Some people claim that in an era of computer-generated special effects, holographic imagery, and virtual reality, traditional stage magic has lost some of its luster — as if a preponderance of an imitation eliminates the need for the original. The truth as I see it is almost opposite: we need illusion and stage magic now more than ever.
For one thing, it’s a false equivalency: there is a big difference between the empty spectacle of special effects and the engaging wonder of a magic show.
Pat Nelson, technical and lighting director, fire safety specialist and renaissance man-at-large for Butte Magic, (as well as firefighter with the Little Basin Creek volunteer firefighter department, appropriately enough), puts it best: it’s the “mechanics of magic” that attract him, and make it irreplaceable.
“I am a stage-designer and technical guy, so magic and props and secrets are a natural extension of what I already do.” He pauses and thinks a moment. “The challenges and puzzles are what initially attracted me to live theater to begin with.”
And if there is one thing that Nelson loves almost as much as magic, it’s his home state.
“I live here because I am not willing to move out of state to find work in my field. Butte Magic is Montanan in nature because it is a very family-based organization that relies heavily on teamwork. Nothing is more Montanan than helping each other out.”
To which he adds: “Plus I’m a fourth generation Montanan!”
Butte Magic is indeed a family affair. For James Jones, AKA “Sir James” the “pain-proof” man, a life in magic was all but inevitable; his mother and father are Lord Alden, prop-builder, inventor of illusions and magician in his own right, and his mother is Madame Azira, a magician as well as a mentalist. And his adopted older brother, Jaxon the Magnificent, who fenced on the Olympic circuit, has had a house fall on top of him, and is, naturally, also a fire-eater. When an emergency made it impossible for Jaxon to perform, James and his friend Eric took his place and were soon bitten by the performer’s bug.
James and Eric (AKA Eric the Excellent, magician, sword-swallower, and performer of old-fashioned sideshow-style feats) began to seek out their own shows at Butte’s own Mother Lode Theater, where they met Nelson and conceived the idea of their own magic troupe. They enlisted Lord Alden and Madame Azira (seasoned performers – as well as James’s parents), and the rest, as they say, is history.
As Eric says, Butte Magic “really just happened – we were all already doing magic in our own way, and all I did was give it a name.”
The name, however simple, is absolutely apropos, and not just because the magic troupe is based out of Butte. It also borrows something from the magic of Butte itself, a place where, Eric muses, “interesting people just seem to end up.”
“Fate, chance, whatever you want to call it, Butte draws unique, talented, and just plain odd individuals here, and they stay. I’m not sure Butte Magic could have existed without the all of the strange and wonderful people who all just happened to be here in the right place and time,” he says.
Which is not to say that the troupe limits their engagements to the Butte area. Indeed, they have performed all over the state, which makes their job a little different than for magicians elsewhere.
“When I speak with magicians in other states,” Eric says, “they react with incredulity when I tell them that I routinely travel more than four hours for a single day’s stand. We’re what you might call ‘high-grass performers’. If someone is throwing a party on their ranch, it’s usually hard for them to find entertainment. We’ll go, beat down the grass for a tent and stage, and we’ll be glad to do it.”
“Add to that travelling in the winter and I am pretty sure that we shatter the ‘performing diva’ stereotype,” he laughs.
Though winter largely signifies the end of their outdoor engagements, it does not mean that Butte Magic rests. They still tour, and put on regular shows at the Mother Lode Theater, but winter also means that the troop has a bit more time at home, which James says he uses to improve his technique. Eric, for his part, is helping to build new props with Lord Alden. As for Nelson —- not a fan of snow — when asked for his opinion of winter in Montana, he simply let loose a string of unprintable words.
But winter also means more time with friends and loved ones, like Butte magic intern Tristan, who the troop shanghaied from the theater for his “ability to play the trombone while dressed as Sasquatch — a hard act to follow,” and fellow intern Julie, who in addition to being a jack-of-all-trades within the troop, is Eric’s girlfriend, the two having met and fallen for one another at a fencing tournament. Though she is talented and game, Eric says “she refuses to let me cut her in half… maybe she will one of these days.”
He admits that she “will kill” him if that “makes it into the article, but c’est la vie.”
As I heard these stories and met these people, I began to see something romantically quixotic about the group. When I had the opportunity to see them perform, they were dressed in 19th century garb, and doing the kinds of tricks that might have amused folks on the dusty streets of Virginia or Nevada City, or old Bozeman, or, of course, Butte. Eric the Excellent laid down on a bed of nails, but not before inviting curious members of the audience to confirm for themselves the solidity, and sharpness, of the hundreds of nails protruding from the board. He rested on it as comfortably as if it were memory-foam. As if that were not enough, he then invited a child from the audience to stand on his chest. A boy of 11 or 12 years obliged him, while onlookers winced. Then Eric asked for an adult volunteer; the audience gasped as a grown man of not inconsiderable size stepped up. Then the volunteer stepped, and not daintily, onto his chest. Some folks looked away. I may have been one of them. Meanwhile, Sir James ate flame, and breathed it like a dragon. The crowd, understandably, gave him a wide berth for this feat, even as they jostled closer to see Lord Alden’s sleights of hand and Madame Azira’s feats of mentalism. It wasn’t just the children sporting wide eyes and credulous smiles. Their parents, too, laughed and clapped, transported.
Which again begs the question of what place stage magic retains in a culture that has big budget motion pictures, video games, and high-technology competing to entertain us.
Eric puts it best. He says that those flashy distractions are, admittedly, a “very cool, very exciting part of the world, but people are becoming jaded with them. It costs millions of dollars to make a digital bacchanalia of superheroes, explosions, and slow motion, and even then it only gets a ‘Cool!’ I can get better reactions than that with a coin, a bit of dental floss, and a ten-penny nail.”
This, I can personally attest, is true.
* * * *
Though Butte Magic never takes a break, winter does see them slow down, which means that it is the perfect season to book them for your dinner party, birthday brouhaha, wedding, church function, or any other event combining people, magic, and fun.
Beyond that, you can expect to find Butte Magic at MisCon, Montana’s longest running science fiction convention, the Montana Renaissance Festival, Magic City Monster Convention, and Bannack Days as well as many other social engagements and conventions throughout 2017.
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