The demise of magic
For centuries, magicians have guarded their secrets from the rest of us on the principle that, once we know how the trick is done, it loses its entertainment value. They were right, of course, and as we gain an understanding of those little mysteries, we lose our sense of wonder and the pleasure of being mystified by the cleverness of it all.
In those innocent days of the thirties and forties, we listened to Edgar Bergen and Charley McCarthy on the radio and were enchanted with the idea that a wooden puppet could seem to talk. We were impressed by Bergen’s ability to throw his voice without moving his lips and make us believe it was Charlie actually doing the talking.
That was radio. Not television. We couldn’t see Charlie seeming to sass and tease Edgar. We couldn’t see Edgar not moving his lips. But we believed. We tuned in faithfully every week. We laughed at the corny jokes, not because they were so funny, but because a wooden puppet seemed to be the one speaking. How very clever Edgar Bergen was to be able to do that. We were the clever ones, since we were seeing all this in our own imaginations. The radio supplied the words, the rest was up to us. Some of us had a glimpse or two of Bergen and Charley, and even Mortimer Snerd, in a movie now and then, but that only helped us imagine what they looked like, we still believed in the magic.
It never occurred to us that there could be camera tricks or outright cheating involved. After all, the radio had no pictures, all that was really needed was Edgar Bergen talking in different voices. He didn’t have to throw his voice when he was speaking into a microphone; he didn’t even need to have Charley and Mortimer actually on the premises. Their voices were his voice. The whole thing could be done at home in his living room with a tape recorder, couldn’t it?
We listened to “Sky King” after school and imagined him aloft in his little airplane, bravely battling high winds or a fire in the engine, when it was all sound effects and our imagination. We listened to “I Love A Mystery” after supper. A sound like a creaking door and a mysterious thump had us trembling with fright as Jack, Doc and Reggie entered a deserted mansion on the trail of an elusive criminal. Guys sitting at a desk, reading from a script while a sound-effects man swished BB’s around on a metal tray and shook a box containing a few pieces of broken glass. We saw a raging storm and a sinister, shadowy figure breaking into a darkened window.
Downtown at the theater, our imagination had plenty of help from Hollywood. We didn’t have to imagine Superman flying above the buildings of Metropolis. Clever editing and camera tricks showed him swooping among the skyscrapers, bursting through brick walls, stopping runaway trains in their tracks. When Clark Kent went into that phone booth, we knew who was going to come out. And we couldn’t believe that Lois Lane didn’t figure out, a whole lot sooner, who he really was.
We had to reassure out little sister that the bad guys didn’t really shoot the dancing girl in that Western musical. And as we reassured her, we tried to talk ourselves into believing the story was real. Deep down, we weren’t convinced. We knew it was acting, We knew those people weren’t all alone out there in Death Valley– after all, this was a movie, there were cameramen, directors, make-up and wardrobe assistants. They had plenty of food and water, cooling showers– probably even air conditioning. They wouldn’t die of thirst.
By the time everybody had color television in the family room, we found it hard to believe just about anything we saw on television. Even the news and sports were suspect. The camera, after all, was manned by a human being. Humans make choices, judgments, have prejudices, preferences, tired feet, headaches and distractions. As viewers began to understand how easily backgrounds, scenery, etc. can be manipulated with technology, it is no wonder that attempts to telecast magic shows didn’t survive. Those guys in editing know more magic tricks than Sigfried and Roy ever dreamed about. And now, with the software available to everybody who has a home computer, we can’t even trust those snapshots Uncle Dave took at the family reunion last summer. We know Aunt Harriet is plumper that that, he must have taken forty pounds off her with that photo editing program of his. I’m sure she’s pleased at how she looks in that picture of her in those shorts, but– really. And why didn’t he touch up the gray in my hair, while he was at it?