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Showmanship for Magicians

by Dariel Fitzkee
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Showmanship for Magicians by Dariel Fitzkee

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Dariel Fitzkee authored one of the best trilogies on magic theory. This volume, book one in the trilogy, primarily deals with theoretical aspects of a magic performance. This book has been cited numerous times and is one of the standard works every serious magician should read. Fitzkee has a very analytical mind and describes his thoughts clearly. As with any theory not everyone will agree with every detail and every suggestion. Regardless of if you fully subscribe to Fitzkee's thinking or not, there is plenty to learn from his writings.

Paul Fleming wrote:

Several years ago, Dariel Fitzkee wrote a little book called Misdirection for Magicians, in which he purported to present the "real secret" of magic, which had to do with making magic deceptive. He now turns up with a much larger volume, Showmanship for Magicians, and another "real secret" of magic - that of making magic entertaining. We may anticipate a very natural question - "To what extent do the two books overlap?" - by saying at once that there seems to be no duplication whatsoever. Indeed, the author, in Showmanship for Magicians, makes a special point of playing down "tricks as tricks" (apparently assuming that his reader knows, or may be depended upon to learn, how to mystify an audience), and stresses what he regards as vastly more important - methods of presentation by means of which a magician may give his audience the maximum of enjoyment to be had from a program of magic. Everything in the book, as Mr. Fitzkee says in the next to last chapter, "is directed at making your act - the very act you are now doing - more pleasing to your audiences."

This is a worthy ambition, and we know of no book more likely than Showmanship for Magicians to contribute to the attainment of this goal. That there is room for improvement in the pleasure-giving capacity of most programs of magic appears to us to be beyond dispute. We have seen the stage work of most of America's best magicians of the past forty years, and consequently have witnessed some magnificent performances that combined both mystery and delightful entertainment; but we have also spent many weary hours at exhibitions in which self-styled "magicians" were clearly fooling no one at all and quite as obviously were entertaining only themselves. So we can understand Mr. Fitzkee's impatience with the quotation that Dr. Wilson used to print so often in The Sphinx: "Magic is an art that sometimes instructs, often amuses, and always entertains." This, no doubt, is what magic should be; but we are inclined to think that Mr. Fitzkee is not exaggerating when he says of magic today that "fully seventy-five per cent of the performances are poor according to modern entertainment standards."

This situation arises, in large part, from the fact that most magicians are amateurs, and many are young amateurs who are necessarily inexperienced. Since we know no remedy for inexperience save experience, and no way for the budding magician to gain it except through frequent appearances before spectators, we assume that there will always be performers of magic whose work at the moment is neither very artistic nor very entertaining. This is, indeed, a price the public must pay for the development of practitioners in all fields of art. The late John Drew, who became one of the greatest of dramatic stars, was in his youth such an atrociously bad performer that his mother despaired of making an actor of him; and we could name magicians who started out as very clumsy tricksters and yet wound up as brilliant performers. Unless we have a steady stream of beginners in magic, as well as others in varying stages of development, it is hard to see where we are to get, year after year, our supply of Kellars, Devants, Powells, Germains, Laurants, Cardinis, Rosinis, Dantes, Dunningers, and Blackstones.

Nevertheless, we fear that Mr. Fitzkee is correct in charging that "of the thousands of performers-of-tricks who daily exhibit their wares throughout the world, but a minute percentage has given any thought to presentation or showmanship"; just as he is unquestionably on safe ground when he says that the "tyro" has no right to face an audience, large or small, "without some intelligent preparation in selling entertainment to an audience," though "preparation" may take any of many forms. The problem, it would seem, is the existence of too many magicians, young and old, amateur and professional, who regard magic purely as a means of puzzling an audience, whereas if it is only that and not a medium of entertainment as well it will soon cease even to get a hearing-for, in general, only magicians are interested in magic as mystery, but practically everyone is interested, actually or potentially, in magic as entertainment. In this book Mr. Fitzkee emphasizes the necessity of making magic, above all else, genuinely entertaining; and then proceeds, with great industry and much skill, to tell how it may be done.

