Updated: Apr 4
In the Victorian era, up-close magic shows were all the rage. Skilled and suave magicians performed mysterious sleight-of-hand tricks at elegant parties in private homes, making items disappear and reappear right in front of awed guests' eyes.
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Some parties were structured to feature a performance in front of seated guests in a small parlor, while others were more freeform, allowing the magician to mingle among the guests as they nibbled on their refreshments, popping into their conversational circles and performing unexpected tricks right at their elbows.
Close-up magic events can be even more thrilling than watching a magician on a stage or on tv, since the audience feels like they're close enough to the performer to spot the method behind the tricks -- and when they can't, the illusion seems even more magical!
Back in 2018 and 2019, we held a series of Fine Parlor Magic events at The Storyteller's Cottage featuring the fantastic magician David Reed Brown. David has not only performed all over the world, he is also a teacher of magic, and his smooth, walk-around style meshed perfectly with the vintage atmosphere of the evenings.
To recreate this kind of old-fashioned, close-up magic event yourself, you'll need three things: vintage decor, magical foods, and a skilled magician. Let's take them one at a time...
FINDING THE RIGHT MAGICIAN
Simply by Googling "find a magician near me," you should be able to find a list of hundreds of freelance magical performers in your area, but choose your magician carefully. Be sure to ask about their experience performing up-close magic, and make it clear that they will not have a chance to set up any elaborate stage elements that require wires or mirrors or professional lighting tricks.
Our magician, David, performed for us in two different rooms. He began by circulating among the guests in the kitchen as they were enjoying desserts and drinks, pulling coins from behind their ears and such. After about 20 minutes of that, he stood by a small table in the corner where he had set up some cups and balls, and performed a series of illusions as the guests gathered into a loose semi-circle around him.
Next, he disappeared to a back room for a short break while we invited guests to come through to the parlor, where we had lined up two rows of chairs and dimmed the lights. Fortuitously, our parlor curtains were red silk with gold fringe on them, so we just shut the drapes and let David stand in front of the window, which now looked just like a stage.
Here he had set up a few props for his tricks in the corners of the room to either side of him. After we reintroduced him with great fanfare, he appeared in a puff of smoke from the back of the room and strode into the spotlight to run through about 20 more minutes of fascinating magic tricks, including rope and ring illusions, levitations, disappearing items, and he even included several audience members in the act.
David was the perfect performer for this Victorian evening, as he already had a vintage-inspired persona, and he was already very comfortable working with up-close magic as he had been performing at a local restaurant for years, walking table to table and entertaining families while they ate.
You'll want to look for someone who has a "normal-sized persona," not someone who needs an arena for his or her loud music and fireworks. You'll also want to ask them to avoid tricks that involve fire, messy after-effects that might ruin your floors or furniture, and illusions that can't be viewed from the side or back.
VINTAGE MAGICAL DECOR
We were lucky to have a Victorian-themed living room space to use for our Parlor Magic shows, but you can create a vintage feel in your space with just a few iconic decorations set judiciously around where they have the most impact.
Take a tour through your cabinets and closets and pull out anything that has a vaguely old-fashioned look, whether it's old books, vintage dishware, costume items like gloves, or even traditional-looking jewelry such as pocket watches or long strings of pearls. Old framed photos also work well to add "age" to your decor.
Items like top hats and magic wands (especially the black kind with the white tips) will subtly say "magic" to your guests, as will playing cards tucked in various places.
Group together your themed items into color-coordinated "still lives" in places where they will get the most attention, either at the center of a buffet table, or on and around a fireplace (in front of which your magician might perform), or even right in your front hallway to set the tone for your party the moment your guests arrive.
Any combination of vintage items can work together to illustrate the era you're trying to replicate. Try to balance the shapes and heights of your items, so some are curved and some are sharp-edged, while some are short and others are tall.
This will help your groupings feel more natural -- you don't want to give the impression that you just walked around and plopped one thing on every flat surface.
Tie your decorations together by placing several smaller items onto one larger tray, or even a mirror. If you're lucky enough to have a few vintage-looking magic trick boxes around, set these in pride of place in the center of your grouping.
An easy way to amplify your elegant, vintage theme is to serve fancy desserts and drinks during your Victorian Parlor Magic party.
Whether you choose to offer these before the show begins or after it ends, ramp up the "Guilded Age" feeling by presenting individual pastries in stemmed glasses.
Perhaps you'll opt to purchase decorated pastries from your favorite bakery -- look for dark chocolate treats trimmed with sparkly gold sugar, or elegant mini eclairs and petit fours that guests can eat with their fingers, as opposed to large cakes that look lovely when they're whole but messy on the plate, or pies that say "down home" instead of "Newport Mansion."
To add to the manor-house feel of your party, you might like to have someone pass the desserts and drinks on trays.
Lastly, consider mixing magical color-changing cocktails! This recipe from Crowded Kitchen describes the process. You'll need a few unusual ingredients, like butterfly pea powder, but your blue drink will turn from blue to purple to pink as you add lemon juice! (See the photos from Crowded Kitchen below.)
Isn't this cool?
Pull your mysterious theme together with soft classical music in the background, and low lighting with candles in strategic places. Not only will the semi-darkness create an enigmatic feel, but the low light will also help disguise the methods behind your magician's tricks!
Good luck with your Victorian Parlor Magic party, and let us know in the comments how it went!