Backdrops, Part I

Welcome to “Tales From the Magic Tech Road” a new column for The Secret Art Journal. Our purpose for “Magic Tech” is to focus on the practical aspects of producing a one- or two-person stand-up show for a one-night-only engagement. We will discuss backdrops, lighting, sound, staging, prop management and vehicles. We will also question the assumption that large magical effects require large props. Many of us perform at times in community, non-profit and business locations where traditional theater resources are sparse, and we often need to fit our show into a sedan, wagon or van; perhaps it must even fit in one case.

I produce my own solo, stand-up show, “Illusion, Wonder & You.” This is usually a single club or cabaret performance for an audience of less than 300 people. My one-hour show includes classic effects from manipulation, mental magic, simple prop magic and an illusion or two for special occasions. I am prepared to create an indoor theatrical space wherever I go. I bill myself as “completely self-contained” with wireless sound, lighting and staging. At one time it all needed to fit in my Honda Civic hatchback. This journey required some creative experimenting, which I will share from time to time.

Last year my “Sound Advice” column began this type of discussion in the Secret Art Journal. Our next stop along The Magic Tech Road is the issue of backdrops.


Please take this question seriously. If you work neatly out of one case and can easily focus the attention on your magic, then why have a backdrop? Toting one around adds heft and bulk, not to mention the time it takes to set up and strike. A quality backdrop can easily cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars, and if you are performing outdoors, forget it! Wind can very easily knock down seemingly stable setups. If you are performing outside, study entertainers like Jeff Sheridan, Gazzo, Harry Anderson and Jeff McBride’s Commando Act.


To me the purpose of a backdrop is to focus people on my magic. It does this by removing visual distractions like props, road cases, mirrors, unsightly wires, doorways, inescapable backlighting (like windows), busy wall decorations (like shiny trophies and pictures), or just plain clutter — like the set and costumes from that wonderful 1983 holiday play that no-one wants to let go of. Also, on a very large stage, a simple backdrop and focused lighting can bring the attention down to you.

A slightly curved backdrop limits angles, so people on the sides cannot see the load behind the chair, the shell of the billiard ball or the support for the suspension.

A good backdrop creates private preparation space — no more prying eyes or loading up in the bathroom down the hall! In their Haunted Mansion lecture notes “Have You Ever Thought About School Tours?” Tim Ellis and Sue Ann Webster describe their rectangular PVC black-art backdrop. It has sides that extend backward to create a completely private dressing room. These lecture notes can be found at under “merchandise.”

Then there is the WOW Factor. When my audience and employer enter our theatrical space, I want them to say, “Wooooooow…” This is about hoping and expecting something wonderful. I want them to know they are about to experience an extremely special show that will touch their hearts and fry their brains. A quality backdrop can be part of setting the stage for wonder. It can say, “I really care about your experience here tonight. Get ready to be amazed…”

FABRIC: Remember, It’s About You, Not Your Backdrop

Tony Andruzzi once said that a magician’s impact is in inverse proportion to the number of sequins on the magician’s costume. The same can be said of the magician’s backdrop. While there are times you need a busy pattern like Mylar streamers to hide threads for levitating an object, generally it is better for the material to have a small, simple pattern or no pattern at all. The color should be relatively neutral, fairly dark and should contrast your costume well. You do not want to vanish in front of it. If you go with a very dark solid color (like black velvet) use 50-100% more material to add an interesting pleated texture. Some fabrics are not completely opaque. Sewing inexpensive black poly material along the top edge of the front curtain will keep backlight and tell-tale shadows from coming through. Make sure the backing is slightly smaller than the front curtain so it will stay hidden.

The quality of the fabric should be relatively high. Magician and entertainment agent Joe Leffler says, “While I no longer need a backdrop for my performance, I learned that you only look as good as the material you’re performing in front of.” Do not be afraid of spending some money here. Next, your backdrop will be packed and unpacked many times, so search for wrinkle resistant fabrics with poly-fiber content — why would a successful magician hang something shoddy? Crushed velvet is very nice for draping all sorts of furnishings — wrinkles, what wrinkles?

EXTREMELY IMPORTANT: If you use any fire at all, intend to position the backdrop near lights or have even the slightest desire to perform in a professional theater, it is absolutely essential that your system be fire resistant. While there are a number of theatrical products available to treat staging materials, it can be expensive to have this done professionally after the fact — better to search for fire-resistant fabric in the first place from theatrical supply companies. Tobias Beckwith says,

“Rose Brand is probably the largest supplier of theatrical draperies. They’ll fabricate to order. They are on line at I don’t know these folks, but they claim to be the biggest:”

Rose Brand also stocks fire retardant systems for doing it yourself.

