The Rubber Chicken Predicament

Being self-employed affords many benefits. The obvious freedom to create one’s own work hours and the location in which to while those hours away can certainly be placed high on that list of benefits. The owner of an event-planning company, for example, can scout out the perfect wedding-on-the-beach location for a client and then draw up and send out the contracts and itinerary right then and there to the betrothed couple while sitting on the rocks enjoying the view and listening to the waves crash below her. Deciding not to “go into the office” on a whim or, conversely, rolling out of bed into your office, taking vacation whenever you so desire—all are advantages of not answering to a boss other than yourself.

Being a professional magician, by its very nature, adds to that list of already-established, self-employment benefits. My job takes me all over the world to perform for audiences in a variety of scenic and interesting locations. But while I am indeed performing wherever I travel, the reality of the situation is that I am still a business owner and must continue to keep that business running from wherever on the globe I happen to find myself.

So far I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know. “Yes, we get it,” you’re saying to yourself. “You get to pick your hours and travel. You’re lucky to live that lifestyle.” Yes, I agree. “But,” you continue, “lots of people who are self-employed do the very same thing. With the obvious exception of how you make your living, how does your business differ from any other business?” Ah, yes…it’s the not so obvious elements of my job that I tend to cherish. Elements that are exclusive to my line of work—and sometimes critical to getting the job done—that someone (self-employed or not) standing on the outside looking in would find strange or even ludicrous.

While I have already shared in this blog some of the unusual emails I have received being involved in a business such as this (SEE: Not Your Typical Interoffice Mail…), I can accentuate my point by sharing with you an incident that happened just a few years ago…

I was booked at the Magic Castle, an exclusive magic nightclub in Hollywood, CA. I was appearing all week onstage in the Palace of Mystery theatre. This is the biggest showroom in the Castle and a show in the Palace usually consists of three acts of varying styles of magic. There is most often a comedy magic act that opens the show and then takes on the duties of “master of ceremonies” for the rest of the production, introducing the following performers which might include a traditional and elegant manipulation act or an illusionist, or—in some instances—a variety act such as a ventriloquist or juggler. I was the comedy act/MC for the week of performances and we all were performing three shows a night. Some of us, myself included, were also booked for all of the brunch shows that were to take place in the Palace that weekend. That meant that we would be performing six shows on Saturday and Sunday—three in the afternoon and three in the evening.

All week long I had begun my performance with a comical rubber chicken production set to music. Meant as a satirical spoof of all magicians’ bird acts, I would enter stage right after my name had been announced and take center stage with a slight bow. Strains of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra would play behind me as I wordlessly produced the rubber chicken from an empty foulard. The bit was performed seriously, which made it all the funnier, and was a good barometer for both the audience and myself. Without me saying a word, the audience quickly realized what to expect from me and my style of performing for the rest of our time together, and I, judging from the level of their reaction to the silliness taking place before them, could get a good sense of their mood. An effective introduction.

The routine played well all week long, but by the first show on Thursday night I had noticed that my chicken was beginning to split at the seam that ran along its entire perimeter. By Friday afternoon, I realized that the split had progressed to the point that I would have to replace the chicken completely if the routine was to stay in my show for that night’s shows and the remainder of the week. Where could I get a rubber chicken on short notice?

Immediately the local magic shop came to mind; a shop not 15 minutes away from the Magic Castle. I called and asked the man who picked up the phone if they sold rubber chickens and, if so, were their legs soft and pliable?

Don’t judge… Just know that my rubber chickens must have legs that are not too stiff.

For those of you who are uninitiated in the ways of rubber fowl, allow me to explain. In today’s day and age it is very hard to find a “traditional” rubber chicken like the classic gag of years gone by. One of the best I have ever seen, not just for its pliability but for its sheer comic appearance, was used by the late, great Carl Ballantine; a zany comedy magician who had impeccable timing and was an early influence in my work.



The wonderfully talented Carl Ballantine. It doesn’t get much funnier than this.


Today’s rubber chickens, however, are usually not even made of rubber, and are instead constructed out of a latex mixture of varying degrees of flexibility.

