The Unanswered Question

Our Museletter contributor this month is Dr. Ricardo Rosenkranz, faculty member of McBride’s Magic & Mystery School, owner of the Rhapsody Theater in downtown Chicago, and our own Physician Magician. Ricardo leads us into a new year with a personal story of his empowering experience with an inspirational figure.

The Unanswered Question
 
“A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.” – Leonard Bernstein
 
With this quote from Leonard Bernstein, the new movie Maestro begins to tell the story of the enigmatic, and somewhat turbulent relationship between the brilliant musician and his equally talented wife Felicia. More on the quote later. 
 
I was privileged to know Leonard Bernstein. We met while I was a medical student in New York, in 1987. For several years, I enjoyed backstage conversations with Maestro Bernstein every time he performed in New York. Going to see him backstage afforded me some of the most special moments of my life in New York City. Whether it was Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, or an occasional outdoor concert in the summer, visiting Lenny backstage was always cathartic. When I was speaking with him, it was as if no one else existed. He was genuinely interested in my life as a medical student and in what I was thinking and experiencing at that time.

One day, after a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, the “Resurrection” Symphony, I was feeling devastated. I was a third-year medical student doing my internal medicine rotation, and that day I had lost my first patient; he was a talented twenty-seven-year-old American Ballet Theater dancer. That was New York in the 1980s.
 
Backstage, Lenny was sitting in a beanbag chair, wearing a silk robe, cigarette in one hand and silver tumbler with a scotch on the rocks in the other. He saw me a bit dejected and asked what was wrong.
 
“I just lost my first patient, a ballet dancer,” I said. 
 
“AIDS?” he asked.
 
I nodded.
 
He put his cigarette in his mouth, and held my hand as he took a long and pensive puff. Then, speaking with the cigarette to the side, he said, “Mierda.”
 
Then, he handed me the silver tumbler, “Double R (that’s what he called me), you need this more than I do.” I took the tumbler in both hands and drank, as if I was imbibing a religious drink handed to me by the high priest of the order. 
 
La vida sigue,” he said in perfect Spanish, life goes on. Turning serious he continued, “Honor his memory with your profession.” Months later I was doing research in Cryptosporidiosis, an infection commonly seen in AIDS patients of that era. 

Leonard Bernstein was as inspirational a person as anyone I’ve met, including Eugene Burger. First and foremost, he was brilliant. His understanding of music was informed by his profound knowledge of history, philosophy, science, and the human condition. And then there was his empathy. He truly was everyone’s friend. His capacity to love transcended beyond the understanding of most. 
 
As I reflect into the New Year, and being reminded of Bernstein through this new movie, I now see his lessons not just in the realm of medicine, but also in our land of theatrical magic. For one, Bernstein never belittled his audience; instead, he glorified them. From his children’s concerts to the Omnibus TV series, Bernstein always assumed that his audience was smart, engaged, and capable of discovering a deeper layer of meaning in his art. He was at ease discussing Prokofiev and Rachmaninov with eight-year-old youths, enriching their ability to better experience even the most complex music without “dumbing it down.” 
 
Also, Bernstein was ever the teacher and colleague. He taught in a way that seemed more of a collaboration of thought than a lecture. This is not to say that he wasn’t steadfast with his ideas, which he was, but he allowed room for learning through discovery rather than dogma; a profound way to educate. We would do well to approach our audiences and collaborators with the same passion, empathy, and respect that Lenny offered the people who crossed paths with him. These are simple and effective lessons. 

“A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers,” Bernstein said. He understood that all good art is a respectful, passionate, empathetic conversation. And the big insight for me was that I was in as much of a conversation with him during the performance as I was backstage afterwards. 
 
Looking back at the wonderful year of performances I enjoyed at the Rhapsody Theater in 2023, I have come to understand that I am indeed in a conversation with my audience throughout the evening. And that I do want to instill deep thought and reflection as we move forward in the show. I’m not afraid to challenge my audience intellectually, as they are my cherished equals. Elegant, thoughtful language and complex ideas are understood by everyone, regardless of age. What varies is their lived experience, and how they respond to the conversation in their own terms.

