The Melody of Magic 🎵
A melody is an assembly of musical sounds grouped together in a single composition
I want to apologize to all my readers for this week’s delayed post. Due to technical issues with our computer and phones it was impossible to publish this piece until until today. I appreciate your patience and understanding
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Enchantment happens when the magician moves in perfect harmony with music. The musical setting creates the mood for magic, which will paint the audience’s perception of the experience. As a dancer, I was fascinated by Martha Graham, who presented freestyle expression in her modern dance routines. She talked about how dance and music harmonized in a stage presentation to become “one.” A dancer’s body is her musical instrument, using movement to express sound. The same applies to other performing artists, including magicians, who present their nonverbal artistic work. Like a dancer, a magician has an intimate relationship with music. The music is the sound that tells your story. It's a vital component for communicating the narrative to the audience. Imagine watching Swan Lake to the music from The Nutcracker Suite. What you end up seeing and listening to is an unsynchronized ballet where the presentation leaves you in a state of discord, and that’s not the performer's intent so, as an entertainer, harmonizing the elements of movement and music is very important to the unity of your routine. For me, music and magic have an inseparable relationship.
Choreographing and staging a magic presentation is an exciting endeavor. Unless the magician composes his music, he can find music currently available for purchase, whose copyrights are covered by ASCAP or BMI at most live venues, or by using royalty-free music. The Pendragons chose their music, like most magicians, including David Copperfield, by purchasing copyrighted songs. But when magicians record, publish, and broadcast their performance, including on the internet, they risk violating copyright legalities. I have had my fair share of these encounters in the past. For instance, Depeche Mode, music used by The Pendragons in our live shows, is copyrighted but covered by BMI and ASCAP at every theater and venue we played worldwide. But BMI and ASCAP do not cover TV, Film, and Internet broadcasts, so invariably, we’d either have to receive permission from the owner or choose royalty-free music, which is free for a reason, in my opinion. For most TV shows we performed on, the production company paid the much-added expense for the rights to use our chosen music. But when they didn’t, our presentation was left to an audio crew choosing royalty-free music that they thought best fit our piece of magic. I was always disappointed in the result and wished so much the TV audience could have seen our work with the music selection we carefully picked to portray our performance at its best. Magic is music, and music is magic. So, the songs we chose to represent our magic were done with careful consideration.
Early in our career, we most often performed shows and on TV accompanied by a live orchestra. Those are the bygone days of entertainment. Most orchestra pits have been filled with cement to expand the audience space. Those that remain become a curiosity piece for the theatergoer to contemplate its use. But when I was performing during the '70s and ’80s, we were all familiar with an orchestra pit. The first time I performed with live music was in 1977. It’s Magic Show, produced by Milt Larsen. Jonathan and I, newbies, assisted Bill Larsen in his portrayal of Dante (aka Harry Jansen, a famous contemporary of Harry Houdini). The performance was presented at the Variety Theater in Los Angeles, a beautiful old building with grand architecture. Up until then, my only experience was performing recorded music, which, in comparison, recorded music lacks the texture of live music, where not just hear the music but you also feel the music. It reaches down into your soul. When paired with a live performance, it’s elevated to a spiritual experience. A sound system can only replicate the vibrations your body hears and feels as you watch the performers move in perfect unison with the sound. Live music baths you in sound, so you feel like you are watching a practice run of the show when it’s piped out through a recording. No other experience in my life has ever matched the sensation of performing live music.
Performing with the accompaniment of an orchestra at The Variety Arts Theater was my introduction to working with live music. Soon after that show, we began presenting our magic on Sitmar Cruise Line, where a live orchestra played our chosen music. I can’t remember if we had our music scored or if we purchased sheet music. If my memory serves me correctly, we bought sheet music. Sabre Dance, I remember, was the song we used for our fire basket illusion and Chorus Line for our metamorphosis illusion. The orchestra was the backdrop for our performances on the ship. Just a little aside here - during one of our performances, the ship moved from a calm inland passage in Alaska to the high seas. That night, the ocean was rough and the type that knocked dishes off tables, and people had to grasp what they could to keep from falling. A stunned audience watched as I was thrown from a levitation to the lap of one of the musicians playing behind me. I have a video of that show in my archives, which I’ll share on a future Substack. The dangerous storm we hit caused most passengers seasickness, forcing the captain to take a more calm route back to San Fransisco. Those were The Pendragons' first days performing to live music; it was expected, and I preferred live music over canned sound.
In the 80s, we began performing in Las Vegas first at The Flamingo Hilton in the show City Lites, which was an ice spectacular produced by Bill Moore and included some of the very best variety acts, skaters, singers, showgirls, and musicians in Las Vegas. The musicians' union was powerful, so every showroom featured live music from these incredible artists. George Hernandez was the show's musical director, who had arranged music for many notable artists of the time, including The Carpenters and Vikki Carr, to name a few. We needed new arrangements and scores for our music, so it was George who painstakingly put together our compositions, which we used for years while performing in shows in Las Vegas and Atlantic City where there were live orchestras. What I liked most about the Flamingo was the orchestra being out front and center, where the audience could appreciate them as part of the show. The City Lites show also played in Atlantic City at Trump Castle. Still, unlike the Flamingo, where the musicians performed in a booth to the audience's left and above the stage, the orchestra was relegated to the basement below the stage by watching a TV screen displaying the show. The same was true at Las Vegas Bally’s Grand Jubilee Show. For the performers, this could be disheartening because the music wasn’t consistent, and occasionally, the tempo would be off, leaving the performers to adjust their own pace. It was not ideal, but when constructing these theaters, the planners opted for this arrangement instead of providing an orchestra pit because it saved space for more audience members. Eventually, the era of live orchestras playing at Las Vegas shows ended following a lengthy Musicians Union battle where the musicians lost 😞. The strike ended as headliners tired of not working began to head back to the stage using taped music, starting first with David Copperfield, who led the way. Fifty-four musicians were soon without jobs as the showrooms dropped them for canned music. Most entertainers applauded the decision because you could now use any recording without going through the laborious and expensive task of paying for arrangements. So, if you wanted to change out your music, it was easy. But watching these shows without live orchestral accompaniment certainly lacked the richness of a live band. Those were the ancient days for musicians when technology quickly replaced them.
