A Question For You

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A QUESTION FOR YOU

Eugene Burger

Museletter July, 2016

Eugene Burger

Over a year ago I received a comment and an important question from my friend, Rabbi Arthur Kurzweil, the former publisher of the wonderful Parabola magazine. I did not answer it when I received it but feel that now is the time to consider what Arthur sent. Rather than try to summarize what he wrote — and thereby perhaps dilute it — I will quote his comment and question in full.

Arthur wrote:

“I have often heard people say they don’t like magic and magicians. I have often heard magicians complain that the ‘magical arts’ are not taken seriously.

Cat hates magic

“But I often attend lectures and read the lessons of some of the most popular and celebrated children’s magicians. They are offering their ‘wisdom’ and experience on how to be a successful magician for children’s audiences. It seems that their major goal is to get children to laugh, and their tools include fart and body fluid jokes as well as routines based on silly antics that show the magician to be a foolish idiot. ‘Kids love it,’ they say.

“My question is this: aren’t these magicians, who are so often praised by the magic community, despite all the laughter they generate, also sending the message to young people that magicians are obnoxious jerks? Aren’t they really going for the easy laughs? Isn’t it time we woke up to this to realize we are our own worst enemies when we plant these kinds of memories of magicians in the minds of young people?”

A very serious comment and question, don’t you think?

How do you relate to these thoughts? How would you answer Arthur’s question? Are you sympathetic or fighting mad? Thoughts like this do tend to divide and polarize us. But Arthur is serious. That’s the first thing we need to remember.

I have said many times that I think in the United States there are two different philosophies or approaches to presenting magic for children. To summarize them in a very brief way: one philosophy presumes success when the children are laughing and screaming and the other approach presumes success when the children are quiet and listening. This may be too simplistic a summary of these views but I think you get the point.

Which is best? Which do you prefer? Can they be combined?

I do not perform for children. When I began my professional career in 1978, I consciously decided that I would be an adult entertainer. Not that I wanted to present off color humor in my work but, rather, because I felt more comfortable performing for adults. I say this so you understand that I have never had to make a decision about which of these two paths to travel.

Well…what do I think? Which approach do I think is best?

Does it really matter what I think? Doesn’t it matter much more what you think? Especially if you, unlike me, actually perform for children?

So, what do you think?

Back in the early 1980s, when I was performing at Don’s Fishmarket, a restaurant on Chicago’s Rush Street, one of the waiters came over to me and said, “Jean Marsh is here tonight. Should I ask her if she wants to see some magic?”

Jean Marsh was an actress who was one of the stars of Upstairs, Downstairs, a British television series that was very successful on PBS in the United  States. In 1975. In fact, she received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for the show.

I said to the waiter: “Absolutely! Please ask her.”

He did. She replied, “I loathe magic!

At the time, I remember thinking to myself: Perhaps she had an early bad experience with magic and magicians at a child’s birthday party.

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