SPOOKSTERS OF MAGIC PAST AND PRESENT
Illusions in the Night 2011
by David Seebach
Although I now have over twenty years experience in producing and staging elaborate Halloween magic shows, I began with little experience and only scant knowledge. Prior to my first effort in 1991 I had only the experience of putting together some brief appearances for an area indoor shopping mall. They were in late October... Halloween... Houdini's death... what could we do?
The celebrated Substitution Trunk "Metamorphosis" act seemed out because we'd be appearing in the round with an additional audience surrounding us up above on the mall's second level.
Since I had adapted some material for Christmas appearances I started there.
I had learned the classic Sympathetic Silks and decided to do them with Rice's 36" red and green scarves. I had a curious* P&A Silks' Christmas 20th Century Silks set and one of Abbott's 36" Santa silks. From Rice's Encyclopedia of Silk I had learned their easy Girl - Glass - Go effect. So, with some holiday music, a Changing Bag, a Crystal Silk Cylinder and a 'Jap' Handkerchief Box we created a routine that was seasonal and colorful. We covered some tubs you normally get fried chicken in with wrapping paper and trim for the Sympathetic Silks to add to the festive look. We also used my Costume Trunk. I obtained three paper Chinese lanterns of different diameters and we strung them together to make an instant snowman for one of the Trunk's trays. We had a toy soldier outfit and a brief Miss Claus costume, too. That final outfit was our 'force' selection. That gave us an up-tempo, musical opening with a whirlwind of effects.
It was an easy matter to get 36" orange and black scarves for the Sympathetic Silks, make up a set of 20th Century Silks with Rice's 18" Jolly Roger silk and use their dramatic Gay Devil art silk (where Santa had been in December)and so on to create an appropriate Halloween opener. The Costume Trunk was even more appropriate; now with a skeleton, witch and sexy black cat as costuming. Naturally, the black cat was the 'force.' Of course, we changed the music, too.
These mall shows were short; my 1991 effort was to be a full-evening show.
It came about because a former college professor of mine had bought an aging Milwaukee theater and cinema, the Modjeska in a poor neighborhood. It had once been a major entertainment destination, boasting well over 2,000 seats and an elaborate, ornamental plaster interior. That was in its heyday. It was now a crumbling and decrepit place, damp and leaky and reportedly haunted; the perfect venue for a Halloween show!
I had some 'natural' routines: my eight-foot Guillotine, an Abbott Buzz Saw Illusion, a Burning Alive - Cremation, my occult version of The Modern Cabinet and my distinctive presentation for the Dr Q Spirit Slates that is quite spooky. But, what I didn't have was a climax for the show.
I normally closed big shows with my Lion's Bride act and ---sometimes--- added Abbott's Spectacular Finale. But, this was a self-produced, speculative experiment. I was afraid that the big cat might make more money than anyone else so I eliminated that option.
My good friend ---the late Jim Geb--- and I put our heads together, brought out our copies of Mark Walker's Ghostmasters and drove to Toys R Us.
We did NOT know what we were doing. We bought some typical Halloween decor items: luminous plastic skeletons, oversize dimensional skulls and a really silly looking $2 novelty called ---I think--- "Inflatable Ghost." That last item proved to be very important.
For our premiere 1991 edition we called the show David Seebach's Tricks 'N' Treats, a title we never used again because the public thought it was only a little kids' show. We hyped the supposed haunted aspect of the theater and then staged our own in-the-dark blackout at the show's end using the items we'd purchased and rigged in the theater. We used ideas from Mark Walker's book about effects from the spook shows' golden age, a gimmick film producer William Castle used for his Vincent Price shocker "House on Haunted Hill" in the 1950s and stuff we made up on our own with no budget. It didn't hurt that I owned some pyro gear we could use, too.
The show was successful enough that it returned in 1992 as David Seebach's Illusions in the Night. David Copperfield attended and was fascinated by one of our in-the-dark effects. It was one produced by that "Inflatable Ghost," although heavily modified by us. He contacted me months later and asked to see one. I sent one to him, but asked that it be returned.
Sadly, he couldn't seem to find it later to return it, but he sent me a silver commemorative coin and an 'honorarium,' a generous check for my help that could have purchased hundreds of Inflatable Ghosts!
