Twenty Books That Have Changed Me


A quick list of books that I feel most influenced my mind and heart over the years. What does your list look like? In no particular order:

1. The Annotated Alice–Martin Gardner and Lewis Carroll
2. The Catcher in the Rye–J.D. Salinger
3. The Ginger Man–J.P. Donleavy
4. Chemical and Biological Warfare–Seymour Hersh
5. Letting Go–Philip Roth
6. The Autobiography of Malcolm X
7. Crime and Punishment–Fyodor Dostoyevsky
8. Endless Night–Agatha Christie
9. Othello–Shakespeare
10. Hamlet–Shakespeare
11. The Shock Doctrine–Naomi Klein
12. An Actor Prepares–Stanislavsky
13. Mind and Nature–Gregory Bateson
14. Summerhill–A.S. Neill
15. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions–Thomas Kuhn
16. Flatland–Abbott
17. Theater of the Mind–Barrie Richardson
18. The Alexandria Quartet–Lawrence Durrell
19. Howl–Allan Ginsberg
20. Debt–David Graeber

Making Stalin Laugh

MIKHALTMANSolomon Mikhoels painted by Nathan Altman 1932


David Schneider’s compelling new play, Making Stalin Laugh, tells of Stalin’s suppression of the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre, and the murder of its director, the beloved actor Solomon Mikhoels. The play is performed in Yiddish, Russian, and German, with English supertitles, You can hear my review of the fascinating play, and my interview of the excellent cast, by clicking on the grey triangle above.

Love and Theft: Minstrelsy in America

Looking back at yesterday’s post on Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in Hellzapoppin’, got me thinking again about minstrelsy, and the relationship of Black entertainers to their (often) white audiences. Throughout American history, Black performers were frequently able to subvert and re-frame the meanings of their entertainments. Eric Lott’s seminal book, Love and Theft, inspired me two decades ago to do some serious study of the American minstrel show, and to investigate how the minstrel show’s conventions and subversions helped write the complex story of both race oppression and resistance. Here’s an article I wrote at that time that appeared in the December 1994 edition of the journal African American Review. I’m posting it here as it appeared then, without any update or correction.

The Ira Aldridge Troupe: early Black minstrelsy in Philadelphia

Minstrelsy before 1865 was a largely white-owned and white-performed phenomenon. There were, before 1865, few companies that had Black performers and that were Black-controlled. Robert Toll, in Blacking Up, lists only six such groups, none of which is known to have lasted more than a month. One troupe that is not on Toll’s list, and is not, as far as I know, documented elsewhere, is the Ira Aldridge Troupe, which played in Philadelphia at the Franklin Hall in Philadelphia in 1863.(1) An eyewitness account by a white reporter from the New York Clipper provides insights into the program of the company as well as the troupe’s reception by its largely Black audience (“Negro Minstrelsy” 70).

The Ira Aldridge Troupe is surely unique in the annals of minstrelsy, if only by virtue of its name, which reflects the pride and awareness the founders of the company must have had when they chose to title themselves after the Black actor who had left his homeland some 35 years before, never to return. Although long absent from the United States, Aldridge was not unknown here – his death in 1867 was reported on the front page of the Chicago Times (Marshall and Stock 334). However, during the Civil War, Aldridge’s name had a significance even larger than his acting abilities, for he had kept a close eye on the abolitionist movement in the United States, and was reported to have contributed half his earnings to the struggle for the liberation of Blacks. As an example of Aldridge’s immediate concern, when a Black family in Baltimore was captured after fleeing from slavery, Aldridge reportedly donated the money to buy the family’s freedom (Marshall and Stock 198). So it is perhaps understandable that, unlike most later Black minstrel companies, and in keeping with the dignity of its name, the Aldridge Troupe apparently did not do plantation material, although they were billed as a contraband troupe – that is, as fugitive slaves. Perhaps, too, because of their substantially Black audience, the troupe felt no need to “put on the mask.” In fact, although much of the material the group performed was standard fare, several of the company’s acts were downright subversive, as a description of the show will indicate.