It can scarcely be charged that the author has not covered sufficient ground, and an examination of the book reveals that he has succeeded, in 187 pages of text, in treating with a surprising degree of thoroughness each of the many phases of his subject. Writing a book of this kind is a formidable undertaking, but Mr. Fitzkee tackles the job with courage and enthusiasm and sees it through with unflagging determination. No one who reads the book will doubt that the author has given much thought to the problem of showmanship. He has clearly been watching and analyzing magical programs for a long time, and several years ago was the producer and a leading performer of a full evening of magic, "International Magicians in Action." Unfortunately, we had no opportunity to see this production, and not all of the reports that reached us were favorable; but this at least may be said for it -that it gave Mr. Fitzkee a chance to put many of his theories into practice, and a wealth of illustrations upon which to draw in writing his book. This practical experience has led him to analyze showmanship from the point of view of a producer who has nightly watched the reactions of admission-paying spectators, and not merely as a lover of magic who has decided, in the remote security of his study, the sort of performance an audience ought to like.

In a field of discussion that is as highly controversial as this, the author will hardly expect to win the unanimous approval of his readers. We ourselves, on the basis of a good many years of stage experience, would take issue with him on a number of points, with respect to which we feel that either his judgment is not wholly sound or his conclusions are too sweeping. But in general we regard Showmanship for Magicians as worthy of careful and repeated readings by every magician who has the welfare of magic at heart. Many will not like some things the author says, for he is a crusader who strikes heavy blows and smashes away at venerable traditions in magic which he thinks have outlived their usefulness. Others will dislike the rather pontifical tone, the voice of "authority," with which the author sometimes speaks. However, we believe that on the whole the book will be read with both interest and pleasure (and of course, first and foremost, with profit), for Mr. Fitzkee has a vigorous, colorful, and at times a highly amusing way of expressing himself. We may offer, by way of example, the following description of how not to do, and then how to do, a familiar feat:

"There's a good example of economy in Cardini's entire routine, but one little thing he does illustrates it perfectly. How often have you seen performers doing the untying silk? They laboriously twist it up, blabber about it, horse around with it, yell and beat their chests and run around the stage and generally raise hell all over.

"Consider Cardini. He quietly takes the silk from his pocket. He twists it quickly, with a few deft movements. It unties! Again: He twists it, ties it. It unties itself just a bit more slowly. He shudders and discards the silk:

"Routining" is unquestionably an important phase of showmanship. To this vital subject the author devotes two chapters (40 pages) with several exceptionally fine lessons on building a trick into a really effective "interpretation" - though the patter suggested for the "Mora wands" seems to us to be anything but appropriate. The extensive "check charts" in Chapter 25 are a novel and useful feature of the book, which should find ready application among magicians of all grades. But there are, after all, twenty-five chapters in Showmanship for Magicians, and in each of these there is valuable information for some, if not for all, magicians. We cannot imagine any magical enthusiast reading the book without being goaded into thought, and we are confident that many will be stimulated into action - which would be a most excellent thing, both for the individuals themselves and for magic as an art.

Twenty years ago, the late David Devant, greatest of English magicians, wrote a magazine article on the future of magic, which contained this paragraph:

"The great public of the future will want something more than magic at a magical entertainment. One is made well aware of that fact today. The cry everywhere is for entertainment. Amuse us! Entertain us! Take us out of ourselves for a time! The magician who can do this finds that the public do not care greatly if the tricks are costly or cheap, beautiful or ugly, complicated or simple, as long as the performance is really entertaining. I imagine that the audiences of the future will be even more exacting in their demands in this matter of entertainment than the audiences of today, and that the magician who fails to recognize that fact will go under. Progression in the art of magic there will be - there must be - but I imagine that the improvements will not be purely and solely in magic itself, but in the manner in which the magician presents his mysteries to his audience."

Mr. Devant's prediction - that the public would ask for "more than magic" and insist upon having entertainment - has come true. And to meet this demand, Mr. Fitzkee (who, perhaps, has never even heard of the Devant article) has written a book that sets forth definite, specific measures for doing what Mr. Devant had in mind - that is, for making magic entertaining measures which, if fully comprehended and intelligently put into practice, should give magic a new lease on life.

