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Q&A: Director Leslie Danoff and “Saturday at Reubens” - Page 1

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With an impressive career in public television and network news that includes two Emmys, Leslie Danoff independently produced “Saturday at Reuben’s,” a film that portrays a community of real-life magicians who regularly gather in the backroom of a New York City delicatessen. The film effectively captures the warmth, humor, enthusiasm, generosity, and rapport of magicians as they share moves, stories, advice and friendship. She took time out to talk with Magic & Illusion. And if you’ve seen the film, you’ll find her insight fascinating.

After graduating with the first class of women at Yale in 1973, Leslie Danoff worked at CBS News as a Researcher and Writer. Among the highlights of her five years at CBS were developing features for the “CBS Morning News,” and working with Walter Cronkite on election coverage and with Bill Moyers on the documentary, “The Cia’s Secret Army.”

In the early 1980’s, she was part of “Bill Moyers’ Journal.” Following Bill Moyers’ departure from public television, Leslie co-produced the WNET public affairs program, “New York & Co.,” which won two Emmys. She produced “Up in Arms,” a PBS live interactive satellite broadcast enabling American and foreign high school students to discuss the nuclear arms race; and worked as Editorial Consultant for a “Sixty Minutes” segment with Mike Wallace on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. “Saturday at Reuben’s” is her first independent production.

Magic & Illusion: What was your attitude toward magic prior to the production? Did it change significantly after filming the movie?

Leslie Danoff: Pre-Saturday At Reuben’s, I was a non-magician mother who delighted in her teenage son’s passion and commitment to magic. Of course, I was always eager to be his initial audience as he mastered a trick. While my exposure to magic exponentially increased as I was welcomed, with son Jeremy, into the backroom of Reuben’s, my wide-eyed wonder remains undiminished.

Meeting Sol that long-ago, first Saturday visit to Reuben’s and hearing his story about performing magic for the Holocaust survivors certainly deepened my understanding and respect for the power of magic and the power of storytelling. I had never before focused on the connection between the two. What I saw played out Saturday after Saturday in the backroom of Reuben’s Deli was that the best magicians captivate their audience, not simply with flawless dexterity. They are masters of presentation, enhancing their magic with a compelling, entertaining story.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of all was observing accomplished magicians willing to share their knowledge, their secrets, with the less experienced among them. I had always assumed that magicians “play it close to the vest” in every sense. If aspiring magicians demonstrated their commitment, the “masters” were generous in their instruction and encouragement.

M&I: It is obvious why your film would feature Sol. His story is compelling and touching. What made you ultimately choose to feature Jerry, Matthew, Jeremy, and Sophie?

LD: Jerry was also an easy, obvious choice. He’s extremely warm and funny and engaging. And his style of magic is so different from Sol’s. Everything about Jerry is rapid-fire, his quick talking and his quick effects. I was especially drawn to Jerry’s entertaining stories of how he utilizes magic in his professional life as a lawyer and accountant – to diffuse tense situations. Since Sol and Jerry had been friends for decades, lunching together every Saturday in a booth before proceeding to the backroom, Jerry was a natural choice.

Of the main characters, only Matt earns his livelihood as a magician. It’s a challenge, and I wanted to represent it. Matt had actually been attending medical school when he discovered that his dream was to be a professional magician. It was this unusual story that initially drew me to Matt. In addition, Sol and Jerry were like a surrogate grandfather and father, having encouraged Matt to stick with medicine and practice magic on the side. Matt’s brashness and supreme self-confidence would, I hoped, make him an entertaining character.

While Jeremy may seem a logical and obvious choice from the outset – he is my son and my entrée into the world of the magicians at Reuben’s – it didn’t occur to me for a very long time. I loved the fact that Jeremy was learning from Sol and Jerry and the others on our monthly visits (from Washington, DC). While he was doing his thing – learning from the best teachers he could imagine, I was doing mine – getting to know everyone at Reuben’s and giving them an opportunity to get to know and trust me.

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