The performance of magic by Caucasians in yellow face has a long history. The most famous practitioner was William Robinson, who performed as Chung Ling Soo, though he was by no means the only one. Throughout the 1950s and 60s in America (and other Western countries) it was a common trope. Here’s a clip from a 1957 television magic special hosted by Ernie Kovacs with a performance from a magician who called himself Li King Si.
I’ve not been able to find out too much about him or his assistant, but Magicpedia says he was a Frenchman whose real name was Edouard (Georges) Cassel He does a credible Zombie, but the most interesting effect to me was the banner waving that his assistant does in the middle of the act.
You can see the entire 1957 television special (it includes the famous television performance of Cardini) by visiting the YouTube channel of Todd Karr.
The picture above is one of my favorite optical illusions because it looks so simple. I don’t remember where I first encountered it, but the question it poses is not complicated: which of the two figures representing roads above are identical?
We’ll give you a bit of space here to consider before we continue
Most people say that the two figures on the left are identical, and the figure on the right is the odd one. But that is incorrect. The two end figures are alike and the middle picture is different. It’s difficult to believe, but I did a little experiment with Photoshop that will help to convince you.
Using Photoshop, I cut the figure on the right, leaving only its outline behind, and moved the figure over to the left, overlapping the leftmost figure. Here’s what it looks like:
You can see that the two figures are identical, and surprisingly even the road division lines line up, something not so apparent in the top picture.
Now let’s try the same thing, only this time we’ll cut the leftmost figure, and let it overlap the middle figure:
You can immediately see that the middle figure does not match the leftmost figure as it appeared to do so in the top picture.
Now that you know what’s going on, go back to the top picture. Does it change your perception? Not mine. It’s one of the most disheartening things to me about optical illusions—even though we know exactly what is going on, our perceptual apparatus is still fooled.
Magicians like to summarize this kind of realization by the simple statement: “Misdirection works.”
Apply to advertising and propaganda at your leisure. It works even when you know what they are doing.
If you grew up listening to AM radio in the New York City area during the 60s, you probably can remember the Palisades Amusement Park jingle:
Palisades has the rides,
Palisades has the fun,
Come On Over [….]
Ride the coaster,
In the waves in the pool.
You’ll have fun, so,
Come On Over.
Palisades Amusement Park opened in 1910, and didn’t close until some sixty years later. The 1932 footage here is actual park footage with real sound, and not from a movie. I had to laugh at the woman’s “disappearance.” Perhaps the vanish took so long because it took time to move the gorilla aside to make room? I wonder if there was a reason for making the trick so obvious. The roller coaster was called The Cyclone but it wasn’t the same as the one in Coney Island. Click on the video above for a carefree time.
Thanks to YouTuber guy jones
There are Third World Problems, First World Problems, and then there are Conjurers’ World Problems. This is to address one of the latter.
From time to time, a magician needs a deck of cards to be arranged back in the original factory order after it’s been all shuffled up and disordered. Magicians call that original factory order New Deck Order or NDO. Surprisingly, there’s no industry standardized order. It varies according to card manufacturer and even varies from brand to brand manufactured by the same company. So, for example, Bicycle brand cards are ordered in a different arrangement from Bee brand cards, even though they are both manufactured by the United States Playing Card Company. Next time you open up a new pack of cards, check the order. You might find it interesting.
The most popular brand of cards, Bicycles, are arranged from top to bottom in the following order (take a guess first before you read on):
Ace to King of Hearts, Ace to King of Clubs, King to Ace of Diamonds, and King to Ace of Spades.
So suppose the cards are all mixed up, and you want to get them back into the original order—not that you are trying to do it secretly, you just want to do it quickly. What do you do? Well, yes, the logical thing to do is to make four piles on a table, one for each suit, and sort out the cards that way.
But often a performer doesn’t have a table available, so sometimes an in-the-hands-sort is useful. Here’s a method i came up with a few years ago of how to sort a deck of cards quickly into Bicycle NDO when no table is available. Later, I’ll talk about how to generalize the process to make it even more useful to magicians.
