1953 magician wows audiences by making a woman levitate during Esso Magic Show. - Photo via Vancouver Archives

On May 18, 2020, just a couple of months into the pandemic-induced quarantine, magician Penn Jillette said this on his and Teller’s “Try This at Home” special: “No one can make better use of time alone than a bunch of damn magicians.” 

True as this may sound (and be, in some cases), he certainly made the statement in jest. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began to rapidly spread in the United States in early March, nearly all groups and individuals have been affected, including magicians and other artists surrounding their acts.

According to Mike Jones, composer and music director for Penn & Teller, the duo has been working together “nonstop” since the pandemic started.  They have been a part of several shows in the past few months including The Tonight Show” and “Two-Headed Dreams,” but the type and number of tricks that they can do together while physically apart is limited. 

Jones, on the other hand, has not been able to be part of their shows at all lately.  While he is used to performing music with Jillette before each live show, the quarantine has obviously put the act on hiatus. 

“Our whole lives are performing for people in real time. It’s a feeling of loss… the not knowing is the hardest part,” Jones said. He still records and posts videos of himself playing piano almost daily and performed a virtual live show via Facebook last Friday, but he said it was not the same and that he was “basically performing a 90-minute concert for no one.”

Disney-based magician Ray Pierce said that he has been having similar experiences and misses the ability to connect with his audience. As a magician on the normally busy streets of Downtown Disney in California, Pierce is currently unable to perform for his small audiences. 

While Downtown Disney is now open to the public, doing magic would be “the opposite of what everyone wants,” Pierce said, because it gathers a crowd, the space becomes tight and the performers sometimes hand objects to audience members, among other things.  

“The thing we need as magicians is feedback,” Pierce said, and that is another difficulty that comes with doing virtual shows. People can still clap and react, but there is no direct eye contact, no obvious moment when each audience member is thinking, “No… There’s no way… He did not just do that…” when seeing a trick or, seemingly, a miracle being performed before their very eyes.

For these reasons, Handsome Jack, a performer at Hollywood’s Magic Castle, has avoided doing virtual shows altogether.

“I had less than no desire to do magic online… and then recently I watched a Zoom show, and now I have less than less than no desire to do a Zoom show,” he said. While the pandemic has given him many opportunities to write new magic material and practice a complex card trick that had been of interest to him for years, performing shows for others who cannot even be in the same room has no appeal to him.

Trade Show magician Seth Kramer has been a bit more active on this front, although it does not fully quench his thirst for performing. 

“Honestly, I’ve tried to avoid doing magic on video for many, many years because it’s something that should be experienced live,” Kramer said, but he has recently been giving online magic lessons to both children and adults, and doing virtual shows at corporate events. Even so, it is not the same as performing for a live audience. 

“It’s not the greatest solution, but it’s the only solution we have right now,” Kramer said.

While many magicians, both big- and small-time, seem to be doing as well as can be considering the situation, they are still suffering as entertainers and performers. They are eager to be able to hand an audience member a slick Bicycle deck and say, “Pick a card” or “Please shuffle this deck” or “Which one of these cards has the most blood on it?” but only time will tell when these artists will be able to do so again.

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  1. Thank you for supporting the live arts, Leah. The fate of live theater, opera, and magic shows are still very uncertain. I am confident they will all return at some point, but with so many performers out of work, only some will survive this.