The main problem one encountered with the traditional, all-rubber rubber chickens was that they would tend to deteriorate after a while, slowly crumbling away over the years in a weird display of rubberized leprosy. Hence, in an attempt to improve the quality, as years passed and technology advanced, rubber chickens began to be produced out of the already mentioned latex. A latex whose consistency was much firmer than that of the original chicken and therefore caused the legs to be stiff and rigid in most cases. And, in most cases, that wouldn’t necessarily lessen the laughs the chicken would receive once it made its appearance. But in my routine described earlier, I needed the legs to shake in a comical way during the Strauss piece and when replacing my prop over the years, I found that most latex chickens just didn’t make the cut.

And that was exactly where I currently found myself.

The magic shop employee assured me that his rubber chickens’ legs were flexible and he told me he had a number of them in stock. I grabbed my car keys and was on the road in minutes.

Unfortunately, it was all for naught. As I had feared, in examining the chickens hanging there on the peg-hook on the wall of the magic shop, I found that while the overall quality of the chicken was pretty good, the legs were just not flexible enough, and therefore not suited for my needs. Thus I was back to “rubber chicken square one.” As I drove back to the apartment I was staying in that week, I contemplated my options.

Then it hit me! I’ll call a friend of mine who is a clown.

Yes… I have friends who are clowns.

Upon my return to the apartment, I placed a phone call to my friend Eddie Medrano who performs under the stage name of Funny Eddie. A stout, ex-marine whose antics onstage and off belie his many years of serious service to our country. Eddie takes his clowning seriously and is a force to be reckoned with in performance. Those antics can spill over into his personal interactions with you, but you are always aware of the sense of fun from which those antics spring, and the gentleness that underlies all that he does.

Luckily, Eddie picked up the phone and I began to explain my dilemma. “I have three more days and nights of shows,” I told him, and I needed a new rubber chicken badly. I began the explanation of how the legs needed to be soft, pliable, and floppy, and was launching into the specific criteria for the legs when Eddie cut me off. In a very serious tone (like we were engaging in a drug deal, or something) he simply said, “I have what you need.” He spoke these words with such authority that an immediate sense of complacency washed over me. A complacency that assured me that he spoke the truth—that he indeed had exactly what I needed—and that continuing to speak was pointless. All would be well. Eddie explained that he was not at home at the moment, and probably wouldn’t be able to get the chicken to me before the night ended, but he’d see what he could do. I thanked him and hung up the phone, content that the situation had been solved. The clown would make everything right.


Funny Eddie

“Funny Eddie” Medrano (Photo: Clarence Alford)


At approximately 10:45pm that evening, with two shows done, I was sitting in my dressing room when I heard the backstage door open and close. A booming voice called out,”Mr. McMaster?” I looked out my dressing room door to see Joey, the Magic Castle’s doorman, carrying the chicken you see in the picture below by the neck. Noticing my head emerge from the doorway, he walked stoically up to me, offered me the rubber bird clutched in his fist and said, “This is for you, sir.”


Rubber Chicken - Funny Eddie

The perfect replacement chicken


I was informed later that evening from witnesses that Eddie had pulled up to the front of the Magic Castle around 10:40pm in his Smart Car (the modern day equivalent to the Clown Car, apparently), rolled down his window, thrust the chicken outside, and shouted, “Get this to Shawn McMaster in the Palace, STAT!”

Just in time for my 11:15pm show! The legs were perfect. Thanks, Eddie. You’re a life-saver.




The Mexican Adaptation

As I write this, I am currently moving into my sixth and final week of a run of shows that I have had here in Cancun/Playa del Carmen/Akumal/Tulum, Mexico. Over the past five years I have performed down here over a half-dozen times and the scenery here never gets old. The picture you see above is of the sculpture that greets you as you walk onto the beach in Playa del Carmen, and yes, the water really is that blue! I perform my full-evening comedy magic show for the guests in many of the all-inclusive resorts in this area, and the experience is always an interesting and informative one.

“Adaptation” is, I believe, the best word to describe what living and performing in this area for six weeks is all about. You need to quickly adapt, both professionally and personally, if you are going to have a successful stay. I have adjusted the material in my show, my expectations of both my audiences and the people I encounter here in every day life, and my acceptance of just the overall way things are accomplished here more times than I can imagine in my many visits. Please don’t read this as a complaint. I am very grateful that my occupation allows me to see places such as this. My statement is more of an informed observation.

