Designing Deception: Marketing in the Golden Age of Magic


Back when going "viral" had less exciting connotations - back when tweeting someone meant getting to the nearest telegraph - magicians and entertainers alike had to use other marketing techniques to lure people to their shows. A popular approach (and still is) was to hire artists to create sensational posters to advertise their upcoming shows. These posters were traditionally made using a long and arduous process called stone lithography. Magicians and mentalists like Houdini, Kellar, Alexander and Thurston all created stunning (and often exaggerated) images that have stood the test of time. Their vibrant colors, stunning composition, and simplistic tag lines piqued the public's curiosity. Memorable phrases like "The Man Who Knows", "Do The Spirits Return?", "Death Defying Mystery" or "Wonder Show of the Universe" all make our eyebrows raise. 





Occasionally billboards and posters were made to depict a feature act that distinguished each performer from their competition. Harry Houdini often teased the dangerous escapes he performed nightly (as seen in the famous milk can poster above). Harry Kellar is thought to have popularized the depiction of the devilish imps in his designs. These imps were swiftly replicated and copied by almost all the other magicians in that era (and still repeated ad nauseam by some today). 



My favorite design? This "Ask Alexander" billboard which is displayed in one of my favorite spots - Brooklyn Bowl. You'll have to see it in person to get the full hypnotic effect.

Will Technology Replace Magic?

Nearly a hundred and twenty years ago, two brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière revealed something so shocking that it is rumored to have caused widespread panic amongst it's onlookers. In January 1896 the very first film in history debuted in Paris - "L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat" (translated as The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station). Some have claimed that several women fainted in the audience in fear that the train might strike them dead.

There is no doubt that the way we interact with technology is changing. It's also no surprise that it's changing us - how we eat, sleep, talk and think. But will technology change the way we experience mystery? As you can imagine this question is one I find myself asking often. Will the craft that I've tirelessly practiced and developed become ubiquitous, replaced by a piece of technology far more interesting? Will my life's work thus far be distilled to a novelty? A cute, antiquated hark back to a simpler time. Quite often I come across this now famous quote from science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke: 

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
— Arthur C. Clarke

The last of Mr. Clarke's three law's (predictions really), used to send me into a panic. When some new device or app emerges from the valley of Silicon, I would slump in my chair and think "Well it was fun while it lasted!" And yes it's true that since the smart phone boom I've come across people who are certain that what I do is simply being accomplished by some miraculous device in my pocket. It’s only been seven or so years since the smart phone became popular - I wonder what will happen in another seven?

But in my opinion, although technology changes the way we experience the world it will never replace our love of wonder. David Mamet says it perfectly in his play The Water Engine:

The mind of man is less perturbed by a mystery it cannot explain than by an explanation it cannot understand.
— David Mamet

The technology around us can be as incomprehensible as magic. But we'll continue to chalk it up to a series of screens, chips and algorithms. But like a good film, novel or piece of theater we'll never cease feeling a sense of beauty and wonder because we realize there are some experiences that require no explanation. The tools we use to tell stories might change, but the experience of a good story, one that evokes magic, can never be replaced. 

Where it all began...

I remember long ago I had an affinity for the game Operation. For those unfamiliar, it was a game where you had to remove the vital organs from what looked like a mildly obese clown from the 1920's. In fact the commercial still get's me excited today. What captured me about this particular game was the need for complete concentration and a steady hand. I suppose I was destined for a profession where the same skills were necessary.

Many often ask where I got started. It's a difficult question. I equate it to asking a musician the exact moment they became enthralled by music. In my opinion it's mostly subconscious. When you're young, mystery and magic surrounds you because you're just starting to form rules about the world. So since I can't really say when I started exactly I will tell you about the moment that convinced me I needed to explore further. I was around six years old. My father was cleaning out an upstairs closet and I was in the same room watching him (or more likely playing Operation). He found a shoebox, dusted it off and removed a gentleman’s silk pocket square. A dusty, old, bright red pocket square. I remember it catching my eye. But that wasn't the amazing part. I remember my father rolling up his sleeves, tucking the pocket square down into his closed fist. In a matter of seconds the pocket square had disappeared.

That's all it took. A simple conjuror's trick convinced me that a life of legerdemain was where I belonged. This shoebox, unbeknownst to me at the time, was filled with old magic tricks, ephemera and novelties from the 1940's and had belonged to my late grandfather. I never had the chance to meet him as he died when my father was eighteen. But I'm told my grandfather had been interested in theater.  He had been in his school plays and even starred in a few. But more importantly he learned sleight of hand to entertain his comrades while stationed in India during the war. As you can imagine I was delighted to learn that conjuring was in my blood. 

Some of the original apparatus inherited from my grandfather's collection.

Some of the original apparatus inherited from my grandfather's collection.