COVER ME – Imitation vs Inspiration by Bo Gerard

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Magicians, like musicians, often perform material that has been previously released and made famous by another artist.  So, the question is, what kind of “cover artist” are you?  Do you re-create other magician’s effects, or do you use them as a leaping off point to create an effect that is so personal, so idiosyncratic, that no one else could copy it.

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I am always intrigued when I see magicians looking down their noses at other magicians that use props like a Vernet Tip or an Egg Bag, tacitly implying that the harder a trick is to learn, the better the trick is.  But it might be a mistake equating “difficulty level” to “entertainment value”.  Maybe it’s not the move, or slight, or prop at all; maybe it’s what you do with it.  And how about why you use it?  From where inside your character does using a particular slight or prop come from.

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A lot of bands have released cover tunes over the years, but the one’s that really resonate with me are the versions that reveal a very personal take the artist has on the song.  Like Bobby McFerrin’s cover of the Beatles “Blackbird”; and Joe Cocker’s “A Little Help From My Friends”; and my all-time favorite cover, Earth Wind and Fire’s “Got To Get You Into My Life”.  They didn’t just reproduce the original version, they were inspired by it and made it their own; and in an unforgettable way. (Coincidentally, all Beatles songs!)

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My “magical moment”, when it comes to realizing how this related to magic, was back in 1979, when I saw a friend and fellow performer, R.J. Lewis, perform Fraidy Cat Rabbit.  I had seen the prop before and dismissed it as the type of trick only a beginner would perform.  But, when I saw R.J.  do it, I was bowled over!  He had that audience in his pocket, and by the time he got to the blow off, they were howling.  I learned a lot that day about making a trick so much a part of your character, that it seems you were actually the one who invented it.

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And, by the way, if you think you can’t thoroughly entertain an adult audience with an egg bag, check out Jeff Hobson tearing it up with his version; done in his own inimitable style.  

The lesson here is: Inspiration always trumps Imitation.

ONLY SHOW THEM ENOUGH TO WIN – Part Two by Bo Gerard

Last week, in Part One, we learned of a time in show business history, when it was not only OK to have more than one performing skill, but it was actually advantagous.  We also learned how the title of this blog refers to a certain body part belonging to the great comedian, Milton Berle.  But more on that later.  First a true story.

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The dark ages for the "Triple Threat" were still raging when I was chosen to be the "Marlboro Magician" for the State of Texas.  The ad agency that came up with the idea of putting magicians into thousands of bars and nightclubs around the country, to promote the idea that Marlboro loved its customers, brought all 20 of magicians they had chosen to Chicago for a training/hype meeting.  After our first session, we all retired to the hotel bar, and there I found a piano.  I started playing and singing and encouraged the others to sing along.  Between songs, one of the other magicians came up to me and said, “You play pretty good!  You must be a lousy magician.”  He was obviously of the opinion that you could not do more than one thing well in show business.

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Even some incredibly talented performers had to downplay their other talents to make it big.  For example, no one knew that Ben Vereen was an amazing singer and dancer, when they fell in love with his performance in the mini-series “Roots”.  And Ben was just fine with that.  Only show them enough to win.

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In case you didn’t read last week’s blog, the title of this blog is a reference to the famous story of when a newcomer to the comedians’ lunch table at the Beverly Hills Country Club, challenges Milton Berle.  The newcomer had heard all of the stories of the allegedly enormous size of Berles’ member and thought he could out measure him.  As they got up from the lunch table, heading for the men’s room to settle the bet, George Burns told Milton, “Only show him enough to win!”

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When I started doing corporate after-dinner shows, I was still occasionally performing for family audiences as my clown character, and I had to be very careful not to let either my corporate clients or my family clients learn that I did both.  I would have lost both sides of the business.

Strangely enough, I think the tide started turning for the "Triple Threat" when it finally became acceptable for film actors to do television, without expecting to never to do film again, as it had been the case for decades.  And as the years progressed it is not only perfectly fine for actors to jump from TV to film and back, but they are actually admired if they can not only act, but write, direct, sing and dance as well.  The "Triple Threat" is back, and we’re all the better for it.

ONLY SHOW THEM ENOUGH TO WIN – Part One by Bo Gerard

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The title refers to a famous line the great comedian, George Burns, said to another great comedian, Milton Berle, as Berle left the table to go into the men’s room, to settle a bet.  But, more about that later.

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There was a period, between 1970 and 1990, when if you had more than one skill you had to keep it under wraps.  You could display a talent other than the primary one you were selling, but it could not threaten the perceived mastery of that primary talent.  If it did, you were viewed as a “Jack of all trades and a master of none”!