Part I began with ballad singing by three members of the troupe – Miss S. Burton, Miss R. Clark, and Mr. C. Nixon. Burton sang “When the Cruel War is Over,” which, having sold over a million copies of sheet music, was the most popular sentimental song of the Civil War (Toll 110). The song describes a soldier’s farewell to his lady, the wounds he receives in battle, and his dying request for a last caress. This song, so popular with white minstrel troupes, was an example of the change in white minstrelsy that had been occurring at this time. As the war progressed, the sentimental songs telling of the destruction of Black slave families were replaced in white minstrelsy with songs telling of white suffering because of the war. In the hands of a Black performer, however, this song with its refrain “Weeping, Sad, and Lonely, Hopes and Fears how vain! / When this cruel war is over, Praying that we meet again!” must have had a different, special meaning for its Black Philadelphian audience. Since Philadelphia was one of the closest Northern cities to the slave South, it had become a major stopping point for fugitive slaves, and a frequent destination for the underground railroad, which was supported by many Black churches and secular groups in Philadelphia (Miller and Smith 570). The song’s not-so-encoded meaning clearly referred to fugitive slaves “meeting again” with their Black brothers and sisters still enslaved in the South. The imminent departure of the first troop of Black soldiers from Philadelphia added pertinence and poignancy: Soon there would be Black women seeing their true loves off to war (Du Bois 38). The Clipper reporter notes that the Black audience showed its appreciation, and Miss Burton sang an encore. However, much to the delight of the audience, but to the dismay of the reporter, Burton started to get “into a regular Methodist style, keeping up a movement with her body to the air of the song, collapsing at last into a regular camp meeting break down” (“Negro Minstrelsy” 70). There can be no doubt that the audience had identified itself in the song.

The next act was a farce called “The Irishman and the Stranger,” with a Mr. Brown playing a character called Pat O’Callahan and a Mr. Jones playing the Stranger. The Clipper reporter refers to it as a “truly laughable affair, the ‘Irish nagur’ mixing up a rich Irish brogue promiscuously with the sweet nigger accent” (“Negro Minstrelsy” 70). Perhaps the Aldridge Troupe’s audience got its biggest satisfaction, however, from the role reversal inherent in the piece: Since the beginning of minstrelsy, minstrels of Irish heritage such as Dan Bryant and Richard Hooley had been caricaturing Black men – now it was the turn of Black men to caricature the Irish. Tensions between the two groups were running particularly high during this period, a tension that was to culminate in occurrences such as the New York City and Boston draft riots less than a month later, during which primarily Irish rioters ran through the streets attacking Black people (Zinn 230-31). The previous twenty-five years in Philadelphia had seen a considerable deterioration of the political and economic position of Blacks: They had been completely disenfranchised by the Pennsylvania constitution in 1838, so that they could no longer vote, and by the 1850s they had lost their predominance in many semi-skilled and unskilled occupations to the Irish. What is more, despite increasing industrialization, Blacks were excluded from the factory jobs that the Irish immigrants filled (Hershberg 112, 117). So the Aldridge audience must have gotten special enjoyment from Brown’s representation of an Irishman so crude that his coat buttons were made of crackers.

Race and ethnicity were never far from the thoughts of the spectators even during the seemingly innocuous acrobatic act that followed. As Mr. J. Purnell stood on his head on top of a seven-foot pole, Black members of the audience shouted out with pride, “Ooh! Go way white man – look at ’em, look at ’em” and “Whar’s yer Pickayune Butlers now?”(2)

After some comic songs and dances, the troupe continued with a dramatic performance that brought race once more into focus. A thriller called “The Red Man of the Forest; or the Oath” starred Mr. P. Jones as the Red Man of the title, and Mr. S. P. Brown as the evil Duke Aphonza. Toward the end of the play, Red Man captures the (white) Duke; the actor playing the Duke, however, evidently had not “whitened up” for the part; and, as a result, when the Indian confronted him saying, “Let the pale face beware,” the house exploded in laughter and chatter, calling to the dark-skinned actor to dip his head in a barrel of flour. But one observer, at least, was able to see beyond the actor’s actual color. Voicing a hidden subtext of the piece, the theatregoer shouted out, “Go it, Injun – give dat pale face a smash in dat mouf of his’n.”

The hostility of some of the Black audience members toward whites should not be surprising, despite the reputation that Philadelphia had for abolitionist activity. For if Philadelphia was a center of anti-slavery activity, it was also a hotbed of discrimination. In the words of Frederick Douglass, “There is not perhaps anywhere to be found a city in which prejudice against color is more rampant than in Philadelphia” (qtd. in Weigley 165). Black Philadelphians at the time were still barred from street cars, could not attend white elementary schools, were not allowed to attend any public high schools, and had been subject to the effects of so many riots during the 1840s that the growth rate of their population throughout that decade was a scant 0.36% (Du Bois 38, 40, 88).

