Gift Magic: Performances that Leave People with a Souvenir by Lawrence Hass

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii November, 2010)

I agree with Eugene Burger. In an interview with editor and contributor Lawrence Hass in the pages of Gift Magic, Mr. Burger says:

I don't think of magic generally as a gift. That is not the model or the metaphor I would use. ... So for me, performing magic for others isn't a gift; it is a sharing. It is a sharing of something.

And I agree. Then again, I've been agreeing with Eugene Burger an awful lot since I read his first book, Secrets and Mysteries for the Close-up Entertainer in 1982, and since our first personal encounter in 1983.

So it is no surprise that I continue to agree with him. I agree that the performance of magic is not a gift. It is a performance, which is a very specific experience and relationship—one to which the audience must bring something as well in order to render the experience meaningful. And magic is an experience of art. And as both, it is indeed a sharing. The world is full of gifts, but I think such a word is a poor descriptor of magic—simultaneously vague and narrow—when there are so many better ones. Rather, I agree with Mr. Burger when he says that, "Whether it is a stage show or a close-up show, to me magic is about an interaction or relationship—a magical sharing of something."

I agree with Eugene Burger that his version of Lyle Paper Hat Tear—performed for adults—is not only "a charming trick" but that "to a lay person it absolutely looks like magic." At least in his capable hands.

Now it bears pointing out that one of the many reasons I have found myself over the years agreeing with Mr. Burger so frequently is often due to his relentlessly practical, invariably pragmatic, clear-eyed view of his work, and of the ideas behind it. So let us also consider another reason the Paper Hat Tear came to be a staple of his repertoire. As he has described elsewhere previously but as follows in the pages of the book at hand:

Once I was doing a Bar Mitzvah for the son of the largest commercial florist in the city and the party was at the Park West, which is a quite an excellent Chicago location. When I arrived, there was a fourteen-piece band, nine of which were horns. I started my first walk-around performance and I was screaming to be heard. But I had happened to bring sixty hats with me and so I just started making hats. It was kind of embarrassing because people got in line for them, and I felt like a balloon artist, you know? But when I left, the guy who paid me gave me a hundred dollar tip and said, "You were wonderful," because he looked out into this room and there were all these people wearing these goofy hats. And so I was a great success that night. I have always carried a lot of hats with me, just for those situations I might encounter.

In other words, make many hats and the client knows you were there. And a satisfied client means you might get hired again. (Art and commerce collide—oh, my!)

I agree with Eugene Burger that in his hands, Bert Allerton's Aspirin-Tin trick (updated in this volume with excellent refinements since last visited in his published descriptions) is a very special and magical experience—"a trick for the few," as he says. But while he means the few in terms of select audiences who will appreciate and tune into the routine's particular magical and charming qualities, I would add that it is also for the few performers who can recognize these features and handle them delicately.

For the right performer it is perhaps the truest gem of the book but that performer will be a rare one. I agree with Eugene Burger that Bert Allerton's technique for creating a customized envelope with a spectator's name on it is a powerful personalized addition when giving away a playing card or similar souvenir. I learned it from Mr. Burger in the early 1980s, and in my magic bartending days, I gave away many of them every night. He has taught this technique elsewhere in the literature (and it was first described in the Bert Allerton book, The Closeup Magician, by Robert Parnsh), but he provides it here in these pages again, and for anyone who puts it to use, that description may well serve as the most valuable two pages of the book.

And I agree with Eugene Burger when he says in this book that "a magic effect, whether it ends as a gift or not, must be given value by the performer if it is to be received as something truly special." And I would add that you can attach all sorts of gifts to a performance of magic but that they might well lend absolutely no increased value to the audience's perception of your performance. In fact it is your job as a performer to use the myriad skills available to you to invest your performance with importance, irrespective of the potentially distracting and perhaps even trivializing nature of the addition of "gifts," especially if the audience suddenly feels they are being bribed into approval. No one reads a book or attends a performance or a concert or an art gallery expecting a "gift." They go to experience art. And if the art is good, that is enough. It is more than enough. If you want a souvenir, go to Disneyland and get a tee-shirt.

Why have I focused on the contributions of Eugene Burger when he is only one of a group of contributors to this volume, including Jeff McBride, George Parker, Rich Bloch, Robert Neale, and editor Lawrence Hass? Admittedly I have perhaps been unfair in my extended focus on Mr. Burger's work here, because I may have given the impression that I agree with a lot of the content of this book. Except that I don't. It is one thing to say that it is perfectly nice to sometimes leave a spectator with a memento. Who can argue with that? Who would bother to? But other contributors to this book seem to have bigger claims in mind; claims about the nature of magic, and indeed the nature of art. I do not believe that the performance of magic has much to do with giving of gifts, in anything but the most vague and metaphorical way and even then, there are far better ways to talk about this art. I do believe it's sometimes nice to give a souvenir if it seems unforced and integral to the material, and not tacky and not corny and not trivial and not a gross imposition on an a spectator's time and attention, because the opportunity to perform is also a privilege in terms of the taking up of an audience's time and attention. One must give something in return not a gift, but a sharing, perhaps a richer human transaction of sorts and one most do so in a fashion that does not take unfair advantage of the circumstances. If someone took many, many minutes to touch my hands and then give me a little gemstone, I think I might feel my time badly used, and the "performer" even a little creepy. This is people essentially my reaction to a George Parker's "Gemstone Gift," described in this volume. As a social interaction in his particular milieu have at it, who am I to comment? But as a piece of professional performance I'll pass. At least, to his credit, he appears aware of some of the risks, and thankfully offers shorter approaches which some may find more palatable, combined with some useful handling ideas about the production.

