Published in L.A. Weekly
I ran out the exit door and down an alley behind the Magic Castle, clutching a wooden box. Two magicians had picked me as a volunteer during their show at the private magic club, with instructions to hide the box somewhere on Castle grounds. I panicked — the trick seemed to depend on my hiding place. Finally, I stuck it in a concrete ditch, behind a pipe, then ran back to bang on the exit door and rejoin the audience.
The rest of the box trick will not be revealed here. There will be no description of what happens and no explanation of how it works (even if I were somehow able to find out). It's better just to see it. If music writing is said to be dancing about architecture, magic writing is figure skating about castles in the sky.
Suffice it to say: "The piece with the box was just awesome," says Bill Goodwin, the Castle's librarian, who saw the show. "They don't do like other magicians, where [they say], 'We're going to do this or that.' They just do it and they respect the audience to get it themselves. So you get to the point as an audience member where you're thinking, 'No way, this can't be possible!' " But then it happens.
The magicians in question are Helder Guimarães and Derek DelGaudio, who performed together at the Magic Castle's Peller Theater during a weekend in January. The show proved so popular that they brought it back in June, and then again in August and September. Celebrities like Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes could be found milling around the bar outside, clamoring for a spot in the 50-seat theater.
Goodwin has been a Castle member since 1978. Other than a couple instances, like performances by celebs such as Steve Martin or Jason Alexander, "I cannot remember people waiting two hours in line show after show after show," he says. "Sometimes you hear, 'Oh, you got to see this show!' and you do and you see it and it's great. But there is something different about this one."
Mike Pisciotta, a manager at the Castle and a friend of DelGaudio's, says, "I've been in magic for over 20 years and it's the best magic show I've ever seen."
DelGaudio and Guimarães weren't just fooling the guests — they were fooling their fellow magicians. The audience included famed illusionists like Ricky Jay and David Blaine, some of whom would exit and get right back in line to see the show again, trying to figure out how the tricks were done.
Actor Neil Patrick Harris is president of the board of directors of the Academy of Magical Arts, which is headquartered in the Castle and is one of world's most prestigious magic societies.
"To see three-hour queues by longtime, jaded members of the Castle in order to see something so new and refreshing, and then to hear such an amazingly positive feedback, that certainly made my ears perk up," Harris says. "We had board members who couldn't get into the show. We had people queue into a show at 6 p.m. and not getting to see a show.
"The reverberations just from that couple weeks they had at the Peller, I don't think had been seen in the Castle for a long time," he adds.
Harris called Randall Arney, artistic director of the Geffen Playhouse, who directed Harris in the theater's 2006 production of All My Sons. Arney came to see the show and decided to bring it to the Geffen, in an expanded version, directed by Harris. It began performances Nov. 27 and runs through Jan. 6.
Nothing to Hide, as it's called, is a technical wonder, featuring two of the most skillful young magicians in the world. But DelGaudio and Guimarães aim to do something more than fool people — they want to help raise magic from a craft to an art. And that's not just turning magic into theater. It's making magic that means something.
Helder Guimarães was born in Porto, Portugal. "He grew up in a town of 14 people," DelGaudio says.
"Oh, that's so reductive, 14 people," Guimarães says.
"Fifteen," DelGaudio concedes. "When he left, it was 14." (It's actually the country's second-largest city.)
They're sitting in a lounge off the lobby at the Geffen Playhouse. Both are dressed in V-neck sweaters with button-down shirts popping out the top and Converse sneakers. DelGaudio, 28, has a rounder face and tousled, dark hair. The 30-year-old Guimarães (his preferred pronunciation is "Ghee-mah-ress") is slightly thinner, with red-framed glasses, and speaks with an accent — something he occasionally uses to misdirect an audience.
Guimarães' father was a magician, and his first performance was assisting his dad at a party at his kindergarten — a video shows him in a kid's tuxedo, carefully tapping a box with a magic wand.
At 12, he was hit by a car and nearly killed, flying into the air and landing 20 feet away. The accident furthered his resolve to pursue his passion and not end up in a desk job.
But what cemented his future was seeing a performance by the great Spanish magician Juan Tamariz. He started reading Tamariz's books (learning Spanish in the process) and traveling to Spain several times a year to hang out among Tamariz's disciples in Madrid, learning from the master himself during late-night group sessions at magic conventions. He went to college for theater, and was taught to make unexpected choices while playing roles such as the tortured playwright Konstantin Treplev in The Seagull.
In magic, Guimarães pushed himself toward the impossible. What if, for instance, a volunteer signed a blank white card, and then it eventually morphed into a regular playing card — the same card that a volunteer had named earlier?