1) Hold the deck face up in the left hand, facing you. Spread through the deck without changing its order and, using your right hand, as you come to each black card, upjog it about halfway. Then, with your right hand, swing out all the black cards to the face of deck.
2) Run through the deck again, upjogging all the Spades and Diamonds. Swing out this half to the face of deck.
3) Spread the bottom thirteen Spades and arrange them in order with the right hand as if arranging a bridge hand. That is, holding the deck facing you in the left hand, spread the thirteen Spades out in a fan so that you can see all the pips. Now with your right hand, fingers pointing down, palm facing you, thumb closest to your body, pick out the King of Spades from above; next scan the cards and pick out the Queen of Spades on top of that, then the Jack of Spades and so on until the Ace of Spades is on the face of that small packet. Then just cut those thirteen Spades to the top of the deck.
4) Repeat with the next three suits (remembering that for Clubs and Hearts., you will reverse that order, pulling out the Ace first, then the Two on top of that and so on up to the King). You are now in Bicycle NDO. You’ll see that after just a bit of practice you can arrange the whole deck quite quickly.
But here’s the part I’ve been saving for magicians. Getting into NDO is nice, but even more useful is to get into a memdeck arrangement like Aronson or Tamariz quickly in the hands. This can be done for any stack by generalizing the above:
To generalize for any stack:
1) Upjog all cards within the ranges of 14-26 and 40-52, and cut to the face of deck.
2) Upjog all cards within the ranges of 27-52 and cut to the face of the deck.
3) Spread thirteen cards at a time from the face and put them in ascending order, then cut them to the back of deck.
4) Repeat three more times.
The first step is the hardest to get down, but if you know your stack cold, you’ll soon get it. I find that by using this method, I can stack Aronson order in my hands as fast as on a table.
Done. Next job: Solving world hunger and the exploitation of workers by bosses.
Hint: threads, mirrors, and a good Double Lift.
In a jaw-dropping turn around, it’s interviewer Larry King who stuns magician Shin Lim. You can actually feel Shin Lim thinking WTF is going on here. Who is this guy?
Larry King. Greatest. Spectator. Ever.
Reports that Mr. King was replaced in this video by a head of cabbage are still under investigation.
More of Larry’s magic at Larry King
I’ve written here about Gerald Deutsch before, and I’ve even posted video here of me performing some of his magic, so I’m happy to report the publication this week of a beautiful hardcover 470+ page book chock full of Jerry Deutsch’s unique brand of magic called Gerald Deutsch’s Perverse Magic: The First Sixteen Years. Later in this post I’ll talk about the genesis of the book and my role in producing it, but first I’d like to explain a little more about what “Perverse Magic” is.
Magic is a wonderful entertainment and sometimes art, but there is an aspect of it that can potentially turn audiences off. A performer says to an audience, in effect, “See how wonderful I am,” but a performer claiming such magical power risks getting into a power struggle with a certain kind of spectator.
But Jerry’s style of magic, “Perverse Magic,” (the term is taken from an early magician, Charles Waller, who first mentioned this style of magic) eliminates this potential friction point between performer and audience. The magic happening is attributed not to the performer’s will, but to causes outside it. In other words, the magician appears to be just as baffled (Acting!) as the audience member is; in that way, the performer is on the same side of the spectator, rather than an antagonist.
Jerry has described six possible entertaining categories of Perverse Magic:
1. Something just happens without the performer’s knowledge, and without the performer wanting it to happen. You can see this in the magic of Cardini, where cards and cigarettes appear in his hands out of his control.
2. The performer expects one kind of outcome, but something else happens instead. For example, the magician says he will make a selected card penetrate a handkerchief; instead, when the hankie is opened, the card face is blank and the hankie has a large size copy of the chosen card printed on the handkerchief.
3. The magician says he’s going to do something; but instead, that something happens by itself. For example, a rope suddenly unties itself.
