How to Produce a Touring Illusion Show – Interview with John Kaplan

When I was getting my start in magic John Kaplan’s “Magic School Bus” show was one of the first live magic shows I ever saw. I remember that it was a fundraiser for an elementary school in Penticton, BC. Almost 20 years later and John is still touring Canada with his show, commanding thousands of dollars per show for himself and earning thousands of dollars for his clients.

Since he’s obviously on to something I wanted ask him how he did it. It turns out he’s leaving this week to tour a month long tour in New Zealand and Australia, but he found enough time to do this interview with me. But first, Who is John Kaplan?

kaplanJohn Kaplan’s career began, as most magicians’ do, when he received a magic kit at age 9.

Inspired by the life of Houdini and determined to make magic his life’s work, after high school John became a sorcerer’s apprentice, finding as his mentor Micky Hades – author, publisher, illusion builder and inventor of magic tricks (such as the world-famous “Micky Hades Improved Finger Chopper“) – and it was from Micky that John learned the business side of the magic business.

Early contest wins and TV appearances gave John a running start as he pursued his childhood ambition.

Many interesting career high points followed, including promotional shows that saw John escaping from straitjackets, making cars and people disappear, headlining gala shows for major sporting events, performing on cruise ships, in comedy clubs and being Jay Leno’s opening act.

In 1989 John created, produced and starred in his own theatrical production “Johnny’s House”, leading to years of creating theme shows for amusement parks and shopping malls, where he developed his acclaimed “Santa-via-Satellite” program currently licensed in over 60 markets worldwide.

In addition to his performing career, John’ s business-building programs, effects and routines have been well received by the magic community.

However, it’s his unique approach to the fundraising market that’s given John his greatest success. During his 30+ year career he’s performed thousands of shows in over 500 Canadian towns and cities, and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for school and community groups with his Fundraising Magic program. 

Leif: I understand that you and Micky Hades go way back. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

John: Micky was the first magician I ever saw. I was 9 years old, and Micky performed at the annual S.A.I.T. staff family Christmas party, which is where my father worked.

That Christmas I received a “Dante’s Magic Set” and I was hooked. When I was 12 I met another Calgary magican, Bill Spragg, who performed at a neighbour’s birthday party. Bill could tell I was seriously interested in magic so he befriended me and reintroduced me to Micky by inviting me to attend one of Micky’s famous “Magic Fun and Film Festival” weekend conventions. That was when I discovered that not only was Micky a local performing magician, he was also THE magic shop in Calgary.

I worked a little part time at Micky’s shop during high school, and upon graduation took up a 3-year apprenticeship with him. I did this because of the success of another of his protégés, Dale Harney who had become the pre-eminent magician in western Canada with several successful television series, touring several seasons with the Shrine Circus throughout North America. As well, at around 15 I’d met Reveen backstage through Micky and he told me “Stick with Micky, you’ll do welI” so I figured that my best route would be to learn from Micky. And, of course, I’ve never regretted it!

Leif: Lots of people know you because of your Fundraising Magic shows. When did you start selling your show as a fundraising show for groups?

John: 1980 was the first year I performed a fundraising show. A school contacted me about presenting my show as a family night fundraiser for them. Well, by then I was performing a couple of stage illusions, like the Zig Zag and Metamorphosis, and I had about an hour-long show so I said sure, and that’s really how it all began. They came to me.

Leif: What types of groups do you sell your fundraising show to?

John: In the beginning it was just schools. Not long after I did that first fundraiser, Stan Kramien released his course on fundraising, and I grabbed a copy immediately. Stan had primarily targeted service clubs, so that prompted me to market my fundraising show to groups like the Kinsmen, Lions, Elks in addition to the schools. Over the years, I developed a system that’s useable by virtually any community group looking to raise funds, so have expanded my prospect list to include all sorts of organizations. Youth groups, service clubs and schools remain my prime market, but I’ve also helped associations, hospital foundations, disease-fighting campaigns … I think you’d be hard-pressed to name a type of community organization that I haven’t worked on behalf of!

Leif: Give people an idea of the scale of your fundraising show. How much equipment do you travel with? How many assistants?

John: My show is a lean, small to medium-sized 90-minute illusion show. It’s designed to be completely self-contained. In addition to all the props and illusions, we carry lights, sound and backdrops so that we can perform and look good in practically any venue, from school gyms to theatres to arenas. I work with 2 dancer/assistants and a stage tech. The 4 of us travel comfortably in a crew cab pickup, camper on the back, 20-ft equipment trailer behind.

