Big Friday sale

Lights! Camera! Action! by Dick and Virginia Williams

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii August, 1994)


In 1966, Dick Williams began hosting "Magicland," a weekly magic show on WMC Channel 5, a local NBC television affiliate in Memphis, Tennessee. "Magicland" ran continuously for 23 years, becoming the longest running television magic show ever to air in the U.S.

Williams had begun in broadcasting as a radio announcer in the 1940s, where he met his future wife and now co-author, Virginia, herself a radio broadcaster and singer, in Wichita, Kansas. Mr. Williams made the transition from radio to television in 1955, and eventually the couple relocated to Amarillo, Texas, where Mr. Williams became an announcer at a local TV station. There Mr. Williams mounted his first television magic show, in 1963. This was the experiment that would soon lead to the "Magicland" show in Williams' eventual home base of Memphis, where the Williamses moved to in 1965, and where Dick joined local television station WMC Channel 5 as a staff announcer and weatherman. The rest, as they say, is history.

LIGHTS! CAMERAS! MAGIC! is the Williamses' final report, if you will, of their experience in doing a weekly, family-oriented magic show on local television. The book is carefully written and well produced. Through twelve chapters, plus additional material, the authors discuss many aspects of their experience. The first three chapters address the process of selling a show to a TV station, obtaining sponsors and how to promote and publicize the show, and preparing the weekly program. Later chapters discuss the use of clowns on such a show, a chapter of ideas for a TV weatherman who might combine magic with his weather broadcasts—an idea which Mr. Williams, himself a weatherman, never actually used, but obviously thought a great deal about—and a couple of chapters of personal reminiscences about the Williamses' lifetime of magic, both on and off TV.

In between, through the middle five chapters and an appendix, the authors address specific magic tricks, presentations, and scripts, which Mr. Williams performed on his approximately 1200 "Magicland" appearances. This is quite a mother lode of material. Mr. Williams obviously holds a love and indeed passion for magic that has clearly never waned, and that shines brightly out of the pages of this text. Although there are occasional moments when his sense of humor reveals some of the tastes and prejudices of an earlier time, nevertheless it is a pleasure to see Mr. Williams make frequent reference to credits and ideas that stem from very recent publications in the literature of conjuring. Trying to feed television's insatiable maw meant that Mr. Williams could not rest on his laurels, as so many do, once he had accumulated his first hour of material, and his exploration of diverse and contemporary ideas should be duly noted and admired. As well, Mr. Williams' pleasure in his art and experience enables him to put his ego aside and allow the reader, at times, to examine his occasional misses and failures as well as his hits and successes. This habit is both refreshing and extremely useful to the studious reader.

As mentioned, the subject of tricks, and presentations comprises the bulk of the book, and its greatest value. The authors point out that they utilized over 700 tricks in the course of their 23 years on the air. One chapter alone lists 200 effects which Williams used as his core material, only a portion of which was recycled from time to time on the program. In this chapter they list the effect, usually the source, a brief description, and then some recommendations about how they staged and shot the trick for television. An appendix lists another 500 such effects, but this is far less useful as the only commentary, such as it is, is a brief coding of tricks that the authors believe went either especially well, or not well at all. (One amusing example of the latter that caught my attention: a sponge ball routine done with real marshmallows. I'll have to remember not to try that! But again, it is to Mr. Williams' credit that he admits to the occasional experiment gone awry.)

Subsequent chapters describe a host of presentations which the Williamses utilized, mostly original, some variants of work either published by others and duly credited, or contributed directly to the Williamses, as in the case of John Calvert's routine for the Card in Orange.

The Williamses used everything from "betcha" gags to close-up magic to large illusions, and indeed there are excellent fully-detailed ideas provided for everything from the Cups and Balls to the Harbin Zig-Zag. In fact, the opening for the Cups and Balls is a terrific idea that could be of particular use, I suspect, to a Magic Bartender. Other standouts include an excellent climax for the old rabbit hand-puppet in hat routine (and no selected card!), which would no doubt drive an audience of kids into paroxysms of delight, and some new ideas for the old Hindu Prayer Vase that might inspire you to drag this chestnut out of the closet. (While Mr. Williams provides several new ideas for this routine, I independently happened onto one of them several years ago myself, and was delighted to learn that Mr. Williams had preceded me by only a decade or two.)

Obviously it would serve little purpose to provide a complete list here of the many tricks the Williamses discuss. The most useful commentary I can provide is to caution the prospective reader that, despite the subtitle of this volume, this is not a book which broadly covers the subject of doing magic for television. The technical aspects of television are addressed, but briefly and far from comprehensively. Although I have nowhere near the volume of television experience that Mr. Williams does, nevertheless the material covered in this book is not especially relevant to any television spot I have ever done, or indeed am likely to do. None of this is offered by way of criticism. Rather, it should be pointed out that this book concerns itself largely with the performance of television magic that is oriented toward children and family audiences. There is little here of use to the performer trying to land a spot on the "Tonight Show" or similar venues. And while Mr. Williams does offer some valid advice for how to sell a program such as "Magicland," he acknowledges that he had some heavy advantages in his case: he was already an announcer and a weatherman on his local station! I'm not certain how many other opportunities there might be for a program such as his, and while he does raise the subject of local access cable television, it should be noted that such programs rarely have commercial sponsors to provide the kind of budget, minimal though it may have been, that "Magicland" obviously required.

But in his defense, I would say that this book is bound to be of use to any performer, on or off television, who performs extensively for children and family audiences, and would serve as an invaluable resource to anyone planning even a single television appearance intended for such audiences. The Williamses' experience and success is unquestionable, and therein lies the value of much of their advice.

"The real way to team almost anything is to do it. The way for you to learn how to do magic on TV is to do magic on TV. This book will help you get started ...never be content to leave things as they are. There is always room for improvement." From LIGHTS' CAMERAS! MAGIC! by Dick and Virginia Williams

Laminated board hardcover; 202 pages+ 8 pages of full color (acid-free paper); 142 B&W photos plus color section, 22 line drawings; 1994. Publisher: Samuel Patrick Smith