Charles Reynolds is one of the most respected magical consultants in the world today. Born in Toledo, Ohio on September 9, 1932, Charles’ interest in magic stemmed from visits to Carlo’s Magic Shop, beginning around 1940. He still remembers the first trick he purchased was Carlo’s version of the Cups & Balls, using paper cups and balls cut from sponges. He presented an act through his college years, while attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. After receiving his Masters Degree, Charles moved to New York in 1955 to pursue a career in photography. He also remained active in the magic world. As Picture Editor of Popular Photography magazine, his knowledge of trickery received national attention when he exposed acclaimed “psychic photographer” Ted Serios.
In 1974, his career took a turn when he was approached by Doug Henning to be his magic consultant. Charles was involved in all eight of the Doug Henning’s World of Magic NBC-TV specials, as well as for Henning’s feature film of The Magic Show and his Broadway musical, Merlin, for which Charles was nominated for a New York Drama Desk Award.
In 1980, he was magic director for Harry Blackstone Jr.’s Broadway show, Blackstone!, and with his wife, Regina, produced the PBS television special based on that production. Charles also wrote and directed Blackstone’s An Evening of Music and Magic, performed with symphony orchestras around the US. And for two years, he directed the magic in Blackstone’s Tropicana Holiday Spectacular at Atlantic City’s Tropicana Hotel.
As his name became known by producers and directors in New York, Charles’ expertise was called upon for numerous theatrical productions, adding effects to such shows as John Pielmeier’s Sleight of Hand; Steven Sondheim’s Tony-Award winning musical Into The Woods; the Elizabeth Swados opera, Esther; Chess; Black and Blue; Jerome Robbins’ Broadway; Herbert Ross’ production of Cole Porter’s Jubilee at New York’s Carnegie Hall; The Green Bird; The Magician; the Paper Mill Playhouse production of Pippin; and most recently the Broadway musical adaptation of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein.
His television credits include consulting for Saturday Night Live; The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour; Arthur C. Clarke’s syndicated Mysteries of The Unknown; Marc Salem’s Mind Games; production associate for Thames television’s The Best of Magic, The Magic Comedy Hour, The Magic Comedy Strip, Disney’s Night of Magic, and Heroes of Magic series.
Charles’ work has also extended to consulting for corporations, such as IBM, General Motors, RJR Nabisco, and Nintendo; and concert attractions including Alice Cooper; Earth, Wind and Fire; the Jackson Five, and New Kids On The Block.
In recognition of his work, Reynolds has received both a Creative Fellowship and Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Magical Arts; the Milbourne Christopher Foundation Masters Award; Magician of The Year from the Society of American Magicians Parent Assembly in New York; elected as a Gold Star Member of the Inner Magic Circle in London; and named as one of the most influential magical personalities of the 20th century in MAGIC’s “The Century” reader’s poll.
Recently, Contributing Editor DAVID CHARVET, spoke with Charles about his career.
MAGIC: You grew up in a time when many of the legendary magicians were still working.
REYNOLDS: Oh, yes. I saw Blackstone, Dante, Virgil, Jack Gwynne, Birch, Bill Neff, and many others. Then, when I moved to New York in 1956, there were still a lot of “names” around. You’d go to an SAM meeting and Fred Keating or Roy Benson would be there. It was a very active magic scene in those days.
MAGIC: And you photographed a number of these magicians.
REYNOLDS: I never set out to take formal portraits of magicians. They just happened to be people who were my friends. Of all of them, I think my favorite is the one of Blackstone. I took that when he was appearing in Playboy Clubs.
MAGIC: I’ve heard you spent a lot of time around Roy Benson, who shared your interest in both magic and photography
REYNOLDS: I learned an immense amount about magic from seeing Roy practically every day for several years. He was a very, very close friend. And then later, when I was heading up the Photography Department at the School For Visual Arts, I had Roy teach a basic photography course. He knew photography. When he went out to Hollywood, years ago, he went out wanting to be a cameraman. He ended up being a minor contract player in several films. Roy did a great club act. He was a superb manipulator. And he was such a funny man. He had such an original angle on magic. Who else would do the Rice Bowls with tranquilizers instead of rice? [laughs] What you have to realize is that Benson was playing very sophisticated spots. I think he played [the popular WWII-era nightclub] The Blue Angel more than any other act. Roy was a regular there. And he was aiming at that sophisticated lounge audience that existed here in New York for only a few years. He worked a lot with Barbra Streisand, who liked him very much and used to recommend him as an opening act.
