People know magic isn’t real,” says Kev Johnson matter-of-factly. “But there’s a moment in every trick when they forget. That’s what fascinates people, because it almost contradicts reality.”
He tells me this while showing me a simple card trick in which I have to pick a card at random, which he then miraculously (apparently) makes appear from the deck... but there’s more. As he reveals my chosen card and turns the deck, by way of a theatrical flourish, there’s yet another mind-bending twist, because the rest of the cards are all blank... it’s almost as though he knew which card I would choose before I chose it.
“If magic was real, it would be a normal thing and it wouldn’t be fascinating,” explains the 29-year-old, who works as a teaching assistant in a school for special needs. “It’s only because magic is not real that fascinates people and so it creates that sense of wonder.
“Magic is the only artform which appeals to all ages. I’ve worked with children with short attention spans and ADHD but when you show them a trick, they are riveted, you have their full attention.”
Kev is a member of Leeds Magic Circle, which next year marks its 100th year. The group, which meets on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month at St John’s Church hall, Alwoodley, is in the process of rehearsing for a Day of Magic to mark their centenary. The performance, which will be free to the public, will take place at Kirkgate Market on April 6.
President Franklin Arbisman, 64, has been involved with the club since he moved to Leeds from London in 1981. He became hooked on magic after seeing the 1953 Tony Curtis film, Houdini when he was eight.
“I saw that film and I was bitten by the bug,” he recalls but interestingly, he’s reveals he’s never owned a magic set in his life. “I read a lot of books, the first of which I found in a charity shop and I still have it.
“When I was leaving school, I remember going to see the careers advisor and she asked me what I wanted to do and I said ‘I want to be a magician’. She thought I’d said ‘musician’. In the end, she said she couldn’t help me and I said, ‘With all due respect, I didn’t think you could’ and I think I added that if she had been able to help me, then that would have been magic.”
Franklin has an effortless patter, which he’s honed over the years - he performs as ‘Franklin The Mind Magician’ and specialises in close-up and psychological magic, his stock-in-trade being weddings, parties and corporate events.
“Actually, I always wanted to be an escapologist,” he recalls. “I remember going to see one shortly after I joined the magic circle in London, because he was one of the first lectures they had and I got to try on the straightjacket. Within a few minutes, I’d got out of it... I just knew how to do it, because I read a lot. I was fascinated with magic, still am.”
The group, which currently has around 35 members ranging in age from 10 to 83, brings together people from a range of backgrounds, from teachers and caretakers to warehousemen and former union reps, all of whom have a passion for magic. Not all perform in public but they can all dazzle and amaze with tricks. During my visit, there are levitating cards, countless tricks with decks of cards but also wallets which magically burst into flame and a sleight of hand which sees a lottery ticket turn into a £20 note. And yes, there was also a rabbit in a hat.
Membership secretary Alan Beet, 73, whose father, Clifford, worked as a copytaker at the Yorkshire Post when it was based in Albion Street, has been involved with the club for 20 years.
“It was David Nixon [1919-78, who at the height of his popularity was the best known magician in the UK] who inspired me when I was a young lad. But back then it was very hard to join a club when you were young, so when I joined here, I made it easier for younger people to join. The age threshold used to be 16 but now you can join at any age.”
A former caretaker at Scott Hall School and former president of JMB Yorkshire and North Derbyshire, he still performs, although not as often as he used to.
“I did a show just a few weeks ago at the Midland Hotel in Bradford and got a standing ovation for half a minute and I thought to myself, ‘I’ve still got it’, which made me smile.”
He adds: “I fell in love with magic at a young age. I like how it brings people together. If ever we get anyone new to the club and they come on their own, I make sure they sit with someone and get to know us, because I know how hard it is to enter somewhere you don’t know anyone.
“For me, I think part of what you get out of it is watching how other people react, looking at their expressions, because you can judge a lot from that - whether the trick has worked, whether you need to improve it and so on.”
Franklin adds: “Magic is something which is constantly evolving, you never stop learning, there’s always something new, which is why it’s so fascinating.”
James Ripley, 35, from Batley, is a structural steelwork draughtsperson and semi-professional magician. He said: “Like most people my age i started because of Paul Daniels, he was my first magician I saw and i also had his famous magic set. I specialise in card magic and I love the kind of reactions that magic can bring to people, it takes me back to first seeing a magic trick, where you kind of get that childlike wonder of ‘how is that possible?’ The club turning 100 years is an immense accomplishment and i am extremely proud to be a member and i cant wait for the show and the day of magic. If anyone is coming down on the day come say hello and i will show you some effects.”
Matthew Lindsay, from Farnley, is one of the club’s youngest members, at 12 - he was introduced to the hobby by grandfather Tony Rudland, who has been a magician for more than 40 years.
One of the club’s oldest members, great-grandfather Alan Driffield, 82, who used to work at Leeds-based John Waddington and has lectured at most magic clubs in the UK and even some in Hollywood, said: “One of the things I have always stressed to people is there’s more to magic than magic. By that I mean, it’s not just about knowing the trick, it’s also about presentation, dress, appearance and the way you put it across.”
Leeds Magical Society was formed in 1919, it is now called Leeds Magic Circle.
On October 20, 1930, the YEP reported “wizardry and magic” was in the air at the Blue Triangle Hall, where a seance took place and other conjurers who made wine and beer appear “without any aid but a handkerchief and a half crown”.
In 1934, Leeds hosted the 14 annual national magic competition, it being eight years since the city last hosted the event.
In 1948, one intrepid reporter witnesses the group’s initiation ceremony, which involved incense, the Keeper of the Keys, the Keeper of the Jewels, the Keeper of the Scroll and the Master of the Symbol, guardian of the Lamp of Knowledge.
The club has over 30 members ranging in age from 10 to 83 and encourages male and female membership. Contact Alan Beet, via email: [email protected]
They are currently seeking sponsors for their April 6 centenary event.