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How magic survived the pandemic

Card tricks in small squares. Mind-reading over WiFi. Here’s how magicians learned some new ways to mystify their audiences.

By Glenn McDonald

Fifteen or so employees of a small software company have gathered in a Zoom room, that emergent digital locus of the pandemic era. They’re here to see a new kind of magic show, in which the magician is in one physical space — a studio in Chicago — and the audience is dialed in from various home offices. The show is a gift from the company’s HR department, a morale booster intended to bring distanced people together.

The Zoom gallery view toggles to speaker view to reveal a man in a tuxedo, seated at a green felt tabletop with an elegant red curtain backdrop. He’s got the square-jawed handsomeness and confident mien of an old Hollywood movie star. This is Dennis Watkins, third-generation magician and longtime stage-magic professional. Watkins owns and operates The Magic Parlour in Chicago, which, before the pandemic, hosted 20 shows a month at the Palmer House, a historic hotel downtown.

Like so many others, especially in the live entertainment business, Watkins watched his professional life flip upside down when COVID-19 hit the U.S. in March 2020. No longer able to perform live, he pivoted to the new platform of online magic performances.

With easy practiced patter, Watkins welcomes the group and launches into a 45-minute magic show. Instead of bringing a volunteer up on stage, Watkins isolates a Zoom window and positions it picture-in-picture. Rather than choose a card from a fanned-out deck, the volunteer shuffles and chooses from her own deck, retrieved from the kitchen drawer at home.

When Watkins performs a sleight-of-hand maneuver, he switches the view to a closeup of his hands. In the trick, Watkins causes a card to seemingly teleport from the bottom of the deck to the top, then flip face up of its own accord. (Even in high definition, you still can’t see how he does it.) Spontaneous laughter and applause come piped in with that odd Zoom timbre.

Toward the end of the show, Watkins performs an old-school vaudevillian mentalist trick. He asks another volunteer — logging in from North Carolina — to think of a place that’s special to him and hold it in his thoughts. Concentrating fiercely, Watkins reads the volunteer’s mind with a flourish, revealing the tropical location, somehow already written down on a whiteboard in Watkins’ Chicago studio.

At the show’s end, the audience is satisfied, duly impressed and kind of dazed. They’ve just witnessed an evolutionary step in an art form that, by some counts, is more than 2,500 years old.

Watkins is one of many stage magicians who have been forced to switch to online magic shows amid the pandemic. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but a quick Google search returns hundreds of listings for working magicians offering interactive virtual prestidigitation.

Author, designer, and historian Jim Steinmeyer has been watching the pandemic boom in online magic with professional interest. Author of the magic history book Hiding the Elephant, Steinmeyer holds several patents in the realm of “illusion apparatus.” He has worked as a behind-the-scenes designer with big industry names including David Copperfield and Doug Henning. Remember when Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear? Steinmeyer designed that trick.

“There’s always been a curious fringe element in magic designed to work in those odd situations, when the audience isn’t actually there.”

Jim Steinmeyer, author of the magic history book Hiding the Elephant

“Magicians have a long history of adapting magic to new trends and technologies,” Steinmeyer says.

For instance, an entire category of telephone tricks evolved when land-line phones went mainstream. Later, magic adapted to serve giant network TV audiences. In the 1980s, there was even a minor trend of magic shows that you could play on your VCR, where a mentalist would read your mind through the very fabric of space, time, and late-return fees.

“There’s always been a kind of curious fringe element in magic designed to work in those odd situations, when the audience isn’t actually there, so to speak,” Steinmeyer says. “Sometimes they’re called interactive tricks or self-working tricks — they’re basically hands-off tricks.”

Steinmeyer says he admires the way Zoom-era magicians are blending these concepts with other disciplines that can work at a distance, like Watkins’ old-school mentalist bit. He’s excited to see this classic style of magic cycle in again.

“Good magic is good magic,” he says. “They’ve made these shows vital and interesting again.”

Watkins was born in Texas, where he first learned magic from his grandfather, and has been a professional magician for all his working life. He’s a small business owner, essentially, with a family and a child — plus two full-time employees and a rotating crew of contractors and assistants. In addition to his long-running show in Chicago, Watkins averaged 150 in-person corporate gigs per year before COVID-19 — from ten-person design teams to roomfuls of executives at corporate retreats. Among his clients: Microsoft, AT&T, Kraft, and Pfizer.

