Thursday, April 17, 2008

Magical Conversation with Whit Haydn.

Whit Haydn, known affectionately as “Pop”, is one of the finest magicians you’ll ever see.

Born in Clarkesville, Tn. (Whit's family is from the western part of Virginia--near Martinsville), Whit lived in Tennessee until he was nine, then moved to Greenville, NC where he went to high school.

Whit finished college at Lynchburg College in Virginia, and went to graduate school at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Va, where he studied for the Episcopal ministry.

His charm is instantaneous. He feels like family and friend all rolled into one from the moment you first meet him. And yet, his wry smile and twinkle in his eye give you the feeling that if you were a betting man, your money would soon be parted from your wallet--forever. His mechanics are perfection personified. His showmanship in a class all by itself.

It is my great pleasure and honor to bring you this Magical Conversation with Whit “Pop” Hayden.

MK: What first drew you into the magical arts?

WH: I saw a performance when I was eight or nine by a Methodist minister at a summer camp. It turned me on to magic in a big way. There was an old man in his eighties that lived close to me in Clarkesville, and he claimed to have been a professional gambler. He taught me the basics of the Three-Card Monte and the Shell Game--at least the basics of the moves. I didn't understand the shills and all the psychology until many years later.

MK: Who were your inspirations when you first started, and if they have now changed, who are they, and why have they changed?

WH: My first mentors were Bill Tadlock and Dick Snavely of North Carolina. They taught me and introduced me to other great magicians like Bill Spooner and Rick Johnson. I was only ten or twelve when I first met Dick Snavely. He was a great magician and a college friend of my parents. He introduced me to Bill Tadlock, who lived much closer to me, and the two of them gave me a great grounding in magic. Later, my friend Brian Gillis introduced me to Eddie Fecthter and his magic. Eddie became a huge influence on my work. Eventually, after moving to Los Angeles, Billy McComb became my mentor and best friend. Besides these men, many others have had a big influence, including Duke Stern, Johnny Thompson, Don Alan, Frank Garcia, and Tony Slydini.

MK: Did you join any magic clubs when you first started?

WH: No.

MK: Did you have a mentor? As we are always constantly learning, do you still have mentors or trusted eyes when trying out new material?

WH: When Billy McComb died, I lost my last mentor. It is a terrible loss, more than just emotional. Billy was like a part of my brain--I could always call him and ask "Where is this from?" or some such question and he always, always knew.

MK: Do you remember your first act? What was the lineup of illusions you presented in that act?

WH: I did many shows as a high school kid, always featuring the rings and ropes. I did some puppetry, and all the usual magic shop magic--Zombie, Hippity Hop Rabbits, etc. My first real "original" magic act was what I created for the street in the late sixties--cups and balls, linking rings, cut and restored rope, billiard balls.

MK: There are two acts that I love to see at The Magic Castle over and over again, and I can never tire of seeing them—Dana Daniels and you. The two of you share a unique ability to get genuine laughs from the audience even if they know the punchline to the joke. I attribute it to a great sense of comic timing, but what do you feel is the reason for the success of your act especially in light of the fact that you have many repeat audience members seeing your act?

WH: Thanks. That is the best compliment you could give me, and I am sure my dear friend Dana would agree as well. I believe that art is judged by just that standard. Most magic acts you can see two or three times and truly enjoy, but never care to see them again. "You get it." That means the acts are disposable art, and not great art. Great acts you can watch over and over and never seem to tire of them. Billy McComb was one of the greatest magicians of the Twentieth Century, I always felt, because you could watch him a thousand times and still find him thoroughly charming, entertaining and interesting--he had many layers and levels of theatrical and magical interest. The Mona Lisa is great because you never tire of looking at it. It is always "fascinating." That is what I look for in art and try to achieve in my performances.

MK: You’ve created a definitive character, but what I’d like to know is how much of the character and the look of your character is you, and how much is the stage persona, and how did you first go about creating your character?