 And isn’t that what a conversation should be? A plethora of responses to an honest question? As Bernstein notes, the true meaning of our art is born of the tension it creates. Tension, even unresolved tension, is important to our own magical art. It awakens our senses.
 
As I explored Brahms, Prokofiev, and Mahler in my youth, Lenny empowered me. He helped shape the questions I needed to ask. Questions, some of them unanswered to this day, that spilled over into my everyday life. Existential catharsis, I might call it.
 
These days I hope that audiences visiting my theater walk out with questions, ideas, and empowerment. It is existential catharsis for our times.  Happy New Year to each and every one of you. May you shine bright on stage and may your audience glow in the reflection of your love for them. 

Did You Forget?

How Could You Forget?

The glittering tree in the corner of the room…
            the mystery of all the wrapped presents…
                        the smell of eggnog and nutmeg…
                                    watching A Christmas Carol again and again…
                                                my first Christmas magic show and debut of (drum roll please)…

MCBRIDE THE MAGNIFICENT!

Seven year old MCBRIDE THE MAGNIFICENT performing his magic act 1967! This is me performing the “wand through handkerchief.” (I ruined many of my father’s hanks practicing this trick!) 

I have such sweet memories of Christmas. Turkey dinner with Mom and Dad, my brother and sisters, the grandparents and friends, and yes, creating magic shows in my living room for my family. My Grandmother Marie took an old suit of my dads, and tailored it into something that looked like a magician’s tailcoat, with an old fur top hat, and I was in my “happy place” on stage in Las Vegas (in my mind!).
 
Surprise Surprise!
 
One Christmas morning I found my first business cards in my stocking. This is one of the few that survived all these 57 years later!

For most of my life I was “on the road” doing magic shows during the holidays. However, this year I’ll be home for the holidays with my Vegas family of Abigail, her dad, and our friends – hooray! I’ll be putting on a magic show (this time in our living room) just like I’ve done every year since 1967!

Living Room Magic is Parlor Magic
 
Did you know? The word parlour comes from the French verb parler, which means “to speak.” In the 13th century, “parlour” was borrowed into English as “parlor.” This is the place to share stories and magic.
 
Will You Step into My Parlor?
 
Parlor Magic is one of the most popular forms of magic, and can be performed in just about anyone’s living room, but often is large enough to perform on a platform, or even on a stage. I’m going to be teaching a very special class on parlor magic – Mastering the Classics for Parlor, Platform and Stage.

I’m inviting six people over to my parlor, and you are invited! If you’d like to be one of them, click here – https://shop.magicalwisdom.com/event/master-the-classics
 
Magic with Tarot Cards
 
I will also be inviting six students who would like to learn how to perform magic routines and tell stories with Tarot cards. If this interests you I welcome you to take a look at this –
https://shop.magicalwisdom.com/event/tarot-magic-mastery

Strange Coincidence
 
Did you know that Rudy Coby and Jeff were born in the same one-room hospital in Goshen, NewYork?  Also, both Rudy and Jeff were in the same magic club as teenagers.

Just last week I had the opportunity to travel with my dear friend Rudy Coby to perform for our friends Randy and Kristy Pitchford at their home theater. Take a look at how they created an exquisite magical space to share parlor magic with their friends!

See you online or here in our magic parlor in Las Vegas! 
Happy holidays to all,

Jeff and Abigail

Letting Your Magic Grow

Our contributor this month is long-time Magic & Mystery School student James Ember. Performing in the upper Midwest as “James the Magician,” in this Museletter he makes an interesting and mouth-watering comparison between his two passions – cooking and magic.

I have devoted large amounts of time to two areas in my life – learning and performing magic, and the art of cooking. I have been performing magic professionally since 1986, specifically in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. I work for a variety of clients, but focus on performing for family audiences. I also began working in commercial kitchens, primarily pizzerias, in 1998. I have learned a lot about leading teams, training staff, and making dough (both kinds).  
 
As we are approaching the cap of another calendar year, I have been doing a lot of reflecting on my magic, and recently, on how it relates to cooking – specifically, baking sourdough bread. The similarities between making sourdough bread and creating magic can be quite remarkable. The highest quality of magic, and of bread, takes time.  
 
