BWW Interview- Charlie Frye (aka 'The Eccentric') Talks Broadway's THE ILLUSIONISTS
Comedian, juggler, acrobat and magician Charlie Frye stars in Broadway's THE ILLUSIONISTS, currently running at New York's Palace Theatre for a strictly limited engagement. The show opened on November 25, 2016 and runs through January 1, 2017. Today, Frye speaks exclusively with BWW and explains why he takes his art seriously, but never takes himself seriously!
THE ILLUSTIONISTS is so much more than a magic show. What can audiences expect to see and experience when they come to the theater?
Well first of all, the Palace is just the perfect place for this show because to play The Palace was the goal of every vaudevillian, and in 1932, vaudeville died, that was the end of that era. After that it was all about movies and things like that. So as people come in to see the show now, they actually get a glimpse of what vaudeville might have felt like back then, a beautiful theater with a show that has all the trappings that a vaudeville show would have had. And of course, the main emphasis is the magic acts but there a lot of other variety acts involved. Puppetry, juggling, daredevil stunts, mind reading all those things have always been kindred arts to magic, so I think the show gives a pretty good view of the spectrum of magic and magic-related arts. So my hope is that people come in and they get the feeling that they are seeing something special, kind of a window into history. And it's a very cinematic show, it's very beautiful and you have entertainers coming out and giving everything they've got with things that they have created themselves over many years of being in the trenches. And like the vaudevillians back then, we finally made it to The Palace!
You perform alongside your wife. How did your collaboration begin?
Well we met about 35 years ago, we were both in the Ringling Brothers Circus around 1980. My wife was an aerialist, she comes from a ballet background, she used to be part of a ballet company here in New York, so she's much more highly trained than I am! So we met in the circus, and after a few years there, one of the great circus clowns pulled me aside and said it was time for me to leave, I had learned as much as I could learn there, I'd gone as far as I could go and that it was time for us to go out and do our own act. So I took his advice and I actually went from working in Madison Square Garden to working on the streets of New York, back in the old South Street Seaport. And then we went West, and soon got a job in Lake Tahoe and Vegas and really began to work all over. I would imagine we're the most travelled variety act in the business now. I don't know anybody who has played more places than us. And of course you get the ups and downs in a career like this. Sometimes you're on Broadway and sometimes you're in, well less stellar places [laughing] So yes, we've been doing it a long time and some of our great friends were vaudevillians from the past and they would give us ideas, we would break in new material with them and get their feedback and slowly just kind of developed our own thing. And my wife is my not-so-secret weapon and she goes through great pains for authenticity. I honestly believe we could have done our act one hundred years ago and not changed one thing about it.
How did you earn your moniker, 'The Eccentric'?
Well in vaudeville, the eccentric was basically a stage clown, they were usually dancers. If you've ever seen the movie 'Singing In the Rain', Donald O'Connor's 'Make 'Em Laugh' dance is a tour de force of eccentric dancing. The eccentrics always dressed a little weird, a little funny, a little comically and they usually had a high level of skill. And they took their art seriously, but they never took themselves seriously. Even Gene Kelly's first appearance on screen is an eccentric dancer, a clown, and then in "The Wizard of Oz" you've got Ray Bolger's fantastic scarecrow. And of course Judy Garland, she came from vaudeville as part of The Gump Sisters. So when they asked me how I wanted to be billed for this show, I said 'The Eccentric' because I even have a few instructional DVD's for the magic community called 'Eccentrics' and I've got a magic set coming out this year which will be called 'Eccentrics.' So for me, The Eccentric, in vaudeville terms, is exactly our style and is who we are as entertainers.
You mentioned Judy Garland. I read that you once opened for her daughter, the great Liza Minnelli.
Yes and she loved this show. We actually almost did The Palace with her a number of years ago, we were working on a show together but then some other thing happened for her and like so many projects, it just sort of fell by the wayside. But when Liza told us, 'Mama would have loved your act,' that was the highest compliment we have ever gotten or will ever need. We've seen her perform out in Vegas and she is just so wonderful, just the greatest entertainer we know, and I know, it's obnoxious to name drop. Our good friend Liza Minnelli always told me never to name drop, but there you go! [laughing]
Do you have a favorite trick that you perform?
You know off-stage I'm always doing tricks for people so I do have a few favorite card tricks that are always in my pocket that are ready to go. As far as on-stage, well I'm working pretty hard every time, every trick presents its challenges. I guess I enjoy getting out there and doing the rings trick because that's our first trick of the night. And then there are things I enjoy in the card routine I do. And I always enjoy the way the juggling act is received and I love to really play into that and try to really play out to the rafters to engage everybody in the audience, from the back of the theater to the people within spitting distance in the front row. Especially with magic, angles are always important, you want people to see things pretty much from the front view, and I don't think there's a bad seat in the house. In fact, we've gone all over the room during rehearsals and watched from all different places to make sure everyone has a great seat.
