A magician's assistant is a performer in a magic act who is not usually billed as the magician or principal name in the act. The role of an assistant can include holding the props that are used by a magician, shifting props onto and off the stage, and serving as a living prop in illusions that involve manipulation or dissection of the human body. Other aspects of the role can include dancing or acting as visual ornamentation, sometimes for simple aesthetic purposes and sometimes to misdirect audience attention. The figure of the glamorous female assistant has become a stereotype or icon in art, popular media and fiction.
Although magician's assistants appear to play a supporting role and receive a lesser billing than the magician who appears to be the source of illusions, the assistant is often the one making the mechanics of the illusions work. In the words of Joanie Spina, who worked for 11 years as principal assistant, choreographer and artistic consultant to illusionist David Copperfield:
...I did find fault with the term "assistant" because it sounds like someone rolling props on and off stage when many of us were highly trained actors and dancers.
History and critiques
Assistants have been part of magic shows for most of the recorded history of magic as a performance art. Despite their often crucial role in magic acts they, and the work they do, have suffered from negative public perceptions. The assistant's role has often been stereotyped as consisting of menial tasks and having the primary purpose of adding a visually aesthetic element to an act. This is associated with the perception that assistants are usually female and often dressed in revealing costumes. Although there have been plenty of instances of male assistants throughout the history of magic, the glamorous female stereotype has made a particular impact because female assistants were a prominent feature of illusion shows during the 20th century, when magic began to reach huge new audiences, first through the burgeoning of live vaudeville and variety shows and then through television. The glamorous female assistant has become an iconic image that continues in modern media and literature.
A notable feature of the glamorous female assistant iconography is the frequency with which assistants play the role of "victim" in illusions where they are tied up, penetrated with spikes or swords, decapitated, divided into two or more pieces, or otherwise tortured or imperilled. Examples include Aztec Lady, Devil's Torture Chamber, Mismade Girl, Radium Girl, Zig Zag Girl, and, perhaps most famous of all, Sawing a woman in half. Noted illusion designer and historian Jim Steinmeyer has identified the advent of the sawing illusion as a turning point in magic history and a moment which, more than any other, marks the origin of the cliche of the female assistant as victim. It is generally agreed that a "sawing" type illusion was first performed publicly by P. T. Selbit in January 1921. His presentations of what he titled "Sawing through a woman" made an enormous impact and greatly affected public expectations of stage magic for decades afterwards. Steinmeyer has explained:
"Before Selbit's illusion, it was not a cliche that pretty ladies were teased and tortured by magicians. Since the days of Robert-Houdin, both men and women were used as the subjects for magic illusions. Victorian gowns often made it unrealistic for a lady to take part in an illusion or be pressed into a tight space."
Changes in fashion and great social upheavals during the first decades of the 20th century made Selbit's choice of "victim" both practical and popular. Steinmeyer notes: "During the 1900s, as a shapely leg became not only acceptable on the stage but admired, it was fashionable to perform magic with a cast of attractive ladies".
That was only part of the story however. The trauma of war had helped to desensitize the public to violence and the emancipation of women had changed attitudes to them. Audiences were also tiring of the gentler forms of magic represented by the likes of John Nevil Maskelyne. It took something more shocking, such as the horrific productions of the Grand Guignol theatre, to cause a sensation in this age. Steinmeyer concludes that: "...beyond practical concerns, the image of the woman in peril became a specific fashion in entertainment".
In contrast to the publicity given to Selbit, the names of the assistants who made this influential act work have received almost no publicity. There were actually two premieres of the illusion. Selbit first presented it to an audience in December 1920, however on that occasion the spectators were a small group of invited theatrical agents and promoters who Selbit hoped would book the act. The public premiere then occurred on 17 January 1921 at the Finsbury Park Empire music hall after Selbit was hired by the Moss Empire group. According to Steinmeyer, the assistant at the 1920 preview was Jan Glenrose, Selbit's main assistant at that time. The public performances featured principal assistant Betty Barker.
Many of these illusions, together with others that involve appearances, disappearances or escapes, involve assistants being shut in boxes of one sort or another. This has led to the nickname "box jumper" which, although it could be applied to a male assistant, is usually inferred to be a female assistant. One reason that has been given for the predominance of women in this role is that the illusions sometimes require an assistant that can fit into cramped spaces and women have an advantage in that they tend to be smaller and more limber than men.