MAGIC: Who was in the first big show that you saw?
REYNOLDS: Blackstone. And to this day he is really the great influence on me. I still think Blackstone is the best magician I’ve ever seen.
MAGIC: What did Blackstone have that other magicians didn’t?
REYNOLDS: Well for one thing, he had fantastic charisma. And he did a good, tight, efficient show. He was not a dancer. [laughs] You know, I look at magic acts today and it seems to me that so much motion is wasted.
MAGIC: Did you see Blackstone more than once?
REYNOLDS: I saw the Blackstone show many times, probably thirty or forty times. I saw his full-evening show, but I also saw it many times when it was a one-hour show playing presentation houses along with movies. I think the one-hour show that he did was, to this day, the tightest, best magic show I’ve ever seen. I’ve talked to many people who saw Blackstone and they think the same thing. I know Kellar said he thought Blackstone was the best. And Vernon said to me that he thought Blackstone was the best. The other person who said it to me was Jay Marshall. I asked, “Who was the best magician you ever saw?” and Jay said, “Blackstone.”
MAGIC: Do you recall what magic was packed into the sixty-minute Blackstone show?
REYNOLDS: Certain things that Blackstone was known for, such as the Kellar Levitation and the Buzz Saw, were not in the one-hour show. But the show he did was fast. It started with the flower number [The Garden of Flowers], and it was followed up by the Dancing Handkerchief. Then, the Chinese number with the girl vanishing and then reappearing on a trapeze inside of the big Chinese lantern that was suspended above the stage. The Nest of Boxes was next, followed by the Tire Illusion. The Tires was one of the things that really impressed me.
MAGIC: It seems like just about every magician who ever saw the Blackstone show was fooled by the Girl In The Tires.
REYNOLDS: Well, we tried to do it in Harry Jr.’s show and it really didn’t work well. And there was a reason for that. The original tires that Blackstone Sr. used were old Model T tires and they were thin and light, with a sizeable hole in the middle for the girl to go into. Later, in Junior’s show, we used truck tires. And that was very dangerous, because the tires were terribly heavy. When the girl was pulled out of the stack of tires at the end, we had to be very careful that they did not tip over. Also, rolling those heavy tires across the stage slowed down the pacing of the illusion tremendously. But as it was originally done by Blackstone Sr., it was a striking illusion. By the way, did you ever hear how he got the idea for it?
MAGIC: No, tell me.
REYNOLDS: Well, Walter Gibson was traveling with the show, and Walter had written a Shadow mystery in which The Shadow was being pursued by gangsters in a junkyard. He hid inside of a stack of tires and then disappeared. Blackstone read that and said, “Hey, there’s an idea for an illusion!” And that is where it started. That illusion really fooled me. And I shouldn’t say it was a bad illusion on Harry Jr.’s show. It’s just that one of the defining things about Blackstone Sr. was that he was a very fast, snappy-moving magician. Harry Jr. was a much bigger guy, and he was slower moving. But the Blackstone Sr. show had terrific pace.
MAGIC: What came after the Tire illusion in the one-hour Blackstone show?
REYNOLDS: I remember the Floating Light Bulb, which was terrific. And the Hope Chest with the production of bottles. The closing was the production of six or seven girls out of a set of double boxes that were on a very large, tapered table. Then another box was wheeled on and the man with the whiskers jumped out, and they did what we called the Whiskers Switch illusion. And that was the end of the show.
Charles floating a girl in high school as friends look on.
MAGIC: That sounds like a strong one-hour show.
REYNOLDS: Oh, it was a strong hour. It really was, I think, when Blackstone was at his best. As I said, he didn’t dance around the stage, but he shot at things a lot with his pistol! Any time a girl was about to appear, he’d fire a pistol. But everyone did that in those days.
MAGIC: So how did Dante compare with Blackstone?
REYNOLDS: When I saw Dante’s show in the early ’40s, I thought it was a very good show. But I thought hands-down it didn’t compare to the Blackstone show. It seems like the United States splits right down the middle. The magicians in the east are Thurston and Blackstone fans, while those on the west coast are Dante fans. Dante lived on the west coast, and he played a long run in Los Angeles at the Las Palmas Theater in 1943 that greatly influenced the Larsen family. They wrote about Dante often in Genii magazine.
