Welcome to the Calvacade of Magic Presented By Kirk Kirkham

My Father was the Magician known professionally as Kirk Kirkham, his real name was Charles and many folks called him Chuck. He lived from 1926 to 2001. He was an active professional performer from the time he was sixteen years old. Magic was the only living he ever had. He toured with the USO after World War II, did the spook show circuit and television extensively in the 1950's, did thousands of club dates, school shows, and more television in the 60's, continued performing in the 70's but also became a well regarded prop maker who produced equipment for other magicians and attractions around the country.

Currently, David Copperfield has the largest private collection of illusions in the world, but prior to his success and collection, my father may very well have been the previous holder of that title. He owned parts of Thurston's Wonder Show of the Universe and Mysteries of India. He acquired much of the core of his collection from Will Rock back in the early 50's but continued to add to it the rest of his life. He knew and worked with Harry Blackstone Sr., Percy Abbot was a mentor to him. Dante was a personal friend, and he owned famous illusions that belonged to all of them.

My goal is to keep his legacy alive here in cyber space, and provide some historical context to the Southern California Magic scene in the 60's and 70's. I have had virtually no contact with the Magic world since my Mother passed away in 1994. My Dad suffered from Alzheimer's in his last years and he could not write the book that he always said he would get to someday. I don't know enough about magic to write competently concerning history, practice and technique. I can however provide an historical context for my Father, a man who knew almost everything about magic during the 20th Century. He had a huge library, subscribed to dozens of magazines, and had met every important magician of the second half of the century. He was consulted by many of the experts that now make up the intelligentsia of the magic community. He was also a mentor to many fine magicians and scholars of magic. I hope to hear from some of those people as a result of this blog.

Welcome to the Magical World of Kirk Kirkham.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Sea World 1973-1974

Some time in 1973, Dad agreed to produce a show for Sea World. The show was to feature penguins and sea lions in the stadium that their existing performances took place in. He needed to work out details for the show with the animal trainers and there were also rules to follow created by the park itself. For instance, nothing could appear to put the animals in jeopardy. That meant no swords, saws, guns, electricity or any other concept where it might look like an animal was threatened. Many illusions are designed to create a sense of danger to the subject that of course is not really there, so this eliminated a lot of possible options. The park clearly wanted to avoid any public perception that the animals were being maltreated.

In case you have not guessed, it is pretty much impossible to train a penguin to do anything but walk in a particular direction. So they cant be expected to operate a hidden device or respond to a command that would bring them out of a secret chamber. Sea World did need the penguins to be part of this show, and I remember how frustrated Dad was, he said they can only do two things "Walk and crap".  A production of the penguins had to involve them walking, they could not be pulled out of a tube or box or be handled like they were a dove or a chicken or duck in the usual way of a magicians use of live birds. The solution was to produce them our of a giant sized hat that was really a production box on casters. I don't remember exactly how the routine went but ultimately, two or three penguins walked out of this hat.

The concept that was developed, made one of the sea lions the "magician", and he would wave a wand or pull a foulard off of a prop and then "perform" the illusion. Of course the sea lion had to have the help of the trainers and there was a patter that was created to make their interaction funny. Three main illusions were created for the Sea Lions to use in the show. One of these was a version of the dove thru glass effect that my dad did for a full evening show. I saw a similar prop being offered by other manufacturers and I think I may even have seen it done on a TV show where a girl penetrates the glass.
My Brother Chris playing the part of a sea lion .
Chris providing some scale for the glass penetration as it was being completed

 My brother Chris worked with my Dad on this project quite a bit. It required two men to move and operate some of the effects so his being there was very helpful. I remember cutting and painting the gold trim on the props, and I also helped cut the plexiglass mirrors for this so I know we were all on the project together at one point. Some of the other props I had a little less to do with. I don't remember doing anything on the drum suspended production and I only helped a little in painting the levitation stands. I suspect most of this work was done in the fall while I was an high school classes.
Creating a table with a slide for a girl to be pushed thru a glass wall is relatively easy compared to trying to do the same for a sea lion. That was one of the many issues that had to be worked out with the park and the trainers. The prop on the other hand was straightforward and actually pretty clever.

Earlier I said there were three big effects, but as I looked at the photos I remembered that there was a appearance of a sea lion in a previously shown empty drum. The drum was moved over the water, and at the right moment, the sea lion would burst through the side and dive into the water. This was one of the tricky parts of the show because the sea lion had to load itself into the drum and then wait for a signal to make an appearance. My Dad spent quite a bit of time working with the trainers on this effect. He was down at Sea World in San Diego several times to help in the process. I remember spending a day with him and the trainers going over the cues and mechanics of the prop. One of my personal fond memories of dad was going to a seafood restaurant called the Jolly Roger on the way home late one Saturday night. My Dad was not a fan of seafood but he let me choose the place we stopped and I remember having crab cakes for the first time, while I think he ordered a hamburger at a fish place.  You can see the base the drum sat on in one  of the  shots above, at the moment i do not have a complete version that includes the drum but I am sure it will turn up at some point.

The sea lion magician would also levitate a sea lion assistant. This was basically a modified version of a Super X suspension illusion.  The animal would lay still on a surf board and the supporting brackets would be removed leaving the board and sea lion suspended in the air. This was another effect that was complicated because the trainers had to do things that the sea lions could not and that meant that the show had to be tailored a bit to accommodate the humans as well.

The design on the brackets feature some very pretty seahorse figures. I don't remember if we made these but it seems like something my mother could have drawn. I don't know where else they would have come from.

The final main illusion was an escape from a steel cage that the sea lion would do under water. This was an effect that created some problems because it suggested that the animal might drown if it could not get out. During the process of production, my dad and the trainers went around and around on this. When I saw it performed, the cage was not entirely submerged and that may have been the compromise that they finally worked out.

One of my favorite stories about my brother Chris involves this prop as it was being moved back and forth from our apartment to the workshop in Pasadena. They had the cage on a flat trailer bed and at a stop light, my brother rolled down his window and asked a little boy about eight or nine if he had seen a tiger in the area. The kid looked at the empty cage and screamed. Chris told us this story and I remember vividly the voice he used and the expression of worry that he put on his face and then the same kind of description of the kid's response.

This was an especially big project because the show was being produced for all the Sea World parks. In addition to all the completed illusions for the San Diego Park, we were building props for Orlando Florida and a pack in Ohio. Unfortunately during the time we were in the process of staging the show down in San Diego, the guy who was the entertainment producer for the Sea World Parks was killed. I think his name was Larry Sands (I hope I am not conflating it with the TV show character). He was scouting locations for a TV show or movie and his helicopter crashed. I remember it being on the news and that was how my Dad found out about it. He was heart broken because Mr. Sands was a friend and a long time business associate. Sea World took delivery of the props but as far as I know never finished them or produced shows at the other parks. The death of Mr. Sands let the wind out of all the sails on this show. I do remember that Dad and Mr. Sands had to show the park blue prints of the props Dad was going to build. Dad told Larry that he usually did not do blue prints until he had actually constructed a prop to begin with since he constantly had to make adjustments as he went along. The park was adamant and Dad, who did have some training in drafting, put together blue prints as part of the pitch for the shows.

I don't know what happened to any of these props. If anyone out there acquired any of these effects and you come across this post, please let me know your story. This last photo is a grouping of the props in progress at one point.

You can see two sets of mirrors and two drum bases in this shot. I know we did a total of three for the three Sea World Parks.

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