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Wayne Kawamoto

America’s Got Talent - Dan Sperry's Semi-Finals

By August 27, 2010

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Are Mutilation Illusions a Tough Sell?

As this season's "America's Got Talent" inches towards the finals, Dan Sperry's latest routine, an amputation illusion, encountered a critical judging panel.

I don't intend to simply recap each show, but continually comment on the show's depiction of magic. Like or hate the program, "America's Got Talent" is currently the largest outlet for our art that is presenting magic in millions of homes. And the comments by the judges can provide a look into the reactions of lay audiences as well as non-magic, entertainment insiders. This season, the show has featured: Dan Sperry, Murray SawChuck, David Grasso, Antonio Restivo and more

The difficulty of the show's weekly format - presenting a single routine for the judges - makes magicians come out on stage without the benefit of developing a character through a formal show. The problem is, audiences don't get to know the performer and week by week, each appearance has to present another potential opener or closer - it's all big stuff. Front of curtain material, or slower, more intimate moments that allow a magician to connect with an audience don't exist.

Restivo has done a great job of maintaining a high level of entertaining, large-scale magic that's loaded with fire. I understand the need to continually play it big to impress the judges, but an actual evening show with Restivo presenting large and smaller, intimate moments would create balance as well as highs and lows. And we would care about him when he's placed into seeming danger in his show. You can watch his performance here.

Twisted Magic
Keeping in character, Dan Sperry presented a creepy amputation effect where he appeared to cut off and tattoo host Nick Cannon's arm. I don't fault Sperry's presentation - I think it was a clever idea that was complementary to his twisted character - but I think the comments by the judging panel say a lot about what lay audiences are thinking when it comes to mutilation-style illusions: sawing in half, decapitation, sword through neck and more.

When lay audiences see a mutilation style routine, they instinctively know that the magician isn't actually harming an assistant or volunteer. As a result, the audiences immediately search for the method. This is regardless of how good the presentation.

When I first saw Kevin James perform his "Reanimator" routine with the disembodied arm - years ago before I was a magician - I immediately figured out the secret but enjoyed the light-hearted presentation and admired the smooth transitions. Interestingly, James performed "Reanimator" when he was a contestant on "America's Got Talent" in season one, and it was heavily criticized by judge Piers Morgan, who also reacted in a similar manner to Sperry's routine, calling it "one of the most pathetic tricks I've ever seen."

When it comes to mutilation effects, are we magicians fooling ourselves when we think an illusion that is presented well can compensate for an effect that the audience figures out?

You can watch Sperry's routine here.

Based on Morgan's remarks, mutilation routines have to be visual and difficult to explain, and, I'll add, if you can surprise the audience, it's even better. I'd call the overdone twisting of the head illusion as one that's visual and hard to explain. And the best of the mutilation style routines in my mind include: Kevin James' "sawing," as well as the classic "sawing" by Richiardi.

In the end, both Dan Sperry and Antonio Restivo were eliminated. It's now up to David Grasso and Murray SawChuck to carry the magic torch to the finals. My money is on Murray.

More Reading:
Dan Sperry's Showstopper on "America's Got Talent
Dan Sperry Talks About Las Vegas Magic and Lance Burton
Jeff Hobson and Kevin James Talk About Las Vegas Magic
Murray Sawchuck Delivers on "America's Got Talent"


August 28, 2010 at 2:16 am
(1) N says:

I watched the Video of Dan Sperry above and I enjoyed his performance qhite a bit. I don’t agree at all with the remarks made by Pierce, but this type of magic fan exists. He’s the “Fool me. Period.” type — doesn’t care about being entertained or enjoying the “wonder” as Doug Henning would have said. I hate sitting in a magic audience with this type of magic fan. I never care how someone “thinks its done”. I like to gasp, think wow, laugh, and let myself be amazed, instead of looking for reasons not to be amazed.

Now… I do agree with Howie Mandel’s comments. I don’t necessarily agree, however, that they pertained to Dan’s routine here.

I thought the routine showcased Dan’s character rather well. But I highly recommend other performers to click on that video link and listen closely to Howie Mandell’s advice during his critique. I agree, and think he wholeheartedly gave good advice to Dan.

On another note: I recognize this specific arm sawing illusion. If I am not mistaken, Dan might have borrowed or purchased this from magician KOZAK. If so, it was custom designed and built for Paul Kozak years ago by Tabman, of “TabmanTables.com” fame for Kozak’s “Wicked” tour and made it’s debut at The Funnybone comedy club in Pittsburgh some years back.

If I am not mistaken, this custom unique version was based on the old Thayer illusion from the early 20th century and some input on the illusion design was also given by Tom Savini, best known for his makeup work for the “Dead” movies by George Romero, both of whom incidently, are also from Pittsburgh, where the illusion made it’s debut. FYI, There is a pic of the illusion at Tabman Tables site here: http://www.tabmantables.com/history.html

August 31, 2010 at 4:31 am
(2) Levantino says:

Wonderful – wonderful – wonderful!

You are right ‘N’ this is a superb take on the Thayer illusion from the early 20th century – akin to ‘torn and restored card’ – but sooo much more impact!


The ‘Robot pushing the table’ (and many others) can be seen in Lord Weber’s ‘Love never dies’ sequel to ‘Phantom of the Opera’.


Paul Daniels is the main man who brings these illusions back to life. Here is the inimitable Paul Daniels performing ‘The Artists Dream’ based upon not one – but TWO of Devant’s classic illusions – starting with ‘Vice Versa’, featuring Paul’s wife ‘The lovely Debbie McGee’ gracefully dancing ‘en pointe’, and finishing with ‘The Mascot Moth’ – probably the worlds best vanish of a person you are ever likely to see. Enjoy:


For those that are interested in stage illusions (and some knockout card effects) then may I recommend ‘Our magic’ by Maskelyne and Devant. Two other gems are:
The Art, Theory and Practice of Magic – Stage Illusions by Maskelyne and Devant
The Illusionist Notebook

Amazon or your favourite magic outlet I am sure will oblige – and you will never regret your investment – ever!

Kind regards


August 31, 2010 at 4:20 pm
(3) Allen Hanuska says:

My Question Is,
How did Dan Sperry get picked to be on the Show?
He was Performing at the Greek Isles, in Las Vegas, Nevada, with the “World’s Greatest Magic” Show.
I did not see anything all that “spectacular” about his Performance of his Dove Routine.
Never mind the fact that he looks like something from a Freak Show. His Dove Steals were very “transparent” and his outfit was stuffed full of doves, and did not hide anything.
Dan’s “claim to fame” is that he is a student of the McBride School Of Magic.
Because he was Performing Professionally, I do not see how he was allowed to compete, on the Show.
Just my “brutally honest” opinion, here.


September 1, 2010 at 4:58 am
(4) Levantino says:


I sent a complimentary post – but it got lost in the post (chuckle). So glad it did as I was unaware of the abuse to Gods creatures (re: doves). He will get his comeuppance! One magician was badly mauled by a big cat, and another – who used to insult his audience, his cast, and his crew – was given dementia!

On illusions: Here is the inimitable Paul Daniels performing ‘The Artists Dream’ based upon not one – but TWO of Devant’s classics – starting with ‘Vice Versa’, featuring Paul’s wife ‘The lovely Debbie McGee’ gracefully dancing ‘en pointe’, and finishing with ‘The Mascot Moth’ – probably the worlds best vanish of a person you are ever likely to see. Enjoy:


The time is right for Leon’s ‘Broken Butterfly’ – and you know what? I believe Ariann is the person to do it – she is one classy lady! (give Mr Daniels a call Ariann)

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