Canterbury Uncovered

In conversation with the magician behind one of the only magic bars in the UK

Sam Watson is a 33-year-old magician, and he’s also the manager of Houdini’s, one of the only magic bar businesses with two sites in the United Kingdom. He first opened the bar in Broadstairs and with its evening entertainment, world record-breaking attempts and popular magically-themed nights, the magic bar went on to win Newcomer of the Year at the Kent Food and Drinks Awards last year.

Following its success, Sam recently opened a second a second bar in Canterbury alongside his partner Claudette. But what’s the story behind this curious emporium of tricks and impromptu bar magic? Sam stuck around long enough without turning into a flock of doves or vanishing into smoke for us to have a chat with him…

When did you first start getting interested in magic?

When I was 12 years old I fell in love with magic. I would spend Saturday night watching Paul Daniels on TV with my father – as well as programmes like Big Break and Noel’s House Party. That’s when it all started. One Christmas, I got a magic set under the tree and I really didn’t know how to use it. You see some balls and some thimbles and a magic wand and you think ‘Oh, great!’. But, of course, you have absolutely no idea what to do with it.

But it was in Margate when I picked up my first real magic trick. I was about 13. I remember going into secondary school and going up to London to a shop called Davenport’s magic shop and a place called Alacazam magic shop, and that’s when I really got into it. Reading all the magic books. And there was even a magic shop called Magic By Post – you had to fill out an order form and send off a cheque and then wait X amount, then get that back.

I gradually started getting into card tricks. Tommy Cooper and Paul Daniels were the people that I really looked up to. My style took after that.

When do you think the ‘magic resurgence’ began?

Magic didn’t become cool for a long time. It became quite unpopular when Paul Daniels came off TV – when I was doing card tricks at school, it wasn’t until David Blaine came along in my later years that all of a sudden it just started a whole magic scene started again.

There’s a guy called Paul Zenon who used to perform on Channel 4 and he started the street magic scene off. That’s what started the whole craze and the re-introduction of magic. It became ordinary people wearing ordinary things instead of what you would typically think of or draw when you heard the word ‘magician’ – a guy in a jacket and tails. It was getting away from that image, that Victorianesque feeling.

With street magic, you could relate to that person doing magic. He could pick up a bottle and put a 50 pence in that bottle in front of your eyes. That related to a whole different audience – before, you would see it on TV, and you would think ‘that’s clever’, but you would know deep down that it wasn’t real.

But street magic made it feel truly live because everything was done in front of you. There was no smoke in mirrors. David Blaine took over because he had a mysterious air to him; in a TV special he referred to himself as the ‘mysterious stranger’ because he would walk up, do some magic, and then while people were reacting, he would almost vanish into the crowds.

When he came to the UK a lot of people didn’t understand that. There’s an infamous clip of him sitting on the couch with GMTV’s Aimon Holmes – I think people in Britain didn’t really understand what he was trying to accomplish. In America, he would be a hero for pushing himself to the extremes that he did, but in the UK, people were thinking ‘what is he doing??’

It was at that point that it all fired up, and it was at that point that I was really devoted to the magic scene. At that point, I was doing classical or ‘real’ magic – manipulation, sleight of hand, where you could vanish a whole deck of cards just from a single movement.

How did you start doing magic professionally?

I went up to London, as I lived in Thanet (I’ve always lived in Kent) and I had an audition. There were 100s of magicians applying for a role to go out and work in Spain at this place called the House of Illusions.

Because I was doing the classical magic, they called me back. I went on to the next stage and the next stage and was part of a handful to go out to Spain to work in the House of Illusions. That was magic shows twice a day, every day.

That’s when I started changing my style from classical magic to comedy magic. At the time I had six white doves; I was really quite into it -but in Spain, I learn a different type of magic, hypnosis and stage magic.

Did you have mentors? Were you picking out what other people were doing?

There’s only a couple of ways that you can learn the art. You can learn by picking up a book and reading, although that’s quite difficult because you can’t pick up the nuances of what the text is trying to say. But all the way through my magic career I have always had mentors who will pass on their advice and their lessons. There was a guy out there called Rodney who owns the House of Illusions and he taught me quite a bit.

Now that people can learn tricks from YouTube, has that affected how people respond to magic? Has it made it too accessible?

Not really. I don’t know if you ever saw ‘The Masked Magician’ on TV, but he used to reveal the process of the tricks that magicians would do. As long as there has been conjuring (and we’re going back to ancient Egyptian times), there has always been a parallel tradition exposing the theory behind the tricks. It’s more a case of there being different types of magic.

Whenever you come into Houdini’s, it’s more about saying ‘Look I’m a magician, I’m nothing more. What you’re about to see is an art that has taken me years to perfect’.

When you’re watching magic, it’s almost like a piece of art hanging up in a gallery. You think ‘wow, this has taken years to perfect’. That’s more the feeling of it – you can watch a bricklayer build a house in a couple of days or weeks. We know how he does it theoretically, but doing it is a different thing. Anyone can pick up a pair of scissors and clippers, but who can actually produce a decent haircut?

So when someone says ‘Oh, I could do that’ – yes, of course you could. But can you? To perform the effect and to make it look magical – to display it – is an art form. That’s the magic behind it.

When you look at Derren Brown, you fall in love with the person. What he does is amazing because of how he presents it.

Do you have a different persona when you’re performing?

100%. It’s more of an amplification of my personality. When I was younger there was a ‘show’ me and a ‘real’ me, but now that I’ve matured and I’ve become a fuller performer, I’ve come away from the alter-ego me and now it’s just a ramped up version of myself. I think that’s easier to do when you’re working with comedy magic. If you’re doing stage magic or dove magic I think you have to take on a different persona because people don’t normally go around in life with a box of doves; you’re taking on that Victorian style.

