Fox Television is murdering the art of magic, practitioners say, with its specials that reveal the secrets behind the tricks.


September 02, 1998|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

LYNCHBURG, Va. -- If any garden-variety magician can make a lovely assistant vanish, can thousands of the world's magicians, working in concert, perform the same trick on a reviled television program?

So far ... no.

By all reports, Fox Television has remained unmoved in the face of methods both magical and mundane. To the trepidation of magicians everywhere, the network this fall is going forward with two more of its popular specials in which a magician in disguise reveals how hitherto astounding feats of magic are really accomplished.

All of which leads to another question: Can a television show make a whole performance art -- namely, the art of magic -- vanish? After all, how can a magician be a magician without his tricks?

This is no mere philosophical riddle to magicians, and certainly -- not to the husband-wife performers Cindy and Kevin Spencer. Thanks to Fox Television, the Spencers are now without two of their tricks. Gone is the Shadow Box. Ditto the Chinese Water Torture Cell. Both are now so much junk in a storage facility near their home here.

Now the Spencers sit in their stucco home with magic greats like Harry Houdini and Carter the Great gazing down upon them from posters on the wall, and they shudder to think what more damage Fox has in store for them this fall. "What are we going to lose next week, next month?" Cindy asks glumly. The Milk-Can Escape? Metamorphosis?

The Spencers, like magicians around the world, were aghast last November when Fox unveiled the first of its specials, "Breaking the Magician's Code: Magic's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed." The program -- and its two subsequent sequels -- expose the hidden compartments, the forklifts and the mirrors behind the tricks that formerly held us spellbound. The shows have scored strong ratings for Fox. Magicians say they have also done nothing less than taken the magic out of magic and impaired their ability to make a living.

And if these specials continue, the magicians warn, the only thing disappearing will be themselves.

The shows shatters the cardinal commandment of magic. "The number one rule of magic has always been: 'Don't Expose,' " says Kenneth Silverman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of an acclaimed 1996 biography of Harry Houdini, which, incidentally, does not reveal the great magician's secrets. "It is a violation of the basic commandment. If you expose, there's no trick left."

Andre Kole, widely considered one of the top two "magical inventors" in the world, whose illusions have been performed by David Copperfield among other top-name magicians, is less diplomatic. "It's almost like raping a profession," he says.

But then, Kole himself was victimized by one of the Fox shows. In the last of its three specials in the 1997-98 television season, Fox revealed the secret of the "Table of Death," Kole's best-known illusion. In that trick, the magician is bound to a table while above him looms a platform of steel spikes suspended by a rope that is slowly being burned away by a candle. The magician must escape before the flame makes its way through the cord. If not, he becomes a human pin-cushion.

Kole says he has licensed the "Table of Death" to seven of the world's top 10 magicians. Now, because Fox revealed his secrets over his objections, Kole insists the trick is virtually worthless. "They have destroyed one of the best illusions in the history of magic," he says. Kole estimates the financial damage at well over $500,000.

So he's making good on his threat by suing Fox for $55 million and attempting to stop Fox from airing any more of the specials. His is one of at least four lawsuits against the network brought by magicians around the country.

No illusions

The Spencers, who have toured for 15 years, filed one of the other suits after the Fox specials cost them the Shadow Box, in which Cindy slowly materializes into an empty box, and the Chinese Water Torture Cell, an escape trick invented by Houdini. They represent two of about 20 tricks in the Spencers' repertoire.

"Those illusions are gone now," Kevin said last week in the couple's living room, populated by all manner of bronze and plaster cherubs. "We can't use them anymore."

As each of the Fox specials approaches, says Cindy, the foil in many of Kevin's tricks, "you feel physically ill." Each trick they perform, she says, is the result of tens of thousands of dollars in time and money. The Spencers -- both 39, slim and dark-haired -- pay construction and licensing fees for most of their tricks, which usually include non-disclosure agreements. Then they devote hundreds of hours to rehearsals, choreography, music, sound and lighting.

"Suppose you're in the middle of a tour in Colorado and you suddenly lose one or two of your tricks," says Cindy. "It would truly be a professional embarrassment to us."

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