Do professional stage magicians still keep secrets?

As the saying goes, “A good magician never reveals the secret.” --At least that’s what the instructions claimed in that “101 Card Tricks” set I used to own (I think I learned about five). Anyhoo, some vague reading on the history of stage magic suggests that major illusions used to be highly proprietary, and unscrupulous performers often went through a lot of trouble to steal the secret of an original effect.

Is this the case today? Are there still magicians who perform unique effects that utterly baffle other magicians? If so, are they considered jerks by those other magicians for not sharing their secret gimmicks? Or is it considered unprofessional to pressure a fellow magician regarding such knowledge?

In a word, yes. A new illusion is “intellectual property”, but is not usually either patented or copyrighted but kept as a “trade secret”. Magicians buy the equipment to do a particular illusion, but sometimes they just buy the secret of how it is done from whoever created it and the right to perform it.

My Dad was a magician and my middle name is after my Godfather, the owner of a magic store in St Louis. I attended any number of magic conventions when I was a kid, usually the International Brotherhood of Magicians. I was a ventriloquist * - we didn’t have our own convention, and were a sideline to the magician’s convention. The Dealer’s Room was filled with guys selling loads of expensive equipment, but also envelopes containing nothing more than instructions for performing the trick.

Anyone who steals another magicians work is a sleezeball at best. There isn’t any legal remedy, but the sleezeball would soon find themselves blackballed by the magic community and unable to buy new illusions or equipment. If you steal a trick, you’re stealing another person’s livelihood, and that is the lowest form of theft.

BTW, for all of their claims of being the “Bad Boys of Magic” and how they are supposedly loathed by other magicians, Penn and Teller are highly respected in the magic community. When they “reveal a trick”, it’s actually a trick they thought up themselves specifically to reveal or the trick is so ancient every kid’s magic book has it. For instance, they invented an entirely new way to do the Cups & Balls. The normal way has existed for literally thousands of years, and they invented a new one. It’s hard to express the magnitude of that, but trust me…it’s an amazing accomplishment.

  • I got well and am no longer one.

“An evil magician never leaves any evidence that there was a trick in the first place. So…which am I going to have to be today?”


(I know, it’s not at all responsive to the question, but gaffa already has that thoroughly nailed down, and I love the quote.)

gaffa is, I am sure, more knowledgeable than I on this subject. But I will add that while magicians do keep their biggest tricks secret, they don’t just entirely leave any newby to either buy or figure out his way into the trade. If you get into the Magic Castle, magicians will often show each other the basics of the craft–basic sleight of hand, card tricks, and so on. It’s more the things that require special props or are new or original inventions that are kept secret.

True. You can’t walk down a hallway at a magic convention without someone trying to show you a card trick or coin magic. (Imagine a magician to audience ratio of 50:1.) But it’s usually existing bits that some long-dead magician thought up, or cribbed from Scarne.

When my father died, we relied on a fellow magician to sell his equipment who would make sure that the buyers were competent magicians. The nightmare is John C. Reilly’s character at the end of “Boogie Nights” - all hat, no magic. I don’t know if Dad created any new magic tricks, but he did have a huge library of magic books and would add old and forgotten bits to the act.

The magician who sold Dad’s magic was also a carpenter and built magic equipment - possibly the most demanding type of carpentry outside of museum conservatory carpentry.

Not from me. Of course, my persuasion techniques involve torture and…um…well, actually just torture.

(I hired Rumsfeld after he got canned, you see.)