I’m told that I’ll be meeting British magician Jamie Allan in the lobby of Chicago’s Harris Theather at 4:15p.m. on Dec. 27, 2018. The time got pushed back 15 minutes, which has me a bit concerned because I’m on a tight schedule.
MAGIC, BELIEVE IT OR NOT, CAN BE A DANGEROUS CAREER CHOICE. AS WITH ANY PROFESSION, THE SAFETY OF WORKERS IS paramount, but while we rarely hear about magic-related accidents in the news because of meticulous planning and execution, there are times when things can go wrong in the blink of an eye.
In 1918, William E. Robinson, who performed under the culturally insensitive—by today’s standards at least—stage name Chung Ling Soo died when a gun trick he had performed hundreds of times had gone terribly wrong. In 1990, escape artist Joseph “Amazing Joe” Burrus died when he attempted a version of Harry Houdini’s “Buried Alive” stunt because he had his assistants mix in concrete with the dirt, which caused the box he was entombed in to collapse. Even Roy Horn of Siegfried & Roy fame suffered a serious injury at their headlining Las Vegas show in 2003 when one of their prized white tigers bit him in the neck. In a 2004 interview, Horn told People magazine that the tiger was actually trying to save his life after he had had what he believed to be a stroke on stage, but federal investigators were not able to determine what actually caused the tiger to act the way it did.
When I learned that a U.K.-based magician would be performing in Chicago, I decided to reach out to see if he would be interested in talking magic, risk and safety with me, but I didn’t think I’d be able to pull off the trick if you know what I mean. But to my surprise, he said yes through a media representative.
I go to the ticket window, and the woman behind the counter informs me that I’m likely supposed to meet Jamie Allan in the east lobby of the building. I tell her I’ll check my email, but at first I can’t find it on my phone; it’s as if it has disappeared into the ether. I finally locate it, and she reiterates that I need to go to the other lobby and check in with security.
So the main lobby is an illusion? Anyway …
I head out the door and find a doorway about 10 yards east of the main entrance. Inside there’s a couple of elevators and a lot of people waiting to get in them. It’s getting close to 4:15, so I consider using the stairwell instead until I find out there are seven floors below me, and I’m not sure which one to go to. I’m not even sure if the doors will open. Being locked in a stairwell is a trick I’d rather not perform.
A few minutes later, one of the elevators finally opens. Not wanting to be late, I squeeze my way on and look at the buttons to see which to push. I notice that the other lobby is on floor 21/2. What kind of Harry Potter nonsense is this? Is there a Molly Weasley in the house to act as my magical guide?
When I finally reach the mysterious floor 21/2, I recognize it as the waiting area in front of the orchestra level of the theater. I saw Allan’s “iMagician” show a few days before, and I know it pretty well from that appearance. I also know you can get there from the main lobby by taking the stairs. Thanks, ticket lady.
I still am not sure which way to go though.
As I try to get an usher’s attention, I see Allan and one of his assistants walking in my direction. For a guy who squeezes himself into a box full of water as an homage to one of his heroes, Harry Houdini, Allan is taller than I expected. Of course, the “Water Torture Cell” he uses is horizontally positioned—more like Houdini’s Metamorphosis trick—while the much shorter Houdini’s “Torture Cell” was vertical with his feet exposed at the top.
I get Allan’s attention, and he recognizes me magically—he must have been doing his homework— and he takes me to the security desk to sign in. After making my John Hancock appear, I hand Allan a copy of the first Spark magazine, and he seems quite interested in the robot on the cover. He says to his assistant, “We have to find a way to get him into the show!” I assume he’s kidding, but you never know what is real and what’s misdirection when it comes to magicians.
After sharing a few more pleasantries—I thank him for agreeing to talk with me about the out-of-the-box subject of magic, safety and risk—Allan and his assistant take me to a dressing room. Allan points out a washroom in the back. He explains that he just got finished shaking more than 100 hands after his latest performance, so I might want to wash mine after shaking his.
Since I’m about to embark on a trip the next day and he tells me one of his assistants missed the performance I was at because of a case of norovirus, I easily decide to take him up on his offer.
Allan then heads out of the room and I get a few minutes to chat with his assistant. I ask her name, and she tells me. It’s a long one. Before I can ask her to repeat it and spell it out for me, she tells me she goes by the stage name Natalia Love, so let’s go with that.
RISK IN RULES
Love explains that she is a magician herself, and she mentions the added stress the crew has been under because of Chicago’s strict union rules. It’s an Operational Risk, really, that they were not expecting. The team only has a certain amount of time to be on the stage after the performance to get things ready for the next show. It’s not like that in England, she opines. She then asks me if they have similar rules in other U.S. cities.
I have no idea, but I tell her that, knowing a bit about Chicago, I have to believe they are something not-so special to the Windy City.
Getting back to her story, she tells me she was a bit hesitant at first to become Allan’s assistant a few years ago because of her background in performing magic herself.
I mention that it’s interesting that we are still only seeing women sawed in half in magic. Why not men? Love smiles and tells me that when she works as the lead magician she uses a male assistant, and yes, she has cut a dude in half.
Not literally, of course.
Shortly after, Allan reappears in the dressing room. He, too, mentions the union rules and seems a bit stressed by them. He apologizes for the delay, and we sit and have our chat about magic, safety and risk. You know, the usual prestidigitation conversation. Not!
Allan tells me they had to remove what he considers one of his most impressive illusions from the show I was at because one of his assistants was ill. I sort of wondered about this during the performance because all the advertising I’d seen showed the levitation illusion, but it was nowhere to be found. Allan then explains that his assistant offered to work through the illness, but Allan smartly pointed out that doing so put him and the rest of his crew at risk of catching the same virus. Since this is Allan’s first tour of the United States, there’s no time to be sick. It would be the quickest way to make momentum disappear.
