Illusion designer John Gaughan
is the man behind the curtain.
By David Pescovitz
Photography by Noah Webb
ARTHUR C. CLARKE FAMOUSLY SAID, “ANY his national television series The Magic Land of
sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguish- Allakazam. Later he studied industrial and furniture
able from magic.” In response, modern conjurers design at California State University, Los Angeles,
like to say, “Any sufficiently advanced magic is and went on to teach at CSU Northridge with famed
indistinguishable from technology.” At the inter- designers Gerald McCabe and Sam Maloof. The fine
section of both maxims sits John Gaughan. craftsmanship he learned designing furniture trans-
For five decades, he’s designed and built illusions lates directly into his work for the stage. His magic
for everyone from Doug Henning to Siegfried and wand is a screwdriver.
Roy. Ever seen David Copperfield fly? Gaughan gave “I like working with my hands,” Gaughan says.
him those invisible wings. Scratched your head “And I always liked magic. If you have an interest in
as David Blaine makes a person’s watch disappear something, you can usually find a way to learn to
and rematerialize behind a shop window across the do it yourself.”
street? Gaughan’s handiwork in action. A legend in magic circles, Gaughan has become
Gaughan makes the magic behind the magician. the go-to maker for magicians in search of a new
“I’m fascinated with how primitive the human spectacle. He has an arsenal of ingenious mecha-mind still is,” he says. “It can be misdirected so easily.” nisms to vanish people, levitate them, and subject
Gaughan’s Los Angeles workshop more closely them to multiple swords thrust through the body.
resembles a theatrical scene shop than a master “There are some common illusions we build that
craftsman’s studio. Large props lean against the may be ho-hum to the audience, but I’ve enjoyed
walls, hand tools are scattered on tables, one working on every mechanism,” Gaughan says.
assistant cuts lumber outside the shop’s garage Many of Gaughan’s best-known gimmicks are
door while another paints a classic Oriental motif modeled on classic illusions from a century ago,
on a large wooden box. or before. For example, in the late Doug Henning’s
Look closely, though, and you begin to get a feel 1980s Broadway show, the hippie magician hugs a
for the real magic of the place. Two elderly parrots young woman who then vanishes right before the
roost overhead. A clarinet-playing robot stands frozen audience’s eyes. That was based on a 19th-century
inside a glass display case. Off to one side, an android illusion that Gaughan had to reverse-engineer just
in a turban awaits the next move in a game of chess. by reading old articles about it. Other illusions, like
Their stories Gaughan is happy to tell. However, Blaine’s mind-blowing street magic routines, are
the various other illusions under construction aren’t fresh off the drawing board, or rather the workbench.
part of the tour. The maker behind the magic does “We don’t do any design work on a computer,”
not intend to reveal his secrets, or those of his clients. Gaughan explains. “We start full-scale so you can
Like many kids, Gaughan was first enchanted walk around the object and see it like the audience
with magic as a young boy hanging around a magic would. That’s hard to do with CAD, so we prototype
shop in his hometown of Dallas. When he was 14, a with duct tape and cardboard. Then we start
local magician, Mark Wilson, hired the enthusiastic cutting wood.”
teen as his gofer and handyman. At 21, Gaughan Not only are magicians always looking for bigger
followed Wilson to Los Angeles in 1960 to work on and better illusions, Gaughan’s ingenuity is also
32 Make: Volume 13