The comical conjuror John Lenahan, who will be performing in the UAE this month, says that getting thrown out of the Magic Circle for revealing how a trick worked actually benefited his career.
Still doing the rounds
For most of us, upsetting a secretive, sorcery-based organisation would definitely be high on the "things to avoid" list, but it doesn't seem to worry John Lenahan. In 1994 the American conjurer and comic became the first man for 85 years to be expelled from one such body: the Magic Circle. So were there repercussions? Did any of his possessions mysteriously disappear, in a puff of dry ice and spooky music?
"No, it was great fun!" exclaims the effusive comic. "The publicity at the time was unbelievable. I actually had to hold a press conference on the day, to stop journalists from surrounding my house. The headlines that day were 'War in Bosnia' and 'John Lenahan thrown out of Magic Circle'. I was even a clue in the Daily Telegraph crossword." Lenahan was cast adrift by the almost-mythical magicians' union after revealing the workings of a card trick on a British television show, which broke its confidentiality rules. But then his relationship with the London-based body had never been straightforward. The Philadelphia-born comic "wasn't a member for years because they didn't allow women; I was pretty vocal about it," he explains. "But it was amazing the amount of people who said to me afterwards, 'can you still work?' They have such a great mystique, and that's what's been annoying them for years, I've actually blown their cover. They're just a bunch of overweight guys doing card tricks every Monday."
Work has rarely been a problem for Lenahan, who enjoyed a useful profile boost in his adopted homeland after the Magic Circle controversy. The uncompromising entertainer has taken a less contentious path in recent years though, swapping TV fame for lower-profile pursuits. He recently turned to novel-writing, takes long working holidays on cruise ships and earns most of his living conjuring for corporations, which can be more interesting than it sounds.
"The last time I was in Dubai I launched a car," he recalls. "I've been over tons of times but that was the first time I've ever been out to the desert, and it's really nice out there. But at the end of the night this fog came in and you literally couldn't see your hand in front of your face, and they almost left me. In the desert. You don't want to do that." They probably assumed that he could conjure up his own transportation. Had he made the car appear from thin air? "I have done that in my day, but I just entertained the people that time. I've made cars appear, I've levitated chocolate bars. I made a kitchen appear once."
Such feats are unlikely on this latest Emirates visit, but his regular club act is awash with both wonder and wit. Lenahan insists that "I'm really a comedian: if they ain't laughing, it ain't working," but he's also a keen and gifted scholar of the magical arts. One of the routines he's likely to reprise at the Laughter Factory is the "book test", a classic mind-reading act, with a twist. "Actually the man who invented the premise behind it just died this week," he says. "But I do the only funny version I know of."
Lenahan began conjuring at university, chiefly due to the lack of a comedy club nearby, and took great inspiration from a street performance by the American conjuring duo Penn and Teller. They went on to worldwide fame, while he followed them on to the streets, and wound up in London. What was meant to be a year-long trip performing on the avenues of Europe became a permanent affair as he became an instant hit on the UK's burgeoning live comedy scene. Street performance was the perfect preparation for club gigs. "I never had that pain of open-spot tryouts," he says, "I actually arrived at the clubs good."
The increasingly confident entertainer brought his comedy/conjuring talents to TV in the early 1990s and breathed new life into what had become a moribund genre, while also ruffling a few feathers. It was his exposé of a con trick called the three-card monte that severed his ties with the Magic Circle, and beneath the carefree demeanour the comic is clearly still slightly sore at what he calls "a bum rap".
"A guy in New York did almost exactly the same thing about a month before me, showing people how to do it, and the Society of American Magicians commended him for it," he says. Then again, being cast out of the Magic Circle does confer membership of a more exclusive club. Lenahan says the only previous member expelled was David Devant, "the most famous magician in Europe". He explains: "He had the Egyptian Hall of Mystery in London, and he was the founder of the Magic Circle, but somebody stole his act - somebody stole his entire show. He was a very clever man, so he retired that show and wrote an entirely new one, and then when the guy who stole his act came to London, he [Devant] put in the newspapers how all the tricks were done. And then they threw him out. Then, when I got thrown out, I sent them his letter, and I signed it underneath his name. A lot of the same points still applied."
Having experienced the heights of tabloid fame, Lenahan eventually settled for a more relaxed and varied working environment. Those cruise-based gigs, for example, provide a useful time for reflection. "You're on a ship 10 days, but you only work two nights," he says. "So I write novels." His first book, Shadowmagic, is a teenager-friendly fantasy with suitably supernatural themes and a curious origin. It began when Lenahan "read a magazine on writing that said if you write 1,000 words a day, you can't not have a novel in seven months - it won't necessarily be a good novel, but it'll be a novel. So I just tried it as an intellectual exercise. And when it was finished, I liked it, and I did a little bit of punting around."
Getting your first book noticed can be a nightmare, though, even for notorious comic magicians, and the manuscript seemed destined to remain in a desk drawer. He then stumbled across an intriguing website that encouraged authors to upload their books as audio podcasts, so he did that, with some success. "It went ballistic on the net, I ended up with more than 25,000 subscribers. To this day I'm just shy of a million downloads, and it just got so big that [the publisher] HarperCollins got in touch with me."
So Lenahan is now a successful comedian, magician and novelist, and plans to continue using all three of those talents for the foreseeable future. Well, apart from three months next year. "I'm going to do something that I've always wanted to do, I'm going to be a ski bum," he says, proudly. "In Utah. I'll ski all morning and write all afternoon, and that's it. But I'm dreading it, because what always happens when you do this, somebody always calls you up and says, 'Volkswagen wants to give you £500,000 for a month's work in February.'"
That's a nice problem to have. And to think people were worried that he wouldn't be able to work. John Lenahan is performing with the Laughter Factory from today to Friday and from July 20 to 22. Details at www.thelaughterfactory.com .