Carnival of Astonishments
Magic Magazine Cover Story: December Issue 2007
“I hear the rush of mulatto river pushing by, hear always, stomp! stomp! The beat of the grinning Buddah’s foot as he shouts his way to the ‘Sunny Side of the Street”…”
“Over the global village falls the veil of Maya. Amazement sits upon the brow. We are not only talking about play, but a galaxy of the Imaginary, the immanence of World-Play.”
This article is about two magical artists who can walk among us unnoticed and unrecognized. Yet they have worked around the world, won numerous prestigious awards, and have been highly praised by such celebrities as Sean Connery, Tom Jones, David Copperfield, and Michael Jackson. The arc of their artistic journey is unusual, spiked with surprises, taking them to unexpected places—the latest being New Orleans. May this brief story provide glimpses into what lies behind the masks…
MISE EN SCENE
The setting is perfect—perhaps too perfect! But this is not a bad thing. Thrillusions ®, despite having a name that sounds like a bottle of lethal cologne designed for NASCAR drivers, is a perfect fit for the Big Easy. Billboards around town suggest a mysterious hybrid, splashy, ambiguous show with a hint of a carnival or circus. Its short hype promises a world of colliding illusions meant to “rock the world of magic.” Okay, I’ll bite, but first a clarification: It’s no accident that Thrillusions ®Thrillusions is staged in New Orleans—a Dream-State-City still coping with the nightmarish hangover of an Imperfect Storm. And thanks to a local producer and creator of the show (Hollie Vest), who recognized correspondences between the celebratory magic of Mardi Gras and a magical show (not a magic show) featuring the same identifiable aspects. Hence, Thrillusions ®Thrillusions became a reality. So, from September 13th to November 10th (except for a 10-day hiatus) it raucously played at Harrah’s casino, a stone’s throw from the rolling, muddy Mississippi River on one side and the French Quarter on the other. Granted: Regional casinos tend to be localized, down-scaled versions of the gargantuan models of Las Vegas, but the sounds of slots are the same. Showrooms may be smaller, but the trade-off is intimacy. The clientele seems identical, but subtle differences exist. They are solidly middle-class and no-brow and they wander like nomads of the American Dream—giddy browsers and players ignoring the long odds and conditioned by mainlining the Consensual Hallucinations of television. It’s true. New Orleanians may habitually ask “where y’at,” but, trust me, their wide-bandwidth awareness sniffs out parties from fifty yards. After all, they live in a city of jubilant reality-checks and they know in their bones that their city is a show in itself. It’s a place where keeping one’s head above water is a given; where natives are vigilant, edgy, experimental, spontaneous, and free-wheeling (The next drink is always a good idea). This is why I redundantly exclaim that New Orleans was the right-and-righteous place for Thrillusions ®Thrillusions to showcase its rambunctious celebration of music, mayhem, and magic.
As mentioned earlier, billboards provided hints of the magic-makers. The faces of Phillipart and Anja look passionately prankish. Or perhaps they express a bit naughtiness? The face of the mannish one (Philippart) is a masque— a pop-iconic mixture of images associated with menace, mayhem, clownishness, and fiendish mischief. In equal parts it is Batman’s Joker, a more macho Beetlejuice, and Gene Simmon’s tongue-taunting Kiss. Or maybe he’s a refugee from a rogue Kabuki troupe? His grinning partner, Anja, seems a more-than-willing accomplice—not just an assistant but a lively partner. Her costume is just as wild and outlandish, calling to mind Joan Jett and the lead singer of “The Misfits” from the 1980s Jem cartoon show. (Are you trivia buffs with me so far?) Otherwise, the advertisements were tantalizingly vague. Or, as one reviewer later put it: “Thrillusions is a difficult show to describe.” He got that right.
ENTERING THE SHOWROOM
The specter of carnival was in the air. The staging area at Harrah’s was roomy enough for magicians, singers, and dancers to move and breathe freely without being hemmed in. Obligatory and large video-screens were stationed at both sides of the stage, no doubt meant to simulcast video images of flesh-and-blood performance, blending the real and the represented. (“Live” performance these days tends to be a subtle mixture of simulations of what is often and apologetically referred to as the “real thing.” This is why an off-stage voice at the beginning of Thrillusions ® explained that the impersonating singers—who, by the way, were quite good—did not lip-synch. They actually were singing.) The show’s music was also precisely calibrated to what it accompanied and was—shall we say?—ecstatically amplified. Amped to the pitch of rock-concerts, its boom-box beat penetrated the bone. Even the dead tapped their toes.
The spectators filed in as parishioners of a gospel church, reverently expressing a slightly crazy sense of expectancy. At a moment’s notice, any of them was ready to get up and dance. Even now, despite the city’s setbacks, natives and visitors appreciate being smack dab in one of America’s premiere pleasure centers; and its pursuit is a cultural entitlement. Music, dancing, parading, and magic all blend into an emotionally-charged gumbo. This is why Hollie Vest fought to make her show happen. And this is why audiences were thrilled by what they saw and what they eventually got.
The show ran 90 minutes, consisting of eight, rhythmically linked segments; and, like an actual Mardi Gras party, it emanated the same kind of energy and sass. The singing segments by Hollie Vest (as Tina Turner) and Vince Gibbs (as Prince) complemented the high-jinks of Phillipart and Anja. Each singer performed two 10-12 minute sets that were neither disjunctive or out of place. All of the songs were recognizable hits that resonated with the audiences, serving to evoke memorable, emotional associations. Moreover, spectators were encouraged to sing along and physically respond. (For the record, Hollie Vest has been energizing audiences since 1984 and started entertaining professionally in 1977, and spent 15 years as a bandleader/singer performing all styles of music through out Southern California Night Clubs, Hotels, Casinos, Theme Parks and Restaurants. After many years of being compared to Tina Turner, she surprised her audience one New Year's Eve by donning Tina Turner's attire and attitude singing “What’s Love Got To Do With It” –which she sang in Thrillusions ®.) Everyone loved it, and a star was reborn, along with a new career as a Celebrity Impersonator. She was also an integral part of the Sun City Extravaganza Show (“Beyond Belief”) in South Africa, working there with Phillipart and Anja. (She was the recipient of the 2003 International Celebrity Images award for Best Corporate Event Performance as Tina Turner in her 2002 New Orleans Super Dome show for 12,000 people, where she received a standing ovation.)
A high-point in Thrillusions ® occured when she invited eight reluctant male audience members onstage to act as “Teenettes.” As one reviewer put it: “Watching them shake their booties to the beat of ‘Proud Mary,’ at Tina's behest, was akin, I suspect, to watching the Romans toss captives to the lions. Oh, the humanity!” Vince Gibbs, the other impersonator-singer, has performed all over Asia, the United States, and Guam. He has entertained audiences in countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. If you are curious to see him perform, check out one of his performances on YouTube. The similarities between Vince and Prince are amazing and captured the mystery, excitement and fun of being at a real Prince show.
The show began and blasted off with seven energetic, female dancers twisting and grinding to the hyper-ventilating strains of Guns & Roses
(“Welcome to the Jungle”). Then Phillipart suddenly appeared like a gate-crasher, eventually producing Anja via the Vampira Illusion. Once onstage, the twosome performed a duet of magic that clearly established the nature of their relationship, revealing that they were doing something much different from stereotypical magic fare. For one thing, all illusory aspects did not directly challenge spectators to fathom the mysteries or unravel the puzzlements. Instead they made it clear that they wanted to get inside the spectator’s heads. Once there, they did not jerk them around or bedevil their intellects. Instead they were invited into a world of pure whimsy and illusion.
The singers were a different matter. Openly confessed impersonators, the singers skillfully played artificial “parts.” They acted as real-world counter-parts. Phillipart and Anja, on the other hand, were impish agents who obviously do not exist in the “real world.” Yet there they were, comfortably at home in a fantastic world where the audience was the only real part. As mentioned earlier, Paul and Anja were costumed and masked, and the masks enabled them to play by holiday rules without the usual accountabilities normal life demands and expects. This provided many off-beat and funny moments. Also, their masks called attention to them, concealing who they really are while simultaneously revealing exaggerated selves.
Their first set closed with the serene diamond-levitation.
Next, Tina Turner was magically produced and then sang 4-5 signature songs (such as “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”). At one point she sashayed into the audience and seductively interacted with spectators until the “Burn, Baby, Burn” Effect took hold.
During every one of their segments in the show Phillipart and Anja stayed in character, intermittently performing several standard illusions—Ashra, Shadow Box, Twister, Impossible Sawing, and an eye-arresting, spruced up Slicer Illusion. (The way Phillipart modified and improved Franz Harary’s illusion is a lesson in design and showmanship.) Stage illusions of course are a staple, but their illusory features were not as significant as Phillipart and Anja’s light-hearted, comic approach. Most illusionists prefer to accent the grandiosity of their props, tubes, and boxes, emphasizing their size and physical oomph. They also tend to perform with semi-serious aplomb. On the other hand, Rather than just making their illusions “work” Phillipart and Anja make them work for them. This is a big difference which likewise permits them to further convey the nature of their comedic relationship. Theirs is a team effort; therefore, their tit-for-tat relationship is not power struggle nor is it about dominance versus equality. This is what humanizes and endears them.