Feminist critics have taken the above aspects of illusions and performances as evidence to support claims that magic is misogynistic, but this view has been contested by some magicians and assistants. However, a few prominent assistants have gone on record stating that they deserve better recognition for their efforts and achievements (see "Documentaries" below).
Some modern magic acts have preserved the glamorous elements of the female assistant iconography while attempting to give full recognition to female performers by billing women as equal partners in acts. A notable example was the husband and wife act The Pendragons, for which Charlotte Pendragon wore very revealing costumes and did traditional "box jumping" roles yet received equal billing with her husband. She was also honored in her own right as a top professional magician. Another example, although with more modest and conservative costuming, is Kristen Johnson, who receives equal billing with her husband Kevin Ridgeway when they perform together as a magic act and often stars in her own right as an escape artist.
- Gay Blackstone (wife and assistant to Harry Blackstone, Jr.)
- Nani Darnell (wife and assistant to Mark Wilson)
- Adelaide Herrmann (wife and assistant to Alexander Hermann who later became a magician in her own right following her husband's death)
- Bess Houdini (wife of Harry Houdini)
- Jinger Leigh
- Talma Le Roy (of Le Roy, Talma and Bosco)
- Debbie McGee (wife and assistant to Paul Daniels)
- Moi-Yo Miller (assistant to Dante)
- Morgan (assistant to John Bundy She is also a magician and notable Escape artist in her own right)
- Charlotte Pendragon
- Joanie Spina (principal assistant to David Copperfield who later became a magician in her own right)
- Frances Willard
- Fenella Masse Mathews
A number of celebrities better known for other things have also spent time working as a magician's assistant. Sometimes this has been through work on a TV show where part of their job was acting as the assistant to a magician. At other times this was through being in a relationship with a magician, while others worked as a magician's assistant as a stepping stone to a later and better-known career.
- Brazilian model and TV presenter Ana Hickmann has often acted as a magician's assistant on her TV shows, most often assisting magician Mario Kamia with illusions such as the Zig Zag Girl and Buzz Saw.
- British transgender model and Bond Girl "Tula" (Caroline Cossey) worked as a magician's assistant both before and after her gender reassignment surgery.
- Actress Carmen Electra's performing career began in 1990 with a stint as a magician's assistant at King's Island theme park in Mason, Ohio, during which she took part in a number of illusions including the Double Sawing.
- While presenting the Saturday morning children's TV show SMTV Live, Cat Deeley often acted as the assistant to visiting guest magicians. On one of these occasions, she became the first British celebrity to be sawed in half in the Clearly Impossible illusion.
- After Cat Deeley left the show, her place as assistant to visiting guest magicians on SMTV Live was taken by her replacement, Tess Daly.
- While she was married to American magician David Copperfield, German supermodel Claudia Schiffer often acted as a special guest assistant in her husband's stage shows, during which she would be levitated, vanished, guillotined and sawed in half.
- Before finding fame as a country singer, Faith Hill had a number of different jobs, including some time spent as a magician's assistant.
- British TV presenter Holly Willoughby has often acted as the assistant to her former Ministry of Mayhem co-presenter, magician Stephen Mulhern. Besides assisting with various illusions on both Ministry of Mayhem and Holly & Stephen's Saturday Showdown, she also acted as his main illusion assistant during season 2 of his CITV magic show Tricky TV.
- In 1990 and 1991, former glamour model Linda Lusardi acted as regular illusion assistant to magician Wayne Dobson on his TV show A Kind of Magic.
- After leaving school and spending some time as an airline flight attendant, Melinda Messenger spent some time working as a magician's assistant before moving on to become a full-time glamour model.
- In mid-2007, actress Mischa Barton dated Las Vegas magician Brandon Silverfield, during which time she made a number of appearances as a special guest assistant in his stage shows. During the shows, she was beheaded by a Guillotine, and also sawed in half in his Impossible Sawing illusion. She is also friends with a number of other magicians, and sometimes acts as their assistant in private shows for her other friends, during which she is often sawed in half.
- While she was married to actor and magician Orson Welles, actress Rita Hayworth made a number of appearances as his assistant in his Mercury Wonder Show, during which she was sawed in half either in a Big Box sawing or his Buzz Saw illusion.
