History of Close Up Magic performance

History of Close Up Magic

Magic performed close up is more popular now than probably ever before. Among the most trendy, on one side of the Atlantic we have Dynamo with his street magic specials in the UK. On the other side we find America’s Got Talent winner Matt Franco who went on to do a Vegas stage show full of close up magic material. Of all the types of magic out there, this one has hit a chord with the public in exciting ways. Close up magic’s current place in the entertainment firmament came from a fascinating turn of events that brought us to where we are today. So let’s geek out a few minutes together as we explore the back alleys of Magicopolis and this short history of close up magic.

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Early Close Up Magic in History

Little do most people know, close up magic has actually been entertaining and delighting audiences for millennia. The Roman writer and philosopher Cillica made one of the first written accounts of magic performed as entertainment. Although he did not call it by that name. He wrote about a certain ‘sleight-of-hand magic’ that he saw performed in the markets of Ancient Rome. Cillica mentioned that the performance he saw used cups and balls. It’s a magic routine that still lives on very much to this day in the repertoire of many close up magicians.

Another famous example of the same routine actually is the Hieronymus Bosch painting ‘The Conjurer’ from around 1502 (shown below). You can see it in person at Musée Municipal, St.-Germain-en-Laye, to the west of Paris. Those cups and balls still in action, you see a crowd gathering around and scrutinising the magician’s performance. They’re watching so carefully in fact that the spectator in front is going to go home a little poorer than he was before the show (take a close look). Notice how the thief misdirects even us – the viewers of the painting – by looking up.

close up magic history is shown in this Bosch painting of a 16th C magic show

Close Up Magic’s Green Shoots Appear

I’m not a historian.  But I love history. To get to grips with any subject, it helps to check out what came before. So let’s take a whistle-stop tour of what was going on with magic entertainment just before close up magic burst on the scene in such big ways. The father of modern magic was 19th Century Frenchman Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. He created a theatre at the Palais Royale in Paris. His reputation-making material included a ‘second sight’ act of apparent telepathic communication with his son. His theatre endeavours had a rocky start but eventually flourished in his “Soirées fantastiques.” This success was a precursor to the early days of the Golden Age of magic of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Stage magic of that era filled side shows, vaudeville and variety theatres, and music halls as magic became a world sensation.

With all this spectacular large scale magic happening for around fifty years, as if out of the blue a seminal book appeared. It could be seen as part of the genesis of a dynamic new wave of magic for the 20th Century. The book’s appearance – appropriate for a book on magic – was shrouded in mystery as the author published under a pseudonym. The actual person behind its pen name S.W. Erdnase has been hotly contested for over a century.

Magic buffs will know this 1902 book was Expert at the Card Table. Teaching “Artifice, ruse and subterfuge at the card table,” card magicians still regard the book as essential reading. It teaches card sleights for gamblers and magicians that came directly from less-than-honest players at the card table. But let’s table that book for a moment. We’ll leave it to circulate amongst early 20th Century magicians for a few decades in our imaginariums while we look at some related events just a little later…

Cover of Expert at The Card Table.

A few decades later in 1929 we see the American magician Walter Gibson. He put the term ‘close up magic’ in print for the first time. And very close to that time, two other books sprung up that totally focused on this type of magic. Both books were by Australian magician Jean Hugard. These were Sealed Mysteries of Pocket Magic (1930) and Close-up Magic for the Night Club Magician (1938).

Digging Deeper

I learned a lot about the ins-and-outs of this topic from Max Maven. He spent many years on a search for who was the first close up magician. In conducting this research he realised that first he would need to define exactly what close up magic is. (Mr Maven makes a brilliant presentation of his research about the history of close up magic in the 2010 Essential Magic Conference, available on DVD. I share Maven’s research here with his permission.)

Maven explains that many people wrongly think that the size of the props is what makes close up magic what it is.  But his examples of Harbin’s Zig Zag Girl illusion being surrounded by an audience (big prop, used close to the audience) and vaudeville’s Nate Leipzig performances with cards on stage (small props used far from the audience) disprove this idea.

Drawing on examples of street performers and other manifestations of magic depicted over the centuries, Maven suggests a distinction. It’s that close up magic doesn’t mean just that the audience is close. But rather that the ‘performing space and the audience space are the same space.’ (I warned you we’d be geeking out… I hope you’re not disappointed!)

Close up magic is when
the performing space and
the audience space are
the same space.

– Max Maven

To substantiate this, let’s look in another direction. Some of the best close up magic on the planet comes from Juan Tamariz in Spain. He defines his work as a relationship, an exchange, with the audience*. Tamariz often performs his magic in a formal setting, behind a table with the audience in front of him. But Juan says he is at his forte when he is in the audience space. Everyone is together in what he calls a ‘magical bubble’. To Tamariz, it’s the definition of powerful close up magic. He says anything that is outside this bubble must be called stage magic.

I know, I know. All this can become quite pedantic so I’ll move on to a more interesting side of it all… In his characteristically expansive way, Maven also looks at a number of social changes that helped create close up magic. They took place about the time close up magic started to be used as a term. Hold on to your hats because this cocktail of interconnected yet random factors that combine in some magic cauldron to make something new is what I find so fascinating about history…

How WWI Changed Magic Too

Maven points out that in the 1850s the industrial revolution was in full swing. This meant wealth was more evenly distributed and more people had leisure time for hobbies… like practising magic. So there’s no surprise that around the 1890s the term ‘pocket tricks’ started to appear.

Also around that time, World War I and the years just after introduced American soldiers to the idea of European cabaret style of performance. This type of show blurred the boundaries between the performer and the audience. So after the War, this idea of borderless stage was exported to the soon-to-be U.S. prohibition era. Along with that came speakeasy party entertainment that took European cabaret inspirations to a grand and decadent scale.

Finally to add one interesting detail to this panorama of the history of close up magic… Just as pocket tricks or close up magic were climbing in popularity, by 1930 the Golden Age of Magic on stage was drawing to a close. Talking films came to be and as the new cinemas filled up, the Golden Age stage magic shows closed down. This left a vacuum for close up magic to fill the void for magic lovers around the world. And to the delight of audiences and magicians alike, it has gone on to change and flourish to what it is today.

Thanks for coming along. Say hello and drop me a note in the comments below and I hope to see you again after a few more turns in the trail.

* Genii Magazine, November 2010 edition.

Juan Tamariz Performance Cover Photo: © lkswonilak
Cabaret Photo: British Cabaret Show, 1924. © Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

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