The lyrics that begin Neil Diamond’s song, I Am…I Said perfectly sum up what living in Playa is like–if you just change the word “LA” to “Mexico”:

Mexico’s fine, the sun shine’s most the time
And the feeling is “lay back”
Palm trees grow and rents are low

O.K., the song was written back in the early 70s when rents in LA were low, and, truly, most everything here in Mexico–including rents–is fairly cheap. However, the remaining lines that finish out that first verse aptly describe how I’m feeling right now:

But you know I keep thinkin’ about
Making my way back

Yes, as much as I love the scenery and lifestyle here (the weather has been especially lovely this time around–not too humid or hot as it often can be), after five weeks here and going into my sixth, I’m anxious to get back to the States.

It’s Always Hard to Lose One of Your Heroes

Harry the Hat

Harry the Hat from “Cheers.” Judge Harold Stone from “Night Court.” However you knew him, you were sure to be entertained and amused. But if you only knew him from his television characters, then you only knew a small facet of who this man was. Harry Anderson was an accomplished magician long before he “hit the big time” and became a big TV star, and even when his television career took off, he never forgot those magic roots. Magic was a part of Harry’s soul, along with the sly comedy he would expertly weave into his performances. Since news of his death broke yesterday, countless fellow performers have stated all over social media that it was Harry who taught them that a magician could be funny and still fool people. You didn’t have to be one or the other. And I must add my name to this ever-growing list of the “affected.”

Harry’s influence was certainly one of my main inspirations and is responsible for the style of magic I currently perform and, if I am being totally honest, my career. I had the pleasure of meeting him on a few occasions both before and after I had jumped into magic full-time, and each time he was genuinely friendly, gracious, and inspirational.

That’s why the news of his death shook me and hit me hard. I internalized it. I had to, as I received the news just as I was preparing to go and perform for an audience at a resort during my third week here in Mexico. I thought a lot about Harry during my performance last night and really tried to give it my all. I think I succeeded and I’m glad for that because I would have wanted for nothing less. Nothing less on the night that the man whose work inspired me so much to develop into the performer I am today, which in turn, has allowed me to enjoy a career that has taken me around the world making people laugh while they’re being fooled — that man — has left us.

RIP, Harry Anderson. I will always be grateful for the inspiration.

Below are two of my favorite clips of Harry performing. They are both taken from a Showtime special entitled “Hello, Sucker” that was released in 1986. It was shot at the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, CA. I was lucky enough to see one of the “warm-up” shows that he performed the day before the actual taping, and it was glorious. He had the audience in the palm of his hand even while presenting something as macabre as this — his signature routine — “Needle Through the Arm.”

This clip, taken from the same Showtime special, shows you what a skilled sleight-of-hand artist Harry was, and it is, for my money, the best version of the “Three Shell Game” ever captured on film for its sheer beauty and artistic quality.

Please, please take the time to watch them.



10/14/16: As I currently write this, I am siting in a condo in Playa del Carmen, Mexico finishing up a six-week run of shows in the various resorts that intermittently dot the coastline from here all the way up to Cancun. Well, intermittently might not be the proper word as the resorts are EVERYWHERE along the coastline and they are still building more. I find it to be a mixed blessing. I love the fact that I can come here and work once or twice a year, see old friends who are the the other performers and staff members who I interact with, and enjoy the beach and Mexican culture. However, with each returning visit I see more and more American influence impacting the businesses that make up this wonderful beach community. I remember three years ago sitting in a quaint, street-side cafe/bakery enjoying coffee, a freshly-made cinnamon roll, and some delicious burritos with champinones (mushrooms). Now, that entire block of privately-owned shops is gone — as if it never existed — and in it’s place is a major shopping mall complete with a Starbucks, Forever 21, and a Victoria’s Secret. What I don’t understand is why you would pay to fly to another country just to visit the same stores you can visit at home? Isn’t that why you travel to another country — to experience culture and offerings that you can’t find anywhere else?

It’s a bit disheartening.

This year is the second year I have been able to experience Mexican Independence Day here. No, Mexican Independence Day is not Cinco de Mayo as many people believe. Cinco de Mayo here is not much of a celebration. In fact the U.S. celebrates it on a much grander scale than Mexico does.

