The Phil Cass Interview
Q. How old were you when you first became interested in magic and how did you get started?
I first became interested in magic when I was a child, and my mother gave me a magic book. However, my teenage years and other important teenage stuff, like chasing girls, soon took over. I didn’t really think about magic again until I was 26, when my girlfriend at the time, Lee Watters, bought me a magic trick as a present. It was the ‘3 to 1 Rope Trick’ packaged & marketed by Ian Buckland. He has a lot to answer for. I wasn’t just bitten by the magic bug; it shook me by the throat! I then went to the Magic and Fun shop at Piccadilly Arcade in Brisbane a couple of times to buy bits and pieces, and then ended up buying the whole bloody shop! (Literally!)
Damn BIG bug……
There’s a great article on my background written by Frank Robson in the Pix People Magazine in 1984. You’ll find this on the gallery page of my website (www.philcass.com).
Q. How long have you been a professional magician?
Quite frankly, I often freak out at how quickly the time has passed… this year I celebrate 22 years as an entertainer.
Q. When did you know to turn professional and what to charge?
I had to! In 1984, I was flat out performing…. kids parties, shopping centres, private engagements, weddings, close up at 3 nightclubs between 10.00pm and 1.00am twice a week, The Crest Hotel on Wednesday nights, Fisherman’s Wharf beer garden on Sunday arvo’s, Friday nights at The Pancake Manor, Saturday lunches at The Breakfast Creek Wharf Restaurant, and a spot on a kids TV show every Monday as Mr. Juicy. I had to make a decision…sell insurance or sell me?
My first corporate job was over 20 years ago. It was an Awards Dinner for Suncorp and it was organised by my brother, Marshall, at Sea World on the Gold Coast.
It was late1983.
I did well.
While Marsh thanked me for not letting him down the CEO came over.
He asked Marsh what they were paying me. Marsh replied, “$300”.
The CEO raised his eyebrows, said “double it” and walked away.
From that moment on my fees went boom.
Q. Who has had the greatest influence on your magic, and why?
Dave Lord in Queensland was there for me when I first started in magic and is still there for me now, whenever I need someone to brainstorm with, or pick his brains, or even to get feedback on new material I’m performing.
However, there are a lot of other nameless ‘magicians’ that have influenced me, and they wouldn’t even have a clue. What I am talking about here is every out-of-date or bad performance of magic that I have ever seen. I know that sounds harsh, but the reason I say this is because it is just as important to know what NOT to do! I look at the performance of magic from the viewpoint of the spectator and I believe this is something all entertainers/magicians should do.
Arguably, one disadvantage of being born Australian is the sheer lack of performers, in both quantity and quality that one can actually rub shoulders with, to learn, cultivate and nurture our performance art. Due to the tyranny of distance, Australia is rather isolated and insular. Sure I came up with my own style but the lack of competition has its drawbacks.
Q. Who are the magicians you admire?
I have respect for many, many magicians but the ones I admire most are personality based performers who have entertaining and likable characters. They’re edgy, but yet in control. Tom Ogden & Terry Seabrooke were the first two that I came into contact with. And in no particular order, Billy McComb, The Amazing Jonathon, Jeff Hobson, Fielding West, Bob Sheets, Chuck Fayne, Simon Lovell, Mike Finney, Whit Haydn, the late Tommy Cooper, Barclay Shaw & George Carl are all performers that I have enjoyed watching over the years. I’m sure that there are others that I’ve probably forgotten to mention, however I think you get the gist…. I admire all entertainers who are achieving or have achieved their desired goals… Uri Gellar & Stevie Starr for example are superb magicians.
Q. Can you still be mystified? Tell me about any magician who can fool you.
Hmm…why some people even perform magic is still a mystery to me. J (That was a joke. Later on you’ll read something that’s not a joke and you’ll be able to compare them.)
Seriously though, anything done well will fool me…particularly card technicians.
I would be classed as very easy to fool, but hard to entertain.
Q. Who are your buddies in the magical world?
They know who they are!
Q. What do you do for fun?
On stage I have an absolute ball.
How good is that?... to be paid well for something you love doing!!
Q. So you have trouble switching off?
Nope, not any more. Off stage I like hanging out with Philippa & my two boys.
Practical jokes are always a hoot & I like to party with vibrant and like minded people. I unwind and de-stress by going to stay in my beachfront unit at Shoal Bay, by 4 wheel driving, by deep sea fishing, or by spending hours playing first person computer games. Being an ex- rugby league player, I still enjoy following the football too. Broncos and Parramatta are the teams I follow.
That’s pretty much it, but I like to keep an open mind and try new things.
Q. Do you have an embarrassing magical moment you’d like to tell my readers about?
Well, I’d be nothing but a low down dirty liar if I said I didn’t!! Here’s one that I’m not only embarrassed about, but ashamed of. Years and years ago I was booked for the Awards Night of an international tourism convention held over in Fiji.
I did the duck from pan production. I obtained a duck locally in Fiji, saving it temporarily from the dinner plate. I also worked with a local girl as an assistant.
Upon the duck’s magical reveal… how do I put this… the duck was found to be no longer breathing… so thinking on my feet, I swung the dead duck around above my head a couple of times and hurled it across the stage. As the duck landed with a thud in the wings, my covering comment was, “Geez…..they make these rubber ducks look real these days!” Seems what happened, come show time my assistant couldn’t load the duck. She panicked. So as not to miss her cue, she killed it! (?)
As it turned out, word filtered out from backstage, and through to the audience, that I had produced a dead duck. Regrettably, it was the talk of the conference, and I thought my performing days were over. I was devastated and depressed.
Unbelievably, the next day I was actually patted on the back for my professionalism, and ad-lib skills. The negative was perceived to be a positive (well not for the duck).
I was booked at least four more times for different companies throughout the following year… “Hello? Is this the magician that made the dead duck appear?”…
Q. What successes stand out in your career?
First of all would have to be when I won the close-up and stage competitions on the 1985 Magic-Cruise, which allowed me the opportunity to perform in front of magicians such as Michael Ammar, Dai Vernon, Harry Blackstone Jnr, Milt, Bill & Irene Larson, etc etc. Even better, I was able to rub shoulders with them afterwards. A little boy in a candy shop I was! Apart from the monetary prizes, I was also asked to perform for a week at the Magic Castle, Hollywood. They awarded me with an honorary life membership of the Castle.
The fairy tale ending to that trip was getting married to Lee Watters in the Parlor of Prestidigitation, at the Magic Castle. Dai Vernon gave the bride away, and Bill Larson was the best man!
I have performed there several times since, and in each room…. It is a very special place indeed. That is, if you can afford to work there. (That’s another one of my little jokes.)
Also, there have been big events such as World Expo ’88 where I was contracted to perform the large illusion show (which included the buzz saw and impalement) in the Piazza and on the River Stage.
An underwater escape for IBM in the Southport Broadwater in 1989 also stands out as a highlight. A very large performance fee accompanied my very real fear of ‘bities’ in the water.
The Indy Grand Prix Ball in 1992 was an exhilarating experience for me. Working with a very handsome budget, the objective was to create a mind-blowing, fantastic, major illusion show. My inspiration came from the late Harry Blackstone Jnr. It was six months in the making, with a lot of sleepless nights, but with the help of the executive producer, Ray Maguire, the show proved to be spectacular. I appeared from a Flash Production, and then proceeded to fill the stage with a whole string of flags, including two gigantic ones, followed by a dove production, a live duck and then Philippa, two ponies next appeared, then an Indy Racing car with Miss Indy driving. As a finale a full sized elephant appeared……and all of that in the opening four-minute number.
Later, a motorbike was vanished in mid-air with me on board, and instantaneously I was spotted atop the elephant at the back of the ballroom.
The Impalement was also a feature illusion in the show and was performed amid 3D theatre flats of a graveyard and church, with eight dancers, great choreography by Tod McKinney (now of Boy from Oz fame), fire, coffins and amazing lighting combinations from Showcorp, all performed to the music of Enigma’s ‘Principles of Lust’. It was such a delight to have the budget to make the impalement illusion a spectacular piece of theatre. I believe the illusion requires the person on the sword to stay dead. I was playing the devil and not a god with an ability for resurrection.
The ‘Stars of Illusion’ show, which was part of the 1996 Sydney Festival, and performed at the Sydney Entertainment Centre for a three week period was another biggie.
A corporate job in Singapore and two 2 hour illusion shows in Sydney were performed during the peak of suffering from Hepatitis A. (I came in contact with it 6 weeks earlier, while doing a gig in a remote part of PNG). Throughout the show I’d excuse myself, go to the wings, throw up and go back out on stage. I kid you not!
I was that wasted I performed the Linking Rings sitting down. Both shows went on.
I was proud of that. Touch wood, I have never missed a show due to ill health.
