|Kevin James at the New Crazy Horse
By Todd Karr
Magic Magazine, September 1992
Some of the most beautiful, perfectly shaped women in Europe dance partially nude before me at the Crazy Horse in Paris. The curtains close; a slide appears projecting the name "Kevin James." "It's probably some nude guy," says an unsuspecting American tourist seated behind me. A giant man appears onstage: bearded, bespectacled and, thankfully, fully clothed.
James assembles a doll that looks like a miniature Charlie Chaplin. The doll comes to life and pesters him throughout the act. James floats his little partner in the air, sucks him through a vacuum cleaner and carries him offstage by his nose.
I flash back over 10 years ago to the first time I saw Kevin James perform. It was a tiny church hall in Marshall, Michigan, for an audience of about nine people.
Since then, the magic world has seen Kevin James evolve into one of today's most innovative magicians. His original effects, some of which he has marketed, are all excitingly direct, visual and practical. David Copperfield performed James' "Floating Rose" on one of his specials. James has won Parlour Magician of the Year from the Magic Castle.
And now the Crazy Horse, the highest-paying music hall gig in Europe. What path did James take to travel from that church hall in Marshall to find himself entertaining full houses at the Crazy Horse? And how did the Crazy Horse find him?
The story must begin with the story of the Crazy Horse itself. Created in 1951 by its French owner and artistic director Alain Bernardin, the Crazy Horse show presents a series of tableaus that combine sculpture like nude dancers, creative lighting, modem music and stage effects (like conveyor belts, lasers and turntables). The result is unique: eroticism without vulgarity; beauty with humor; slickness without pretension. It's a classy strip show that knows how to have fun.
But most interesting of all, to readers of M A G I C at least, is that the Crazy Horse has consistently been hiring top magicians for 40 years (see story page 36). Bernardin presents jugglers, mimes, and black light acts, too, but most often one can find magicians performing at the Crazy Horse, sometimes even two magic acts on one show. In addition to James, the show I recently saw featured Vic and Fabrini.
In an interview with M A G I C one evening backstage, Alain Bernardin explained that he loves magic because it corresponds perfectly with the vision he himself has created in his show. "[Magic] is a dream," he said. "There is no show that is more dreamlike than a magic show. And what we do with the girls is magic, too, because they aren't as beautiful as you see them onstage. It's the magic of lights and costumes. These are my dreams and fascinations that I put onstage."
At the same time, he presents only a certain style of magic act in order to provide contrast from the rest of the show. "All the magicians we've had since we opened have been a little crazy," he pointed out. "I love novelty acts. I love visual acts. I appreciate them because I think it's essential for a music hall show to have a rest after the eroticism, the girls, the beauty ... to have someone shocking.
"Magicians are showcased here in an extraordinary way, because our show is made up of beauty-the girls-and monsters-the magicians. Kevin James is monstrous. Antonio (James' small partner) is monstrous. They're monsters."
Although Bernardin creates poetic moments in some of his nude pieces, he strictly avoids hiring poetic magic acts. "What's poetic doesn't work here," he explained. "Our show is not really poetic. It's sort of mocking, and one can't make fun of poetry. And then, poetic magic and mime acts slow down the rhythm. We want a very tight rhythm, like on Broadway.
"As soon as an act here touches poetry, it doesn't work. People always expect a joke here. If a magician does a poetic act, OK, but on the condition that at some point there's an explosion of laughs, because poetry has always bombed here.
"Ziegfeld said, make me laugh," he continued. "Just make me laugh. It's not so easy. It's much easier to make them cry. Nobody knows that. In the art of theater, getting laughs is the most difficult."
Bernardin also avoids hiring magicians who use animals. "I love animals, and I don't want animals to be made into slaves, he said. "It's horrible. I had Milo and Roger and there were ducks that they kept closed up in their dressing room. I felt unhappy for the ducks. Ducks love fresh air and grass."
Acts with women are also taboo. "The girls here are the girls who do the show," Bernardin stated.
His stiffest requirement-and justifiably-is originality. "I look for magicians who do something that's never been seen before; creative and a little crazy," he said.
Finding acts who qualify to work at the Crazy Horse is difficult. Bernardin said that he comes across perhaps one new act every two years. He watches videocassettes of acts every week and attends magic and mime conventions in Europe, usually fruitlessly.
"There's not much out there. There's all the guys that do the saw or the levitation. We've seen that too much. No humor. You have to put humor in the act, like the English. I want the best of the best of comedy and never-before-seen creations. No guys with cards: they're boring.
"Fortunately, Kevin sent me a cassette."