A hundred years ago, having multiple, skills worked in your favor.  Producer/Actor/ Theater Owners ran most of the legitimate theaters at the turn of the 20th century.  In Hollywoodland, Charlie Chaplin would write the script, direct and act in the film, and write the musical score!  And in following years, artists like Gene Kelly and Bob Fosse enjoyed great popularity, while working all facets of their art.  But, there was a short period, as I was starting out in the business, where the audiences and casting agents expected all performers to be experts in one field, and one field only.

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True story: When I was in LA with the National Tour of Barnum (early 80’s), I figured I would have no trouble getting an LA agent to sign me.  After all, they could come to the show and see me act, sing, dance, do magic, and perform on numerous circus apparatus.  But only one agent was willing to sign me, and after going out on a number of commercial auditions for clowns, jugglers and magicians, I finally got the nerve to ask my agent why he wasn’t sending me on any straight acting calls.  He pointed to a stack of headshots on the floor near his desk that was literally 3 feet high, and said, “You see those people?  All they do is act!  When I get an acting call, I have to send them!  You are a “skills” person.  The way he said “skills” made me shudder.  I had learned an important truth.

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When I told my friend, fellow multi skilled performer and Barnum cast member, Gordy Weiss, what had happened to me, told me he had known about this bias for a year or two, and had removed all references to singing, dancing, and gymnastics from his resume before he came to LA.  He, by the way, had gotten an agent that was sending him out on acting calls.

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As I wrote in the first paragraph, the title of this blog is a reference to the famous story of when a newcomer to the regular comedians’ lunch table at the Hillcrest Country Club near Beverly Hills, challenged Milton Berle.  The newcomer had heard the stories of the allegedly enormous size of Berles’ member, and thought he could out measure him.  As they got up from the lunch table, heading for the men’s room to settle the bet, George Burns told Milton, “Only show him enough to win!”.  Click here to read a first-hand account of Mr. Berles’ enormity, by Alan Zweibel - long-time writer and producer for Saturday Night Live .

Next week, in Part Two, the” Triple Threat” makes a comeback!

THE “TIPPING” POINT – Bo, at your service? by Bo Gerard

Although I am a fair tipper, I have never liked the whole idea of it.  It has always seemed to me that if you work hard, you should be getting paid a living wage, and you should need no additional monetary incentives to do your best work.  And in the case of the service industry, it seems as long as we agree to keep tipping, restaurant owners will continue to pay ridiculously low wages.  So what good is tipping anyway?

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Tip is an old word, and it has nothing to do with either acronyms or the act of attempting to influence quality of service. Although the word has many meanings, both as a verb and as a noun, the use of the term as it applies to monetary rewards to servants, dates to the 1700s. It first appeared in this context as a verb (“Then I, Sir, tips me the Verger with half a Crown” from the 1706 George Farquhar play The Beaux Stratagem) and was first recorded as a noun in 1755. However, the use of tip to describe the act of giving something to another goes back to 1610. Tip slipped into the language as underworld slang, (rogues' cant), with the verb ‘to tip’ (meaning ‘to give to or share with’) being used by shady characters as part of the then-current secret lingo of petty criminals.

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Having been on the receiving end of tipping for 40 years, my experience is that sometimes the client is tipping to merely show appreciation - possibly you have succeeded their expectations.  But, there is a darker, more psycholoically  complex side to tipping, whose investigation could easily fill a book.  Sometimes tipping is about power and status.  There have been times when it was clear that the tip was less about appreciation and more about the tipper’s own benevolent superiority.

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When I am doing strolling magic at a large function, I regularly refuse tips. (I have developed a polite and funny way to do it.)  In a hope to distance myself, in the eyes of the guest, from those in the service sector at the event (waiter, bus boys, parking attendants), I try to impress upon the appreciative guest that I am getting paid a great salary, and that their enjoyment is all the additional thanks I require.

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I was recently given the largest tip of my career (hundreds of dollars) by a client who hired me to do an after-dinner show in her home.  Unfortunately, they kept me waiting for an hour and a half past the scheduled show time, and when they came into the show room, they were obviously quite drunk.  They then proceeded to talk loudly, text, and heckle me during my show.  Now, I love money as much as the next guy, but I will never work for that client again.

And if you’ve made it to the end of this blog, and you are a performer, I have a question for you.  Have you noticed that you are more likely to be offered a tip from a low/middle income client, than you are by a very wealthy one?