Q. What are the low points of your magical career?
I don’t think I’ve had a low point…..? Oh, well maybe…..depends on how you look at it. I got banned from the Queensland Society of Magicians for a three month period in my early days for a breach of conduct and for having an act unsuitable for public performance. During a magician’s conference I was apparently using coarse language and mistreating my audience volunteers in the needle in balloon and head chopper routines. This is the same year when I was honoured by the Entertainment Industry with the Wallace Award for Sight Act of the Year. Go figure.
13 years later & after winning 6 more Wallace Awards and 7 Mo Awards for being the Best Speciality Act in Australia, I have also had a hard time getting my head together concerning a similar controversy that erupted from a magician’s only conference in Sacramento, USA. It was regarding my use of the electric chair and the tie cutting routine. I wasn’t expecting to fool so many knowledgeable magicians. So many missed it…they actually thought I was ‘torturing’ someone on stage! There was a lot of “for and against” chatting going on, but hey…..at least I made an impression worthy of thought and talk! (I reckon the ‘bible belt’ found it all too believable, and couldn’t suspend their disbelief.) Live, learn and move on! People who succeed in life generally are the ones who’ve made the most mistakes, learnt from them what they could, and then applied their newfound knowledge to achieve more success. Knock me down, and I will flatten you as I bounce back.
Q. How do you feel about such adverse reactions?
I suppose I enjoy it really. If they’re talking about me then I know I am making it. Anyone who is setting his own path and doing things differently will often encounter first bewilderment and then often derision. It’s par for the course. Eventually, when people see you are well on the way to reaching your goals, there will often be a turnaround of attitude. The wonderful thing about having a sense of destination is that you shoot past the thousands whose lives are in neutral. I have never forgotten Peter Reveen’s advice…“You must learn to float above all that.”
At the same time, I am also sincerely thankful for the tons of support which I receive from both within Australia and overseas. It’s truly heart-warming.
Q. What is your preferred performing style? Do you work regularly at any particular type of venue? Do you still work close up venues and have an interest in that facet of magic?
To make a living out of performing magic, one has to be able to adapt to many varied performance opportunities. The more you can adapt, the more progress you make in your path to becoming a professional entertainer. To this end, I’ve embraced all avenues of performing magic over the years. You name it, I’ve done it.
I particularly like performing street magic (with cameras in tow). When performing close-up, I love the brain explosion… the extended eye blink combined with that slight backward head jolt! I have enjoyed watching David Blaine’s success.
A huge chunk of my stage act can be done close up, because that’s where it originated. I still occasionally perform some walk-around magic at well-to-do cocktail parties, or when the job could generate great publicity, or lead to more lucrative engagements. My difficulty is that, due to the demand for my floor show, I simply do not get enough chances to perform close up anymore. Hence, my ability to learn and polish new close-up material is hindered.
Right now, I'm in the fortunate position of being able to decline work. I have performed for several Prime Ministers over the years… I’ve even had Bob Hawke in the electric chair… but just recently I said no to performing for ‘Little Johnny’ because they wanted to put me on way too late in the night. You’d think at the fee I charge I wouldn’t mind so much. You know… smile, take the money and run. But no. Strangely I get a weird sense of pleasure in being able to say no to jobs which could compromise my production standards.
I also absolutely refuse to work as an 'atmosphere magician.' That's where you and several other variety performers are hired to walk around entertaining the guests. They don't really want you, they want someone to dress up and do tricks for them. And generally it's crappy pay. Not everyone is in it for the money but from my experience, if making a high income is one of your goals then close-up has limited earning potential compared to comedy magic, and in my opinion, unless you’re on television it will generally stay that way.
My preference these days is for stand-up, comedy magic but don’t get me wrong though… if the arse fell out of my business, I’d be back doing close-up in a second.
Q. How did you progress to the stage?
My progression to performing on stage came from working a beer garden on the Gold Coast for 5 years and a few deep down feelings. One, I’m lazy. I’m able to perform to more people at once doing stand up, rather than performing the same shit over and over again for small groups of people. Consequently, I believe there is more perceived glory, public recognition and respect.
Two, there are so many walk around, close-up atmosphere magicians that it is easy to get stuck in a general price range, and never really be able to break free from that.
Even though close-up is more difficult technically, I think that it is actually more difficult to keep say 500 people entertained all at once. Stage performance based on personality utilizes different skills. If it wasn’t more difficult, there would be more of us! There is less competition in the market of stage performance. Therefore, if you have got the goods, and can market yourself successfully to your target market, then you will be financially better off. I proceeded to buy large illusions and I toured and performed these illusion shows in clubs & theatres mainly in the first half of my career. I’ve also been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to do some really big budget corporate production illusion shows. Generally speaking, I reckon there’s too much huff and puff, both on and off stage, for far too little in return. These days, if they want the big stuff, they pay the big stuff!
Q: You've found a very unique, and very successful, performing style. Your act is quite intricate in that various plot lines run simultaneously, resolving themselves by the end of the act. How did this evolve? Obviously over many thousands of shows, but I'm wondering whether it was good planning or did luck play any part in it and what were you striving for the most; maximum audience impact, maximum mystery?
Only yesterday I received a feedback form from Celebrity Speakers, for a gig I did for Nissan in New Zealand recently.
(Excuse me….I’ll just pick those names up off the floor…)
I quote here the reply to the question ‘What was the audience reaction’?
“They loved it! Virtually non stop laughter, punctuated by gasps of amazement.”
My point here is that my aspiration has always been to give an audience a sense of wonderment and awe, whilst simultaneously having them roar with laughter (and of course, for the right reasons). I don't want to just amuse my audience with this thought, I want to convince them. So much so, that my presentation of magic is not merely acceptable, but highly desirable. I didn’t sit down at any one point and decide to write out this act but, never-the-less, its evolution was indeed planned. A lot of thought and practical experience has gone into the act over the years, as Philippa and I have fine tuned, changed, added to, and thought out the proper psychology for each routine. And also, in which order they work best to emotionally hook an audience and take them on a little journey. It’s a psychological attack. It’s not just a question of learning the mechanics of magic. You've got to have showmanship and be an entertainer. You've got to have empathy; you've got to think like the audience.
As far as luck is concerned; I simply went out into the streets, grabbed opportunity by the throat and dragged it inside. I believe that you can create your own luck. The more you try things and the more times you fail, the more experienced and polished you become. As an analogy, if I was going to a plastic surgeon I'd feel much more secure and comfortable if I went to a successful senior practitioner. I know that guy’s probably made all the mistakes he’s ever going to make, and learned from them!
Q. What criteria should be used in selecting effects for a professional repertoire?
My aim is to have people want to see me, not my magic tricks. The magic must of course be strong and memorable, but it is the character that must become memorable. The real trick is to discover what makes you tick, and to carry this knowledge along with you into a focused onstage persona. To make this discovery is very difficult but hugely rewarding, because you will have found your purpose, your destination.
Once you know why people like you, and you’re sure of your characterisation, then everything else will fall into place... from costumes, to wit and the one-liners, to the type of magic performed.
Researching the market, and having a constant thirst for knowledge definitely helps, and so does a lot of trial and error. Very rarely does someone pick up a trick, and bang, they have an entirely entertaining routine that they couldn’t possibly add anything else to, or change in any way. In the process of creating a new routine, if the audience laughs at a new bit of business, or an off the top of the head one-liner, try to recreate that moment in the next show. I make sure I try a new bit, or a new magic item, 12 or more times before keeping it or discarding it. If I can’t make the timing work, or if it just doesn’t really suit my character, I’ll get rid of it, but not before giving it a good chance, in a lot of different ways.
Watch and learn from as many magicians as you can, both good and bad. On your way to self discovery it will be difficult not to steal from other performers, but force yourself not to. (It’s a shortcoming that I do not want to be guilty of ever again.)
At the very least, go out of your way to ask the performer if you may use a bit of business from their show.
The really original and excellent routines you see performed by any magician are normally a product of years of fine tuning, and trial and error. That is, it’s not just a line from a book that anyone can buy… it’s one that has been researched, character matched, and then learnt to be delivered with perfect timing. This, I believe, is what gives that magician the right to be upset if someone just comes along and thieves it, word for word and action by action! They spent a lot of their creativity and working hours to develop that routine, and I think magician’s who knowingly steal other working professionals routines should learn a lot more respect, not only for the magicians they steal from, but also for themselves.
