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Franz Harary: Illusionist, Designer & Philosopher, Part 1

By Ashley Sutherland-Winch

Internationally acclaimed illusionist, Franz Harary is breaking boundaries and redefining the art of magic. He designs and performs illusions entirely of his own creation. His technical achievements in the world of magic are respected throughout the industry. His productions have broken attendance records across the globe in Peru, India, and in Taipei, traffic was shut down for eight city blocks as a crowd of 45,000 people gathered to witness one of Harary’s Mega Magic effects taking place directly above a busy intersection. With an illustrious resume and fans of all ages, Franz Harary has performed to sold out crowds in Hong Kong, Jakarta, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Thailand, Japan, and the United States. Live performance of his illusions is only a portion of the fascinating workshop within Franz Harary’s creative mind and brand. Harary’s long list of international television appearances, illusion design for theme parks, Broadway productions, films, and magical effects for the music industry elite like Janet and Michael Jackson, Cher, Usher, *NSYNC, Madonna, Missy Elliott, Alice Cooper, and Shania Twain make his brand an international powerhouse.

In 1984, Franz Harary was a college student at Eastern Michigan University creating half time illusions for university marching bands.  That year, he sent Michael Jackson a video demonstrating his illusions. In a pre-CGI era, this was an impressive stunt. The King of Pop hired Harary, and soon Harary was designing illusions for the Victory Tour. This incredibly big break led Harary to years of work in entertainment, followed by his own “mega magic” stunts like making the Taj Mahal levitate and a NASA space shuttle disappear, and touring productions featuring high-octane tricks.

In 2015, The House of Magic debuted in Macau at the Studio City hotel and casino. The House of Magic is a fantastic journey that begins in a magician’s laboratory and then the audience travels through time and space literally walking to an art noveau theatre in France, then a medieval forest theatre, and finally to the futuristic Franz Harary’s Mega Magic theatre.  During the 90-minute production spectacular, the audience is dazzled by four magicians/ illusionists including Franz Harary himself.

TheatreArtLife had the pleasure of sitting down with Harary in his backstage dressing room between shows at his resident production, The House of Magic in Macau.

Unlike many shows that stop patrons from taking photos during a performance, you are encouraging it! Would you please share your marketing/ PR strategy and how it is working for you?

It’s because those producers are living in the 80’s.  I’ve spent my entire career trying to be in the moment.  My whole show, my whole product is a never-ending effort to stay in the moment with what is going on.

For the life of me, I cannot think of why anyone would be denying social media. You’re not going to fight it, so why not embrace it? It’s an old way of thinking.  To a degree though, thank God they do, because it’s less competition for me. It might take 20 years for other people to wake up to that, but for me, I’m there.  I want to jump on it now.

This strategy is so smart.  Do you have a ton of organic content that is loaded onto the internet by fans?

The more the better! At first, it was a real fight, even now it is still a fight trying to convince theatres, casinos, and buyers, to just let go and give in is really hard. It’s an effort. We’ll look back at this in 20 years and it’ll be funny.

You once said, “the only difference between an illusionist and a magician is the illusionist has better PR”.  Why do you refer to yourself as a designer more than an illusionist?

I design magic.  Magic is a weird industry because with every other performance art, you need a skill. Dance, music, acrobatics, whatever it is, you need a certain degree of skill and/or natural talent; except for magic. With magic, you can have no talent, walk into a magic shop, buy 5 or 6 tricks, follow the instructions, and you will fool people.

As long as you fool people, the person being fooled perceives you as the magician.  What are you really?   Are you a performer?  You’re a hack karaoke singer who’s covering other people’s music.  It’s weird.

Magicians, back in the day, Houdini, Blackstone, Keller, these guys, they were novice, they were inventing everything. Everything they did was by their own design. The engineering and technology, they were figuring out how it all works.  Today, everything is out there and any 20-year-old with a rich uncle can literally buy a magic show, and they do.

A lot of those 20 year olds ask me to produce their shows, but I can’t bring myself to do it.   There are a lot of guys out there with no talent whatsoever but they have a lot of boxes.  They watch David Copperfield and Criss Angel on television and copy the music, copy the costumes, and copy the dances.  Even more so in China, it’s horrible in China.  I have about a dozen of “mini-me’s”(Chinese versions of me) running around China. There are so many copies especially in China, Southeast Asia, and India is the worst.   You have all of these guys out there that are “magicians” sort of, but what are they doing? They are just going through the motions and it’s undetectable to the audience.

There are guys, great guys: Shin Lim, Luis De Matos, Mark Kalin, and Ginger who are all innovators and inventors.

