Home / Arts & Life / Hat. Rabbit. Spy Cam? Claims of Skulduggery at a Hot Magic Show

Hat. Rabbit. Spy Cam? Claims of Skulduggery at a Hot Magic Show

That man was David Meade, a mentalist based in Northern Ireland with a thriving corporate speaking career and several BBC specials under his belt. After the show, the house manager asked to inspect his iPhone and found no recordings.

But word of the incident — which was captured on a video the technician shot off the security monitor using his own smartphone — began spreading through the insular world of magicians, and a few days later Mr. Meade received a text message from a mutual connection of his and Mr. DelGaudio’s, saying he had been “warned” about Mr. Meade.

Mr. Meade promptly sent a Facebook message to Mr. DelGaudio, whom he does not know personally, but received no reply. In the Facebook message, Mr. Meade expressed bafflement over the claim of surreptitious filming, a sentiment he repeated in an email to The New York Times.

“As the usher checked and can attest, I had absolutely zero video, photo or audio recordings from Derek’s show,” he said. “I want to be absolutely clear. I categorically refute these claims.”


Mr. DelGaudio in his show “In & Of Itself,” at the Daryl Roth Theater.

Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times

Mr. DelGaudio said that he never saw the message, which he said had landed in Facebook’s folder for messages from people outside his friend network. But his guard was up, and a few days after Mr. Meade’s visit, Mr. DelGaudio said, he spotted another person — recognized as a magician by an usher who had seen him at “a local magic hangout,” as Mr. DelGaudio put it — filming the show’s ending, and asked him to delete the footage.

Mr. DelGaudio, 33, is fiercely protective of his original material. But he said that he was also alarmed by what he saw as attempts to bottle “the capital-M magic” of a show intended to be an in-person-only experience.

“I’m kind of living my childhood fantasy of creating a Willy Wonka factory,” he said. “And now we have real-life Slugworths tying to steal our gobstoppers.”

Magic history is full of colorful accusations of industrial espionage and other skulduggery. In one much-recounted episode, the early- 20th-century American magician Harry Kellar made an escalating effort to uncover the secret of the British magician John Nevil Maskelyne’s levitating lady trick: watching repeatedly with binoculars, once rushing backstage to inspect the apparatus, and, when that wasn’t enough, buying drawings from one of Maskelyne’s assistants. (Another magician later stole the trick from Kellar.)

Whatever took place the night Mr. Meade visited Mr. DelGaudio’s show, which has been extended through Dec. 30, was less dramatic, if perhaps as hard to puzzle out as some of the onstage effects.

The technician’s video clearly shows a pulsing light from Mr. Meade’s phone. It also shows Mr. Meade taking the phone out of his pocket and propping it under his chin, pointed at the stage, without looking at the screen. After putting it back, he glances down quickly, then adjusts its position in his pocket, keeping his torso straight. (Mr. DelGaudio showed the video to The Times but would not allow it to be published.)

Someone who wants to turn a smartphone into a spy cam can find plenty of help. There are night-vision apps, tweaks that let you film while your phone appears to be off, apps that stash files in hidden locations, cameras disguised as phones.

Mr. Meade said that he had no idea why the device in his pocket — which he said was a “completely unmodified” iPhone 6 Plus — was emitting the pulse seen on the infrared monitor. (While some Android phones use infrared laser technology to focus, current iPhones, including the 6 Plus, do not have an infrared transmitter.)

Mr. Meade did say that he uses LED flash alerts, which are designed to be highly noticeable. But Mr. DelGaudio said that he saw no pulse from the stage, and neither did two theater employees who observed Mr. Meade.

In a small theater, during a part of the show when the audience is in “complete blackout,” any ordinary light “would have been visible from a mile away,” said Jake Friedman, Mr. DelGaudio’s manager and one of the show’s co-producers.

Mr. DelGaudio may be an outlier among high-profile magicians in his extreme reluctance to put his work onscreen. Scour YouTube and you’ll find only a few 10-year-old clips of him doing card tricks on Spanish television.

Whatever the truth about what happened the night Mr. Meade visited Mr. DelGaudio’s show, word that other magicians may have surreptitiously filmed him drew a strong response from some fellow performers.

“So shameful,” the British mentalist Derren Brown, whose show “Secret” recently ended an Off Broadway run, said on Twitter, after Mr. DelGaudio tweeted about the incident, without mentioning any names.

Johnny Thompson, a Las Vegas-based magician and consultant who has worked with Siegfried & Roy, Criss Angel, Penn & Teller and others, had been unaware of the incident until contacted by a reporter, but said Mr. DelGaudio was right to be vigilant.

“There is rampant stealing, in my estimation, in our industry right now,” Mr. Thompson said. “Those of us who fight it, those of us who have ethics, we try hard to protect each other.”

The joint ethics statement of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and the Society of American Magicians forbids both “willful exposure” of magic methods and “unauthorized use of another’s creation.”

Originality in magic is a slippery concept. But Teller, the less talkative half of Penn & Teller, said that people, including “uncreative magicians,” have no idea how difficult it is to create substantially new tricks and illusions, like one in Penn & Teller’s current show involving a live cow, which he said took six years to develop.

“If you want to write a piece for the piano, you can write a piece for the piano,” Teller said. “But with magic, you basically have to invent the magical equivalent of a piano, then figure out how to build it, then how to play it, then how to play it in front of an audience.”


Teller, of the magic duo Penn & Teller, said that people don’t realize how difficult it is to create substantially new tricks and illusions.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Unlike other art forms, magic generally falls outside intellectual property law. Creators can patent a device, but this requires explaining how it works — in effect, exposing the trick. (Maskelyne filed false patents, to throw off rivals. David Copperfield has claimed that he has paid people to plant fake explanations for his illusions on the internet.)

In 2014, Teller won a lawsuit against a Belgian magician who copied one of his signature illusions, in which he dismembers a real rose by holding a knife to its shadow, and posted a version of it online, along with an offer to sell it to other magicians. Teller had copyrighted it as a pantomime in 1983, but hadn’t revealed the underlying mechanism.

“He said he was using a different method, but that makes no difference to the public,” Teller said of the other magician. “All they see is the effect.” (The judge agreed.)

Magicians certainly admit to trying to suss out one another’s methods. Teller said that when he went back a second time to see Mr. DelGaudio’s show during its initial run last year, in Los Angeles, he was “watching for every little possibility.”

“I saw one major thing I had missed the first time,” he said. “I thought, ‘Damn, he’s good!’” Still, he said, “there are several things where I don’t know how he’s doing it.”

Mr. Meade offered similar praise for Mr. DelGaudio’s show, calling the ending “the best thing I’ve ever seen in a live stage show in my entire career.”

He also extended an invitation: “I hope Derek will come see my show some day so he can be assured it’s nothing like his.”

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