I Dream of Genii…

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I was happy last week to spend four days in Orlando, Florida, attending the 2019 Genii Convention. For a comprehensive, contemporaneous, blow-by-blow audio account, click on the triangles below.

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Day One: Intro, Tom Gagnon, Paul Vigil, Sara Crasson, Jonathan Neal


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Day Two: Michael Chaitlin, Hector Mancha, Jim Steinmeyer, Paul Vigil, Nick Diffate, Lucy Darling, Hector Mancha, Raymond Crowe, Eric Jones


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Day Three: Gaeten Bloom, Bill Cheung, Michael Vincent, Hector Mancha, Alexandra Duvivier, Terry Ward, Hannibal, Penn & Teller, Pat Hazell, Jonathan Neal, Gaeten Bloom, Read Chang, Piff the Magic Dragon


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Day Four: 49 Boxes, Eric Jones, Gaeten Bloom, Dominique and Alexandra Duvivier, Nick Diffate, Lucy Darling, Romany, David Kovac, Jay Johnson, John Archer, Summing up


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Three Magic Biographies

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Recently, I’ve been enjoying reading a few magic biographies. All three books are highly recommended, and any one of them would make a nice gift for that magic aficionado in your life.

1) “If there was any doubt that Guy Jarrett was nuts, it ended in 1936.” That’s how magic inventor and writer Jim Steinmeyer in Jarrett introduces the cantankerous illusionist, author of the eponymous  Jarrett, Magic and Stagecraft, Technical. It’s not hard to see why Jim Steinmeyer was drawn to write about Jarrett. Jarrett was not just a magician but, like Steinmeyer, a stage illusion inventor of extraordinary ingenuity. Couple that with Jarrett’s eccentric life, acerbic wit, and amusing public persona and you have the kind of subject that an author loves to write about.

Jarrett enjoyed publicly trashing the magic royalty of the day. Houdini, Goldin, Thurston, —none of them were off limits. With the introduction and annotations by Steinmeyer, it soon becomes apparent that Jarrett’s curse and glory was his perfectionism. To Jarrett’s mind, the shaving of a few inches off the side of a production cabinet or table was the difference between beauty and illusion on the one hand, and utter crap on the other. Practicality and budget were excuses to him, and as far as Jarrett was concerned most of the illusionists of the day like Thurston were satisfied to settle on crap.

As befits a man who spoke his mind so openly and contemptuously, Jarrett didn’t retain a wide circle of friends. With his characteristic self-sufficiency, Jarrett published his book himself, setting all the type himself on a foundry typesetting press, pretty much as Gutenberg had done centuries before.

But the eccentric Jarrett (my favorite photo in the book is Jarrett at 74 years old standing upside down in the top of a tree) according to Steinmeyer was the real deal when it came to designing illusions. Jarrett’s efficient descriptions and drawings of such illusions as “The 21 Person Cabinet” and the disappearance of Bela Lugosi in the original Broadway production of Dracula make for entertaining reading and broadened my appreciation of illusion design.

2) Dai Vernon: A Biography, by David Ben, is the authorized biography  of the man who revolutionized the study and performance of close-up magic. and it draws upon many previously unseen original sources. It has some wonderful photos, including the famous one, repeated many years later, of Vernon, cigarette in hand, staring down at the Ace of Clubs. Ben’s prose is pretty pedestrian, but it gives a fully rounded picture of the man and his times. What one really gets from this portrait of Vernon is just how tenaciously Vernon strove to carve out his own artistic path. As an art student at the Art Students’ League an artist he met told him that continuing in art school would ruin him for creativity and originality. Vernon took that to heart and never allowed himself to swerve from a life that would allow him the freedom to explore and play to his heart’s content.  Many times he could have traded on his skill and connections to become famous with the general public, but at each turn he almost compulsively avoided or sabotaged those opportunities in favor of living a Bohemian lifestyle, free from the hard spotlight of fame and stultifying routine. He was a brilliant ne’er-do-well who was terrified of being tied down to any responsibility but his art.

Another wonderful revelation in the book is the portrait of his wife, Jeannie. She was a Coney Island magician’s assistant, full of practical knowledge and no mean slouch either when it came to art. She was a very creative person in her own right, an accomplished costumer and mask maker (there’s a wonderful photo of her beautifully lifelike mask of Cardini) and she was essential in costuming Vernon’s Harlequin turn. She understood her own predicament in being the creative spouse of another more talented and obsessive creative person. Once she had left Vernon she wrote her own account of what it was like to live with him in her manuscript, I Married Mr. Magic, or Laughter is the Only Shield.