WH: Well, the accent is real. I have worked without a Southern accent for most of my career, having learned to speak general American dialect when I was an actor in my early twenties. The accent is thickened up a bit--I am sort of doing an impression of my grandfather's accent. The character is based on Nineteenth century sure-thing gamblers like Soapy Smith and Doc Baggs, combined with a bit of Medicine Show pitchman, and vaudevillian.

MK: Was the character you now perform as the first character you chose? Of not, what were some of the other characters you tried first?

WH: My original stage character, which I have worked with for more than thirty years, is a sort of clueless substitute teacher dealing with a subject he doesn't understand and "put-upon" by the unruly and rowdy class he is trying to teach.

MK: How important is it to you for magicians to perform original material as opposed to performing proven material with their own presentation? Or is it important at all?

WH: I have written an essay on just that question. Here is a part of a recent post I made on The Magic Cafe on the subject: How does one learn to routine? What is a great routine? What makes a great routine different from one that isn't "great?" How do you construct a great routine? Where do you go to learn routining?Most of the bad magic around today is very clever and original. It just isn't well-constructed because the originators never had actually learned their craft. They had never really done well-constructeed routines and therefore didn't know what they were supposed to look like and feel like.Originality is a stupid goal. It should never be a goal. It is the result of having to change things in order to make them work in your venues, or needing to change things in order to solve a problem or fix a weakness, or in order to give a better expression of your personality or character or the meaning you want to communicate.Originality is not very important to audiences or bookers. Being "different" from others in your performing venues is important for any pro, but that is very different than being "original."Understanding how to actually hit all the notes, and learning how to make a song interesting and full of impact--learning how to sell it--these are all much more important to a musician than having an original approach. Only after "mastery" of the craft should the performer begin working on original presentations.I believe most magicians are encouraged from the youngest age to be "original" and it is both a disservice and an impediment to growth.A complicated art form like magic can only be learned by imitation, and "originality" without craft leads to the worst possible art. Most of the great magicians learned by copying and imitating until they understand the craft. Then their artistic needs compel them to change the work of their teachers and masters.It is hubris to think you can do this before you truly understand the work of the masters.I had performed both the Jack Miller "Five-Ring Routine" and the Vernon "Symphony of the Rings" for years before creating my own "Comedy Four Ring Routine." My routine "borrows" heavily from both of these masterworks. And I could never have created it without having first studied and performed those great routines. I needed to perform both routines in front of audiences many times before I felt I understood how and why certain things worked the way they did. I did not start changing my routine because I wanted to create something original, I was basically adjusting to the new requirements of working on the street, and changing my ring routine to make it work in those special venue requirements. I would not feel the least guilty presenting Jack Miller's or Dai Vernon's routine exactly as written, word for word and move for move in the same sorts of venues they were created for.Magic is not about originality.Besides which, most good magicians are on the level of cover bands in music.They do decent presentations of other people's work, and make a good living doing it. There is nothing wrong with this. Not every great singer is a singer/songwriter. Not every good singer is unique and original. We can't always afford a David Copperfield or a David Blaine for our weddings and Odd Fellows meetings. We hire a cheap imitation and are often very happy with it.My essay was about not getting the cart before the horse. Please learn the craft first by studying the greatest routines by our best performers. Do them the way they were created first, and learn to make them work well in front of audiences before you start creating your own.One should study Hamlet and the work of the actors who have played him in the past before setting about changing all the words, entrances, and presentations. An original Hamlet doesn't necessarily have to have a single change of a line or stage direction. Originality comes from having studied and discovered something new for yourself within the play, not from rewriting the play.

MK: How do you go about creating an original effect?

WH: I don't. Most, if not all, my effects are classic effects. The routines are my own, but I almost always start with a classic effect.

MK: Can you tell us about some of the pitfalls you faced early on as a street magician, and how you overcame them?

WH: I discuss a lot of this in my book Street Magic. I had a lot that I needed to learn, but there weren't any other street magicians around. This was in 1968-69, and the only other magic performer I knew of on the streets was Jeff Sheridan. He and I spoke on the phone, but never met. I worked downtown, he worked in Central Park. Great magicians came to my aid, however. I got great advice from Presto (Earl Johnson), an incredible black magician who had spent years in the Dime Museums and really knew his stuff. He helped me to understand how to work with angles. The Captain was a legless hustler who taught me a lot about nerve and boldness in performance. Ed Mishell taught me the basic rope routine that I used to create the Mongolian Pop Knot. Ken Brookes in London helped me find a way to work on the streets unmolested by the cops.