Not long after that church show, James left his hometown of Jonesville, Michigan, with his savings of $800 to seek his fortune in Los Angeles. "I knew Michigan wasn't the place to become a famous magician," he recalled recently during an interview in Paris for this article.
James struggled for several years, performing low-paying close-up and comedy club jobs, trying to find his niche. He presented magic evenings at nightclubs with another magician, Nicholas Night, under the billing "RFX." "The concept of the act was very good, two guys performing original magic with props that are intrinsically dynamic, like daggers, roses, and fire. I still think it could be successful in today's market, but at the time it was difficult to make ends meet," said James.
In addition to the RFX act, the two continued developing their solo shows. For a few years, James aimed at becoming a sort of Mad Max of magic, with a wild mane of blond hair and hard, shocking magic, like a self-decapitation. "But the character never really worked," he said. "It wasn't me."
He almost crossed paths with Bernardin, who attended the 1988 F.I.S.M. convention in the Hague. But Bernardin did not see the close-up show in which James, wearing red contact lenses, performed an act that included his "Floating Rose."
Back in California, runs at the Magic Castle predictably brought prestige but little money. All this time, though, James had consistently been developing his original material, and it was strong. "My life is a never-ending quest for new and better material," James said. He just needed the right frame for his artwork.
His inspiration came in an unexpected form. Working on the same show with James at Cracker's nightclub in Anaheim, California, was a small, former circus clown named Antonio Hoyos; he had previously played the shrunken Roy Horn once featured in Siegfried and Roy's version of the "De Kolta Chair." James suggested that they try to develop an act together.
"Antonio was performing a Chaplin character that he had been developing for the past 10 years," recalled James, "and I saw the power of his comedy every night at Cracker's. I basically developed the current act to showcase Antonio's comedy alongside my magic."
The result, after years of changes, became a routine that James presented on Japanese and European television. His friend Rudy Coby passed a video cassette of James' act to top Parisian agent Monique Nakachian. In November 199 1, she booked James to appear on the French television variety show "Sebastien C'est Fou." When host Patrick Sebastien deemed the act a hit, James asked Nakachian to submit his videocassette to Bernardin.
The Crazy Horse's visionary telephoned the next day asking, "Where are these guys?"
When James arrived in Paris, he was excited and petrified at the same time. "The Crazy Horse is an amazing place and we wanted to do a good job and get asked back."
But having a good enough act to get booked was just the beginning. The Crazy Horse has a unique stage that presents chal, lenges to its solo artists. "It's pretty small. It's smaller than the Magic Castle stage," James described. "It was a new experience to try to make the act work on that small a stage. Plus, the ends of the first rows extend all the way to the sides of the theater, so for the audience there to see, you have to play very forward on the stage. That makes the performance space even smaller than what the stage already is. You have to play on a third of the actual stage to be seen. It's the real world. You've got to know how to make it work.
"And the audience is extremely close, literally three feet from where you're working and we're doing illusions. My parlour stuff was designed to play that close; my illusions were not. When you're forced into those conditions you run into new problems, and you find new ways to do things. To effectively use threads that close you depend on exact staging and precision lighting. If the spot is off by an inch or two, the effect is blown."
Bernardin also watched the act every night for the first few weeks and contributed his advice. "Mr. Bernardin is really good about watching the act and trying to help make it work in that particular room." James said. "Most of the things he suggested really did make the act better. He has very interesting ideas about how things should look aesthetically, and on music and lighting and everything visual. That's probably why he has one of the most copied clubs in the world," said James.
With the technical side of his act becoming smoother every night, Kevin James was now freer to enjoy his run at the Crazy Horse. One perk is playing to a more sophisticated audience. "It's a little over $100 a ticket to get in," he pointed out, "so the crowd is usually pretty well traveled and pretty well off. You get a very classy, global audience. In Lake Tahoe last year, we were in a very small showroom at the Horizon Hotel. There would be a roomful of rowdies hooting and hollering at the girls. Here, you do not have that type of crowd."
He stressed, however, that the two and sometimes three shows a night, seven days a week is a grind. "A day off would be nice. You have to stay focused. You have to be sure to get to bed on time."
Bernardin is happy with James' act. "The Chaplin doll illusion," he said, "is extraordinary." He also complimented the pairing of James and Antonio. "That's called chemistry, when two partners in an act are totally opposite. They've found a good alliance. I hope it lasts."
"The secret to our chemistry," revealed James, "is simple. I design a trick, Antonio makes it funny."
James will return to the Crazy Horse in January and February, and July and August of 1993. His path from the church hall, however continues on. "The Crazy Horse is a great goal. I'm very happy to be there, but I do have other projects I'm working on," he said.
"This is another stepping stone... OK, a great stepping stone!"