This volume, the first of two, only covers the years 1894-1941, when Vernon had the construction accident which was to break his arms and change his life. Unfortunately, there is no word on Ben’s website as to when Volume II is expected (it’s been over a decade now), so we’ll have to be patient. But surely, that too promises to be fascinating, as it will cover the Magic Castle years to Vernon’s death. This is a compelling portrait of genius at work and play.

3) Milo and Roger: A Magical Life is the title of Arthur Brandon’s autobiographical account of his childhood, and his longtime partnership with Roger Coker as the comedy magic team Milo and Roger. If there is a sweeter and funnier account of one’s magical journey, I don’t know of it. Brandon devotes a lot of the book to his Norman Rockwell upbringing in small town Ohio, and he vividly brings to life the characters, the grifters, and the tradespeople who inhabited his childhood world. His parents—his mother in particular—were lovable eccentrics who were accepting and encouraging of their moony son’s infatuation with all things magical. Brandon goes on to small time fame by following his instinct and love for magic, meeting along the way his lifelong partner Roger who complements everything Arthur does. They travel the world together, much of the time only a few dollars short of broke, but somehow they always make it out to their next adventure, spurred on by their love for show business and magic. At turns nostalgic, laugh-out-loud funny, sweet, sour, and sad, this is one of the most entertaining show business autobiographies I’ve read. I can well understand why this is a favorite of many.

 

The Death of Chung Ling Soo

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In order to whet your appetite about participating in this year’s contest, here’s a story that magic historian, collector, and magician Mike Caveney told at the Genii Convention this past weekend.

It concerns Chung Ling Soo, a magician who performed in the late 19th and early 20th  centuries in England and the United States to great acclaim. He performed in traditional Chinese garb and made a sensation with his version of the bullet-catching effect, a notoriously dangerous illusion. In Chung Ling Soo’s version, a marksman would load a marked bullet into a rifle, and Chung Ling Soo would place a plate in front of his traditional robes, right in front of his heart, where the marksman would aim. Ordinarily, when a rifle is shot in this manner, the bullet would break the plate and go through the heart. But, of course, what happened at each performance instead was that the bullet would not pierce the plate, but instead would magically be stopped and caught in the plate—and the mark on the bullet would verify it as the original bullet loaded in the gun.  A real showstopper. Until…

One night the trick went wrong. The trick that had claimed several other magician’s lives, now claimed another. The bullet pierced the plate, hitting the magician in the heart. Chung Ling Soo went down in front of the entire audience. He was rushed to the hospital and despite the best efforts of the doctors, died. An inquest was subsequently held to determine what had happened and the examiners came to the conclusion that it had been an accident. The gun had been loaded incorrectly.

Or had it?

Back to historian Mike Caveney. He showed his Genii convention audience a fascinating letter in his possession which a gentleman named Robert Smithson had written to a well-known journalist of the time. In his letter, Smithson explained to the journalist that he had been a great fan of magic when he was a child. In fact, he had been so taken by magic as a youngster, he had attended every one of the fourteen performances that Chung Ling Soo had given when the magician was in Smithson’s town. He had memorized the act, never forgetting the deep impression that Chung Ling Soo’s magic had made on him—especially the bullet catching trick.

Fast forward a number of years later, and Smithson is in the army, on leave for a few hours with his friends in the center of town. Lo and behold, he passes a theater and who is performing that night but Chung Ling Soo. Smithson turns to his companions excitedly and tells them about how obsessed as a youth he was, watching this great magician, and he eventually persuades his friends to come with him to the theater to see Chung Ling Soo perform.

Well, as it turned out, that night was the night. Smithson and his companions eye-witnessed the death of Chung Ling Soo. But the reason Smithson wrote to the journalist was that he was sure it was no accident.

You see, Smithson told the journalist, he had memorized the whole routine from top to bottom during his fourteen previous viewings. And on the fatal night, Chung Ling Soo did two things that Smithson was sure the magician had never done before: First, before the bullet-catching trick, he went center stage before the audience to tell them just how dangerous this trick was, and imparted the fact that several other magicians had died performing this effect. This was something, Smithson wrote, that Chung Ling Soo had never done before. But, second, the clincher for Smithson was this: instead of an assistant loading the rifle, as Smithson said had always been done before, this evening Chung Ling Soo had loaded the rifle himself.