Q. What exactly is your character on stage?
By having an overriding concern for audience appeal, I choose magical effects that not only achieve this, but also coincide with my on-stage persona – that of being a larrikin or rogue who is both an approachable and likeable cheeky ‘bugger’… a practical joker with a strong stage presence… a real and genuine person with no fake smiles. Combined with a mischievous sense of humour, the audience is manipulated psychologically. As far as the majority of the paying public are concerned, this also explains the success and popularity of Roy Rene (“MO”), George Wallace (Junior & Senior), Paul Hogan, Dame Edna, and so on. Also ask yourself, why are the ratings so consistently high on shows such as the “Footy Show”, “Just Kidding” or the “Funniest Home Video Show.” To deny this is to deny the Australian ethos. With this persona then, I can quite often push the envelope as to what some magicians perceive themselves to be, or at least should be. The goal isn’t to be nice; the goal is to appeal to your audience. As an individual performer, I have my own line to that goal marked out. All of the time I walk this line with big clown shoes on. Sometimes I may teeter, but I have the sensibility to know this, and get back on the line and regain my balance. This is what I believe makes the show exciting for an audience member…..I’m not just another ‘nice guy’ doing tricks… I try to make the show a memorable experience, and the only way to do that is to king hit the audience emotionally.
Q. What have you been up to lately?
An audience reaction that I love to see is not so much the expression of surprise, but the condition when people have been belly laughing so hard, they have to get a hanky or serviette to wipe those laughter tears away! That’s what you call emotional involvement. I love to hear people complain that their jaws ache from laughing so long and so hard!
As a means to an end, I have directed more of my energies into comedy magic. The objective is to replace the amount of props being carried around with more personality, so that the boxes and apparatus receive less of an end credit.
My work these days is mostly generated from the demanding corporate market. I do some clubs, but not many. However, in the last year I have been getting booked more regularly into comedy clubs, and I thoroughly enjoy these nights.
I’ve been enjoying notoriety from appearing on the Footy Show on Channel Nine. So far there have been 27 appearances over 6 years. This has done wonders in lifting my public profile. This allows me to tour and experience the new challenge of pulling in my own crowds. While still very hot to trot in the corporate field of entertainment, it’s all the more sweeter to be able to pull a crowd, and have people pay good money to come to see you…. and just you.
Q. Do you prefer performing live or on television?
I prefer live because there is less stress. In live television the time limits can be restrictive on your creativity and delivery. There is a lack of artistic control and there is no room for error.
Q. You have received rave reviews recently for your show and for your lecture in South Africa and also for Taylor’s Super Day. Do you enjoy lecturing?
Yes, very much. I love the challenge and the incestuous adulation, but compared to my performances there is very little money to be made out of it and I don’t really have that much time to be writing books, and to be creative, and to go on lecture tours and all those sorts of things. Being a ‘Magic Celebrity’ has never really been a priority with me. However, if my performance schedule does ever happen to slow down, I’m sure I would simply redirect my energies into this smaller but alternative market, and make lecturing a priority.
Q. What is the best thing you have created?
I would say my own niche in the marketplace through developing my own personality and style. The cut and restore tie and the pea & shell game are my signature pieces.
Q. What motivates you?
I want a business card that just reads > Phil Cass <
I could easily retire now, but I’d go bananas with boredom. I love performing too much, but believe me, I am my own worst critic. I very much compete with myself.
I come down hard on myself as I search for ways to improve. God willing, my long- term goal is basically to have the foresight and ability to keep up with the changing times, always remaining fresh with my finger firmly on the pulse, and to continue being an entertainer in the true sense of the word.
Q. What disappoints you?
a) My own shortcomings.
b) The highest form of flattery…imitation.
c) If there was a 500 strong audience and I see one person in the front not enjoying the show or my personality it not so much disappoints me but it generally bothers me. It then becomes a mission for me during that show to make that one audience member laugh and have a good time.
Q. I've seen your show many times and think that it's brilliant, but I sometimes feel uneasy at the rough treatment received by the spectator who loans the tie. Being a magician I know that you are in control and prompting him off mic, but I wonder if you sometimes have to ease off a bit because the audience starts to feel that you are being too rough and you begin to lose them?
Firstly, may I say, I don’t believe that any amount of prompting someone off microphone would stop them from leaving the stage, if they felt that they were being mistreated, treated in a rough manner, or without respect. There is however a fine line between comedy and tragedy…it can be a tightrope walk. I believe wholly in the line I said earlier in this interview. If you are going to walk a fine line, make sure you are wearing very big clown shoes. The finer the line, the bigger the shoes. But then walking a fine line in big shoes means it’s easier to fall.
The successful integration of my brand of magic and comedy is absolutely dependent upon the audience never being in doubt as to what my performance style is. Therein lies the problem. Some people can be in doubt and miss the point entirely. My performance style should make it quite clear each and every time that I’m only kidding and if you were to take any perceived `mistreatment' of a spectator or any particular insult of mine seriously - if you support it, believe it, or take offence at it independent of any other, you have missed the point and joke entirely. Under this framework then it would be very easy to assume that I was making a fool out of an audience volunteer just for the sake of it. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you care to take a little closer look, I do care about my volunteers and my audience.
I treat them all as if they are my mates. I want to have a good time with them. In fact, the better time the ‘victim' has, the better time the audience has.
I believe that the audiences that I perform to are able to tell that I’m a cheeky devil. And yes, I’m very much on the edge, but they can also see that I’m professional in what I do, and all of the one-liners and bits of business that happen in the show are done in the light of comedy, and in no way vindictive or purposefully hurtful towards the spectator. I have witnessed shows that are so saccharin sweet and nice that they end up being far more offensive. The small amount of insult humour that I do use in my act is basically just my rather perverse way of being friendly. To take the mickey out of someone in fun, to me, is not insulting.... it’s actually showing affection. It’s within my stage persona to kid people about things that are unimportant; harmless things. Things they probably kid themselves about.
How we relate to our audience volunteers (impromptu stooges) is an important element in the construction and revelation of our own theatrical characterisation. Moreover, the character of our ‘human gimmick’ can be of immense interest and entertainment value to the audience. Working masterfully with a spectator is an art and the technique required, on the part of the performer, deserves serious consideration and development so that the act can be enhanced and not weakened.
I have so many shows under my belt, that I know what the desired result is that I am looking for from the spectator to get the best audience reaction. This is communicated to them by what I say and do. There is a precise way that I like spectators to jump out of the electric chair for example… Philippa explains this to them as she guides them up onto the stage. The electric chair has been modified to a point where the routine is basically a stooging method with the actual zap being the ‘Pavlov’s Dog’ trigger. His own interpretation of how he thinks he should react to situations that are thrust upon him will dictate the audience reaction. If he is acting with too much discomfort or anger then I will start to lose my audience. If he acts with too little emotion then the audience won’t buy it. It won’t be believable. A lot depends on their acting ability and I do everything in my power to goad & knead the spectator’s personality to achieve the desired result. Basically I want their attitude towards me to be conveyed to the audience as ‘half pissed off in a nice way’. I do this by stage cueing… by the things I say, by the way I touch them, and by the way I make them feel. I always try to treat my ‘instant stooges’ with good judgement, empathy and understanding. They are embarrassed already just being on stage so I try to make them feel comfortable and at home with me and under no circumstances do I let them lose their dignity. Their fear dissipates because they are constantly reassured that they are doing a great job by the amount of laughter and feedback coming back from the rest of the audience. Remember, I am doing an act up there and the spectator is on my side working for me not against me. (If he is not on my side I know it immediately and I let him go. This is a very rare occurrence.)
People like to have their emotions provoked, and to get involved in a show, rather than just sit back and watch another ‘bubblegum for the eyes’ performance. Yes, of course, you have to be aware of how far you are going, and whether your audience is still with you, but this is what comedy and the art of being an entertainer is all about. Not everyone can perform in the style that I do. I get away with it because of my personality. It is because I have made mistakes in the past and I have learnt the hard way…. by experience. Doing thousands of performances over the years for all different types of crowds and venues has enabled me to know instinctively what I can and can’t get away with in certain situations. The environment you work in also plays a direct role in the way my act is received. People who book me are sent a strict and precise plan as to how to set up the room so that my show will have every chance of succeeding. The results speak for themselves.
Q. Apart from lots of practice what advice would you give aspiring magicians?
You have your own personality – look through the grease paint and false nose and discover it, then beat it into shape. Don’t fear failure, fear mediocrity!
Q. How do you want the public to see Phil Cass?
Australian, likeable, extremely entertaining and worth the money.
Q. How do you want the magic community to see Phil Cass?
Anyway they wish.
Q. Any other thoughts?
Yes, but they’re dirty!
Oh, do check out my website…. www.philcass.com
I have an E-book called “Oh No! Not a Magician!!” There are a couple of essays in it that deal with my philosophy, my thoughts on comedy, walk-around magic and several routines that you can make your own. You can order it from this website under merchandise in the tool bar.
You are invited to contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to be my personal guest at a corporate function. Philippa and I fly all over Australia regularly, (into Melbourne for example, about 20 shows a year), so chances are there will be a date that’s convenient for you.