4. The magician does something and is caught; but when he confesses, it’s not what the audience thought–nor what the magician thought either. For example, in an egg bag routine, the magician admits that he has been hiding a spare egg in his armpit. But when he lifts his arm to retrieve the egg, to the surprise of both the performer and audience, the egg has vanished.
5. The magician and the audience are on different planes as to what each sees. This is a whimsical approach: for example, a magician pays for some candy with a half-dollar that s/he offhandedly pulls from a pen cap.
6. The performer doesn’t understand why what happens, happens. For example, the performer fails to find the spectator’s card, even after several tries. In disgust, s/he throws the cards upwards–and to the performer’s, and the rest of the audience’s amazement, the spectator’s card sticks to the ceiling.
It’s a great way to solve the ego problem in magic.
Let me explain a bit on how this book came to be. For the past sixteen years, every single month Jerry Deutsch has been posting Perverse Magic effects to the Genii magic forum. Finally, a few months ago, Jerry brought an end to the wonderful series.
Jerry’s posts instantly resonated with me–I had tinkered around with something I called “Accidental Magic” for a while, when I discovered that Jerry had been doing this for decades before. When I discovered Jerry’s Genii thread, I was enchanted. I looked forward every month to Jerry’s latest perverse entry on the Genii forum.
I thought it would be nice to gather up all of Jerry’s posts and put them into book form so that I could study Perverse Magic more closely for my own personal use. I’m a book guy, that’s how I learn. So I began putting the book together, and as I progressed I thought, wouldn’t it be a great tribute to Jerry to release this to the general magic public?
I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, so I asked Richard Kaufman, editor of Genii, what he thought, and he gave the project his approval. I asked Jerry, and he was happy to be getting a copy, but he preferred not to release it to the general magic public.
I prevailed upon Jerry, telling him that there were three good reasons for having the book released:
1) He deserves financial remuneration for his efforts.
2) For many people, book form is more convenient to learn from than a website.
3) Most importantly, Jerry’s landmark contributions to the art of magic in developing this unique form of magic should be documented, appreciated, and preserved in a more permanent way than the internet cloud.
Jerry still demurred, even after I assured him that I wanted no remuneration for myself. I was disappointed, but I continued working on the book. When it was finally finished, having designed the book layout and cover, and copy-edited it, I sent Jerry a copy.
A few days later I got a call from Jerry, who I had never spoken to on the phone before. He was really happy about the book, and wanted to release it to the general magic public with one important condition: that all proceeds would go to charity.
I was so happy when he said this. It was the perfect solution! Jerry mentioned that he had done work volunteering in hospitals, doing magic for young patients, and that he would like to find a charity that would support that kind of work.
We did some research and we came up with a perfect fit: Open Heart Magic. They are a non-profit charity whose main mission specifically is to train volunteers to do magic in hospitals for young patients. We spoke to the folks at OHM, and they were happy to help set things up so that all the proceeds of Jerry’s book would go to their foundation. You can take a look at the great work these people do at http://www.openheartmagic.org
So if you’d like to treat yourself to the book, I think you’re making a great decision: Jerry’s effects are terrific and well-explained, the price is right, and the cause is a great cause to support. It also makes a great gift. You can order it here:
FISM has been called the World Olympics of Magic. It’s not quite that, but it is an international competition where performers attempt to wow their fellow magicians. This year’s winner was the amazing Eric Chien who turns some common tropes of card and coin magic upside down and inside out. For me, he’s the most refreshing card man since Shin Lim.
Click on the video to see some powerfully entertaining magic that will leave you shaking your head, “How?”
More at Eric Chien
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 world lost a wonderful magician this week. The above video is by no means Ricky Jay’s most baffling trick, but in some sense it is one of his most quintessential. Who else but Ricky Jay would think of pulling this off this way.
Thanks to YouTuber PrestyGomez
A big thanks to everyone who participated in the contest. It was really enjoyable reading the entries. The assignment was to elucidate what you considered the three greatest tricks in Our Magic.
At first, I wasn’t exactly sure what my criteria was going to be in judging the entries, but as I was reading them, it soon became clear that the best ones were the ones whose descriptions were so compelling that they made me say to myself, “Hey, that’s a trick that I want to go out and perform right now.”
