In an era of proto-reality-shows centering on deadly animal attacks and crash-prone police chases, the Fox network introduced one of the most controversial television airings of magic ever recorded. A series of specials, verbosely named “Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed” explained the common tricks and gimmicks in step-by-step detail, giving audiences a behind-the-scenes look at classic illusions.
After four hour-long specials, the incognito Masked Magician revealed himself as Val Valentino–the stage persona of performer Leonard Montano–who ended on a speech claiming he wanted to push magicians to further their craft and engage young would-be magicians. But decades later, the impact of Valentino’s work reverberates in the legal mechanisms magicians use to protect their secrets, the current state of magic reveals, and a lingering sense of annoyance from his colleagues in the community.
The Magic’s Biggest Secrets specials lasted just under a year in their initial run, from November 24, 1997 to October 29, 1998. In that time the Masked Magician gave primers on a wide range of tricks, comprised mostly of classic mainstays like sawing a lady in half or the sword basket. The final episode promised to reveal his secret identity, which he delivered with an impassioned, if somewhat defensive, monologue.
“I’m not revealing my identity because of all of the controversy surrounding these specials or because of the pressure that I’m receiving from my fellow magicians. I face you tonight because of my love of magic, and to tell you why I chose to reveal these age-old secrets,” he explained. “Can you honestly say that you’ve been hurt by watching these television shows? The truth is you probably love magic more now than ever before. Now you feel a part of it too. It doesn’t hurt the art of magic when the audience is in on the trick, because the secret is a small part of it. The real magic is in the performance.”
At that moment he removed the mask to reveal his identity as Val Valentino. This was no surprise among those in the magic community, however. They’d known from the start.
Kevin Spencer was a touring magician who filed suit against the show, and said he and his fellow magicians recognized Valentino almost immediately.
“Those of us who have been fortunate enough to be successful in this industry, we're successful because of the unique traits that we bring to the stage,” he said. “And those traits, with or without a mask, are pretty noticeable. So I'm sure that I could put a mask on and walk on stage and do a trick and every magician would know who it was. Valentino wasn't someone who wasn't making a living in magic, so putting a mask on does nothing to disguise his stage mannerisms. Honestly, a lot of us knew from the very first episode.”
That identification helped the magic community organize and mount a response. Spencer recalls sending a camera crew to Valentino’s driveway around the airing of the third episode to expose the exposer, leading to a testy private exchange with a Fox executive. He still has boxes of hand-written letters to advertisers and Fox executives, the best sure-fire way to get a response in the days before online social media campaigns.
Mark Wilson, a television pioneer and former president at The Magic Castle, suggested that the backlash from the magic community had started to impact Valentino’s bookings even before he identified himself publicly.
“I think most magicians did know who he was,” Wilson said. “He was having a terrible time getting bookings because most magicians disliked the fact that he was exposing magic and told their agents or representatives not to book him because he was exposing magic.”
The L.A. Times reported at the time that while magicians had organized free magic shows to encourage a boycott of the third TV special, the fourth passed by without as much controversy. By that point, the magic community was hoping the specials would simply fade into obscurity. And while the final reveal did attract more viewers than its slumping ratings over the previous specials, it was still barely half of the show’s original audience.
“You can only play this out for so long,” said Magic magazine editor Stan Allen at the time. “I think the public becomes bored of it.”
To hear Valentino’s final monologue, though, he had done the community a favor.
“I wanted to rekindle that sense of wonder that we all felt when we saw our first magic show,” he said in his closing monologue. “I wanted to get people excited about magic again. Do you remember our first television special last year? The next day at work, at school, and around the dinner table, people were buzzing with excitement. For the first time in a long while magic was at center-stage again.
“I’m happy to report that as a result of these specials, magicians everywhere have been letting go of their old tired tricks and moving forward, creating bigger and better illusions, and taking magic where it has never gone before.”
Spencer was unconvinced.
“I'm sorry, that's such a cop-out,” he said, laughing. “First of all, if you consider magic to be an art form, we rise on the shoulders of those that came before us. You don't destroy a Picasso to make room for a Pollock. And so for Valentino to use this idea that he's moved the art form forward by destroying the things that are old and causing people to be more inspired to create new things is, quite honestly, a way to deflect and appease his guilt.
“As magicians growing up, we all learn the same tricks. When someone comes along and intentionally destroys the value of those tricks, it hurts all those people who are trying to get started. That fourteen year old boy who's been mowing lawns all summer so he can buy a sword basket for $800, which seems like a lot of money to him? And then Valentino comes along and says, I no longer respect that, so I have the right to expose it and impact your ability to get further in your career.”
Wilson’s critique may have been even more pointed, suggesting that some of the Masked Magician’s reveals were actually dishonest or dangerous. In an effort to keep from revealing too much, he said, he would invent more convoluted methods that could actually put imitators in danger.