Despite what happened in Las Vegas, live music continues through symphonies. Soon, we experienced performing with symphony orchestras, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and in Cincinnati with famed conductor Erich Kunzel and The Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, where we participated as guests in several concerts, including the famous Halloween Spooktacular in 1996, a show recorded for PBS. Maestro Erich Kunzel loved our show and wanted us to be part of this TV Special. This was our second time performing with Kunzel, who had seen us perform our show at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park. None of our music was scored because, by 1996, we hadn’t worked with an orchestra for years. Erich worked with us and scored our music for the live performances on TV. I was invited to sit in on one of the music sessions, watching and listening to Erich instructing the musicians on how best to play our music. It was fascinating to watch Erich work with his orchestra to bring out the musicality of each piece of our music, focusing on the structure and melodic lines. It was intriguing to see Erich Kunzel masterfully bring our music to life. A once in a lifetime experience I’ll never forget. Sharing billing with us, were special guests Tom Wopat, Robert Guillaume, and the barbershop quartet Marquis, and it aired on PBS in October 1996. I always had a bit of a crush on him when he starred in Dukes of Hazard, so it was fun and exciting watching and listening to his talented voice. In our performance, we presented three illusions: theater surreal, a production where I, along with our two Samoyed dogs, magically appear from a miniature theater, our famous see-through sawing in half, and closing with our metamorphosis. We had little time between effects, so I quickly changed costumes backstage. I often tell people my hard work was backstage. Compared to performing on stage, it was a breeze. Here is the link to the entire TV Special. The Pendragons can be seen starting about 27 minutes into the program following Tom Wopat.
One of the illusions mentioned above, Theater Surreal, was a production of our two Samoyed dogs who traveled the world with us. Those familiar with our work remember Juneau, our first Sammy, and Kirsti, who went blind. In the performance with the Pops, we introduced Kashmere, who was just a puppy in 1996, who, at the end of the illusion, is seen held by one of our stage assistants, Marianna Ferraro, and Juneau with Mariah Bonner, our other assistant. Both the ladies had been with us as dancers from when we performed our Universal Studios show in Hollywood. All our dogs were rescued and provided companionship on and off stage for everybody. The dogs were always the recipients of much attention backstage. I mentioned in a previous Subtack how backstage Samantha Sage used to take care of Kashmere, and another stagehand used to teach her tricks. In one performance in Washington DC at the Ford Theater with Kevin Spacey became so infatuated with Kashmere that he invited us to LA for a play day with his dog. An offer we never accepted, because we just didn't have time.
Everyone loved our dogs, but no one liked them better than Erich Kunzel who had raised sammys. Behind the scenes backstage, Erich spent much time with Kashmere and Juneau bringing them treats and spoiling them with plenty of attention. Backstage, they were always treated as the stars of the show.
On Halloween Spooktacular, I was delighted and honored to perform alongside many gifted performers, not only onstage but also offstage as well in less formal situations. Our shows ran the entire weekend and Erich couldn't have been a more lovely host to the special guests by inviting us to his beautiful home for dinner to further get acquainted. Other evenings he’d take us to dinner at some of Cincinnati’s finest restaurants where everyone knew Kunzel well and treated him as royalty. Cincinnati Skyline chili was delivered backstage following one matinee. For those not familiar with this yummy chili, it’s served over a bed of spaghetti and it has its own taste unlike Tex-Mex or California chili. It’s not spicy but has undertones of cinnamon, allspice, and cloves along with cumin and chili powder making it more Mediterranean style with both savory and sweet taste. It’s one of my favorites and the only place to get it is in Ohio or purchase the canned stuff online, which there is no comparison, so I make my own from a recipe I found in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Here is the link to the recipe, add cheese and onions and it’s delicious. 😋 Lasting friendships developed from these get-togethers which have lasted a lifetime.
Working with Erich Kunzel was a charmed experience. I can still hear the instruments tuning up to an A while applying the finishing touches of makeup. The sound always gave me a confidence boost as I anticipated each performance- warming up my mind for our presentation. It’s a wonderful nostalgic sound shared by those involved in symphonies. Famous conductors like Shchedrin and Beethoven loved the noise so much they wrote into their music compositions, as heard at the beginning of Beethoven’s 9th, and I can’t think about the original movie Fantasia without hearing the scene when the orchestra tunes their instruments. Nothing left fits the spirit more then that sound. Music brings people together in a shared cultural experience; bonding them emotionally together. Listening to recordings in isolation while it has its place, doesn’t recreate that communal escapade. To play a part in these sentimental productions are wistful experiences I hold dear to my heart and I can’t do so without thinking about the communal camaraderie I developed with other performers. If you’ve never had this experience I encourage you to attend a symphony. Pop orchestras are my favorite because the songs are more current, but that’s just my preference. I also love classical music, but there are many choices and great symphonies perform all over the world.
Have a musical, magical day! 🪄 ✨
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