The first-prize winner was Sean-Dylan Riedweg whose entry described exactly why he thought each of the three tricks he nominated were winners, and he also provided meticulous citations for each effect. Sean-Dylan chose Semi-Automatic Card Tricks Vol III by Steve Beam as his prize.
The second-prize winner was Abe Carnow. Abe made a very strong case for a trick which most of us have in our drawers, but disdain to use during performance. Sometimes we forget how good some of the most common ideas in magic are. He chose Stewart James: The First Fifty Years as his prize. We advise Mr. Carnow to get into good physical shape with a few bench presses before attempting to lift that weighty tome.
Third Prize went to Steven Go. Steven also advocated for a trick that most would consider very commonplace, but Steven provided a very wonderful description of the effect of the trick on his young daughter. He really brought to life what a special moment was created between the two of them because of that trick. He chose the DVD Time is Money by Asi Wind as his prize.
And finally Honorable Mention to Steven Bryant for his incredible poetic entry, which was part of an even larger Magic Castle New Year’s magical poetic ode.
Thanks again to all who entered. Sometime next week, everyone who participated will receive a pdf compilation of all the entries that were sent in.
Okay, rest up and if there’s enough demand, we’ll do this again next year.
Yes, it’s time once again for this blog’s annual World Famous Magic Contest (“World Famous,” as in my local restaurant’s “Sam’s World-Famous pastrami-on-rye sandwich, one trip to the salad bar only, please”).
So here is the challenge this year:
Last year at a magic Convention I overheard the tail end of a conversation where a well-respected famous magician was saying to his companions, “Well, that’s because that’s the Greatest Trick in Magic…” I kept on eavesdropping, but I never heard just what that earth-shaking Greatest Trick in Magic was.
So your mission, Jim and Cinnamon, if you should choose to accept it, is to tell us what the three greatest tricks are in magic. But please don’t just list them. You must explain why you consider each trick a great one. Extra points for coherence, unexpectedness, humor, and persuasiveness.
And wonderful prizes, as always, will be awarded:
First prize is first choice from the terrific grab bag of wonderful magic books, tricks, and DVDs I’ve put together; second prize is second choice from the grab bag; and third prize, in a parallel, numerically pleasing manner, is third choice from the grab bag. The items in the grab bag are all commercial books, tricks, or DVDs, at least one of which, I guarantee, you will be very happy to own.
And in the spirit of everyone being a winner, I’ll also ask all entrants to allow me to make up a pdf file which includes their entry. This pdf will not be sold, but will be offered only as a free download to all those who enter.
Send your entries please to email@example.com
Make sure to put the word CONTEST in the subject line
Deadline Wednesday, Oct 31, 11:59 PM.
All are eligible except those who have won 1st, 2nd, or 3rd prize in the previous two years.
I’m looking forward to hearing from you!
In what is probably Steve Martin’s greatest magic performance, Steve performs for Johnny Carson the inexplicable unpublished Vernon/Marlo card miracle, “King of Hearts, Come Down and Dance.”
Thanks to YouTuber Jeff Dresback
If Lenny Bruce were a magician, he would be Steve Spill.
Lenny has long since passed onto that great big comedy stage in the sky, but fortunately our friend Steve Spill is alive and well and has come out with a new book aimed at magicians called How To Make Love The Steve Spill Way. His first book, I Lie For Money, was aimed at a general audience and contained lots of advice on how to live a creative life. It was served along with large dollops of autobiography and spit-take funny stories about the people he met along the path while building an artistic life for himself. In this new book, Steve not only continues his general advice for would-be artists, but also gives up the details of a dozen of his most creative and hilarious tricks. It would be an understatement to say that I think everyone interested in performing magic should read this book.
It’s always a great gift when a wonderful performer tips the secrets of his act, but it’s an even greater gift when the performer himself does the literate and humorous writing chore. Because it’s in that act of writing that Spill divulges his biggest secret: the most powerful thing a performer can do is to find her or his own quirkiness and unique qualities and put them out on display in a performance-oriented way.
