“We Think You’re Just Sensational”

 

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Angela Lansbury in one of her signature roles at the 1975 Tony Awards.

About two-thirds of the way through the clip, Lansbury gets surprised by a guest dancer. Don’t miss it. The look on her face is wonderful. (If you don’t recognize who it is, I’ll post his identity in the comments.)

Thanks to YouTuber kotlicek

 

 

I Am Spartacus!

If you haven’t seen or don’t remember the classic scene from the the movie Spartacus about the leader of a Roman slave rebellion, click on the very short video below, so that the rest of this makes sense:

 

Now watch what the geniuses at Improv Everywhere, the ringleaders of the international multi-city No Pants Subway Ride, did at a local Starbucks:

More videos at Improv Everywhere

Put On A Happy Face

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Dick Van Dyke and the eloquent Sharon Lerit from the Broadway stage production of Bye Bye Birdie dance up a storm.

Van Dyke learned years later that the producers had wanted to fire him out of town, but Gower Champion had fought hard to keep him. Van Dyke and the show made it to New York and hit it big.

Thanks to YouTuber lee a

Hymn For A Sunday Evening

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Department of Self-Referential Videos Department.

The original Broadway cast of Bye Bye Birdie—including the fabulous Paul Lynde— singing the Ed Sullivan song—on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to YouTuber lee a

If I Were A Bell

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Jean Simmons’ wonderful turn as the Salvation Army worker who just had her first drink in Frank Loesser’s Guys And Dolls. And, of course, Marlon Brando, in one of the oddest casting decisions for a movie musical, as the leading man, gambler Sky Masterson.

Thanks to YouTuber ZSy264

Slings And Arrows

 

Richard Burton playing Hamlet, “To Be or not to be,” and “Get thee to a nunnery.”

There are aspects here of Burton’s performance that could be criticized but there’s no doubt he had the voice, emotional sensibility, intelligence and nobility of character to be a great Hamlet.

“For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally.”

Linda Marsh as Ophelia

Thanks to YouTuber tvclassics

“Why, I Can Smile, And Murder Whiles I Smile”

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John Barrymore chewing up the scenery in this no-holds-barred performance as the crook-back’d Richard, Duke of Gloucester, on the eve of gaining the Crown as Richard III.

This is from Henry VI, the prequel to Richard III, which details Gloucester’s rise.

Thanks to YouTuber erfv102012

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And don’t forget to enter the Fourth Annual Shalom Blog Magic Contest. It’s fun and easy with great prizes. Read the details here:

https://jackshalom.net/2018/10/06/the-fourth-annual-shalom-blog-magic-contest/

Deadline coming up, now’s a good time to enter.

The Mighty Arts Express Players Present…Gun Shy

 

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Here’s our radio version of the little sketch, Gun Shy, as broadcast yesterday on WBAI, during the Arts Express radio program. Many thanks to The Mighty Arts Express Players, composed of Pearl Shifer and Mary Murphy, and thanks again to Prairie Miller for all the encouragement.

Click on the triangle to listen.

When Groucho Met Houdini

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In 1972, Groucho did a one man show of reminiscences at Carnegie Hall  called An Evening With Groucho. In this short clip, he shares what happened when he encountered the magician Harry Houdini.

Click on the grey triangle to play.

Thanks to https://archive.org

Gun Shy

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My friend Alan who is a prolific playwright asked me if I’d like to write a very short three-minute curtain raiser for his new play reading. I said yes, having no idea at all what I would write. As it happened, the Parkland school shootings and the government response were still on my mind, so out came this merry little sketch.

 

Gun Shy

 

Mother in the breakfast room; two children ages seven and eight (should be played by adults) offstage.

Mother: Justin, c’mon you’re going to be late to school.

Justin: (off) I’m coming.

Mother: You, too, Mercy, the school bus is going to be here any moment.

Mercy: (off) I’m coming. Give me a chance. (Justin enters with backpack on hand)

Mother: Look at you. Your hair’s a mess. And what about your sweater?

Justin: Yes, Mom. I have it.

Mother: And did you remember about your homework?

Justin: Really, Mom, you don’t have to remind us about every little thing. (Mercy comes down with her backpack in hand)

Mother: Can’t you get yourself together a little earlier so you don’t have to rush each morning?

Mercy: I’m sorry I was just packing up my backpack. We have a lot of equipment for our new class. And it’s so lame, they make us drag everything back and forth.

Mother: What class is that?

Mercy: Oh, the target class.

Mother: Target class?

Justin: It’s a new required class we have to take in school. We have to be able to kill 65% of potential intruders in order to pass the class, graduate, and go on to middle school.

Mother: How do they know if you’ve done that?

Justin: Well, a wound in one limb counts as a score of 30%, an eye counts for a score of 25%, for a kill you obviously get a 100.

Mercy: Well, unless someone else hits the guy first, in which case you only get 50% for an assist. It’s so unfair. So the thing to do is, if you can’t get a clean kill, try to mix and match so that it adds up to over 65%.

Justin: So two eyes and you pass.

Mercy: No you idiot, that doesn’t add up. That’s only 50—25 and 25.

Justin: I’m not good in math. It’s not my fault. My math teacher only has one eye. She was mistaken for an intruder.

Mother: Well all right, put on your backpacks. Wait a second. What’s that you got in there?

Mercy: Just a gun.

Mother: Oh. Okay. And what’s that?

Mercy: That’s another gun. Hi-powered, semi-automatic.

Mother: All right. (to Justin) You’re looking very guilty young man. And what’s that ?

Justin (ashamed looking down at the floor) Gum.

Mother: Gum? Gun or Gum?

Justin: Uh, Gum.

Mother: Oh my gosh. What is wrong with you? Hand that over young man. You should know by now you’re not allowed to chew gum in school. It’s not allowed. It’s really disrespectful to the teachers and staff. Didn’t I bring you up right?

Justin: I’m sorry. I just couldn’t…

Mercy: Ooh I’m telling.

Justin: Be quiet, you.

