TWO HORROR STORIES, SEPARATED BY NEARLY HALF A CENTURY!
First we go to the Pier Theatre, Bognor Regis. This picturesque Edwardian theatre, long since downgraded to an amusement arcade, was hosting the annual summer show. It was the late 50s. Sunday night was talent night. Most of the professionals had a rest, while the principal comedian presented amateurs, both local residents and holiday-makers, who competed for cash prizes. I was about thirteen, already doing magic shows at children’s parties and for the local Toc H and the Stoolball Club (I think stoolball is a kind of rounders…). On the Sunday morning I joined the other hopefuls on the pier, complete with two homemade tables, a couple of ghost tubes, an Evaporated Milk jug, and all the other bits and pieces. The other auditionees ranged from a piano/banjo duo, through a couple of singers to two local rock groups. Whether or not they were called rock groups then, I’m not sure. But they used electric guitars, copied the latest American records, and dressed like teddy boys.
I don’t remember much about the audition, but the producers must have been fairly desperate, because I was immediately offered a slot that night. Waiting at home all afternoon for the big event was nervewracking enough. But, arriving at the theatre, I was, to put it mildly, taken aback to see hoards of rowdy teenagers stampeding towards the box office. It didn’t take a genius to realise that they were the groupies of the rock bands, out to have a good time and bent on helping their band win. What would they make of a fresh-faced boy in an old-fashioned, passed-down dinner jacket, doing magic tricks? My father, who was carrying the suitcase, spotted my concern and, as we headed up the pier towards the stage door, told me I really didn’t have to do it if I didn’t want to. Haughtily I replied, “But I’ve got an act!”
The first rock band went on and brought the house down. The noise from the audience wasn’t all positive. The fans of the rival band tried to match the cheering and stamping with their own booing and barracking. It was like a wrestling match.
Both sets of fans now wanted only the appearance of the second group. Unfortunately, they had to sit through the other acts. The piano/banjo duo soldiered on through catcalls. A soprano somehow managed to get through The Holy City, accompanied by a slow hand clap. And then I was on. The act started with a silent section. A pianist kindly tinkled in the pit while I did my milk and silks transpo. I heard a few discouraging comments from out front. Someone asked who the little penguin was. But at least I got a spattering of applause when I opened my Say When tin and revealed the glass of milk.
I should have quit while I was ahead. Instead I boldly asked someone in the front row to choose a card. As I descended the treads into the auditorium, I could hear myself losing the audience, decided to get a move on and offered the pack to the nearest person, who was without doubt one of the rock groups’ faithful followers. He looked at the card, then put it back in the pack. I politely asked him to remember it and dashed back on stage.
The routine I had chosen was from a magic magazine. It involved putting the cards into a box, then dipping in without looking to apparently find the chosen card. I did this, found, according to the routine, the wrong card once, then twice, paving the way for the climax. What was meant to happen was that, in desperation, I was to ask my assistant for the name of the card. “Two of diamonds,” would come the reply, whereupon I would thrust my hand into the box and bring out a bottle of Double Diamond, bow to enormous applause and exit. One of the things that had appealed to me about the trick was that it was foolproof - I had invested in a pack made up entirely of the two of diamonds.
But I hadn’t reckoned on the gleeful sense of humour of my teddy boy assistant. When asked to name the card, he shouted in a loud, confident voice, “The King of Spades”!
“No, I don’t think so”, I wittered. “What was it really?”
“The King of Spades”, came the cruel reply. What a wag!
“No, please,” I stuttered. “It wasn’t really the King of Spades was it? It was the two of diamonds!”
“No, it wasn’t!”
“Yes it was, really it was!” I lamely appealed to the audience. “It was the …” Big build-up – out comes the bottle of Double Diamond. “…two of diamonds!”
Laughter, but not friendly laughter. Booing, not very friendly either. I beat a hasty retreat. My father drove me silently home. I gave him the bottle of Double Diamond to drink…
Fast forward to Spring 2002. For over twenty years I have had the luxury of only performing my MAGIC AND MUSIC SHOW in proper theatres. I must have forgotten some of the most basic problems I used to face when performing to children in schools or private homes. But when I was asked, as a favour for a friend, to do a show in aid of a kindergarten, which needed money for a new roof, I thought why not. Although its roof was dodgy, it had a decent stage, complete with tabs and adequate lighting. The audience of ex-pupils and siblings and friends would be aged between 4 and 9, my usual age-range. And, importantly, my pianist was available and willing to do the gig.
All would have been fine if only I hadn’t recklessly agreed to a second, subsequent request to do a twenty minute spot for the kindergarten’s current pupils as well. There wouldn’t be many of them, I was told, but they were another valuable source of income for the roof fund. They were aged between two and four. I should have said no straight away, but it was only for twenty minutes. Surely I could find a few suitable bits and pieces to entertain them. A couple of colourful items, my ubiquitous Wilting Flower, an animal puppet perhaps… Yes, why not!
It was suggested that, because the numbers would be relatively small, it might be easier and more intimate to perform in the corner of the hall used by the resident staff as a “story corner”. This would be less unsettling for the teenies. Big mistake number one.
Setting up was the first problem. Bringing a table with props on, plus a chair with another prop on, meant two journeys to the story corner. The tots were already milling about, and the adults had more important things to do than to look after the magician. Furthermore, my pianist, who has always been willing to lend a hand, wasn’t arriving until the main event a couple of hours later. So, by the time I completed my second journey, several children had thoroughly investigated the props on the table. Not the end of the world, I thought. No real harm done.
Then there was a delay. I had to stay with my stuff, but, for some reason, the organisers decided we had to wait another ten minutes or so before starting. Forty or fifty little terrors started rushing to and fro, using me as a punch ball and nearly knocking over the table and chair. Getting them to sit down and settle took another five minutes.
Things actually started quite well. You could hear a pin drop during my magic colour stick routine. And the Wilting Flower got them all going as well as ever.
But then disaster struck. Looking for a simple piece of pretty, visual magic, I had suddenly thought of Sitta’s Leopard Silk. I had never performed it myself, but we had used it in my stage adaptation of SPOT'S BIRTHDAY PARTY, and it had worked a treat. After the production had finished, I had managed to acquire the prop. Why not give it an airing? Big mistake number two.
I showed them the plain black silk both sides. Then I showed them the colourful paper spots. I threw them in the air, and as they fell to the floor, the silk magically became spotty. The toddlers smiled. They all stood up. But this was no standing ovation. Every child charged excitedly towards me. I raised the silk, stupidly thinking they were interested in it and might grab it. But no. Their eyes were focussed downwards on the floor. On the colourful paper spots. Suddenly a clutch of little hands were scrabbling around my feet trying desperately to grab a paper spot or two or three or more. Four year olds showed no mercy towards two year olds, pushing them out of the way and treading on their foraging fingers. It was pure chaos. I longed for the safety of a stage, preferably with a large orchestra pit between me and the front row of the stalls.
The smallest children seemed happy to collect one spot and hold it tightly as a souvenir to take home. The larger brats were not satisfied until they had found at least half a dozen spots. But they didn’t want to keep them. They wanted to throw them at their friends. So just when I was thinking that all the spots had been picked up and the pandemonium would die down, spots were re-released into the arena, prolonging the activity indefinitely. Once again I beat a hasty retreat.
Good to know we are never too old to learn…