It’s The Thought That Counts: Simon Aronson, An Appreciation

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I read the news today, oh boy.

Simon Aronson died this past week.

He was one of the most brilliant and clever creator of card magic effects of the past 50 years. His methods were… shall we say?…memorable. The house of magic is large, as Eugene Burger was fond of saying, and Simon’s creations fit a particular room. His magic was brainy, intellectual, and absolutely fooling. There are magicians who are great at fooling laypeople; there are magicians who are devious enough to fool other magicians; but the amazing thing about Simon’s card magic is that if you were doing it, it would fool even yourself. To this day, there are probably legions of magicians who perform his “Shuffle-Bored” or “Prior Commitment” who still have absolutely no idea why they work. What they know is that they do work, and they blow the minds of people who see them. If the performers themselves can’t figure them out, you can imagine, then, that the spectators have got zero chance. (If you like, we can discuss in the comments about your personal favorite effects of his.)

But make no mistake, Simon’s tricks impressed non-magicians as well. There’s a funny story that magician John Bannon tells in his introduction to one of Aronson’s books. He shows the secretary of Simon’s law firm a card trick, hoping to impress her, and she only smiles pleasantly. Then she says with wide open eyes, “But have you seen Simon’s card magic?”

Speaking of Aronson’s books, I doubt there has ever been a more meticulous, detailed magic writer than he was.  His books—Bound To Please, The Aronson Approach, Simply Simon, Try The Impossible, and Art Decko—are masterpieces of explanation of intricate methods. While Simon was not above using sleights and gaffs in his magic (and he delighted in upsetting fellow magicians’ expectations of what his bag of methods might include) his claim to fame really rests on thinking very hard about a few tools which required mostly sleight of mind. As he would say, just as you have to plan things so that your sleight of hand doesn’t show, you also have to plan effects so that your sleight of mind doesn’t show either. In Simon’s books, he takes you through all his thinking point by point, thoroughly exploring variations and improvements, telling you what versions he threw out as weak or too revealing, giving you his scripting, and moreover, unlocking the reasons why his methods work. Simon’s training as a lawyer shows—his books are not just explanations, but  thorough briefs with points and subpoints. In magic circles people like to debate, with near religious ferocity, whether it’s better to learn magic from books or DVDs. Of course both sides have valid views, but for the book-lovers, their strongest argument is two words: Simon Aronson.

No one would call Simon an extraordinary performer, but on occasion he would step away from the card table to do another kind of magic: his mentalism act that he created with his college sweetheart and wife of many years, Ginny. (There’s a great photo of college-aged Simon and Ginny on the Jerx website that speaks volumes about them. And Bill Mullins on the Genii Forum posted a wonderful remembrance from Simon about his father who was very active in the 60s Civil Rights movement). They did a classic two-person mindreading act, and fortunately it was captured on video as an extra on one of his videos. It’s something that neither he nor Ginny have ever revealed, and while clearly there must be some code going on, I have resigned myself to the fact that if Simon created it, I’m never going to be able to figure it out. You can see their act for yourself in the L&L video I posted above.

At the first run of mentalist Derren Brown’s Secret here in NYC, Derren pointed to a man in the audience to volunteer for the next effect. It was dark in the theater so I couldn’t see that well, but I thought the man looked familiar; when he said his name was Simon and the woman sitting next to him was Ginny…

I made sure to “accidentally” bump into him as the theater was emptying, and nervously introduced myself to him. He was so nice—he said he knew my name from this blog, and then proceeded to describe the photo I have on the title page of it! I got to talk with him a little longer as we walked together in the rainy weather, and found them a cab back to their hotel. Really couldn’t be nicer people. I treasured that comment from him, as one of the very first essays I wrote on this blog was inspired by an essay of his.

Simon Aronson was a full-out, full-deck memorable mensch, and I’m sorry to hear about his passing. From the Jack of Spades to the Nine of Diamonds, he will not be forgotten.