When you read one of Spill’s books, you instantly understand what he’s talking about when he says to trust your own personality, because the pages of his books are drenched in the unique persona which he has nurtured. While on the one hand it’s instructive to pick up a Dai Vernon book written by someone like Lewis Ganson, on the other hand, the fact that Ganson, not Vernon, wrote it deprives the reader of real insight into much of Vernon’s personality. With a writer like Steve, though, it’s all hanging out there, and it’s plain as day. You understand immediately that the twelve killer presentations that Spill has detailed are perfect for Spill. Those who are not Steve would most likely fall on their faces if they did his presentations verbatim, but that’s not the point. The point is…who are you?
There are so many lessons to be learned here, not the least of which is the courage of one’s convictions. I read the beginning chapters twice, because the first time through I was laughing too much at the jokes to pay attention to the content.
But if you’ve got as warped and crazy a mind as Steve does (that’s a compliment, I think) there are bound to be doubts about whether anyone else will appreciate what you’re doing. However, Steve’s examples of himself being true to form, along with his constant brainstorming, testing, discarding, and revising of effects, serve as a model of what can be done, and act as a spur to one’s own creativity.
For each of the twelve effects Spill describes, he gives the background story on how and why he created it, and these stories are useful adjuncts to understanding how to create your own effects. The methods are tried and true, and for the most part they probably won’t surprise you with their cleverness after the fact. But that’s not what Steve is after—what will surprise and delight you is the way that Steve takes an effect from column A and a presentation from column Z, and juxtaposes them to create something never seen before, something to amuse and mystify an audience, which leaves them with the impression of a strong magical personality and experience.
What’s in the tricks section? Well it’s a compilation of Spill’s greatest hits—The Lemon thing, the Needle thing, The Himber Ring thing, the drug and hemorrhoid jokes, they’re all there, with full scripts and extra handling and performance tips explained with loving care. The most audacious routine is one called “Abra Cadavers” which involves, well, a tale of cadavers wrapped in a personal story of tragedy. You would have to be nuts to perform it. I’m happy to report that Spill has done it many times, and tells you how to do it so that you too can be the object of abject speechless horror. I also thought that the presentation given for the UltraMental Deck was one of the best ideas for it I’ve ever come across.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the British magician David Devant expressed his appreciation of his audience with the tagline, “All Done By Kindness.” Likewise, Devant’s American contemporary, Howard Thurston, would prepare to go onstage by intoning in the wings to an imaginary audience, “Thank you, thank you for coming to my show tonight. God Bless You.” And now in the same spirit, as we navigate the twenty-first century, Steve Spill urges us to make love The Steve Spill Way. His love for magic, his love for his audiences and for his unique self are all part and parcel of How to Make Love The Steve Spill Way.
Whenever I am envious of the talent and skill of a great performing artist, I like to remember the following story, which the famous one-armed Spanish magician, Rene Levand, told in his book about his magic and life, Mysteries of My Life:
A man sees the great virtuoso cello player Pablo Casals crossing the street. The man, so thrilled to get a glimpse of his artistic idol, dashes across the street and manages to catch up with Casals.
“Maestro,” the man says, almost out of breath, “I just wanted you to know that I’d give my life to be you!”
Casals pauses and then replies drily, “I already did.”
Shin Lim’s card magic raises the bar for everyone. It’s rare that card magic looks and feels magical, rather than just an intriguing puzzle or demonstration of skill. Shin Lim’s performances give me that feeling of wonder.
Thanks to YouTuber Talent Recap
The New-York Historical Society recently opened a small exhibition on the history of magic in New York, drawn from the vast private David Copperfield Collection. An unannounced surprise at the opening was the presence of Copperfield himself, who gave us a short guided tour of the exhibit (as Homer Liwag toiled in the background, putting last minute touches on the exhibit).
You can listen to Copperfield’s commentary, as broadcast yesterday on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM, by clicking on the grey triangle above.