In the hot seat: an interview with Phil Cass & Andrew Wimhurst from HOCUS
Although Phil Cass had been interested in magic as a child, it wasn’t until quite late in life (relatively speaking) that the bug really bit. He was 27 when his girlfriend purchased him a simple rope trick from a novelty store. In fact, the bug bit deep, and shook him by the throat.
Cass, an Economics graduate working in sales, was also at that time playing football professionally; and was soon amazing his team mates with close-up effects. It wasn’t long before Phil was busking in the Brisbane Mall, and finding that magic was both more lucrative - and less dangerous - than Rugby League.
Along with a steady stream of children’s shows, buck’s nights and fundraisers, Phil worked steadily as the close-up magician at Fisherman’s Wharf on the Gold Coast. It was here that he honed some of the close-up items that became indelibly associated with Phil Cass over the years. I still remember seeing Cass for the first time on the Ray Martin show performing his trademark shell and pea routine. This routine - and his “Water Across” effect - were so strong that he would often find himself performing them for the entire restaurant on the Wharf. (If you’ve ever been there, you’ll now that it’s a big venue.)
From fairly standard beginnings, Cass has gone from strength to strength, and is now the top corporate magician in Australia, earning the biggest bucks in the country.
Which brings us right up to the minute.
Phil recently returned from a convention gig in the States where (see last month’s HOCUS) he was rumoured to have upset some magicians. So is it true? Are lay audiences up in arms? Are they deeply offended? Is Phil going to see the error of his ways and invest in a Zombie Ball and some fanning powder? Andrew Wimhurst put Cass in the hot seat so HOCUS readers could find out...
AW: Are you ready to start Phil?
PC: Yes, but let me say firstly that I don't normally enjoy talking about myself or about my failures and achievements; I’d rather get on with my life. And secondly, I don't really have the gift of the gab - like you do for instance - so when I do start jabbering on I suppose some of my observations will seem to be a by-product of some exotic form of Narcissism on my part. But trust me when I say that it’s meant well - in the hope of assisting and inspiring others. So thanks for this opportunity.
By the way, may I say that, so far the HOCUS magazine (and its new editors) has been like a breath of fresh air for Australian magic. Now there's a suck up if ever I heard one!
AW: Hmmm, good start! What can you say about your background?
PC: I'm a practical joker and I love being on the receiving end too, which is surprising because, even though I came from ‘a very good family’ in Toowoomba, the only practical joke that was ever played on me as a youngster was the one in which they convinced me that I was really happy and that I came from ‘a very good family’. I'm now living in the big, brash, party town of Sydney and loving every minute.
AW: Was it always your intention to work as a comedy magician, or are there some old polaroids of a young Phil Cass with velvet bow tie and multiplying billiard balls?
PC: Magic came first, then the comedy - still does - and, no, there are no photos of Phil Cass in a velvet bow tie doing the multiplying billiard balls! However, there is an
excruciatingly embarrassing but hilarious video of Phil Cass in 1984 standing behind a female singer and performing a very ordinary multiplying sponge ball routine all the while dressed as a bright yellow, green and orange clown-suited character who called himself “Mr Juicy” and who sported a bald-headed wig with orange curly hair either side. Isn't life ironic? 15 years on I could still be that same guy with only the aid of a can of orange coloured hairspray! And my fingers still can't get around those bloody balls!
AW: Your act is quite intricate in that various plot lines run simultaneously, resolving themselves by the end of the act; how many years did it take for your act to have evolved into its present form? Was it a case of good luck or good planning, or a bit of both?
PC: Fifteen years so far. I didn’t sit down at any one point and decide to write out this act but, never-the-less, its evolution was indeed planned. A lot of thought and practical experience has gone into the act over the years. You've got to have the psychological attack, it's not just a question of the mechanics of magic. You've got to have showmanship and be an entertainer. You've got to have empathy; you've got to think like the audience.
As far as luck is concerned; I simply went out into the streets, grabbed opportunity by the throat and dragged it inside. I believe that you can create your own luck. The more you try things and the more times you fail the more experienced and polished you become. For example, if I was going to go to a plastic surgeon I'd feel much more secure and comfortable if I went to a successful senior practitioner because I know that guy’s probably made all the mistakes he’s ever gonna make!
AW: What are the criteria you use in selecting effects for your professional repertoire?
The trick is to have the will to discover what makes you tick and to carry this knowledge along with you into a focused stage persona. To make this discovery is very difficult but hugely rewarding because you will have found your purpose, your destination.
Even without knowing it, your audience demands only two things from you - sincerity and believability. You can fool an audience with your tricks but you can't fool them with your attitude. The goal isn't to be nice, the goal is to appeal to your audience. I want to send my audience on an emotional rollercoaster. I want to hit an audience in the cockles of their heart and maybe even in the sub-cockle area, whatever that is!
By having this overriding concern for audience appeal, I choose magical effects that not only achieve this but also coincide with my on-stage persona - that being a larrikin or rogue who is both an approachable and likeable “cheeky bugger.” A practical joker. As far as the majority of the paying public are concerned it also explains the success and popularity of Roy Rene (“MO”), George Wallace (Junior & Senior), Paul Hogan, Dame Edna and so on. Also ask yourself why the ratings are so consistently high on shows such as the “Footy Show”, “Just Kidding” or the “Funniest Home Video Show.” To deny it is to deny the Australian ethos. With this persona then, I can quite often push the envelope as to what some magicians perceive themselves to be or at least should be.
AW: How much time do you spend 'working up' new material for inclusion, or do you subscribe to the rule, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it"?
PC: The time I spend on working up new material is very hard to quantify because I'm constantly trying to think up new bits of business and new methods to try to evolve the act further. I will try out a new line or a new piece of magic a bit at a time and for at least 12 attempts before I decide to throw it away or to keep it. I will place a new line in different parts of the act or I might try different inflections in my voice over and over just to try and
make the new bit work.
I'm told that I'm a “safe” corporate entertainer. That is, I can be relied upon not to fail. I have to live up to that. Hence the higher performance fees. Presently I have 3 hours of audience tested material to choose to work from, but my act has to have continuity and meaning so I
cannot just present a series of unrelated effects nor can I present a totally new act at any one outing. People book what they have seen and any large bulk of new material must be up to or better than what was originally experienced.
In other words, a corporation or an entertainment agent wanting to book Phil Cass, is not looking for a $500 act. They have much higher expectations. So, it is a slow process for me to add new material. If it ain't broke, why fix it? ...and if it is broke, gaff it ! If we all consistently did a good job in every show, corporate bookers for example will want to book other magicians and then we'll all be better off because ultimately what goes around comes around.
AW: When you worked at Fisherman's Wharf on the Gold Coast, most of your material would have been classed as close-up. Do you still work close-up venues, and do you still retain an interest in that facet of magic?
PC: I love close-up magic and I love performing it. A huge chunk of my stage act can be done close-up as well because that's where it originated from. I still perform some walk-around magic at well-to-do cocktail parties, but my difficulty is that due to the demand for my floor show I simply do not get enough chances to perform it anymore. Hence my ability to learn and polish new close-up material is hindered.
Right now I'm in the fortunate position of being able to decline work, and I absolutely refuse to work as an 'atmosphere magician.' That's where you and several other variety performers are hired to walk around and entertain the guests. They don't really want you, they want someone to dress up and do tricks for them. And generally it's crappy pay. Of course, if the arse fell out of my business, that's exactly what I'd do. I'd also allow myself to be seen working close-up when the job could lead to more lucrative engagements or generates publicity.
AW: You've done a fair bit of television over the years. How do you feel this affects your work? Does it spoil material for paying audiences, or isn't it an issue?
PC: If you're already a ‘star', the world of television is your close friend. It can put bums on seats but it does chew up material in large gulps, just ask The Amazing Jonathan. However, because magic carries with it both the mystery and the use of different volunteers, an audience can still watch it many times and enjoy it immensely. TV is not one of my personal priorities at the moment as I presently specialise in the corporate market where business is generated by word of mouth ( ie. you're only as good as your last show.)
I do question some of television's merits, though, for an act that is largely 'unknown'. Sporadic TV appearances will increase your confidence and help you overcome your nerves and stress and eventually you will learn to tame the beast, but unless you use a strategic attack and appear on it regularly and in particular, on night time television, it is
basically pointless. Most people find it difficult to remember names and they particularly do not remember the bland or the common. When I choose to go public however, I will use it with a vengeance.
AW: Have you ever considered your own TV show?
PC: Yes. Do you know any sponsors that don't have any
AW: Okay, Sacramento...
PC: Andrew, you know me, so you know I hate to big note myself; but on this occasion I feel justified in saying a few words in my defense.