 

Wild Pitch

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Photo by Lino Khim Medrina on Pexels.com

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The radio station I work for, WBAI in NYC, recently was the subject of criminal trespass by a rogue faction of the Pacifica network to which WBAI belongs. With no official authorization (and in violation of court orders) they broke into the station, stole mics and broadcasting equipment, took over our transmitter, commandeered the bank account, and replaced our programming with a godawful inferior feed from the West Coast. This went on for the month of October. It’s a long story that I’d rather not re-hash, but you can find a good account of it here and here.

Well we’re back on the air, and we’re fundraising, and I recorded the little pitch above for our show, which explains why we think our show, Arts Express, and the station is worth supporting.  If you’d like to donate you can go to wbai.org and become a supporter. If you do donate, please consider listing Arts Express as your favorite show.

Click on the triangle above for the wind up.

Many Thanks!

Put To The Test: A College Tale

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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Well, Grubstetter figured he was going to get an easy A in Psych 1, after all, he’s good with people, didn’t he get his college roommate to buy him a keg of beer based on the premise that it would be worth it just to see him get drunk and f’d up? On the other hand, it turned out that the professor didn’t talk once about how to get free drinks from your roommate in his bogus Psych 1 class, in fact they didn’t talk about people or alcohol at all, all they talked about were wily brown rats and albino mice and stimulus-response reaction times. At least that’s what they talked about the last time he was in class, which was also the first time he was in class, when they gave out the syllabus.  He needed to pass the course, because frankly he hadn’t passed many others, and if he didn’t pass this one, he would be kicked out, seeing that he was already on probation for last semester’s stunning non-production.

The term paper was worth 50% and the final exam was worth 50% of the final course  grade. Grubstetter’s calculation was that though he hadn’t gotten it back yet, the term paper was probably an A—at least that’s what it received according to the website he got it from—so really what he had to turn his attention to now was the final. That would have made sense had not the final been so cruelly scheduled for 2:20 pm, two solid hours before Grubstetter’s usual wake up time. His roommate, Porter, who had returned to the room at 2pm from his bio class to grab the other half of the pulled pork sub sandwich which he had left in the room’s mini-refrigerator, didn’t think much at first of seeing Grubstetter passed out on the couch. It was not that unusual a sight at this time of the afternoon. But Grubstetter let out a groan, and Porter suddenly remembered that sometime before Grubstetter had passed out last night, Grubstetter had asked Porter to get him up in time for the big exam.

So Porter slapped Grubstetter’s face a few times and Grubstetter started yelling, but soon calmed down after it was explained to him that he had to get himself to the exam room, and pronto. Grubstetter’s face went ashen, for as he came to, he realized that his study plan of reading the entire Psych text that night—okay, the first and last sentences of each chapter’s final summary paragraph in the Psych text—had been thwarted, due to his inability to read while passed out. It was a genetic fault, he explained.

But Porter ignored his roommate’s excuses, and after rolling Grubstetter out from under the pile of dirt laundry on the couch, he bundled him up in the reclaimed old parka under the broken television set cart that was used as a bed for his girlfriend’s mean tabby cat.  Like a stage manager pushing a reluctant actor onto the stage, Porter gathered all his strength, and pushed his friend out the door.

Grubstetter was immediately stung by the cold of the Maine winter on his now even pinker cheeks, and the glare of the sun on the iced over snow blinded him for a few moments. He fished around in the deep pockets of his coat and pushing aside several Slim Jim wrappers and an invasion of sunflower seed shells, he dug out a pair of pink sparkle-covered sunglasses from some forgotten costume party. “Screw fashion,” he thought to himself as he put them on and got himself re-oriented to the campus quad, the large Clock sounding the quarter hour. He stumbled up the steps of the Founders Hall and marched himself through the corridors to the lecture auditorium, six hundred wooden seats looking down upon an old lab table, with a large projector screen in back of it. Grubstetter stood tentatively in the aisle, looking for a smart student to sit next to, but realized that he knew no one in the class because he had never been to it before. He cursed his rotten circumstances, and took his chances with a student who looked like he might have had intimate knowledge of rats. There was no empty seat exactly near him, but Grubstetter calculated that if he sat three rows behind him, and three seats to the left of him, due to the staggered arrangement of seats in each row, and the greater height of his back row, he would have a perfect diagonal view of the rat lover’s paper.