Leif: School parent groups, and community groups often have their staff change every year. How do you stay in contact with these groups each year, and how do you continually prove yourself to these new people year after year?

Abdaz_logo1-262x300John: Yes, changing membership of volunteer-based organizations does make it a challenge to build a long-term relationship with a single client. On the plus side, the fact that every year or few years there’s new people involved means that there’s always a constant supply of new prospects in the marketplace, which is a good thing.

I stay in touch with my principal contacts primarily through email and newsletters, plus I have a system that helps ensure that I stay connected to an organization if or when my principal contact is no longer involved.

Due to my many years of service to the fundraising industry, I’m able to sell my program largely based on reputation. Again, I’ve developed systems for collecting great testimonials and creating vast amounts of social proof to simplify and streamline my approach to reputation-based marketing. It largely boils down to having a show that my clients love, accompanied by a proven fundraising plan that works. There are several other very important elements as well, such as how to manage sponsor communications for example, that all work together to create a seamless and positive experience for both the audiences we perform for as well as the clients that have booked my Fundraising Magic™ program.

Leif: In this new media world where social media is king, and traditional media advertising is so expensive, what do you think some of the new opportunities are for promoting shows and selling tickets?

John: I continue to use direct mail as my primary offline marketing tool, and I do provide sponsors of my Fundraising Magic shows tools and content they can use to promote their events through social media. Online, I use email, Google Adwords, Facebook and of course websites to market my program. I’ll admit I’ve got some catching up to do when it comes to maximizing the effectiveness of social media marketing to promote my program, as I see it definitely offering great opportunity and potential. I’ve had some ideas on how to utilize online resources in selling show tickets, still in the conceptual stages.

Leif: Are faxes and phone rooms viable?

I’ve never wanted to get involved in telemarketing, so have no first-hand experience with phone rooms and their viability. Anecdotally I’ve heard that they’re not producing the results they once were. Broadcast fax used to be fairly successful for me, but I’ve noticed a definite drop in response so no longer use it to the extent I once did.

Leif: What are some of the logistical and scheduling challenges associated with a touring show?

John: Probably the most challenging aspect is labor. Because I tour my program seasonally, it’s not always possible to maintain the same cast and crew from one tour to the next, so that can mean a constant revolving door of finding and training personnel. That said, I have to say that I’ve been fortunate with knowing who to hire, and keeping them happy enough to the point that I’ve had loyal show staff who have been there for me when I need them, including many that have done 10 or more consecutive tours.

When it comes to scheduling, I the 80’s and 90’s I was booking 2-1/2 to 4-month tours from coast-to-coast, Vancouver Island to Newfoundland and back and! However, for the past decade I decided to do shorter tours – around 3 to 6 weeks, closer to home in just the western provinces. In booking my tours, I endeavour to book an average of 5 show days out of 7 … in other words, a 5-day working week. Of course, the schedule seldom works out in a typical Monday-to-Friday work week fashion; sometimes we’ll do 10 days in a row and then there’ll be a week off before the next dates or something along those lines. But, as long as I’m averaging 5 working days in 7, that’s a sold-out schedule. My aim is to book show dates within no more than 4 hours of each other, and anything over 6 hours I like to put a travel day in between. During the pre-tour booking process, that travel day has a good chance of being filled in with another gig half-way between.

Because of our tour schedule, groups get us when we’re available for their area, so obviously that means some dates are lost to groups that have a limited time-frame to do their fundraiser, etc. Because I do both a spring and fall tour, often I’m able to schedule those groups in a different season if date availability doesn’t work out for their initial preference. Lately, I’ve been getting booked by some groups as much as a year-and-a-half or so ahead.

Other logistical challenges are what you might expect … vehicle problems, venue issues like small stages, awkward load-ins, inadequate power provisions, and so on. The kind of difficulties almost any performer might endure.

Leif: What are some of the negatives to offering a fundraising show, and what are some of the positives?

John: Besides the staffing, scheduling and logistical challenges – which are certainly not exclusive to fundraising shows – I think the negative aspects (which I’ve managed to overcome) are the issues of sponsors properly and effectively hosting the event, and my being properly compensated for the performance.

If, for example, you offer your show as a fundraiser to a group on the basis of a percentage of the ticket sales, this can mean you have to take a much more active role in the promotion and running of the event … because if you don’t, your paycheck is completely reliant on the ability of others to get the job done. That’s harnessing your wagon to somebody else’s horse, definitely not a place I want to be. (You only have to get burned a few times in your career to figure this one out).