Mexican Independence Day is, officially, September 16, but the celebrations begin the night before at about 11:00pm and at midnight huge fiestas with large fireworks displays go off all throughout the country. Here in Playa, there is a gigantic party that happens in the town square with music, dancing, all sorts of food, alcohol, and, of course, fireworks. You haven’t lived until you’re walking through a grocery store parking lot and a giant firework goes off 10 feet behind you. Cerveza and unregulated fireworks —that’s an exciting time!

The tradition involved with the celebration includes Mexico’s president ringing the bell in the National Palace and re-enacting a famous speech called “Grito de Dolores” (Cry of Dolores) that called for the end of 300 years of Spanish rule in Mexico. The speech ends with three shouts of “VIVA MEXICO!” which is repeated by everyone who has gathered.

While I by no means speak fluent Spanish, I do try to communicate in the native language as much as I can during my runs here. The problem I run into is the fact that my formal training in learning the language ended in the 9th grade. Therefore, I quite often find myself in the following predicament: I, armed with my junior high Spanish and determined to communicate my question correctly to a local, feverishly construct what I assume to be the correct phrasing (quite often looking up a particularly troublesome word or word combinations whose Spanish translation I am not familiar with by Googling them on my iPhone, if need be), and then throw it out there, hoping I said it correctly. In the split second that follows, I scan their face to see if I can detect either understanding (YES! I was right!) or smirking (Damn! Now I’m the ridiculous, gringo tourist…). In the off-chance that I should be correct with my phraseology, they begin to answer my question, thrilling me with the knowledge that I have successfully communicated  with another human being in a foreign language, only to have those thrills doused like a smoldering campfire when I realize that while I was so focused on properly constructing the sentence, I had no contingency plan on what to do if they actually answered my question! They rattle off their response with the expected and rightful ease of someone who was born speaking this language, thinking nothing of it. If this goofy-looking cabron didn’t understand the language, why would he have asked his question in Spanish when he is in a tourist town with Mexican residents who can converse in enough English to understand one another? Their response is met with a blank stare, and they inevitably end up answering me again, in English, and with a hint of condescension.

It’s going on a week now since I lost my phone here. “Lost” isn’t really the word for it seeing as how it was actually stolen. And “stolen” is a much more simplistic word for what really happened to it since it was taken from my pocket. Yes, that’s right, the magician’s pocket was picked! And not even 15 seconds after it happened, I knew I’d been had, and, of course, by then it was too late. I was — fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your fashion sense — wearing cargo shorts at the time, and luckily, approximately 3,000 pesos, plus my ATM card, was in a pocket, just below the hip pocket where the phone had been placed. The pesos and card were safely buttoned up in the pocket where I had placed them after leaving the ATM where I had begun my trip that evening, and therefore escaped theft. As a citizen, I was annoyed at the inconvenience this incident caused me, but as a magician, I’ve got to say, I was impressed with the technique in which the whole incident went down!

I have never felt unsafe walking home at night during my past trips to Playa del Carmen and Cancun, and I don’t intend on that changing. I will, however, make sure my phone and other valuables are safely buttoned into my lower pockets in the future.

Because, let me tell you, with my phone stolen, it sure put a crimp in my speaking Spanish for the rest of the trip…

Just Call Me “Yukon Shawn”

Well, actually…I didn’t make it to the Yukon Territory proper, but I came pretty close to it during my visit to Alaska. I’ve recently returned from an Alaskan cruise on which I was performing. With it being my first visit to this state, I must say that it was stunning! Coming from Southern California (and our current five-year drought), I’m not used to all the greenery, but Alaska has it in spades! Lovely rolling hills of green, gigantic snow-capped mountains, and the Hubbard Glacier!

I’d have to say that visiting the Hubbard Glacier was the highlight of the trip and probably the most awe-inspiring thing I have seen in a very long time. Words cannot describe the feeling one gets when approaching this icy behemoth, and if you are lucky to get close enough to it, you will see it grow to an unimaginable 350 – 400 feet in size. If you are even luckier (and I wasn’t on this trip, unfortunately), you may even witness a calving. Taking in the dazzling, pristine blue and the sheer enormity of the glacier is a truly humbling experience. It almost felt pointless to perform the two shows I was scheduled to do that day. What could I show these people that would be more amazing than what they had already seen?

