The Tradition of Las Vegas Magicians: Background information when reading The Lightness of Hands

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The Lightness of Hands

by Jeff Garvin

The Lightness of Hands by Jeff Garvin X
The Lightness of Hands by Jeff Garvin
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2020, 400 pages

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    Aug 2021, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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The Tradition of Las Vegas Magicians

This article relates to The Lightness of Hands

Print Review

Welcome to Las Vegas SignEven though I lived in Las Vegas for five years (2012-2017), I never gave it much thought. Magicians were always there, on and off the Las Vegas Strip. David Copperfield's face was on that massive advertisement across the top of the MGM Grand. Mac King, the afternoon comedy magician at Harrah's, was always in any number of small Vegas magazines advertising every show and every kind of deal you could find there. The greatest touristy thrill for a non-native resident like me just trying to survive the Hell's-waiting-room summer heat was seeing the Amazing Johnathan's show at the Sahara. But reading The Lightness of Hands caused me to wonder: How and when did magicians become a thing in Las Vegas?

According to Vegas.com, Jack Kodell was the first magician to perform in Las Vegas, in the summer of 1947 at the age of 20. He was offered $1,500 a week (about $17,000 today) to do his act in a cabaret show at the El Rancho Hotel & Casino. He was also historically significant for being one of the first magicians to use birds, making parakeets appear out of nowhere in an act called A Fantasy of Birds.

Las Vegas' influx of magicians seems to have been facilitated by the appearance of Hollywood stars and musicians on the scene. There was, of course, the Rat Pack, made up of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, who performed at the Sands. They personified Las Vegas then — the kingdom of cool, the show everyone had to see. But there was also Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Jimmy Durante, the Marx Brothers and countless others. Every resort also had its own set of showgirls who opened and closed for the celebrities, and sometimes had revues of their own as well. In the 1960s, casino owners likely believed that visitors would rather spend their time being in awe of the glitz and glamour of these performers (including Elvis Presley, who began his residency at the International Hotel in 1969) than watch a magician. In fact, the late Johnny Thompson (who performed magic as the Great Tompsoni and was also a fiercely trusted advisor to Penn & Teller) said in an interview in Las Vegas' David Magazine in July 2011, there were only two resident magicians in the city in the '60s, one working at the Showboat, and the other working the bar area of the Desert Inn.

One could argue that the influx of magicians into Las Vegas began with Siegfried & Roy. Siegfried Fischbacher and the late Roy Horn were performing (with tigers) in a casino in Paris in 1967 when a producer in the audience encouraged them to try out their act in Las Vegas. The duo steadily gained popularity and headlined their first Vegas show, "Beyond Belief" at the Frontier in 1981. In 1990, they opened at the Mirage, and performed there until October 2003, when Roy was attacked by Montecore the tiger.

After the magician Lance Burton appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the early '80s, he performed for eight weeks in a trial run at the Folies Bergere in Las Vegas, and was so popular that his contract was extended for nine years. In 1994, he signed a 13-year contract with the Monte Carlo Resort & Casino to create and star in a new version of his magic show, which opened in June of 1996. David Copperfield started at Caesars Palace in the early '80s, filling the gaps in the Circus Maximus Showroom's schedule, then moved to the Hollywood Theatre at the MGM Grand. So by the 1990s, it seems, magicians were an integral part of Las Vegas nightlife.

The list goes on and on from there, much like the colorful handkerchiefs that a magician continually pulls out of his mouth. There's Penn & Teller, and Criss Angel (who started at the Luxor in 2008 and moved to Planet Hollywood in 2019), and Mat Franco with his own theater at the LINQ Hotel & Casino. You don't even have to say "abracadabra" to conjure up any number of magicians on and off the Strip. You can even hire them for private events. What better distraction from the Vegas heat?

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

Article by Rory L. Aronsky

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Lightness of Hands. It originally ran in June 2020 and has been updated for the August 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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