Both Philippart and Anja move extremely well onstage (which is not always the case with illusionists). Phillipart moves with martial-artistic assurance—taking long, loping strides, making grand flourishes, and executing precise turns. More telling is how he works his over-sized, expressive mouth, which evinces the simple yin-and-yang of his behavior. Mentally more complex than he looks, he is equally impulsive and inventive. This, coupled with the way he laughs, softens his supposed sinister persona, turning it into something irresistibly less sinister. His laugh, by the way, is an outburst—gleeful, guttural, short, and explosive. To him, anything gory is a hoot. In short, he brims with prankish bad behavior. Thankfully, as long as he remains on the other side of the fourth wall, his scariness is harmless…
It’s worth mentioning how Phillipart and Anja downplay the negative elements of some illusions. In those that give the impression of danger, pain, or possible suffering, they mollify this dark intent. More importantly, they know how inherently bogus it is to seriously sell this proposition. Subjecting an assistant (victim) to experiments in fake victimization seems patently facetious, or, worse. If an illusionist overacts, he comes off as being a fatuous pretender or silly fake. Few lay people these days are willing to play along with “grand illusions.” Therefore, it was refreshing and liberating to watch Phillipart and Anja take their lighter, humorous approach. All totaled, they perform 12 illusions: Paradox Sphere (Philippart's reveal, but designed by Ken Whittaker/Paul Haines, also known as Creative Illusions)/Paul Philippart), Diamond Levitation, Gemini Cage - Creative Illusions, Asrah, Sword Through Neck, Impossible Sawing - Creative Illusions/Paul Philippart, Shadow Box - John Gaughan, Twister, Tube - Franz Harrary/Paul Philippart, and Million Dollar Mystery - Jim Steinmeyer. Their rendition of Twister (where the assistant's head rotates 360- degrees many times), was great, self-referential, physical comedy. They converted the event—namely the twisting part—into an act of accidental discovery. Adding a remote controller was a inspired addition. (Martin Lewis’s father, Eric, knew the comedic possibilities of this illusion when he invented it. Others in the past—Franz Harary, Ed Alonzo, and Mark Kornhauser—also developed humorous presentations.) The crowning Diamond Illusion was saved for the finale. This rendition of “The Million-Dollar Mystery” measured up to its introduction—“You are not going to believe this!” In fact, another reviewer later gushed: “I was bewildered at how the clowns, dancing girls and impersonators all ended up on the same stage, coming out of a small box that was intermittently shown empty. Thrillusions seemed completely Thrillillogical.”
So, on this high-pitched note, Thrillusions ® ended…with all the players onstage, singing in unison, led by Phillipart’s rock-operatic voice: “Let Me Entertain You”…, accompanied by the blasts of confetti cannons. It was a Mardi-Gras Moment. Let me entertain you, indeed. This is exactly what they did, and the audience stood and joyously affirmed.
Almost everyone who becomes a public performer of “magic” falls in love with this art form at an early age. Most are also driven to be an extroverted agent that creates and re-creates “magic;” to surrender to an irresistible impulse to act out fantasies and dreams; to somehow share this enthrallment and passion with others. Most beginnings are remarkably stereotypical. An uncle, grandfather, or friend shows a simple trick—a coin disappears with a wink and a nudge, or a rope is cut and restored. In Paul Philippart’s case, enthrallment came while watching a television series called “Carlton from the Roof.” This Swedish children’s program featured a boy who lived in an attic who had a little propeller in his back. When nightfall came, he opened a roof window and flew over the city. This was the coolest feat Paul had ever seen and, unlike the extraordinary flying of Superman, Carleton was an ordinary kid. The magical property that permitted him to fly was the little propeller in his back. It did not take much “magical thinking” to believe that flying might be possible if one only had this wondrous accessory. Or perhaps “magic” could be learned? Perhaps fantasies could be realized? “If I learn enough magic,” Paul thought, “then maybe one day I will fly like Carlton?”
So it began…
Like many other serious Dutchmen wanting to learn magic, Paul sought out Henk Vermeyden and ended up studying with him for a couple of years. During this period he often ran into Ger Copper in the magic shop. Ger, at the time was an acknowledged World Champion and was Paul’s role-model. Ger kindly invited him into his home, explained tricks, manipulation techniques, and training methods. More important, he inspired Paul. Also, through Ger, Paul met Richard Ross and learned much from him. Both celebrated magicians provided valuable friendship and guidance. Ger remains a close friend today and Richard remained a dear colleague until the day he passed away.
