The Virus’s Impact on the Art and Business of Magic

May 12, 2020 Updated: May 12, 2020


Roy Horn died from coronavirus complications on May 8.

Even if you don’t immediately recognize his name, you probably know it through his work with his partner, Siegfried Fischbacher. Together, they formed the team of Siegfried and Roy.

Featuring wild animals, most notably white tigers, they had one of the greatest and most spectacular magic acts of the 20th century. They did live shows, recorded videos, and had their own theater in a Las Vegas casino. They even wrote a cookbook.

Roy’s health had been compromised for a long time. During a show in 2003, one of the tigers bit him in the neck and dragged him offstage. He was left partially paralyzed, and the show came to an end. Siegfried and Roy performed together only one more time, at a benefit in 2010.

Roy’s death is the most notable blow to the art of magic caused by the coronavirus, but it’s not the only misfortune.

Loss of Revenue

The International Brotherhood of Magicians has about 15,000 members. Another 5,000 belong to the Society of American Magicians. Many other hobbyists and enthusiasts take part in performance-style magic without ever joining a club. Social distancing, however, has made the practice, be it a career or a hobby, quite difficult.

Magicians work in theaters, clubs, restaurants, and bars, on cruise ships, at trade-shows, or by gathering a crowd on a street corner. All such venues are now at risk. Some performers have turned to online work, but that has inherent drawbacks. You can’t have an audience member pick a card, think of a number, or pull a handkerchief out of a bag.

I recently watched an online show. It was presented live via Facebook from a restaurant in Florida where the magician regularly performed. The guy was good, but without an audience, there were no eruptions of laughter or applause; no live interactions with people in the front row; and when he needed a volunteer from the audience, he had his wife come forward to the stage. Rather apologetically, he explained that he would normally select a young girl for the trick, but that—of course—was not possible.

It was a good show, but I felt sorry for the performer. After the show, viewers could contribute to a fund for him. Hopefully many did, but I doubt that it came close to his normal income from restaurant work.

Innovative magicians, and there are many, give lectures at local magic clubs. These magicians travel from city to city (sometimes near areas where they’re also performing), and they take an evening to share their latest ideas with local hobbyists.

The locals usually pay a fee to attend the lecture, and they may also buy books, tricks, or “lecture notes” from the speaker. These events are fun, and the magician can usually cover expenses and make a few dollars along the way. Unfortunately, the virus has largely eliminated in-person lectures (though some are being held online).

Magic lectures and meetings are events where old and young gather to share new tricks, insights, and fellowship. Transactions, like the magic itself, are best done in person. For that reason, dealers often have tables at magic lectures, and they sell their wares. With fewer events taking place due to coronavirus, dealers are having a hard time.

Perhaps the biggest annual gathering of magicians is the International Brotherhood of Magicians convention. This year it was scheduled to be in Pittsburgh in July. It would have brought together magicians from around the world for performances, lectures, meetings, and the exchange of new ideas. There also would have been a lot of dealers, some of whom rely on the business generated at that and similar conferences to survive. Unfortunately, the convention has been cancelled due to the threat posed by the coronavirus. That may prove fatal to some businesses that are already under stress from online competition.

Intellectual Property Theft

With all of this, the magic community has every right to be angry with the Chinese Communist Party and its handling of the coronavirus in its early stages.

Beyond the commercial impact, who knows how many magicians other than Roy Horn have contracted the disease? There are still debates about the origin and causes, but there’s not much debate about the Party’s lack of candor and outright disinformation campaign relating to the early days of the virus. Still, these are not the only reasons for outrage in the magic community.

Magicians who travel around, like the dealers who sell in shops, online, and at events, have books, DVDs, and other items for sale. There’s a well-known understanding among magicians: “When you buy a trick you’re buying the secret.” That’s what the inventor and marketer are selling. Moreover, it’s a small market. One thousand units is a good seller. Two thousand makes for a bestseller.

That small market is reflected in the price, which is also set to help keep secrets secret. Thus, a new idea marketed on a DVD might contain an hour or so of content—usually the performance, the secret, and explanation of any necessary advance work. (Spoiler alert: honest magicians admit that they’re sneaky; they don’t claim actual magical powers.) A DVD like that might sell for anywhere from $20 to $60. Books are similar. If there are additional props that come with the purchase, the price may be higher.

Magicians guard their secrets, especially those that are being marketed. United States intellectual property law helps protect the secrets. Thus, a purchaser cannot buy a DVD (or download a file), copy it, and re-sell or post it online. It would violate magician codes, but it would also be against federal law.

Unfortunately, Chinese dealers do just that. They buy a $30 video, copy it, then sell unlimited copies of it for, say, $3. Sometimes these get posted on eBay, but when brought to that company’s attention, eBay will remove them. Other sites, especially those based in China, don’t seem to care. They continue to sell the bootleg video or pdf file. That’s because China doesn’t protect the intellectual property of American goods.

This is not limited to magic. This same story could be told about music, movies, or other print material.

When the pandemic is over, and things start to return to normal, the United States will have to re-think many things, including its economic relationship with China. When that happens, respect for and an agreement to protect the intellectual property of American citizens needs to be part of the deal. There’s no room for tricks about that.

Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.