He somehow created such a routine, and in Stockholm in 2006, at age 23, he won first place in the close-up card category at the FISM World Championships of Magic. Some performers backstage were so stunned, they thought the volunteer was a stooge. To convince the panel he hadn't cheated, Guimarães swore a judge to secrecy and explained how it was done. He also re-created the trick by using a volunteer they picked.
"I was unknown in the magic community and, one day to another, I became known," he says.
Offers for gigs poured in. He released DVDs of his work.
DelGaudio grew up in a far different world: Littleton and Colorado Springs, Colo., raised by a single mom, a lesbian firefighter.
"It was a complicated childhood," he says. "She got into a nasty separation from her partner, there was alcohol and it was ugly. [Magic] was an escape path in a lot of ways. It was like, I'd go to my room and shuffle."
He dropped out of high school so he could practice with his cards for 15 hours a day.
DelGaudio's skill at cards became unparalleled. Many magicians can do second deals (dealing the second card in the pack, instead of the top card) and bottom deals. DelGaudio mastered the very rare skill of the center deal — dealing a particular card from the middle — when he was 14.
Since he was a young magician, he's cultivated an air of mystery. At one point, when L.A. artist Glenn Kaino wanted to learn about magic, people told him he should meet DelGaudio. But all he could find online was a message-board post asking, "Who is Derek DelGaudio?" "I'm, like, thinking the same thing," he recalls. "Derek was a very elusive figure."
Self-promotion made DelGaudio uncomfortable. He felt many magicians' reputations outstripped their abilities. "I want what people said about me to be real," he says. (He now has a website and Twitter feed, and there are a couple articles on him in magic journals and video clips from a show he did on Spanish television — but not much more.)
He's suffered multiple crises of confidence in his chosen profession. He's always enjoyed "magical thinking" — his childhood idols were Buster Keaton and Willy Wonka — but he's often uncomfortable with being a magician.
One day, around age 17, he saw one of his magician heroes do a corporate gig in a hotel suite. He found it inspiring but then watched as the audience left, gabbing about how they thought it was done. To them, it was just tricks — nothing more. "I was devastated," he says. "This is one of the best in the world, and this is how people leave his show. What chance do I have? Why bother?"
So DelGaudio left magic, moving to L.A. to study theater at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. But three years later he was offered a magic gig, and he needed the money. So he did one, then another and another.
Eventually he met Guimarães, who came to the Castle for a much-anticipated show after his FISM win. DelGaudio introduced himself afterward and they struck up a friendship. When Guimarães was in the process of moving to L.A., he slept on DelGaudio's couch for three months.
DelGaudio found his new friend's passion inspiring.
"It radiated from him — he loves doing what he does. And I don't like doing what I do," DelGaudio recalls thinking. "I don't think what I do has any value."
Why do we think of magic as a guy pulling rabbits out of hats at birthday parties?
"Because it is," DelGaudio says. "Magic suffers from the people who do magic."
Laypeople know the famous magicians — the David Copperfields, the Criss Angels. But in the trenches, artist Kaino says, "Magic is like a handful of professionals in a sea of hobbyists. It's a lot of people who are just OK. You could take every good magician and fit them into one gallery. You couldn't do that with every good artist. There are hundreds and hundreds."
People can buy tricks that can work with just a little practice. "It's so easy to get away with doing shitty magic," explains John Lovick, an Academy trustee and a friend of the duo's. "Teller [has] explained this: Even a crappy miracle is still a miracle."
Harris is more diplomatic. "The majority of it is very good but unfortunately often rote," he says. "Not to laypeople who don't see magic, but rote to other magicians who study magic. You find that you're more impressed by their sequencing of tricks, by their patter, more than amazed and wowed by the effect itself."
The Magic Castle, the center of L.A.'s magic scene, is technically a private club, where visitors must abide by a formal dress code. Magicians audition to be members and can bring guests, although civilians are permitted some levels of membership.
The unique setup has its roots in the early 1960s, when Milt Larsen, a magician and a writer for the game show Truth or Consequences, would look out the window of his Hollywood and Highland office at an abandoned 1908 Victorian Gothic mansion at 7001 Franklin Ave. He and his television producer brother, Bill, decided to snap up the property and fulfill their dad's dream of creating a magicians' clubhouse. The building became a maze of bars, stained glass, red velvet, dark wood paneling, gargoyles, a piano-playing ghost named Irma and photos of onetime board member Cary Grant.