If you witnessed the standing ovation I received at the Adelaide convention in 1992 or if you were at the 25th Australian convention held in Melbourne in 1996, or the 24th New Zealand Magic convention held in March 1997, you may be excused if you are scratching
your heads wondering what the fuss is about. If you weren't in Melbourne or Napier recently then let me humbly say that Bob Sheets, Tom Ogden, and Aldo Columbini will all attest as to who kicked arse at those two conventions.
In any case, let me say that I was absolutely delighted with the response I received at the
`Convention in the Capital' and the controversy that did occur as a consequence was, in
hindsight, a bonus. Normally, magicians don't get that carried away with being an audience so I really felt I did my job well to have created such an emotional response.
I would be lying however if I didn't say I was a little disappointed at being so grossly misunderstood by an uncomfortably large section of this one particular `magician only` audience. I'm guessing but, at worst, approximately 45 people out of the 300 magicians - ie.15% - did not relate to the act. They also then tried to rally support for their dislikes
and for their well-intentioned views. Ultimately, this was of course, my fault.
I am aware that the successful integration of my brand of magic and comedy is absolutely dependent upon, above all else, an audience being never in doubt as to what my
performance style is. Therein lies the problem. Some of them were in doubt and missed the point entirely.
Apparently the cut and restored tie was a big fooler at the convention, so it is obvious
that they did not suspend their disbelief. They will find it hard to admit but I believe they misread the act. I don't blame the people who misunderstood me, the fact is I didn't fully read a portion of the audience correctly. I really didn't give the American conservatives much of a chance to make the appropriate mental adjustments and to place the act in it's rightful context. Furthermore, I also believe that due to the success of my close-up performances earlier in the day some of the magicians may have also been under the expectation that my persona would be the same as when performing close-up. ie. nice and palatable. Oops!
The controversy could have been avoided, I'm sure, had I done the week's work that I did at the Magic Castle before the convention and not after it because not only would I have been less jet lagged but this would have given me 21 shows in which to soften the edges - to “Americanize” - and therefore I would have been better prepared to help sell myself to the purists. If I had perhaps attacked the first few minutes of my act in a more explanatory manner then maybe the theorists would have better known from where I was coming and would then have perceived me to be a warm and friendly guy. Mind you, if I had done that they wouldn't be talking about me like they are now would they?
Remember what I said in my lecture notes? "Your performance style should make it quite clear that you're only kidding and if you were to take any perceived `mistreatment' of a spectator or any particular insult of mine seriously - if you support it, believe it, or take offence at it independent of any other, you have missed the point and joke entirely". Under this framework then it would be very easy to assume that I was making a fool out of an audience volunteer just for the sake of it. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If you care to take a little closer look, I do care about my volunteers and my audience. I treat them all as if they are all my mates. I want to have a good time with them. In fact, the better time the ‘victim' has, the better time the audience has. On stage I use a lot of stage cues - surprise, surprise! - and I always try to treat my audience assistants with good judgment, empathy and understanding. They are embarrassed already just being on stage so I try to make them feel comfortable and at home with me and under no circumstances do I let them lose their dignity.
Now lets put all this into perspective. We are talking about a ‘handful' of dogmatic magicians who disagreed with my stage persona on principle. Now that I think about it, this was the same reaction most Australian magicians gave me when I first appeared on the scene way back at the 1984 Brisbane convention. For being different the "old guard" in fact barred ‘the new kid on the block' from the local I.B.M ring for 3 months! To these magicians I say, “remember, it's all an act” and the object is to have everyone caught up in the absurdity of it all. If it's all too believable for you then whose fault is that? A lay audience on the other hand, can and will only too easily suspend their disbelief and moreover they are rarely fooled into thinking that the sit-com created on stage right before their eyes is actually a reality.
AW: As you mentioned, in the past, your act has received some adverse comment from Australian magicians. My personal opinion is that (quite apart from your phenomenal success) some magicians don't appreciate that there should be a diversity of styles in magic. How do you feel about these criticisms, and how valid are they?
PC: Ever since 1985 when I started to consistently win Australian entertainment awards and earn big bucks, any adverse comments from magicians have been like water off a duck's back. Even if I was to never win another award, my record in the entertainment industry, to date, speaks for itself.
I've taken Peter Reveen's advice and learnt to “float above” all the small time politics, paranoia and petty professional jealousies that occur from time to time.
You can't please everyone. I only allow the real spectators, the punters to be my critics, because laymen tend to recall what they like about your show, whereas magicians only remember what they didn't like. I'm consistently working night after night so unless you're paying the cheques, go take a hike.
So as long as they're talking about me I'm happy. Like me or hate me I'm making a noise and with God willing, I won't go away. It would be remiss of me not to pass on my thanks to my few detractors because without them I wouldn't be enjoying the publicity. It's beyond me why people bother to be so negative. What's their motive? On the other hand, I am also sincerely thankful for the tonnes of support which I have received from both within Australia and from around the world. Truly a heartwarming surprise!
I've always challenged pre-conceived ideas. I don't fear failure, I fear mediocrity. You knock me down and I'll flatten you as I bounce back!
The controversy at Sacramento has been a much needed shot in the arm for me. It's better than winning at FISM!
AW: Many magicians assume that your “victims” are truly upset by their treatment. Any comments?
PC: Bullshit. If my “victims” were truly upset I wouldn't and couldn't work in the corporate market at all. I thought my job as a magician was to make things look believable! Everybody in the show is at some point stage-cued. Am I being accused by magicians of managing to make it look too real? Here's a fax from a corporate client who I performed for only 2 days after returning from the USA.
(Cass waves a fax in my face from Price Waterhouse via his agent GLC, which reads; “Just to let you know how wonderful Phil Cass was at our function on Saturday night. He is a true professional and thank you for the recommendation.”)
Hang on a tick, I want to go and get my lecture notes. I can't say it any better than this; "In magic circles there is a school of thought in which some theorists will inform you that you should not insult your audience but, ironically, it’s often they who insult and abuse their audiences most, when - and if - they work, by being antiquated in style and relevance and by performing corny and inappropriate presentations that really are basically out-of-date and unsuitable for present-day adult audiences."
The small amount of insult humour that I do use in my act is basically just my rather perverse way of being friendly. You've got to walk a fine line with very big clown shoes on. The bigger the shoes, the finer the line. The finer the line, the easier it is to fall. To take the mickey out of someone in fun, to me, is not insulting.... it’s actually showing affection. It’s within my stage persona to kid people about things that are unimportant. Harmless things. Things they probably kid themselves about.
AW: Why do you prefer to use the 'real' electric chair, instead of the classic stooge method? Has this caused any problems? (There has been some talk of somebody suing someone over this method.)
PC: I've been using the electric chair for 3 years. It was bought in the USA at the Desert Magic Seminar in 1995. I've never had a problem with its acceptance in any way. I always try to pick the right sort of guy for the chair routine. Ideally that person is someone larger than me and who therefore could possibly hurt me if they so desired, but he does have to be able to take a practical joke and has to be intelligent enough to realise the affect he's having on the audience; and then to milk it for all it's worth! I stage cue if this criterion is not met or I will simply make a judgement not do the routine until the next guy comes up on stage.
Let me say in addition that it's such a strong bit of business that it would be one of the very last items I would delete from my act. My stage persona allows me to do it for real and get away with it. I think it is almost expected of me. The comedy that is generated from the effect comes from a far different angle than some would expect. It does not come from the spectator losing his cool, as in the stooge method, but rather it comes more from the tension that is created by the magician having the ability to talk the spectator into trusting him and getting him to actually sit back down on the chair. The consequent expectations are classic laws of comedy. That's the reason why I do the chair for real. It adds believability.
The shock itself is generated from a 9 volt battery and is not strong. The chair does not really ‘hurt' but that's not to say that it doesn't have a bit of pep to it, (particularly when an old battery is replaced by a new one). To the sensitive I suppose it may hurt a little more than most, but it's still only a localised zap and it is impossible to travel to the heart.
Both Philippa and I sit on the chair to check it every now and then. In fact, it was Philippa's initial reaction and the subsequent howls of laughter from the magicians - including a couple of Australian attendees - in the dealer’s room in Las Vegas that sold me on the idea in the first place! I repeat, it's not that strong but it does have a bit of a kick to it and it's made worse psychologically by the expectation. But think about it : if it really was ‘hurtful' it should go without saying that I would not be performing it and, besides, nobody would sit back down on it again, no matter what! That has never happened.
In fact, I would say that approximately 50% of my ‘victims' don't get out of the chair at all, they just sit there and take it. They have to be stage cued to get out of the chair and to give the appropriate response. The response I always arrive at is the one Brandon (the guy in Sacramento) gave me first up. He jumped out immediately and gave me that “You little bugger" look! Brandon has since confirmed that he did enjoy himself with me, as I did with him, and that I had cued him on stage by saying he was doing great. In other words I thought he was milking the effect really well. Unfortunately, he was given unwarranted negative attention after the show, which I think he started to believe.