7 THINGS I WON’T DO AGAIN IN 2018 – Thoughts from Bo. (Comments from the NSA) by Bo Gerard

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#1   I will never again put the word “Bombing” in the title of my blog.  It think that particular blog got flagged by the NSA, because Google has not processed my sitemap submission since I posted that blog.  If you don’t know what a sitemap is, you probably don’t need to know.  (“Mentioning us in this blog, and displaying our logo on Facebook, is just going to make things worse.” – The NSA)

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#2   No matter how good the video on YouTube is, I will never again read the comments, because it will make you hate all humans.  What is the matter with people!!!! (“We here at the NSA are reading all comments, to insure your safety.”)

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#3   I will never again go looking for either a crate OR a barrel at the national chain store “Crate & Barrel”.  Talk about false advertising.  It’s like naming a pool cleaning business “The Seriously Funny Magic of Bo Gerard”!  (“The NSA has a man hiding in the stemware section at Crate & Barrel right now.”)

#4   I will not feel obligated to buy the new “next big thing”.  My Fidget spinner sits idle, and this years’ new hot trend, “Squishies”, doesn’t look promising.  (“Would you be interested in donating your fidget spinner to the NSA children’s fund?”)

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#5   When doing research on an Oktoberfest theme, I will never again type “strap-on leather fun” into Google.  (“We saw that, kinky monkey!”)

#6   I will never again pet the sweaty things, but I will continue to not sweat the petty things.  You don’t need to know why.  (“We know why – NSA - Never Sweaty Again.”)

#7   I will never again let “Friends” Fabricated Facebook Lives make me feel inferior or less accomplished.  I will henceforth un-follow all “friends” who post embellished accomplishments with false humility.  (“The NSA, however, will continue to follow everyone – all the time.  We’re the NSA, and we’re nosing around your private life to keep you safe!”)

I HAVE FOUR LIVES LEFT – Bo in the trenches by Bo Gerard

I believe that performers, like cats, have 9 lives.  And I also believe that I have already used up five of mine.  Below, in chronological order, I offer to you the five times I have might have died, or at least been gravely injured, in the line of my performing duty. (but didn't!)

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While in college, I performed with CCNY’s Musical Comedy Society. One night, while singing “I Wonder Why”, the Dion and the Belmont’s hit, I was blinded by a strong spot light and stepped right off the stage.  This blunder could have snapped my spine or at least broken a leg, but I luckily landed well; dazed but relatively unharmed.  I was however only semi-conscious after the fall and remember nothing of what happened next.  The cast told me that I continued singing, crawled to the nearest person in the audience and started serenading her.  She turned out to be the president of the University’s wife.  There was no serious bodily harm to either of us, but one of my nine lives had been used up.

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Cut to 1982, when I was in rehearsals for the Tony-Award Winning Musical “Barnum”.  We were all working on the teeterboard, trying to see who could learn it well enough, in 4 weeks, to perform it in the show.  I was doing so well on the mechanic, (the harness that is attached to your waist with ropes, and secured by a strong spotter) that I decided to try my back layout without the mechanic.  The two pushers gave me a great lift and I soared 15 feet in the air, like an eagle.  Unfortunately, this "eagle" needed some flying lessons.  I didn’t rotate quite enough, and started a head-down trajectory towards the mat.  This would definitely have been the end of my short yet non-iillustrious career, if Alexandre (Sasha) Pavlata, our amazing circus trainer, (who was built like a, well, world-class circus performer), hadn't jumped in and basically, single-handedly, broke my fall.  Bruises were had by all, but still I  continued to live.  Life "number two", however, was gone!

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During the national tour of the same show, I was continually trying to perfect my flying trapeze swing, since I understudied the guy that did it in the show.  I was working with Jeff, the Dance Captain of the show, one day at the YMCA in New Orleans, using the gymnastic rings as a surrogate trapeze.  After an hour of practice, Jeff decide I should learn the move called the “dislocate”.  (so called because you can dislocate your brain from your head if you do it wrong.)  Well, when I regained consciousness, Jeff told me that I somehow whacked myself in the head with one of the wooden rings and hit the very thin mat below like a sack of potatoes.  I was out for 10 minutes and ended up getting 13 stitches.  Adios life "number three".

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The same show took life "number four". While performing in Barnum, at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, I was standing 40 feet above the stage on a small platform, ready to make an announcement as the Ringmaster.  I was then to grab a nearby rope and slide straight down to the stage, say another line, and then exit.  This feat is accomplished with a simple leather sleeve.  This sleeve is about 12 inches long and is sewn onto the rope.  When I was ready to slide, I would grab the sleeve and jump.  By twisting the sleeve in opposing directions with my wrists, I was able to control my descent. (up to a point.)  That is unless the sleeve folds up under itself and jams on to the rope, bringing you to a rather abrupt stop about 15 feet from the stage.  At this point one has a choice, and only one second to make it.  Leave the sleeve behind and slide down the rope with bare hands, or release the rope altogether and jump.  I did a little of both, and managed to escape certain serious injury with just some really nice rope burns on my hands.  It being mid-show, a stage hand just sprayed my hands with antiseptic numbing spray and sent me out for my next cue.

