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The Weekend Shift

Being the Assistant is the Real Trick

Nate DiMeo

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The Magic Castle in Hollywood
(MagicCastle.com)

As part of our Weekend Shift series, we meet a worker who spends her Saturday nights being sawed in half. What you and I call a magician's assistant, magicians actually call a box jumper. And as Weekend America reporter Nate Dimeo tells us, the world of the box jumper is changing.


There's an old house in the hills above Hollywood. It's mammoth and spooky, a French chateau-style mansion with towers and turrets and peaked roofs. And it's the de facto capital of the international magical underground. No, seriously. It's called the Magic Castle.

Since the early 1960s, it's been a private clubhouse for magicians, who walk through a doorway revealed, of course, behind a sliding bookcase and into a place where tricks and sleight-of-hand and illusions are taken very seriously.

Every night, at the table by the ornate fireplace or sitting at the bar surrounded by portraits and framed photos of the greatest names and magic, men practice secret card shuffles, swap stories and teach each other techniques of misdirection and deception. Invited guests in suits and cocktail dresses listen to a piano play, which has no one at the keyboard -- yet still somehow manages to take requests.

And in theaters like the Parlor of Prestidigitation and the Palace of Mystery, the traditions of magic are upheld. Pieces of paper are still torn up and put back together. Doves still appear from sleeves. Cards -- any cards -- are picked and produced in any number of ways. And women, like Sophie Evans, flounce about in a sexy nurses costumes and climbing in and out of boxes.

"My first experience watching a magic show was at a school assembly... the most magical person on the stage was the assistant," Evans says.

And while watching this beautiful woman in sequins vanish and reappear, young Sophie fell in love with magic. A decade later, she was working at a magic shop. She was 18, she was attractive and it turns out she was the perfect size to fit inside a box. Magicians would come into the shop and size her up. She says because she's small -- she's about 5'5" in heels -- they were always encouraging her to get on stage with them and climb into one of their contraptions.

Soon, Evans was appearing and disappearing on stages around the world, being cut in half and put back together. The whole thing, living a girlhood dream. But not everyone shares the awe and admiration she felt as a little girl. Blaire Baron Larsen Married into magic. Her husband's family founded the magic castle nearly 50 years ago.

"I would be dragged to these shows and I would become so enraged when I watched the assistants come out in these skimpy outfits and be cut in half and stabbed," she says. "And I thought this is the most sexist thing I'd ever seen."

She wanted to know what drove women to spend their professional lives on stage letting men poke them with swords or make them disappear -- men who were almost always their husbands. She started interviewing assistants for a documentary called Women in Boxes. And now she says, like a lot of things in magic, there is more to them than meets the eye. Larsen found that the more she talked to them, the more she realized that the assistants, not the magicians, are the ones running things.

"They're playing these victims on stage yet they ended up being the brains behind the magic -- the actual magician," she says, "I have asked some magicians how they do certain things because I'm in the circle, and they say 'I don't know how she does it.'"

Kevin James is one of those magicians who sized up Sophie Evans in a magic shop. I caught up with him outside the backstage door at the Magic Castle after their act. He calls assistants the unsung heroes of magic. While the magician is waving his magic wand, it's often the assistant who's working the trick -- she's crouching in a tiny space working a mechanism with her toes, she's distracting the audience at exactly the right time, she's sneaking a device on or off the stage. And she's doing it all gracefully and invisibly. "It's being able to do it so well with your eyes closed so you forget about the technique so it appears you have no technique," James says.

But the job is changing -- Larsen says that there's a generational shift underway in magic. The husband/wife teams are retiring, and you just can't find a full-time magician's assistant younger than 40 these days -- at least, she says, not one who calls herself an assistant. "This generation is saying 'We want to be in the spotlight, we're the magicians, sure, we'll assist sometimes, but this is not going to be our life.'"

And for girls who love magic, there are more and more female role models, women with their own solo acts. And for Evans, it's her name on the marquee for about half of her bookings these days. She's the main attraction at the Castle's close-up gallery, a small Victorian parlor where the crowd is near enough to get properly wowed by her masterful sleight of hand. She says she's learned magic performance from the best seat in the house, the one that male magicians never get to sit in: The one onstage, inside the box.

  • Music Bridge:
    Gryphons
    Artist: Fibreforms
    CD: Stone (Room Tone)
More stories from our The Weekend Shift series

Comments

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  • By Blaire Larsen

    From los angeles, CA, 11/10/2008

    This is a late post, having four months later read Sharon Peregrine's comment. You grabbed a comment out of context and ran with it. It was my experience having interviewed over 20 females in magic and being a part of the Larsen Family myself...that the majority of younger generation females wants to to their own magic. See the movie.

    By bud conrad

    From L.A., CA, 06/07/2008

    Sharon, In the movie - They asked Cris Angel that exact question - and he answered it. -

    By Sharon Peregrine

    From Santa Barbara, CA, 06/05/2008

    LOL! I read with amusement Blaire Larsen thinks husband-wife teams are retiring. No, Blaire, more are marrying and working together. As for women refusing to work as an assistant with men, getting in those terrible cute little Pussycat Doll like costumes...well I guess male magicians will have to retire illusions, since they will not have them for their own work. The bottom line ,Larsen you do not know what you are talking about. Woman love to assist men, just ask Cris Angel...and they love to wear Pussycat Doll costumes. You ought to try it!

    By bill page

    From portsmouth, VA, 06/02/2008

    cool yep even bill bixe and lance burton tv special tv seris the magician ususing the magic castle cool huh ps new maske magician specials on foxx 33 13 soon i guess 8 or 9 i was close copperfield making real mooon vanish soon with christian illusionist andre kole youtube type in trickbusters vanish google type in dc serets in a nutshell

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