He actually said to me though, after the show, that it did hurt a bit but probably because he was ultra sensitive. He went on to say that it was no big deal and didn't understand what all the fuss was about. Brandon was a good bloke. The second guy to sit on the chair was Enrico, the guy whose tie I cut. He also has confirmed publicly that the chair was nothing to worry about and the controversy was just an overreaction by some magicians. He also had a great time on stage with me and stated that he did not feel mistreated at all but, rather,
he felt special.
I cue everybody that joins me on stage, not just in this routine but in all of my routines and this is without exception; from the things they say to the things they do. Stage cues can be so effective and can be done so well that no-one knows you're actually doing it. It's one of those invisible skills that never receives any credit from magicians and laymen alike. Except of course from the ones being cued.
Incidentally, I have performed the same electric chair routine strictly in a stooged environment. For those who can recollect, I performed the chair on the Midday Show on an older gentleman. The chair was not working that day. It broke prior to the show, so he was stooged. To me, it appears so obvious that he's acting and if you watch it again you'll see what I mean. Magicians still thought though, “you poor bastard!” and still blamed me for mistreating him. I didn't though! A case of being too believable again? So, what's the difference? I can't win either way. So is it wrong for me to take risks for the sake of believability? I don't think so.
AW: Apparently Mike Maxwell was so disappointed with your performance that he flew you back the next week to tape a video; can you tell us about that?
PC: Mike Maxwell has no regrets about my appearance at his convention, or of the half-page photo that appeared on the front page of the main Sacramento newspaper, which showed the guy with the cut tie, me, and the duck. He was very happy with my close-up
performance, my stand-up show and the lecture. The response from my lecture was also very pleasing for me personally. My lecture was at midnight on the second night so I expected only a few to turn up but I still had about 200 in attendance and it allowed me to clarify some of the earlier misunderstandings. Oh yeah; I sold out of everything, including
all my books.
In fact, during the week after the convention, while I was working in L.A. at the Magic Castle, Mike Maxwell began to receive more and more calls as to where they can obtain my lecture notes and in particular my presentation of the pea and shell game. Word of mouth at its best! Now, Michael is not only a first rate magician himself but he is also an astute business man, so after we settled on a price he then flew both Philippa and I back to Sacramento for a video shoot of a live close-up performance, culminating in an explanation of the pea and the shell routine and the water across routine. An hour on film took 10 hours to shoot! I was thrilled to be given the opportunity. With all things being equal , A1 Multimedia is expected to release the video in July 1998.
AW: Any plans for the future?
PC: To stay out of prison!!
AW: I think that about covers it. Do you have any final comments that you would like to make?
PC: No, we should finish there - I think I’ve overstayed my welcome as it is... No, wait! If anyone would like to be a guest of mine at any one of my corporate shows - and it doesn't matter which city - please feel free to phone me on 02-98802335. The offer is there, as it has always been, to see firsthand why the act works. In this way you will not be influenced by second or third-hand prejudices. Oh, you can ring me on that number as well if you want to buy my lecture notes. Reprints are on their way!
Interview with Philippa- the other Phil in the Phil & Phil Show
Let me first say that I, Philippa, Phil Cass’ assistant will be answering these questions and not Phil. This will be from my perspective. He hates blowing his own trumpet for two reasons …..1) He hasn't got one and 2) He hasn’t got the time to learn it!
Well Philippa, tell us about Phil’s beginnings would you?
When Phil was a boy growing up amongst the flowers of Toowoomba, Queensland, his mother had bought him a magic book. However, this was quickly forgotten about, when as a teen he noticed the flowers blooming and his strong urge to pick them.
No…he wasn’t a florist!
Time moved on and so did he, to Brisbane. He hated being a brickies labourer but had a talent for selling pots and pans door to door. He very quickly moved on to selling insurance and due to his success was admitted as an exclusive member of the AMP MILLIONS CLUB, which only allows the very top salesmen to be part of. At the same time he was completing his economics degree and playing professional rugby league for Souths R.L.F.C. in Brisbane. Although a regular A grader he was never to play representative football and his greatest claim to fame was to play along side Mal Meninga, Bob Lindner, Peter Jackson and Gary Belcher.
A very busy boy in 1983/4.….
Was Phil always an entertainer at heart?
I think so. He was often scoffed at by his footy mates for spending half an hour blow drying his hair. They used to joke that Phil had been seen running down the side- line with a football in one hand and a blow drier in the other! Definite signs of an entertainer unborn!
His coach, Bob McCarthy said publicly once that he could never understand how a bloke with such magical hands could play on the wing, have the line wide open and then drop the ball!
You see, it was around this time that Phil had discovered magic for a second time in his life. He was aged 26 and his girlfriend Lee Watters had given him a magic trick for a present (Professors’ Nightmare). And so the magician in Phil was discovered. To his and his friends amazement he was a ‘natural’ and a bloody funny too! Yes, he was bitten by the bug and this was no ordinary bug, for Phil did not just go to the Magic and Fun shop in the Piccadilly Arcade in Brisbane to by a few more tricks, he went in there and bought the whole shop! Damn BIG bug…
Phil could be spotted busking in the Queen Street Mall until one night a socialite lady in the know took a liking to Phil and his Aussie style, and thought he would be a treat to have at a charity fund raiser she was organising for Amies Jewellery shop. He was an immediate hit and as a consequence he became the hottest thing to have at your party or function. The snowball to the corporate world was set in motion. At the end of 1985 Phil realised he had become so busy with his magic that it was time to let his insurance days go and turn into a full-time wally…ooops …..magician.
Has Phil’s background played a part in his success?
To some degree. Phil often says that if the product is good enough it will sell itself but as we all know, you can’t just do the show without the business, so being an insurance salesman with a background in economics has in some token way helped Phil develop the skills to sell himself. I have often heard Phil say that you are only as good as your last show, which is so true and a very good thing for upcoming magicians to keep in mind. Strangely he gets a weird sense of pleasure in being able to say no to jobs that compromise his production standards. You’d think at the fee Phil charges he wouldn’t mind so much. You know, smile & take the money and run. But no. Just recently he even said no to the Prime Minister!
More impressively, I have never seen Phil do a gig half-hearted. Similar to his football days, his will to win is unshakeable. I have even seen him do two full illusion shows in the peak of suffering Hepatitis A, which he caught after a trip and gig in exotic Papua New Guinea, but never half-hearted. Ahhhh, the show must go on!
What were your first recollections of him?
Phil had been cultivating a name for himself in Brisbane and the Gold Coast for a few years before I came on the scene. One of his regular haunts was the famed ‘Fisherman’s Wharf’ on the Gold Coast where he dressed up as Phil le Cat, a sexy,
toned and fit, cute wisecracking clown type who could have got away with murder but he wasn’t that psycho! I fondly remember admiring how he would start his pea and shell game, performing to a table of ten people or so, and within minutes would have at least half of the people in the beer garden all crowding around craning their necks to see three little shells and a pea and egging the punter on to bet more money! Talk about pulling a crowd! Phil worked numerous other popular hot spots at that time, either as Phil le Cat or as Phil Cass, mainly doing close-up which nearly always ended up as a simulated stand-up floorshow because the crowds just kept gathering around, …..as they do! However, always looking for more, Phil put his sensors out and was also doing ESP routines and some other cool stuff on 4BC radio in Brisbane. Oh, oh, oh, I nearly forgot about Mr Juicy, the corporate sponsored clown on Channel 7 Super Saturday Show! Man, he beats Krusty the Clown hands down! But hey, it was good at the time,……and now too,…….watching it back now, it is not only roll around on the floor LOL (laughing out loud) material, but it’s great therapy for when you get depressed and don’t think you’ve come very far!!!
How did you both meet?
I met Phil after all this had happened although he was still at Fisherman’s Wharf and the Carlton Crest Hotel in Brisbane, and a few other places as a regular and it wasn’t until years later that I discovered it was actually he who was Mr Juicy whom I used to watch as an impressionable teenager!! Anyway, I’d first really came across magic in 1987 when I was 18yrs old and working at Jupiters Casino in the production show called ‘STARZ’. It was my first full-time professional gig as a dancer/acrobat, and it was just fantastic to be able to work along side internationally acclaimed acts such as the late Barclay Shaw – the master of marionette puppets and the late but the great George Carl – God bless him, and later in the shows’ season the Pendragons came on board as guest artists. As a fellow performer I naturally got the back stage views of the magic that was wowing the audience and intriguing me at the same time. I couldn’t believe how hard Charlotte worked and how quick her changes were!
Anyway, as fate would have it……a magician who was looking for an assistant, found out I was leaving the casino at the conclusion of the STARZ contract and arranged to meet me in the bio box. I whizzed up there after the Venetian Clown number with hair scraped back in a bun, eyelashes up to my eyebrows, a little white leotard and white kung-fu shoes with big red bows on them! I walked in the door, began to speak and without even looking Phil Cass ‘shushed’ me up, waited till The Pendragons had finished their act, turned around, looked me up and down and then said, “You’ve got the job”. I said, “Well that’s great, but what do I have to do”? He then said, “Just turn up to rehearsal next week”.