MAGIC: Let’s go back to what you implied about magicians today wanting to be dancers. What do you think is the reason for that?
REYNOLDS: I don’t know the reason. From the standpoint of someone who has directed magic, I think the single biggest problem with magic today is that it’s not clear. Much of the magic I see today has so much wasted motion that I don’t know what the hell is going on. I really don’t. I think absolute clarity is really the single most important thing. That and the likeability of the performer.
My wife, Regina, has three questions that she asks about magic when she sees it. The first is What happened? And I think that’s key. It has to be clear what effect happened. Her second question is How else? Because it seems like with so many effects there is obviously only one way they can be done. And the third is Who cares? I think if you can answer those three questions, you’ve got a good magic show. But it’s important to keep in mind that, when you’re doing a magic act, you don’t want everything to be a miracle. You just don’t.
MAGIC: Why not?
REYNOLDS: Well, for the pacing of it. There have to be things that are not miracles. That’s very true in an illusion show. You’ve got to have things for people to look at and laugh at and so on and so forth. That was true with Harry Jr.’s big show. Then he would kill them with the Floating Light Bulb. But there were lots of moments in that show where if somebody really seriously thought about how things worked they certainly could figure it out. But the Light Bulb and the Whiskers Switch used to really fool people. The Whiskers Switch was a great finish because the focus was on the magician, not on something else. A girl didn’t disappear and then run down the aisle. The focus was right on Harry, as it should have been.
MAGIC: You are well known among magicians for your work with Doug Henning. How did you begin working with him?
REYNOLDS: I met Doug about a year before The Magic Show, when he was still doing Spellbound, the show he created in Canada with Ivan Reitman. I never saw Spellbound. At that time I was a contract photographer for a number of publications, and one of them was Time magazine. In 1974, I sold Time on the idea of doing an article about the magic revival, because I knew The Magic Show was going to open on Broadway. And they did a big story with several pages of color. That was when I really met Doug. We became friends. When he was offered his first television special in 1975, he said to me, “You know a lot about illusions and the history of magic. I’d like you to work with me as a consultant.” I told him I wasn’t quite sure what a consultant was, but sure, I’d do it! So I worked with him for fifteen years. Eight of those years were spent working on the TV specials. The first special was, and still is, the highest-rated magic special ever on television. The first three shows were the ones that really scored.
MAGIC: Those were broadcast live?
REYNOLDS: Oh, yes.
MAGIC: Was that a little nerve-wracking?
REYNOLDS: The first couple were very nerve-wracking. We rehearsed for months on those early ones. Rehearsals started here in New York, and then, as the airdate approached, everything was moved to the west coast for the final rehearsals and the broadcast. Most of the stuff on those early shows was really talked through for a long time, and lots of changes were made along the way.
MAGIC: Was there a fallback plan if anything went wrong during a live broadcast?
REYNOLDS: You’d kill yourself if you tried to do that. Doug always had everything pretty well in-hand. He wasn’t easily shaken.
MAGIC: The fourth special was the last one broadcast live. Didn’t a lot of things go wrong on that one?
REYNOLDS: Yes. Doug stepped off the back of a mirror table and his leg disappeared on screen. Then the Germain Vanishing Gong, which had worked perfectly in rehearsal, didn’t disappear. And the tigers got loose backstage and ate the doves. The tigers were running through the halls of NBC, so Tom Snyder and a couple of others barricaded themselves in the men’s room. It was just one of those shows where a lot of things were jinxed in it.
The thing that’s kind of sad about that special is that it was a beautifully designed show. With the sets and the costumes and everything, I think it was almost the best. But the order came down that there would be no more live specials. We had to tape them. After that, there were some good shows with a lot of magic, but it’s difficult to keep that going forever. These people who do a show every week, I certainly admire them. We worked very hard trying to get one good show a year. And we didn’t always succeed. But my interest was always in classical stage illusions. So a lot of things that we talked about very early in the game were not used immediately. Some of them showed up much later in Merlin.
MAGIC: Such as the Mascot Moth illusion?