After Paul finished high school, he was encouraged to join his brother in the family business; however, he was not attracted to the business world; he loved the theater. At the time he was not making much money, but he loved performing. He knew there was a secure future in his family’s business, but he wanted to “follow his bliss,” a desire that resulted in enrolling at the Dutch Academy for Actors. This was a concession on his part because his parents wanted him to first study and earn a diploma of some sort. Afterwards, he could pursue his magical dream while having the fall-back security of a practical education. Paul argued that acting is a bona fide, official education and that it would prepare him for a career in show business. He reasoned that what the Academy teaches had to be applicable to the performance of magic. If anything, it would teach Paul ways to make the performance of magic more dramatic. However, it turned out that the Academy was too intense and demanding and there was little time leftover for magic. So, after two years, he left the Academy. He was not working as a magician, but was singing and playing in a successful Symphonic Rock band named Graphic. Besides singing, Paul played bass, drums, keyboards, and rhythm guitar on their studio recordings. This experience taught him a lot about stage presence during those years and accounts for the rock-and-roll influences seen in his current work. The music business, alone, however did not provide enough income, so Paul worked an assembly-line job at the Philips factory in Eindhoven—waiting, hoping, and remaining vigilant for a big break.
The break came in form of an energetic, enterprising, professional dancer named Anja, who was already a full-time pro. Their first performance together was at the Casino Madeira, where Anja was hired to transform the show. The artistic director lauded the changes she made and he subsequently offered her a deal. If she could deliver two shows—one for the restaurant and one for the night club—in three months, he would give her a contract. Phillipart and Anja subsequently worked their butts off and created the Bel Sprit Show
(1987-1989), an energetic ensemble-show consisting of ballet, song-and-dance acts and stage illusions, all integrated into a harmonious show. It was instantaneously celebrated among the state casinos in Southern Europe.
Side-bar: Phillipart, by the way, did not know any illusion builders at the time. Hedidn’t even know that such a trade existed. Therefore, he built the illusions himself. Anja took care of creating and making costumes. They bought an 8-track recorder, a two-track master recorder, a mixing desk, and developed their own music. Anja’s show-business savvy dove-tailed nicely with Paul’s insider knowledge of music.
This show was an integrated mix of magic, singing, and dancing. It was not yet as fully developed as Thrillusions ® is today, but the underlying concept of combining magic with other disciplines was taking root. Phillipart sang in the show and performed the illusions. Anja, a phenomenal multi-tasker, was the producer, dance captain, star dancer, and “victim.” It was a heady, stressful experience and Anja developed an ulcer.
They toured the south of Europe for about three years, always in Portuguese casinos and the one in Madeira, where it all began.
When they started working on their Indiana Jones Act. It was because they did not want to be recognized while they were developing their “big act;” it was a way to disguise their identities while they earned enough money to sustain a livelihood. It turned out that lots of people favorably responded to their “interim” act, which was stylized to be dramatically different. A significant turning point for them occurred when they were introduced to Henk Eijskoot, who at the time did not know he was the best (and only) illusion builder they had ever met. Henk was born with golden hands, knowing wood, metal, plastics, and mechanics. He knew very little about magic, but Phillipart supplied this know-how. Together they began experimenting and building props—Henk being the technical brain, Phillipart being the magical one. The first props they built were made from scrap material, because they had no money to buy new hardware. Sometimes they had to rummage through a scrap heap for a week to find the sized worm screw they needed. Their Tube Illusion was constructed out of pure scrap metal.
Because they now had workable illusions, their act had heft and presence. It took off like a rocket, because they were totally self-supporting and could actually build high-tech props. To date, Henk remains their dearest friend and has been the only European illusion builder they have used. He deserves a big credit in making their career possible.
Another turning point was adding Cola to their team. Cola had been the baby sitter of Phillipart’s nephews when they met. At the time he had no stage experience whatsoever. Nevertheless, he was big and strong. Phillipart says, “We needed an extra set of muscles. We asked him if he wanted to travel the world with us and he immediately said yes. We have been inseparable ever since and Cola developed into a great personal and technical assistant, body guard (where necessary), and friend. He has been with us everywhere: South Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Israel, Brazil, Monte Carlo, Paris—you name it! The only place we could not take him was South Africa. There was no way around the emigration restriction there for Cola. We could not convince the authorities that we needed him. So we contacted the president of the Magic Circle of Johannesburg, Mr. Paul Malek. We asked him if there was a young magician who would like to work in our production show in South Africa. He supplied Wolf Lock, an escape artist, who did Cola’s job and also became a dear friend.”
