The Cruise Magician's Handbook by Fred Becker

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 1998)

Fred Becker and his wife, Kellie, perform as The Beckers, a successful cruise-ship act working on major cruise lines and ships. Over the past four years, and appropriately mostly on-board, Mr. Becker wrote this book, which can fairly be called the most thorough treatise to date on the subject. I've read other material on cruising, but this specialized and limited branch of the literature consists primarily of small pamphlets and the like. But now, if you have any interest in pursuing this field, you have little choice but to buy this book. This book is about product rather than production values, and while the latter may be a bit on the skimpy side, the quality and quantity of information make the price not merely reasonable but a bargain for any serious professional.

Practical manuals like this can often, as mentioned above, make for pretty dreary reading, but the degree of research, detail and thoroughness that the author has provided made this an impressive and, in fact, a reasonably enjoyable read. The book consists of 14 substantive chapters along with several useful appendices. I daresay that every last aspect of the field is addressed and every imaginable question is answered— with the sole and notable exception of the subject of actual performance material. Mr. Becker plays this aspect close to the vest, offering a mere four pages of advice on "Structuring Your Acts" and presenting absolutely no examples of the kind of material he uses or recommends. This is not necessarily a flaw, although some may find it so, but while there was no need for the author to give up his own repertoire, I would still have preferred to know some of his thoughts on openers, closers, audience involvement, sleight-of-hand, illusions, or whatever he might have offered in this department. Although I have no idea as to what caliber of performer he is, I'm sure he has thoughts on the subject—apparently he just didn't want to share them with us! Basically, the operating premise of the writer is that he assumes that you already have an act. With that assumption in place, he proposes to instruct you as to how to put it to use in the cruise industry. The author is unambiguous about this approach. On the first page of the first chapter he suggests that the first question a performer ask should not be "How do I get booked?" but rather "Should I get booked?", and he proceeds to explain that "you should have a bare minimum of two strong twenty-minute shows (completely different), plus extra bits for 'variety show' nights." Hence, despite my desire for more on the subject of performance material, the author defines his premise directly and proceeds logically from there.

That one issue aside, the material Mr. Becker does present is excellent and voluminous. His experience is extensive, and what's more, he has been able to extrapolate important lessons from that experience and organize and present it clearly to the inquiring reader. Chapters include Getting Booked; Money; Money-Making Extras; Negotiating and Contracts; What to Bring; Life at Sea; The Rating System & You (and if you don't know about cruise ship rating systems, well, you're in for some unsettling surprises); Technical Aspects; Structuring Your Acts; Assistance Please; Tales from the Sea; Taking Care of Business; and Travelling Nightmares. Given the breadth of subject matter, including the information concerning fundamental theatrical production issues, I would in fact recommend this book for any working pro who travels a fair amount, especially with a large show—you will learn a great deal here of use, whether or not you ever set foot on a cruise ship. As for cruisers, even the experienced are bound to get ideas, as the book is simply rife with priceless tidbits that are typically only earned through hard experience; for example, the tip that you should bring some extra passport-sized photos in order to expedite the issuance of your all-important crew pass.

I was very impressed by the depth and quality of the author's research. Although he does not use livestock in his own work, he has nevertheless amassed detailed information for the reader on the subject. When it comes to complex issues like Customs, handling cargo or obtaining passports, he doesn't take the typically lazy route and simply tell you to make sure to find out more because this is an important subject, perhaps directing you to an address or phone number. Rather he does all the research and provides you with every conceivable detail. Literally everything you need to know about obtaining a passport or getting freight shipments through Customs has been researched and provided in these pages.

A handful of pages from Kellie Becker give some excellent insight into the role of a professional stage partner, as well as, interestingly, the life of a working performing couple. I loved this snippet of matter-of-fact relationship rationality: "He is much calmer than I am before a show, and we do better to stay apart just prior to performances." And this dose of professional partnerism: "I like to set up a station in the wings. ... I am also in earshot should he forget a volunteer's name (it happens). I can quietly cue him without the audience knowing." This is terrific real-world and real-life material, and there's no shortage of it. Any professional entertainer has nightmare travel tales, but the seven-page horror story the author describes here (I could have told him his first mistake was trying to read Fitzkee's Trick Brain) is truly harrowing and beats my own worst and probably yours.

My cruise ship experience is limited, but enough to know that the author is correct when, on the first page of his introduction, he states "that a cruise ship is a unique environment to any you have worked previously. Working in this environment is certainly not for everybody. ... It is not simply working a job that floats." In the magic industry, cruise ships are a lot like trade shows: venues with great opportunity that many say they wish to work but in fact know little about. Fred Becker quotes an epigram in his book: "Saddle your dreams before you ride 'em." That's excellent advice, and if you have the dream, Mr. Becker has provided the means to enable you to grab hold of the reins and perhaps someday ride off into a seaside sunset.

8 - 1/2" X 11" spiral bound; 240 pages; illustrated with photographs; 1996. Publisher: Amazing Magic Tricks