The show remained at the Modjeska for nineteen consecutive Halloweens. It grew each year. Theater Owner and set designer Stewart Johnson built wonderful stage settings for us. I commissioned full scenic backdrops to be painted. We added more pyro and multiple confetti cannons to the blackout as well as inflatable 'blowermen' ghosts and specialty lighting. Johnson also built a gallows for The Executioner's Dream illusion. Abbott's built a Haunted Doll House, Owen Magic provided Matilda's Wardrobe and Richard Hughes made us customized silks for Duke's Dye Version, a 'motley man' version of Karrel Fox's Corn silks and an obscure Supreme Magic effect called Come Together Silks.
We 'Halloween-ized' the Paul Osborne Orbs illusion, staged Owen Magic's Impaled Beyond Belief, bought a huge and expensive Aqua Fogger for our Asrah and had Abbott's supply the piping and framework for a Spirit Cabinet. One of Abbott's fiberglass Basket Girl Illusions was painted by my artist friend, Laura Easey-Jones, as a jack-o'lantern and the list goes on and on. Don Wayne's Dream Vision became an elaborate trick-or-treat outing. Owen Magic also built the Thayer classic Reincarnation illusion for us.
We were regularly staging illusions that most magicians only read about, but had never seen.
I'm lucky to have talented friends who know little about magic, but are gifted performers. They act or sing or...
One of these is Hal Erickson who appeared in four consecutive Halloween shows, but as a different character each year. He was a bumbling janitor who turned out to be a ghost one time. Another time he was a snake-in-the-grass parapsychologist intent on stirring up the Modjeska's spirits. He also appeared as Prince Radini, an eastern mystic and as a very shy researcher who had dreams of being a rock star.
My long-time onstage assistant/partner Peggy Peterson-Ryan was a regular cast member and suggested that we employ her considerable vocal talents. So, she sang the "Monster Mash" while performing the Broom Suspension; I was Dracula and we had the Wolfman and Frankenstein onstage, too. For the next several years a song became part of every year's show. We adapted familiar tunes to our themes: "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart" became "Don't Go Stakin' My Heart" with Peggy as a vampire and me confining her with Abbott's Slick Post. "Walk Like an Egyptian" became "Wrap Like an Egyptian" as cloth was wound 'round and 'round me before I escaped (from Abbott's TOPS' Treasury of Illusions). "Mr Sandman" became "Mr Seebach" as Peggy portrayed a young girl trying to impress her favorite magician. "Spooky" kept its title and lyrics, but Peggy was once again suspended; this time on Robert Harbin's version of the Chair Suspension as supplied by Bill Smith. My favorite was "I've Got You Babe" with me as the Frankenstein monster, Peggy as my Bride and screamingly funny lyrics. We had a great "Broadway" set and effected an exchange so I wound up out in the audience at its finish. Peggy also contributed lyrics so another singer could escape from one of Abbott's Straitjackets to the "Itsy-Bitsy, Teenie-Weenie Bikini" song. There was no bikini, but, remember, it rhymes with Houdini!
To help the theater's restoration its owner and guardian, the aforementioned Stewart Johnson, decided to sell it to the non-profit theater company he had formed with his creative wife, Diane. Sadly, this did not end well. Like the Frankenstein monster, the new owners turned on their creators and everything went downhill. The biggest loser was the theater structure itself. Without Johnson's diligent maintenance, it crumbled both structurally and financially. The roof leaked. Ceilings collapsed. Power and gas were turned off. It was raining inside the theater for 2009's opening night!
For 2010 we moved the entire production to the Milwaukee area's newest performing arts venue. It was part of suburban Greenfield High School on the city's south side. The stage was much bigger and better equipped. The dressing rooms were dry and close-by. The neighborhood was safe.
But, we lost the look and feel of a real haunted theater. The Modjeska was the kind of place Disney imagineers would have crafted by trucking debris and dirt in. Our new environment was bright and clean and sterile; no place for any self-respecting ghost.
We plan on returning there for our twenty-first annual edition in October, 2011. We'll perform on October 21st, 22nd and 23rd and 27th, 28th and 29th with both afternoon matinees and evening performances. Tickets should be available 4-6 weeks before the show opens at www.illusionsinthenight.com. Follow the link.
We try to make the show fun. We also try to make the show frightening and scare the pants off of you. You'd better wear two pair!
*It's a curious set because the center holiday silk has red, but absolutely no green anywhere on it!
|Copyright @ Abbott Magic Co., All Rights Reserved