The Castle made its name, in part, on the presence of Dai Vernon, a pioneer in close-up magic and a mentor to many young magicians. (Close-up magic involves sitting at a table with just a few observers. The other main types are parlor magic, in which the magician typically stands up in front of a slightly larger group, and stage magic, with showier stunts for even bigger crowds.) For the last 28 years of life, until he died in 1992, Vernon made the Castle his unofficial home.
Perhaps eyeing next year's 50th anniversary, the Castle is trying to propel its way further into popular culture. Magic Castle Inc., the company that holds the club's intellectual property, just signed with Creative Artists Agency. A film is in the works, with McG attached to direct.
On one recent night I attended with a magician friend, the Castle was having a "smackdown" event at the bar outside the Peller Theater. Performers moved from table to table, and spectators voted on their favorites.
Learning more about an art form often means disavowing the notion that all of it is great. Even a nonmagician starts to get used to the rhythms and notices things you're not supposed to see. And so it was that evening.
One performer pretended to pull plastic eyeballs out of his eye, though it was too easy to see him switch them between two hands and into his jacket. "That guy went back to his pocket too much," my friend whispered.
Another performer did a routine where he flipped over dominoes and got them to switch places. "It's too confusing," my friend said. Vernon preached that "confusion is not magic" — what's happening has to be clear.
On the other side of the Castle, performing in the Close-Up Gallery, was Suzanne, who won the Castle's Close-Up Magician of the Year award for 2010. She had great technique and an affable persona. Like most close-up magicians, she had her own variation on Vernon's "Ambitious Card" routine, where someone picks a card, you mix it into the deck and it rises to the top. A routine with three cups placed facedown, each hiding an ever-changing number of balls, was accompanied by a conventional story that related the balls to "travelers" — though she added some surprises at the end.
Magic has a basic vocabulary, and each magician arranges it in his or her own style. DelGaudio and Guimarães are trying to create their own vocabulary.
It can be difficult for a nonmagician to understand the difference, says Rob Zabrecky, another Academy trustee, and a friend of DelGaudio and Guimarães'. "You go to your hipster art opening in Silver Lake and go, 'That's pretty good,' even if it's derivative of Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol. But you wouldn't know" if you don't know art, he says.
He adds, "I would refer to their work as radical."
DelGaudio wishes more of his fellow magicians tried to move the profession forward.
In late 2010, he says, he asked the Magic Castle's entertainment director if there was any act bad enough not to book. The response was no.
So he decided to take a significant step away from the club.
"They claim to be the highest level of magic, and people can come and see the greatest magicians in the world. In truth it's just a magic club," DelGaudio says. "They hire their friends and family. ... They don't challenge the status quo."
(The club's entertainment director, Jack Goldfinger, says he doesn't recall speaking with DelGaudio about these issues. He says, "If you're in the center of the circle you'll get 360 different ways of looking at it. In this field, there are no absolutes.")
"I can't keep beating my head against the wall," DelGaudio recalls thinking.
"People that we acknowledge as really good magicians, we go, like, 'That is unbelievable,' " Guimarães says. "Most of the times I see a magic show, it's like I'm seeing a trick."
DelGaudio adds, "These guys come up with a formula that works without contributing anything else and it's like, now you're just doing a shitty job. But they think that their few bad jokes and their idea that they introduced to it is enough to make up for not being talented."
They feel magicians should be skilled, sure, but more important is authenticity, commitment to the craft, lack of gratuitous self-promotion, using talents for good and not for evil — traits important to artists and musicians. Even an attention magnet like David Blaine is not so bad in their eyes. "He's genuinely weird," DelGaudio says. "You meet him and you realize it's not an act. And you kind of get points for that."
Guimarães and DelGaudio have two separate, perfectly compatible goals. Guimarães wants to find the most impossible mystery — one that'll just blow your mind, engineered for maximum effect. DelGaudio wants to find the most meaningful mystery — one that says something about the world, like art or poetry. Something that makes you ask why it's done rather than how.
So what does DelGaudio's goal mean in practice? One helpful analogy is comedy. A great magician doesn't just do tricks, and the best comedians don't just tell jokes — they tell the truth.
But how can finding a person's card from a deck communicate an idea about the world? How do you convey truth through deception?
One way is through DelGaudio's collaborations with Kaino in the art world. Kaino has had a fascinating array of jobs, including chief creative officer of Napster, but he's best known as an artist. (He shows his work at the prestigious Culver City gallery Honor Fraser and will represent the United States at the upcoming International Cairo Biennale.) He consulted on the Geffen show and is credited as its "artistic director."
Kaino suffered his own crisis of confidence, in 2008, when a visit to an art fair made him feel disgusted about art's relationship to money. He put art aside for a bit to explore magic.
