May 15, 2004

The Pro

July 2001 -- Sixty-three year-old Paul Daniels has been called “The Johnny Carson of the U.K.” The entertainer was in Chicago for a few days this month, making a rushed, last-minute appearance for one night only at the new Noble Fool Comedy Theater near Randolph and State. He was billed as “Paul Eldani, the Unusualist.”

Paul Daniels’ television show, featuring comedy, magic and interviews, ran on the BBC for about 16 years. He’s hardly known in the United States, except among magicians, among whom he’s famous for more than his master technical skills and take-no-prisoners performance style. He’s also known for introducing more American magicians to European audiences than anybody else.

“I saw Lance Burton when he was just a kid playing The Back Door in Las Vegas,” Daniels recalled one evening over a glass of white wine. “We gotta book this kid, I said.”

But as with any and every Paul Daniels story, there was, indeed, a story to tell.

“The act before Lance was a girl named Kitten,” he explained. “She appeared in a glass pool on a small revolving stage. Kitten’s claim to fame was that she had the most enormous breasts anyone had ever seen -- mammoth, 60-inch breasts, which would sort of float along the top of the water in the pool as she spun around. And as she revolved around, to everyone’s delight, she would slap these babies together and create a fountain of water that would jet skyward and spray onto the men in the audience, who’d, of course, just be sitting there, mumbling, ‘Hit me, Kitten! Hit me!’”

As he told this and other stories, Paul’s eyes tap-danced, his face contorted, his voice assumed various personalities, and his shockingly spry body jumped, twitched, bent and sprawled.

“Well,” Paul continued, “you can just imagine the scene. The curtain closes and the men are still sitting there -- ‘Hit me, Kitten! Hit me again!’ -- and the announcer says, 'And now, the magician.' Well, right. The curtain opens and there’s young Lance Burton in his tuxedo -- but before the audience can even move, Lance lifts a lid off a small silver bowl and a burst of flame roars out and, just as quick, a dove comes flying through the flame above the audience’s head. And then Lance removes one of his white gloves and throws it into the air -- and that’s a dove, too, which flies out over the head of the audience. And then he removes his other white glove and throws it into the air and catches it and then you notice that a small white dove is somehow already perched on his other hand -- and that takes off out over the audience. And Lance had them, the audience, right from the start. Each and every one of them. These guys who only moments before were slobbering all over themselves for Kitten-hit-me-Kitten were now sitting there, mesmerized by the magician. Fantastic.”

Paul Daniels told the story while relaxing (as much as Paul ever appears to relax) in Jack Gould and Kathleen Carpenter’s stylish Streeterville apartment. Jack is a University of Chicago economist and boyhood friend of the great magician Eugene Burger. Jack and Kathleen are the Gerald and Sarah Murphys of the magic world, hosting big parties and small get-togethers for Eugene, Max Maven, Penn and Teller, Jay Marshall and others. Eugene is another of the magicians Paul Daniels gave an early career break to, much in the way that Eugene has generously introduced my boyfriend Robert Charles and me into the magic world.

Paul was in town, working under an anagram of his last name, because he was being taped for a new BBC show. For this segment, the producers plopped Paul down in Peoria, Illinois, gave him $25 and told him he had to make his way to California in a week. The show’s producer encouraged Paul to scramble his name, fearing the American public would recognize “Paul Daniels.”

“My producer doesn’t understand,” Paul confided, lifting his eyebrows, shaking his head. “No one knows me here. America’s too big.”

Paul quickly earned enough money in Peoria -- marching into taverns and doing close-up card effects, working the crowd gathered by the river for the 4th of July fireworks -- to head up to Chicago. But before he left, he had become the hottest thing in Peoria through some clever self-promotion. He slipped a few bucks to a cab driver to call up the local TV station and say some crazy Englishman is doing tricks downtown. An hour later, he slipped a few more bucks to a cocktail waitress and had her telephone, too. “Yeah,” the TV producer told her, “We’ve heard about this guy. We’ll send a crew.” The next morning, Paul called the town’s most popular radio program. “Hey,” they said. “We saw you on TV last night. Could you sit in with us this morning?”

Once in Chicago, Paul went to Magic, Inc., the famed shop owned and operated by Jay Marshall on the city’s north side. One of the guys working the shop counter was appearing in “Flanagan’s Wake” at the Noble Fool; Paul booked the theater for the next night. Then he quick-copied hundreds of fliers and began handing them out at Navy Pier.

“’My God,’” Paul exclaimed, slipping into a character he met at the Pier, complete with buggy eyes, twisted face, thick Irish accent. “’You’re Paul Daniels!’”

“’Paul Eldani,’” he replied, quick-changing his voice and face to an overly serious demeanor. “’Please take a flier … In fact, take two.’”

Later that evening, at Jack and Kathleen’s, Paul performed some flawless effects -- forcing the same card on me ten times in a row and, once, from behind his back -- and told more stories: about growing up poor in northern England, about his family getting bombed out of their home during the blitz, about the wonderful world of entertainment.

“A friend of mine, this was years ago, directed a staged production of ‘Gone with the Wind’ on the West End … You can just imagine … Noel Coward came to opening night and they gave him the Royal Box and this was when, well, Noel was King, of course. So they had everything for this production. Miss Scarlet. Rhett Butler. They closed the first act with the burning of Atlanta, which was set-up at the rear of the stage, but there were a few problems. First, the producer had insisted that they add someone to the cast, a little girl who was very popular at the time, sort of the Shirley Temple of Great Britain, and they brought her out to sing one or two songs in the middle of everything. And then, with the burning of Atlanta, Rhett Butler charged out onto stage riding a real-life horse and as he grabs Miss Scarlet around the waist and a dying soldier raises his rifle and calls” -- thick Southern accent -- “’Here, Miss Scarlet! Take this! You might need it!’ As all of this is happening, the horse rears and shits right on the middle of the stage … Well … My friend went up to Noel’s box at the interval and Noel Coward said” -- perfected Noel Coward sneer -- “’Dear boy. I have never seen such a spectacle on the London stage.’ And my director friend immediately begins to say” -- meekly -- “’Well, it’s opening night and we’ve got a lot to work out, a lot of problems to fix’” -- back to Noel’s sneer, with a slight lift of the chin -- “’Dear boy. You have only two problems. And if you shove the little girl up the horse’s ass, you’ve solved them both.’”

At the Noble Fool Theater the following evening, Paul’s show was not unlike dinner the night before: a thousand laughs and expert magic, all-Paul, all the time. Paul performed his well-known chop cup routine, his signature linking rings with a kid on stage and some mind reading with various adults in the audience. He closed by levitating himself on stage.

I’ve never seen anyone so fearless on stage, so completely comfortable, so intimate. He connects one-on-one with audience members, inviting interaction and interruptions, involving everyone in the room no matter the size of the room. And throughout it all, Paul Daniels is a master at control -- with fidgety kids as well as with know-it-all adults. He always knows where everyone is and what everyone is doing throughout the theater. He’ll use first names and call-backs, linking an audience member's comment to something said by somebody else twenty minutes before. Mostly he’ll use humor -- sometimes sweet, more often, bitingly clever -- to manage the entire evening.

“I couldn’t always do that,” Paul replied when I asked him about achieving this level of comfort, this measure of confidence and courage. “Took me years and years. You see, what I finally realized was that human beings are animals and, like animals, we can sense fear, we can sniff fear, as soon as we get close to it. And if a performer is fearful, then the audience will be fearful, as well. But if the performer can somehow communicate, ‘Look, don’t worry. I’m in control. Let’s just have some fun,’ then everything will be okay.’”


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