It all went away, more or less instantly, when COVID-19 arrived.

“I was pretty terrified, and that’s when I thought it was only going to be for a couple of weeks,” Watkins says. “If I had any idea that it was going to be a year and half, I would have gone off the deep end.”

Watkins canceled his Chicago shows as the rest of the city’s live entertainment industry also went dark. “Then I watched all of the corporate contracts on the calendar bounce,” he says.

Driven by what he characterizes as animal panic, Watkins did what magicians do: He started thinking of creative ways to solve the problem. “I didn’t sleep for a couple days,” he recalls.

For a few weeks, Watkins tried live-streaming free shows, mostly to stay in touch with ticket buyers and corporate clients. It didn’t really work. With a simple livestream, Watkins found audience interaction was severely limited.

“I couldn’t ask someone to think of a card and type it in the chat,” he says. “There’s a 30-second delay.”

Watkins realized that he needed to basically reinvent his entire act. He switched to Zoom, which offered at least an approximation of live interaction. Then he started upgrading his equipment, piece by piece — better lights, better cameras, better microphones.

“I got to know the guys at Best Buy contactless checkout pretty good,” Watkins says. “Over the next couple months, we built out a broadcast-quality studio here in the house.”

The technical side was a steep learning curve. Adapting the actual magic tricks? That was kind of fun.

“I actually liked the challenge of figuring out how to get a particular effect with the limited conditions,” Watkins says. “The challenge was to overcome the obstacles that physical separation creates.”

Watkins explains that his style of performance is based in the mainstays of magic — card tricks and other routines that have been crowd pleasers since the days of vaudeville. With a few tweaks designed for online presentation — say, adjusting sight lines to account for camera angles — Watkins found that the classic card tricks played just fine in the Zoom rooms.

“All of that early material was like a rock-solid sleight of hand that I had been doing all my life,” he says. “It was not engineered for this medium or this platform, but it still worked.”

Watkins also realized that the online realm was a good fit for those old-school “mentalist” tricks, like the one where he reads the mind of a volunteer to guess a favorite vacation spot.

Incredibly, that trick is as simple as it sounds. Watkins asks the guest to concentrate on a certain place that is important to them. After a few innocuous questions (“I sense water. Is there water?”) he writes down the answer on a handheld whiteboard, turns the board to the camera, and reveals the location. Everyone flips out.

It comes across as a minor miracle, an extemporaneous psychic connection zinged across the Internet. But the trick, Watkins says, is just a new riff on a very old mentalist routine.

“That particular piece, I’ve been able to source that back to the 1920s,” he says. “I’m not going to tell you what the exact method of that is, but I’ll tell you that it’s remarkably simple and it plays incredibly well online.”

By July 2020, Watkins had reopened his show as a live ticketed event via Zoom: “The Magic Parlour @ Home.” He started booking corporate gigs again, too. He found that his reinvented online act fulfilled a genuine need for companies. The virus had shut down all their client meetings, conferences, and conventions. Suddenly this magician out of Chicago was offering an online experience that could bring people together for an evening out, kind of. Watkins estimates that he has performed around 700 virtual corporate events since COVID-19 hit the U.S. two years ago.

Looking back on his COVID-era pivot, Watkins credits his success to sturdy old-fashioned tricks and new presentation techniques. Pressured by circumstances wildly beyond anyone’s control, he found he was evolving his act in fast-forward.

“When I figured out how to put one image in the middle of a gallery view, it meant grandma got to see her kid and wave and cheer,” Watkins says. “We had developed a much more realistic, emotional, communal experience, and not just a half-assed facsimile. It was a genuinely new kind of experience.”

By January 2022, Watkins was back doing five shows a week at The Magic Parlour, incorporating masks, social distancing, and proof of vaccination. His assistants and contractors are back doing what they do — publicity, promotion, tech support. He’s glad to be back on stage. “My focus has always been The Magic Parlour show,” he says. “That’s where I live, artistically.”

Yet he’s opened up a new line of work with the online shows, and he regards those early days of mad pivoting and improvisation with a weird kind of affection. “For the first time in several years, really,” he says, “I started to feel inspired again with the work itself.”

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He has written for National Geographic, NPR, Discovery News, The History Channel, Thrillist, Goodreads, and McClatchy newspapers.


Illustration by Mar Hernandez


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