I solved both problems (that of the sponsor running the event properly, and that of my being happy with my paycheck) by creating a step-by-step, fill-in-the-blanks and system for them to follow – one that’s been road-tested by hundreds of groups over my many years in the business and proven effective.

Providing this fundraising system to my show sponsors has enabled me to set my rate, and sell my show on the basis of a flat fee. It’s been a win-win – but only because of the system I provide. This is far more than booking the show, and giving the sponsor some posters and flyers. The system literally takes them by the hand and leads them smoothly from their very first committee meeting right through until the day of the show, and offers them a full toolkit to not only promote the event, but to maximize their earnings with it. And that’s been the key. It’s allowed me to focus more on what I love, which is performing magic.

Leif: You’ve become a master at setting up small tours to maximize your energy and profits. How do you get groups to select a date that works for your schedule?

John: Of course, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s not always possible to match my availability with a group’s timeline. In many cases they are provided with a small selection of dates to choose from, or wait until another season. Thankfully, as has been proven time and again, a group’s success with my Fundraising Magic™ event is far less dependent upon WHEN it’s held than with HOW the event is undertaken. Again, that brings us back to the system provided. And, when groups see the success others have had with the program, they come to realize this and are often happy to bring us in when we’re available for their area.

Leif: Is it possible to sell a fundraising show on a smaller scale, such as with a one man stand-up show?

John: Absolutely. The system I developed to turn my show into an event fundraiser capable of raising thousands of dollars for a group is just that … a “system”. It’s a system for running ANY event fundraiser successfully, because it focuses on the 3 main requirements: Planning, Promotion and Profitability. It doesn’t matter WHAT the event is … a magic & illusion show, a variety night, a carnival, a concert, a play … there’s a right way and a wrong way to run an event. It’s simply a matter of adaptation.

For example, a number of years ago I had an opportunity to address this very situation by creating the “Night Magic” program, which is a complete adaptation of my Fundraising Magic™ system to a one-man show, perfect for the performer who can do either/or some strolling magic as well as a 45-minute stand-up banquet style act. And guess what? Right out of the gate, the first “Night Magic” event we booked netted the sponsor around $10,000!!!

Since then I’ve had all manner of performers invest in my Fundraising Magic™ program – mentalists, hypnotists, clowns, variety artists, musicians, singers – again, as long as you can put together a show that’s capable of being a stand-alone event, you can market it as a fundraising vehicle. And that market is huge…

Leif: What was your approach to getting into high-end shows? Or more specifically, how did you build up your business to a point where you no longer had to take smaller dates?

John: I’d have to say it came down to focusing on one niche. Early in my career, as so many performers do, I found myself taking any and every available gig. Along the way I decide what venues and audiences I preferred, and decided to focus on that market which, as we’ve been discussing, happened to be family-audience fundraising. I think if you take a look at all successful performers, many of them are successful in a specific field or market, be it trade shows, cruise ships, fairs & festivals, corporate, or whatever. Just happened that for me, it was fundraising.

Leif: You recently released “Santa Appears” DVD and on it you describe multiple ways to make Santa, a CEO, or other celebrity guest of honor appear by magic. When in the booking process do you offer this upsell? How much do you charge for this additional service? If people want to learn more about your DVD where can they do that?

John: It varies … sometimes making Santa or whoever appear is already the client’s main requirement, and sometimes it’s that little “extra” something I’ll offer after the show booking has already been made.

The additional cost also varies, depending upon the client and their requirements. I’ve had situations where I’ve offered the Santa arrival illusion for another couple hundred bucks … and I’ve also had situations like my “Santa-via-Satellite” program where the client came to me seeking “something spectacular” for their annual Santa arrival event and paid me tens of thousands of dollars to create it. You have to be open to a client’s needs, and willing and able to address them.

Leif: If you could go back in time to when you were a teenager/ young adult performing magic, what are some of the things you would have done differently?

John: That’s really tough to answer. You look at who you are, where you’ve been and where you’re at, and you realize that everything that came before has led to now. I certainly have no regrets … life’s been good, I’ve been blessed with a terrific wife and family, I’ve had the opportunity to make a living from a childhood ambition, I’ve had a number of personal and professional accomplishments of which I’ve been proud. I figured out at an early age what I wanted to do with my life, and I guess the decisions I made along the way made it possible. I was lucky that my parents allowed me to make the choices I made, and I would tell my kids to follow their passions as well.

Leif: Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview!