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WEB EXTRA: Alan Wakeling
Alan Wakeling

Over the last 50 years, many important performers have had the unique experience of knowing Alan Wakeling. You may never have heard of him. Joan Lawton interviewed magic's highly prized "secret source."

Whenever I hear "On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever," I remember sitting alone in a darkened theater watching a technical run-through of It's Magic. A very good-looking friend of mine stood in the spotlight in ordinary street clothes and turned a few minutes into real magic. It was the first time I had seen Alan Wakeling perform his billiard ball routine. I'll never forget it.

Now I've known Alan Wakeling for half my life. He is the personification of elegance. If I had to describe him quickly I'd call him the Cary Grant of magic. He is quietly charming, very modest, and is acknowledged as the creative mind behind many of magic's greatest effects. In 1976, he was presented the Academy of Magical Art's Creative Fellowship in recognition of his work. Today he is officially retired and has stopped performing, but he is still somewhat active in magic, an art to which he brings an incredible degree of elegance, understanding, and sensitivity.

A conversation with Alan Wakeling could fill volumes. Here are just a few of the points.

MAGIC: How have you managed to remain such a well-kept secret for so long? I'm sure that some of the readers have never heard your name.
WAKELING: Well, ever since 1966, most magicians would only know my name if they're good at reading credits. I performed my own acts and worked with some other performers until 1966, but that's when I was given a wonderful opportunity to work with Mark Wilson. For many years I was his Creative Director. That meant that I could live vicariously, getting pleasure from his successes. And, of course, he was offering me a chance to put big, luxurious shows on TV, in Las Vegas, in venues around the world and across this country. It was an easy decision for me. Mark appreciated new ideas, and I got to leave the politics to him!

MAGIC: But you've contributed to many different performers and acts over the years. Mark Wilson, Channing Pollock, John Daniel, Marvyn Roy, Norm Nielsen, Dick Zimmerman, Peter Reveen, Earl Nelson...
WAKELING: Of course, I contributed to some of those more than others. Sometimes it was just a few suggestions for an act, sometimes it was an entire show. Then it was the performer's job to run with it and make the most of it.

MAGIC: Channing referred to you as a "secret source" for himself and other performers. For what part of his act were you involved?
WAKELING: In Channing's case, he was a very good friend and brought me in to stage a new act he had developed, a "Double Act" which involved doing several effects in tandem. So I staged a routine of his called the Double Sawing in Halves, in which the halves got mixed up.

MAGIC: I remember seeing Doug Henning do that in later years.
WAKELING: That's right. Since then a number of magicians have used it. Doug did it for years on the road, and did it very well.

MAGIC: When you worked as a consultant or as a director, how important was it that you had been a performer yourself?
WAKELING: Oh, I think it was very important. Because each time I worked as a consultant, I could only draw from my own experience of what will be effective on a stage, or what constitutes a good illusion. Working for Mark, for example, also gave me objectivity. At that point magic became a job for me, my profession, and I could afford to step outside it and look in for new ideas. A lot of performers, who are forced to live it every day, lose that objectivity.

MAGIC: You might not always have been so objective. I read that, when you were performing your early acts, you really treated magic as your sacred cow.
WAKELING: Helen used to kid me about that. That was in the late '40s and '50s. I was a bit of a magic snob. I was heavily influence by those great Nelson Hahne illustrations, and I always envisioned magic as being performed on a polished black floor in the middle of an elegant club under a chandelier. That was the ideal, walking out onto a dance floor in a pin spot. To me, that was what it was all about.


MAGIC: Here it is Alan, the big question. How did you get started in magic?
WAKELING: I was born in Hollywood in 1926, but lived for many years during the Depression in Winslow, Arizona, with my grandparents. It was a small town, but a few magicians came through. The first, I remember, was a sideshow pitchman. Then I saw a magician in school; looking back on it now I realize that it must have been J.B. Bobo. Those were my inspirations, along with a copy of Hoffman in the public library. My first set of billiard balls was handmade from Ping-Pong balls. Our family returned to Los Angeles in 1938. I went through the drama department at USC, did some acting, but always pursued a career in magic. I was a demonstrator at Thayer's and the Magic House of Charles, and worked for Merv Taylor. Back then there were a lot of great magicians to observe like Cardini, Duvall, Paul Duke. The Larsen family were friends, and Marvyn Roy has been a long-time friend. I knew him when we were kids. For a while Marvyn and I did an act together, before he went on to become "Mr. Electric."

MAGIC: After that, what was your act like and where did you work?
WAKELING: I worked at clubs like Ciro's, the Mocambo or the Crystal Room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. There were also a great number of weekend nightclubs around Los Angeles. These split weeks meant we had to have several acts in order to work the variety of venues. There was the "Fan Act," with Helen, and before that I did an act called "Rhapsody in Blue" and the "Manhattan Cowboy."

MAGIC: Were you performing the billiard balls then?
WAKELING: Of course. I had a chance to meet Roy Benson in the early '40s when I was a young man, and he gave me the philosophy behind the Billiard Ball routine. That routine really became a signature for me throughout my career. It was the production of five large white balls. I performed it in 1970 on the It's Magic show in a sequence of magic classics with Frakson and Vernon. The billiard balls was my security blanket, the routine I used to connect with the audience. I was comfortable with it. Any performing is really about communicating with the audience. The goal is that when you walk off the audience is impressed with you, not the props. The billiard balls was the routine that did that for me.

MAGIC: Do you think every performer needs a signature effect like that? What about a stage identity?
WAKELING: Let's be honest. When you walk off stage, seldom will they remember your name. They will remember something you did. The fellow with the billiard balls, the man with the violin, the couple with the light bulbs. History has proven that with the great acts in magic: Cardini, Ade Duval, and from my generation, Marvyn and Carol Roy. Roy Muse was really the fellow who pointed that out to us when we were youngsters. Without an identity on stage, you don't have anything. There's a big difference between doing a bunch of tricks and having an act. An act means an identity. Kevin James, for example, worked for a long time to establish an identity on stage. But now he's done it very successfully and has a great act because of it. I know it wasn't easy for him, he went in a lot of directions before he found one that worked for him.

MAGIC: Do you think it's important that a signature routine exhibits skill to the audience?
WAKELING: I think that a skillful routine is appreciated by an audience and lends to your credibility as a performer. But some performers over value a difficult move. I don't think that there's anything wrong in making a routine easier for you, so you can concentrate on the presentation.

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 Act."

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 illusions?
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 1920's.

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 won't work.

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.



© 2004 MAGIC, The Magazine For Magicians. [click to return to cover page]