I think that whenever anyone is performing – a DJ for example – you’re taking on a persona.

When you perform magic, you’re almost making yourself a bit vulnerable. You’re a showman or show-woman, you want to have that connection with people, but there is an element of putting yourself out there in order to impress others. I can see how it would be easier to have a stage character.

Originally when I left school, I went to catering college, and I think when you first start magic I think you have to question why you’re getting into magic. It’s one of those subliminal things that no one really thinks about, but when I later trained in psychology, you can take a deeper insight into why people get into magic.

I think that need to impress or to make people have a reaction is a big thing when people start doing magic because as soon as you decide you want to be a magician, you sacrifice the amazement that you used to have. Now, it’s very rare when someone shows me a trick – because my mind automatically starts unpicking tricks. Where a layman or ‘muggle’ if you like, would look in one direction, I would look in the other direction, and so the misdirection wouldn’t work for me.

You lose that surprise or wonderment. Everyone gets into magic for their own reasons, but mostly I think it’s to give something back. When I look at my own education and my own pathway, it’s always been to give something back – a search for that feeling of providing someone with an experience.

When you’re a chef you’re in the back of the house, so you don’t necessarily see the people, but what you want someone to say is ‘wow, that looks amazing’ or ‘ wow, it looks so great one that plate’. When speaking to a lot of magicians – because it’s almost like an unsaid thing in magic – you don’t really talk about it – there’s a similar theme throughout.

Do you work at Houdini’s full-time?

I’m an educational specialist, so I also help young people achieve within education. If they are struggling, I will go in and see a young person to help them with self-esteem or confidence through different therapeutic techniques.

You must be busy! It’s nice that you can have one role where you’re working directly with people and one where you can perform and still have that hobby in magic maintained. You can still do the thing that you love.

Yes, I mean don’t get me wrong – the educational side I do almost part-time, because magic is life now. Years ago it was a hobby, but then became semi-professional and then professional. I was still trained in education, but my sole income was from magic. But now I have the best of both worlds where I have found a hobby that I’ve made into a job. And I couldn’t ever give up what I do during the day, just because of the satisfaction that you get from working with young people. I struggled within school – to give something back to the kids that are still struggling, that’s a big thing for me personally.

When did the idea come to open Houdini’s?

When I was 18, I always heard of a magic bar in America. They’re a little more common there – there’s at least a handful. For example, The Magic Castle. You have to have an invite to go there, unlike Houdini’s. But when I heard about it, I thought, ‘wow, wouldn’t that be amazing? To open one?’ People could come in and see magic – and you don’t ever get to see magic unless you know a friend, you watch it on TV, or you’re at a wedding. Seeing magic is actually quite a rarity. It’s quite expensive, which is why you only see it at weddings. So I always knew that if you could couple a bar with live entertainment, it would go down well. At the end of the day, we go to a bar to socialise and to have something happening in the background that is novel.

I was 18 when I thought of it, but it wasn’t until a couple of years back that me and my partner Claudette thought, ‘let’s just do it’. We jumped both feet in and didn’t know what to expect. We couldn’t even find a business that was similar…

Are you the only business of this kind the UK?

There are magic bars in the UK, and ones that have magic themed nights, but we’re the first of its kind of that pure magic theme in the UK, and the way that we run things is unique to us. All of our staff know magic, even our managers are magicians themselves. We have 13 magicians in Houdini’s Canterbury, and in Broadstairs, we have 10. That’s partially why we opened in Canterbury on Friday 13th.

Has there been a personal highlight of opening the magic bar, either here or in Broadstairs?

There have been a few. One of the biggest worries is that as we opened the second one, people would see it as a chain, whereas it’s not, it’s a family-run business. We were concerned that we would lose that sense of atmosphere. But one of the highlights was that, there was this American magician called Doc Eason and Doc worked in a magic bar in America. I remember seeing his VHS tapes and watching him perform to his audience while they were drinking. It was amazing; he was hilarious, and everyone was so entertained. I kept buying his books and everything else, and last year I spoke to him on the phone and through FaceTime and we were talking about the bar and I got to meet him in that way – a legend in magic. And Houdini’s has done that for me.

Would he be your ideal performer?

My wishlist would be Doc Eason or Bob Sheetes – two bar magicians in the USA. They’re big names and would be my dream team guest list.

Closer to home, Etienne Pradier – we had him appear on the 28th of last month. He’s a royal magician, so whenever the Queen wants some magic he appears and does magic for them. He’s quite local, and so we’re quite lucky.

…the Queen has her own appointed magician?!

Yes, Charles wanted a load of magicians at one point and they all went up to the royal houses and performed for that. Etienne Pradier organised that. He lives in Wye and has regularly been popping in and out of the Broadstairs and Canterbury branch since we opened – I’d love him to perform. He’s brilliant.

Do you have any upcoming events?

At Houdini’s, we pride ourselves on doing things a bit differently. Our events are always themed magically. We have a Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe themed night and we did it 2 years ago in Broadstairs and it was fantastic. You walk through the doors, which act as the wardrobe doors, and then you go in through loads of coats to get to the bar. We’ve got a snow machine so that it’s snowing inside, and themed cocktails. A load of our events are magically themed, taking elements and really going to town with them.

Visit Houdini’s Magic Bar Canterbury at 6 St.Peters Street, CT1 2AT, Canterbury, Kent or follow them on Facebook

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