Day 157: Outside The Magic Circle, Looking In

originally published June 5, 2012

Regular readers of this site (both of us) know how much I love to piss off the magic community. It’s not that I have a problem with magicians – I’ve always been a huge fan of illusionists, and even took a magic class after school for short spell when I was about 10 (yes, I was that cool). But self-effacing humor and a step-back-and-laugh-at-the-silliness-of-it-all perspective is not often found in the magic community, at least from my limited experience. So, after giving away some unimpressive card tricks and upsetting the rabbit-yanking fans of L.A.’s Magic Castle, it’s time to have one more go.

Remember these guys?

On Arrested Development, this was the all-too-serious guild of Orange County magicians who appeared to have exclusive rights to all magic performances in the area, and expelled members (GOB Bluth, for example) for giving away secrets. It was a funny application of union hardline tactics and Screen Actors Guild industry dominance to the magic community. It was a great gag.

Except that it’s totally real.

Welcome to the Magic Circle. Established in 1905 at a London restaurant, the organization consisted of 23 men. They drew up a charter, figured out some Latin phrase to use as their motto, and even devised a logo that featured a bunch of alchemical symbols:

David Devant was the first president of the Magic Circle. Devant was probably the kind of magician I’d have liked. If the internet is to be believed (and it is always to be believed), he pioneered the fusing of comedy with magic, turning an illusionist performance from a “wow” thing into a complete night of entertainment. One of his tricks (sorry – illusions) was the ‘Magic Kettle’, in which he’d produce on demand any alcoholic beverage requested by his audience. I wish I’d have known this guy.

So what does the Magic Circle do? While I’m certain (well… hopeful) that they won’t strong-arm English venues who hire non-Circle-approved magic acts, they would act as a good reference on a performer’s resume. Verifying that the magician you are about to hire is a member of the Magic Circle means that he probably won’t get up on stage in front of your 14-year-old’s birthday party and magically pull his penis out of a hat.

I suppose an organization like this would be helpful in passing along trade secrets from magician to magician, but the juicy stuff – like if a performer figures out a way to disappear and emerge from an audience member’s breast pocket – would still be kept under wraps.

Magicians – apart from Penn & Teller, who jump-started their hugely successful career on revealing the secrets behind a catalog of illusionist standards – tend to be quite guarded about what they do. They have to be – the internet has made us all skeptics, and it wouldn’t do for a guy to saw his assistant in half, only to have every schmuck in the audience with a smartphone racing to to see if that kind of magic really exists.

The Magic Circle is – much like the fictional Alliance – very strict about the secrecy of the profession. Their rulebook states that any magician who divulges insider goodies to lowly muggles gets to see their membership… disappear! (for dramatic effect, please envision a swell of synthy strings overtop the ellipsis in that last sentence) This is not a common occurrence; most magicians tend to favor maintaining the integrity of their profession since most of them have probably waited tables or served fast-food chicken to drooling knuckle-draggers, and they don’t want to trade in their tuxes and top hats for the paper uniforms of that lifestyle.

Then there’s John Lenahan.

John went on BBC One in 1994 and explained the inner workings of the Three-card Monte trick to the world. Really it’s more a con than a trick, but blabbing about it was enough to get Lenahan’s Magic Circle membership yanked like a billowy white sheet revealing a suddenly-empty tiger cage. He was the first person in 85 years to get booted from the Circle.

As you may have guessed, scoring a seat at the Circle table is not simply a matter of buying your way in. You need to be sponsored by two current members who have known you for at least a year. Then you have to interview with the examinations secretary. If you pass the interview, you either undergo a performance exam in front of a panel of judges, or you may write a thesis. Finally the Council (and if they don’t all wear dark robes and funny hats on the Council, I will be tremendously disappointed) votes on your membership.

If you make it in, you’ll be among about 1500 members in 40 countries, including David Copperfield, Siegfried & Roy, Michael Vincent, former Member of Parliament John MacGregor, and this guy:

That’s a young Prince Charles, performing the cups and balls trick in 1975 to gain admittance to the Magic Circle. Somehow he managed to find time to squeeze in magic as a hobby among all his… I don’t know, prince-ing?

If you visit the Magic Circle headquarters in London – and I have no doubt that I’ll be banned from the premises – you can check out their museum, which features a number of classic vintage magic props, a sound recording off an Edison cylinder of Harry Houdini, and the actual cups and balls featured in the photo above. Yes, you can get your picture taken with Prince Charles’ balls. How great is that?

Tours are by appointment only, so don’t drop in and tell them the guy on the 1000-words internet place told you to show up and touch the prince’s balls. Like I said, these guys have not earned their reputation on their collective sense of humor.

The Circle hosts a Young Magician’s Club, which has seen a dramatic increase in popularity since Pottermania swooshed into our cultural frame a decade ago. It’s open to any kid who wants to join, but it doesn’t assure you of a slot in the actual Circle when you turn 18; the same rigorous exam process still awaits you, like a bar mitzvah, except with a sexy assistant and possibly some doves.

The Magic Circle will continue to thrive, and hopefully they won’t come after me with swords and saws and wands and whatever other weapons they have at their disposal. To appease them, I’ll throw in a plug for their cleverly-titled The Magic Circular, which claims to be the longest-running magic magazine ever. It’s quite popular among members, at least until my competing (and certainly better) magazine is released this fall:

Categories: art

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