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

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I read the news today, oh boy.

Simon Aronson died this past week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Thumbnail Sketch

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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This one is for the magic nerds. For the rest of you, nothing to see here, move along.

The close-up magician, Dai Vernon, was perhaps the most influential magic teacher of the twentieth century. His impact was so great that he was known simply as “The Professor.” In his later life, still sharp as a tack in his 80s and beyond, he would hold court at The Magic Castle and other such venues, where conjurers from around the country would come to get The Professor’s critique of their magic. Vernon was a pretty mischievous fellow by most accounts, and his lessons could sometimes be quite pointed. My favorite story about him is one that magician Bill Palmer has told on The Magic Cafe internet forum, which I’ll repeat here.

Palmer was attending a magic convention in Texas where Vernon was one of the headliners. Now one of the nice and maybe unique things about magic conventions is that the performers often mingle with the attendees in their off time. So Palmer is wandering around the lobby of the hotel where the convention was held, and who does he see sitting on a sofa, but The Professor himself, Dai Vernon.  He’s startled to see that Vernon is all alone on the couch, so he decides to take this opportunity. He gathers up his courage, goes over to Vernon and introduces himself, gushes a bit, and then Palmer decides he’s going to make his impression on The Professor by showing Vernon a feat of mentalism. After all, though Vernon was expert with cards and coins, mentalism is a whole different branch of conjuring.

Palmer says to Vernon. “Please think of any three-digit number. Concentrate, please. Visualize that number in your imagination.” Palmer then takes out his business card, cogitates furiously, writes something on the back of the business card, then puts the pencil down, and says to Vernon, “I have committed my answer in writing. Would you now, for the first time, name your number, please?”

Vernon replies, “4-5-8.”

Palmer continues in the canned patter of the day, “Aha! Does that number have any special significance to you?”

“Yes,” replies the elderly Vernon, with narrowing eyes,  “those are the three most difficult numbers to write with a nail writer.”

“Nothing Here Is Real”

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The entertaining magician and mentalist Gary Ferrar (whose grandfather was a lion tamer) talks with us about his new show of mental illusions called “Nothing Here Is Real.” As a bonus, he performs a mindreading effect directed at yours truly on the air.

You can listen to Gary’s interview and mentalism effect, as broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM NYC, by clicking on the grey triangle above.

Psychic Spoon Bending With Fry And Laurie

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The mysterious Hugh Laurie demonstrates his awesome psychic spoon bending abilities to the somewhat skeptical Stephen Fry. Any resemblance to psychics living or dead is purely intentional.

Thanks to YouTuber Meghan Lee

Will The Cards Match: A Formula

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Today’s post is for the magic nerds among us. An excellent staple of mental card magic is an effect by Larry Becker called “Will The Cards Match?” It’s based upon a clever math principle first used in magic by Howard Adams, and the trick itself can take many forms depending on the performer’s imagination. My favorite presentation is one that uses a set of business cards: each card has a famous name written on the back, and the cards are torn in half into two mates. After turning all the pieces face down and subjecting them to shuffles, cuts, and a spectator-controlled sorting procedure, the pieces, against all odds, end up paired next to their mates.

Since the standard method of doing this trick uses the spelling of the title phrase, many magicians are curious about 1) What other phrases would also work, and 2) What if instead of using the usual five cards, one wishes to use some other number of cards?

So quite a number of years ago, I worked out a method to determine phrases for any number of cards.  This will allow the performer to customize by occasion and venue the phrase that is used.

Here’s a modified version of how I described it on one of the magic forums about a decade ago:

“A) Suppose each pile of cards contains X cards to begin with. Then a workable phrase could have for its first word X-1 letters, the second word X-2 letters, the third word X-3 letters, the Nth word X-N letters and so on. So, for example, for five cards, four words of lengths 4-3-2-1 will work.

B) But those word lengths are not unique. Each of the word lengths can be adjusted in the following way:

At any point, you may add to any of the above lengths any multiple of the number that is one more than the original word length. That is, at word N, you may add any multiple of X -N+1.

Example: I have two five card piles. By the first formula, I can have a phrase consisting of 4 letters, then 3 letters, then 2 letters, then one letter.

So the first word has length 4—WILL

The second word has length 3—THE

The third word should have length 2—but we’re going to adjust its length for a better phrase.

I can add as many multiples of the original number plus one that I like. Since at this point the original word length would have been 2, I  can add any multiple of three (one more than 2) to the original word length of two.. For instance I can add exactly three to two to get five letters for the third word—CARDS

On the fourth word (on which I originally had 1 letter) I can add any multiple of 2 (one more than one) to my original 1. If I add 2×2 to 1, then I get five—MATCH

So, in this example, I have a phrase consisting of 4-3-5-5 which is Will The Cards Match.

Now let’s try this with six cards in each pile to make this more clear.