Mother: I am really, really so disappointed in you, Justin. Wrigley’s Spearmint. The most deadly flavor. In my day, you know what we did with students who brought gum to school? (pause) We shot them. Of course we were only allowed to graze them in my days. Old-fashioned I suppose, but the world has moved on. I guess you can’t stop progress. I don’t know what we’re going to do with you, Justin.

Mercy: (reluctantly) Ohhh…I guess you can have one of mine. But not the AR-15. Just one of the handguns.

Mother: That’s really kind and unselfish of you, Mercy. Maybe I did bring you kids up right after all. (Sound of bus horn honking) Okay here’s the bus. (kids run off) Don’t forget your lunches. Love ya. And children—No chewing in class! Knock ‘em dead!

Wallace Shawn: “Feeding The Monster”

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Yesterday, WBAI broadcast my interview with actor/playwright/essayist Wallace Shawn on the Arts Express radio program. You can listen to his provocative discussion of privilege and denial by clicking on the grey triangle above.

525,600 Minutes

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Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students sing “Seasons of Love” from the play Rent.

It gave me the chills watching it.

Thanks to YouTuber CBS

Dumb Waiter: Shakespeare In the Park Guide

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As the ancients said:

“Art, and the Shakespeare-in-the-Park line, is long, but Life is short.”

One of  New York City’s delights in the summer is the free theater offered by the Public Theater in Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre. Usually it consists of two different Shakespeare plays, one that opens in June and the other in July.

To get the free tickets, you have to show up at the Delacorte in the morning and wait on line until noon, when the tickets for that evening, a maximum of two per person, are given out.

The problem is figuring out what time to get on the line; although there are many tickets given out, for a popular production it is possible to be on the line and have enough people in front of you so that the tickets run out before they get to you. There’s nothing worse than getting to the park and seeing a long long line in front of you, and wait for hours, only to be told that there are no more tickets for that evening.

If you call up the Public and ask them what would be a recommended time to get there, they are cagily unhelpful. They will refuse to suggest a time, rightly feeling, I suppose, that if they gave out a time, it would just mean that people would all show up a bit earlier than that and cause a bottleneck even earlier.

If you are 65 or over, or disabled—and they will ask for proof—you may wait instead on a “Senior” line. Each person may still get two tickets, one of which must be for Senior or a disabled person, but the other ticketholder does not have to be a Senior or disabled. But if you call up the box office about the Senior line, they still will be quite Sphinx-like concerning what time to arrive to guarantee a ticket.

So, since I waited on line today, I decided I would keep track of how many people showed up hour by hour. This way you can judge for yourself what time you might want to come.

So, a couple of caveats; the best day, hands down, to guarantee admission, is to come on a weekday while the show is in previews , before its official opening. Once the play gets its initial media reviews, even if they are not positive, potential audience members become more aware of the show and the lines get longer, earlier. With that in mind here’s what happened today, waiting to get tickets for tonight’s performance of Othello:

7:00 AM: I arrived at the park, and there were 35 people ahead of me on the regular line. There was no one on the senior line.

8:00 AM: There were now 80 people on the regular line and 10 people on the Senior line.

9:00 AM: The regular line now had 115 people waiting, and 15 were on the Senior line.

10:00 AM: The regular line grew to 140 people, and the Senior line to 30.

At this point, I stopped keeping track. But when tickets were distributed at 12 noon sharp, everyone got tickets.

I have to say this is the first time of many occasions waiting where the line seemed so short. But as I said before that is probably because it was a weekday, and the show was still in previews. Be aware that these guidelines would be very different on a weekend and once a show has been reviewed.

Hope you get to see some of the shows this summer, the productions are always fun, and a worthwhile theater experience.

 

 

Who’s On First?

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Last week I had the pleasure of being one half of the performers of the classic Abbott and Costello sketch, “Who’s On First?”

I think it is the most perfect piece of comedy ever written—if your native language is English.

My colleague Adam Pisco and I performed it before an auditorium of our public international high school English Language Learner students, none who have English as their native language, and many who have come here with no English at all. They represent dozens of countries and languages.

So we were afraid we were taking a big risk, and we were afraid that the students might not be able to understand the sketch, and not be quite able to get the wordplay involved.

But I’m very happy to report, as you can see and hear by clicking on the video, that we were absolutely wrong.

In & Of Itself: Derek DelGaudio

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(Click to enlarge)

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Derek DelGaudio is a troubled and troubling man. And I mean that in the best possible way. DelGaudio’s low key demeanor may be studied, but he is not a man to be underestimated. In Derek DelGaudio’s one-man performance piece, In & Of Itself, he tells the familiar story of the six blind men confronted with an elephant, each of whom can only identify the elephant from his own perspective: the man at the elephant’s side perceives a wall, the man at the tail perceives a rope, the man at the legs feels a tree trunk, and so on. For the audience at any performance of DelGaudio’s play, they are facing an elephant.

For some it will be performance art, and for some it will be a play with inexplicable magic. For some it will be a meditation on identity and the process of labeling, while for others it will be a story about the power of stories. For others still, it will be a play about memory, and how the images that remain with us shape the rest of our lives.

Peter Brook in his short but influential book, The Empty Space, wrote this about live performance:

“When a performance is over, what remains?…The event scorches on to the memory an outline, a taste, a trace, a smell—a picture. It is the play’s central image that remains, its silhouette, and if the elements are highly blended this silhouette will be its meaning, this shape will be the essence of what it has to say.”

Derek DelGaudio takes this advice to heart. His stage setting is a space in which the back wall consists of six windows, each with a strong image: a gold mechanical head and torso with a gun in its hand; a bottle atop a pile of sand; a dog—or is it a wolf?—with a pack of cards in its mouth; a golden brick; a mailbox full of letters; and a set of scales. Each image takes DelGaudio further into the story of his lives and identities. He is generous enough and clever enough to make those of us in the audience take our own journey as well.

If this sounds vague, obscure, it is for a few reasons. To give away any of the specifics of the…experience—I think I’ll settle on that as the label for what happened on Saturday—would be to dilute the experience for others. And I’m not just talking about the magic components. In fact, the strongest aspect of DelGaudio’s piece for me was not even the magic, extraordinary as that was. It was DelGaudio’s view about the elephant story that resonated most for me—a perspective that goes beyond most re-tellings of that story and made me see the parable in an entirely different light. Would it be too strong to say that it has me off-balance still?