I have been working on my sourdough recipes for sandwich bread and pizza dough. Slow rising doughs have two primary ways to rise. One is to use an active dry yeast, and the other slower way, is to use the yeast that occurs naturally in the air. If you are using activated yeast you can make a dough in about 3-4 hours from start to finish.

The process of making sourdough takes much longer. When you are making a sourdough, you are using the yeast that occurs naturally in the air, and it takes a minimum of two weeks to create your mother (initial starter). After you make your mother starter, you can continue to feed this forever. Some starters are thousands of years old! Why on earth do I take the time to make sourdough instead of using dry active yeast? For one, the heavily yeasted dough was messing with my guts, and more importantly, it’s delicious!
 
Magic is seductive. We get into magic because we want to know a secret. This is a highly marketable addiction, and for years people in our industry have been swooned by the advertisements of miracles we can perform. If the desire to learn a secret or put a routine instantly into your show is like that fast acting yeast, then the good stuff, the sourdough of magic, is the time that you have taken honing your routines for years – even decades.  
 
No magic is tastier than the magic that you know so well that the work you put into it lets you know exactly where to take a beat, or perhaps changing just one word of your script makes it that much more effective.  
 
Here is one example from my own show. I perform an Invisible Deck routine that is themed around parallel universes. After honing in on the script and performing it for about a decade, it was time to make a small tweak. I found it is better if the audience member names an odd numbered card, so the script evolved into this. “Please just think of any card in the deck. Don’t make it easy on me. Don’t think of the Ace of Spades or the royalty. Think of some odd card in the deck.” In this instance, the way I say it can feel like I am saying “odd” as in “random,” as opposed to an odd number. But over 70% of the time they name an odd card, making my technical job much easier.  This little change has made my Invisible Deck routine a delicious sourdough!

Just as in the first two weeks of making your sourdough starter, you don’t see a lot of action happening – you just see a lump of flour and water. But then, as if by magic, it comes to life! This directly relates to a new manipulation move or sleight of hand that seems to be incredibly difficult, to the point where you may give it up. But then, over time, it just starts to happen, and after enough time and practice, it becomes second nature. 
 
Just as a starter needs to be fed regularly, we need to feed our magic with education, inspiration, and practice. Some of our routines may be shelved for long periods of time, but we can take them off of the shelf and feed them with our time and energy, after which we may surprise ourselves with how they have grown. When you are working on your magic, remember the slow process of creating a sourdough culture, and allow the slow process of letting your magic grow, and create something truly magical!

Use Your Powers for Good!

Our Museletter contributor this month is Abigail Spinner McBride. In this Museletter, Abigail asks us to think about how we are using our powers, both as magicians, and just as ordinary people, and what steps we can take to use those powers intentionally. 

Greetings friends,
 
Abigail here, musing on the use of our magical powers. We all come into this world with certain gifts, talents, skills, and abilities. With intention and practice, we can grow these natural gifts into formidable powers.

I remember just coming into my gift of charisma as a young teen. I practiced walking down a busy street in Boston and looking people in the eye while thinking, “We share a secret,” and giving them a smile just with my eyes to see how they would respond. Could I “make them” look at me, and smile back with their eyes? Could I “make” that boy at school squirm by flirting with him? Could I “make” the teacher like me by nodding when they spoke, and turning my homework in on time?
 
I was finding my edges, stretching into what I could or couldn’t, should or shouldn’t do. I learned that not all attention is good attention, that toying with people’s hearts isn’t kind, and that there is more to connecting than just “making.”

I remember, at the age of fourteen or so, making a conscious choice to “use my powers for good.” I’ve heard it said that those who practice magic for the sake of evil, are using their powers to only benefit themselves, and those who practice magic for the sake of good, are using their powers to benefit all beings. That’s something I keep in mind to this day. I like to ask the question, “To what end?” before embarking on anything new, whether it’s a purchase, a practice, or a plan.  Why am I doing this? What do I hope to accomplish? Who is this going to help?

As you move forward in time, I invite you to join me in using your own powers for good, and to ask the important questions that might help you to clarify your intentions. I hope one of them will be to join us at the Magic & Mystery School, either live or online for one of our upcoming classes.

All good wishes,

Abigail

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