REYNOLDS: We talked about the Mascot Moth years before Merlin opened. Of course, I was never a builder or a mechanic. We relied on John Gaughan for that. And John Gaughan is a genius. He really is. We had a lot of ideas for things we wanted to do, and I had a basic idea of how they worked, but I didn’t have the nuts-and-bolts knowledge. John brought that knowledge.
The first illusion I ever put together for Doug was Things That Go Bump In The Night, based on the Million Dollar Mystery. This was for the first television special. I had the idea of taking the Million Dollar Mystery and doing the Servais LeRoy illusion, The Three Graces. Of course, everyone was using tigers in those days, so at the end we wanted to fold the box open and reveal a tiger. The thing was, I had never done the Million Dollar Mystery. I didn’t know much about it. Kuda Bux, who had toured with it in the music halls, sort of explained it to me. Then I looked at the old patent papers, and I thought, Wow, this is really a great principle.
There was a guy named Glen Priest who worked with Doug. Glen was very important in those early years with Doug. Glen and I built a little model and took it up to Doug’s apartment on West 86th Street and showed it to him. Doug looked at it and said, “Build it!” This was before John Gaughan joined the team. Les Smith was building most of the props for that first special, so we went out to a barn in Queens and built the prop that we rehearsed with here in New York. We ended up using that box on the first special. I think it’s probably the best illusion I ever came up with for Doug.
MAGIC: Doug knew it would be good by looking at the model?
REYNOLDS: Doug knew what was right for him. Doug had very good taste in magic. He knew what would and wouldn’t work for him. Sometimes I’d come up with an idea I thought would be terrific and he would say, “No, I can’t do that.” And that’s one of the marks of a really good performer: knowing what magic fits you.
MAGIC: When did you start working with Blackstone Jr.?
REYNOLDS: After I’d worked with Doug for a while, a number of magicians came to me and asked if I would work for them. I said no to most, because I thought it was a conflict of interest with what I was doing for Doug. But when Harry came to me, I knew his personality was so different from Doug that there would be no problem. So I directed the magic for Harry’s show on Broadway.
MAGIC: Looking back on your working relationships with Doug and Harry, how would you describe those relationships now?
REYNOLDS: I was very lucky to have two of my best friends hire me to work with them. Doug and Harry were two of my closest friends, so I lucked out.
MAGIC: Were there differences between how Harry and Doug went about developing their material?
REYNOLDS: When Doug started out, he really only had a few strong tricks: Gene Anderson Newspaper Tear, Sub Trunk, and Linking Rings. That was pretty much his strong stuff. So we took it from there. With Doug’s show, it was anything goes. We would sit down and discuss all sorts of things. We’d throw away some ideas and leave some in, then build a few, scrap those, come up with more ideas, and so on. Harry’s show was very connected to his father’s show. A lot of the material that was in Blackstone Jr.’s Broadway show was at least based on things that were in his father’s show. Of course, the thing that Harry really made his own was the Floating Light Bulb.
Author William Lindsey Gresham.
Doug Henning and Dai Vernon.
MAGIC: Did that make it easier for you to direct Harry Jr., the fact that you were both so influenced by Blackstone Sr.?
REYNOLDS: I guess it did. And Harry was such a great friend and a great performer. It was a joy working for him — unlike some of the other Broadway shows I later worked on. It’s great working on a show that’s just devoted to magic. Sometimes, when you take magic and try to insert it into a musical, it throws everything out of kilter.
MAGIC: How so?
REYNOLDS: Well, one of the things that happens when you’re hired as a magician or a magic consultant on a Broadway play is they immediately think you’re magic — they think you can snap your fingers and everything magically happens! And this is very difficult, because they’re concerned with choreography and lighting and all this stuff, and magic gets short shrift in the whole thing. Because they wonder, Why can’t it just work; it’s magic!
MAGIC: So directors are still somewhat naïve about magic?
REYNOLDS: Absolutely. Once in a great while you get a show where somebody understands. In 1987, I worked on a show called Sleight of Hand. It was written by John Pielmeier, who wrote Agnes of God. It was not a success. But it certainly was a success for me because what the reviews talked about was the magic! One of the headlines was, “Is There a Tony Award For Magic?” [New York Times reviewer] Clive Barnes raved about the magic. The point is, it wasn’t a magic show; it was a play. And suddenly it was being reviewed as a magic show.