What is this thing? Well that’s what the show is about, and it’s hard to put a label on it. Well, imagine if Spalding Gray did sleight of hand…that would be two views of the elephant. DelGaudio is probably best known as a magician’s magician, but unlike many other magicians, you won’t see his work plastered all over YouTube. I do know that he and director Frank Oz have used all their skill to do something that most magicians never dream of. Derren Brown, the British magician and mentalist, in his recent US outing had a show called Secrets, which was a very good compilation of his greatest hits. It was clear, however, from Brown’s introductory remarks that he was reaching for something more, to explore the inner secrets of self. But Brown was not able to pull it off, and stayed safely within his skill set of stage magician. DelGaudio on the other hand, manages to convey the true feeling of revealing secrets—and not the ones that magicians keep locked up in some empty safe. He talks about the personal dilemma of having as a magician great skill that is never meant to be shown, and the personal toll that that takes; he talks about the secret of his childhood; he talks about what we can allow ourselves to know about ourselves. He talks about both the liberatory freedom and excruciating restraint that an affixed label gives a person.

But DelGaudio’s biggest trick is not just that he talks about it for himself, but in a stunning few moments near the end of the piece, a substantial portion of the audience gets the experience of deeply feeling their true and perceived identities.

Remember the opening to The Glass Menagerie? The narrator, Tom says, ““Yes, I have tricks in my pocket; I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”

That’s Derek DelGaudio. He is only playing until August 19th at the Daryl Roth Theater in NYC. If anything in this review sparked your interest, I would urge you to see him before it ends. There’s not going to be another one of his like again.

 

Ya Got Trouble!

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Monday, Professor Harold Hill, as incarnated by the unmatchable Robert Preston,  both creates and solves a pressing need, in the manner of flim-flam men and politicians everywhere.

“River City ain’t in no trouble…”

“Then we’re going to have to create some—we must create a desperate need in your town.”

Thanks to YouTuber BravoDivine

When Most I Wink, Then Do Mine Eyes Best See

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It’s the last half of April which means it’s Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Slam time once again. I’ve been participating in the slam for the last four years, and  I’ve written about how to analyze a sonnet for performance several times before  (see here and here as well). Each year participants are assigned a sonnet, and within the space of about three hours all 154 sonnets are performed at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, New York City.

This year I was randomly assigned Sonnet #43. As I’ve written before, I enjoy being told which sonnet to do, because it exposes me to sonnets which I would not necessarily have been drawn to by myself. Here’s the Sonnet:

Sonnet 43

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed;
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so?
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay?
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Unlike some of the previous sonnets I have been assigned, at first glance this one seems fairly straightforward, if somewhat repetitious. As usual, the first step is to divide the sonnet into three quatrains and an ending couplet:

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed;

Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so?

How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay?

All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

The first quatrain sets the conceit that runs through the poem: I see more clearly  at night, when you are present in my dreams, than the dull day when you are absent.

The second quatrain seems to say nearly the same, but it’s always useful to see what is new in each quatrain. After a few read-throughs I realized that here there is a request underlying this sonnet, and here the poet is expressing his desire to see his beloved, physically, in the daytime.

The third quatrain seems to be marshaling the same argument for your presence. How to distinguish it from the previous quatrain and make it more interesting? Oh, there it is. In the second quatrain, I say your presence would make me happy—but in the third quatrain I say your presence would make me feel blessed. That’s something to hang my hat onto. Two distinctly different appeals.

The final couplet is usually either a summation of the first three quatrains or a distinctly contrary upending of the previous lines. Here, it seems to be the former, but the last phrase of the last line seems peculiar to me. It reads “when dreams do show thee me.” But that seems backwards to the sense of the rest of the poem. Throughout the poem, I have been doing the dreaming, so I was expecting “when dreams do show me thee.” It scans exactly the same so that can’t be the reason the pronouns were switched. I don’t know the reason for that yet, but I do know I can’t ignore it. I’ve found through past experience that the one difficult word or line is often the key to unlocking everything else.

Here’s an early Happy Shakespeare’s Birthday to all.

Al Pacino On Acting For The Stage and Screen

AARP's 2nd Annual Movies For Grownups Film Showcase - "The Humbling"

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Al Pacino is one of only a handful of Hollywood actors who have regularly gone back to their roots in the theater.  At a recent press screening of his re-released films, Salome and Wilde Salome, he held forth on, among other things, the differences between acting in film and acting in the theater. Even at age 77, Pacino is a funny, enlightening, and honest speaker.

You can listen to his talk, as broadcast yesterday on the radio segment I prepared for the WBAI Arts Express radio program, by clicking on the grey triangle above.

 

Extreme Whether

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In this radio interview broadcast yesterday on WBAI 99.5 FM, I talk with playwright Karen Malpede about her new cli-fi drama, Extreme Whether, a theatrical exploration of the climate change wars. It opens in March at LaMama in New York City. For more information about the play and tickets, go to http://theaterthreecollaborative.org/extreme-whether

Click on the grey triangle above to hear the interview.

Hamlet: Spying, Identity, And Eluding the Panopticon

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The first line of Hamlet, like many first lines of Shakespeare, announces the theme: “Who’s there?”  For Denmark, like the countries we inhabit, is a place where no one is sure who is watching whom, who the enemy is, or on a more metaphysical plane, who makes up the person one calls oneself.  Identities are questioned from the outside and the inside. Who and what is real? Can we know others? Can others know us? Can we know ourselves?

Denmark is a prison says Hamlet. It’s a country that seems to be perpetually at War.  In such a world, where the enemy can sneak upon you at any moment, nothing is private. The State dominates through surveillance of actions and thoughts. The dangerous one is the one who keeps to him or herself. The notion of privacy has disappeared.

