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.

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