Poised to open in Macau in October, Franz Harary’s House of Magic is the $40 million ground-breaking culmination of a hugely successful career that has spanned over 30 years and six continents.
Franz Harary, the internationally acclaimed magician and inventor famous for creating illusions such as making the Taj Mahal and a Space Shuttle vanish, talked to Blooloop.
He spoke about the awakening of his interest in the psychology behind illusions and his association with Michael Jackson, as well as the evolution of his perception of magic both as a form of transcendence – restoring wonder and equipping people with the ability to see beyond perceived boundaries – and as a reciprocal driver of technology.
Cardboard Boxes and Inventing a Style
Harary’s journey began at around the age of thirteen when, given a magic set he became fascinated not with how these tricks worked, but by the psychology behind them.
“I thought it was just incredible that suddenly, as a kid, I was able to do things that my parents and my teachers could not do. When you’re a kid, that’s very empowering – it seemed like real magic.”
He started breaking these tricks down, and inventing his own with household items: “…cardboard boxes and shoeboxes and straws and duct tape: anything I could get my hands on. And I started experimenting. Most of the time it failed. But every once in a while I’d get lucky, and when I did, I’d learn.”
This went on through junior high school. When he reached high school, he found his niche: he had become the guy who plays around with magic. By that time he was beginning to be adept at inventing his own tricks – “cardboard and paper, but they worked, and I was able to start doing bigger tricks – enough so I could make a living doing birthday parties and bar mitzvahs and so on. “
At the same time, interested in theatre, music and dance, he won a scholarship to the University of Michigan to study music and musical theatre.
He found himself doing magic the whole time. “So I contacted the head of the marching band, and said, ‘look, I think I can do magic for you, outside, in the sun, surrounded from all directions.’ They said, ‘Sure.’
So I started inventing these ways to do illusions, making people appear and disappear and float in the air and so forth – for marching bands. I had this captive audience, and this huge resource: the entire university behind me to, basically, experiment.”
He was working without external guidance: as he puts it, there is a lot of culture in Michigan, but not a lot of magic. Working essentially in a vacuum, not knowing the ‘rules’, he began to come up with new theories and principles.
“It wasn’t just the methods; it was something like an artist not just inventing a style, but inventing a colour. Some of this stuff I still use today, and there’s one method in particular I have sold to many other magicians, including Criss Angel and David Copperfield: it’s now a fixed method in our world, and I came up with it in high school, not because I wanted to be a pioneer but because I had no money and no-one to tell me this is not how it’s done. “
Magic with Michael Jackson
At this time, 1983, Michael Jackson, at the peak of his success and fame, announced he and the Jackson Five were going to do a big world tour. A week previously, he had burned his hair in a Pepsi commercial, and the name of his attorney had been mentioned on television. “Immediately I called the attorney, and I said, ‘I’m Franz Harary and I’m 20 years old; I create magic for marching bands and I can do this. I sent over a video I shot of me making the car appear when I was sixteen years old. He said, ‘so you can do this outside, surrounded by people?’ And I guess this particular person assumed I’d be really cheap, which of course I was: I was twenty.
The next thing I know I’m on a plane headed to LA to meet Michael.“ He and Jackson hit it off from the start: the beginning of a friendship that would last 26 years. “I remember the first meeting, at Lion’s Share Studios in Santa Monica. I remember being in the studio control booth and looking around, and seeing a sticker which said ‘Call Mick’, and I realised later that was Mick Jagger. How cool is that?”
Harary, his then girlfriend and his best friend toured as The Illusion Squadron for the Jackson Victory Tour.
“It really was a crash course. It was so much information slammed at me so fast. I learned production design, production philosophy, how to produce a show, lighting, sound, staging, video, everything.”
He had to make the choice not to return to university to finish his music degree – though he has since been awarded an honorary doctorate. Over the following years Harary designed magic for all Jackson’s shows, went on his tours, and did all the magic for his home, at the Neverland Ranch.
“We rigged the whole thing: fitted it with trapdoors and secret compartments so he had the ability to appear and disappear and transform, and when the place was sold, everything went weird. I don’t know if the owner of that ranch today is aware of all those secret passageways.”
Onto the Stage and Living the Dream
Since then he has worked with countless public figures, including Janet Jackson, N*SYNC, Cher, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, Tone Loc, Styx, Dr. Dre, Usher, Boyz II Men, Queen Latifah, Hammer, Tina Turner, Reba McEntire, Madonna, Missy Elliott, and having been instrumental in creating illusions for Universal, Disney and many other theme parks.
Taking all the production formulae he had learned from the music industry, he pulled in all his video, sound, lighting, sound and choreographer friends, and put together a small show: a magic show that looked like a pop concert.
“Everything about it looked like rock and roll 1988, including ourselves: Bon Jovi hair, leather jackets, and Spandex. I was living the dream.”
He adds, “People would make fun of me, that I was this teddy bear dressed up as a biker. But in my mind I was creating the ultimate rock and roll-styled illusion show.”
As he grew and matured so did his look – and his style; the whole show moved from rock to something resembling a Japanese-inspired anime look: Harary’s wife of over twenty years is Japanese. “We’ve got a base in Tokyo; a strong presence in Asia. That influenced the show. And again, taking everything I’d learned from the music industry, the show keeps developing as the concert production industry keeps developing. Today I have the largest touring illusion production in the world, and it’s all because of this kind of concert production know-how.”
One thing this ability and celebrity brings you is the power to do what you want creatively. And that’s what I did in India. I was able to produce the most technically sophisticated illusion show ever. I ran it for quite a while, and again, learning from the industry about understanding video and LED integration, and how to take the two dimensional world out of an LED art piece and transition it into a three dimensional performance piece.”