In No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald’s book concerning the revelation of ongoing, illegal, mass warrantless  surveillance by the American government, he makes a point that is often overlooked: it is not possible for human beings to grow and develop normally in a society where there is no privacy. Privacy is a necessary condition for being able to try out different versions of ourselves, to both invent and to find out just who we are. To keep sane.

But Denmark is a prison.

In a government where the will of the people is feared, the alarm must sound for Hamlet—Claudius warily declares that “madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” Hamlet feigns madness as protection, to save his true self from scrutiny. Madness acts as a protective shell,  the soul’s attempt to keep from being “too much in the sun.”  There is no place for Hamlet to feel his feelings without the glare of the court on him. Even his most intimate conversations with Ophelia are watched. Like the sacred ceremony being recorded by an anthropologist, sacredness evaporates. There is no room for the sacred under such conditions, even though humans must have such a place or go mad. The early Shakespeare commentators asked whether Hamlet was really mad or only feigning it. He is both: he feigns madness and is driven mad by his panopticon society.

Hamlet eludes. He puts on an antic disposition. He play acts. What is a human being that s/he can act? For centuries, actors were reviled and cursed, classified with beggars, thieves and prostitutes. They were shapeshifters, untrustworthy, not what they seemed. Worse, an actor seems to have no center. Indeed, Borges once wrote that that was Shakespeare’s glory and curse—Shakespeare was everything and nothing. Everything because he was nothing.

Denmark is a prison. It’s a prison because there is nowhere to hide. A place becomes a prison when there is nowhere to be alone, no way to find out who you are. You are constantly being defined by others, being told who you are, who you must be, what you must do.

But the actor escapes definition. The actor is subversive of the whole notion of fixed identity; subversive of the notion of control. It’s, paradoxically, in the act of acting that Hamlet finds the truth and frees himself.

When we wonder whether art can be revolutionary, an act of resistance, it serves well to remember that every government in the world throughout history has sought to control its art. Surely that must be a salve to those who are not certain whether their efforts are useful. We don’t always know what kind of art will be effective or not, but the possibility that art can be a strong weapon always exists, even when it may be in ways we don’t always fully understand. The actor on the stage is always the promise that we contain multitudes and have the capacity to transform ourselves and society.

The play’s the thing.

 

Longing Lasts Longer: Penny Arcade

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Penny Arcade, the definition of underground performance artist, creator of dozens of killer performance pieces over the last thirty plus years, including her current worldwide theatrical hit, Longing Lasts Longer, spoke with me in a wise and funny radio interview, broadcast yesterday on the Arts Express program on WBAI.

Click on the grey triangle above to hear the wonderful Penny talk about her performance roots, the downtown art scene, why it gets better, cupcakes, gentrification of the mind, and the pursuit of approval.

“It’s Just Their Time To, I Reckon.”

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The “bench scene” from Carousel, “If I Loved You,” with the original Broadway cast, John Raitt (father of Bonnie) and Jan Clayton. In my opinion, the best love scene and music that Rodgers and Hammerstein ever wrote. And stay until the end to catch the amazing Jan Clayton in the final  clinch.

Thanks to YouTuber fvydt

Finding The Red Card: The Performance Of Three-Card Monte

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(photo: NY Post)

Three-Card Monte is a con game that has intrigued me ever since I first saw it played in London in the early nineteen eighties. Over 20 years ago, I wrote an article about it for Theatre Annual magazine, discussing how the monte gangs used elements of theatrical technique to achieve their deception. My brother found a copy of the article in his files, which was fortunate, because I no longer had a copy of it myself. I’m posting it here as it first appeared, except for some slight stylistic changes. Whit Haydn’s invaluable book, Notes on Three-Card Monte, was not published until the following decade, but it is the go-to resource for anyone who has further interest in the subject.

 

Finding the Red Card: The Performance of Three-Card Monte

by Jack Shalom

Theatre Annual 47 (1994): 61-70

 

The scene: a large crowd gathered in the middle of the sidewalk; a fast-talking guy is standing behind a make-shift cardboard-box table challenging spectators to find the one red card from among three face-down cards as he shifts them around. While the spectators may think of this three-card monte as a game, to the man behind the box–and to his cohorts–this con game is in fact more nearly a performance of a play, a play that has been produced in its present form internationally for at least one hundred and fifty years. Carefully scripted, acted, and costumed, monte draws on many techniques of the theatre, even manipulating the spectators’ concepts of theatrical convention itself, in order to accomplish its ultimately criminal goals. And, as in the theatre, the amount of money made by the players depends directly on their acting skills, and their ability to create a working ensemble.

To understand how monte works, it would be helpful to experience it first from the perspective of the naive spectator.1 For the urban spectator leaving work or taking a lunch break, the first contact with monte seems intriguing and innocent enough. The first scene the spectator—the victim– sees and hears is a crowd of people on the street: commotion and noise, cheering, clapping, and groaning. Intrigued, the spectator draws closer and sees that a game is going on, with money changing hands.

It’s easy enough for the spectator to follow the game: there’s a dealer tossing three cards, two black ones and one red one, face down onto the cardboard-box table. The dealer has a stack of money in one hand, and moves the cards around on the table, chanting hypnotically, “Find the red, find the red, find the red. I don’t complain when I lose, but I grin when I win!” The dealer urges someone to point to the red card and a few people take him up on the offer.

“You gotta pay to play, show me your money,” demands the dealer, so they each show him twenty to forty dollars. Some of the players have evidently been watching carefully: they picked correctly, the red card. The dealer pays these people the amount of their bet. Others, fooled by the man’s quick moves, lose their money, having chosen a black card. It soon dawns on our naive spectator that he can do better than those who keep losing. In fact, when one of the active players asks the spectator for advice on which card to choose, the victim manages to select the right card. The player thanks the spectator for the help and insists to the dealer that the spectator be paid as well. The dealer, however, is adamant that the spectator has to put up his or her own money to play. Meanwhile, several more rounds go by, with players winning and losing money, although the stakes have now gone up to eighty and even a hundred dollars a round. The spectator, encouraged by his apparent ability to follow the red card, finally decides to put up some of his own money: one hundred dollars. Unfortunately, however, the spectator is mistaken this time and picks the wrong card, losing the money.