The guy who did the magic in it was an actor named Harry Groener [who played the mayor of Sunnydale on the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer]. He did everything well. He was an acrobat, he spun ropes, he juggled. And he was a very good actor and dancer and singer. Everything I showed him, he would come back two days later and have it down. If I showed him a billiard ball routine, he’d learn it. He understood magic. I’ve worked with other so-called “stars” and they don’t have a clue. Magic either violates their “sense of reality” [laughs], which method actors are fond of pointing out, or something else. If you really get the right person, it’s great. But I think magic inserted into plays is generally a problem. It sounds like I’m biting the hand that feeds me.
MAGIC: Can you describe the plot of Sleight of Hand?
REYNOLDS: Well, I would have a hard time describing the plot; that was the problem with the show. It was about a guy who was an aspiring magician and who becomes involved in a murder. And there was a mysterious stranger — that sort of thing. Actually, the first act was really strong and had a lot of magic in it. Harry Groener did it beautifully. While the second act had some good magic in it, it was a great letdown to the audience, because at intermission, all people could talk about was the magic in the first act. And they were wondering what was going to happen in the second act. Then they got to the second act and found out it didn’t happen.
There were all of these people — Steven Sondheim and a whole bunch of others — who saw the previews and were putting their two cents in, saying “You ought to change this,” and so on. Some of those changes were put into the show. Still, the second half was a real letdown.
MAGIC: So it’s true that a magician must be an actor?
REYNOLDS: Absolutely. And in a sense, it should be easier to teach an actor to do magic than it is to teach a magician to be an actor. By the way, a very good book that has just come out — and I say this with some bias, because there are some very nice things said in it about me — is Geoffrey Durham’s Professional Secrets. It’s really terrific. It has so much good advice about rehearsing and presentation. I really recommend it. I’m a great fan of Geoffrey’s, and I have worked with him on about 25 of his television shows in Britain. We have worked together on literally hundreds of things that were done on those shows. Geoffrey is one of the great perfectionists in magic. He’ll pick one trick and spend three months doing it, rebuilding it, taping it, and bringing people in to watch it until it’s perfect.
MAGIC: Do you think it’s important that a magician have a sense of character?
REYNOLDS: Definitely. I think magicians have to know a couple of things. First, who they are. The good magicians know who they are onstage. And the second thing they have to know is what the trick is about. There are so many illusions out there today that aren’t about the person in the box; they are about the boxes.
MAGIC: Give me an example.
REYNOLDS: Well, I won’t name names, but a lot of what I see performed today is puzzles with boxes. It’s what I call the “refrigerator showroom” approach. You sit there and they wheel on a new freezer to show you, and then wheel it off and bring out another, until you find one you like. So much magic is like that. I can’t tell you the number of shows I’ve seen where they wheel something on, a girl gets in, and they put tubes through it, they put blades through it — anything that’s handy they put through it — and then they open it up and she’s gone. Okay, it’s a puzzle: Where is she? But it’s back to Regina’s third question: Who cares?
MAGIC: Isn’t that true of many illusions?
REYNOLDS: Well, I understand the reasons for it. Those illusions are practical. There are a few good puzzle illusions. Not many, but there are a few. The Zig Zag is a puzzle, but it’s a great illusion. Harbin knew how to present it. And Harry knew how to present it.
MAGIC: What makes the Zig Zag better than other puzzle illusions?
REYNOLDS: First of all, I think the Zig Zag is a good “talking” illusion. I don’t think it’s an illusion that’s as strong when it’s done silent. At one point there was a show at Radio City Music Hall where they had six Zig Zags out onstage, all being done to music at the same time. It was terrible; just terrible! But Harry made a very good talking illusion out of it. And he always credited Robert Harbin. And Harbin was a charming performer. If you ever look at the film of him on Sunday Night at The Palladium where he first did the Zig Zag, you see how really strong he was. Harbin was a wonderful man. I really liked him so much. And the Zig Zag is so practical. You can wheel it out into the middle of a high school gymnasium and do it. You couldn’t do the Million Dollar Mystery out there.
MAGIC: Let’s talk about Regina for a moment. How did you meet and what is the process of how you work together?
REYNOLDS: We first met as magazine editors. Regina was director of the American Society of Magazine Photographers and I was the editor of their magazine. We worked on many things, and one thing led to another and we got married. And we’ve been married for 35 years now. I depend very heavily on her for her critique. She is not easily pleased. We’ve done a number of books together: 100 Years of Magic Posters and The Blackstone Book, among others.
