Presto Zoomo – Local magicians maintain the illusion despite the Covid-19

It was a less than magical time for magician Jon Armstrong when the Covid-19 shutdowns began in mid-March.

At the time, the Fairfax District-based artist was serving as a headliner on the Disney Cruise Line’s Wonder ship. The ship had left New Orleans on March 6 for a two-week cruise that was to end in San Diego. Armstrong was booked to spend five days entertaining passengers before handing show duties to another act at a port en route.

Instead, the cruise line made the decision to reduce possible exposure to the coronavirus by bypassing all scheduled stops. “My five-day trip became a 14-day trip. No other act was allowed to board the ship,” Armstrong recalled. “I had to end up doing all the shows myself.”

The stress level was heightened by the fact that Armstrong’s pregnant wife, Vanessa, was also on board and worried about the future. The couple have since welcomed little Maddie into their family.

This intense cruising experience, however, served an unexpected purpose. Quickly filling shows with new material served as preparation for landing in a changed world that would call for Armstrong to reinvent his live performance career into a virtual one.

In the world of entertainment, streaming services including Netflix Inc. and Walt Disney Co.’s Disney Plus have seen a massive increase in usage since safer-at-home pandemic recommendations took hold across much of the world. world.

However, most performance venues, including theaters, arenas, and music and comedy clubs, have been closed since mid-March. The affected venues range from the 17,500-seat Hollywood Bowl to the more intimate 500-seat Troubadour nightclub in West Hollywood, which has launched a GoFundMe campaign to survive. The list also includes Hollywood’s famous Magic Castle, home of the Academy of Magical Arts Inc.

Many artists fill their schedules with concerts and performances online, but magicians face a particular challenge when it comes to the virtual world. While it’s possible to sing or play the ukulele over Zoom, most magicians rely on handy props and audience interaction to enhance the illusion.

Take a card?

“Pick a card, any card” becomes more problematic when the magician and the person drawing the deck are not in the same room.

Yet Los Angeles magicians are rising to the challenge by creating shows that not only continue despite Covid-19, but in some cases use the limitations of Zoom to make an illusion even more stunning.

Armstrong said he resisted the temptation to take a standard performance and videotape it.

“It would be like taking an IMAX camera to film a play,” he said. “I create magic that happens to people in their homes, with their own objects, whether they are across the country or across the world.”

Armstrong’s pre-pandemic career was mostly centered around corporate meetings, cruises and other large-audience events. When Covid-19 hit, he was considering a possible loss of business of $75,000, but said working online has allowed him to keep income competitive with his previous level.

Like any magician, Armstrong wouldn’t reveal trade secrets, but pointed out that he can potentially increase the “how did he do that” effect on video chat.

During a live performance, Armstrong may hand you a deck of cards, ask you to shuffle it, and choose a card. “Then I take the cards back and find your card,” he said.

“But if I walk you into your house and you find a deck of cards…and then I say a number from one to 52, and you count out six cards, and your card is there, it’s amazing. I don’t have never touched the cards.

Armstrong added that close-up magic has never been easier. “If I stand on a stage and do a trick for 1,000 people, maybe 50 people can actually see the playing card. Well, on Zoom, I can play for a large group of people using the same sensitivities I would when doing close-up magic.

learning curve

Glendale-based magician Matt Marcy has also built his primary career on cruise ships and corporate events, which are currently closed.

“It’s been a compressed learning curve for all of us around the world,” Marcy said. “There are lots of ways to interact. You can’t physically ask them to pick up a card, but you can ask them to name a card, (or) they can write a word, and you can do some mental reading.

Like Armstrong, Marcy set up a mini-studio at home from which to create illusions suitable for video.

Because he no longer has travel and hotel expenses, Marcy said he can charge a company less for a virtual appearance or workshop, and a company can also save on providing a production team.

He added that he can also take on a short assignment, such as a 15-minute warm-up act, and booking still generates a profit since the only ride is for installation in his garage.

However, Marcy’s live act includes comedy and interaction, and it lacks in-person audience commentary.

“You don’t really get the same reaction,” he said. “(You see) people staring at the screen, but a lot of people keep their microphones muted so you can’t hear them,” he said. “I want them to turn off, even if there are children coming in or their cat crossing (the room).”

Joe Furlow, chief executive of the Academy of Magical Arts which oversees Hollywood’s famous magic club, the Magic Castle, said not all magicians have been as inventive during the pandemic as Armstrong and Marcy, who were both frequent performers in the magic club.

However, Furlow said virtual demand for magic remains high. “We haven’t run out of people inquiring about magicians for birthday parties and corporate events,” he said.

Furlow said the Magic Castle had 200 employees on March 14 and “now I have nine”. But he thinks the castle can stay afloat during the crisis with its live virtual magic shows on Saturday nights.

Castle kitchen

And since June, guests can also order takeout from the castle’s dining room kitchen through its new Dine & Delight program. A customer who spends over $40 on an order any night will also receive a free link to the Saturday night virtual show.

Another bonus: Usually, the private club maintains an aura of mystery by only allowing participation by invitation from members. But anyone can now get a taste of the castle by ordering dinner or tickets to the virtual shows.

He has also started using his large parking lot as a rental location for comedy shows and hopes the future will include live magic shows suitable for a drive-in crowd.

“Unfortunately the castle is not built for social distancing,” Furlow said. “I think it’s going to be a long-term struggle (as clients) to feel comfortable going out again. I think virtual shows are here to stay. … Everyone in the arts needs to reinvent themselves, and those who have done that are the ones who will move forward.

The local thirst for magic is not limited to the Magic Castle. Illusion Magic Lounge in Santa Monica also offers virtual shows, and Geffen Playhouse in Westwood is in the midst of its run of “The Present,” a virtual interactive show performed by illusionist Helder Guimarães. “The Present” is sold out until October 10.

Along with virtual shows, Marcy said he was developing and marketing tricks to other magicians and working on new material in the absence of live performances, but he remained concerned about the future of live magic at the era of Covid-19.

“I fear that we will be the last people to return to live performances, that magic will be the last thing to reopen,” he said.

Brian L. Hartfield