The length of this review may be taken as evidence that we regard this book as an important contribution to magical literature, and so we do. However, it falls just a little short, we feel, of being a really great book. We claim no special knowledge of psychology, but the reading we have done in that field leads us to think that Mr. Fitzkee's "classifications" might well be more precise, and that his psychological concepts could be more clearly expounded and more appropriately grouped. The book gives the impression, too, of having been somewhat hurriedly written; and certain of Mr. Fitzkee's peculiarities of style (for example, his great fondness for "sentences" that have no verbs) would cause almost any teacher of English to tear his hair. Indeed, such a person might argue that Mr. Fitzkee, in practicing 'the art of writing, should set for himself as high standards as he demands of conjurers in their practice of the art of magic! Perhaps in a later edition - and this is a book that should run into many editions - the author may see fit to give more attention to "selling himself" (to use one of his favorite expressions) as a writer. But, in any event, we find in this book quite enough reason for rejoicing. Not only is it by far the best of the author's books up to the present, and the best treatise on showmanship that we expect to see for many a day; but it is also a well-printed, cloth-bound book, in strong contrast to the mimeographed pamphlets Mr. Fitzkee has been publishing for a number of years. Here, indeed, is progress; and we shall accept it as a good omen for the future!

Here is what others had to say about this book, when it originally was published in the 1940s.

FRAKSON, great Spanish magician, and Music Corporation of America star, says: "It is a most wonderful, wonderful book---perhaps the greatest book ever written on magic! It shows a very good knowledge of the whole psychology of the theatre. Everything is there."

"The book should be studied, not merely read, by every individual who performs magic in public, or whoever hopes to do so ... ENTHUSIASTICALLY RECOMMEND." - JOHN MULHOLLAND, editor The Sphinx and experienced professional magical lecturer.

"Not since 1911, when 'Our Magic' appeared, has there been such a book ... This work is invaluable. His logic is crystal clear and he hits the nail on the head in every chapter, " - JOHN BRAUN, editor The Linking Ring.

"Many interesting pages are crammed with much needed information. All magicians should read it and most should apply its teachings." - WILLIAM LARSEN, The Genii.