MAGIC: Does it help that she’s not a magician?
REYNOLDS: God forbid that she becomes a magician! Max Maven refers to Regina as “The Dragon Lady.” I like to think it’s a term of endearment. And it is. [laughs] But she knows what she likes. And in the field of magic, she doesn’t like a lot of what she sees. But there’s a good reason for that. It’s called Sturgeon’s Law.
MAGIC: What’s that?
REYNOLDS: Theodore Sturgeon was a science fiction writer [author of the formative short story “Microcosmic God”]. Sturgeon was tired of hearing people remark that 90% of science fiction is crud. When the subject came up during an interview, Sturgeon said, “Ninety percent of everything is crud.” That includes magic. There’s an awful lot that shouldn’t be out there, but there’s also a handful of real treasures.
MAGIC: Let’s talk about magic on television. You’ve seen a lot of changes over the past forty years. Have they been good or bad?
REYNOLDS: I am not too nostalgic about the early days of magic on television, because I think television is basically not a good medium for magic. It just isn’t. For magic to be really effective, you have to be there when it happens. With the first four Henning specials, we tried to get that feeling by doing them live. But still, if you’re not in the room when the magic happens, you’re not seeing it at its maximum effectiveness.
Of course, we were always very careful on the Henning shows not to fake things. And likewise with the Blackstone special that Regina and I produced for PBS. We tried to show it as an audience would see it. We did sometimes put the camera in the optimum position to make the illusion look as good as possible. But we certainly weren’t doing trick photography or blue screen or flying over the Grand Canyon or that kind of thing. As soon as the audience gets it in their head that you can cheat, you’ve really lost the battle. Then they think you can cheat on anything. And you can.
A lot of the magic that I see on TV today only exists on the screen. It couldn’t exist anywhere else. Maybe that’s a separate art form. I don’t know. But I certainly don’t think that’s the ideal way to experience magic. Magic can’t be fully effective on a screen. It’s funny because films started out as a sort of magic trick, with George Méliès [director of the silent classic A Trip to the Moon].
MAGIC: Are there other problems associated with transferring magic to TV and movies?
REYNOLDS: Some magicians are larger than life and their personalities don’t work on screen. Dante is a good example. Onstage he was larger than life, but he didn’t translate to the screen. Look at the film he did with Laurel and Hardy, A-Haunting We Will Go. It’s awful. It didn’t capture Dante’s personality at all. When you watch Orson Welles in Follow The Boys, where he was doing pieces of his Mercury Wonder Show, you can at least get some sense of how good he was as a performer.
One of the things that Doug Henning had going for him was that he wasn’t larger than life. He was approachable. You were happy to invite him into your living room. He loved magic and he believed in magic, which the audience sensed. That wasn’t something we sat down and talked about. It was just something he knew in his bones. And that’s why he was great on television.
I don’t want to sound like an old man — David Blaine and Criss Angel are both nice young men and what they do is fine, I guess — but I don’t strongly relate to the magic that’s on television today. I guess what I’m telling you is that I’m out of date!
MAGIC: Do you think that’s a result of the producers being younger today and trying to appeal to a younger demographic?
REYNOLDS: Of course. The producers and the audience have become younger and younger. It’s happened across the board. And you can’t criticize the performers for adapting to that. The magic of Doug Henning and Blackstone Jr. was of a different era. If it were presented in the same way today, with Chinese production numbers and wheeling out big boxes, I think it would look hopelessly outmoded.
MAGIC: The trend on television seems to have shifted from stage magic to close-up magic.
REYNOLDS: Close-up is one thing that television can be fairly effective at showing. I remember saying to Doug years ago that we should do a show called Doug Henning and His Friends and get people who do street magic and close-up magic. For at least one show, we could forget about sets and boxes and all of that. We proposed it to the network and they wouldn’t buy it at all. They wanted something they could feature [in their advertising] and they couldn’t feature the Coins Through Table. [laughs]
MAGIC: Was it your idea for Doug to open his first special with the close-up vanish of a nickel, with the camera focused on his hands?