Given this history, it is interesting to note that the audience was not completely Black. According to the Clipper account, while the hall was nearly filled with Black audience members, one bench in front, reserved for whites, was occupied by “a dozen or two of pale faces.” The Clipper reporter noted the clear difference in the behavior of the two segments of the audience:

The whites were orderly in their demeanor, always laughing in the right places, and applauding at the proper time; but the blacks behaved very bad, making all sorts of fun of the performers, and openly criticizing everything that was done. (“Negro Minstrelsy” 70)

Not even the infamously rowdy New York Bowery Theatre audiences were this bad according to the reporter: “A more incorrigible set of cusses we never saw; they beat our Bowery gods all to pieces” (“Negro Minstrelsy” 70). It is interesting to note the reporter’s presumption in judging the “right places” to laugh and applaud. However, the reporter’s bland assessment of the white audience does not impart much insight. There is no way of knowing, for example, whether the responses of the white audience were racist, since such responses presumably could be subsumed by the reporter under the category of “laughing in the right places.” But clearly the majority of the Black audience knew what was thought funny, and pertinent. In fact, the reporter admits that he could not make head or tail of the plot of “The Red Man of the Forest,” although he concedes the Blacks around him seemed to understand it thoroughly – even if, as he claims, each had a different version of the piece.

Exactly who were the audience members? We have a few clues to go on. Franklin Hall was not a legitimate theatre, since contemporary advertisements imply that it was being used as a dance hall at times.(3) It was located on Spruce Street, just off of Second Street, in the heart of the Fifth Ward of Philadelphia in the Southwark district. The Fifth Ward accommodated the largest concentration of Blacks in Philadelphia at the time – according to the 1860 census, 5,229 Blacks out of a total ward population of 24,792. Although this ratio may not seem great when compared to say, the modern-day Harlem of New York City, it must be remembered that in 1860 there were only 22,185 Blacks in Philadelphia out of a total population of 565,529, for a proportion of only 4% (Weigley 159). So a theatre located in the Fifth Ward could easily attract a predominately Black audience. The neighboring Fourth, Seventh, and Eighth Wards were also populated with relatively high percentages of Black inhabitants, so it is reasonable to believe that the theatre may have drawn audiences from these wards as well.

The presence of some two dozen whites at Franklin Hall can be explained by the 80 percent white population of the Fifth Ward. The Clipper reporter recounts that one of the acts was interrupted by a young Black boy who had “espied the white trash” and called out “Three cheers for the Shiffler hose!” (“Negro Minstrelsy” 70). Clearly the reporter’s characterization of the whites as “white trash” allows us to place them as working-class, but the reference to the “Shiffler hose” allows an even more narrow identification. The Shiffler Hose was one of the ubiquitous volunteer fire companies so popular in urban centers during the mid-nineteenth century. These fire companies functioned more like gangs than service organizations. There were intense turf wars among the companies, sometimes involving beatings, firearms, arson, even murder. Some companies like the Moyamensing Hose made alliances with notorious gangs such as the Killers. The fire companies not only fought over turf but were often divided along ethnic and political lines as well. The Shiffler Hose was infamous for its violent anti-Catholic sentiments.(4) The young boy in the theatre, however, was evidently incorrect in his identification, because as soon as he called out, someone else responded, “Shet up yer mouf! Dem’s de Wiccacoe fellas – free cheers for de Wiccy.” The Weccacoe Hose company, one of the Shiffler company’s most hated enemies, was aligned with a gang called the Bouncers; they were Democrats and mainly Irish Catholics, in contrast to the Shiffler’s American Republican Party allegiance and “nativist” American composition.(5) The headquarters of the Weccacoe was at Catherine and Front Streets, less than a mile away from Franklin Hall. Clearly the Black members of the audience were familiar with the faces of the “Wiccy,” and had interacted with them outside the theatre. The Irish of the Fifth Ward, like the Blacks, constituted a significant but less than majority proportion of the ethnic composition of the ward: 4,381, or 18 percent, were Irish. This was a relatively high concentration of Irish for the city, since no ward was more than 28 percent Irish. Thus, both the Blacks and the Irish of the Fifth Ward found themselves to be large minorities outnumbered by the larger nativist population of the ward (Warner 139). Eric Lott, in his recent book Love and Theft, suggests that, despite the constant conflicts between Irish and Black throughout the country, the shared class niche also resulted in interracial friendships and even marriages (Lott 95).

Another thing that the volunteer firemen had in common with the Blacks in the neighborhood was a lack of property. Although in 1850 one-third to one-half of the property in the nearby districts of Moyamensing and Gray’s Ferry were owned by Irishmen (Clark 137), the journeymen who made up the membership of the volunteer fire companies “owned no real property” (Laurie 76). As for the Blacks, an 1848 census showed only 28 homeowners in the entire district of Southwark (Du Bois 288). So despite the fierce racial antagonisms prevalent between the Irish and the Blacks, the firemen of Southwark and the Black theatregoers did share some common class concerns, and perhaps it was this aspect of commonality, along with their geographic proximity, that allowed them to attend the low-priced performance together. The fact that the whites sat at a bench reserved for them in the front of the theatre may have been sufficient acknowledgment of white-skin privilege to satisfy their racial standards. Their privileged position signaled that, though the audience was filled with Blacks and the performers were Black, this was still Wiccy turf.