But fate seems to intervene to restore hope to the hapless spectator.

While the spectator was trying to get over his shock and disappointment in losing, the other players were fighting with the dealer, insisting that he give their new colleague—the victim—another chance. Although the dealer refuses, a stroke of luck comes the spectator’s way. One of the players knocks over the cardboard table, which distracts the dealer’s attention. As soon as the dealer goes to pick up the cards from the floor, another player grabs the red card and bends a corner of it while the dealer isn’t looking. The dealer begins the game again, only this time it is very easy to follow the red card because the bend in the corner of the card is apparent even from the face-down side. The dealer now begins to lose all of his bets; at last, the spectator, sufficiently recovered from the shock of the previous mistake, now has the confidence to put up another hundred dollars.

The dealer, however, declares that he will no longer take any more hundred dollar bets; it’s two hundred or nothing. The other players look at one another and smile as they look at the bent corner. They put up their money, and so does the spectator, confident now that finding the red card—the one with the bend—is a sure thing. When the spectator is told to turn over the chosen card, however, the spectator gasps in astonishment and horror: the card—bend and all!—is black, not red. How could it be? But it is. “How can I possibly explain to my family that I just lost my whole paycheck?” whispers the shaken spectator. As the dealer sweeps up the money, packs up the game, and leaves, the spectator is left only with the comfort of another player who commiserates, “Well, I guess he beat us fair and square.”

But, in fact, our spectator was not beaten “fair and square.” Most people who lose at monte assume that they have been beaten “fair and square” by the talents of a skilled dealer. They assume that the dealer’s sleight of hand was just too quick for them, the “hand being quicker than the eye.” While it is true that there is sleight of hand involved, this trickery alone will not guarantee the success of the enterprise. Rather, in the words of one writer about monte, the spectator “walked into a carefully rehearsed play with an elaborate cast of characters and a detailed script. [The spectator] was cast in the role of sucker and he played his part to perfection.”2 Contrary to appearances, far from being a one-man operation, three-card monte is usually enacted by companies that consist of about twenty-five actors at a time. These twenty-five break up into casts of five to seven actors, each cast performing simultaneously on a different street comer although often in close proximity, say a couple of blocks apart. This allows for the easy understudying and replacement of parts should an actor in one cast become indisposed or exposed. The three roles that must be enacted by the monte gang are the mechanic, the stick (or shill), and the slide. Later, a fourth role will be taken by the spectator, called the mark or the vic. The mechanic, sometimes called the broadtosser, is the most visible member of the cast. He is the one who manipulates the cards and is most often, though not necessarily, the cast’s director. He is the only member of the cast who the spectator believes is involved in running the game. Using sleight of hand, the mechanic can toss the cards in such a way that the red card can appear in any given position. Maskelyne and many other conjuring authors give good descriptions of how this ancient sleight is accomplished.3 The sticks, usually numbering three to five in a cast, have an equally essential, if not more important, job. Their role is to act as if they were ordinary people who have stopped by to watch the show and have ended up betting. They are there to entice the spectators, by example, into betting on the wrong card. Since often the mechanic’s sleight cannot be followed even by the sticks, the sticks must look for secret signals from the mechanic as to where the red card actually is. This can be done in one of two ways. Either the mechanic indicates which card is the red card by holding his stack of money in the hand nearest to it, or he actually says out loud in code during his patter where it is. For example, if the mechanic says “C is the blow, money is the top,” he’s telling his sticks that the center card is the sucker card, while the red card is nearest to him. The final role undertaken by the monte cast is that of the slide, sometimes called the wallman. The slides, usually two of them, post themselves at either end of the block. Should they see the police or any other trouble coming, they will yell out “slide!” which is a signal for the mechanic and sticks to disappear.

Before the monte cast can actually perform, they must find a suitable area to put up their cardboard box set. It must be placed in a heavily trafficked area, but not so blatantly as to compete with other businesses for their customers’ dollars: the monte cast cannot afford to stir up the animosity of the local businessmen. Therefore, the best location is in front of a building closed for renovations or under construction. It is helpful to find a location that is near a city garbage can. The ensemble will take boxes and cardboard and overstuff the garbage can so that some boxes will have to overflow onto the sidewalk nearby. This will provide a perfect backdrop in the event that the cardboard boxes which make up their set have to be hurriedly knocked down: the two boxes that serve as the table on which the cards are tossed can be thrown aside quickly into the existing pile of boxes, leaving no trace of the performance that has occurred. Yet the set can be re-formed in a moment as soon as circumstances permit. As soon as the set is up, the sticks start performing. At the beginning, before there is a crowd, it is important to draw spectators to the set. The sticks bet loudly on the cards, making sure that they make enough noise by shouting, cheering, and clapping. The sticks all have wads of money in their hands to indicate that they have been playing for a while and that they have been making money. Some sticks will deliberately bet on the losing cards while others will bet on the winning card. The mechanic makes no attempt at sleight of hand. Anybody paying a modicum of attention can predict where the red card will be. Eventually, spectators will start to gather and it is from this audience that the sticks will select the mark. The first crucial moment in the psychology of the con lies in getting the mark to enter into the circle of performance. There are a couple of ways that this is done. As outlined earlier, a stick might ask a potential mark to choose the card for him. Another possible way to rope in a mark is for the stick to ask the mark to be a witness for him, or, perhaps most brazenly, a stick may even sidle up to the mark and whisper in the mark’s ear that he knows the game is fixed, but that he can still get the red card every time. The point of the script at this time is to get the mark to participate in the game, while simultaneously letting him believe that he is at no risk. As soon as the mark responds, however, he is literally put center stage. The mark up to now has been outside the circle that the sticks have initially established around the mechanic and his stage. A stick will now physically take the mark by the hand and lead him center stage in front of the cards, as the other sticks draw around him, physically locking him in the crowd. The mechanic may, in fact, actually move his cardboard boxes so that the mark is directly in front of them. Now that the mark is ringside and has convinced himself that he can follow the card, he is encouraged to put up his money. The mark feels confident; after all, he has seen people win and lose, and each time he has guessed correctly as to the whereabouts of the red card.