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My "fifth life" went whizzing by me as I unintentionally flipped backwards off of a rolling globe.  A rolling globe is a fiberglass globe, used mostly in circuses, that a person or animal balances on, as they roll around the ring.  We were using this rolling globe in one of our many “Dream Collectors” shows, and I had neglected to wet-wipe the globe and the center section of stage I was to perform on that day.  As I jump-mounted the globe, the combination of dust on my shoes and more dust under the globe, caused my legs to fly up towards the sky, and my lower back to land squarely on the ball.  The sound it made was frightening, and the sound the audience and the other performers made on the stage was worse.  Everyone was sure I had broken my spine.  But, not only did I not break my spine, I actually rolled on to the ground, stood up, and remounted the globe to continue the piece. I escaped without a scratch!

So, todays lesson is: I you want to "make it" in show business, you have to be willing to bleed a little.  Or in my case, A LOT!  But I’m not worried, I’ve still got four lives left!

LEGAL LIMIT – Drunks in your audience by Bo Gerard

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Is has been said that the perfect adult audience for a stand-up show is one that is, A) intelligent and B) has had a drink or two.  But once they go past that second drink, things can get dicey.

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I don’t know if I've had more drunk people in my audiences lately, or if my tolerance for them has gone down, but I have sure had some trying experiences this past holiday season.  Aside from being great tippers, drunk people are annoying!!!

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This is less of a problem when I am strolling table to table, because if I encounter some unruly or disrespectful drunks I can just cut my routine short and move on to another table.  But during a stage show, you have to plow ahead in the face of inebriation.  Or do you?  What is a performers’ “Legal Limit” of tolerance?

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At first you'd imagine the other people at the offenders table would get him or her to pipe down, or if it persists you are confident that one of the party organizers would intervene and quite the interloper somehow.  But more and more, nothing is being done to quell the ardent belligerence that is raining down on you, ruining the show for you and the rest of the audience.

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It could be that people feel that the performer chose this particular line of work, and he should be able to handle any problem that arises.  Or it could be, as I have sometimes experienced, that the rest of the audience is also “in their cups” and don’t see anything wrong with a little jaunty, yet slurred, verbal interaction from the peanut gallery.  In this case, I have been sorely tempted to simply and politely sign off, and leave the stage.  But I have never done it.  After all these years on the stage, I practically have “The show must go on” tattooed on my brain, and I would find it nearly impossible to cut and run.

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How about you? Have you ever stopped your show because of one or more belligerent umbriagos?

BULLETPROOF INTRODUCTIONS… Bo in the trenches by Bo Gerard

A bad introduction can do more harm than good.

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The introduction you get is an essential part of your show’s success, and a good one can energize and focus your audience.  So, it’s up to you to do everything you can to get a good one.  Over the years I have fine-tuned the process and I believe I have as bulletproof a system as you can get.  Not that things still don’t go wrong.

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First and foremost, you absolutely must get someone from the company or facility to intro you, if possible.  And the more people in your audience that know this person, the better.  This is ideal, because then you are being welcomed as a special guest by someone inside the organization.  That is a great leg up.  But it takes work to make this happen.  First, you have to ask your contact if someone would be willing to do the intro.  Now, most people are not crazy about speaking in front of a large group, so based on their comfort level, you might have to encourage and coach them a bit.  You may even have to edit your prepared intro to suit them.

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That brings up the intro.  It should be printed in a large font, on white paper, and all the words should be easy to pronounce.  And don’t try to insert any humor into the intro.  (You’d be surprised how some people can butcher a perfectly good comic line.)  Keep the intro short and interesting. 

If you want them to build vocal intensity toward the end, here’s a trick I developed - make that font larger.  On my intro, “Ladies & Gentlemen’ is a little larger than the preceding sentence, “the Seriously Funny Magic” is larger still, and “BO GERARD” is even larger and in caps.  Stand with your introducer as they look your sheet over, to see if they have any questions.  Then let them know where you will be waiting, prior to the show, and point out your cell number on the top of the page.  Let them know they can call you anytime between now and the showtime, for any reason at all.

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Next to the cell number put these words, “Please give (your name) a verbal 5-minute warning before introducing him.  (This one is from hard experience.)  Even with all of these clear instructions, many of them will forget and start introducing you without warning you, so be ready and waiting, within sight of the stage, 30 minutes before the scheduled start time.

Sounds like a lot of work for an intro, but BOY is it worth it!  If you can make it happen, your show will get off on the best foot possible.

Then of course, the rest is up to you!