The Showman and the Conjuress

The Showman and the Conjuress

Seasoned illusionists Mark Kalin and his wife, Jinger Leigh, are set to make their Broadway debuts in November in the new installment of The Illusionists: Turn of the Century. Both performers — who are well-known in magic circles — are fulfilling lifelong dreams with bringing their art to the Main Stem. NY1 theater reporter Frank DiLella recently caught up with the pair to discuss their upcoming Broadway bows.

FRANK DILELLA: The two of you are making your onstage Broadway debuts with The Illusionists: Turn of the Century. What are you most looking forward to with making your Broadway bows?
JINGER LEIGH: It’s an all-encompassing thrill. We love what we do, we love performing, and to do it in a theatre that has the most vaudeville history of all of the theatres is going to be a sensation.

Yes, the Palace Theatre has quite the history. Judy Garland, Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, Bob Hope, Bette Midler, Lauren Bacall, Josephine Baker, Diana Ross, Shirley MacLaine — the list goes on — have all played the Palace.

MARK KALIN: Yes, that’s the thing that I’m looking forward to the most. When it was announced that we were in fact going to play the Palace — the Palace was the hub of vaudeville in the Golden Age. There’s great history there, and now after visiting the theatre and seeing the grandness, for me, I’m just looking forward to putting on a great magic show in this amazing environment. And that’s what excites me the most.

Jinger, you once had dreams of being a Broadway star.

JINGER: Yes. The Broadway factor holds a little more [it feels like a word is missing here] for me only because I grew up in Connecticut, so as a child I would go to all the Broadway musicals and shows, and I studied dance very young. I started taking the train into the city when I was 13 or 14 years old and I would take dance classes with all the kids on Broadway. And I loved that. So my dream when I was pursuing dance was that I would be on Broadway someday, and that’s finally happening! And I feel like we will now be a part of Broadway history!

This is the third installment of The Illusionists on Broadway. The show is doing something right: Magic seems to be popular for audiences today. We see it not just on Broadway but also on television.

MARK: Magic does sort of have a real cycle to it — stage magic in particular seems to have this cycle — where it dies out because magic doesn’t reinvent itself, magic doesn’t offer the audiences anything new, and so it tends to dissipate and die, and then there’s sort of a resurgence. In my career this is the third resurgence I’ve experienced. The Illusionists presents the best of stage magic. It encourages magicians to be competitive, to get in the show by creating new magic or a new approach. What we find out is that there’s an audience for it — and that’s the responsibility for the magicians, to make the magic relevant for audiences.

And this is a brand-new show, a nod to the Golden Age of magic.

MARK: We kind of look backwards to go forward. There was a lot of neat magic from the Golden Age and a lot of that was lost. A lot of stage magic moved to flashier, more Las Vegas–style performing. That became in fashion — that’s what we saw on television. And if you look back at some of the magicians and what they were performing in theatres like the Palace in 1920, they had some really intriguing dark, challenging magic, which was also quite topical for the time. I love this show because it puts a spotlight on what makes magic interesting to me and what’s interesting to audiences too.

JINGER: I do feel right now, in this current day of magic, magic is competitive again. It’s forcing innovation.

Speaking of the past: Who did you grow up idolizing in the world of magic?

MARK: I grew up in magic — I grew up in a magic club called The Long Beach Mystics — so I’ve been a huge fan of Doug Henning. Henning was a true original. Even before David Copperfield came along, Henning was creating new magic that revitalized the art form in a big way. Henning also put magic on Broadway with The Magic Show, which ran for a couple of years. [factual note: the show’s title was Doug Henning & His World of Magic  , and it ran from Dec. 1984-Jan. 1985]

JINGER: There aren’t too many females in magic, surprisingly, of my generation, but I’m one of the elders of my generation. [Laughs.] But if you go back in history, surprisingly the females were more prevalent in magic — I mean, going back to Toma, Adelaide Herrmann, these were headliners, these females, which is strange. Magic is a bit of a boys’ club. With magic these days, when you say, “Yes, I’m a female illusionist,” the guys say, “Yeah, OK.” Nowadays, females are the magicians’ assistants. Back then, most of the assistants to the female magicians were men. It wasn’t until the first cutting-the-woman-in-half  did a female become the magician’s assistant.

You guys are known for creating some big and splashy illusions. What’s the craziest illusion you’ve performed to date?

MARK: That’s easy: the challenge of vanishing an American Airlines jumbo jet on stage — twice nightly — five days a week for two years in a show called Carnival of Wonders that we performed and produced at the Reno Hilton. That theatre had a 1-acre stage — one of the largest stages in the world — and we had to come up with an illusion that fit the theatre, and that’s how we came up with that.

JINGER: And I think we still hold the record for the largest live illusion in the history of magic.

I know the stage of the Palace is smaller than an acre, so I’m assuming no jet for this show. What will we see in your Broadway show?

MARK: It’s an interesting combination. We have a very rich past to pull from — the Golden Age — so we’ve used that as our inspiration and to make our magic relevant for audiences. Jinger will do the floating sphere, which was a fascinating trick that was invented in 1910, but Jinger’s taking it much, much further, with a ball that will float not just on stage but over the audience. We do a re-creation of the original sawing-in-half. And lots more.

All right: Enough with the “magic” between the two of you on stage. How about off? How did you guys meet?

JINGER: There’s no real short answer to that question. [Laughs.] We met while working on a show in Guam. I was fortunate enough to be there with Mark at the same — I was a lead dancer in a show and he was the variety act — and I decided to finish the contract and leave. And I was going to go back to L.A., and I went to the front of the house to watch the show before I left. Basically I had spent six months with this guy in the same show but we had never spoken a word. And I watched his performance and I thought, What charisma, how magical he was, and it was something I never truly experienced. So after the show I went up to him and said, “I’m leaving, but if you ever want someone to work with, I would be honored to be given the chance.”

MARK: So she made the offer — I thought, She’s beautiful and talented. And the girl I was working with at the time wanted some time off. So I thought, I’ll bring Jinger in and give her a try in the act. She came back for a very short contract and never left.

JINGER: By the end of the first month I fell in love with him. He was my equal — and I had never met my equal up till that point. I was attracted to him; he’s funny.

What year was this?

JINGER: October 1, 1991, was the first day I stepped on stage with Mark. We’ve been working together for 25 years. We’ve been married for 22.

Dare I ask — do you guys practice your magic at home?

JINGER: Yes. It’s all-consuming. There’s hardly a separation — we do try and separate when it comes to family — but we do feel fortunate to have magic as a part of our lives. We have a beautiful daughter who is 15 years old and she’s traveled the world because of our magic; she’s on her third passport and she’s only 15! Her name is Parker. We hardly ever take a vacation that’s not work-related, but we have a great home life and personal life. But it’s all mixed together with our magic.

Does Parker want in on the “family” magic?

MARK: [Laughs.] She does not want to do magic.

JINGER: When she was little she was part of an illusion or two, and when she grew up, she said, “It’s not for me, Mom and Dad.” But she does respect it. She helps us, she will be a useful eye, and she helps us keep our hands on the pulse for what’s appealing to a younger generation.

Going back to Broadway: Everyone remembers their first — for some young folks, this will be their first time — in a Broadway house. So I ask, what was your first Broadway show?

JINGER: I think my first show was Barnum or A Chorus Line. I love Broadway.

MARK: Interestingly enough, the first Broadway show I saw was The Magic Show. And that was one of the most memorable experiences of my life when it comes to magic.