The success, then, of this production depends on the ability of the sticks to convince the mark that 1) they are on the mark’s side and share a common interest with him and 2) each stick is independent of the other, and independent, of course, of the mechanic. The sticks must appear to be a society of ordinary strangers who by chance share a common monetary interest with the mark. It is from this guise that the sticks gain their psychological and moral powers of persuasion over the mark. This power of persuasion is enormously important to the success of monte. For once the mark starts losing he will stay in only if the sticks can encourage him to do so. To do this, the sticks carefully encourage an “us against him” mentality with regard to the mechanic: they will groan anytime the mark loses money, and cheer when one of the sticks wins. (The mark, by the way, never gets to win, not even as encouragement. The sure way to spot a stick is to see who wins.) The sticks assure the mark that “this time we’ll get him, let’s both put up $80.” A recent wrinkle on this is to have one of the sticks ask the mark if he has a bank card. If so, the stick just happens to know where the bank is: “Why that’s my bank too!” he’ll reply, and he will take the mark by the arm and lead him to the bank, all the while assuring the mark that “this time, we’re going to get this guy’s ass.” While the stick walks the mark to the bank, the set is quickly knocked down and the actors disperse: there is no sense in playing when the mark is not there; that would only run the risk of the police coming and closing the show in the middle of their big scene. However, the slides are keeping a lookout and as soon as the mark and his newfound friend can be seen coming back, the play quickly reforms as if it had been going on all this time. (In some cases the police are enlisted as part of the cast as well. I saw one incident in NYC where as soon as a particular policeman walked by, the cast knocked down the set. The slide walked over to the policeman and murmured, “Don’t worry, I respect you.” The policeman gave a furtive wave to the slide as he walked by; before the policeman had even turned the corner, the set was back up again.)

The mark by now has seen lots of people winning—all sticks of course—but somehow the mark never seems to win, since anytime he bets, the mechanic pulls his sleight, assuring the mark’s loss. When it finally looks as if the mark has lost too much money and wants to quit the play, the lazzi of the bent corner is employed. As described above, one of the players puts a bend in the corner of the red card while the mechanic is not watching. The mechanic, contrary to appearances, is fully aware of what has happened. Until the mark bets, the mechanic will allow the bent corner to remain in the red card. When the mark finally gets enough courage to bet again on this “sure thing,” the mechanic can get the mark to put up an unusually large amount, since the mark is very anxious at this time to make his money back, and the mark is buoyed by the encouragement and example of the sticks. Then, and only then, does the mechanic pull his sleight. The mechanic is actually able to uncrimp the corner of the red card and put a bend in one of the black cards unbeknownst to the mark. I observed one poor mark, a man who twice earlier had been walked to the bank, lose five thousand dollars this way.

Once this scene is played out, the mechanic leaves the area as quickly as possible. It appears that the performance is over but there is still one more scene to be played. If the mark starts to chase the mechanic, a stick, usually one who has not yet played much of a role, will go up to the mark sympathetically in order to calm him down and allow the other actors a quick exit. “Well, I guess they beat us fair and square,” she’ll commiserate with the mark. The mark does not understand that he has just heard the curtain line of a classic play starring himself.

As in the theatre, a monte performance depends not only on the viability of the script and the skill of the performers but also on the details of casting and costume. In New York City, a city beset with a highly polarized racial climate, many of the best monte production teams are inter-racially cast. The monte actors know—perhaps with more acumen than Broadway producers realize-=-that if they are to achieve a high degree of verisimilitude in performance, then they must represent the current racial reality of the city. The sticks are deliberately cast and costumed in such a way as to suggest that they are each of a different race and class background from one other and from the mechanic. The mechanic is almost always Black, and dressed in lower-class street clothes. This helps to foster the “us versus him” attitude that the sticks hope to instill in the mind of the typically more middle-class mark. By including sticks who are white and Hispanic, the actors play on the racist assumption that people of different races couldn’t possibly be working together. The diversity of class, sex, nationality, and race also allows various categories of marks to form bonds with sticks who look or sound like themselves. I observed a particularly memorable example of this near Times Square when a French tourist and her husband stopped to watch and discuss the monte performance going on in front of them. As soon as the first few words of French were heard out of her mouth, one of the sticks turned to her and replied in flawless French. He explained to her that she could win money by betting on the red card. Needless to say, it was not too long before the French couple lost their money.

The best ensembles pay close attention to the details of costume, dressing to suggest specific identities. One of the more successful casts I saw had sticks who were costumed in the following way: a Black woman in her twenties in a green pants-suit outfit, suggesting a secretary on her lunch hour; a young trendy-looking white man in his twenties wearing a designer rugby-shirt-and-shorts set carrying a shopping bag from an upscale department store, suggesting a yuppie just passing by en route from a shopping spree; an olive-complexioned man in his thirties with an Israeli accent, wearing a loud flowered shirt and cheap polyester dress pants, suggesting a foreigner fairly new off the boat; and finally a white man in his forties in a conservative brown suit, short hair, and wire-rim glasses who gave the air of a successful, cautious businessman. The casual observer would have had a difficult time determining that they were working together: only by realizing that they were the sole people winning money, and by noticing the little conferences that would take place amongst them when the set was knocked down, could one know that these seemingly unrelated spectators were sticks.

Not that all monte casts are successful. Even with a good mechanic there must be an ensemble sense of playing. The bare bones of the production can be learned fairly easily: Ortiz reported in 1984 that “the going rate in New York jails for a convict to teach another inmate the techniques of working three-card monte is one hundred dollars.”4 A longtime street performer and observer of monte, Bill Rafael, claims that by watching long enough one can deduce which “school” the casts attended, each school being marked by stylistic differences.5 Occasionally one observes an unsuccessful monte cast, and it only emphasizes the point that a good mechanic alone will not create a successful performance. I observed one monte cast on Broadway and 48th Street in New York City that was singularly unconvincing: the actors could not even draw a crowd. All of the sticks as well as the mechanic were Black; two of the three sticks were wearing cheap t-shirts and gym shorts as was the mechanic; and the third stick who was wearing a dress shirt with dress pants was also incongruously wearing sneakers, as were the other two sticks. The semiotics of the sticks’ costumes and race fairly shouted out to any passerby that the sticks and the mechanic were part of the same cast. The few times a small crowd did begin to form, the too-cautious wallman yelled, “Slide,” even though the cops were blocks away. As the set was knocked down and the spectators dispersed, the mechanic complained angrily to the wallman, “Why do you call out when there’s no trouble!” Eventually this cast broke up and left the location, having made no money at all. In monte, a talented leading man alone will not bring in the box-office receipts.