What size should a backdrop be? Some of the products on the market, like Abbott’s Jet Set, create a 6’ x 6’ backdrop. This might work for a birthday party in someone’s home, but if you move from side to side, it will not cover you. The product has been around for a while, but because of improved public health, performers are generally taller today than they were 30 years ago. Also, if you are raised on a platform or stage above the audience even a foot, then when you move the least bit forward, the backdrop will not cover your head from their perspective. Fortunately, Abbott’s Jet Set can be enlarged easily. (More on this later…)

A backdrop can be taller than you but still not be sufficient to cover your frame from the audience’s point of view.

In this case, a backdrop could actually be distracting. Consider at least an 8’x 8’ backdrop, but 8’ high by 12’ wide is preferable.

More questions: What is the packed size and weight of your backdrop system? Will it easily fit in your vehicle? Can one person hang it easily? Do you really want to lug around those hundred-pound, thick maroon velvet curtains from the old theater — classy as they are — not to mention the brass bases and support rods? Oy!

REMEMBER: It’s about you, not your backdrop. Do you really need one? If so, use quality opaque fabric with a darker color to contrast your costume, with little or no pattern, and make sure it is both wrinkle and fire resistant; carefully check its size and weight too.


If you want a black art backdrop to do grand illusion effects, be careful. For one-night-only engagements, the lighting and staging for these routines can be quite tricky. The cost is considerable if you just want to produce or vanish a person. However, if you are going to explore this area, you might want to consider a purchase from Don Drake in Las Vegas. His book Black Art Breakthroughs and Gary Darwin’s Inexpensive Illusions are worth a look. Don Drake strongly recommends and supplies triple velvet. While pricey, it reflects the least amount of light. On the other hand, adding flame retardant reduces the black art effect. Flame-resistant double velvet is available from theatrical supply warehouses. Because the velvet is so dark, use extra fabric to create a pleated texture. Don Drake can create an entire setup for you with various gaffs. Keep in mind that certain illusions need a black art floor cover too. The material will get dirty, so prepare to keep it clean. For black art effects, you may want to consider something smaller, like Don’s Wizard’s Window or Wizard’s Table. Lighting for a black art curtain must face the audience and possibly crisscross the stage to create shadow. WARNING: The lighting can be quite difficult to set up. If you want to produce or vanish an assistant in a one-night-only show, black art is a long and rather expensive way to go for such brief effects. There are other methods described in classic and contemporary books on simple illusions: The Mark Wilson Complete Course in Magic, U.F. Grant’s classic Mystery Carton Illusions, books like Illusion F/X by Andrew Mayne, and Paul Osborne’s Easy Build Illusions.


Ask yourself, “How much time will different backdrop systems add to setting up and striking my show?” While it might seem natural to thread a curtain on a rod, it can be time consuming when the fabric is heavy, the rods long, and the hem narrow. What are some options? Curtains with backing stitched along the top can just be thrown over a rod. Some curtains are permanently kept on rods and then simply hooked on to a framework. Velcro is a magician’s best friend, and one of the finer professional backdrops attaches to its support system with powerful strip magnets.


The most common method for hanging curtain-type backdrops is on a rod suspended by one or two medium duty tripods available at photography supply stores, like B&H Photo Video in New York City. There are many different kinds of tripods such as photo, video, speaker and lighting. You are looking for a Photographer’s Backdrop Setup. Get the whole thing in a kit if you can. Lighting tripod legs tend to be set lower. You want them lower, but not extending out so far that you trip on them. Popular brands include Bogen, Star-D and Lowell. Black tripods draw less attention, and make sure they can hold the weight of your curtains. A more stable setup will use two medium or heavy-duty tripods, cross-bar adapters, and a telescoping cross bar. Certain features increase the cost of tripods: compactness, lightness, air cushioning and easy releases. School photographers purchase the better ones for those reasons. Consider investing in a hard plastic lighting case with configurable dividers to keep everything safe and neat. If you want wings (at least three feet wide), additional tripods, bars and adapters can add one to each side. Don’t forget to inquire about lighting clamps if you need to attach lights to your setup for effects like black art (use cool burning lights for safety).


You can create a lightweight and economical backdrop frame out of strong 2″ PVC piping and connectors. Its shape would be a rectangular “C” such that the long flat edge of the frame faces the audience and the shorter ends go to the back as stabilizers. Hanging fabric with Velcro on all three sides creates a convenient changing room in back. While not particular to them, Ellis & Webster use this framing for their traveling haunted school show; their unique black art set-up is worth serious study.

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