The Magicians Push The Boundaries In Their Bad Boys Stage Act
If there was a magician’s equivalent of the children’s game “Would you rather?” — with its dual challenges and reveling in the grotesque — that would be the New Bad Boys of Magic. Between swallowing a bottle of cheap Bacardi, a trick involving the business cards of Vegas “escorts” and the (possible) ingestion of a pod of detergent, it’s far from disappearing doves.
“No one uses props like us,” says 27-year-old Daniel Donohue, who looks like an altar boy despite attempts to scandalize him on stage. “Condoms, rum…”
Do they mess around with the bad boy stuff? “The name started out as completely tongue-in-cheek,” says 33-year-old Eric Siegel, the roughest and toughest Bad Boy, with a touch of the bubbly Lou Reed. “And now that’s half ironic.” They gradually, he says, lived up to their proclaimed wickedness. “We are cooler than most LA magicians”
Earlier this summer, you could walk up one flight of stairs, down another, and past several swanky bars in a small, dark room in the Sacred Magic Castle to see the Bad Boys trick and enchant. Now they make a monthly stint — the next show is Sunday — at Three Clubs, a Hollywood lounge that “Swingers” movie fans will recognize for its red banquet retro cool.
Beyond swagger, the Bad Boys offer something more sophisticated: they have serious credentials in “parlor magic” – a term as cheesy as a Farrell’s piano player but one that describes a style larger than nearby cards and coins. -up magic even more intimate than the dry ice and endangered damsels of stage magic.
All magicians – even grumpy ones – aim to entertain. But the Boys combine dexterity with engaging chemistry and personal tension. The Castle’s general manager, Joe Furlow, calls them “cutting-edge and certainly popular”.
“When I booked them, I knew I was taking a risk,” says Benjamin Barnes of Chicago’s Magic Lounge. “They really push the envelope – way further than 99% of the acts you see here.”
The key to the genius of the New Bad Boys may not be their vast magical background, but their aloofness from it all for about a decade each. They missed a lot of the minutiae and group traditions that every art form indulges in. But they found something individual.
Siegel and Donohue grew up in suburban Chicago, doing magic before they even started kindergarten. They did not know each other at the time but followed a similar trajectory. “I didn’t like it,” says Siegel, who bowed to parental pressure. “I dropped out after high school – as soon as I got out of the house.” Donohue performed at block parties and birthday parties, but was bailed out around the age of 16.
Their awkward early years doing rope tricks and David Copperfield impersonations are chronicled in what look like staged home movies they screen at concerts. “A friend asked us how we found child actors who looked like us,” says Donohue. “It really is been we.”
After college and years of working in sketch comedy and improv in Chicago — they only crossed paths there once or twice — they each found their way to LA, gradually returning to magic as hobbies while performing at Second City Hollywood and the Upright Citizens The Squad. They had different influences and obsessions – Donohue likes Monty Python, which Siegel, a fan of “SNL” and Andy Kaufman, can’t stand. But when mutual friends in Chicago reintroduced them as lovers of magic, a lunch with a deck of cards convinced them they could try some kind of weird hybrid.
The New Bad Boys – “New” because Penn & Teller used to call themselves the Bad Boys of Magic – launched three years ago, with a skit involving a 40-ounce malt liquor and a hard and simple shtick that has since softened. “The idea was that Dan was a straight-up magician,” Siegel says of his partner who had actually worked as a children’s magician, “and I was a pure drunk.”
A magical town
Los Angeles has been a major center for magic due to film and television, which sometimes needs on-screen talent, and the Magic Castle, the private club on Franklin Avenue that opened in 1963. Vegas may be the capital of stage magic, but Los Angeles’ magical community is probably the strongest in the country (until his death last fall, magician, actor, and historian of magic Ricky Jay elected home here).
Historically, the magic in LA generally lived within two poles – the castle and the children’s birthday parties. Today, however, the Bad Boys’ club gig isn’t the only place for close-up or lounge magic in nightclubs.
Two years ago, the Houston brothers, longtime nightlife impresarios, opened Black Rabbit Rose, a 40-seat haunt on Hollywood Boulevard. (Rob Zabrecky — described for years as the singer of Possum Dixon who did side-by-side magic, today better known as a magician who was part of a band — helps book the numbers.) -hand saloon” at Encino, opened the same year. Young Castle-approved close-up magician Siegfried Tieber begins a six-week run at the Pskaufman Gallery, an underground art space in downtown Los Angeles, in October.
“There’s no doubt” there’s an increase in magic saloons and theaters, says Barnes of Chicago’s Magic Lounge – especially for close-ups. “There are now enough places to perform in this country that magicians have made a circuit of it. It didn’t exist five years ago.
Donohue sees a generational move toward close-up and parlor magic, styles that sound more like chamber music than lavish stage productions. “You don’t see people our age in top hats and tailcoats, or producing live animals with women in flowing dresses.”
Besides the raunchy – which is less extreme than most of what’s flourishing in Hollywood – the New Bad Boys are notable for their emphasis on character and drama. Magicians can be like over-trained jazz players, throwing one difficult trick after another to impress their peers. The Bad Boys, on the other hand, spend entire afternoons working to get their jokes right, or waste an hour arguing over the exact wording of a joke.
“Penn said the next great magicians will be character-based,” says Siegel. “I think at this point it’s all been done – why not add an extra layer?” With their Irish and Jewish characters, The Boys feels like a throwback to the vaudeville of a century ago. “We think of vaudeville a groundsays Donohue, who follows theater and visits Broadway every year. Appropriately, the Three Clubs show includes not just tricks and blarneys, but a range of performers who wouldn’t seem out of place in the Catskills in 1911 – ventriloquists, jugglers, comedians and other magicians.
The boys’ respective day jobs – Siegel is a screenwriter and private literacy tutor; Donohue, a digital news producer — relieves some of the pressure on the act. “Day jobs give us the freedom to do that,” says Donohue, who watches his peers go from birthday parties to corporate retreats and back again. “We want to take big swings. Vegas show, television. We’re not going to Boise for the mid-winter middle management meeting.
Some days, however, they realize they’re really too much for their audience. “Once in a while,” Donohue says, “we get a whole audience that absolutely doesn’t get it.” Siegel replies, “We paid to see doves!”