Got it?

Yes, suicide.

Was it possible? Well, Will Goldston, a magician and magic dealer who Chung Ling Soo had been friendly with, thought it could be so. Goldston said that Chung Ling Soo had been in his shop earlier that week, depressed about his life—he was hard up for money and he was supporting the families of both his wife and his girlfriend on opposite sides of town.

But another twist of the story occurred at the hospital, when the doctors tried to save Chung Ling Soo. Because it was only as the doctors took off Chung Ling Soo’s robes, make-up, and wig that they learned the truth, which only those in Chung Ling Soo’s inner magic circle had already known: Chung Ling Soo was in reality William Robinson, a New York-born Irishman who had made his way to England and had become the invaluable chief assistant to the biggest magical star of the time, The Great Hermann. Robinson had taken on his Chinese persona by basing his act on that of an actual Chinese magician who had toured Europe, Ching Ling Foo. Robinson went so far in his deception, that in public appearances in costume he would go out with a “translator” who would “translate” Robinson’s nonsense gibberish into English. Robinson even had had the audacity to publicly call Ching Ling Foo—the genuine article—a phony.

Talk about fake news.

But it took Robert Smithson, Chung Ling Soo fan extraordinaire, to uncover Billy Robinson’s final deception: The accident that was no accident.

You can read more about Robinson in Jim Steinmeyer’s wonderful book, The Glorious Deception

Book Nook: All Magic Edition

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This edition of Book Nook is going to be of interest primarily to magic geeks, so if that’s not your thing you can scroll on to another post. None of these books is particularly new, but they’re what I’ve been reading lately, and some of them may have escaped your attention.

Further Impuzzibilities by Jim Steinmeyer is another in Steinmeyer’s series of little pamphlets that describe mostly new takes on self-working tricks. Most of these tricks I treat as “cute” throwaways, but this time there is one very good three-phase blackjack deal that is easy to learn and very effective. It uses just ten cards, and it would be quite easy afterwards to switch out three cards either covertly or openly, and go into a Ten Card Poker Deal. You may also enjoy “The Great Silverware Scam,” which is the venerable Piano Card Trick as applied to knives and forks.

Naked Mentalism by John Thompson is a bold attempt to make psychological forcing more scientific. Every mentalist has his or her pet psychological force, but what Thompson does here is to back up his choices with statistical data. So there are tables and tables of data listing the responses of thousands of people to “favorite” this or “favorite” that, and combinations thereof. In the latter half of the book, he extends his ideas into the concept of a perfect booktest. It’s not foolproof, and your results may vary, but if you are able to take on all the memorization work involved, you have a pretty good shot at succeeding at a gaffless, sleightless, anytime, anywhere booktest, where a spectator can choose any word.

Caution: Practical Joker Ahead by Bruce Walstad is a compendium of 76 practical jokes that Walstad played on his fellow police officers with suggestions for the reader to follow. These are fairly simple, innocuous pranks. One of my favorites ideas was to put an inch-and-a-half-high stack of pennies under each leg of a colleague’s desk; then when someone accidentally bumps into the desk a bit, the whole desk comes clattering down in a lopsided manner.  You can see one of the pranks outlined here in a video I created and posted a few days ago.

ParaLies by Joshua Quinn is a book filled with a wealth of clever mentalism ideas and techniques. Highlights include a detailed section on equivoking a single card from a full deck, and then a very clever way to reveal it, as well as a section on using ambigrams for magical effect. The bulk of the book, however, covers the same territory as the Thompson book mentioned above, more or less, but with a different approach, one which I prefer. With Quinn’s technique, a performer can not only do a sleightless, gaffless booktest, but using his “chunnelling” technique, the performer can have a spectator choose any word mentally, have the spectator change the word several times in a genuinely free but limited way, and yet still the performer can reveal the resulting word accurately. Highly recommended.

Magic, Wide and Deep

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When I saw the UPS man stooped over as he was delivering the package to my mailbox, I knew that it had finally arrived. I’m talking about Taschen’s Magic 1400s-1950s, an amazing book of posters and essays that is hands down the most magnificent book of any kind that I own.