The teaching assistant entered the room with a big pile of official looking blank exam booklets. “Oh, no,” thought Grubstetter, “It’s going to be an essay exam.” What good would his superior vantage point mean now? Almost nothing. With a multiple choice test and a bird’s eye view you could delineate the pattern of darkened answer circles from afar, like an astronaut’s view of the Great Wall of China, but with an essay test you had nothing. “Gimme something to work with here,” he muttered to himself. He braced himself for the essay question they were about to receive, summoning up all his considerable powers of bullshittery to the fore, but he was still nervous.

“No multiple choice? No multiple choice? What kind of fresh hell is this place anyway?” he called out. Several students turned around in their seats and shushed him, like patrons of an art movie theater reprimanding a particularly recalcitrant viewer during an Ingmar Bergman film festival. But it was clear to Grubstetter what must have happened. The professor, who was known to give multiple choice tests with a hundred-plus questions, had finally figured out that the answers to the test had been in circulation long before the test date. But the guy was lazy. He didn’t want to make up a new hundred-question test. It was easier to make up an essay question on the spot, and have some grad student mark it, than to put in the sweat necessary to re-make a new multiple choice test. “The inconsiderate indolent bastard,” he said to the woman next to him who ignored him.

The teaching assistant at the front of the auditorium, who for some reason couldn’t get the microphone to work, announced in his loudest voice that the test was about to begin, the essay question would be projected on the screen, and that the students would all have one hour and twenty minutes to complete their essay in the exam books. “The use of computers and other aids are not allowed, no pencil, and be sure to sign the no cheating declaration on the back cover. Do all your scrap work and planning in the book, and when you need a new book, raise your hand and I’ll bring you a new one. Okay, I’ll put up the question on the screen and then you may open up your exam booklets and begin writing.”

There was a sharp intake of air in anticipation from the crowd of students and then after some focusing adjustments, the question appeared on the screen. “Holy Mother of Pringles,” Grubstetter exclaimed. “He’s even lazier than I thought.” Grubstetter again read to himself the essay question which was printed in block capital letters:

IMAGINE THAT YOU ARE A PSYCH 1 PROFESSOR. (1) CREATE A SUITABLE ESSAY QUESTION FOR THE FINAL, (2) AND THEN ANSWER THAT QUESTION.

“What the—?” The devious bastard. It took him no thought at all to come up with that. Grubstetter started to look up and down his row and along the diagonals in desperation. Students were looking up, biting the ends of their pens, and then suddenly, as if diving for sunken treasure, swooping their heads back down onto the pages, furiously writing, filling up pages. But Grubstetter could only catch snatches of paragraphs amid the bobbing heads and writing implements. Describe the so-and so effect along with its implications and uses wrote the guy to his right. Given the current state of the scienific research regarding so and so, and so and so, which do you think is a more effective approach and why? wrote the woman to his left. Name three methods of behavioral psychology and compare and contrast among them as to their validity and reliability wrote the rat boy three rows ahead of him. Grubstetter shook his head in despair. These intermittent flashes of ideas were not enough to get him started on an essay of his own. He wasn’t familiar with anything enough to even bullshit about it.

And then, all of a sudden, he sat back in his wooden chair, relaxed full of cheer and merriment, and gave a great hardy guffaw, like a jolly king upon his throne. The answer had, miraculously, come to him. Grubstetter wrote like a demon for a few moments, then turned in his exam booklet to the bewildered teaching assistant, and triumphantly marched out the door, a forgotten Slim Jim now victoriously clenched between his teeth.

Yes, the Gods had looked favorably on Grubstetter that memorable day, as he recounted a week later to Porter.  The proof of the passing grade was right there in the professor’s reluctant red ink on Grubstetter’s returned final exam booklet. A big scarlet “A.”

