We’ve often noticed that couples who are in the same business seem to be polar opposites, even if they share some deep connection. Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter may sport similarly winsome hair, but they don’t even live in the same house. Annette Bening and Warren Beatty are both classy, but while she’s perky, a live performer and a passionate mom, he’s forever the playboy, the politician, the cool leading man. The scruffy, unkempt hipness of Keith Urban and the willowy perfection of Nicole Kidman… we could go on with these celebrity exemplars of the truism that opposites attract.
Or we could meet Tina Lenert and Mike Caveney, a Pasadena couple who live in a wonderful house in Prospect Park (take that, Helena and Tim!). They both like long-distance running, have sharp minds and laugh at the same jokes. One waits patiently while the other tells a story, smiling inwardly at the punchline or supplying it if necessary. They’ve been married over 30 years, and they’ve been practicing magic even longer.
Tina is petite, intent and focused, with a finely tuned dancer’s body and a fierce drive to master what moves her. Since high school, she has moved in sometimes decade-long increments from classical guitar, to mime, to magic, to the harp, and back again to magic. She prefers not to be called a magician, though she uses magic to tell stories. Mike is tall, placid and both methodical and impulsive. He’s wanted to be a magician since he was 9 years old and just keeps improving on his original tricks. He’s also a noted historian of magic whose quick-witted purchase of major collections of paper ephemera provide the Lenart-Caveney home (and museums like the Skirball) with riveting, riotous décor.
Mel caught up with Mike and Tina when they were just home from sharing a gig in Madrid (they do not perform together, but sometimes book their acts on the same variety show). It was pouring, dark and cold outside; inside was all glowing wood, mellow light, purring cats and magical memorabilia, including Mike’s latest book, Taschen’s massive Magic 1400s-1950s, which he co-authored with Noel Daniel, Jim Steinmeyer and Ricky Jay.
Why did you get into magic?
TL: It’s entertainment, and surprise. I want to shatter your worldview while maintaining your suspension of disbelief.
MC: I’m giving a talk at Caltech soon called, “My job is more important than your job.” I’m talking to all these scientists who are curing cancer and smashing atoms. And I’m going to argue that in a magic show, when I cause your head to explode and the impossible to happen in front of you, and your world turns upside down, I’m creating the sense of wonder that we all need to keep doing things like curing cancer and smashing atoms.
As a magician, how do you discover what you are good at – cards, or comedy or big spectacles?
MC: You have to discover who you are as a performer. I grew up admiring Channing Pollock, whom I first saw on the Ed Sullivan show and who spawned a hundred dove acts. I got to know him when I was a kid living in Arcadia; he lived in Hollywood. I decided I could not grow up to be Channing, but I would figure out what I was good at. I turned out to be good at being slightly befuddled, and it worked.
TL: Initially, I just wanted to hang out at the Magic Castle, and you had to be a magician, so I learned some tricks and combined mime with magic. I’m always exploring facets of who I am. You can be who you are on stage. I begin with feelings, things that give me goosebumps. I want to pass those goosebumps on to the audience.
Do you like performing for other magicians?
MC: Sometimes. It’s fun to take something that everybody knows – and there are many tricks that everybody knows – and make it new again, to change it or modernize it.
TL: They are a tough audience, but you can really learn a lot. There are three or four people on the Magic Castle I rely on to help me get things right. Mike helps me edit my act.
MC: When she first came up with her Mop act, I helped her arrange it as a story.
TL: He said, “It’s Cinderella.”
MC: Then I suggested what tricks worked with the story, and what tricks sidetracked it.
TL: I am about inspiration, and Mike’s about direction, editing and logic.
What’s the worst part of performing?
TL: When I don’t get a great reaction from somebody. It makes me crazy.
MC: Me too. The only guy we notice in an auditorium of 1,400 dumbfounded people is the one guy with his arms folded who is NOT having a good time.
Why do most magicians know so much magical history?
TL: (Ruefully, in a magnificent room hung with magic posters and featuring a Ollivanders’-worthy stand, made by Mike, holding the lovingly labeled wands of famous magicians…) It’s not my thing at all.
MC: When I got the magic bug, I bought books to learn tricks – I learned the history by studying the books and the guys who wrote them. Then I discovered that the 100-year-old first editions of these books were really wonderful., and I started collecting pictures, letters and posters. Lots of guys collect apparatus, the 3D stuff. I’m into 2D, the paper.
What’s the future of magic?
MC: Magicians are adaptable. We used to work in the street, then on stages, then with gas lights, and then in theaters with trap doors and fly lofts. Now you can do close-up magic on a video screen for 1,000 people. We worried that with TV, would people believe the trick? They do — it’s still compelling.
TL: There’s no replacement for the tactile. People will always be interested in people.
What keeps the magic in your marriage?
MC: Don’t marry the cheerleader, marry your best friend. And if she’s also the cheerleader, great.
TL: We’re together more than most married people, because when we’re home, we’re home together, and when we perform together, we can be with each other 24 hours a day.
MC: We agree on the big things: religion, money, taste – and we were pretty grown up when we met.
TL: Magic isn’t the even the main thing. We laugh at the same things.
MC: We are grounded in the same things, but it’s kinda funny – you don’t think that it’s going to be forever. But 32 years later you think – wow!