And that my friends was the easiest audition I’d ever done!!
( I even thought he was a prick before I met him… now of course, I know he is.
Joke Joyce. )
Our first show together was at Seagulls R.L.F.C. in August 1987 and we did illusions such as the Geometric, Levitation, Stocks, Impalement and the dreaded Buzzsaw. The first time I’d gone through the Buzzsaw was on our first show night. Phil didn’t want to do it in rehearsal just in case something bad happened and I wouldn’t be here for the show! I was shaking in my boots that much I could hardly walk! I thought I was going to die on stage and I think my brother thought I had because he passed out in the audience during the part where I screamed and flopped about! Welcome to the ever exciting and adrenaline pumped world of magic…….We also performed the stand-up comedy routines that Phil has now become quite famous for. Much has changed over the years as we have fine tuned, changed, added and thought out the proper psychology for each routine and also in which order they work best to be able to emotionally hook an audience and take them on a little journey.
Do you love your job Philippa?
I love my career in show business and I am sure that magic is something that I will be involved with for the rest of my life. Working with Phil throughout the years, all twelve of them, has been a unique and thrilling existence and I wouldn’t dream of doing anything else. I love travelling and have been doing heaps of that. It’s great, I think, to be able to do what you love doing, travel the world, stay in luxury hotels and be wined and dined, and also meet a lot of wonderfully eccentric people,…..it really is the ultimate in life experience! He takes me to all the good places…
What qualities does Phil like about you when working together?
Hmm, I’ll have to ask him.
I’ve just yelled out to Phil in his office and his reply came back pretty instantly. He said, “My butt!!”. I asked if he would like to expand on this,….He said, “No”. Anyway, after being pushed a little bit more he managed to get some blood to his other brain! I quote… “I like that you’re natural, fun and sexy, ummm…, you find me funny enough to laugh at all my jokes still. I like that we can party and experience a lot of fun trips together and I like the fact that you reassure me if I feel insecure.” (Okay, now he’s dribbling!). “Ahhh, what else, ummm, oh, I like it when I start adlibbing and go on a tangent and get totally lost and that you are there to prompt me and get me back on track. I really like that you have the ability to fake all of the above!” (Cheeky devil!). “Hmmmm, oh, I also like that you are strong and have the ability to lift heavy road cases and that you can drive trucks, that way I don’t have to.” (Anything else?) “Oh, I like that you work cheap!”
That’s it! I’m demanding a pay rise!!
What do you think is Phil’s character on stage?
Phil’s character in his shows is one of a witty practical joker with a very cheeky sense of humour and who can psychologically twist an audience’s mind.
His stage presence kills. He’s real and genuine and has no fake smiles.
This is how the public evaluate Phil judging by the feedback I get after our shows and I guess is the very reason why The Footy Show and the corporate market use him so often. Phil is an individual performer who has his own line marked out. All of the time he walks his line with big clown shoes on. Sometimes he may teeter over but he has the sensibility to know this, and get back on the line and regain his balance. This is what I believe makes Phil exciting for an audience member…..he’s not just another ‘nice’guy doing tricks…..he tries to make his show a memorable experience and the only way to do that is to king hit the audience emotionally. (And yes, the loud bang at the start of the show works more than 99 times out of a 100…it’s worth the risk.)
How do you want the public to see Phil Cass?
Australian, likeable, extremely entertaining and worth the money.
How do you think Phil wants the magic community to see him?
Anyway they wish.
What successes stand out in your mind?
Some of the experiences and shows that I would say stand out in Phil’s mind would first of all be the time he won the close-up and stage competitions on the Magic-Cruise which allowed him to work in front of magicians such as Michael Ammar, Dai Vernon, Harry Blackstone Jnr, Milt, Bill & Irene Larson, etc etc, and rub shoulders with them after. A little boy in a candy shop! Apart from the monetary prizes he won he was also asked to perform for a week at the Magic Castle, Hollywood. He was also awarded an honorary life membership to the Magic Castle. A fairy tale ending to that trip was getting married to Lee Watters, with Dai Vernon giving the bride away and Bill Larson as the best man, inside the Parlour of Prestidigitation at the Magic Castle. Phil and I have since performed there several times over the years and in each room. We just love it over there! A very special place indeed. (That is if you can afford to work there. That’s another one of my little jokes.)
Also, there have been big events such as World Expo ’88 where we were contracted to perform in the Piazza and on the River Stage. The Piazza was a challenging venue because we were surrounded 360 degrees by the audience and were performing illusions such as the Buzzsaw, the Impalement and the Geometric. With initiative and careful choreography we were able to overcome the ‘having no wings, front or back curtain syndrome’ and still perform professionally.
The Indy Grand Prix Ball in 1992 was an exhilarating experience for us. Phil was given a very, very handsome budget to come up with something spectacular. And that he did! It was six months in the making and a lot of sleepless nights, but in the end Phil produced a mind-blowing, fantastic, major illusion show with the help of the executive producer, Ray Maguire. He appeared a whole string of flags, including two gigantic ones, followed by a dove production, a live duck and then myself all from the one empty box, (thank goodness the duck decided to mind his manners, not like in rehearsal! Oh, the glamour!). Then he produced a pony, an Indy Racing car with Miss Indy inside, and then a full sized elephant……and this was all in the opening four-minute number.
His inspiration came from the late Harry Blackstone Jnr.
Later on, he appeared a motorbike that was then vanished in mid-air with Phil on board, and instantaneously Phil was spotted atop the elephant at the back of the ballroom!
The Impalement was also a feature illusion in the show and was performed amid 3D theatre flats of a graveyard and church with eight dancers, great choreography by Tod McKinney (now of Boy from Oz fame), fire, coffins and amazing lighting combinations from Showcorp and performed to the music of Enigma’s ‘Principles of Lust’ song.
It was such a delight to have the budget to make the impalement illusion a spectacular piece of theatre. Phil believes the illusion requires me to stay dead, in keeping with him playing a devil and not a god with the ability to resurrect me.
Those of you who were at the 1992 Melbourne Convention may remember seeing this displayed on the big screen. There are snippets of this show throughout Phil’s promotional video, which is also a credit to Phil’s methods of marketing. A little hint for those of you who are lucky enough to score a big budget show….spend a little of your own money and get a three camera shoot done of the show. It is an investment in your future and you’re just plain stupid if you don’t!
An underwater escape for IBM in the Southport Broadwater in 1989 also stands out as a highlight. A very large performance fee accompanied his very real fear of ‘bities’ in the water.
Another memorable high budget show was for Hyundi, where Phil appeared their current sedan, then it disappeared before there very eyes and a couple of seconds later the Hyundi new release station wagon appeared in its place. That totally blew the audiences brains out as they were sitting only 10ft away from the action. Consequently Phil received a spontaneous and enthusiastic standing ovation, (as opposed to an engineered one), – and that, in my opinion, is the best heartfelt compliment a performer can earn from an audience. The good thing about standing ovations is that once you’ve got a taste for them, you strive all the time to achieve another and that in turn lifts your standards on its own.
The ‘Stars of Illusion’ show, which was part of the 1996 Sydney Festival and performed at the Sydney Entertainment Centre for a three week period would have to be a highlight for me and for him too I suppose. It wasn’t exactly the right venue for the style of acts chosen but we had the honour to perform with other world class acts such as those Wizards from Warsaw – the Great Tomsoni and the even greater Pam, Otto Wesley & Krista, Galina, Christopher Hart & Thing, Mike Caveney, Nicholas Knight and Kinga, Fukai and Kimika, Ray Crowe and The Pendragons. Hats off to Doug Tremlett who was the producer/director of this fabulous event. It was a long enough stint, so everyone got to know each other quite well to go out socially and enjoy the sights of Sydney and Otto found the nightlife……now that’s one hell of a crazy fun-loving guy. He even stripped in a restaurant and performed close-up magic in his underwear! Why? Because it was a fun and funny thing to do!! Never a dull moment – he was great value. Down to earth with no false airs.
What’s he up to lately?
On a more up to date level Phil has directed his energies more into comedy magic. An audience expression we love to see is not so much the expression of surprise but the condition when people have been belly laughing that hard, they have to get a hanky or serviette to wipe those laughter tears away! That’s what you call emotional involvement. After the show we have people come up to us and complain that their jaws ache from laughing so long and so hard!
