Have Austin's Magicians Vanished for Good?
With the coronavirus shutdown, it's now you see 'em, now you don't
We can't just wave a magic wand – hey presto! or avada kedavra! – and this whole coronavirus situation we're struggling through just vanishes. None of us is Harry Potter. None of us is an actual magician, except possibly in that Aleister Crowley/Alan Moore influencing-our-cultural-environment way.
But some of us, even here in Austin, are the other sort of magician: the professional entertainers, the showbiz conjurers who bring a less cryptic and maybe even Insta-worthy version of pretend wizardry into the clubs, theatres, dive bars, and corporate meeting rooms of this modern world. And what are they doing right now? We talked to five of them about how they've been affected by society shutting down, venues shuttering, and gigs being canceled. And we inquired what magicians were doing to pass the time as they shelter in place.
Does the guy even need an introduction in this town? The longtime magical star of Esther's Follies, a Performing Fellow of the International Academy of Magical Arts, Anderson's been delighting and confounding the Sixth Street crowds for 30 years. As good as the whole current-event-skewering Follies cast is, the dapper conjurer's marvels are what most people rave about after a night of laughs and music. But, yeah, that's been on hold for a while now. "This shutdown's affected everything in my life," says Anderson. "My job, my income, my personal acquaintances – since I'm having to distance myself from all of my friends. And Esther's actually closed down two weeks earlier than most people did, because we were going on vacation during SXSW. It's our normal vacation time each year, so we've been off a bit longer than some entertainers. And when South By was canceled, it was shocking – although, in hindsight, the best possible thing that could've happened – but we thought we'd be back by the time our two weeks of vacation were up. And of course income stops, too, because Esther's is pay-as-you-play." The magician laughs, perhaps ruefully.
"Right now, we've considered the loans that the government's offered small businesses to get the cast paid. So if I were to get paid anything, it would probably be through that. We also have a Patreon page, and that's strictly for the other cast members – Shannon [Sedwick, Esther's owner] or I, we're not taking anything from that – and we're adding content that will help out. But who knows how long this is gonna last, so we're just, you know, taking it day by day. And some people say that the crowds are gonna come roaring back, but I suspect it'll be slower than that. For one thing, everybody's hurting, moneywise – even if you're still working from home, this pandemic's probably costing you something. So entertainment is just not a necessity. Well, it is for some people, I guess. But when you're talking about needing to buy groceries, and feeding your kids, and that sort of thing – it's just not up there on your priority list. So I suspect things will come back to normal slowly, over time. But, obviously, this is a life-changing experience."
Austin's Jack Darling is a conjurer of the people, out there in the pubs and clubs, enlivening house parties and artsy fundraisers with his engaging brand of prestidigitation and humor, imparting an arch trickster vibe to any gathering lucky enough to have him. Whether working solo or with his partner Christine for their show "Magic With the Darlings," the man's got it, as they say, goin' on. Except now, of course, not so much: All his upcoming shows were coronacanceled.
"Some days I have a hard time focusing and trying to imagine what's next," Darling says. "When I get down, I go into my magic room and be very Darling. I look at all the creative magic and try to make a video with some heart and playfulness to it. I'm coming up with short video ideas and trying to talk my two other family members into joining in – and, in order to successfully get them on board, I'm trying to be less annoying. I'm also writing. And not writing. Taking an online writing class for some kind of structure. Taking long walks. Checking in with friends. Seeking a mentor and teaching kids magic on Zoom." Doing, like all of us, whatever can be done. ...
Nick Lewin's usually a very busy man. Original Londoner, longtime Austinite, the affable ginger fellow with the sleightest of hands has won awards for his five-year solo show in Las Vegas and charmed audiences all over the world – in addition to running a robust online store of magic tricks. (Well, "we sell routines, not tricks," but still.) Just off a run of performances on the Tavern's upstairs stage, frustrated that he won't be able to debut a family show at what was to be the new Cap'n Quacks coffeehouse on the city's south side, what is Lewin doing in these socially thwarted times? "Right now I'm sitting out on my back porch with a vodka and 7-Up," he says over the phone. "So I'm doing good. But it's interesting, because every gig went. I had a bunch of dates in Vegas, and I'd gone out to L.A. for lecturing, and everything is gone. I have one date left in December, I think. And that's fine, because I'm quasi-retired now. Financially – I mean, I've lost a lot on that. And I sell a lot of stuff online, to magicians all around the world, but nobody is spending much at the moment. All the magicians I sell to are just realizing that they have no idea when they'll next be able to work. So there's a huge amount of uncertainty."