  • INTRODUCTION
    • The need for this book
    • Much applies to all entertainers
    • Why I have dared
    • "Well, he's working."
    • Collected by the show business
    • The unmentionable appeal
  • CHAPTER I - Do Magicians Need Higher Entertainment Standards?
    • The only reason for showmanship
    • The fallacy that magic "always entertains."
    • Why changing standards have made new presentation methods necessary
    • The spectators themselves
    • The damage poor presentation does
    • Clues from the show business
    • See the performance as the spectators do
    CHAPTER II - Things From Another Era
    • Who the average magician is
    • Tables and the one-hoss shay
    • The circus adopts modern taste
    • Look at the stuff and hang your head
    • Whose fault is it?
    • Second childhood
    • Magicians as strange characters
    • Glib and idle talk
    • Dismal palaver
    • Stumbling all around
    • Secrets are not important
    • Flunkies
    • What do you prefer for entertainment?
  • CHAPTER III - How to Find Out What the Public Really Wants
    • The magic of attendance
    • Motion pictures
    • Stage musicals
    • Dramatic shows
    • Vaudeville
    • Night clubs
    • Burlesque
    • Opera
    • Concert
    • Ballet
    • The secret of the appeal of drama
    • Romance, rehearsal and punch
    • Specially written material
    • Unified routine
    • What show business reveals
    • Who gets the dollar?
    • Build to customer preferences
  • CHAPTER IV - The Things Big Audiences Really Buy
    • Dissection for diagnosis
    • Analysis of audience appeals
    • Where the average magician misses
    • Make them like you in as many ways as they can
    • Quantity and variety
    • Modernizing the mental act
  • CHAPTER V - How Music Adds Interest
    • The foundational principles upon which the whole show business is based
    • Shaping magic to these standards not difficult
    • Music
    • Not a "tiny little valse"
    • Mood, background, situation and character through music
    • Pennies from heaven versus the miser
    • Audience sympathy
    • Intermezzo to a snootful
    • Murder to music
    • The Anvil Chorus and the heathen Chinee
  • CHAPTER VI - Rhythm, Youth and Sex
    • Tap your foot to top billing
    • Stardust and a beautiful blonde
    • Stop, look and listen
    • Walk-ons
    • Who is the greatest magician, and rhythm
    • Life begins at forty, but Factor's helps
    • Gals as gals
    • Stress without vulgarity
    • Glamour sells tickets
    • Indirect methods are best
    • On being unaware and subtle
  • CHAPTER VII - Personality and the Necessity of Selling Yourself
    • People are more interested in people
    • The big stars and what they have in common
    • How individuality makes the star
    • Only one result possible
    • How a pleasing personality is achieved
    • Dale Carnegie's magic book
    • Only five ways to reach a spectator
    • Two most important
    • The sound and fury
    • Make yourself different
    • Identifications
    • They must please the spectators
    • Try it yourself
    • Material and style
    • Push the man, not the tricks
    • Picking you own pocket
  • CHAPTER VIII - Color, Harmony, Sentiment, Romance
    • Color in keeping only in certain cases
    • Think of the other stuff
    • Artificial lights and color
    • The conventional is dangerous
    • Many meanings to harmony
    • Good taste, and a sense for fitness
    • Sentiment pays dividends
    • Hats
    • Love, and a two-timing daddy
    • Conjuring courtship
    • Nostalgia, not neuralgia
  • CHAPTER IX - Timing and Pointing
    • What timing is
    • Examples abound
    • Emphasizing to sell the idea
    • The gradual ritard
    • Piano solo with razor blade accompaniment
    • Timing for punch
    • Amateurs don't like it
    • Volunteer critics
    • Pointing for mayhem
    • What pointing is
    • Lazy pointing to a very fast trick
    • The factors to stress
    • Good general rules
  • CHAPTER X - Surprise, Unity, Character and Situation
    • An effective expedient
    • Logical development best
    • Surprise with punch
    • Unity, the connecting thread
    • What unity is
    • Examples
    • Characters
    • What they are
    • How they trap audience interest
    • Back to unity again
    • More ways of achieving it
    • It may be bird, beast or fish
    • Maintaining character
    • People are interested in people, again
    • How character is revealed
    • Situation, what it is
    • Conflict brings consequences
    • Russell Swann and situation
    • Situation and a nude young woman.
  • CHAPTER XI - Costuming, Grooming, Make-up, Personal Behavior and Smoothness
    • Proper costume and careful grooming essential
    • Old out-of-date clothes at a party
    • Clothes make the character
    • When there is doubt, there is no doubt
    • Well groomed routine
    • What, when and how
    • Being at ease
    • Let the subconscious do the work
    • On standing still
    • Be particular about make-up
    • How to find out how to dress
    • How to avoid having to have the hands cut off
    • Facial expression with a floy-floy
    • Voice placement, not ventriloquism
    • Stage fright
    • What it is and how to eliminate it
    • Poise a la Old Grandad
    • And smoothness
  • CHAPTER XII - Confidence Through Rehearsal
    • How to gain confidence
    • What rehearsal really is
    • What it is in the beginning
    • Time limits
    • On acquiring material
    • Putting the act together
    • Get good advice
    • Magicians are poor judges
    • Every little movement
    • The walk-through
    • What is action?
    • Climbing the golden stairs
    • What lift and movement are
    • The grind of rehearsal
    • On correcting mistakes