We can see, then, how each part of the minstrel audience made its own meaning out of the performance, in collaboration with the performers and other members of the audience. As with white minstrelsy, readings of the racial subtext by the audience were an important part of the experience. The history of minstrelsy is also the history of the piracy and distortion of Black culture by whites. The Ira Aldridge Troupe attempted to pirate that piracy, and, in collaboration with its audience, turn minstrelsy to its own ends. In an ironic twist, the reporter for the Clipper had a final suggestion for white performers. Speaking of the Aldridge Troupe, he invited his readers to plunder this newest manifestation of Black culture once more. In an enthusiastic endorsement, the reporter proclaimed that “we should like some of our [white] minstrel friends to see one of these performances. They would profit by it.” And indeed, as history shows, they did.


1. It is hard to verify whether the Aldridge Troupe was a professional, rather than an amateur, company given the vagaries of making a living in show business, especially for Blacks, during this period. However, a few factors point strongly in the direction of professional intention. First, the fact that a white reporter from New York City was present indicates a larger than local fame; second, the complexity of some of the acts, especially the acrobatics, indicates a performance that was not just thrown together overnight, but required long hours of practice; third, Harry Craig, who is reported as being the head of the troupe’s orchestral trio, is listed in the 1860 edition of Cohen’s Philadelphia, Pa. City Directory as being a musician by trade. Finally, the presence of a mixed Black and white audience indicates that the performance probably was not sponsored by a church or fraternal organization.

2. The mention of “Pickayune Butler” probably refers to John “Picayune” Butler, one of the very few nationally known Black entertainers of the period. He was famous for his banjo playing and introduced a popular song called “Picayune Butler’s Come to Town” (Southern). Another intriguing, though less likely, possible reference is to Pierce Butler, a wealthy white slaveowner, once married to the famous actress Fanny Kemble, who took up residence among the elite of Philadelphia. During the outbreak of the War, Butler went south to oversee his Georgia plantation, and while there probably took an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. On his return to Philadelphia in August of 1862, he was arrested by federal authorities without benefit of habeas corpus for his pro-slavery sentiments (Dusinberre 128).

3. See, for example, the Public Ledger for 21 May 1863.

4. For a fascinating account of the volunteer fire companies of Philadelphia, see Laurie (71-87).

5. Of course, what Philadelphians called nativist American does not refer to American Indians but rather to those Protestants descended from English immigrants of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who were strongly opposed to the waves of nineteenth-century immigration.

Works Cited

Clark, Dennis J. “The Philadelphia Irish: Persistent Presence.” Davis and Hailer 135-54.

Davis, Allan F., and Mark H. Haller, ads. The Peoples of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1973.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Philadelphia Negro. 1899. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1967.

Dusinberre, William. Civil War Issues in Philadelphia 1856-1865. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1965.

Hershberg, Theodore. “Free Blacks in Antebellum Philadelphia.” Davis and Hailer 111-34.

Laurie, Bruce. “Fire Companies and Gangs in Southwark: The 1840s.” Davis and Hailer 71-87.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

Marshall, Herbert, and Mildred Stock. Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1958.

Miller, Randall M., and John David Smith, eds. Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery. Westport: Greenwood, 1988.

“Negro Minstrelsy.” New York Clipper 13 June 1863: 70.

Southern, Eileen, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians, Westport: Greenwood, 1982.

Toll, Robert. Blacking Up. New York: Oxford UP, 1974.

Warner, Sam Bass, Jr. The Private City. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1968.

Weigley, Russell F. “A Peaceful City: Public Order in Philadelphia from Consolidation through the Civil War.” Davis and Hailer 155-74.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. 1980. New York: Harper, 1990.

Monday: Hellzapoppin!!

Monday morning, Hellzapoppin’ and everybody’s Jumping at the Woodside!

I came across this extraordinary clip on YouTube. Hellzapoppin’ was the name of a very popular legit Broadway show of the 1930s which was structured like a vaudeville show. It had singers, dancers, audience interaction, and comedy bits, headed by the vaudeville comedy team of Olsen and Johnson. (Magic fans might take note that Theo Hardeen, Houdini’s younger brother, also did a stint as an escape artist during the three year run of the play.)