Elsewhere in the volume, Lawrence Hass, philosopher and Professor of Humanities, contributes the text of his talk, "On Giving, Magic, & Giving Magic" (Inspired by the Work of Lewis Hyde). After discussing the cultural critic Lewis Hyde's theory of two economies the "market economy" and the "gift economy Professor Hass eventually presents "a key point for you, one I have been working toward from the beginning. That is, since magic performance is a form of art, it originates in the world and economy of giving. And so, from the start, we need to approach our craft and art as a giving."

In response to which I can only say: No we do not. We need to approach our craft as an act of expression. For to me, that is what art is.

Art is, first and last, a medium for personal expression. And art is damnably difficult to do well, no matter your particular choice of medium. One must have something to communicate, one must be working within an art through which one's personal ideas can potentially be communicated, and then one must master the craft of one's art to such an extreme degree that as an artist one can actually manage to communicate one's ideas through the excruciatingly tightly constrained channels that any single artistic medium represents. This is all very difficult, but it is the purpose of art. It is to communicate, to express one's self, uniquely. Beautifully, perhaps. Engagingly, perhaps. Generously? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Art is a way of seeing, and not every artist sees the world through generous eyes. That doesn't prevent him from being an artist or creating great art or even creating art that people love. You just never know.

And what's more, because art is so damnably hard to do well, and murderously difficult to survive in as a lifestyle, many of the world's greatest artists absolutely do not approach their art as an act of giving. Indeed, artists can often be extremely selfish and single-minded in their focus on their art, to the exclusion of the kind of empathy and generosity required in an act of gift-giving. And: so what?

Mastering the demanding skills of making good art is plenty to worry about without claiming that there has to be a gift involved. And so, lest I leave you guessing or my intent unclear: "Gift Magic" is a "style" of magic the way "Tricks You Can Only Do With One Person in the Room Magic" is a style of magic (and you will find examples of both in the pages of this book).

Now, philosophical disagreements aside, there is plenty of value to be found here beyond that which has Mr. Burger's name attached. Robert Neale, whose thinking invariably enjoy, offers "Hypertriptych," which is, "a way of mounting HyperCard [the famous topological oddity] for both display and demonstration." This item implicitly points to what I believe to be the singularly most artistic approach to the giving away of a magical keepsake, namely giving a magical or impossible object that is magically created as the direct outcome of your performance. Michael Weber discussed this issue decades ago in a set of lecture notes, and his approach to the "Cap in Bottle" is a fine example; other examples would include permanently linked rubber bands, and fused double-faced or signed playing cards.

Jeff McBride offers excellent and practical thoughts on leaving surprise mysteries behind (like an oddly balanced salt shaker on a restaurant table), or a useful utility idea for magically producing a wrapped gift from a "Fountain of Silks." He also offers a quick flower production sans presentation that can only be done (as mentioned above) for one person with no one else present or at least anywhere near you except standing in front; frankly I see this more as a piece of stage magic done up close, and thus it will certainly be risky (as he points out) if you attempt it in close-up conditions, although I have no doubt that this skilled manipulator can accomplish it (and besides, there's no instructions for the reset ... ).

The publishers have conceived this book itself as something of a gift, since all of the contributors gave their work freely, and the proceeds of the book will go to charity. The Encore Foundation, dedicated to assisting magicians in need, is an unarguably worthy cause, and yet another reason to purchase this book and explore its ideas for yourself, whether you find them provocative, useful, or both. There are all kinds of gifts in the world, and Professor Hass suggests that when Jeff McBride dramatically hurls playing cards out into his audience, he is offering them gifts. But I wonder: Are they gifts? Or is he shooting cards at their heads as a dynamic way to hold their attention, as he once did, decades ago, in the challenging conditions of Club Ibis, a nightclub on the east side of Manhattan, where I first watched him developing his unprecedented act?

In the pages of this book, in a conversation with Robert Neale, Lawrence Hass poses the following observation: I can imagine critics of this book project who might say, "magic as gift," "gift of magic"—all this is mere metaphor and loose talk that yields confusion and the meaninglessness of words. "Magic is a gift? Duh, no. . . .magic is a performing art."


Gift Magic- Performances that Leave People with a Souvenir • Edited by Lawrence Hass • 165 pages • hardcover; dustjacket; illustrated with 57 line drawings