Once Kaino found DelGaudio, they met at a café and ended up talking for four hours. They created an art collective called A.Bandit and performed in such venues as Soho House in West Hollywood and the Kitchen in New York.
In one performance, they went to a Santa Monica art fair, and DelGaudio started taking art from the various booths after handing each gallerist a ransom note. He put all the artwork into a cart he dragged across the floor. When they reached the middle of the fair, Kaino yelled out, "My house will be called a house of art. You are turning it into a den of thieves," as DelGaudio loaded all the art into a box, which was lifted 30 feet into the air. The box exploded and the art disappeared.
In another piece at LAXArt's Annex at Space 15 Twenty in Hollywood, they cut actress China Chow in half and had audience members stroll between her two parts, calling it A Walk Through China.
Some routines DelGaudio created on his own lean toward performance art. He once did an impromptu show on Twitter, but the performance was entirely in his audience's imaginations. No actual tricks took place.
In another routine, called 184 Seconds, he asks someone to set a timer for a minute. He then deals as many cards as he can, one at a time, going through four different decks. Unbeknownst to the audience, each is a second deal — he deals the second card instead of the top one. At the end of a minute, he writes down the number of cards he's dealt.
Then he exits. The end.
It's magic as abstract art, reminiscent of composer John Cage, whose music piece 4'33" has the audience sit in silence for four minutes and 33 seconds.
The first time DelGaudio did it, the audience seemed a little upset. Another time, they applauded wildly.
But when you're not in an art gallery, and you're doing a more traditional magic show — where audiences expect an actual magic effect to take place — merging the trick with art is more difficult. It's not about reciting a poem, or telling killer jokes, or making profound statements. Sometimes that stuff distracts.
"It's an examination of the poetics of mystery, not necessarily trying to make magic poetic," DelGaudio says.
"Because it's already there," Guimarães adds. "Sometimes you don't see it because it's covered in bullshit."
One routine in their show — without spoiling it too much — involves Guimarães doing a card trick and then DelGaudio doing the same card trick, reciting the exact same script. The second time, the expectations of the audience and the connotations of the words have shifted. They think they know what it's all about because they've seen it before — until they don't.
The routine examines preconceptions, the changing meanings of language, the fickle nature of confidence. It's not as if there's an explicit message — but good art doesn't have that, either. It just has to make you think or feel something. It can be open to interpretation. "We don't discuss the idea openly — they feel it, which is more interesting than saying, 'You know what, this [trick] is about preconceptions,' " Guimarães says.
If a trick is successful, DelGaudio says, "They're not asking themselves how that happens. They ask themselves deeper questions."
DelGaudio and Guimarães are not the first magicians to think this way, of course. Penn and Teller, for instance, sometimes reveal the methods behind their tricks to the audience, as a way of calling out magic as entertainment and challenging the value of secrecy. Tamariz has done a routine where he makes a deck of cards disappear but never brings it back, subverting the audience's expectations and letting them wonder. DelGaudio and Guimarães are dragging magic in this direction, in their own style.
Still, many audience members, especially nonmagicians, might chalk up the duo's artsy talk to the narcissism of small differences. To them, Nothing to Hide at the Geffen may simply be a damn good magic show.
But even that is no small feat. As much as they ponder the bigger philosophical questions, the pair cares deeply about perfecting the mechanics.
It's like Alfred Hitchcock creating a suspenseful moment, or Jimi Hendrix playing a great guitar riff — there is something artful about the perfect effect.
"I think they're the two greatest young sleight-of-hand magicians working today," Penn Jillette says in an email, "not because they do unbelievable tricks, which they do, and not just because their technique is better than anyone else's, which it is, but because they are charming and not saccharine, funny but not cute, artistic but not pretentious.
"Most importantly, they are trying to say that what they do is important."
On Halloween in 2011, the Magic Castle caught fire when a repairman's blowtorch hit a wall in the attic. The fire burned a hole in the roof and spread to the administrative offices, and water from firehouses and sprinklers gushed through the dining room and the lobby.
DelGaudio and Guimarães' show at the Geffen has its roots in that near-disaster. After he began his self-imposed exile from the Castle, DelGaudio performed there only once over the next year — which was still enough to win the Academy's Close-Up Magician of the Year award for 2011. (Guimarães won Parlor Magician of the Year.)
A friend who works at the Castle asked DelGaudio to help with the grand reopening in January by performing with another magician. That magician dropped out, and DelGaudio's fiancée, Vanessa, suggested he partner with Guimarães.
They had five days to prepare. At first they considered performing selections from their separate repertoires. But they collaborated on one routine, and then kept going, creating five in total. Most magicians are lucky if they can create two a year.