“So how the fuck did you answer the question?” demanded Porter. “You knew nothing, nothing at all. You never went to class, never cracked a book. How the fuck could he have passed you?”

Grubstetter, who by this time was about to pass out again, tossed the exam booklet to Porter. “Read it, kiddo, read it.” And with that, he fell off the couch and slept the sleep of the angels.

Porter opened the booklet and saw:

IMAGINE THAT YOU ARE A PSYCH 1 PROFESSOR. (1) CREATE A SUITABLE ESSAY QUESTION FOR THE FINAL, (2) AND THEN ANSWER THAT QUESTION.

So you think you’re smart writing an exam question like that? Okay. Here are my answers to the two parts of the essay.

(1) My imagined Question: IMAGINE THAT YOU ARE A PSYCH 1 PROFESSOR. (1) CREATE A SUITABLE ESSAY QUESTION FOR THE FINAL, (2) AND THEN ANSWER THAT QUESTION.

(2) My imagined Answer: IMAGINE THAT YOU ARE A PSYCH 1 PROFESSOR. (1) CREATE A SUITABLE ESSAY QUESTION FOR THE FINAL, (2) AND THEN ANSWER THAT QUESTION.

Have a great summer, prof!

Porter closed the exam booklet, struck dumb. For surely, he thought to himself, as he looked at the crumpled sweetly smiling body on the floor next to him and slowly re-read his friend’s exam paper, he was in the presence of genius.

 

 

 

Stevenson–Lost And Found

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As readers of this blog know,  I’m a longtime fan of cartoons from The New Yorker magazine—and the man who wrote and illustrated almost 2000 of those cartoons was a prolific artist named James Stevenson.

But Stevenson, as Sally Williams’s new film documentary, Stevenson—Lost and Found, uncovers, led an unexpectedly complicated, rich, varied, and sometimes dark artistic life. I was happy to talk with Ms. Williams, the director and producer of the film, about her film and her enigmatic subject.

Click on the triangle above to hear the radio interview, as broadcast today on Arts Express on WBAI 99. FM NYC, and Pacifica affiliates across the country.

Magic Magazine Junkie

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I’m a magazine junkie, but unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, magazines are fast becoming a thing of the past. It’s a precarious business. And magic magazines historically have been even more precarious than most other categories of periodicals. It’s not unusual at all for a magic magazine, first announced with the boldest of intentions and good will at the beginning not to make it through even a year. The subsequent cancelling of subscriptions, unreturned money, late and missing issues are the stuff of legend and also often enduring acrimony in the magic world.

And yet new magic periodicals are announced all the time, and folks plunk down their dollars, hoping to get their latest magic fix in measured doses. But to a true magazine junkie, there’s nothing sweeter than pulling down a bound volume of ancient magic magazines from days past and thumbing through it. There’s a saying that if you want to hide the secret of a magic trick, write about it in a book. My corollary to that is if you want to fool the book readers, do something from a magazine. That’s where you’ll find your really obscure effects.

But the pleasure of reading the old magazines is not just to find another magic trick, but to get a sense of the smell and taste of the time, the ads, the news of who was playing in what theater, which dealers were pushing which effects, what the in-group gossip and backbiting was, but most gratifyingly, the imprint of the editor. Because really that is the most important factor in my enjoyment. I love a rag with a voice, an opinion, a personality, a sensibility, even if it’s not one I share with the editor.

Here is a list of five of my favorite classic magic magazines of the past, all of which can be found in bound volumes.

The Sphinx has had a long, long publication history. It ran from 1902-1953,  quite a feat in a field where it’s often a wonder when a publication makes it to issue #2.  I’ve written a series of posts about this magazine, but even that only scratches the surface in describing its wonderfulness. It is filled to the brim with great stage magic, photographs, and feature articles on famous magicians of the day. The complete print run costs thousands, but the entire number is available on CD for a ridiculously low price.