And in addition , you also have the cameras which allow audience members to watch the live action on the big screen as well.
Yes, that's a necessary concession to the modern age, especially for my card routine, because to do a card trick for two thousand people, I don't know any other way that it can be done. And that's why it starts in black and white at the beginning, as if it were an old movie, and then it segues into color, so we try to bridge that gap in a clever way. But yes, you've got to use microphones, you've got to use lights, you've got to use the camera now and then, so we try to make it as authentic as we can, but at the same time, it's got to be watchable.
Are you privy to how the other magicians in the show do their tricks?
Yes, and I'll gladly tell you all the secrets right now - make me an offer! [laughing] No seriously, we are always giving each other feedback, we may think of a line for each other, or suggest how to make something more effective, or maybe if people are catching sight of something that they shouldn't see, we'll point that out. Most of us are old friends, Rick Thomas and Tara, Mark Kalin and Jinger Leigh, Dana Daniels, you know we've all been around quite a long time, we run in the same circles and we know each other well, so we're quick to contribute if we have an idea or a way for somebody to get a bigger laugh or create a better mystery in a moment. So yes, we're all up on one another's work I would say.
Well I can tell you that after seeing the show the other night, I am still wondering, 'How did they do that?'
That's great, but I hope you didn't feel like you were being duped. You know getting fooled is one thing, but getting amazed and amused at the same time is really what it's about. We can pick up a trick that will fool somebody, but we want to make them happy to be fooled. A friend of mine once said, sometimes a magic trick is like giving somebody the gift of a rock in their shoe. Because a magic trick is something that's always going to be a little vexing in the back of your mind, but it also keeps your curiosity alive. And let's be honest, most tricks are a little disappointing when you do find out the secret, that's an observation that's been made for over two thousand years. The Roman writer Seneca once said of magic, 'Show me how the trick is done, and I lose interest therein.' So a lot of times, a good trick is something that will stay with you and always leave you wondering and guessing and putting forth theories. And as a magician, I treasure those moments that I get fooled by a trick and I don't want to know anymore about it, because I love to feel like a kid again.
And really, with all that is happening in the world these days, it's a gift to be able to spend an evening of pure entertainment.
Well I'm glad that came across because that's really what the show is about, to feel like a kid again and just have a good time. There's really no message here other than, let's have fun, let's play the game together, let's laugh with one another and let's just enjoy the vibe of humans connecting over the same thing, feeling the same thing, having the same laughs, feeling the same joy and the same mystery. Because we are really all one in that theater for the night - audience and performers alike!
Broadway's THE ILLUSIONISTS -TURN OF THE CENTURY is currently running at New York's Palace Theatre for a strictly limited engagement. The show opened on November 25, 2016 and runs through January 1, 2017.
The Golden Age of magic comes alive on stage as THE ILLUSIONISTS return to Broadway for the third consecutive year. Featuring world class illusionists handpicked from across the globe, Broadway's holiday smash hit, THE ILLUSIONISTS, returns to New York City with a new show designed to transport audience back to the golden age of magic. THE ILLUSIONISTS - TURN OF THE CENTURY is centered in a time when conjurers were the true rock stars of the day. Showcasing the origins of some of the greatest and most dangerous illusions ever built, the show also unveils never-before-seen experiments drawn from a treasure trove of long-forgotten mysteries.
About Charlie Frye: Acknowledging America's rich vaudeville tradition, Charlie Frye & Company synthesize virtuosic skills and a passionate love of their art into something classic, yet undeniably fresh -- something that astounds even as it entertains.
For the last twenty-odd years (some odder than others), Charlie and his wife Sherry have been delighting audiences worldwide with their singular blend of silent comedy, magic, juggling, slapstick, and acrobatics. Charlie is often compared to classic comedians such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel and Dick Van Dyke.
Together, they have thrilled audiences around the world --Australia, Africa, Europe, Asia -- in many exotic venues. They have appeared before distinguished audiences such as the Royal family of Monaco and the Sultan of Malaysia. Besides being one of the world's most sought after American specialty acts, they are also in constant demand throughout the United States, where they were named Las Vegas' 'Specialty Act of the Year' for their star billing in the Folies Bergere. Other prestigious appearances have included opening for Liza Minnelli, starring in the internationally syndicated television special, "The World's Top Shows", and a featured appearance in Tom Hanks' film, "That Thing You Do."
Photo credit: Walter McBride