Arts Listings

Arts: The Theater: Oakland Magic Circle Pulls a Few Tricks Out of the Hat

Ken Bullock
Tuesday September 05, 2006

Conjurors, prestidigitators, sleight-of-hand mechanics and mentalists will appear tonight (Tuesday), as if by magic, on the stage of Oakland’s Bjornson Hall, home of the Sons of Norway (at MacArthur and Fruitvale), answering the call of the Oakland Magic Circle for their annual invitational magic competition and dinner, doors opening at 6:30 p.m., show at 8 p.m. 

“We invite all the magic clubs—about 15 of them—from Santa Cruz to Santa Rosa, and east to Sacramento, to send one contestant each,” said magician and Magic Circle President James Hamilton. “It’s a big, fun event, with all kinds of acts from comic to serious, slick sleight-of-hand to the bizarre. And families come to root for their local club’s favorite. There’s a spaghetti dinner included in the price of admission.” 

The event will be judged by a younger magician who has competed recently, a professional magician and longtime Circle member, and this reviewer. 

(In the interest of total disclosure, the present reviewer must confess his own debut in show business as a boy, performing a show of illusions put together by his father, himself a practitioner of stage magic and younger colleague of founding members of the Circle. This entree to the stage has led the reviewer down other arcane paths of performance as a result, including Noh and Kyogen—not to mention his present para-theatrical mode of expression.) 

The Oakland Circle is the preeminent club in the area—and the oldest west of the Mississippi. Founded in 1925, the club initiated the invitational competition over 25 years ago, at the behest of co-founder Lloyd Jones, proprietor of Oakland’s Magic Ltd., publishers and sellers of magic books. 

Hamilton recalled Jones from his first visit to the Circle over 20 years ago: “I knew Lloyd from magic conventions, and he’d reviewed me in his magazine. I came here in about 1980, but hadn’t performed much locally. A friend asked me to come to the meeting with him, and Lloyd came rushing up to me with his hand outstretched—and a membership application in it!” 

When asked what acts to expect, Hamilton shrugs. “There’s no screening. Everybody might do the same routine—who knows? One year I saw a guy all in leathers, looking like one of those Power Rangers, putting on an act. The kids got all excited.” 

Contestants are judged on appearance, technique, audience appeal and overall effectiveness of their act. 

Above all, stage magic goes over on style. Asked how he’d characterize the recent history of the art, Hamilton opined, “I think it’s come full circle. For awhile, it was out of favor. Then Doug Henning helped ignite the current interest, along with Blackstone, Jr. and Siegfried & Roy—both permanent shows in Vegas, of course. Technology helped, but the way some people modernized it, magic started to devolve into the same thing they complained about. Whether the boxes are black, or it’s chrome luggage, the props end up the same, and it can all look about as weird as the gold table they were all putting down as old-fashioned.” 

He smiled and went on: “The trend is to reach back and modernize. Magic is ancient, from the first time people asked why the leaves are shaking on the tree. It’s one of the things people are always going to want to see; they see a good magician and say, ‘Wow! What is that? That’s Cool!’ It’s the answer to the unknown.”