Criss Angel certainly has the resources to deliver what he promised: “The most mind-blowing, revolutionary magic show ever to be performed live.”
But rival magicians are asking if he has a different goal: to be magic’s ultimate cover band.
Rick Thomas paraphrases the letter he says he sent Angel:
“Your success in Vegas is huge. You have much more opportunity than I do, and many more people who you can hire to work for you to create. I don’t. And when a magician comes up with something they can call their own, let them keep it.”
You may remember Thomas for a family-friendly magic show that ran on the Strip for years. Back when he did a lot of cabinet illusions with tigers, you could call it a bargain version of Siegfried &Roy. But — with the exception of a pop-up pooch — those aren’t what turned up in “Mindfreak Live!” the reboot of Angel’s Luxor showcase.
Thomas’ best-known original is what magicians call “a double-levitation with the girl vanish.” It starts with the age-old levitation of the lovely assistant. Then the magician zooms up to join her in the air. Thomas’ twist is to pull back the covering and reveal she has vanished while both are still airborn.
“I wanted to do it with a real girl there and I wanted to do it in midair. I worked on it and worked on it until I made it happen,” Thomas says. “And every illusionist in the world knew it was mine, including Criss Angel.”
See what magicians argue about? When you get down in the weeds on magic tricks — who owns them and what happens if one comes up with a different way of getting to the same effect — the weeds are deep.
Deep, as in: Is the disputed levitation a variation of one created by Lance Burton, where he and the girl float up together for a little sexy time? Or the one by the late magic builder Gary Ouellet, whose “Ouellet Double Levitation” added that “zoom up” part for Burton’s ex-wife Melinda, “The First Lady of Magic”?
Deeper, as in: What’s the difference between “levitation” and “flying”? The answer seems to have a lot to do with vertical motion, versus left-to-right. A sequence in Angel’s show looks a lot like one David Copperfield used for years. Both seem to stem from U.S. patent 5354238A, issued to John Gaughan in 1994, which tells you how it’s done (and is why Thomas says he didn’t patent his).
Deeper still, as in six feet under, when you talk to another magician, Brett Daniels, about his signature piece: The midair appearance of a “floating girl.”
It’s an illusion Daniels has done since 1991. He has licensed it several times, including a $50,000 deal for Hans Klok to use it in an Aladdin show (which became an almost-legendary Las Vegas misfire).
Daniels says he and Angel worked together to develop an ensemble show called “The Supernaturalists,” but couldn’t agree on a final contract. “We parted as friends,” Daniels says. But Angel became the only magician to license the levitation from another builder, who also has rights to it via a settlement. (It’s complicated, and you don’t have all day.)
“In 25 years, Criss is the only guy who has gone around me,” Daniels says. “I have nothing but respect for him. I wish he would have returned that respect to me by asking me (if he could use it in the new show).”
Angel was fighting the flu but sent me a statement: “It is unfortunate that certain performers continue to waste energy envying the unprecedented success of ‘Mindfreak Live.’ However pathetic, this behavior is nothing new, as Houdini and Doug Henning were subjected to the same jealous treatment at the height of their popularity. I see no reason to dignify petty claims and paranoia with any further comment.”
He’s right about this finger-pointing being centuries old. And, like rock ’n’ roll, movies, or any other art form, magic is a continuing story of younger people adding new twists on what inspired them.
But the fighting over who did what is like a trip to the art museum. You can get up close and be confused by the brush strokes, or back up and see the big picture.
So let’s get out of the weeds and away from whether Angel has the rights to familiar material. The bigger question is: Why is it there to begin with?
This opportunity to really move magic forward only comes along every so often. As in decades. Think about Siegfried &Roy’s show opening at The Mirage. In 1990.
A recent Bloomberg feature on Angel estimates he “generates” about $70 million a year. (The article cites “foreign rights; road show versions of his act; magic kits and other merchandise; and sponsorships.” All this would support a number that’s really hard to get to with Las Vegas ticket sales alone.)
Angel has a 60,000-square-foot warehouse near the Strip to research and develop new illusions. And while he is solely in charge of the content, his producing partner on “Mindfreak Live!” is Cirque du Soleil. Granted, it’s a more austere, private-equity version of Cirque than the one that spent $165 million on “Ka.”
But between the two of them, it’s fair to argue they could spend $30 million to $50 million to invent genuinely new stuff no magician could ever claim to have seen, let alone have performed. You know, mind-blowing, revolutionary stuff.
As I noted in a show review, more of Angel’s fans come in via the image he created, not because they’ve seen six other magic shows. They can’t be expected to recognize Nathan Burton’s “showgirl cabinet,” Copperfield’s flying in and out of a trap or a “laser-bending” bit recently performed in the short-lived “Twisted Vegas.”
When I talked to Angel for a June 3 preview of the relaunch, he promised to “really show how far magic has come and how kind of dated a lot of the magic shows are.”
Playing devil’s advocate, I threw out the classic excuse I always hear: There are only so many principles of magic. Only so many ways to conceal a human body.
That, Angel said, was “old thinking. That’s what magicians are conditioned to think. That’s what it’s always been about. Magic has only been about a puzzle, an enigma, of how it works. There’s never been something to get beyond the puzzle that gives people food for their hunger or their thirst of what they want to see.”
That sounds like it might explain strong reviews for “In &Of Itself,” the brainy magic show by Derek DelGaudio now packing the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.
Angel’s version of “revolutionary” is quantitative; packing his show with more than 50 illusions. My reaction to it echoed Bill Smith, a Las Vegas builder of illusions through his company Magic Ventures. He too has “a beef” with Angel, over the rights to the sawing-a-woman-in-half trick you see in the show.
That said, “I wanted to go in there and see some new stuff. That’s how magic evolves,” Smith said. “But I was open-mouthed, thinking there’s nothing new. The couple of new (segments) were basic principles.”
So yes, we can argue with who invented what, and who has the rights to do this or that. But we can’t argue with Thomas’ larger point. Angel enjoys “a position in the industry that (he) can be creative, that (he) can come up with these things. But he didn’t. And that’s the upsetting part.”
Read more from Mike Weatherford at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @Mikeweatherford.