by the
magicians that preceded me. Our art is in how we apply those ideas.
That's where the creativity comes in. Any new idea is a gamble, and when
you try something new, you put yourself on the line. You have to be
slapped down a few times before you really know what will work and what
MAGIC: What do you think makes a great trick? What's the
difference between a good trick and a miracle?
WAKELING: A great trick is one which allows the performer to
connect with the audience. Ironically, I don't think that a miracle is
always a great trick. This is a difficult point to understand. A miracle
can work against you. If it's too unbelievable, you'll lose the
audience. They just won't accept it, they won't credit you with it. To
paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, "When you have eliminated all
impossibilities, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the
answer." Audiences can reason that way with miraculous tricks. The
performer is shut out of the picture. That's what magicians mean by a
trick being "too good." The one place that a miracle will work is in a
close-up act. The audience will always credit the performer, because
close up the performer is always an integral part of the effect.
MAGIC: Let me get back to the process of inventing a trick.
For example, where did the idea for Mark Wilson's Spiker come from?
WAKELING: Most of my ideas arise from the situation. The
Spiker started when we built a Robert Harbin illusion, Experiment 13,
for a show for Busch Gardens. John Gaughan built it and it was a
beautiful prop. He made a number of improvements in the design and
workings. It was a very complicated piece of apparatus.
MAGIC: You're going to have to explain Experiment 13.
WAKELING: That was a Harbin cabaret trick. A small rack of
rods which penetrated through the center of an assistant as she stood
upright, a sort of spikes through body effect. It was an effective
cabaret trick, but it was too small and too complicated for a theme park
show. We needed something that had a punch to it. We discussed
alternatives, and John said, "Maybe we can have spikes penetrate from
both directions, Alan." That started me thinking. What if it was not
just a penetration of her body, but a futuristic Hindu Basket? What
would that look like? I drew upon some experience I had with principles,
disguising load areas and the way the traps could operate. Finally, I
remembered an old Thayer trick called The Princess of Thebes. In it
there was a fake used to simulate the girl's hand in the box. It wasn't
very convincing, but it was a good idea. That inspired me to use the
girl's real hand to give the impression that she was crouched inside the
apparatus until the last second before she vanished. With the
construction of the prop, John incorporated some innovative designs for
the deceptive principles.
The effect was really created around those elements: a penetration with
spikes from both sides and a surprising vanish while her hand formed a
focal point for the audience. That illusion was first used in the Busch
Gardens show and then performed by Mark and Nani on Magic Circus.
MAGIC: Are you still inventing today?
WAKELING: I've been retired for the last few years, but I
enjoy working in my workshop. I still love apparatus tricks, those
things as a kid I read about in Hoffman and never had a chance to own.
So, I've handmade a number of them in walnut or cherry wood for myself
or for friends, and I always experiment with different methods. I've
made some Robert-Houdin Coin Boxes that are variations on the classic
effect, and recently made a walnut Card Box to use on a close-up table.
MAGIC: I understand that you've also made several automatons.
WAKELING: Helen and I have made a few automatons, mechanical
figures that perform. Helen is a very talented doll maker, working in
porcelain. She does all of the sculpting, the painting, and costume
work. I do the mechanics, the props, and cabinet. For the Mulholland
Library we made two figures. The first was an impression of Emile
Robert-Houdin, the magician's young son, who "performs" three pieces of
magic when you turn the crank. The second was a medieval Cups and Balls
worker who changes the objects under a cup. Today both of those
automatons are owned by David Copperfield.
MAGIC: So you're still working behind the scenes, still
devising and directing.
WAKELING: I guess so! But now I do it in the workshop.
MAGIC: Based on your experience, how about a little directing
for a performer today? What advice would you give him or her about
putting an act together?
WAKELING: I think that a lot of the young performers today
make one basic mistake; they overproduce the acts. They surround the
magic with production values to the extent that they might as well not
be magicians. It's a question of focus. When I started, conjuring was
slow and old-fashioned. Over the years we all pushed to include more
production value. But the production is the framing around the magic.
The frame can't overpower the picture. The important thing in a magic
act is the magic. Back when I was performing or even today (things
haven't changed much) you'll see that a good, clean act will always be a
success. That's how Channing did it. That's how Lance Burton is doing it
today, building on a solid act. But if you start too far out, you can't
get off the ground floor.
Another mistake that some make today is in avoiding the classics in
favor of "the latest" ideas. Don't be afraid of the classics. They're
classics for a very good reason; the plots are perfect, proven. If you
do them well, you'll be successful doing them.
MAGIC: Earlier you mentioned "expressing feelings towards the
audience." Is that important for a performer?
WAKELING: It was important for me. Performers always complain
about audiences, but I agree with the statement, "There's no such thing
as a bad audience, only bad performers." I know it sounds a little
corny, but, as I mentioned, performing is all about communicating.
Before every show, I used to collect my thoughts, trying to get to some
calm, some joy. I wanted to express joy when I walked on stage: never
arrogance, just exhilaration about being there for the audience.
Conjuring has to be fun for the audience, It has to be uplifting or
there's no point it doing it, is there?
MAGIC: If I ever find a real magic lamp, I'm sure of one wish
that I would make: To see Alan Wakeling perform just one more time.