A Sexy, Adult club filled with Magic
The House of Magic, poised to open, was conceived when Harary, doing a show in Atlanic City, realised: “ … if you’re forty and in Atlantic City, there’s nothing to do in the evening if you don’t drink. So I thought: OK, I’ll produce a magic club that is basically a very sexy, adult club that’s filled with magic.”
This was the first manifestation of the inspiration that would become the World of Magic.
“ I got some bites, I set the ball in motion – and then the worldwide economy collapsed.” He hit the road, travelling to China, Korea, Japan, Dubai and India, trying to sell his concept for a new state of the art magic experience. At one point it grew into a deal in Dubai, “…but the economy kept crashing. It seemed like everywhere I went in the world, the economy tanked.”
The concept had evolved by this point into a theme park, and more than a million dollars had been spent on its development and design. “The bottom line is everything kind of landed in Macau, because Macau is where the action is: the hottest place on the planet. There’s more going on; there’s more technology, there’s more entertainment: Macau is now what Vegas was.”
“We are the House of Magic.”
Harary landed an opportunity with Melco Crown Entertainment Limited, a company engaged in building Studio City, a 3.8 billion dollar cinematically-themed integrated entertainment, gaming and retail resort in Cotai, Macau.
“And we are their flagship brand: we are the House of Magic.”
Harary took everything he had developed over the years, throughout the world, putting it into one space indoors, and coming up with an entirely new concept.
Essentially, it retains a theme park structure. The audience walks through four different environments: four different theatres, and sees four different magic shows done by four different world-class illusionists.
After a career at the peak of the industry, Harary was in a position to bring the very best magic performers in the world together in this one place.
The audience is treated to a two hour live multi-faceted magical experience. On entering, Harary explains, “… the whole place feels very retro-tech Victorian. And you go to room number one, the Illusion Laboratory and see illusions in development; you see close-up magic – some big stuff happens there.”
Here, guests are submerged in a seemingly magical steampunk ambience, and witness the minutiae of illusion production.
And then the audience is split into two more theatres; one, The Lair, looks like a kind of ruined amphitheatre in a forest: very Tolkien, Hobbit, Middle Earth.” This is the venue for ‘power magic’; magic that looks real, as if these were real magicians with genuine powers.
“And the other theatre, The Majestic Theater, looks like an 1890s Parisian opera house, and you see kind of cabaret style magic there.” Here, the magician presents a series of largely visual riddles, challenging the audience to work them out.
“And the audiences switch so everyone sees both, then everyone comes together into the main theatre, the Mega Magic theatre, and there I have my show.”
This is the home of the production of spectacular illusions, featuring technical equipment such as robotics, LED video support, automata, sound and lighting.
In creating the House of Magic, Harare’s goal was to make a space that would facilitate the presentation of illusions on a massive scale almost in the lap of the audience, forging an intimacy impossible in a 30, 000 seat stadium, and giving the most jaded audience member the feeling of having witnessed real magic close-up.
“I’ve noticed whenever we play a stadium, the most powerful show is the dress rehearsal, when we’re doing it for the security guards, the ushers, and you’ve got 300 people slammed up right at the front of the stage and they’re watching the giant production, and then the product is incredible.
And I thought, how do I create this experience for a normal audience?!
There is also a magic shop and 5-star Michelin rated restaurant, Shanghai Magic.
Throughout his career, Harary has demonstrated an analytical, scientific mind informed by an aesthetic vision. Magic is, at its core, he contends, “…anything beyond the ability of the technology of the day.” As Arthur C Clarke famously said, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’
Harary realised early on that as an illusionist, what he does is to instil wonder: “I am a catalyst for creativity. The magic that I produce inspires wonder and it causes science and technology to push forward. “
He continues, “Take science fiction. If you think about the Star Trek teleporter – that was magic years ago. Today, we are moving subatomic particles. We’re on our way to having teleportation. It’s happening.
So magic needs to be slightly ahead of the technology of the day. It needs to be surfing that wave of technology. And as technology moves forward, magic stays in front of that, and at the same time magic is that catalyst that drives the development of technology which in turn pushes the top forward, so it’s this endless cycle.
The perpetual cycle of magic and technology: forever forwarding each other with the speed of imagination.”
He points out, “So we’re doing more here than entertaining people in a casino. As a little kid everything – soap bubbles; the light-bulb – was magic. As we grow older, magic disappears.
So I try to bring it back, to cause adults to say, for a brief moment, maybe there’s more than this world that I’ve come to accept. The moment you start thinking like a kid again, your world changes, and your view on the world and on your life changes.”
He touches on particle physics, and the profound insignificance of humanity in the perspective of infinite universe theory. “At the end, we’re this incredibly insignificant little speck circling around an unimportant little dot on the edge of a not-very-important galaxy in what we now believe is one of an infinite amount of universes.
The only thing that matters, the only thing that is real, is our perception of this experience at the moment. If I can screw with that just a little bit –play with that sense of reality, then it allows you to re-think your world: to re-think this universe. My entire product, my whole show, the single message is: look, I’m not special; I’m not gifted. I am like you. You decided to become an accountant, or sell shoes or whatever you do; I decided to do this: this is the path I decided to take. Just as I can do these things that seem to break all rules, so can you handle things that at the moment seem impossible. It’s just a matter of looking at things differently, and if I can do it, you can do it.”
The mastery of illusion that has led to Harary’s House of magic has been, from the start, about transcendence. As a child, he made up his own wayof doing things. He was unaware of the boundaries of ‘this/that can/can’t be done’, so was able to operate outside them.
And that’s what he is helping people do – to transcend boundaries that don’t need to be there at all.