And in the midst of that uncertainty? "I'm doing what everyone is doing," says Lewin. "I'm looking at the tricks I was doing, putting new material together, tightening things up, doing some rehearsals. All the things that you put off because you're too busy running around in circles performing. And when it comes back, I don't think it's gonna come back quickly. But, when it does, everybody should try and be at the top of their game – and that's what I'm trying to do. But there's a lot of internet stuff going on, too – just like the music scene here – and it's going on internationally. I did a magicians' pizza party on Thursday, where I was interviewed by two guys from Canada, from Magician Masterclass. We did a Zoom thing, so magicians all around the world, we all made pizza at the same time, and they got to ask me questions, and they ran clips of my different TV shows over the years, and that was fun. And today we had a really large digital magic convention, Share Magic Live, with magicians from all over giving lectures from their living rooms, teaching and doing some tricks. So there's actually been a tremendous buildup of community going on with these."
But, IRL, where the meat hits the air, everyone's still safely sheltering-in-place? "We're not going out, my wife and I," says Lewin. "I've had a stroke and a heart attack, and I've got a lung issue going. Which doesn't totally stop me having fun: I've cut down to one cigar a week. I know it's going to have to go down from there, but it's my big moment of the week, if I smoke a cigar. My big sin of the moment."
If clutter is a sin, as Marie Kondo might imply, then Round Rock's Brad Henderson might be among the biggest sinners ever. Except, no, you wouldn't call his vast collection of magic paraphernalia and puzzles and automata and outsized fossils clutter: It's too tidily arranged, too well-balanced in presentation, regardless of the fact that it covers almost every inch in every room of his spacious residence – which is why it's been among the most remarkable sights of Austin's yearly Weird Homes Tour. Still, hardworking hypnotist Henderson's not content to let it be – not in these self-isolated times.
"There are tens of thousands of objects in my house," says the magician, "and it's more than a museum, it's a working archive. I've got tons of books and pieces of equipment, props, and I've been spending a lot of time going through the collection, going, 'Oh, this is supposed to live here,' and, 'Oh, where does this really belong?' and trying to find some order among the chaos."
The order of a life in which Henderson earns much of his annual keep from high school grad parties and, later, touring like a rock star at summer camps throughout the Northeast – "You can't find a Jewish kid on Long Island who doesn't know who Brad Henderson is" – that order has also been thrown into chaos.
"Right now, all the camps are putting on this really positive front – they're showing all the new counselors, talking about the new equipment, and everything is proceeding as usual – but the gist of the conversations I've had is, if the government allows the camps to open, then it's going to happen. But if the camp industry folds up for the summer, that's going to be a major, major problem. Because that's a huge part of my income. I'd go up there for eight weeks and work my butt off to get the big chunk of change. And there's no new business coming in right now, no inquiries, people aren't thinking about entertainment. So I'm not getting calls for November, I'm not getting calls for December, for February. And then there's this very interesting question: How is this going to psychologically and emotionally affect people afterward, when it comes to wanting to sit next to someone in a theatre setting or a corporate meeting? Or when the entire premise, the power, of close-up magic comes from its immediacy and its intimacy – that it happens right there in your hands and you're sitting there at arm's length?"
Those questions about magic's future are especially fraught for Kent Cummins, the former Austinite (now in Georgetown) who celebrated his 70th year as a magician last November, because the online thing just isn't doing it for him. "I'm an entertainer," he says. "I usually do about 50 performances a year. Some of those are magic shows I do with my granddaughter, some are magic classes, and I do keynote speaking and corporate training, those kind of things – one a week, on the average. But with this virus, I'm not able to do those right now. And sitting in front of a computer with a camera on my face, talking about stuff – that isn't the way I present. I'm a prop guy, I'm a juggler, I'm a magician."
Still, the venerable conjurer hasn't dissolved into a puddle of Netflix bingeing. "I spend most of my time writing," says Cummins. "I write a monthly column for The Linking Ring, which is the official magazine for the International Brotherhood of Magicians. Or I'm working on my Fantastic Magic Center, which is this little townhome my wife and I bought that's just a mile from where we live. The two-car garage is now a small theatre; the master bedroom suite is a library; the main rooms are museum rooms. I've been getting literally hundreds of boxes opened up and sorted out, putting posters on the wall. The Center will be outstanding by the time we can let people get into it again."
And when might that be, dear reader? When will we be able to share physical space and human company again, and enjoy the power of magic in all its immediacy and intimacy? None of these magicians has a crystal ball sufficient to forecast that. And neither do the science-rich wizards of the CDC.