For all its apparent simplicity, monte continues to fool even the relatively sophisticated spectator. This is because, unlike many other kinds of con games, monte has two layers of deception. The first layer, designed to take in the more naive player, is simply on the level of sleight of hand. That is, the most naive player takes the game purely at face value, and does not even assume that the dealer is capable of card trickery. He assumes that as long as he watches the dealer’s movements carefully enough, he will be able to choose the right card. This kind of spectator does not think that he is engaged in a battle of wits with the dealer. The second layer of deception, however, is more subtle and is designed to trap the more sophisticated spectator. This kind of spectator knows that the dealer is capable of trickery. He sees the dealer “onstage” by his little cardboard box, and knows that the performer onstage is capable of all kinds of deceit. ‘l’he spectator may even sneak around behind where the dealer is standing, in order to obtain a “backstage” view of the dealer’s actions—perhaps the dealer has some extra cards up his sleeve, or hidden behind his table. What that spectator never realizes, however, is that no matter where he stands, he is never “backstage,” but always, in fact, “onstage,” still in the sphere of influence of the sticks. The monte cast’s achievement, then, is this: they have manipulated the theatrical convention of a defined stage area by making it appear as if the monte stage were confined to the cardboard box and the mechanic. In reality, the stage extends right into the presumed audience area and encompasses the mechanic, the sticks, and the spectator himself. Unless the spectator understands this, there can be no safe, objective viewing place from which he can observe without illusion.

Despite the sophistication of monte’s deception, it has a history that takes it back in one form or another at least 1700 years. It has survived several incarnations including a version with three walnut shells and a pea, and the conjuring routine of the cups and balls. The latter has been described as early as the year 200 AD. by the Greek Alciphron in his Letters from the County and the Town. In one letter, a farmer visiting town to sell his produce tells of stopping by a local theatre and being amazed by a conjurer who manipulated three plates and three ordinary white stones: “He hid them first one under each plate; but then, somehow or other he showed them to us all under the same plate, and then he made them disappear from under the plates altogether …. I should not like such a creature on my farm. No one could catch him: he would steal all our household goods and we should never see them again.”6 The great card magician John Scarne pointed out that the cups and balls routine turned up in a fifteenth-century painting by Hieronymous Bosch called The Conjurer.7 The Elizabethan society, too, was rife with all kinds of conmen, in particular the vagabond called the fingerer, who was what we today would call a card mechanic. John Awdeley in 1561 described in The Fraternity of Vagabonds how the fingerer operated. What is of special note here is that it seems to be one of the first descriptions of card sharps working together as a team. As with our modern-day monte ensembles, the success of the fingerer depended not so much on his manipulation of the cards as on his and his assistants’ acting ability. The lingerer’s young assistants would first make friends with some wealthy young man-about-town, courteously inviting him to breakfast at a local inn. The fingerer, disguised as a ragged old man, would seat himself at one end of the table where the young men and their mark were sitting. When the fingerer’s assistants would propose that they should all participate in a game of cards, the fingerer would further lure the mark by agreeing to play although complaining that “Ich am an old man and half blind, and can skill of very few games.” The “old man” would then deliberately lose several games. Acting enraged, he would stalk out, vowing to get his life savings from home to bet against the young men. Then the mark would be encouraged to put up all his money in order to make a big killing against the old man; in fact all the young men would agree to bet against the old man along with the mark. “They thus, tickling the young man in the ear, willeth him to make as much money as they can, and consent as they will play booty against him.” Once the old man fingerer returns, it is the time for the fingerer and his assistants to manipulate the cards in order to win the victim’s money: “they so use the matter, that both the young man loseth his part and, as it seemeth to him, they losing theirs also[;] and so . . . one runneth one way, another another way, leaving the loser indeed all alone.”8

Sophisticated as the Elizabethans were in this kind of theatre, the full flower of the monte script in its present form, bent card scenario and all, does not come to the United States until sometime in the 1830s. Henry Chafetz reported that monte was “to be found in high class saloons and at public balls and fetes [of New Orleans].”9 The game soon made its way to the steamboats that operated on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in the 1840s and later. “The throwers took to the steamboats without fear,” wrote Chafetz, “since the captains (it was believed they collected one-third of the profits) let them operate unmolested.”10 Monte also proliferated in the West during the California gold rush and on the railroads with similar protections in effect. The famous card man Canada Bill once offered the Trunk Lines Railroad “a premium of $25,000 per annum to be allowed to practice confidence games upon its trains without molestation, a condition of the offer being that he would not attempt to victimize any class of passengers except preachers.”11