It was later made into a movie, and this clip from it features Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers (who were also in the stage show) starring:

– William Downes (uniform) and Frances “Mickey” Jones (maid).
– Norma Miller and Billy Ricker (chef’s hat).
– Al Minns (white coat, black pants) and Willa Mae Ricker.
– Ann Johnson (maid) and Frankie Manning (overalls).

One of the interesting things about this dance number was that for some reason, though it was choreographed (I believe by Frankie Manning) to Count Basie’s famous “Jumpin’ At the Woodside,” when the film was finally released, a different music track was substituted for the Basie standard.

Kudos to the YouTuber PostmanSwing who restored Count Basie’s original music track to the video, and provided the identities of the literally breathtaking dancers. This is the kind of number that makes you say at its end, “Holy cr@p!”

For most enjoyment, please view at full screen.

The Sphinx Silently Sleeps (Part 4)

dec 1952 godfrey

As our mad ride through the pages of The Sphinx comes to an end, we arrive, out of breath, at the door of 1952. John Mulholland still holds the reins as editor, as he did back in 1937, and as he will a year later, when The Sphinx finally goes mute.

The Sphinx has some competition now, what with The Phoenix, Hugard’s Magic Monthly, and Genii, among other American magic magazines, all publishing simultaneously in this period. The most notable fact about The Sphinx‘s publication is that it has ceased to be a monthly. It has become a somewhat irregularly published quarterly, with only three issues published in 1952: March, June, and December, and the final one in March 1953.

The strains of the time are evident: the challenges facing the contemporary performing magician are many, but the biggest obstacles can be represented by just two factors—the death of the large touring illusion show, and the advent of the new-kid-on-the-block entertainment medium, television. Television, with its constant need to fill large blocks of time with visual entertainment turns to magic very early in its development. But the challenges of learning to perform for the camera eye are different from that of performing for a live audience, as magicians to their chagrin are quick to discover. Bruce Elliott, the publisher of The Phoenix, gets himself into hot water by producing a television magic special for the popular avuncular TV host Arthur Godfrey.  Elliott was spared no mercy in the judgment of Eaton Hope, the author of the cynical Sphinx column, Out of My Profonde (BTW, you are awarded an invisible brass figleaf with bronze oakleaf palms, if you know what a profonde is without looking it up.):

bruce elliot 1

But the real reason for Elliott’s failure, according to Hope was this:

elliott 2Yes, in the opinion of the old-timers, the new guard of close-up performers and hobbyists, who Elliott represented, had no knowledge of, and little respect for, the great working illusionists.

And readers wrote in as well, incensed at the exposure caused by performers unaware of the problem of bad camera angles. You might recognize the name of the 17-year-old writer of this letter to the Sphinx editor:


So, the budding Kreskin understood that if magic were to survive, it would have to navigate the currents of television.

Certainly, the old way of magic life was nearly dead. Movie houses and television were turning vaudeville houses all around the world into dust. The venues for performing a big live illusion show were becoming extinct. No less an authority than David Bamberg (Fu Manchu) whose father, Okito, had written in the pages of The Sphinx almost half a century before, had this tale to tell to the new generation of magicians, about touring Latin America:

bamberg 1The cost of traveling with several tons of scenery and equipment, and setting up with an untutored local crew was becoming prohibitive. Bamberg counseled that “In order to lick this situation one is forced to have a light, compact, and easily set-up show.”

One gets the feeling of a general dispiritedness in the air amongst the old guard. In addition to Eaton Hope, Mulholland was also giving over column inches to the equally cynical illusion creator and builder Guy Jarrett, whose tough guy prose makes for some entertaining reading. Jarrett praises the legit stage producers, like Belasco, for whom he creates illusions, but Jarrett gives up on modern magicians as hopeless:

jarrettAnd even Mulholland seems to be tired out. He sends his regrets that he has not been in the office for a while, and thanks those who have inquired about his health, stopping by only to find the office door locked. But as we will see a little later on, this was just misdirection for Mulholland’s greatest feat of deception.

If the old-time illusionists were dying out, the content of the magic in The Sphinx in these years remained very high. Mulholland had a consistently excellent line-up of all kinds of magic written up in The Sphinx. Matt Schulien had a great Card in Sugar Lump (yes!) effect, and Carlo Colombi contributed a Bullet Catching method that David Bamberg proclaimed to be “theoretically” perfect. Jacob Daley tipped his “Chromo-spheres” effect, a three-ball routine with different colored balls, and Lou Tannen had an ESP card divination effect, utilizing an old principle, ingeniously disguised. The much-maligned Bruce Elliott contributed the entire text of a booklet of mentalist Theo Annemann’s, called Buried Treasure, which you can read here. And, of course, there were dozens of other great tricks published over the year, both for close-up and for stage.

