There are certain occupations that may strike you as unviable career paths: those don’t-quit-your-day-job jobs, yet some turn out to have relatively secure structures of compensation and success, such that their devotees can, in fact, quit their day jobs and do quite well for themselves. This weekend, Philadelphians will have the chance to peer into one of these tightly knit and surprisingly stable realms, because two Philly natives are cracking a window into the world of magic.
On Friday, Marty Martin and Danny Archer will open the Smoke and Mirrors Magic Theater, an intimate, 60-seat venue for magic acts from around the world. They plan to showcase high-quality performers at their theater geared toward those 16 and older, as well as in the so-called Little Theater, which is meant for younger audiences. They’ll also offer magic classes at what they’re calling the “School of Magic,” sell magical items at their in-house magic shop, perform seances in their “Seance Room,” and offer dinner-and-a-show packages to private parties.
But what the two friends are really doing underneath all this is slightly more intriguing: They are trying to open the insular world of magic up to the public — to create a community of people who don’t see magic as a one-time Vegas event or as birthday party entertainment, but as a veritable art form to add to their repertoire of regular Friday night activities.
“Name three magicians,” Martin said to me when we first talked by phone. He has a gruff, no-nonsense way of speaking, which he described as “attitude.” His approach to magic is best captured by the fact that, while serving in Vietnam, he toured with a group called “The Magical Conspiracy” through active combat zones, several of which had been deemed too dangerous for any other act — that is to say, serious magic.
Martin and Archer — who discovered magic while working in a tuxedo shop when a client performed tricks at his fitting — met in the 1980s in a magic store, where they became friends fast. Three decades of rapport makes talking to them rather like playing a group round of Mad Libs — full sentences emerge, but they are always a collaborative, patchwork endeavor.
According to Archer and Martin, magic is a uniquely circumscribed community — outsiders rarely encounter the art more than once. “Most people max out at three,” Archer said. “They’ll probably see magic once or twice in their lives, if ever.”
But insiders constitute a devoted squadron, with local and global circuits for sharing trade secrets, finding performance venues, and improving their acts. The apex of this insider community is the Magic Castle, an exclusive private club in an actual Los Angeles castle, where magicians perform for one another and socialize. But the illusionist community goes much farther than L.A. — when we spoke, Archer had just received texts from a magician in China, Martin from one in the United Kingdom — and also has roots in Philadelphia: When I visited the theater in the Pine Valley Plaza, still very much under construction (I had to climb a ladder to get in the front door), local magician Doc Swan wandered onto the site just to stop by. Swan will be the theater’s first performer, along with Will Fern. They’ll take the stage Friday and Saturday night, although the Friday show is already sold out. They have magicians booked through November.
Like any industry, however niche, there are stratifications within magic. Big names like David Copperfield and David Blaine perform a very particular kind of grandiose, TV-friendly magic, but, as Martin and Archer are quick to point out, there are more than several other styles. Many magicians work as birthday party performers, sure, but others find jobs a novice has never even heard of.
For years, Martin and Archer made their living in “corporate magic” — a strain of illusion-making that caters to big companies. Their business, “Corporate Entertainment,” designed booths at trade shows using magic to attract visitors. They once levitated an Apple computer in the 1990s, when Apple was still called Macintosh and its products were considerably heavier than today’s Macbook Air.
Many magicians work in “informational magic,” “motivational magic,” and “team-building magic” — all shades of what Archer describes as “magic with a message” — which can range from corporate projects like Archer and Martin’s to antibullying campaigns in middle schools. Others open magic shops, write for magic magazines, or organize magic conventions. And some are simply performers who find work in theaters, restaurants, and other intimate venues.
It’s clear talking to Archer and Martin that this last group is their favorite. They love intimate magic, done in small venues and composed of sleight-of-hand tricks. They think something gets lost when magic is performed on TV or in giant stadium.
“Magic is an art form that needs live performance,” Archer said. “When you’re watching me perform live, you can’t say, ‘Yeah, but the camera did this.’ You’re seeing it live, you’re saying, ‘Oh my god. That can’t be. That is impossible.’ ”
Magic, in other words, lives between the knowledge that one is being deceived and the experience of seeing something impossible. Every degree of removing the audience from the act only plants doubt in people’s minds, only reminds them that it is fake. That’s why Archer and Martin custom-designed their theater to have perfect sight lines. The tiny black space, based on European amphitheaters, has raked floors so the audience looks down at the stage and alternating row patterns to ensure no one is staring at a head. “The worst seat is only 15 feet from the stage,” Martin said. “This is intimate magic.”
Intimate magic is really what Archer and Martin are doing with their whole enterprise. With regular shows, a roster of classes, and a magic shop much like the one where they met, they are trying to bring magic to Philadelphia’s mainstream, to turn its devotees into figures we’re familiar with — familiar enough, at least, to name more than three.
Smoke and Mirrors Magic Theater, 2840 Pine Rd., Pine Valley Plaza, Huntingdon Valley, Pa., 267-626-1366, www.smokeandmirrorstheater.com