REYNOLDS: Yes. That was my idea. Everything was a collaboration on the Henning shows, but I’ll take credit for that one. And little did I realize the strain I was putting Doug under to do that. But he said, okay, fine, he’d do it. Because he knew that was a great trick for television. And it was a great trick. I had seen John Cornelius do it and I told Doug about it. He was very smart and knew it would be a great way to start the show.
MAGIC: He must have been nervous. This was the first trick on his first network special and it was being done live.
REYNOLDS: I was sitting there with my heart in my mouth. I was terrified. I would never have the balls to do that. It’s one thing to be sitting in the control room shaking like a leaf but it’s another to be on the line in front of millions of people. But Doug was fearless.
MAGIC: What about the Water Torture Cell? Was he still fearless?
REYNOLDS: He wanted to do it from the beginning. I’m not so sure that doing the switch at the end, where he was holding the ax, was such a good idea. The Water Torture Cell was very tough on him. Doug had always had lung problems. As a kid he’d spent a lot of time in the hospital, with a collapsed lung and other things. The first time he did the Water Torture Cell in rehearsals, we had to pull him out. And after he did it on the special, he very unwisely took it on the road and performed it in his stage show. But just for a while, because it really began to take a physical toll on him. It was making him sick. Doug was really very frail, as you could probably tell from looking at him, and that kind of physical exertion just wasn’t the thing for him to do. But he certainly did it well on the first show, I thought. Your heart went out to him. He looked like a drowned cat.
MAGIC: You’ve seen a lot of magic through the years. Have audiences changed a lot?
REYNOLDS: The audiences have changed tremendously. They have a shorter attention span. The audience that sat enthralled by the Thurston or Blackstone show had a much longer attention span. Today, television has changed everything. People are used to seeing everything done in 25 quick cuts on television. And if you don’t do that, their attention wanders. And screen time is very different from stage time.
MAGIC: In what way?
REYNOLDS: Well, something you can look at onstage will hold your attention. But when you look at it on the screen, your attention wanders because the action is happening in a little rectangle. And some things that you’ll happily accept because they are happening right there in the theater with you, when you see them on TV, you start drumming your fingers and saying, “Get on with it!”
MAGIC: Do you think performers today can still learn from the old-timers?
REYNOLDS: Certainly. The one thing missing in most acts today is the “flash.” The old guys understood it. They knew how to build an eight-minute act in vaudeville. You had to open and close with some flash to be memorable. In our era, great acts like Marvyn & Carol Roy and Norm Nielsen understood it. Today, an act like David & Dania is a good example. They have great flash. But many acts miss that point. You know, I still like feather flowers. They’re flashy. There’s nothing wrong with feather flowers in the right place. Most illusions today lack flash. They are all black and steel and look like a piece of industrial equipment. That’s not to say you should have red boxes with gold dragons painted on them, but the prop doesn’t have to look like it was made for a warehouse. Also, music is so important. You look at an act like Cardini and everything he did was enhanced by the music. The act built to the finish because of the music. Most manipulators I see today use music that does not enhance the act. Their music all sounds the same to me.
MAGIC: What did you do about music on the Henning shows?
REYNOLDS: Most of the music on the Henning specials was original music written by Peter Matz, who was the orchestra leader for Noël Coward. He was a highly respected conductor and composer. Even when Doug appeared on Broadway with his magic show, Peter would come to New York and conduct the orchestra for opening night. And he did that for all of the specials. So most of what you heard was original music.
MAGIC: What are you working on now?
RETNOLDS: I’m thinking of going to bed! Actually, I did some work on the stage version of Young Frankenstein and I did some stuff for the Williamstown Theater Festival. Then I had a mild stroke a few months ago. But I’m doing fine now. It didn’t affect my speech, I’m not paralyzed. I’m fine. I was very lucky.
MAGIC: So where do you see magic going?
REYNOLDS: I don’t know where magic is going today. I really don’t. But I certainly think the door is open for somebody to come in with a different style. By that time, will television be a thing of the past? Will everything be on the computer? Will it all be on YouTube? I don’t know. The thing I love about YouTube is that I can cue up these old acts of people whom I admire and see them again. Not just magic acts, but you can see Joe Jackson Jr. and Josephine Baker and Señor Wences. It’s wonderful having access to all of those performances, even though they may look old-fashioned. There’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned — except as a drink!
Charles with Glen Priest and Doug Henning.