To start with:
First word . . . five letters
Second word , . . four letters
Third word . . . three letters
Fourth word . . . Two letters
Fifth word. . . One letter

So a workable sequence of word lengths for 6 cards could be a phrase with 5-4-3-2-1 letters

Now I’ll make some adjustments so that I can get a more convenient phrase:

First word, leave as is . . . five letters—MAGIC.
Second word, leave as is, . . . four letters—WILL.
Third word, originally three letters, which means I can add any multiple of four (one more than three). So I’ll add just 4 to the original three to get seven letters—ASTOUND.
Fourth word, originally two letters, so I can add any multiple of three (one more than two). In this case I’ll add 3 to the original two to get five letters—EVERY.
Fifth word, originally one letter, so I can add any multiple of two (one more than one). In this case, I choose to add two times two to the original one, to get five letters—CHILD.

So my sequence could be 5-4-7-5-5.

For example, “Magic Will Astound Every Child.”

Another sequence that will work using the above instructions is 5-4-3-2-5. Only the last word length needs to be adjusted here. So, “Every Body Can Do Magic.”

It may seem a little complicated, but if you’ll follow along with cards in hand, you’ll see that it works easily, and you can create your own phrase for any number of cards. Let me know if you have any questions.

Mixed Up Theo

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Theo Annemann was a magician often considered the patron saint of mentalism. He was a prolific inventor of card magic as a young man, something of a prodigy, although he really distinguished himself as the editor and publisher of a weekly magazine devoted to close-up mental effects, started in 1934, called The Jinx. The effects and methods contained therein were foundational for just about every succeeding performer of mental magic afterwards, but the real joy of reading The Jinx now is the light it shines on the New York magic scene of the ’30s contained in Annemann’s editorials and reviews.

Alas, although Annemann was in his early years a dynamic performer, by the end of 1941 the 34-year old’s life was a mess: he was in debt, working on his second divorce, drinking heavily, his gums were seriously infected, and although terrified now of performing in public, a show was coming up. He sought to solve his problems by attaching a hose to his gas oven and inhaling. He was found dead the next day in his pajamas,  a bag over his head and the hose still attached. Poor Ted.

This is all by way of repeating one of my favorite anagrams, created by Harry Anderson, magician, raconteur, wise guy, and actor (he was the judge in the popular 1980s TV sitcom, Night Court).

Theo Annemann:

A man, then none.

 

Mystic Descendant Arises Once Again

md2

 

Those who enjoyed the first issue of Ron Chavis’s mentalism publication, Mystic Descendant will be pleased to know that Issue #2 is now hot off the press. You can read a list of the contents here, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Ron interviewed your humble correspondent concerning mentalism and performance, and the results are contained therein. But the real treats are contributions from Mereaux Dantes, Neal Scryer, Todd Landman, Anthony Heads, Connor Jacobs, and Ron himself. You can order here.

Well worth the new lower price of $19.95 per issue, it continues the entertainingly eclectic mix of mentalism-related articles, interviews, essays, effects, and presentations found in the first issue. Kudos to Ron for making it to the second issue, and here’s hoping there are many more.

 

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.

Mystic Descendant: The Offering

mystic

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Mystic Descendant is the name of a shiny new periodical for the mentalism community, published by mentalist Ron Chavis. Ron, among other hats that he wears, is the genial web host of a deliberately not-so-well-known mentalism website. He has taken on the formidable job of producing a mentalism quarterly of 50+ pages, no small task, and his first issue is a low-key, but enjoyable read.

You can tell right away that Mystic Descendant is going to be different from other mentalism periodicals, because unlike The Jinx, Magick, or Syzygy, MD is not a newsletter or stapled mimeographed affair, but a perfect bound, glossy color-covered magazine (some of the publicity material likes to call it a book, but I think that’s stretching it), printed on decent quality paper.

Mystic Descendant casts its net wide, covering traditional mentalism, but it’s also not afraid to cover such topics as psychic readings and bizarre magic presentations as well. The one thing it is not interested in is mental magic, so if that’s what you’re looking for, look elsewhere. While there is discussion of methods, the focus so far is really on compelling presentations for casual and close-up performance. The periodical describes itself as aimed at “a beginner, a part or full-time performer, or a hobbyist,” and I think that’s a fair description. I think all of the above can find something to appreciate and enjoy here.

The contents are an eclectic mix of interviews, effects, presentations, stories, and random thoughts and that is part of the charm of the magazine. It’s the kind of thing you sit in the lounge chair with, and chuckle to yourself as you’re reading it. It’s imaginative in its diversity, and firm in its conviction about the importance of storytelling.

You can get an idea of the full contents by clicking here, but I’ll just mention that the highlight of the issue for me was the interview with Swedish mentalist Anthony Heads. He is primarily a stage performer, and it was fascinating to read about how he overcomes the reticence of his Swedish audiences to express emotion. Here’s hoping to the continued success of Mystic Descendant.

 

A Contest for Magicians

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I thought it might be fun to run a contest about things magical.

So here it is: explain three actions or ideas that you think were the most helpful in the improvement of your magic or mentalism. Your explanations don’t have to be profound, although profound is fine, too. But if you just want to talk about how your little pinky sticking out this way instead of that way made everything a lot better, that’s okay, too. And you don’t need to be a professional or anything like that, hobbyists are welcome to participate as well.