Me standing in front of the Hubbard Glacier. The picture does not do it justice, but to give you an idea of the size of this thing, this picture was taken 2.3 miles away from the glacier – the closest we could safely get to it due to all the ice in the water.

I did end up performing that day and the shows were great. Nice audiences, but it’s hard to follow an “opening act” such as the Hubbard Glacier.

Crystal Serenity Juneau June 29 2016 1050pmA shot of the ship I was on heading back out to sea after visiting Juneau. Note that the sun is beginning to set. This photo was taken at 10:50 pm.

Richard Ross – The Last Performance of the “Linking Rings That Should Ever Have been Performed

I am 52 years old and have been studying the art of magic for 46 years (the old joke being that I wasted the first six years of my life…), and in those 46 years I have developed a liking for some effects and a dislike for others. One of the tricks i dislike the most is what is known as the Linking Rings. Sometimes known as the “Chinese Linking Rings,” it is the effect where multiple solid metal rings magically link and unlink right before your eyes. There are no breaks in the rings, yet they seem to pass through each other like rings of smoke. If you have seen only ONE magician in your lifetime, I can practically guarantee that you have seen this trick. In skilled hands, this routine can look very magical. The trouble is it is very rarely in skilled hands.

Which is why I usually dislike the routine.

A lot of clattering of the rings and a repartee that is supposed to appear witty are usually the norm for this trick whenever it is presented. And, for the most part, that is all the audience is left with at the routine’s conclusion: unassured, noisy, clattering metal and less-than-funny patter. At best, if the magician presenting the routine is competent, the audience leaves the performance with a sense of befuddlement and whimsey.

That is, unless the performer was Richard Ross.

From Holland (but originally born in Poland), Richard’s artistry with the rings was unequaled. In his hands, the rings didn’t just pass through each other like rings of smoke, rather it seemed that Richard had discovered the chemical make-up pf the rings themselves, and, with his own brand of alchemy, altered that chemical make-up to do his bidding.

The rings were a thing of beauty in his hands making him, in my opinion, the ONLY person who should be performing the rings. Instead of befuddlement and whimsey, his audiences left with a sense of true, stupefying wonder. They had witnessed true magic. That was the only way to describe what they had seen. There was no trick to this, the solid rings simply passed through one another despite the laws of physics. And that was okay. it didn’t matter to the people watching that they were witnessing something that defied logic, science, and everything that they knew of the world to be true; and the fact that what they were seeing SHOULD disturb their ability for rational thought but didn’t and, instead, left them with the awe-inspiring, warm feeling of witnessing a rare piece of performance art, well…it just made Richard’s presentation all that much more special.

There are two things involving Richard’s performance of the rings that I remember vividly. The first being about 10 or 11 years old and watching his performance of the routine for the first time on syndicated television. I had been interested in magic for four or five years at that point, and I owned a small set of Linking Rings.

Watching Richard perform his ring routine made my 10-year-old jaw drop, and I clearly remember thinking, “Well, that’s not the same set of rings I have upstairs in the closet. He has something different”

No, he didn’t, and yes, it was.

His set was a bigger, more professional set, but they worked just the same. And THAT was one of my earliest lessons in presentation and professionalism.

The other memory that I have, and one that I will treasure always, was having the opportunity of seeing Richard, now in his 50s, perform the same exquisite ring routine at the Academy of Magical Arts Awards show in Hollywood in the year 2000 when he was awarded the Performing Fellowship award from the Academy. Before the long-desreved award was bestowed upon him, Richard performed the Rings. As a magician, I must say that it was a wonder to behold, and, I confess, I became a little choked-up watching him perform this routine – both of us 27 years older – with him just as impeccable as he had always been and me with my 27-year-OLDER jaw still just agape as it always had been.

Sadly, within 6 months or so, Richard was gone. Word came that he had passed away while in his garden at the age of 54. WAY too young for anybody, but especially for an artist of Richard’s stature. I’m not sure if Richard had the opportunity to perform the Rings again within those six months following the awards show.

So, it is quite possible that I witnessed the last performance of the “Linking Rings” that should ever have been performed.