“What he does, he exposes, and does it rather poorly,” Wilson said. “Fortunately most of his exposes are not the honest way to do the trick. About half are, half aren’t.” Plus, he said, “if people wanted to know and it increased their curiosity, the Masked Magician would still be on TV, and he ain’t.”
What the Masked Magician did accomplish, though, was to expose a glaring flaw in the legal mechanisms behind magic and secrecy. Many of the secrets were old and passed around magic circles casually as a rite of passage. Some more modern secrets, or more recent iterations on classics, were still being actively used by the performers or engineers who made them famous. The Table of Death trick was still being licensed out by magician Andre Kole, but the legal protections to secure his livelihood were scant. As Kole’s lawyer David Baram put it at the time: "A handshake has worked for several centuries.”
The problem lies in a conflict between the way American law protects trade secrets, and the needs of the magic community itself. U.S. law requires patent filings to include detailed sketches and explanations, to prove that it’s a unique technology or used in a unique way, which then become part of the public record. To properly protect the gimmicks behind a new illusion, an engineer or performer would have to give up the secret itself. The strongest legal avenue to protect a secret will ultimately expose it. The problem is self-defeating.
Instead, magicians often copyright the performance of a trick. That doesn’t protect the methodology itself, but covers every aspect of how the audience perceives it, from the script and presentation to the music cues. Another relatively recent step is the proliferation of detailed nondisclosure agreements between engineers, performers, and anyone else on staff who may know the secrets.
"When we buy a new piece of magic, an original piece of magic, we sign intellectual property documents, we sign documents on how we're going to perform it on television, on a live stage, every aspect of the way we're going to use that trick is covered in this intellectual property document and nondisclosure agreements,” Spencer said. “Inventors and creators are more particular about who they sell to and they want to make sure that if you're a magician you're not just going to call one of our leaders and say ‘hey, I want to buy a trick from you.’ That doesn't happen anymore. They want to know who you are, where you're performing, your level of credibility. And when you are approved to buy that trick, you're going to sign a series of non-disclosure agreements and intellectual property agreements. From that side they're protecting themselves, which is great. Sadly from the magicians' side of it, it makes it more difficult to create illusions if you're not already recognized in the magic community.”
Meanwhile the Masked Magician specials, and their more recent sequels with a new and as-yet unidentified Masked Magician, seem to have inspired imitators. YouTube is rife with amateur exposes and explanations of common tricks. Whether Valentino intended to inspire other secret-spoilers or not, the legacy lives on.
Philosophically, magicians widely agree that the real danger in exposing magical gimmicks is much larger than the legal drama. Dr. Peter Lamont, a magic historian and senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, explained.
“The larger problem is that when characters like the Masked Magician reveal the secrets of magic, they give the impression that magic is simply a puzzle to be solved,” he said. “The purpose of magic is to create the effect that something impossible happened. This is a really difficult thing to do properly, and requires an enormous amount of time, effort, skill, and experience. The method is merely a means to this end, and the ‘secrets’ exposed are a tiny fraction of how you do this. However, the Masked Magician, like the novices on YouTube more recently, presented magic as a tacky puzzle. It’s cheap, easy, and selfish, and it reduces magic to the lowest common denominator.”
That said, Lamont suggested that exposure is nothing new, and magicians have already been working around it for quite some time.
“Magic secrets have been revealed for centuries and magic has survived just fine,” he said. “The public has known for centuries that magicians palm things, and hide things up their sleeves. They’ve known about trapdoors, mirrors and wires, and various moves and gimmicks. Magicians continue to use all these methods, they just do it in a way that’s not suspected. It doesn’t matter if the audience knows about palming if they think that the hand is empty. It doesn’t matter if the audience knows about wires if they’re convinced that there are no wires. The key thing is that the magician needs to know what the audience thinks is possible, so that they can make the effect seem impossible. If the audience knows about the existence of a particular method, then the magician needs to rule it out. And that’s what magicians do. They show their hands are empty, or pull up their sleeves, or show that there are no trapdoors, mirrors, or wires. That doesn’t mean they’re not using these methods, but it’s essential that the audience doesn’t think that’s how it’s done. It has to seem impossible.”
For Valentino’s part, he was still performing as of 2012, when he used a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) to promote a tour and his Shriners charity events. Predictably, many fans’ questions focused on his work as the Masked Magician, and he continued to defend the work.
“In the beginning, magicians were angry because they did not understand my intentions,” he said. “Magicians had become complacent and were not prepared for any changes that were to come.”
On the whole, however, his star appears to have faded; the audience was concerned mostly with the secret of his identity. Valentino professed a desire to push aside the old and usher in new innovations. In doing so, he may have pushed himself aside as well.