Dennis Watkins wants to put some magic back in our lives.
After the COVID-19 pandemic shut down The Magic Parlour, the intimate magic shows he'd been doing on Friday and Saturday nights at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel for eight years (and before that for two years at the Chopin Theatre), the third-generation magician started brainstorming with his team about new ways to entertain people and to keep himself engaged in his craft.
The result was The Magic Parlour Happy Hour, a 45-minute, livestream magic performance he launched from his home studio on April 2. Modeled on the twice-weekly Encore Room, the even more intimate sessions that supplemented his five weekend shows at the Palmer House, the Happy Hour is scheduled to livestream with new material from his overall live repertoire every other Thursday. The first one included five pieces of magic, among them the shell game, Joe the Bellhop, and putting the string back together. There also was audience participation and a short Q & A.
But that's not all. With his nationwide corporate business also suspended, Watkins decided to add Magic Mondays to his online lineup on April 6. These are prerecorded, and the first one demonstrated a simple piece of magic—the coin through the table (with salt shaker and napkin)—then showed how it was done. The second, using his husband as a volunteer and their one-year-old son as a most adorable assistant, illuminated a bit of sleight-of-hand with a deck of cards that almost anyone can replicate.
“Unlike some magicians, I never really pursued on-camera magic because my shows depend so much on interacting with audiences,” Watkins explained, “but sharing some light and magic in a dark time really feels good to me.” The Happy Hour is for anyone, he said, while the Magic Mondays are meant to serve family audiences in a different way by keeping kids' and adults' imaginations engaged and active at the same time.
“I struggled a bit with giving away trade secrets, which risks destroying the magic,” he said, “but I don't have qualms about divulging basic, fun tricks that aren't part of my routines or my colleagues'.”
Although Watkins was told that all he needed was a phone and the Internet to livestream, he found it wasn't so easy. “I wanted something polished and professional that would be as representative of my work and of The Magic Parlour as possible, so it had to have a good, clear picture and sound,” he said. “I went down the quarantine rabbit hole trying to create a small television studio without any tech help.”
Fortunately, the grandfather who taught him magic was a photographer too, and Watkins already had equipment like four big studio lights, microphones, and cameras. His setup uses three cameras on different tripods to shoot different angles, three monitors so he can see what the audience is seeing and the other camera angles on deck so he can turn them on and off, feed in from his assistant Marika Mashburn working from her home, his rehearsal close-up-magic table, and a teleprompter to keep him on script as he's flip-flopping cameras, performing the magic, and so on.
One challenge was figuring out how to bring in guest volunteers without the usual 30-second lag. Watkins said he did a test with comments on Facebook live, and there was a lag, so he went back to the drawing board and found a way to livestream Skype. “This wasn't the area of my expertise, but I was happy with the way it came together,” he said, “It's pretty close to replicating the Encore Room experience.”
A big difference, Watkins discovered, was the size of the audience. While guests at the Palmer House were limited to 50 for The Magic Parlour and only 12 for the Encore Room, close to 600 people attended the first livestream, and it had 4,500 views as of April 11. The first of the Magic Mondays has gotten 953 views so far. (They stay up on the Facebook page.) “I expected mostly locals and Magic Parlour veterans,” Watkins said, “but viewers have come from all over the world, which is pretty exciting.”
It probably doesn't hurt that the Facebook programs are completely free, and Watkins has no intention of changing that. He said it doesn't seem like the right time or place to try to monetize but hopes viewers will be encouraged to buy tickets to the Palmer House shows – when there are live shows to support.
He also said that the online feeds have helped him develop virtual magic shows for corporate and private customers that are turning into a revenue stream for his company. “I've already booked several with existing clients,” he reported. “As this pandemic goes on and we work our way through it, I'm hoping that this business will grow.”
Even when the pandemic ends, The Magic Parlour Happy Hour and Magic Mondays will continue for the foreseeable future. Watkins said he's also working on incorporating the part of his act that's the biggest question mark: mentalism. “It's possible to do some mind reading through the screen,” he insisted, “just a bit more difficult.”
As with the whole endeavor, Watkins' enthusiasm and energy are boundless. “I'm having a blast,” he said. “It's a compulsion, but I love magic so much I'm not capable of taking time off.”