Watch part of the same video of Richard that I saw at 10 years old:

Something New Under the Sun

A friend of mine with a talent for music posted the following statement on
Facebook recently in response to another FB friend of his, named Ron, who had
shared Paul Simon’s song 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover on my friend’s page. My friend’s response was this:

Thanks for this, Ron. Funny, I was looking up local bands and listening to them
tonight, trying to figure out where I fit in the landscape that is the
oversaturated music scene… and then you posted this and I thought – there
aren’t many Paul Simons anymore… story-writing song writers (that aren’t
country and full of patriotic yuck). I read somewhere recently that music has
jumped the shark… perhaps it has… which always leaves me wondering – what
could I possibly contribute to such an oversaturated art? There is nothing new
under the sun… right?

I have to admit that reading his post made me sad. Sad that this
was his view of his potential place in the music scene, and especially the
comment that there is “nothing new under the sun.”

There is a quote that is erroneously attributed to Charles Duell, the commissioner of the United States Patent Office from 1898 – 1901. Duell was supposed to have said during that time, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”  The jesting quote’s origin actually seems to come from a humor magazine from 1899 entitled Punch, but by attributing it to Duell it instantly makes the words more ironic and provocative.

My friend is also a Christian and so, relying on his religious
sensibilities, naturally referenced the Bible with his equally provacative
“nothing new under the sun” comment. The full statement comes from Ecclesiastes
and basically goes like this:

has been will be again,

what has been done will be
done again;

there is nothing new under
the sun.

Let me take this moment to state that I am the last person who should be preaching gospel or even quoting the Bible, but I must say (at the risk of my fingertips catching flame and burning as I write this) that while my friend’s intentions by making the statement he made may have been reverential, I fear he may be missing the point. Was this “nothing new under the sun” statement meant to be taken literally or, rather, meant as a gentle nudging to his friend Ron, himself, or anyone reading his post to attempt to make a difference?

In my opinion, artists and entertainers, including myself, would do well to take
this as a precautionary statement. The idea that there is “nothing new under the sun” can instantly feel stifling and cause one to take on a “what’s the point” attitude that is so detrimental to good art. Art is there for us to enjoy, yes, but to the artist it can–and should – also be used as inspiration to expand upon and create. Stopping too soon, or worse yet, not even beginning because one feels that there is “nothing new under the sun” can be

Intimidation can also be problematic. Besides being a performer, I am also a writer.  In my earlier days of writing – when I was first starting out by writing movie reviews for a very small newspaper for a Podunk town In California – I went to the theater to watch the movie Stand By Me when it was first released with the intent of reviewing the film. What I was treated to in that darkened room was a marvelous coming-of-age story with impeccable writing. It is close to 30 years later, and it still remains one of my favorite movies. But, I remember leaving the theater that night with a strange, gnawing feeling; an odd mixture of both elation and dread. Elation, obviously, for the brilliant
cinematic treasure I had just witnessed, but the dread I felt was due to the
sad realization washing over me as I made my way back to my car that, try as I
might, I would never be able to write something as powerful or as meaningful as the writing I had just seen played out before me. I was honestly affected by this for the next couple of days; so much so that I didn’t even feel like writing the review of the movie, the
deadline for which was fast approaching. After a couple days of what I can only describe as “wallowing” in this self-inadequacy, I made the conscious effort to write the review by drawing upon the inspiration I had felt while watching the film and redirecting it into writing a review that I thought would do the film justice. I wanted the world (okay, the awfully low number of subscribers to the newspaper) to know just how great this film was, and I decided to do this by writing a review that challenged what writing skills I had acquired up to that point, and to devote more time to the writing of it than I had ever devoted to a review in the past. By doing so, the piece ended up being one of the better
things I wrote during that period of time in my life.

Comparing oneself to what has come before is a fool’s exercise. Yet, I admit I am still guilty of it myself. I will still find myself, on occasion, comparing myself to other performers and experiencing envy for what they have accomplished. When that happens, I have to remind myself of all that I have accomplished and take solace in the knowledge that the work I’ve done is uniquely me and that I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to accomplish all that I have up to this point.

It’s all right to admire, just don’t compare.

There is a reason we only have one Paul Simon; and if you love his work, don’t be envious, jealous, defeated, or covetous of it. Instead, infuse that love and admiration into your own work and see if you can’t create something new under the sun.