What a time for learning magic! If so inclined, and with the requisite cash, one could respond to the following ad:


In publishing, the magic world was delighting to each new edition of the Stars of Magic pamphlets, with “Vernon on Leipzig,” and “Vernon on Malini,” being the hot new items. Lou Tannen published Bill Simon’s modern classic Effective Card Magic, and our friend Bruce Elliott was getting beat up again, for exposure, for writing Classic Secrets of Magic. There were fierce objections that the book had been published by a mainstream publisher with a money-back guarantee.

But then The Sphinx, with no warning, fell silent. The last issue, dated March 1953, had promised great things to come in its new quarterly format, however, nothing more was ever published. Mulholland, as is now known, was involved with another profession filled with deceit and deception, only this time for real. The illness and closed office were part of a cover story for something else entirely. As the Ever-Reliable Wikipedia tells us, Mulholland ended the publication:

“…to be consultant to the newly born CIA in 1953. His assignments included working with billionaires and inventors, cracking codes and delving into the clandestine world of ESP research, LSD use and the secret MK-ULTRA world headed by the notorious Dr. Sidney Gottlieb.”

Mulholland’s portfolio was essentially to teach the CIA spies how to use the technology of deception to fight the Cold War. The story is told in detail in Ben Robinson’s 2008 (later revised) book, MagiCIAn: John Mulholland’s Secret Life. I’m just beginning to read that book, and I hope to have a review of it in the future. By all accounts, Mulholland was a fascinating man: a Jimmy Stewart-like character with secrets he told no one.

But back to The Sphinx. I can’t recommend this DVD more highly. In my four blog posts, I have not made even a scratch on the nail of the little pinky toe of the Sphinx’s paw in my descriptions of its contents. If I had only $60 left to spend on magic for the rest of my life, this is what I would buy. I would recommend this to anyone even remotely interested in magic. The Ultimate Sphinx is an enormous achievement by the Conjuring Arts Research Center. Magicians of today can give great thanks to CARC for getting The Sphinx to speak, at last, so accessibly and so eloquently.

I’ve Just Seen A Face

Jazz pianist Ray Kennedy just passed away at the end of last month. Listen to his absolutely jaw-dropping playing above. It doesn’t get any better than that. “I’ve Just Seen a Face” by Lennon/McCartney.

John Pizzarelli on guitar.

Martin Pizzarelli on bass.

The Montreal Jazz Festival.

The Musician, the Magician, and The Mysteries of My Life


The Argentinean magician, Rene Lavand, died this past February. He was well-known for his sense of elegance, his signature catch phrase, “I Can’t Do it Any Slower,” and the fact that his consummate sleight-of-hand was all performed with only one hand, having lost his right hand in a car accident when he was seven years old.

In his book, co-written with Richard Kaufman, The Mysteries of My Life, the first half is devoted to a detailed description of his full evening card act, both effect and one-handed method; but the second half of the book is comprised of philosophy, bits of autobiography, and favorite stories about other performers who had informed his artistic life. Here’s a very short story that he loved to tell:

“Perhaps it is appropriate to remember that for art there are no sacrifices [too large]: Michelangelo giving his life to Saint Peter’s Basilica; Beethoven’s deafness, Paganini deforming the bones in his hands from playing. They have shown us.

A young, passionate and fervent admirer of the great Arthur Rubinstein one morning saw him on the street. Running after him, out of breath, he said, “Maestro! I would give my life to play like you!”

To which the Maestro responded “I did.”

God Only Knows

Paul McCartney once called Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows” the most beautiful love song ever written. I found the version above to be very intriguing. The performers are from several different genres and generations of music. I kept watching this over and over to identify all the performers, to catch all the visual detail in the imaginative creation, and to re-live the beauty of the song.


Martin James Bartlett – celeste

Pharrell Williams

Emeli Sandé

Elton John


Chris Martin

Brian Wilson

Florence Welch

Kylie Minogue

Stevie Wonder – vocals, harmonica

Eliza Carthy

Nicola Benedetti – violin

Jools Holland – piano

Brian May – electric guitar

Jake Bugg

Katie Derham – violin

Tees Valley Youth Choir

Alison Balsom – piccolo trumpet

One Direction

Jaz Dhami

Paloma Faith

Chrissie Hynde

Jamie Cullum

Baaba Maal

Danielle de Niese

Dave Grohl

Sam Smith

Testing Tangles


My friend, John Macnab, who has an excellent, thought-provoking education blog, posted some time ago about Timeliness and Grading. I responded with the following comment:

“IMO, there are exactly two reasons to give a test:

1) To sort students.
2) To help students learn more.