Also pivotal to their career was Michael Lovegrove, the group entertainment manager of Sun City. He gave them their first big production show. The only unfortunate aspect of this marvelous opportunity was that Lovegrove insisted on calling the show, “Beyond Belief.” This, as most magicians know, was the name of Siegfried and Roy’s famous show at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. Although Michael said that that it was legally permitted to use this name, Phillipart and Anja were uncomfortable about using it and always felt badly about it. Like everyone else, they thought that Siegfried and Roy were icons and worthy of the highest respect. Nevertheless, Beyond Belief was the show that put Phillipart and Anja on the international map as prominent performers of a large-scale, thematic show, using big illusions. This show, initially scheduled to run six moths, ended up running 23 months, making it the longest running international show in the history of South Africa!
Phillipart and Anja admit that they could not have done that show if it were not for the invaluable help of Johnny Thompson. Johnny was hired by Michael as the magical consultant for the show. He designed and coordinated the creation of all the new material they ended up performing in the show. They worked with him day and night and are forever thankful for the guidance, knowledge and inspiration he provided. Johnny is one of magicdom’s treasures.
Personal Aside: Phillipart says, “The pre-production of the show was a difficult process because of managerial screw ups by the producers hired by Michael. In fact, this became so problematical that Johnny came to our house one night and told us that he was considering taking his name from the credits if the situation didn’t change or improve. At that point he was exhausted, stressed out, and frustrated by the producers. We devised a plan to perk up Johnny’s spirits. Together with Michael, we secretly contacted his wife, Pam. We asked her to come to Sun City, because we knew that John missed her tremendously and would be happy to see her. However, we wanted it to be a surprise. At the time we were working on a trick where we hold up a cloth for a split-second and when we drop it, two girls appear. This is performed in the middle of the stage without anything or anybody around us. We told John that we had worked on “the move” and we wanted him to check it out. Poor John! What he didn’t know was that Michael had paid for Pam’s ticket to fly to Sun City. So, instead of making two girls disappear for John, we made Pam appear. Needless to say, his face lit up like a Christmas tree and thereafter all of us were a lot happier. John and Pam finished setting up the show and we love them for it.
I recently wrote a review that touched on how magical entertainment as modern performance art is changing. Lay audiences, our spectators, who live in the larger, influential, and dominant matrix of Pop Culture, are going to dictate how all entertainment will be produced and consumed. And in the near future, they will be more demanding than now
. Cirque du Soleil("Circus of the Sun") is a prime example of what the future holds. Theirs is a spectacular, magical experience—a post-modern hybrid that has not only recreated the circus, it has become the star attraction in Las Vegas. Among other things, it has amply filled the void left by Siegfried and Roy’s departure. The Cirque’smultiple Las Vegas shows play to more than 9,000 people nightly – 5% of the city's visitors. Perhaps some future and enterprising magician will figure out how to apply Cirque’s approach of synthesizing styles from around the world and creating a central theme that brings the audience into the performance? Compare, say Mystère, with any existing magic show (including our best ones) on the planet. What do you conclude? Consider the underlying theme of this show, which explores nothing less than the origins of life in our universe and how its intertwining themes combine multiple mythologies from multiple cultures. Does any existing magic show do this?
Thrillusions ® is not yet in this exalted class, but Phillipart and Anja’s basic vision is similar. They know that seeing somebody perform “tricks” is no longer enough. They realize that the experience of “magic,” which occurs in the human mind and heart, should produce “astonishments.” All professional magicians struggling to survive in the unmerciful, highly competitive climate of today’s world of show-business must adapt and change or fade away. Phillipart and Anja are aware of the sea-change occurring. They have strategically planned, developed, and scripted what they refer to as their “masterpiece.” This ideal show will be an ambitious and expensive undertaking, but if it is eventually staged, it will take into account the sea-changes now taking place. Maybe the veil of Maya is about to fall? In the meantime, Thrillusions ® was a step in the direction in which Phillipart and Anja (with Hollie Vest) have resolved to venture. They hear the beat of the grinning Buddah’s foot. They look outward to the galaxy of the Imaginary, the immanence of World-Play.
It seems long ago when Phillipart was bewitched by the boy with the little propeller in his back. Yet now he and Anja are flying higher than he ever thought he would go, outward bound, and—who knows?—perhaps upwards to the destination of their dreams?
Time, as they say, will tell.
Note: Thrillusions ®is owned by its executive producer, Hollie Vest. She also owns the service marks—“Rockin the World of Magic” and “When Worlds of Illusions Collide.” Other people have used the named in the past, but have done so illegally (even if it was inadvertently done so.)