They were eating at Brazilian restaurant Bossa Nova when they came up with the routine that opens the show, which they call "chess." It's a card routine that has them face off against each other, without any sound, aside from the audience's cheers.
They'd been talking about chess champion Bobby Fischer, and DelGaudio remembered a famous photo of artist Marcel Duchamp playing chess against a naked woman. It was a breakthrough.
If entertainment requires a willing suspension of disbelief, magic brings an unwilling suspension of disbelief — audience members are on guard against being tricked. "We immediately eliminate the adversarial relationship between the magician and the audience," DelGaudio says. It "allows them to just enjoy without the defense system that is naturally in place."
"That's all of life in that piece," he adds. "It's our lives. It's reality. It's dreams, in the sense of what people dream, we do brought to life."
They never imagined they'd perform beyond that one weekend in January — but audiences wanted them back. Harris says the show's success encouraged other magicians to raise their game.
But, inevitably, some jealousies seeped through. Zabrecky recalls one night, while DelGaudio and Guimarães were performing, one of their peers approached him, saying, " 'No one cares what I'm doing in the Palace of Mystery. Everyone's here to see Derek and Helder. What's the big deal about Derek and Helder?' It's such a sad moment. He's a cruise-ship magician and works so hard at what he does. The respect and adulation that Derek and Helder get — he'll never get it."
And the Geffen is a whole different context. The only other magician to perform there has been Ricky Jay, a burly, bearded man best known for his show Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, also directed by a celebrity multihyphenate (David Mamet) whose name gave the show a promotional boost.
Nothing to Hide isn't flashy. There aren't many props — a deck of cards here, a wineglass there. It's profound and dramatic at times but also playful. "We talk like jackasses and we're normal dudes," DelGaudio says.
Harris has helped shepherd the show since the summer, assisting as it's expanded from 40 minutes to 70. The actor has done magic since he was a kid growing up in New Mexico.
Now, in addition to starring on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, he's hosted the Tonys and the Emmys and overseen experiences like the theatrical scavenger-hunt event Accomplice in Hollywood and Guy Hollingworth's magic show The Expert at the Card Table in Santa Monica last year. Promoting DelGaudio and Guimarães helps further his own aspiration of becoming a contemporary version of his hero, Ed Sullivan.
"The rehearsal ends up being more of a brainstorming session," he says. "My job is to fill them with confidence and encouragement — authentically. Not to blow smoke up their asses and say it's going to be great but to point them in the right direction."
For most of their rehearsals, DelGaudio and Guimarães walk from their homes to their shared Hollywood studio. There are a table and chairs, and the stage area taped off on the floor. It's strewn with playing cards, magic reference books, books by magic-realism author Jorge Luis Borges and the philosopher Michel Foucault, and other inspirational props, like maps, watches and compasses. DelGaudio likes to put little pictures of their routines onto large Post-it notes and move them around. One will say "chess" with two stick figures sitting at a table. Guimarães chides him because every time he writes a new Post-it note that says "chess," he draws those two stick figures sitting at a table. He has to visualize it.
They can get pretty far into the discussion without picking up a deck of cards. Sometimes, in the middle of brainstorming a solution, they'll sit for an hour and think in silence. Or they take walks around Hollywood until 4 or 5 in the morning.
Penn Jillette started off as more of a juggling specialist before teaming with a magician named Teller. Siegfried was originally the illusionist — Roy befriended the exotic animals. But one reason DelGaudio and Guimarães think they're so successful as a pair is that they don't need to be one. They'd each be fine going solo and will continue to work individually after the Geffen run ends.
Yet each insists the show wouldn't work without the other. During a couple performances, the chess routine started to go wrong — though the audience didn't know it. Both magicians had to realize what had happened and help each other bring the routine back on track. "We started having an invisible dialogue and we started fixing invisible problems," DelGaudio says.
"I couldn't do that with anyone else," Guimarães adds. "I know exactly what you are thinking."
And then there's the box, which they ask a volunteer from the audience to hide. Some magicians thought it was insane to entrust the trick so completely to a stranger. (During one performance, a volunteer got lost and didn't come back for 10 minutes.)
But DelGaudio and Guimarães feel they have no choice but to push the envelope, pressing back against a world that's already conspiring against their chosen field.
"That's no joke when we say magic is irrelevant," DelGaudio says. Traditionally, magic audiences "wanted to be removed from this world and reminded that we live in a world beyond what we know. And now we go to movies for that. And now we have iPads for that. ... I think that makes it even more beautiful when it is made relevant again."