I believe reason #1 is the main reason tests (in particular, standardized tests) are given. We know this because for most standardized tests, teachers and students get no feedback at all about what items have been missed and why. Certainly by the time results of any kind are received, the student has moved on to a new teacher.

If the purpose of a test is to learn more, then it needs to be designed as such, and teachers need to treat them as such. Why, then, would there need to be a score? When was the last time your tennis coach gave you a precise grade on your backhand? Would that have helped you play tennis any better?

The same can be said for end of term grades. To my mind, there are two reasons to give end of term grades:

1) To sort students
2) To let the student know what the teacher thinks of the student’s ability over the term.

Again, how is knowing that I’m a 65 student and not a 75 student meaningful in terms of improving my learning? How does it point me in the direction that I need to go in order to improve in the future?

So, basically, the reason for grades is to sort students. Once we acknowledge that, we can then have an honest discussion of whether such sorting is a good thing or a bad thing.”

John wrote another post, in reply, where he offered up the comments of a Canadian educator, Dr. Jacqueline Leighton, defending the use of standardized testing.

I replied as follows:

“I’m afraid, though, that Ms. Leighton’s comments are woefully inadequate and reside somewhere in the realm of fantasy rather than reality.

First she says: “students working with different teachers, and completing different assignments and assessments during the year can end up with the same teacher-awarded grade at the end of the year — say, 85 per cent — but actually possess very different levels of preparedness, learning and mastery.”

But this is exactly true of two students who receive an 85 on a standardized test. In fact we even know *less* about these two students than before–we know *nothing* about their preparation, their consistency, persistence, character, areas of high ability, obstacles faced and obstacles overcome. In short, the student has been erased in favor of some numerical ranking. A ranking that totally obscures precisely the fact that an 85 for one student could means something very different for another. One student knows nothing about logarithms while the other knows nothing about quadratic equations. But they are both 85 students. Standardization means precisely that there will be loss of information about the individual data points we call students.

But more incredible are her assumptions a, b, c, d.

We have many years now (at least in the US) of reality to check against.

a) In fact, tests are very often *not* aligned with classroom practice.

b) In fact, tests are riddled with mistakes and sloppily worded questions. Testmakers are like any other industry and they seek to cut costs. In the US, Pearson is trying to make it a crime to release the questions to their tests, even after the tests are given, because they have *repeatedly* been embarrassed by the terrible quality of the questions. They have tried to force districts to buy computer equipment for the administration of their tests, and then the networks fail citywide and the tests have to be postponed.

c) Technical analyses for internal reliability are silly in a timed, scored test as these are. These are not personality tests. A student may *not* necessarily answer two questions the same, even though they appear to test the same content, if they appear in different contexts within the test. Do different answers mean that the student has not learned the concept? Should the student get no credit, half credit or full credit for that concept?

d) “Test results are constantly monitored so that the test continues to measure the appropriate content and skills in students who have learned the material well and achieved mastery.”
No, in fact experience shows just the opposite–rather than the test being a reflection of classroom practice, the high stakes test *drives* the classroom practice, and forces desperate teachers and students to focus all their energies on adjusting to the educational misconceptions of the test makers. The curriculum becomes dry, classroom time is spent on sussing out the test, and anything that cannot be tested in a standardized way is thrown out the window.

Instead of living only in theory, it’s important to test theory against what actual practice has been. Test makers have put out a call in the US for temps at $12 / hr to score the enormous numbers of standardized tests that are now being given. Yes, a student’s English essay is being scored by a $12/ hr temp–and a bachelor’s degree is not even a necessary requirement.

It’s all crap, and the proof is in the results. Leighton can write as many books as she likes from her ivory tower about quality tests, but we live in a real (capitalist) world, where private companies under a profit motive try to keep up with the (created) demand for their product. There is no quality, and there can be no quality. It’s all lip service. These tests provide zero information about a student that the student’s teacher could not tell you with far more accuracy; and they provide no information about a teacher that a teacher’s principal could not tell you with far more accuracy.”

You can read John’s thoughtful reply, right afterwards, but essentially he says, that in Canada, the tests of which Leighton is talking are teacher created and scored, much like our NY State Regents Exams. I am happy to hear that that is the case and that Testmania has not reached Canada yet. So I owe an apology for my tone and comments about Leighton.