It seems impossible to believe, but what I ordered from Amazon is actually the abridged edition. Abridged in this case means 540 pages instead of 650 pages, 2 inches shorter in length, and 1 1/2 inches narrower; but the book is still massive, two inches thick, measuring 16″ x 11″, weighing twelve pounds.

You can open this tome at any point and you will be greeted by the most wonderful historical magic posters and photos in beautiful color. And every once in a while you will also be greeted by the most lovely of two-page spreads. The illustrations on the posters are truly delicious, and many of them have not been in print in book form before. In the centuries before social media, the variety arts were advertised through posters that promised the most extraordinary of delights, and the wonders of Kellar, Thurston, Houdini, and countless others were communicated in large part through this medium.

But, you say, you are one of those people that buys Playboy for the articles and doesn’t care about the pictures. In that case, you are still in luck. The book is also filled with fascinating essays by the great Jim Steinmeyer, Ricky Jay, and Mike Caveney, all Godfathers of magical knowledge, both historical and practical. The essays (and picture captions) are all in three languages: English, French, and German. But the nice thing about this is that though the text is repeated, there are different pictorial elements for each, so the 540 pages is really a full 540 pages of content, not just repetition. It seems incredible to me, that when you consider that the original edition cost $250, that Amazon can currently sell this for under $50. Oh, and did I mention that for that price, the book is also provided with a handsome slip cover as well?

As my wife says, this is the kind of book that makes you want to run out and buy a coffee table, it’s that good. I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who has the slightest interest in the magical or the illustrative arts. I guarantee you will spend many delightful times with this book.

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The other book that I’ve been reading this week is also a magic history book, but at the other end of the spectrum. Where the Taschen book covers 500 years of history and spans multiple countries and genres of magic, Dick Oslund’s self-published Road Scholar is quite the opposite. It is highly specific, and covers a very narrow, but deep, slice of American magical history. To wit, the good-natured Oslund spent forty-plus years on the road as a performer touring the “knowledge boxes,” that is, the school Lyceum circuit. Oslund made a career of performing his 45-minute show in up to four different schools a day as he traveled an average 500 miles a week, through the tiniest towns of Michigan, South Dakota, Kansas and parts West. If the definition of success is to find a niche and to fill it, then Oslund was successful in spades. He tells literally hundreds of stories of his visits to schools around the country, and by the end, you are exhausted, but feel that he must have encountered every possible situation that could ever be encountered by a school performer.

The production values here are, as I said before, on the opposite spectrum of the Taschen book, but in its own way, it is no less comprehensive. There’s not a whole lot in the way of editing, and the photos are all in glorious black and white, but in the chatty conversation here, there’s a lot of wisdom born of hard experience. The casual magician will be most interested in the latter half of the book, what Oslund calls “The Book Within a Book.” In this section, which follows the anecdotal section (and 82-year-old Oslund must have kept the most amazing notes or have the most amazing memory!), Oslund talks about his trick set list and magic philosophy, while also including his road-tested scripts and precious bits of business. This section begins with Oslund’s nine sacred rules for choosing effects for a school audience, and it’s advice that can be followed by all who want to make sure that their platform show can be performed under any condition.

There will probably be some who feel that Oslund could have just published the latter half of the book, and I can’t say that I totally disagree; the opening material while interesting does start to get repetitious. There’s also lots of  biographical information about all the other school performers he met along the way; while this is important to document for historical reasons, for the casual reader it probably holds less interest.

But… but…

In a way there’s a method to Oslund’s madness. In his insistence to document just about every school in which he ever performed, and every performer that he ever met, he creates the context for the second part of his book. Because in a way, you can’t really understand the full value of the trick part of the book without understanding that, subliminally, Oslund has been telling you all along the real secret: all those folks he met along the way, all those home-cooked meals given to him by comrades, some newly met, all those “jackpots” and stories swapped convivially, were the real secret of his success. Without ever explicitly saying so, Oslund makes you understand that he was actually in the people business, and that he was a success in his field because he loved people and had a genius for friendship. He knew what people wanted, and could give it to them. I can’t say that this is a book for everyone, but Oslund paints a little seen portrait of the vast network and isolation of the rural school systems across America, hungry for outside input. I can truly say I learned a lot about both American magic history and American education from this Road Scholar.