“The levitation we take very seriously,” Allan says, “which is why we decided not to do it in that performance that you saw. And that was a hard one, because if there was ever a time I wanted to push to do it, it would have been the day that all the press was in. It’s possibly our biggest, most spectacular trick, and I had to face the prospects of pulling it out due to illness, but safety always comes first.”
As we’re talking, I bring up something that was on my mind technology and risk. If my phone doesn’t work properly, I won’t be able to record the interview, I explain. For a magician who relies a great deal on technology with his iPad-based illusions and such, I ask how he prepares for a possible tech failure during his show.
He tells me his iPads, for instance, have only failed him three times during a performance, and “we always have an out. Wherever possible, we have a backup plan. And if something fails, we just go into something else.”
Allan also mentions some differences between performing in the United Kingdom vs. the United States when it comes to high- tech toys like lasers and more common technology like electricity. For the lasers Allan uses in the show, he says there are more rules in the United States when it comes to using them in open spaces, so training staff is highly important to stay in compliance.
Allan then turns his attention to something that hadn’t dawned on me: electricity. Being a British magician, he explains that they had to get AC/DC converters for all their electrical equipment.
“The biggest issue that we have transferring our show from Europe to the U.S. was power,” he says. “We’ve had to spend an inordinate amount of money on changing over voltages. We don’t draw a massive amount of power, but we do have an incredible amount of devices on the stage.”
And electricity can be a sizable risk in a magic show.
NO ELECTRIC SLIDES HERE
“My show’s not so much a danger show,” Allan says, “so usually the danger in our show is either going to come from electricity, it’s going to come from height or it’s going to come from confined spaces.”
He continues, “Now things like the water, in our case, I think it’s more about we’re trying to present things as dangerous when we know we’re completely confident that we can do it very safely. And I think the hardest thing, when you’re doing it night [after] night, is to remember that it can be dangerous and not to start to take things for granted.”
Indeed, the most dangerous trick Allan performed in the show I saw was the “Water Torture Cell” escape. He credits his production manager, Tommy Bond, with establishing the proper protocols to keep him and his assistant safe in the tank and elsewhere on stage. “Tommy is the key to everything safety, particularly with everything that’s electronic. The thing we’ve almost had an issue with a couple of times, and we take very seriously now, is actually the electricity and the water,” Allan explains. “The most likely thing that’s going to cause an injury with that is something to do with electricity.”
“Electrocution?” I ask.
“Mmm-hmm,” he confirms.
Of course, training is of the utmost importance to get things right show after show. “So we teach each individual element,” he says. “We go through, you know, just being in the tank, getting out of the tank, the water, and the person who’s going into it. Everything is just modular, and then eventually we put it together, you know, in a walkthrough. Then we slowly build up the speed.”
Just don’t tell mum you’re about to do it.
“I’ve never explained to family before I was doing it [the “Water Torture Cell” or any other risky trick], because they’d always inherently think it’s a bad idea,” he confides.
And the trick, itself, is never pleasant, he says, but the adrenaline rush after he emerges sopping wet from the tank with his assistant then positioned inside the tank is what makes it worth it. The biggest risk, as with any business endeavor is complacency. People can take things for granted after doing them over and over again.
“I don’t mind telling you,” he adds, “I’ve got a guy at the back of the stage that’s got his eyes on me the whole time. He’s not involved in the presentation of it. His sole job is to watch me and to see that I’m doing what I should be doing at the right time because, if I’m not, then he’s got time, nobody else, to come forward and open it. Screw the trick. You know, just no round of applause is worth that.”
BRINGING UP BULLETS
Of course, the “Water Torture Cell” is not the only potentially dangerous trick around the block.
Allan brings up the aforementioned bullet man, William E. Robinson, along with the 12 other magicians who have been killed performing similar tricks “catching” a bullet over the years. “I don’t think [it’s] a trick that any performer should perform anywhere anymore because I feel that it’s just in bad taste,” he says. Robinson “used to maintain his own rifles because he didn’t want anybody to know the secret of the rifle. The secret was that he had like a musket that had another barrel on the top where you used to use the ramrod to clean the gun, and … the ramrod used to go inside there. So what he did was diverted the chamber so that actually the piece that contained the ramrod actually fired the shots.”
From there, “he’d put the bullet for real into the actual chamber, but that wouldn’t fire anything. Then he’d take the ramrod out and push it and then conveniently not put the ramrod back in, just leave it. So when the guy would fire it, the charge would come, but over repeated use it had slowly blown away at the chamber … because they were putting real gunpowder in the real chamber the audience saw. Then one day it ignited the real gunpowder and shot the bullet. I mean, that’s got to be the worst method you could possibly use for that trick. I mean it’s nuts.”
Being a Houdini fan myself—“While Howard Thurston was busy being the best magician on the planet, Houdini was busy becoming a legend. And he’s become more famous every year since his death,” Allan says—I find this all fascinating, and I could ask many more questions but I’m on a time crunch so I politely end the interview.
Love shows me how to get out of the building and asks if they can keep the copy of Spark that I brought with. “Of course,” I say, apologizing for bringing only one issue with me.
She says that that isn’t a problem because the two magicians are “together; I don’t think that’s a secret.”
Perhaps not, but there are many other secrets in the magic world that help keep magicians and their colleagues safe while performing potentially dangerous illusions without any hocus-pocus.
James Tehrani is Spark’s editor-in-chief. He is an award-winning writer based in the Chicago area.