An illusionist is a type of entertainer who generally performs in front of large crowds. In contrast to “close-up” magicians, illusionists use full stage areas and sometimes the entire theater to perform their act. Modern illusionism is often to be found in Las Vegas style shows, heavy in special effects and dazzling tricks.
Illusionists are generally distinguished from magicians by the size of their tricks. While a typical magician may use card tricks or vanish rabbits, an illusionist will be more likely to vanish an elephant or a tiger. Additionally, illusionists are usually considered apart from escapologists such as Harry Houdini or David Blaine, who rely largely on extending the capabilities of the human body rather than creating illusions.
Illusionist tricks come in many varieties, categorized in different ways by different organizations. Some of the most common types of tricks include levitating objects, vanishing or producing items, teleporting things from one place to another, and penetration tricks causing one solid to pass through another. Most of these illusions require special equipment, and depend on the illusionist’s skill at misdirection.
Prestidigitation or misdirection is the backbone of many illusions. The art involves focusing the audience’s attention on one object or place while the actual trick is conducted elsewhere. This is somewhat easier to accomplish in large-stage magic than in close-up performances, as the magician has a larger space in which to conceal objects or props. However, honed misdirection skills are the mark of a true expert, and aspiring illusionists usually train for several years before attempting large-scale performance.
One of the earliest major illusionists was Howard Thurston, famous for his card trick work. Thurston, who styled himself “the King of Cards,” had one of the largest magic shows of all times. Some reports suggest that at least eight train cars were necessary to carry his show equipment.
Harry Blackstone, Sr., stressed the art and formality of illusionists, and was known for elaborate, elegant stage work. Blackstone was famous for many signature works, one of the most beautiful being an illusion that caused the whole stage to bloom with flowers. In another, well-known levitation trick, Blackstone would cause a light bulb to float through a hoop and out across the audience.
Siegfried and Roy, the German illusionist duo, are perhaps best known for their elaborate productions in Las Vegas, Nevada. Their storied act involving white tigers at one point made them two of the highest paid performers in the world, before an attack by one of the animals left Roy with chronic injuries. The attack raised serious protests from animal rights activists, who believe that animals should not be forced to perform.
Another modern illusionist famous for his dramatic work is David Copperfield, who often incorporates storytelling into his performances. Copperfield is considered a magic prodigy, and was the youngest person ever admitted to the American Society of Magicians. The magician is famous for his television performances, which are usually conducted in front of live audiences to allay suspicions that effects are added in post-production.
Illusionists have a historical reputation of possessing supernatural powers, although most modern practitioners deny it. Two 2006 films, The Illusionist and The Prestige explore the phenomena and mystique surrounding magicians in the late 19th century. Throughout time, magicians have often been associated with witchcraft or sorcery, despite most of their tricks being explained by misdirection or machinery. Yet the common practice of never revealing trade secrets does nothing to remove suspicion by some of unnatural ability.