So Canadian readers, I am glad your educational admins are still within the realm of rationality, while we in the US can only shake our heads in disgust at those who pretend to be concerned about education in this country.  If we don’t have a real conversation about what testing is for, I am afraid we will never get the educational system we need and deserve.

The Penultimate Ultimate Sphinx (Part 3)

LePaulOnce more (see here and here for previous installments), we take a wild gallop through The Sphinx. We’re riding on twenty years further from last time, arriving at 1937. Paul LePaul is on the cover, and John Mulholland is now the editor. Though the Sphinx is still closely associated with the SAM, they declare themselves “An Independent Magazine for Magicians.” There are still reports from SAM assemblies across the country, but there are also reports from IBM as well; and the heads of the SAM Parent Assembly have a conspicuous notice that their listing in the Sphinx is a paid advertisement.

Mindreading is all the rage, and with the advent of somewhat portable electronics, ads like this from Nelson and others begin to show up:

nelson short waveThe ad says that they are offering “the magical and mental profession the first ultra short wave sending and receiving set for mindreading purposes that can be completely and logically concealed under ordinary wearing apparel.” A later ad prices the unit at $150. The inflation calculator at calculates that $150 then was worth about $2400 today.

The format of the magazine now includes a lead trick explained by a famous magician of the day, and there are some really excellent ones. There is a nice Copper-Silver routine from S. Leo Horowitz; a Disappearing Bird Cage (with live bird), complete with lightening flash, from Keith Clark; and an Invisible Inky Liquid Transportation effect from Al Baker. Baker’s contributions over the year are all highly ingenious—here’s an intriguing diagram illustrating the ink effect:

al bakerThe Bambergs are still a force with which to be reckoned, with an article by son David (Fu Manchu) explaining his magic apprenticeship conducted at his mentor’s knee—i.e. his father, Theo Bamberg (Okito). The article is illustrated by a lovely photo of the two of them in costume:

bambergsLater, there is a truly wonderful explanation by David Bamberg of The Growth of Flowers. The effect is this: the magician briefly puts a cloth in front of an empty flower pot and a small green bush appears; he covers it again briefly and the bush grows larger; once more and still larger. Finally, the pot is covered one more time, and the bush is discovered to be filled with blooming roses. The magician takes one or two, cuts them from the plant, and tosses the fresh live roses into the audience. The method is perfectly practical, and it’s a wonder more magicians today don’t do this.

While Chinese conjurers both real and faux were fixtures on the American stage, African-American magicians were not as prevalent. The minstrel show, which dated back to pre-Civil War days, was still a popular form of entertainment in 1937, and it pretty much determined how African Americans would be depicted on the contemporary stage and in popular magazines. For example, this was how Ralph Hull’s “Goofy Dice” trick was pitched in an ad in The Sphinx:

goofy diceIn a Christmas greetings section in the December 1937 issue, many famous magicians took out ads to express their Christmas sentiments. One that stands out is this one:

joganWhether Jogan’s tagline was strictly true is debatable, but it was evidently credible enough that Jogan would claim it.

Perusing the books  and manuscripts that were advertised is instructive—lots of cigarette and nightclub material, and the big sensation was Keith Clark’s Encyclopedia of Cigarette Magic. Another blockbuster was Glenn Gravatt’s Encyclopedia of Card Tricks. Both of those books went for $5, which the inflation calculator estimates to be about $80 in today’s currency. There is no account of what the ebooks sold for…

One surprise to me was the listing of the following book:

fitzkeeWhile I was well aware of the Fitzkee trilogy, I had never come across the mention of the above book. Does anyone know if this is an easily available book presently? The contents look like it’s full of useful material.

And magic continues, in the late 30s to be, as in all ages, a tough, heart-beaking business. This ad from The Great Leon says it all:

leonThe ad states that The Great Leon, who used to make from $1000 to $2000 a week in vaudeville, is forced, due to ill health, to sell his complete act—over $30,000 worth of illusions—for a mere $1000. How fickle fortune can be! “Three tons of beautiful show.”

Finally, wrapping up this week’s look at The Sphinx, we turn to the Halloween issue. Of course, Halloween is special to magicians for many reasons, but, famously, it was the day that Houdini died. And Bess, after 11 years, was now reconciled to his final vanish:


Next time, I’ll finish up this series by looking at the final year of The Sphinx‘s publication in 1952-1953. I hope you’ll join me.

(Th next installment is here: )

The Bystander and The Hero

bystander(Click to enlarge)

The sparrow is quite happy to have the heroic mockingbird protect it from the black snake. Earlier on, there were starlings in the trees above who were emitting warning cries, and a few of flew them down to mob the snake to make it move away from their nests.

Wilmington, Delaware.