John Gaughan: Part One

This week we have another treat in store for you with one of the art form’s most prominent and respected designers: John Gaughan. For over fifty years, John has been delighting audiences with his work for such artists as Siegfried and Roy, David Copperfield, David Blaine, Criss Angel, Mark Wilson, and Ricky Jay. However, most importantly it is his many years of work for Doug Henning that we discussed.

Joining John that day among his vast magic collection was master mentalist Jon Stetson and Tim Felix, owner of “Midwest Magic.” As you will see, all had strong and positive memories of Doug that they were eager to share. 

Can you talk about your first exposure to magic and how you got into magic design?

John Gaughan: My first exposure was seeing a magic show off the back end of a bread truck at a supermarket in Dallas, Texas. That got me going, and I started working for a local magician there after school and on the weekends. I was about 14.

I wasn’t thinking about being a magician. I did birthday parties in the neighborhood, and in high school another guy and I did a double act and made some high school type money…but, I couldn’t pull that off.

I’ll still work The Magic Castle a week here and a week there doing demonstrations with this old stuff (his magic collection). I’m lucky I have “stuff.”

When did you first meet Doug?

I met him backstage at the Cort Theater when he was already on Broadway…I had never seen him perform, so my first time seeing him was at the show. I had heard about that he had come down from Canada and he had worked with Dai Vernon and Slydini. So, he was serious…

Can you talk about how important “The Magic Show” was at the time?

John Gaughan: It was a powerful little show…

Jon Stetson:  At the time, I was just a kid hanging around the (Cort) theater. But, one night many years later I was having kind of a rough audience at “The Magic Castle,” and someone came up to me afterwards. It was David Ogden Stiers from MASH who was in the original cast of “The Magic Show.” I always wanted to tell him that I really credit him with having a lot to do with the success of that show. He played the old magician character so well and I saw four or five other people do it and they couldn’t hold a candle to him…You could name a million reasons why it would not be a success on Broadway and yet it was…I wanted to make sure that I made it very clear to him that I believed that and he said “I think you did.”

John Gaughan: There’s a lot of differences between “Merlin” and “The Magic Show.” David Ogden Stiers would let Doug be whatever Doug could be and he would support that little role…So, his strong acting and Doug being himself worked real well…

Can you talk about how designing for him was different than other people you had designed for?

John Gaughan: Oh gosh… He tended to get way out there real quick. Rather than sticking to how the girl is going to lay down during the illusion he’d say “It’s going to have flowers, it’s going to have this and that.” At that point, I’d be still trying to build it and put the castors on it…He had a lot of passion for his work. He always didn’t have a lot of time before he would move on to whatever else he was doing…

Speaking of “moving on,” come back tomorrow for part two of our fascinating round table discussion. I’ll be there…will you? 


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