Graduating from card tricks and illusions, Blaine is now known for his elaborate public imprisonments. These include spending three days entombed inside six tons of ice, being buried beneath a tank of water in New York, and being suspended in a glass box over the Thames for 44 days in 2003. Americans were awestruck, but Brits were a tougher crowd: golfers teed up and took aim at him, spectators shone laser pens in his eyes and kids pelted him with eggs. “All in all, it has been quite a magnificent effort,” said one critic, referring to the crowd, not Blaine. But, although his endurance is impressive, his most startling trick remains his pavement levitation, his intense manner adding to the disquiet of his audience.
Penn and Teller
Having morphed from showmen into impassioned social commentators exploring such issues as America’swar on drugs, the duo are at the forefront of the intersection between science and magic. Their outspoken support of rational thinking informed their well-received Showtime series, Bullshit!, which challenged pseudoscience and the paranormal, took on false advertising claims and generally exposed nonsense in all its forms. Christopher Hitchens was a contributor. They’re still highly regarded illusionists with mind-boggling (and occasionally stomach-churning) tricks involving nail guns, hanging themselves or catching bullets in their teeth…
Regarded as one of the best close-up magicians in the world, Sadowitz has a way with words, most of them profane, which is one reason he will never be mainstream. His misanthropy is well documented; his set at the Montreal comedy festival ended almost immediately when he greeted his audience with the line: “Hello, moose-fuckers” and was promptly knocked unconscious by an enraged observer. He was also sacked by Channel 5 (“How low can you go?”), but his blend of intricate trickery and uncompromising gags is a clever formula – a laughing audience is unable to pay full attention to his hands. He has little time for more grandiose magicians, who he claims have “made magic irritating to the public”
Devoid of stage props, glamorous assistants and other kitsch, Bradford-born Steven Frayne is the antithesis of the slick illusionist. With his slight frame and low-key delivery, he breathed new life into the craft by delivering close-up magic to young people on the street. Best known for his documentary show, Dynamo: Magician Impossible (Mission Improbable would be a more accurate title), whatever sleight of hand goes into it, he has amazed his audience by swallowing jewellery, then pulling it out of his stomach, transforming snow into diamonds, walking on water across the Thames and bench-pressing 155kg in the gym. It takes a lot of hard work – or steroids – to do that …
The pickpocket magician is best known for an encounter with Jimmy Carter’s secret service in 2001, when, within minutes, he relieved them of the contents of their pockets. As he held up a copy of Carter’s itinerary, an agent snatched it back. As the agent went to brandish his badge, Robbins produced it, then turned to the chief of security and handed him the keys to the Carter motorcade. The New Yorker’s recent profile contained a fascinating snippet: the US defence department is working with Robbins to discover how magicians hack our brains to teach military personnel about cognition and deception. His work is an object lesson in the importance of personal space …
The former Christian, now a prominent atheist, uses magic to shine a light on religious charlatans and quacks of all kinds. He calls himself a “psychological illusionist” and his blend of suggestion and misdirection exploits how the brain fills in gaps. His victims do most of the work, offering body-language clues and absorbing subliminal messages. At times, this can be genuinely alarming; a member of the public is persuaded to make an assassination attempt on Stephen Fry or a social worker is made to confess to a murder he did not commit. But it was a Russian roulette stunt, in which he guessed which barrel contained a bullet, which cemented his reputation as one of the world’s great illusionists.
The Great Lafayette
Believed to be the highest-paid entertainer of his time, the flamboyant magician (real name Sigmund Neuberger) met his untimely death in Edinburgh in the notorious Empire Palace theatre fire of 1911 while performing his signature lion’s bride illusion, which involved him swapping places with a live lion. Such was Lafayette’s hold on the public that, when a stage lamp fell and ignited the set as he took his final bow, the audience assumed this was all part of the show. They sat and watched while the illusionist, 10 other crew members and a menagerie of animals, including the unfortunate lion, were incinerated as the orchestra struck up the national anthem .
A divisive figure who has been described as the Marilyn Manson of the magic world, he blends a rock’n’roll image with grandiose daredevil stunts such as shackling himself to the side of a burning car filled with explosives or suspending himself from a moving helicopter with fish hooks through his skin – you won’t see Angel pulling bunnies out of hats any time soon. More than any other magician, he has used television to mass-market magic and is one of the most commercially successful magicians ever: he’s signed a 10-year deal with Cirque du Soleil and has been awarded magician of the year three times by Magic Castle Hollywood …
Perhaps the most famous name in the world of magic, Houdini was born in Budapest and brought up in America. He started out as a street trapeze artist, later using magic to expose spiritualism, which was big business in his day, but he was famous for his escapology. In a pre-television era, he gained worldwide acclaim by challenging any jail in each town he visited to hold him and then escaping from them all. While his advertisements suggested he could “dematerialise”, he described in books how he opened handcuffs with careful pressure or hidden picks. It is alleged that the British spymaster William Melville recruited Houdini to provide information on the governments of countries he visited in his worldwide tours …
A former Wall Street accountant, barman and professional gambler, the lugubrious eccentric is widely considered one of the best card handlers in the world. He dazzles his audience the old-fashioned way – a deck of cards is pretty much his only prop. David Blaine called Jay his greatest teacher and, after watching some clips of the master hoaxer at work, you feel the urge to check to see if your watch and wallet have disappeared. Jay is also an actor, best known for roles in his friend David Mamet’s films and for playing Eddie Sawyer, who runs the saloon’s gaming tables in the HBO series Deadwood …
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