The Jinx was the newsletter started by Ted Annemann, which ran from 1934 to Annemann’s suicide in 1942. The magazine’s name was a play on its predecessor, The Sphinx. Annemann was a clever inventor of tricks who preferred subtlety over sleights: unlike The Sphinx which focused more on stage and apparatus magic, The Jinx was oriented more to close-up and parlor magic. The Jinx specialized in particular in mental magic, and the bible of mental magic, Annemann’s book Practical Mental Effects, was drawn from effects first printed in The Jinx. Annemann’s honest editorials in every issue managed to offend many, but his observations were often quite sharp.

The Phoenix, which ran from 1942 to 1954, was writer Bruce Elliott’s tribute to Ted Annemann’s The Jinx. In format it was much the same: a newsletter every two weeks or so with some featured tricks and then a column of observations by the editor. Elliott had more outside interests than Annemann, which gave it a bit of a more varied texture than The Jinx. There were lots of contributions from the great names of the day, including Paul Curry, Dai Vernon, Ed Marlo. Like Annemann’s periodical, Elliott’s taste ran to the kind of thing you could show to the boys after the poker game without too much practice. The first Phoenix volume was the first I ever bought from Tannen’s as a youngster, and it holds a special place in my affection. Elliott gave it up in 1954 after 300 issues, and it was succeeded by The New Phoenix for 100 issues with different editors. The magic content of the periodical remained high, but without Bruce Elliott’s savvy Back Room columns, I didn’t find it as enjoyable a read.

Hugard’s Magic Monthly had a run from 1943-1964, basically contemporaneous with the two Phoenix publications, but it had a very different flavor about it. The individual issues had a higher page count, and in its stride it had a number of regular columns and features by contributors in each issue. There were regular book reviews, listings of the latest stage shows, excerpts from books,  and historical features. Although it was printed on newsprint like The Jinx and The Phoenix, and illustrated mainly by line drawings, it had a larger sense of worldliness than those two publications. Because Jean Hugard and Milbourne Christopher, the two main editors and often pseudonymous contributors, had extensive experience in stage magic and the world of show business, their magazine combined the more professional, international feel of The Sphinx with the  magic clubbiness of the other two periodicals.

Apocalypse was a monthly magazine put out by Harry Lorayne from 1978 to 1997. Richard Kaufman, the current editor of Genii magazine, started it with Lorayne when he was a young man, but by its second year, Lorayne was the sole editor. The magazine featured close-up magic effects from the top magicians of the time, with many contributions from Lorayne himself in the field of card and coin magic. Lorayne was a tireless self-promoter and writer, and managed to get great material from his contributors. Lorayne also always provided yearly trick and author indices with each volume, a welcome addition, especially in a day and age before digital searches were possible. Harry famously would include his “Afterthoughts” to many effects including his own, which were short paragraphs of variations and additions to a given effect, sometimes useful, sometimes not. While there’s no doubt that Harry had (and still has in his 90s) a distinctive voice and take on magic, for many, including myself, his narcissism and pettiness make it hard to enjoy the more newsy items he reported on. Still, the magic contained within (check out all the great contributions by David Regal over the years) make this a nominee for desert island reading.

Some of my other past favorite periodicals were Karl Fulves’s publications: Chronicles, Pallbearer’s Review, and Epilogue, though they don’t have the voice or editorial content that the others mentioned above have. Another favorite of mine, too, is Steve Hobb’s more recent periodical Labyrinth. It, also, has little editorial content but contains lots of very clever card magic and sleights.

And, finally, if you don’t find something appealing here, you might take a look at this list of magic periodicals:

https://geniimagazine.com/wiki/index.php?title=Magic_Periodicals

Magicpedia estimates there have been over a thousand different magic periodical publications since 1895. So magic magazine junkies take heart—you have plenty of choices to keep you busy for a very long time.

 

 

 

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War Is Kind

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Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

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Had enough of that old-time military jingoism? Stephen Crane’s your man. The Red Badge of Courage author penned a series of poems called War is Kind that taken together are devastating reading. You can listen to my performance of a selection of those poems as performed today on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM NYC.

Click on the triangle above to hear.