First, a quote:

Plus ça change
Plus c’est la même chose
The more that things change
The more they stay the same

— Rush, lyrics to Circumstances from the album Hemispheres

(I could have just used the quote alone, since it’s a popular phrase in French — a language with which I am somewhat intimately familiar — but I’ve been looking for an excuse for mentioning Rush — one of my favorite bands — in Escamoteurettes.)

David Blaine Drowned Alive has aired and discussions about the special are already getting hot and heavy.

Since David Blaine’s first television special, “David Blaine: Street Magic,” was focused on close-up magic, you would reasonably expect any magic publication back in 1997 to pick up the story and discuss it.

One publication dedicated to close-up magic and people who do this sort of stuff for a living was The Magic Menu, the wonderful publication conceived, birthed, nurtured and reared to full adulthood (and, sadly, subsequently euthanized) by my friend Jim Sisti. It was (and still is) the periodical that establishes the standard for close-up workers.

During a telephone chat this morning, Jim reminded me of his “My Turn” column from the May/June 1997 issue of The Magic Menu. This was a column written shortly after Blaine’s first television special. Jim kindly gave me permission to reprint that column for you, kind readers, to read, enjoy, and marvel at how much has not changed in almost ten years:

My Turn
Jim Sisti

The number of magic specials on TV seems to increase with each passing year but never have I seen so many magicians wailing and gnashing their teeth as much as I have since the airing of David Blaine: Street Magic. The hew and cry on the Internet, at conventions, and at local magic club meetings has been continuing now for two weeks as of this writing and shows no signs of stopping.

I must admit that I was initially somewhat underwhelmed by Mr. Blaine’s performances on Late Night with Conan O ‘Brian and The Rosie O’Donnell Show. He seemed oblivious to the camera on the O’Brian show, which was, unfortunately, at the perfect angle to catch his pass. He appeared to be out of his element. However, the Street Magic special was a completely different story. He seemed to be more at ease with his material as he performed in his regular venue, for passers-by on the street.

While an argument can be made that Mr. Blaine is not the most exciting performer (in fact, he gives a whole new meaning to the term “low key”), there is no denying the effect his magic had on the spectators in this special. Simple card transpositions had people’s jaws dropping while still others ran away, genuinely frightened, as he apparently bit a chunk out of a borrowed quarter. Though I had some ethical problems with the obvious (to magicians) camera trickery in the levitation sequence, I believe that Street Magic succeeded to a degree not yet achieved by any other TV magician, including David Copperfield.

In most TV magic specials, close-up magic is relegated to a second-string position, a filler while they ready yet another box illusion. David Blaine, however, single-handedly exposed the power of close-up magic to more people in one hour than most of us will in a lifetime. So, then, what the hell is everybody’s problem?

In a word, it’s jealousy. On the Internet, I’ve seen scathing attacks on David Blaine’s technique, his choice of material, even his hairstyle. Ladies and gentlemen . .. get over it, already. I hate to be the one to break it to you but, you didn’t get the gig. Though much of the grousing seemed to come from the amateurs (now there’s a surprise!), there was one fairly well-known magician (in magic circles) who couldn’t resist attacking even before the show aired. He was quoted in the May 11, 1997 edition of The New York Times (the show aired, as you will recall, on May 19) as saying that David Blaine’s “only skill is removing money from a wallet and handing it to a person behind the counter.” These are hollow, envious words from someone who’s fifteen minutes have been up for quite some time.

While some are moaning and complaining, still others are actually trying to sell David Blaine’s act. Immediately after the special, one prominent West Coast magic dealer began advertising the props that David Blaine used on the special, such as folding quarters, Cigarette Thru Quarter, the Paul Harris video that features the Balducci levitation (popularly believed to be what Blaine really performed on the street prior to the editing work), etc. I’m quite sure that the tap dancing that would ensue should this dealer ever be asked to justify this perverse lapse of ethics would make Fred Astaire jealous.

The bottom line? Well, if you’re a professional close-up worker, you’ve already heard the reactions to the special from the people you perform for and my guess is, (if they’re anything like my audiences), they loved it. Say what you will about David Blaine’s double lift or his hip-hop haircut, we all owe him a debt of gratitude. Thanks to him, my phone will be ringing more frequently in the near future . .. and so will yours.

The more I study the life and times of both individuals, the more I feel confident in stating that David Blaine is the new Houdini.

Let the wailing and gnashing of teeth begin continue.

One thought on “David Blaine, then and now.

  1. I’ll one up you on that one and proclaim, unequivocally, that David Blaine is the Greatest Magician in History. He stands on the shoulders of giants, a fact he will be the first to acknowledge. But Blaine has taken magic to a whole new level. He has no peers — not even “real deal” Criss Angel. Not even close.

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