- After Rita Hayworth had been banned by her studio from assisting her husband Orson Welles, her place in the Mercury Wonder Show was taken by fellow actress Marlene Dietrich.
- Prior to finding fame as a singer, Paloma Faith spent time working as the assistant in a magic show, and also made a number of uncredited appearances as Stephen Mulhern's illusion assistant on The Quick Trick Show.
- In 2007, actress Pamela Anderson spent several months as a special guest assistant to Dutch magician Hans Klok in his Las Vegas stage show The Beauty of Magic. The pair also made a number of TV appearances promoting the show, many of which included Anderson assisting in one of Klok's illusions.
- During her time on the show, BBC Breakfast presenter Susanna Reid sometimes acted as assistant to magicians making guest appearances on the show, including being sawed in half by magicians The Twins and Jamie Allan.
Assistants in art, fiction and movies
- The novel The Magician's Assistant, by Ann Patchett follows the character Sabine who was assistant to her magician husband Parsifal. After Parsifal's death Sabine is left to unravel the secrets of his life.
- The movie The Prestige (2006) features Scarlett Johansson as an assistant to a magician who is involved in a deadly feud with a competitor. In addition actress Piper Perabo plays the wife and performing partner of another magician.
- The movie Rough Magic (1995) features as its central character a magician's assistant played by Bridget Fonda.
- One of the central characters in the movie Leprecaun 3 is a magician's assistant called Tammy Larsen, played by actress Lee Armstrong, who appears in stage costume for much of the duration.
- The Disappearing Girl Trick (2001) is a short comedy film written and directed by David Jackson Willis, starring Susan Egan as a television producer who goes undercover as a magician's assistant to expose his method of performing the trick in the title.
- Box Jumpers (2004) was a two-part radio documentary series about magician's assistants that was made for BBC Radio 4 and presented by Debbie McGee.
- Women in Boxes (2007) is a feature-length documentary film featuring many of the magic world's most famous assistants and planned for theatrical release. It was made by Blaire Baron-Larsen, Harry Pallenberg, Phil Noyes and Dante Larsen.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Johnstone, Fanny (21 November 2007). "Breaking into the magic circle". The Guardian (London: Guardian Newspapers). http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,2214353,00.html.
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 "Women in Boxes". WIB, LLC. http://www.womeninboxes.com. Retrieved 2007-04-02.
- ↑ The topic of assistants portrayed as victims in violent illusions was featured in "Violent magic" the final episode of the six-part BBC television documentary series Magic in 2004, see "UK Magic News". Magicweek.co.uk. 20 November 2004. http://www.magicweek.co.uk/backissues_0200-0249/0230.htm. Retrieved 2007-04-03.
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 Steinmeyer, Jim (2003). Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible. William Heinemann/Random House. pp. 277–295. ISBN 0-434-01325-0.
- ↑ 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Steinmeyer, Jim (2003). Hiding the Elephant. p. 292.
- ↑ Steinmeyer, Jim; Gaiman, Neil (October 2006). Art and Artifice: And Other Essays of Illusion. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-7867-1806-1.
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 ""Box Jumpers"". Radiolistings.co.uk. http://www.radiolistings.co.uk/programmes/b/bo/box_jumpers.html. Retrieved 2007-04-02.
- ↑ 8.0 8.1 Campling, Chris (2004-03-23). ""Radio Choice"". London: The Times online. http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/film/article1050298.ece. Retrieved 2007-04-02.
- ↑ Patchett, Ann (1997). The Magician's Assistant. Harcourt. ISBN 0-15-100263-0.
- ↑ "The Prestige". Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0482571. Retrieved 2007-04-03.
- ↑ "Rough Magic". Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0114303. Retrieved 2007-04-03.
- ↑ "Leprecaun 3". Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0113636. Retrieved 2007-07-18.
- ↑ "The Disappearing Girl Trick". Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0276912. Retrieved 2007-04-02.
- "Women In Magic", an article by Dennis Regling at BellaOnline.
- Jan Jones (editor), The Magician's Assistant, pub. 1982
- Frances Marshall (editor), Those Beautiful Dames, pub. Magic Inc. (1984), ASIN: B00072FQ5U