MK: How was the idea for your SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS born?

WH: I was consulting with Chef Anton in 1995 for his pool trick shot show. I helped him create some magic for his routines. In the process, he and I discovered that we both had interest and experience in hustling short cons, and started sharing notes. About that time, Mark Wilson asked me if I would teach a course at the Magic Castle's new Magic University, so Chef and I agreed to teach a course on street scams. We named it after an old Terry Thomas/Alistair Sims movie from 1960. We wanted to offer the street con man up as a better model for close-up magic than the "card mechanic" model that we have used so prominently during most of the last century. Our students couldn't find the props they needed, so we began making them for the students, and thus our magic manufacturing company got started. The company is just a sideline for both of us. We both make most of our income from our performances.

MK: What are some of the things you and Chef Anton teach there?

WH: We teach hustling and con games like the shell game and three-card monte.

MK: You have an affinity for the great con men of the “Old West” and The Alaskan Gold Rush of the 1890’s. What is it about them and that era that fascinates you?

WH: I feel like a lot of what created modern America and its values was born then, and a lot of the political and social questions that were prominent then are being echoed today in our society--the robber barons replaced by the multi-national corporations, the magnetic belts and ultra-violet rays by crystal healing and psychic surgery, etc. The medicine show is just television--free entertainment used to sell a product. The people and the issues of the period are fascinating to me, and the impact of the Gold Rush on the American identity is profound. I find that the period is a rich source for creating an interesting and very "modern" character.

MK: Do you have a favorite magic book?

WH: Maskelyne and Devant, Our Magic.

MK: Do you feel with the direction both magicians and magic dealers are taking with the fry your audience with one trick at a time, the art of building a routine is dying? And how do you think this will impact magic in the future?

WH: I don't know about any of that. The future of magic is of very little interest to me. I am simply exploring an art form that I find interesting and fulfilling. Very little of what goes in in the "magic world" is of much concern to me. I focus on my own work. I will be very happy when magic's popularity dies, and the magic shops and clubs begin closing down. What is popular now in the kid's toy market is of little interest or concern to me. I am not being elitist, I just don't feel it has any impact on my work and career at all.

MK: How has performing at The Magic Castle changed or helped your career?

WH: It has been a huge help in too many ways to count. I have met and watched and become friends with hundreds of magicians because of the Magic Castle. I have had the privilege of learning from masters like Vernon, Larry Jennings, Bruce Cervon, Billy McComb, Ron Wilson, and so many others. I have had exposure and experience that I couldn't have obtained any other way, and the six performing awards I have won from the Academy have been huge door openers for me during my career.

MK: Are you performing magic full time? If so, what was your last non-magical gig? If not, what is your daytime gig?

WH: Never had any other job than performing magic--I studied for the Episcopal ministry, but never worked in the field. I had jobs as a fry cook and waiter while in college. I worked as an actor/magician/juggler for a traveling theater troupe in the early seventies. Other than that, I have made my entire living from performing since 1974.

MK: What’s the one piece of advice you have for a person starting out in magic?

WH: I have stolen so much that by now it is called research. Steal everything you can. Steal the stuff no one will recognize. Copy. Imitate. Learn to hide your sources. Study. Try to understand what your craft is about and what it is for. Enjoy your work. It is a gift to be able to do something for a living that you really enjoy. The best way to live life is on your own terms. Show business--especially magic--is a very hard way to make a living. If you can do anything else at all besides magic and still be happy, I recommend you do that instead. If nothing else can make you happy but spending your entire life involved in the art and business of magic, I feel sorry for you, and welcome you to the club, my friend.

MK: Check out these clips of Whit performing!

MK: And check out Whit's links: and

1 comment:

Sean Cudeck said...
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