A Tale of Two Davids (and a Phineas)

Long before I fell in love with the world of theatre (Children’s Theatre of Norfolk’s production of ROBIN HOOD when I was six years old), I was already under the spell of another performing art – magic. I was all of four years old when my parents hired a magician for my brother’s birthday party.

It was the usual birthday party stuff; a live rabbit that came out of an empty top hat, silk handkerchiefs that changed color, and a grand finale of links of steel that connected and unconnected at will. The whole thing lasted maybe half an hour and the magician probably had to do a couple of more shows the same day.

My bother was hooked, and since he was older than me I followed along. Trips to the library meant we would come home with books telling us how to make coins disappear and certain cards to show up. I couldn’t find anything about making that rabbit appear, or even where to buy a silk top hat in my size.

Eventually my brother moved on to other interests: girls being the most important, followed by sports, and a few other things that were above my head. However, I stayed with magic, learning more tricks, but eventually moving on to the history of the art and especially the psychology of it. Without understanding that a shift was taking place, I began to transition my interest in theatre from being in the spotlight to observing the people who were performing, and the people who were watching.

Magic is theatre in the purest sense. The magician performs an illusion for an audience who knows that they're being fooled and don’t really care. There are always some who go to see a show in order to pontificate about how the magician did a trick (usually they are very wrong, but no one can disprove them), but the vast majority of audience members want to experience that awe of something impossible happening right in front of them.

Theatre is the same way. The best plays, no matter what their genre may be, are stories of wonder. We see live performers, right in front of us, recreate emotions that move us. As one organism an audience laughs, cries, or feels moved to take action. When magic is treated as theatre in the way that some of the best performers practice it, the spectacle becomes something that is never forgotten.

Big shows, like those of David Copperfield, employ dance, storytelling, and humor to stir an audience’s emotions. If you didn’t like the disappearing beautiful woman, maybe you’ll like David shrinking himself in the next illusion. He’s a smart performer and so he realizes that after a dramatic illusion he should release the tension he's created by telling a joke. Trust me, I’ve seen the man up close and personal and he is a consummate performer.

All this is a way of introducing you to David London, a Baltimore-based storyteller and magician who's bringing his show HUMBUG: The Great P.T. Barnum Seance to the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design in Richmond. In the early 20th century a great debate raged around the claim of Spiritualists that they could communicate with the dead. Many people flocked to these gatherings with the hope of being able to speak to a loved one who'd gone to the great beyond.

David London is going to perform one such séance, but instead of contacting family members he’s reaching out to the spirit of the man who allegedly once said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Barnum created amazing (and occasionally fraudulent) exhibits for his Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater. He also produced an American tour for Swedish singing sensation Jenny Lind and founded the circus that grew into Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus -- the Greatest Show On Earth!

Barnum was the man behind a great deal of American entertainment and his life story has all the ingredients of an epic play. He gave us shocks like the Fiji Mermaid, and curiosities like Colonel Tom Thumb. He gained enormous wealth as an impresario, he was one of the most famous men of his time, he built and then had to rebuild his gigantic entertainment empire multiple times because of fires. Barnum later became the mayor of Bridgeport, CT and by all accounts was a successful public servant.

If you haven’t gotten your tickets yet for London’s show, don’t wait. This one has a limit on tickets. If you want to sit at the séance table and participate in contacting spirits there are only twelve of those special seats available for each performance. We also have a date night package that includes all sorts of goodies. Imagine the points you'll get with your honey for being creative and coming up with something other than dinner and a movie. Get into the action, surrender your preconceived notions, hold hands and maybe, just maybe you’ll find yourself making contact with the spirit of the great American entertainer Barnum himself. You can purchase tickets at https://barnum.bpt.me.

If you find yourself being cynical about the selection of Barnum for the séance let me leave you with another one of his quotes, “The noblest art is that of making others happy.”

We’ll see you at the theatre.

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