From the New York Times
By Stephanie Rosenbloom
CHANCES are you’ve never heard of John Gaughan.
He doesn’t advertise. He doesn’t have a Web site. There is no street entrance to his workshop, a former 1930s aircraft school alongside railroad tracks on a dry, industrial stretch of road that straddles the city limits of Los Angeles and Glendale. Visitors must drive around back, past stacks of steel beams and cans of spray paint, toward a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.
That Mr. Gaughan, 68, is not easily found befits an artisan who has spent most of his life creating large-scale illusions for many of the world’s most famous magicians and illusionists: Siegfried & Roy, David Blaine, Criss Angel, David Copperfield, Doug Henning, Mark Wilson, Ricky Jay.
He has also created stage illusions for enchanters of a different sort: Jim Morrison, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Alice Cooper, Barbra Streisand, Cher.
Yet while Mr. Gaughan’s artistry has, for instance, helped Mr. Angel seemingly jump through the body of another man, Mr. Gaughan doesn’t get the glory. In the world of legerdemain, his are vital but unseen hands.
“You know, in the old days of comedy there was a Charlie Chaplin and then there were the rest of the comedians,” said Milt Larsen, who in 1963 founded the Magic Castle in Hollywood, the clubhouse of the Academy of Magical Arts, which promotes the art and history of magic. “In music, there was Irving Berlin and then there were the rest of the composers. There’s always some king of the pack, and as far as I’m concerned, Johnny Gaughan is the king of the pack.”
In online forums, where science and magic buffs debate how illusionists seemingly defy the laws of physics, there are those in the know who succinctly answer: “All I have to say is John Gaughan.”
Follow Mr. Gaughan out of the sunlight, beneath an arch of iron griffins and into his warehouse. He shares it with a pair of shrieking parrots: Luther (retired from a circus in Buenos Aires) and Max (who used to wow the crowds at Busch Gardens). The space is filled with satyrs’ heads, masks, handcuffs used by Harry Houdini, a glass box penetrated with swords, a videotape labeled “floating heads.”
Discomfortingly human-looking automatons, frozen at a chess board or on a trapeze, peer from dusty corners.
“It’s pretty spooky at night in here,” said Mr. Gaughan, winding across uneven floors toward a little office practically wallpapered with 18th- and 19th-century magic props (wands, wooden hands, tiny cages, a spirit bell to conjure the dead).
In the digital age, when magicians have slick rock-style television programs and their illusions are on YouTube, Mr. Gaughan runs a low-tech operation. Three men work in his shop, and much of what is there is from another era, when a magician could send a chill through an audience by simply evoking Mephistopheles (as opposed to having himself run over by a steamroller like Mr. Angel has done).
“The way we do it here, we just get a piece of plywood and just start cutting and whaling on it,” said Mr. Gaughan, who in the abracadabra industry is known for “big magic,” such as levitating and morphing a beast into a prince in Broadway’s “Beauty and the Beast.” “We don’t even draw pictures or anything because it has to be built for your eye and in all different directions.”
He helped create illusions and props ranging from the trick wheelchair that concealed Gary Sinise’s legs in the film “Forrest Gump” to levitations at the Kabuki-za Theater in Tokyo. For a television show with Mr. Blaine, Mr. Gaughan worked on an illusion in which a woman’s watch vanishes and reappears down the street in the display window of a jewelry store. Mr. Blaine then picks up a piece of newspaper, holds it to the store window and pulls the watch out without cracking the glass.
Mr. Blaine said in an e-mail message that Mr. Gaughan is “a magical genius.”
Mr. Gaughan said he admires Mr. Blaine’s integrity: “He doesn’t use any stooges at all.”
Stooges, or audience plants, are commonly used by magicians and stunt performers. “That’s kind of the assumption,” Mr. Gaughan said. “You know, I can’t really say one way or the other because of — I just shouldn’t.”
Keeping secrets, not only from the public but also from other illusionists, is essential to Mr. Gaughan’s reputation.
“The reason people come to John is that they trust him,” said Jim Steinmeyer, an illusion designer who has collaborated with Mr. Gaughan. “They would stop coming to him if they didn’t.”
Mr. Copperfield and Siegfried & Roy, through publicists, declined to comment for this article. A publicist for Mr. Angel did not respond to interview requests.
Nowadays Mr. Gaughan is one in a circle of elders of magic. But growing up in Dallas he was just another boy who hung around a shop called Douglas Magicland.
“I was the demonstrator and he was the kid who would come in,” recalled Mark Wilson, 79, the magician who produced and starred in network television’s first weekly magic series, “The Magic Land of Allakazam,” shown on CBS and ABC in the early 60s.
Before long, Mr. Gaughan, then 14, began working for Mr. Wilson and his assistant (and wife), Nani Darnell. “He would help us put magic kits together that we would sell in department stores,” said Mr. Wilson, who has taught the likes of Cary Grant, Dick Van Dyke and Johnny Carson to perform tricks.
In 1961, Mr. Gaughan followed Mr. Wilson to Los Angeles, where he also studied industrial design at California State University. As Mr. Wilson’s star rose, he opened his own workshop in a house on Venice Boulevard. During the Watts riots, Mr. Wilson said, “Johnny went to the house and stayed all night to be sure everything was safe.” (Mr. Gaughan said he was perched on the roof with a fire extinguisher.)
Eventually, Mr. Wilson moved his operation to the space that is Mr. Gaughan’s shop (though he is relocating to another site about three miles away).
Mr. Gaughan is also a top collector of magic memorabilia, restoring antique devices and replicating lost creations such as the Turk, a famed 1700s chess-playing automaton that rarely lost a game, trouncing Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte, according to legend. It was destroyed in a fire in 1854. Using a couple of pieces that survived the fire, Mr. Gaughan succeeded in building a working replica of the automaton after some 25 years.
“There are 8 or 10 people that build illusions,” said Mr. Steinmeyer, who is the author of “Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear.” “To me, what’s unique about John is his interest in historical work.”
Mr. Steinmeyer and other professionals credit Mr. Gaughan with unraveling enduring mysteries and reintroducing them to modern magicians. “What’s a shame is that secrets fall out of fashion,” Mr. Steinmeyer said.
IN describing Mr. Gaughan’s abilities, his peers point to a 20th-century illusion called “Impossibilities” created by Dr. Samuel Cox Hooker, which, as Mr. Wilson described it, has “fooled every major magician in the country.”
Mr. Gaughan acquired the illusion from Dr. Hooker’s estate, cracked its secrets and performed it twice at the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History. Playing cards rise and lower at his command, and a disembodied teddy bear head floats off a table.
Mr. Wilson had read about the illusion and thought: “Well, of course if I see it I’ll understand it. I’ll know how to do it.”
But that was not the case.
“He just fooled the hell out of me,” said Mr. Wilson, quickly apologizing for his enthusiastic language. Even so, he said, “I don’t think I want to know how to do it because I enjoy being fooled.”
And Mr. Gaughan enjoys fooling. Standing beside the legendary chess-playing Turk, he said: “There’s been over 800 different books and articles and plays, even films, about this piece, and no one ever got it right. The way I got it was I found some letters in one library written to another guy that was in another museum and put them together and it kind of told the story.”
The resurrected automaton has been on tour, including to Hungary, the homeland of its builder, Wolfgang von Kempelen. “It still fools people,” Mr. Gaughan said.