No criteria here other than what strikes me as interesting and useful.  Details and specifics are key. Extra points for humor and entertainment value. It would be especially helpful if you could analyze why the actions or ideas were important to you.

First prize is first choice from the little grab bag of magic books and DVDs I’ve put together; second prize is second choice from the grab bag, and third prize, in a pleasingly parallel harmonic consecutive manner, is third choice from the grab bag. The items in the grab bag are all commercial books or DVDs, at least one of which, I guarantee, you will be happy to have.

And in the spirit of everyone being a winner, I’ll 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 on this website to all those who entered.

Send your entries please to jshalom@worldshare.net

Make sure to put the word CONTEST in the subject line

I’ll keep this open for a week or two, based on the number of responses I get.

I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

Book Nook (2)

Time Enough at Last***

A little catching up with some books I’ve been reading lately is in order. Here are some brief reviews:

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is a sweet novel of a curmudgeonly widower who owns a bookstore on an isolated island but still manages to find love. There’s not a lot that’s new here, and the language is fairly plain, but the premise is amusing and the story is relaxing to read. There’s a bit of a tearjerker ending, not unexpected with a storyline that includes a foundling orphan.

I read Mission to Mars by Buzz Aldrin as part of my research for my interview with Aldrin ( which you can listen to here), and I have to say that as someone who was pretty skeptical about the whole idea of space travel, I fell under the book’s sway. The arguments for a manned mission to Mars in the near future are hypnotic. Looking back, I realize I was entranced by an illusion, but the book is a very good read. Lots of information about the moon landing, Aldrin’s experiences with his fellow astronauts, his tangling with politicians and NASA, and above all his detailed plan about how he thinks the United States government should go about preparing a mission to Mars. He’s a highly unorthodox guy, but that’s part of what makes this so much fun to read.

Moving onto magic-related items, Paralies by Joshua Quinn is a book of original mentalism effects, all with a powerful impact. Quinn is a very clever creator of effects which simulate mind-reading, and this book shows off some of his most powerful ideas. Quinn’s hallmark is in the synergistic layering of different methods, making backtracking by the spectator very difficult indeed. He also has some really excellent work on equivoque, including a full-deck equivoque to one card. Whether you use his exact scripting or not, the lessons drawn in creating such a sequence are valuable. This book also outlines Quinn’s propless “Thought Chunneling,” an effect which allows a spectator to just think of a word—nothing written down—and even after the spectator changes the word several times, the performer can still reveal what the word is. I have no idea how well this plays, as it requires quite a bit of practice on the performer’s part, but perhaps sometime in the future I’ll give this the practice it needs in order to road test it. Warning: the book is quite pricey, but there are lots of solid ideas here for the informal performer.

I’m a great fan of the comedians of the silent film era, so I was naturally attracted to Patrick Page’s Book of Visual Comedy. Page was a well-known British entertainer, and among the magic community, he was applauded as a kind of all-round utility man, as comfortable as performing with a deck of cards close-up as he was onstage with the Linking Rings. In this book, illustrated with humorous cartoon drawings, Page describes some of the classic bits of physical humor that stage performers have used for eons. Gags with hats, chairs, microphone stands, eyeglasses, neckties, fingers in bottles, pratfalls, and so on make for delightful reading, and I felt as if there were more than a few ideas that I would enjoy taking out for an onstage spin. Very enjoyable quick read.

Out on the Wire, written and illustrated by Jessica Abel, is a cartoon graphic narrative of “The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio.” By “Masters of Radio” she is referring to NPR storytellers like Ira Glass of This American Life and Chana Joffe-Walt of Planet Money. There’s lots of very good information here about how such radio programs are created from scratch, and the book consciously tries to guide would-be radio storytellers through the process. The tone of the book, however, I found annoying, with its constant lionization of All Things NPR.  In particular, the privileging of radio technique over actual critical thinking about ideas is pervasive in the book and on the station. We get very detailed panels, for example, explaining the laborious collaborative editing process that brings a segment of Planet Money to the air, but unfortunately, that process does not include real critical examination of the economic ideas presented. The ideas are all pre-digested mainstream dogmas that upset no capitalist applecarts, even while great thought is given to producing an entertaining story.  So what we end up with (and Ira Glass is quoted as saying that radio is basically a didactic medium) is a formula for making slick propaganda. Decide what the story is first, even before you go out to do the interviews; then meticulously edit it to arrive at a pleasing form. But I would be misleading you if I said that there wasn’t some useful (to use an awful NPR-ish word) “takeaway.” I just think it’s advice much more applicable to fiction storytelling than actual non-fiction reporting.

Still in the queue for next time: Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven by Steve Stern, a set of short stories; Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora; The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander on the continuing racism faced by African-Americans in the United States; The Marxists, a classic survey of the major trends in Marxist thought by C. Wright Mills; and The Paper Engine, Aaron Fisher’s careful dissection of how to perform some of the most important sleights in card magic.