  • CHAPTER XIII - Physical Action, Group Coordination, Precise Attack, Economy and Brevity
    • Why people like physical action
    • How it can be incorporated in magic
    • How group coordination may be applied to magic
    • Coordination with money, hats and water
    • Stupendous trickery
    • Out with the flunkey
    • Again, people are interested in people
    • A game of catch
    • With rope, too
    • What precise attack is
    • What economy it
    • Getting his money's worth
    • What brevity is, and how to achieve it
    • Holding attention
  • CHAPTER XIV - Efficient Pacing, Punch, Instinct Appeals, Combine Appeals, Grace, Effortless Skill, Spectacle and Contrast
    • How to pace efficiently
    • What punch is
    • How to acquire it
    • From 36 gals
    • Why magic acts lack punch
    • Instinct appeals and responses
    • Ganging them up
    • How to be graceful
    • How to make your skill seem effortless
    • Sure-fire material
    • What spectacle is
    • How to create it
    • Contrast for emphasis
  • CHAPTER XV - Comedy
    • Its importance
    • Subordinate tricks to comedy
    • Comedy is a serious business
    • Where to learn about it
    • Various kinds of comedy
    • Humor and wit
    • Jest and joke
    • The laughable, ludicrous, comical, droll, ridiculous
    • Satire, irony, caricature and burlesque
    • Farce
    • Comedy in the difficulties of others
    • Twenty-four causes for laughter
    • Some suggestions
  • CHAPTER XVI - Getting and Holding Interest and Attention
      Success is proportionate to interest
    • The kinds of attention
    • Voluntary and involuntary
    • What kind of attention is interest
    • Keep within the spectators' world
    • "My stuff is over their heads"
    • How to bring your act within the spectators' worlds
    • The three classes of people
    • Fit the act to the people
    • Contact through the "other woman"
    • Emotion, what makes it tick
    • Fatigue
    • Patterns
  • CHAPTER XVII - Types of Audiences and Their Preferences
    • Why you have to know your audiences
    • Eleven kinds of audiences
    • The kind of material and angle of attack
    • Kids, men, women and mixed audiences
    • Drunk and sober
    • Two more groups often neglected
    • What these audiences are interested in
    • The patterns to follow
  • CHAPTER XVIII - How to Routine
    • Planning every minute detail
    • Tricks as materials
    • How to make a trick "arrangement"
    • Interpretation is everything
    • Tricks are skeletons only
    • Top entertainers insist upon special, exclusive material
    • Routines are individual
    • The three-act idea
    • An example with a pocket trick
    • A trick is like sheet music
    • Are musicians more painstaking than magicians?
    • Routine defined
    • An example with a stage trick
    • An example with an illusion
    • "Hammy" magic
  • CHAPTER XIX - How to Routine-Continued
    • Don't drag in tricks by the ears
    • Find a reasonable pause
    • How a logical cause colors the whole routine
    • Mora wands with sex appeal and a moral
    • A Good Neighbor presentation of the cut rope, and a situation
    • Rising cards with Boogie-Woogie
    • Look out for stock instructions
    • The spark of life
    • How to keep from boring house guests
    • A routine for company
  • CHAPTER XX - How to Get Ideas For Acts
    • The name for a performance
    • Acts are ideas
    • An act from a trick
    • An act from a character in a situation
    • An act from sex appeal
    • Acts from confidence games
    • Waller suggests "perverse magic"
    • The neophite magician
    • Impersonations of well-known people
    • From characters and character types
    • From an ultimate impression
    • From a situation
    • By taking another act apart
    • From Folies Bergere to International Magicians
    • My slip showed
    • A revue act from a trick
    • More suggestions
  • CHAPTER XXI - How to Put An Act Together
    • Getting the materials together
    • Stock apparatus
    • How to make your props convincing and in keeping with the act idea
    • Preparing spoken material
    • Preparing music score
    • Putting in cues
    • Cue sheets for curtains and lights
    • Property lists
    • "You're on!"
  • CHAPTER XXII - How to Make Your Act Salable
    • The formula for the shortest route to success
    • Making the product like they want it
    • How to take an act apart to see what makes it tick
    • The booker is the guy to please
    • The longer way
    • The scarcity of geniuses
  • CHAPTER XXIII - A Magic Show in the Modern Manner
    • A new slant on magic presentation
    • A revue with magic as the theme
    • Where it differs from the usual magic show
    • Ouch!
    • Cocktails and cash
    • Tails and tricks
    • Stubs and sparks
    • Memory with music
    • The cut-ups
    • A bottle of spirits
    • East is East
    • It's just things like this
    • All wet
    • A bride and a bathing suit
    • Lunch
    • Beauty and the bird
    • My hat, please
    • Snorted again
    • It's murder, he says
    • Stardust
    • Oh, daddy
    • Slow and fast
    • And stuff
  • CHAPTER XXIV - Finale
    • An inventory
    • Salesmanship
    • Likable qualities
    • Don't don't
    • Grooming
    • Ease and confidence
    • Prepare thoroughly
    • Talk
    • Props
    • Smile
    • Bows
    • Building up to a hand
    • Emphasis
    • Be in style
  • CHAPTER XXV - Check Charts
    • A list of audience appeals
    • Check chart on act ideas
    • Check chart on routines
    • Check chart for performances
    • Things to think of after the show

1st edition 1943; reprint 1973; reprint 1988; 202 pages.
word count: 67072 which is equivalent to 268 standard pages of text


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