A MASTER CLASS IN SHOWBIZ
I recently enjoyed a magical revue so much that I am counting the minutes until I get to see it again, and I seldom feel that way about a show. Welcome to the world of Ray Anderson and ‘Esther’s Follies.’
As a fully paid-up, card-carrying magician I have always obeyed the first commandment of magic and never reveal a secret. I just hate to do it-so I don’t. In this months column I am going to flat out break this code. I am going to give away one of the best-kept secrets in magic. Well it may not be a strict secret but it is such a great show that I just have to spread the word.
In the heart of beautiful 6th Street in Austin, Texas is a historic little theatre located at number 521. It is the Cactus Theatre and the home of ‘Esther’s Follies,’ which in my opinion is one of the smartest, funniest and coolest revue shows to be found anywhere. Featured in the show is Ray Anderson who has my vote as the funniest comedy illusionists in the world. I love the revue show and I love Anderson’s contribution. Most of all-I’m just crazy about the organic manner they have been combined together. Let me begin by talking about the show and then I will tell you a little more about Ray.
In the 30s and 40s the Cactus Theatre was owned by legendary vaudeville performer Richard ‘Skinny’ Pryor, but the ‘Esther’s Follies’ band of entertainers started to create a legend in the Spring of 1977 when Michael Shelton and Shannon Sedwick leased the property. Thirty-five years later it is a Texas classic and continues going from strength to strength. ‘Esther’s started as an experimental and rather bohemian collection of performances and sketches and has achieved a commercial gloss that in no way negates those original elements.
The name, décor and theme of the show are reflections of the great swimming and movie star Esther Williams. The show is a collection of political skits, sketches, singing, dancing, comedy and magic; that packs so much entertainment into 90 minutes that it is almost a feat of magic itself. It is as timeless as vaudeville and as topical as the morning news. The uniquely exotic theatre holds 280 audience members and is almost always filled to capacity. This is quite an achievement for a show that relies almost entirely on word of mouth rather than advertising or promotion to fill the house.
Each night, the entertainment spills right out from the showroom and onto bustling 6th Street. The rear wall of the stage has two large windows that reveal all the action going on in front of the theatre. Every single inch of the theatre is also utilized to present a good-natured show that has the audience howling from start to finish. There are more surprises packed into the staging of this show than I would have believed possible.
The team of players present their entertainment at such a whirlwind pace that you have to really focus to fully grasp what a talented bunch they are. I can’t speak highly enough about their individual and collective skills. Original owner Shannon Sedwick is still performing in the show and is a joy to behold. She sets the tone of versatility and talent that is the keynote of the troupe. I must give a special shout out to Ray’s lead assistant Ellana Kelter whose radiant presence and animated facial expressions add immeasurably to the show.
The featured entertainer in the show is Ray Anderson, who has spent thirty years in the show, polishing his illusion, comedy, manipulative and audience participation into one of the most carefully constructed performances in the magic world. There isn’t a dull moment when Anderson is onstage. He has hit the point where there isn’t a wasted word or glance in his presentation; everything has a reason and a pay-off.
Performing immaculate and inventive large-scale illusions, or parodying the genre, it is truly an object lesson in performing skills to watch as Anderson does his thing—Ray quite simply ‘owns’ the stage. When Anderson brings two assistants onstage to participate in his show, it is a primer in show biz savvy to see how they are treated as guest stars and become a major factor in the fabric of the show. The look of delight on their faces as they return to their seats in the audience says it all.
Anderson was born in Victoria, Texas just two hours from Austin and started his magical journey at the age of 8 when he received his first magic boxed set. Within four years he was staging shows in his home.
Ray recalls that his first exposure to magic was as a very young child when driving with his family; using her magical abilities his sister could cause the traffic signals to change color by snapping her fingers. Even- tually he realized she was looking at the other side of the traffic signals to anticipate the light change; by then he was hooked!
Like many youngsters in that era, Anderson became a firm fan of fellow Texan Mark Wilson and his television appearances. He still remembers his delight watching the young Greg Wilson performing a billiard ball routine alongside his parents. Ray continued practicing his magic and mastering his future craft. As a left-hander he had to battle with the ‘righty concentric’ world of magic instructions. It was a battle he was to ultimately win with style.
The great Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca were important influences on the young Ray Anderson, and he was influenced in the development of his performing by the great sketch comedy that he watched on television. This gave an interesting slant to his skills as a magician that is still very evident in his show.
Anderson began performing both close-up and stand-up magic on a regular basis within Texas and it was obvious where his future career lay. He attended the University of Texas in Austin and studied theatre arts. It was during this time, about 1982, that he first attended a performance of ‘Esther’s Follies’ to watch his friend Mario Lorenz perform.
One night Ray traveled to the little theatre, in the ‘bad side of town,’ and was shocked to discover a long line of patrons waiting in the alley to enter the theatre! After the show he met the co-founders of the show Michael Shelton and Shannon Sedwick and pitched his services. Two weeks later he was making his debut in the show.
In a perfect world he would have wowed everyone with this initial performance and become an instant smash in the show. However, on his first appearance he didn’t bring down the house and received a ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you…’ from Michael and Shannon. This rejection didn’t work for Ray, who went to work on customizing and re-plotting his show especially for the venue. He created a ‘cigarette in dress’ illusion that utilized those unique windows onstage that looked out onto 6th Street. When he returned to appear in the show a second time, he was a huge success and his synergistic relationship with ‘Esther’s…’ had formally begun.
For three years Anderson appeared in the revue as Special Guest before heading to Pittsburgh and focusing on his comedy skills. However, when he returned to Austin for family visits he always fitted in a guest shot in ‘Esther’s…’ and never lost his connection with the show. Twenty-two years ago Ray realized that he would rather live in Austin than anywhere else and returned there to begin one of the great runs in magic.
Due to their uniquely visual nature Anderson started to develop a series of illusions especially designed for his showroom home. Over the years he has presented over 30 different illusions as part of his ‘Esther’s…’ repertoire. He is currently featuring a spectacular ‘shadow box’ style illusion (designed by Mark Kalin), a ‘stretching the girl,”assistant’s revenge,”fountain levitation,’ and a hysterical ‘shooting a dog thru the window’ that has to be seen to be believed. Every one of these effects has got original and personal touches that only come from non-stop performing and thinking about those performances.
The spirit of improvisational and experimental entertainment that was the basis of the original ‘Esther’s Follies’ has found a perfect partner in the carefully crafted and presented magic of Ray Anderson. Watching the show will inspire and motivate any magician who sits in the audience and I highly recommend anyone interested in performing comedy illusions to hold off until they observe the way Anderson was mastered the art form.
If you are visiting Austin it is a no brainer for any magi- cian to catch this show as there is a huge amount to learn from it. If you are in the mood to laugh and learn–then fly into Austin and catch this show regardless of where you live. It is worth the journey. I have been playing Vegas since the ’70s and living here for nearly 20 years and this show was more fun and superior to any magic/revue that I have seen in Sin City.
If you chance to find yourself in Austin (not many finer cities to be in) then contact the box office at http://www.esthersfollies.comand line up your tickets. The show plays five times a week with one show on Thursday and two shows on Friday and Saturday. The theatre was jam packed when we visited so book up those tickets in advance—you won’t be sorry!