What happens when New Zealand’s top magicians get together with some of the best in the business from overseas? Daniel Smith went along to the NZ Magic Convention in Wellington to find out.
On a normal day, anyone venturing via elevator or many stairs to the 16th floor of Wellington’s James Cook Hotel would find themselves amid the sauna steam and perfumed unguents of the Infuse Day Spa. But between the 20th and 22nd of October the area is crammed full of magic enthusiasts, there for the annual New Zealand Magic Convention. The highlight of the weekend: a series of lectures from international magicians appearing in the Magicians show at the Wellington Opera House on the Saturday night. The convention is also a chance for magic enthusiasts to rub shoulders with their heroes, an opportunity that has drawn magicians from America, Canada, Australia and all over New Zealand. By my estimation, about 85 percent of the attendees are eligible for Gold Cards. And then there is me.
Sneaking in late to the first lecture I’m greeted by the sight of the obscenely tall Spanish magician Hector Mancha, strutting the stage to Bonnie Tyler’s ‘I Need a Hero’. The stage is low to the ground, but Mancha towers above the seated audience. Behind him is a red velvet curtain divided into into twin sections of falling drapery, unsubtly mimicking the labia, which adds a somewhat Freudian undertone to his lecture. Mancha speaks excitedly in broken English about the secret workings of his most famous trick, “Ma-nipple-ation”, which he reveals was created to coerce female crowd members into touching his body. The trick is that his nipple can pick a card chosen and signed by a participant. He reveals how it works with the help of a woman unfortunate enough to be pulled out of the crowd. The trick is both superbly intricate and insanely dumb in the way of all the best magic tricks are.
After Mancha’s lecture the jovial, gravel-voiced master of ceremonies directs us towards the complimentary morning tea. As I generously partake (I’d missed breakfast in my rush to get here), I eye up the room. I’m struck by how difficult it will be to get this brethren of deception to share its secrets. I decide that the best approach is a direct one and walk up to a man in the corner warily surveying the crowd. He turns out to be Mike Kay, a member of the small clique of magicians interested in the realities of psychic magic – mediums, cold readings, mentalists etc. Wary of the media himself, Kay introduces me to the unofficial head of psychic magic in New Zealand, Richard Webster.
The author of, by his estimation, 156 books on magic and the New Age, Webster is a genial gentleman with sparkling blue eyes. He tells me he got his start in the world of psychic magic in late ’70s Auckland, at ‘horoscope parties’, in which palm-reading and tarot (then still illegal) were presented as magic shows so as not to be stopped by the authorities. Soon Webster had a blossoming career in the New Age publishing scene, churning out books on everything from finding your soulmate to developing your psychic power, astral travel and the psychic ability of pets. He tells me his “main claim to fame” is that he “feng shuied the apartment of a Playboy Playmate of the Month”, and was subsequently invited to a party at the Playboy Mansion where he met the recently deceased Hugh Hefner, at that time very much alive. He was kicked out of the Brotherhood of Auckland Magicians in the late ’90s for practicing psychic magic, but says he’s seen the magic community’s attitude towards psychics soften in recent years; in 2013 the same Brotherhood named him their Grand Master of Magic, New Zealand magic’s lifetime achievement award.
Mike Kay sees the renewed interest in stage magic as a reaction against internet-bred cynicism. “We live in an age where everything is a google away… but I think that there are things in the universe that we just don’t know about, and it’s that sense of not knowing something that underlies magic.” He sits opposite me nursing a coffee. He’s much younger than Webster, but with the same bright blue eyes that I’m beginning to suspect are a prerequisite for a career as a psychic magician. He acknowledges that there’s a dichotomy between magic ‘tricks’ and what psychics claim are real ESP abilities, but “as an evolved ape I can hold two ideas in my head at once”.
Morning tea is almost over, and Kay is being called away. But before he leaves he’s got some parting words of wisdom on a hobby that can confine young men to their bedrooms for hours on end. “I do think that there is a direct connection between masturbation and card tricks. I haven’t done the research, but I’m completely serious.”
We’re ushered back into the lecture hall for the parlour magic competition. Before it starts, the gravel-voiced MC pleads with the assembled magicians not to snatch the spotlight when called upon to be audience participants. A hard ask, given nearly everyone is here because they like being the centre of attention, at least when magic is involved. The first and only competitor in the junior competition is 14-year-old Melbournite Prue Spencer. She works the room confidently, with comedic timing reminiscent of a young Richard Pryor – which for a young white Australian girl comes as quite a shock. We then move to the first senior magician, Brendan Dooley. Dressed in a checked suit and with a charmingly nervous demeanour, Dooley performs the best trick of the day, conjuring a live goldfish into an audience member’s drinking glass.
I leave the competition and run into two large, bearded, bespectacled young men and one small man with long black hair tied in a ponytail under a purple top hat. The small man is the widely respected American magician Sylvester the Jester and he is being encouraged by those around him to perform his tricks off-duty. S. the J. moves his hands in blurring circles faster than the eye can follow, disappearing and reappearing coins, combs, cards, smoke detectors (yes, really) and wallets. All tricks are performed at a rate hard to see and therefore appreciate. I keep trying to butt in with questions, but S. the J. is a force unto himself.
Finding no traction with S. the J, I turn to one of the men beside him. Blair Munro says that he sees magic as a positive force in today’s climate of unreality and fake news. “I think the most important aspect of magic is getting the opportunity to define for yourself what is real and what is not. Pushing things through tables, pulling cards out of decks, making things disappear and reappear at will is a way to take agency back over a world in which you otherwise feel you have no control.”
Since I’d arrived, I’d been looking for the man who organised the convention, Nopera Whitley. After hours of hunting I finally find him in a small meeting room surrounded by clouds of gold helium balloons. Whitley is one of the youngest members of the magic elite, an entrepreneur who has made waves in the close-knit scene since arriving just a few years ago. His aim is to foster a new wave of magic in the country, and he appears to be succeeding. Whitley tells me his favourite moment of the convention so far was seeing a jaded magician crack into a broad smile upon being fooled by a trick he hadn’t seen before, exclaiming “Fuck I love magic!”
Later that evening, I’m at the Opera House to watch the slick professional magicians perform among the bright lights and dry ice. Shin Lim, possibly the world’s top card magician, completes his trick and walks to the front of the stage to lap up applause that seems to go on forever. There and then, I’m struck by the contrast between these international superstars and the convention’s enthusiastic amateurs. The art of magic is not about big showy acts fooling people and having power over them. It is about the people, young and old, who aren’t household names and who can never hope to be. It is about those of us who understand the sadness and fallibility that comes with facing reality, and are prepared to battle it. They put in time and patience and rigorous training to learn tricks and sleights of hand – not to fool people, but to make them believe, if only for a second, that they live in a world where miracles can happen.
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