One of the best eyewitness accounts of the era is an autobiography by a riverboat conman named George DeVol. In his Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi, DeVol described how he and three partners made over a million dollars from monte in four years on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers during the 1850s. Monte in such circumstances was necessarily enacted in a more private manner. Rather than try to attract a crowd, DeVol would impersonate a member of the wealthy class in order to befriend a mark. In DeVol’s very first monte game, “I represented a planter’s son traveling for my health”; before the boat had reached its destination, he had won $4100 and four slaves from a slavetrader on the boat up to Vicksburg.12 But the game could not be won on DeVol’s talent alone: he too had to have his stick, or capper as he called his partner. DeVol tells of a time he set up a monte game on the steamer War Eagle traveling from Dubuque to St. Paul in the 1850s. He had picked out his mark and “invited him to join me in a drink, and then steered him to the barbershop. I told him I had lost some money betting on cards, but I did not mind it very much as my father was wealthy. While I was showing him how I had lost the money, my partner came in; and after watching me throw the cards for a little while he wanted to bet me $100 he could pick the right card.” DeVol and his partner smoothly orchestrated the betting: after appearing to win a few times, DeVol’s partner then bent the corner of one of the cards in plain sight of the mark. Turning to the mark, DeVol protested that he couldn’t continue betting with a man that kept beating him. The mark at this point picked up his cue perfectly, asking whether he could be allowedto place a bet. “The man then got out his big roll and put up $100. I told him if I won, I would only be even; and that I would not bet less than $500. He put up $500 and turned the wrong card.”13 Remarkably, however, DeVol and his partner were not finished with the mark. They then pulled a variation on the bent card scene: the pencil dot routine. When the dealer was supposedly not paying attention, DeVol’s partner marked the corner of the correct card with a pencil mark. The mark, who had put up a diamond tie stud, felt sure that he could win this time—all he had to do was follow the pencil-marked card. Of course he was doomed to failure once again. When the pencil-marked card was turned over it had somehow been transformed into one of the wrong cards. The correct card was clean as a whistle. DeVol probably had rubbed off the pencil mark unobserved with his thumb, and then used what magicians call a nailwriter—a small pencil lead that fits under a finger nail—to mark one of the other cards.

While Ortiz’s sense is that monte had come East to New York City only recently, in fact, a form of monte had been present in New York since at least the 1850s as well.14 An 1857 booklet entitled Tricks and Traps of New York City, written to warn newcomers to the city of the dangers and temptations that awaited them in New York City, described the workings of the thimble-rigger, a conman who ran the monte game using three thimbles and a little ball. Although there is no bent-card scene, there is an analogous scene described in which the ball is “accidently” seen peeking out from under one of the thimbles. Of course, when the mark goes to pick up the thimble, the ball has disappeared, The thimble-rigger, naturally, also had others working for him. In the description of thimble-rigging, the author makes clear one very important, heretofore unmentioned aspect of the duties of the cast: defense. The book tells of one mark who after losing, “with commendable promptness and presence of mind knocked the thimble-rig man about four rods with a single blow. . . . [The mark] however only got one single broadside into the enemy before he was boarded by the whole crew, who pummelled him till his face looked as if somebody had used his head to fight bumble-bees.”15

So monte is an ensemble act, for the conman plays for keeps; his livelihood and perhaps his life depend on his acting skills and his companions. The best monte actors, however, manipulate not only cards, but the markers that allow us to know that we are in a theatrical setting, seeing a performance, Through misdirection, the spectator believes he is seeing one kind of performance, when, in fact, a completely different kind of performance is taking place. The ultimate proof that monte must be an ensemble performance and not a solo piece by the mechanic is in the actual practice: no mechanic on the street works by himself. Despite the fact that he will have to split the profits, the mechanic in every instance chooses to work with others in creating the illusion; he cannot do it by himself. During a recent crackdown by police on monte gangs in New York City, a dealer insisted on telling a New York Times reporter, “I don’t work with no partners and the game ain’t fixed.”16 But how could one possibly believe the first part of his statement when the second part is so clearly a lie? Like so many theatre artists, the con artist would have the spectator believe that it’s all about the star.

The con game and the theatre seem to have so much in common that it is tempting to mistake one for the other; in fact the long anti-theatrical prejudice against actors has much to do with the perception that actors and conmen both disguise their “true” characters and attempt to fool their audiences. Because both the actor and the conman present “lies like truth,” it is not that easy to distinguish between theatre and monte. Some might say the distinction lies in the convention that the theatre audience knows that they are seeing a performance. But if we want to continue to categorize as theatre such enterprises as Augosto Boal’s Invisible Theatre, where the audience never knows that they’ve been part of a theatre experience, then we must abandon that distinction. The con game is different from true theatre in that the con game always sells the promise of profit for the spectator, with no intention of fulfilling that promise. The theatre on the other hand, sells the spectator the promise of entertainment and/or enlightenment, which promise may or may not be fulfilled. Though the con game draws many techniques and structures from the theatre, the con game remains an essentially criminal enterprise. The performance of monte demands of the spectator not willing suspension of disbelief, but unwilling suspension of cash.17

 

NOTES

  1. The following description is based in my own observations during the years 1990-92, and accounts by Darwin Ortiz, Gambling Scams (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1984) and J. Peder Zane, “The Sticks, The Slides, and the Shaker,” New York Magazine, 19 June 1989, 36-39.
  1. Ortiz, 189.
  2. John Nevil Maskelyne, Sharps and Flats (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1894), 11-17.
  3. Ortiz, 193.
  4. William Rafael, personal communication to the author, 1991.
  5. Alciphron, Letters from the Country and the Town, trans. F. A. Wright (London: Routledge, 1923), 85-86.
  6. John Scarne, Scarne’s Complete Guide to Gambling (New York: Simon and Schuster,1961), 517.
  1. John Awdeley, The Fraternity of Vagabonds, in The Elizabethan Underworld, ed. A.Judges, (London: Routledge, 1930), 58.
  2. Henry Chafetz, Play the Devil (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1960), 84.
  3. Chafetz, 84.
  4. John Philip Quinn, Gambling and Gambling Devices (1912; rpt., Montclair, N.J.:Patterson Smith, 1969), 57.
  1. George H. DeVol, Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi (1892; rpt., New York: Holt, 1926), 45-46.
  2. DeVol, 18.
  3. Ortiz, 193.
  4. Anon., Tricks and Traps of New York City (Boston: C. H. Brainard, 1857), 29-30.
  5. Richard Perez-Pena, “3-Card Monte: It’s Just a Shell Game, Officials Warn,” New York Times, 11 November 1992, B3
  6. Unfortunately, NYC criminal court judge Sheryl Parker is unaware of the criminality of monte. On 17 August 1994, she dismissed misdemeanor gambling charges against a monte dealer arrested for running a game, ruling that three-card monte is not a game of chance but skill. Newsday, 18 August 1994, 6.