Michael Lauck is a columnist for iTricks and he loves TV as much as magic. His work appears on Mondays.
Part one of this article appeared last week.
In 1994, Gary Ouellet changed TV magic.
The World’s Greatest Magic combined high level magic with the variety show format. It was a new kind of magic special that lead to a boom in TV magic.
The World’s Greatest Magic was not the first all star magic extravaganza on television, but it was the first in a long time. More importantly, it was the right special at the right time to revitalize magic on television. The family friendly show on the night before Thanksgiving had strong ratings that beat powerhouses such as Roseanne and Beverly Hills 90210. It not only won the night but proved to be NBC’s highest rated special of the year. A live tour was announced. The network quickly ordered a second special for the next year and another special starring Lance Burton from the WGM production team. Other networks also signed deals for productions from the team. Even though there was some concern voiced by magicians over Mac King’s “teach a trick” segments, WGM was probably one of the biggest forces in the 1990s to put magic in the spotlight.
On the night before Thanksgiving 1995 NBC aired World’s Greatest Magic II. Alan Thicke replaced Robert Urich as the host, but the show essentially followed the same formula as the original. Mac King again taught tricks in segments wrapped around each commercial break and throughout the show the final effect, Penn and Teller’s bullet catch, was advertised. Magicians featured included Dirk Arthur, Joaquin and Lillia Ayala, Jason Byrne, Bret Daniels, Paul Gertner, Jeff Hobson, The Amazing Johnathan, Mark Kalin and Jinger, René Lavand, Luis de Matos, Max Maven, Jeff McBride, Tom Ogden, Rick Thomas and Melinda. Much like the original, WGM2 was a huge success. It won the night with a 21 share and won every individual half hour contest except the first (finishing second to Grace Under Fire). The magic special even beat the second installment of the much anticipated Beatles Anthology documentary.
The success of World’s Greatest Magic II again led to a live tour and an order for a third installment for Thanksgiving Eve of 1996. Some magicians would again complain about Mac King’s segments, but these complaints were again brushed aside with the defense that the segments invited those interested into the world of magic using tricks easily found in beginners’ books. What could not be argued with was the successful magic programs being created by Ouellet and his team. Melinda would receive her own special produced by the team and ABC would collaborate with the group to create the Champions of Magic specials. CBS would also try its hand with Magicians’ Favorite Magicians, which was not produced by the WGM team.
The World’s Greatest Magic III saw John Ritter sign on as host and he would stay on through the rest of the specials. By this time, at least in my family, WGM was part of Thanksgiving. This incarnation ended with The Pendragons vanishing 25 showgirls. The line up included Bob Arno, Dirk Arthur, Nathan Burton, Greg Frewin, Joseph Gabriel, Galina, Han Klok and Sittah, Jeff Hobson, Guy Hollingworth, Peter Marvey, Pendragons, Jean Pierre Vallarino, David Williamson and Steve Wyrick. It’s success would lead to World’s Greatest Magic IV in 1997.
WGM4 saw the return of Lance Burton, who escaped from the Jaws of Death in the show finale, and featured Juliana Chen, Lennart Green, Raymond Crowe, Tabary, Carl Cloutier, Johnathan David Bass, The Hamners, Tim Kole and Jenny-Lynn, Ken Mate, Bruce Block, Dexion, Sherry Lukas, Kirby VanBurch, Ayala and Lilla, Rick Thomas and Max Maven. This version saw a change in the production team with Gary Ouellet and Gregory Sills acting as producers with Gary Pudney staying on in the role of executive producer. Despite the great line up for the special, it faced a new and unexpected competition from Fox who, only two days before, had aired the first of their Breaking the Magicians’ Code, or “Masked Magician,” specials.
The World’s Greatest Magic IV did well enough for a fifth installment to air on the night before Thanksgiving 1998. It featured Harry Anderson, Mike Caveney, Michael Ammar, James Dimarre, Goldfinger and Dove, Peter Gossamer, Hans Klok and The Majestix with Brett Daniels transporting actress Kelly Packard, then of Baywatch and later of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, across Grand Canyon as a finale. The special was not well received by magicians, at least if the club reports and letters to magic magazines of the time are to be believed. It certainly appears that by WGM5 the era of the rand illusion magic special was over and I personally think that the Masked Magician was to blame.
It would be easy to blame the downfall of the World’s Greatest Magic specials on the exposures of the Breaking the Magicians’ Code shows. Personally, I do not think it was the exposure of effects as much as it was the over-exposure of magic. Believe it or not, by the time World’s Greatest Magic V aired, Fox had not only rebroadcast the original Masked Magician special, it had released and re-aired three additional specials. Even though Gary Ouellet and the WGM team were producing multiple specials, they were fairly spread out over the year. ABC may have showed a Champions of Magic special in the summer with a WGM special in late fall and one or two single act driven specials aired throughout the year. In 1998, though, three new Breaking the Magicians’ Code specials had aired in March, May and October.
By the time the World’s Greatest Magic V aired in November, it faced two problems. First of all, it had to avoid any of the effects that had been shown in the Masked Magician shows. Even worse, it had to try to overcome the disenchantment that the Masked Magician was causing (whether that be caused by exposures or over-exposure). David Blaine’s first special had come out in 1997 and he seemed to be offering something very new and different to the magic shown in World’s Greatest Magic and Masked Magician specials. Perhaps this new brand of special featuring a close, in your face style of “street magic” was the final nail in the WGM coffin.
The night before Thanksgiving, at least for magic fans, would never be the same.