Michael Lauck is a columnist for iTricks. His work appears on Mondays.

Gary Ouellet literally brought America the World’s Greatest Magic.

The 1990s were probably the best decade for television magic, thanks to Gary Ouellet. The cornerstone of his success was a five year run of World’s Greatest Magic specials.

Thanksgiving is coming, which means we are moving into the holiday season. It is an overly commercialized time of year but that does not stop it from also being a time for many people to reflect upon their religious beliefs. It is also a time for family. This is a nostalgic time of year for many, myself included. I think about Christmas when I was a child and I miss my grandparents and great-grandparents. I also think about the years when my own children were small and I used to have to sleep in the hallway outside their door on Christmas Eve to prevent them from getting up at 3 AM to open presents! That is Christmas, though. In November I get nostalgic for big, prime time magic!

I grew up in a time before widespread cable television. It existed (HBO, for example, started in November of 1972, just a few months after I was born) but it was still mainly in rural areas that could not easily receive regular broadcast television. Growing up in a fairly large city, I enjoyed six television channels covering all the networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS) as well as two independent stations… most of them even broadcast 24 hours a day. There were VCRs when I was a kid, but they were not terribly common and had yet to decide if VHS or Betamax would reign supreme. All of this meant that when I was growing up, there were limited viewing options and if you wanted to see something you actually had to watch it when it was being broadcast!

All this meant that television was very different when I was a kid. Special programs (often just called “specials”) were big events which often required popcorn or other treats. Some were mini-series, such as Roots, Shogun or V, which were multiple episode stories that were shown over a very short time. Often they would begin on a Sunday night and run until the next weekend. Other special programs were broadcasts of classic movies, such as The Wizard of Oz, Sound of Music or the Sean Connery James Bond films, which could only be seen every year or two because the video store did not exist yet. Many specials were live sporting events and this is really the only type of special that has not been entirely changed by DVRs, home video collections and pay television. Best of all, though, were the programs created specifically to be a large audience draw. These may be some kind of event on an existing show, like when Fonzie and the gang went to Hawaii, or a special performance.

Of course, magic specials were my favorite. I remember seeing Blackstone Jr., David Copperfield and Doug Henning on television as a kid. Most vividly of all I remember Mark Wilson in China. Even as cable television and VCRs grew in popularity throughout the 1980s, specials continued. Magic specials, though, reached their height in the 1990s thanks largely to Canadian lawyer turned television producer Gary Ouellet. It is entirely because of him that every Thanksgiving makes me think of not just magic but the World’s Greatest Magic.

Magic specials have been around for decades, almost since the beginning of television. David Copperfield was the undisputed king of magic specials in the 1980s and early 1990s. Starting with the original Magic of David Copperfield in 1978, he put out almost one special a year on CBS until 1995 and gathered about 20 Emmy Awards along the way. In 1995, NBC decided to air a special that would not focus on a single magician but instead present a wide variety magicians and styles in a two hour presentation.

The World’s Greatest Magic aired on primetime the night before Thanksgiving, a time perfect for family oriented entertainment. World’s Greatest Magic was essentially a magic only variety show. Instead of relying on star power to grab the attention of viewers (although it did include a segment with Siegfried and Roy), WGM was hosted by Spencer For Hire star Robert Urich. The familiar and popular actor guided the audience through the program. The show did promise a huge trick at the end of the broadcast, in the form of Franz Harary vanishing the space shuttle. WGM also featured teach a trick segments with Mac King wrapped around each commercial break to help guarantee that viewers would not stray to another show during the ads.

Of course, there were amazing performances on the show from an international line up. The cast included Princess Tenko, Greg Frewin, Brett Daniels, The Pendragons, Fielding West, Tom Mullica, Lance Burton, Alain Choquette, Melinda, Topas, Juan Tamariz and Max Maven. While they did not have the time to establish a true rapport with the television audience, each was able to present a highlight from their act. The show varied between Vegas style stage illusion and close-up, mixing up styles to keep the audiences’ attention throughout the two hours.

The World’s Greatest Magic was a bit of a gamble for NBC. Almost all of the successful magic specials of the last two decades were star driven by a marquee act such as Copperfield. Variety shows like Circus of the Stars (which featured TV favorites performing circus style acts) were basically a thing of the past and had always celebrity driven. Despite all of this, the production team of Gary Pudney, Bob Jaffe (nephew of Roland Jaffe, who was married to Geri Larsen) and Gary Ouellet (Canadian lawyer, lobbyist and magician) had convinced the network that this format would work.

Work it did. The World’s Greatest Magic won the night with a 22 share of the ratings. It beat hit sitcom Roseanne and a special episode of teen soap opera Beverly Hills 90210 which featured The Rolling Stones. WGM was the highest rated special on NBC for the entire year. The January 1995 issue of Genii further reported that the show had been sold abroad and would play in about 100 other countries. Not only had World’s Greatest Magic II already been ordered by NBC, the production team had sold several other show ideas, including a Lance Burton special.

The show was not without controversy in the magic world. Many magicians were incensed by Mac King’s teach a trick segments and they complained to the magazines, and on the newly popular Internet, about exposure. Gary Ouellet, who was the magic consultant in addition to being a producer, actively defended the show and its choices. He pointed out that the tricks taught by King were not merely exposed but actually taught so that viewers could become involved in magic themselves. Furthermore, the effects were of the type that could be found in libraries.

Although the show may have had its detractors, no one could argue with its success. The World’s Greatest Magic was only the beginning. We will continue the story of the World’s Greatest Magic series next Monday.