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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Jeff McBride's Wonderground!

"And it gets harder and harder, Lorraine, to believe in magic,
When what came before you is so very tragic..." - partial lyric from Sweet Lorraine by Patti Griffin

About the only thing my parents ever did to encourage me was to sit through my god-awful magic shows I did as a kid. I would read up for days and weeks out of some 1940's library book on how to do some basic tricks and incredible illusions, and I would always go for the big illusions like making my younger sisters disappear or float in midair (which surprisingly never worked out exactly how the book said. True, it might have been because instead of building custom-made fake legs to fool the audience, I took a mop and a broom and stuck shoes on the ends...and not even matching, sometimes there would be a flip flop and a Candies high-heel ...oh yes, I was a crafty one...fool them with my ineptness, that was my plan...)

After awhile I gave it up once I found the Nancy Drew section, which was coincidentally right next to the new cute junior librarian's new desk...not that that influenced me at all...

All these years later, I married a closeted magician who does most of his work using only his left hand (for those of you in the know - and I was not one of these - this apparently in very difficult....very, very difficult. Like so difficult, the DVDs to show how you do this START at $150 a piece...not that I was trying to buy some for a Christmas present or anything...) So, my closeted magician husband stumbled onto a monthly get-together here in town, geared at local magicians, some professional and some just needing professional help, and my husband was dying to get me down there.

Admittedly, when I first heard about this, I wasn't as enthusiastic about it as I was about the junior librarian, but I am nothing if not supportive of my spouse (I know, I know...caring, caring, sharing, sharing...blah, blah, blah, give me the award now...) I expected long capes, and mouth-breathing 40-somethings who still lived with Mom and were having a hard time finding work outside of the VideoRama and dates resembled something out or Lars and the Real Girl. However, I stumbled into something so much more unique.

When we first arrived (quite early, mind you), the place was already filling up and fast. The Olives, the restaurant and hookah lounge on East Sunset that plays host to this crazy event, has amazing areas that guests can reserve with drippy shimmering curtains and lanterns that cast yellow lights around you. They look just like large ancient Egyptian litters where the royalty that came in on them have just disappeared for a moment to get a little cherry vanilla puff off the coconut charcoaled leaves. The air is filled with the mullings of Mediterranean spices rather than the unwashed Berkeley dorm room patchouli I was expecting.

Jeff McBride, the host of Wonderground, met us at the entrance archway and quickly remembered my husband from past performances (my husband...wait, Jiminy Cricket... I can't keep referring to him as "my husband"... Not that I have so many that you might get him mixed up with my other ones, but it does make for some clunkiness...How about we just call him by his high school nickname for now? "Hoss", seriously, that was his nickname {and, yes, seriously, he still likes it...}) Hoss giggled like a tween that Harry Styles had just friended on Facebook (for those of you who don't know who Harry Styles is, don't feel bad. I just had to ask my 12-year-old daughter which one he was after she corrected me for first writing "Justin Bieber." She explained he was on the outs and that would be wrong to include him..."Just so wrong, Mom...")

While we gorged on huge platters of hummus, baba ganoush, tabbouleh, falafels, etc., several magicians performed card tricks, cup and ball routines, and had little surprises (like the fellow who performed with his least, I'm assuming it was his... It's not like someone likely left it lying around in the parking lot hoping a magician might pass by and need a reptile in the next hour...)

We lucked out that that night was the annual International Wonderground. The first performer, Henry Vargas, set the tone and brought all his Brazilian charm to the stage with him, incorporating it into his overall performance and patter. Throughout, I kept elbowing Hoss to get him to tell me how they do the tricks and could he show me later. But he always says, "The first time is a trick; the second time is a lesson."

So, I guess that was a "no."

They must have thought it was Hoss' birthday because they called on him no less than FIVE times. Where magic is concerned, Hoss likes to stay in the audience, unless he's the performer. (he gave the night's best answer when the ventriloquist asked him how long we had been together, "Not long enough, sir.")

Jeff McBride is a scene stealer. This fellow, no matter if he's in a room of 10 people or 10,000, he thoroughly immerses himself in character of the story he's telling. At times, the only costume Mr. McBride donned was the microphone holder around his neck that he'd fashioned into a handlebar mustache. Don't understand what I'm talking about, then you have to see it for yourself.

There are two shows each time Wonderground comes around - the 8:00 and the 10:00. Come for the early one and just before the late show, you can quietly slip into the overflowing room in the back filled with legends who hold court for the younger performers who nervously shuffle decks for cards while waiting to be called up to the tiny green table in front. This is where the real magic takes places. This is close-up magic. This is where you can't hide anything. You can hear the murmurs as a youngster tries giving an old trick a new spin or you can watch as the audience collectively and disappointedly leans back in their chair once they've seen a trick go awry or the patter go on too long.

Afterwards, the volume is turned up on the performances on the main stage. Each performer ramps it up for the next one, and even when a ring goes flying the opposite direction of where it was intended or - as in Mr McBride's case, a pink rope just won't cooperate - it all appears amazing. Even the mistakes and mishaps work to the purpose of this collective event - to show the audience how difficult these tricks are even when they look so dang easy...kind of like ice skating.

There is art to what these illusionists attempt. They work alone for hours on end, pushing themselves past internal markers. They work hard to make it look easy. They examine how it's been done for years, sometimes decades, other times centuries, and they find ways to make it better, faster, more interesting, more engaging, and always more amazing. They make us suspend our disbelief and let go of the tragic. They make us believe it's quite possible there is magic. And I'll take that any day of the week.

copyright - All rights to the work posted on this site are retained by Cass Van Gelder. If you'd like to use some of my work, please ask. To do so, the permissions must be spelled out in writing...from me...I mean it. I have horribly mean cats; don't make me use them.

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