To me, that’s what it means to be an artist: to create something that didn’t exist before, that can be used as a vehicle for your own views or life experience, and then put it out into the world, share it and see what happens.  That’s art.

For 99% of magicians, that’s not their process; they buy a bunch of stuff, go on stage, pretend they’re David Copperfield and often collect money.

I’m a designer. I’m far prouder of my work as a designer than I am as a magician because (and on this show, it’s a great example), with The House of Magic, what I have created in Mega Magic is basically a clock, it’s a big machine.   This machine runs and everything has been very meticulously worked out to take an audience on a journey, but the performer is one more gear in that machine. I can literally take any performer with even the modicum of stage presence, stick them in, and he or she can become that gear.  The artist is the producer/designer, the performer is one of the instruments for that producer.

In the case of The House of Magic, I am the producer and creator.  It’s the product of about four years and thousands upon thousands of hand drawings.  I’m ok with a computer but I’m not really a graphics guy, so I have to hand draw everything on hundreds or thousands of plane flights, and from those hand drawings they become 3-D models, but it’s really my vision. The whole place, every nut, every screw, if there’s a light, it’s because I drew a picture of it and now it, like a clock, runs.  Now, I can take other magicians and stick them into the show. We can have great guys or we can have some crappy guys.  Even a crappy guy, you can stick them in because if the clock works, they work.

Maybe a designer isn’t the right thing to call myself; I’m a true magician, because I think of myself first as an artist.  I’d like to think that I’m the Andy Warhol of magic.

I learned six years ago as I created a USD $8 million production in India in Delhi, called the Kingdom of Dreams which had more LED than you could imagine.  This was the first time I used a lot of automation and the first time that I really treated my show like this machine that I have been telling you about.  I made it and then I put myself into it for about three months. After month number 2, I hit a wall. I hated my life because I came to the theatre and every day, I did exactly the same thing. I felt like I was “making the donuts.” (A quote made famous by the 1980’s commercial featuring Dunkin’ Donuts’s sleep-deprived mascot, Fred the Baker, who spent most of the next two decades baking up fresh batches of donuts to be glazed, frosted, and ravenously consumed.)

Sure, the audience was great, they would go crazy and in India, I had some fame at the time, so they were really supportive. It’s great to have strangers tell you that you are great, and we all go through a period in our lives where we want that, but then it was that experience where I discovered that it doesn’t matter. I don’t care nearly as much about the approval of strangers as I thought I did.  Really, what I care about is making the next thing.  Creating the next thing.

Even now, The House of Magic is running, I’m good, I’m done, fine; and I’m on to the next thing.  I am doing the next one and the next one after that, and that is what I really wake up for every morning.

In a weird way, doing shows is an interruption to my schedule.  It’s like I have to stop what I am doing, and I have to say “ni hao ma” (hello in Mandarin) and perform for 34 minutes and then I get to return to creating again.

© Franz Harary Productions

You have done thousands of drawings. After you have designed everything, who then does it go to, who is the team that ultimately makes it become a 3-D model?   

It took me a lifetime to find these people, but I’ve collected people from all over the world.  My graphic designer is a Chinese-Malaysian guy, Tan Pow Fei.  I have an architect in India, Kapil Mathers.  I have another architect in the United States, Sevak Petrosian who is Iranian-Armenian.

© Franz Harary Productions

I collect these people from everywhere that I’ve travelled.  Whenever I find somebody who’s talented, I keep them, so even after the project is finished, I have them for future projects. I’ve got this killer group of the best in the world, but nobody knows who they are or where they are because they are spread out all over the world.

My wife Akiko, who runs my entire operation, is Japanese, and my lighting director is Fuji Yi, a top Japanese concert lighting director.  I pull people from everywhere. I got this tight little family of people who have worked for me 20 years or more.  My project manager, Rón Ostertag has been with me for 20 years, my stage manager for 22 years, and my choreographer more than 20 years – a long time!  These people stay with me for a long time because we are a family.

This building (meaning the casino) we are in is not a family. Come into The House of Magic and we are a family, you can feel it.  I have a philosophy: you have to first work with good people, you have to find great people who you believe in as a human, who you share values with and then in some cases, they may not have the skills but you teach them the skills and train them.

When I met my stage manager of 22 years, he was a punky young kid who wanted to be a technician and now he’s in his 40’s.

You find people with a soul and if you hold onto them, they will stay with you forever.

Even if you don’t have a gig for two months, four months, or more, they go on and have their life, but you always come back to your family.  This is what I am proud of most, because in my industry this doesn’t exist.

Continue to Franz Harary: Illusionist, Designer, & Philosopher- Part 2

Photo Credit: Levent Cimkentli
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