He is enjoying the notoriety he is getting out of appearing as a regular on the Footy Show on Channel Nine. He was on seven times throughout 1999 and is on again this year on even a more regular basis. This has been excellent for Phil, not only because it’s a new medium in which he can perform his special brand of comedy and magic, but also because it has done wonders as far as lifting his public profile, which in the end allows Phil to tour, and have a new challenge of pulling in his own crowds. Although Phil is still very hot to trot in the corporate field of entertainment, it’s just all the more sweeter to be able to pull a crowd with your namesake and have people pay good money to come to see just you.
Good luck to him……I know he deserves this.
What is the difference in doing magic for live TV as opposed to a live audience?
From my observations of Phil, the stress levels! In live television the time limits can be restrictive on your creativity and the delivery. There is a lack of artistic control and there is no room for error.
What motivates him?
Phil’s ambition to constantly succeed and grow has always impressed me. He could easily retire now but he’d go bananas with boredom. He loves performing too much.
Phil comes down on himself hard. He is always looking for ways to improve.
He very much competes with himself. After every show we chat about it, the flow, the audience reaction, his timing, (which is a crucial factor in performing comedy and magic), and analyse it to see if anything could have been done better or maybe not done at all or if any new bits come along that we liked we take notes. Another excellent fine tuning method is to video your performances, not only to learn of your idiosyncrasies in the present but as mentioned before, they can be used for your future LOL entertainment pleasure. Believe me,…..you are your worst critic!
What disappoints him?
a) His own shortcomings.
b) The highest form of flattery…imitation.
c) If there was a 500 strong audience and he sees one person in the front not enjoying the show or his personality it not so much disappoints him but it generally bothers him. It then becomes a mission for him during that show to make that one audience member laugh and have a good time.
Phil has caused a little controversy over the years both here and in America. Does it concern him?
Not in the slightest I reckon. Rather, I’d say he enjoys it. If they’re talking about him then I know he is making it. Let me paraphrase some of what Phil says in his lecture notes… “Anyone who is setting his own path and doing things differently will often encounter first bewilderment and then often derision. It’s par for the course. Eventually when they see you are well on the way to reaching your goals then there will often be a turnaround of attitude. The wonderful thing about having a sense of destination is that you shoot past the thousands whose lives are in neutral.” He has never forgotten Peter Reveen’s advice…“you must learn to float above all that”.
Can you let us into his philosophy, ambition, his dreams & goals then?
He wants a business card that just reads > Phil Cass <
More seriously, do yourself a favour and have a read of Phil’s essay on philosophy in his book, “Oh No, Not a Magician”. He says it best there.
From my point of view though, I’d say he’s already living his dream and his ability to drink adds a bit of realism!
As far as his goals, really short term….it is to live another day!
Short term – well, as I mentioned before, Phil is embarking on an exciting period as we speak. Not only is he performing in the upper echelon of the corporate market, also this year and next year there will be a personal drive by Phil for people to come to see his shows, as in, a ‘bums on seats tour’. Not as part of a production show or a variety show, but within his own right….if it fails, he’ll keep trying I’m sure. He’s had a taste of what it’s like to have an audience buy a ticket just to see him alone….he likes it and wants more!
His long- term goal is basically to have the foresight and ability to keep up with the changing times, always remaining fresh with his finger firmly on the pulse, and to continue being an entertainer in the true sense of the word.
If he keeps working consistently towards his goals he should eventually get there.
What about lecturing then?
One disadvantage about being so much in demand is that you don’t really have that much time to write books and be creative and go on lecture tours and all those sorts of things. Being a ‘Magic Star’ has never really been a priority with him. If his schedule in his performance oriented work area does happen to ever slow down, I’m sure Phil would simply redirect his energies.
Compared to his performances there is very little money to be made out of it for him and he doesn’t have that much time to give to it but nevertheless when his schedule permits he does enjoy it as he likes the challenge and it has caused him to have many a sleepless night! He has successfully lectured in the capital cities of Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, The Magic Castle and also the S.A.M. Convention in Sacramento twice. Accompanying these lectures apart from myself, was the book “Oh No, Not a Magician” which Phil wrote as his first lecture notes. A book all budding and not so budding magicians should have and can still buy. Check out www.philcass.com in the section called merchandise.
While I’m on the subject, Phil also had a video produced by A1 Multi-Media performing and teaching his world class pea and the shell game. This came about because of the strong impact Phil made on the magicians at the 1997 S.A.M. Convention during his close-up spot. Having a good head for business and knowing a brilliant and marketable routine when he sees one, Mike Maxwell from A1 Multi-Media quickly propositioned Phil and the deal was done. It was an extremely exciting time for Phil and another valuable learning curve for which he is most grateful. It was an unexpected milestone, which Phil enthusiastically jumped on! What a blast! I’ve always been extremely proud of Phil and his achievements because, I of all people, know how hard he really works, and when you witness what I call an ‘industry payback’ to someone deserving like this, it makes you feel good inside.
Does he have trouble switching off?
Nope, not any more. Phil does have interests outside of magic, which I suppose makes him human after all! His two sons Jacob and Joshua are his number one interest and he tries to spend as much time as possible with them when we are not working. He shares a wonderful relationship with them both as they all have a great sense of humour, so there’s always heaps of fun when they are around. He also enjoys and takes a lot of pride in their growth as children, and doing normal fatherly things. Jacob is in to soccer and basketball, and he’s also a computer whiz. Joshua loves his football and magic and taking the mickey out of Dad with lines like, “Why can’t I have a normal father?”. They all love to play computer games and verse each other at Duke Nukem 3D, Unreal, and Quake on the modem. Phil is pretty much an addict….he’s ranked No.56 in the world on the ladder game for Duke Nukem. He sometimes plays into the wee hours of the morning.
Not being the type of people who like to hide in our comfort zone all snug as a bug in a rug, when we travel over to New Zealand for example we tend to get the adventurous spirit and we engage in activities we wouldn’t normally partake in, like err… rabbit hunting…..“be very, very quiet” as Elma Fudd would say.
We also both enjoy 4WD getaways that allow us to escape the madness and get away from it all on our secret hideaway beach. We camp in the dunes with the waves at our tent doorstep and cook gourmet meals and drink fine wines whilst we take in the mother of all million dollar views! Other than consuming the fine wines, Phil also enjoys cigars, practical jokes, tigers, football and sex! He’s a party animal. I don’t think Phil thinks of these interests as hobbies, rather, I think they are possibly lifelong necessities, especially the practical jokes!
What’s it like to live with a practical joker?
Extremely funny. Aside from him constantly jumping out from around corners and scaring the absolute beejeevers out of me, or the old glad wrap on the toilet seat joke, or the very recent whoopee cushion incident, and things going bang when you pick them up, he has pulled off some big ones that has given him a reputation amongst his close circle of friends as an incredibly crafty practical joker!
Nick Penn, a comedian friend, once rang Phil on discovering he had Phil’s golf clubs (Phil forgot he had left them in the back of Nick’s Tarago), and jokingly left a message saying that if he ever wanted to see his golf clubs again he was not to contact the police but to meet him at a nearby golf club. Well, poor Nick, he didn’t know what he just got himself into. Do not contact the police were the magic words. Phil organised (ie. paid) two policemen to turn up at Nick’s door in relation to a charge of stolen goods (nothing was said about the golf clubs). It was all very authentic looking, right down to the ‘attitude’ and the clothes. When Nick answered his door he was told he would have to accompany them to Hornsby Police Station where the accusation was filed. Nick was now on a life trip he would not forget! He left the cops at the door and went in to the kitchen and telephoned his solicitor and left a message for him to meet him at Hornsby Police station then he grabbed his girlfriend for moral support and went back to the door. The uniformed police handcuffed him and led him to their unmarked police car and helped Nick in the back (….hand on the head, just like in the movies). Nick had now turned white and was perspiring and feeling very shaky made worse because the drive across town was very, very long….tension build up was immense….
Not much was said the whole way until the cops veered off the Pacific Highway onto Livingstone Ave…Phil’s street. The cops then turned to Nick and said, “Relax mate, we’re not cops we’re actors, strippers actually, and you’ve just been had by Phil Cass!”. By that time they were pulling into Phil’s driveway and we were all there waiting for him, laughing and clapping. Nick was that gob-smacked he just stood there in disbelief, white as a ghost with a punch drunk grin on his face. It took him about two hours to get over the shock before he could join the party!
I must tell you that Nick got him back. On Phil’s birthday we returned from working in Coolum to find that his house had been robbed. Everything was gone. A candid camera trapped Phil’s expression! Surprise! Good one!!
Well I guess we’ll have to leave it there Philippa. Is there anything else?
Well, when I first started to answer your questions my head was in a bit of a spin because after so many years full of rich and exciting experiences where does one start. You may want to surf into Phil’s web site address www.philcass.com and ask him whatever you want to know. If you don’t take the trouble to get to know Phil first hand, than you’re really missing out on meeting a fabulously eccentric old bastard!!
Bye bye for now…