In magic industry lingo, magician's assistants are called "box jumpers," because to the audience, that's all the "lovely assistant" appears to do. She's there to look pretty, smile big, wave her hands around unnecessarily, and pop out from the padlocked box precisely when the magician says, "Ta-daa!"
But magic insiders know the real story. When the trunk lid closes, the sheet is raised, or the saw is lowered to the box, it's often the assistant who does the real "magic" of the illusion — releasing the latch on the false bottom and cramming herself into a 10-inch space while executing her ninth costume change of the evening. All before the dude in the top hat says, "Ta-daa!"
Although magic is undeniably a male-dominated profession if you only look at the name on the marquee, those who know the most about the stagecraft behind the magician-assistant relationship say that the industry is not as sexist as it appears.
Blaire Baron, who co-produced the 2008 documentary "Women in Boxes" about the unsung magician's assistant, explains that on stage, both the magician and the assistant are playing roles, roles that artfully play off the audience's gendered expectations.
"The biggest misconception is that magician's assistants are marginalized, objectified 'bimbos,' if you will, who are deferring to some guy," says Baron, "When actually, in my experience, they are the brains behind a lot of the illusions."
Baron would know. She married into one of the royal families of magic. Her husband, Dante Larsen, is the son of Irene and Bill Larsen, Jr., two of the co-founders of The Magic Castle in Hollywood, the world's preeminent magic club. And Irene, who passed away in 2016, was herself an accomplished magician's assistant in her day.
What Magician's Assistants Do
Baron says that Irene and her generation of assistants doubled as the business brains of the operation, keeping track of finances and booking appearances. And although they played integral roles in both the planning and execution of illusions, the "old school" assistants never wanted to steal the spotlight from the magician (often their husband) by billing themselves as equal partners.
Modern magician's assistants see their role a little differently. Hannah Lynne Wagster is half of the South Carolina-based duo The Wagsters Magic & Illusion, who perform a weekly show at the Carolina Opry Theatre in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Hannah is still primarily the one that gets locked in the boxes, but says that she and her husband Brandon are very much equal partners on and off stage. Hannah considers herself a magician, not "just" an assistant, and even does a few solo tricks in the act. She also runs the show backstage, giving technical and lighting cues to stage managers, and making sure the next illusion is lined up and squared away.
But Hannah admits that at the end of the day, her primary role on stage is "to make sure the magician looks good," which often means contorting herself into tight spaces or dangling from high wires without giving the audience a clue about how incredibly hard it all is — or how many bruises, scrapes and sprained ankles she's endured along the way.
And despite Brandon's efforts to give Hannah equal billing and equal credit on stage, the audience often can't see beyond the traditional magician-assistant divide.
"After shows, folks always want to talk to Brandon and congratulate him on 'his magic,'" Hannah says. "They'll literally push me aside."
The first magician's assistants were the product of a new school of magic that emerged in the mid 19th-century called "the illusionists," explains Dean Carnegie, a veteran stage magician and magic historian behind the blog The Magic Detective.
In the 1850s, pioneering French conjurers Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin (inspiration for Houdini's stage name) and Buatier De Kolta created startling illusions that involved the levitation or disappearance of a second person, an assistant, Carnegie says. Robert-Houdin's first assistant was his young son, but as more illusionists entered the game, the assistants were invariably female.
'Woman in Jeopardy'
Women, it turned out, were much more effective "victims" in the minds of the audience. When a woman was in peril, it raised the emotional stakes. And that still seems to be true, says Baron.
"They've tried to reverse it and have the female be the magician in the alpha role and the man as the assistant, and it doesn't work. No one cares." says Baron, adding in mock dismay, "'It's a white guy in a box! Oh no, what's going to happen?'"
Magic trends come and go, and for the moment the bigger names in magic are focusing on close-up card tricks and mind-reading, which don't require assistants, or at least not visible ones. But there are plenty of acts like the Wagsters who still wow with set-piece illusions executed with precision choreography.
Baron, who now runs the Los Angeles Drama Club, a Shakespeare program for kids, reminds us that what the audience sees on stage is itself "a play within a play."
"The assistants are winking at you," says Baron. "It's all very tongue in cheek, because it's trickery and illusion."