Be A Street Magician! (A How-To Guide) by David Groves
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 1999)
Although the term "street magician" has of late taken a bit of a beating—just because you happen to be performing on the street does not, in the traditional vernacular, automatically make you a "street magician"—the streets are a distinct commercial and artistic venue for magic, and as such certainly warrant a practical manual. Precious little current information exists concerning this ancient branch of magic, beyond the recently reissued Street Magic by Jeff Sheridan and Edward Claflin (reviewed in the August 1998 Genii) and Cellini: The Royal Touch (reviewed in the August 1997 Genii). While the former book is primarily a historical work, albeit inspired and co-written by the man who revived the form for contemporary times, and the latter book, while deeply flawed, speaks more to actual practice by a another contemporary master, neither pretends to be a working man's primer, and David Grove has provided just that in this new work. Armed with this guide, anyone intending to brave the streets will have learned about as much as conceivably possible in the way of advance preparation, short of the ultimate teacher, the actual doing itself.
Although it is tempting to think that street magic is little more than stepping outside and collecting money at the close of the show, there is far more to this highly specialized form that, like trade shows, cruise ships, comedy clubs and the like, bring many of its own distinct requirements that set it apart from other forms. In 28 chapters the author addresses the gamut of important issues facing the street performer, organized in six sections: How to Create a Great Street Show; All About Money; Rules of the Street; The Experience of the Street; Legalities; and Great Street Venues Around the World. The first section is in some ways the most superficial segment of the book; considering that in only 18 pages it consists of three chapters concerning show structure, the author's own show, and a discussion of the reader's potential show, one can readily imagine that this is far from a thorough treatise on the artistic side of street magic. The fact is that, like most business guides (for example, The Cruise Magician's Handbook by Fred Becker (reviewed in the September 1998 Genii)), the author leaves it to the student to discover elsewhere how to learn to be a magician, and with these pages serving more as introduction than guide, then trial, error and experience may have to serve as your best course of study to developing a suitable show for these conditions.
Once he is past the artistic segment however, the author swings into full gear with a wealth of finely detailed and thoroughly researched material. The material on how much money there is and how to go about trying to get it is concise—a mere nine pages—but accurate, up-to-date, and hence invaluable. Part Three includes chapters on drawing a crowd—as with trade show magic, perhaps the single most important challenge (this section also includes a phrase that wins my award for oxymoron of the month: "knockout New Age music"); lighting and sound, which up until a few years ago would have been a bizarre idea for street performers, and one—call me a purist—which I still frankly find somewhat odd and out-of-place; and magic tables, a section which I found rather minimal, and comprised some of the very best advice in the aforementioned Cellini book.
Part Four, The Experience of the Street, contains some of the book's most readable passages, filled with anecdotes that capture a bit of what the street environment and subculture is really about. This is not a world for everyone; you must be a sturdy, resourceful, flexible character to thrive in these unpredictable and occasionally mean streets. For the right person, however, the experience must certainly serve as an invaluable, irreplaceable lesson in life and art. One is reminded that performers of no less the stature than Harry Anderson and Penn & Teller paid their dues on the streets at one time in their respective careers. The street is a remarkable training ground, not unlike Bar Magic, although performers who graduate from both these fields often have trouble adapting to more conventional venues when they attempt to move to more genteel surroundings.
The section on Legalities is not only full of practical information and plenty of specific details, but also serves to remind the reader that it's almost impossible to avoid the risk of brushing up against the law from time to time. One learns to be a "jailhouse lawyer" of a sort when such issues are a regular part of life. The final section is a survey of street magic prospects in fourteen American cities and twelve other countries, once again, critically valuable information for anyone seriously considering pursuing an income in the streets.
As with any good business guide, there's not much more to say about this one beyond the fact that the information is current, accurate, well researched, and clearly conveyed in a well-produced package. The black-and-white photographs are evocative of the world the author has spent a fair amount of time in developing his expertise (although the cover photo is less effective in this regard). My complaints, given the pragmatic goals of the book, are minimal. The repeated references to inveterate contest-winner Johnny Ace Palmer seem oddly out of place, especially considering that the one idea attributed to him is almost comically inappropriate and unsuccessful for this venue. Invariably when it comes to such works I am more interested in the art than the craft, and so when I see names of past masters like Jeff Sheridan, Bob Sheets, Gazzo, Johnny Fox (without doubt one of the finest performers still working the streets today) briefly mentioned, I long for thoughts and commentary about their distinct artistic approaches. The author even admits that, for him, the streets were merely a "means to an end," a temporary stopping place in his own career path. Hence, despite his extensive firsthand experience, there is a faint whiff of distance in his approach—call it arm's length—that makes one long for the words of an impassioned lifelong ''street animal'—to use the author's term—like the Johnny Foxes and Cellinis of the world. This book will not by any stretch make you one of them, but then again, no book could. But Mr. Grove has done great service in at least opening the kind of doors that lead to the outdoor performer's life.
NOTE: In my review of Jerry Sadowitz' Thanks to Zarrow (January, 1999 Genii) I pointed out that the booklet failed to acknowledge a technical precedent in the work of Derek Dingle. I am now informed that the earlier edition which I reviewed has since been updated, with the inclusion of the appropriate credit, plus an additional trick.