Category: Magic History

Real Magic Duplicated for Effect

How could you not be intrigued by a man who is quoted as saying, “[a]nyone who considers arithmetical methods of producing random digits is, of course, in a state of sin”?

But you would correctly ask, what does this statement have to do with magic, Las Vegas, Barry Richardson, Criss Angel, David Copperfield and Doug Henning?

The answer that would come back would, at first, be unsatisfactory.

Dr. John Von Neuman was a distinguished polymath who could speak ancient Greek, helped to determine the scientific models necessary for the first atomic bomb and several schools of mathematics.  To say he was a genius is an understatement.

But it is his connection to magic and magic tricks that brings him to the front page of this humble publication.

Personally, we’re not good at book tests and don’t really enjoy watching them.  We have seen perhaps hundreds over our very long life but none have left a lasting impression.

While we take pride (also a sin) in our ability to speed read books but we don’t remember every word.

But Dr. Von Neuman could memorize entire phonebooks.  For real.  In fact, on one occasion he recited every entry until those listening agreed he had the phonebook memorized – that was after about fifteen minutes of reciting the name and associated phone number on each page.

The late genius of mentalism, Barry Richardson would often couch his effects with a story about some incredible individual who actually lived a real life and could be identified.  He would then duplicate the effect they performed allegedly by psychic powers but disclaim such powers in his performance.

We watched Mr. Richardson duplicate a demonstration performed first by a young Russian girl who could allegedly read any item with her fingertips.  She would be blindfolded or perhaps she was legally blind (we can’t recall) and could, through a pane of glass held by her examiners, read the serial numbers of currency, handwritten notes  and other documents using only  her fingertips running along the glass.  The pane of glass was used to prevent her from sensing the characters by feel.

Folks were amazed and attributed great powers to the young lady.

Mr. Richardson would then duplicate the effect, pane of glass and all, whilst blindfolded to the satisfaction of the magicians in the audience.  He could then read the serial number of a bill previously offered and signed by a random audience member.  The bill was signed to prevent his memorization of a pre-prepared note.  It was an outstanding performance.  We were astounded not only by the effect but also the story upon which it was based.

Dr. Von Neuman’s ability to memorize a phone book handed to him by a volunteer was performed as a trick for entertainment..  He used the power he had to entertain, not to boast.  Unfortunately for us magicians, he apparently actually did memorize the content of the phone book and there was no trick employed; thus making this duplicate by his method.

But, by combining Dr. Von Neuman’s story with a book test, magicians could elevate the effect on audiences.  In place of a book test, the memorization of an entire deck of cards ala Bob Cassidy could also benefit from the real-life story of Dr. Von Neuman.

We have performed the Bob Cassidy method of memorizing a deck of cards shuffled together by four audience members and then reviewed by us for just 15 seconds.  We never had a story to go with it.  It was at best a stunt or demonstration of our alleged powers.

But just think how using Dr. Von Neuman’s story in a method similar to that employed by Mr. Richardson could boost the effectiveness and interest in the trick by audiences.  It would no longer be a stunt but a duplication of a talent possessed by a real person who really existed.  It would therefore be possible and real.

We never claim to have psychic powers and disclaim any such ability but until today, we have never had a satisfactory story to present along with our performance.  We can now move beyond “hey, look at me and my clever stunt” to “let me tell you the story of an extraordinary man with a real history who had a real talent.”

Most book test performances we have witnessed involve the apparent guess of a word selected by the volunteer from a book selected from a collection of two or three volumes.  The magician asks the volunteer to select a page (either directly or through some apparently random process) and then proceeds to read the volunteer’s mind by having her concentrate on the selected word.  The magician presses his hand to his forehead for effect and then announces the word or phrase with some guessing (in some methods) or directly.  The volunteer is thanked for her participation and the audience applauds.

Perhaps this article is just a note for us and will be dismissed by those performing putative memorization or psychic readings.  We hope that it is more than that.

Mr. Richardson’s performance left a lasting impression on us not because the effect was impossible – the solution would be apparent to most magicians – but because it was couched in a story and built to the demonstration of what was apparently sufficient to have the young woman in the story proclaimed to be psychic and exceptional.

The memory of such a presentation lasts long after the volunteer retakes her seat and we move on to the next effect.  It brings the audience on a journey and leaves them with questions about the real person on whom the effect is based as well as the performer now duplicating that effect.

That’s a win in our book.

Read more about Dr. Von Neuman and his amazing skills and contribution to our everyday life through higher mathematics here.

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Magical Father’s Day

Father’s Day is nigh.  It isn’t as popular as Mother’s Day but, to us, just as important.

It is wonderful time to remember how important fathers are in the development of their children generally and specifically for us.

Had it not been for our dad, we likely would never have found our life-long love of magic.  It was, after all, our pop who bought us The Ball and Vase from a magic store in our hometown of Oak Park, Illinois.  He taught us how to perform the miracle and encouraged us to bring it to kindergarten the next morning to show others.

He delighted in hearing about the crowd of fellow students who came to see the miracle and did not seem surprised to hear that the teacher took the trick from us.

Our dad was and is special.  He instilled in our little brain the notion that we can be exceptional and successful with practice and hard work in all things, magic included.

When our parents were going through a divorce, we were called upon to care for our siblings during the summer months while the adults were at work.  Dad promised that our pay for the three months of work would be rewarded by a trip to the Paul Diamond Magic and Fun Wagon at the Palm Beach Mall.  We thought about our booty all summer as we guided our brother and sisters through their days of camp and play and housecleaning.

On Labor Day weekend in 1972, our work was rewarded with a trip to the magic shop.  Our father waited patiently as we considered all of the offerings and quizzed the manager, Barry Gibbs, on what we should get.  Finally, with Mr. Gibbs’ direction, we decided on a magic book rather than a single trick.  That book changed the course of our life.  The Expert at the Card Table by the mysterious S.W. Erdnase cost $3.50 and soon became our source of inspiration and frustration as we tried to master the moves described and illustrated.

Dad selected thousands of cards for us, bought us our first Show Suit, took pride in our winning the state close-up championship, drove us to shows, television studios, magic stores and magic club meetings.  He never once thought our love of magic was a “hobby” and always encouraged us to practice and perform as if we were a true professional – although our voice had not yet changed.

He was and is a great critic.  We recall one afternoon in Chicago – many years later – when he sat through our stab at impromptu stand-up.  He listened carefully and helped us tune the jokes for a comedy career that never happened but was fun in the planning.

It must be a tough decision to allow your eldest child to travel to far away conventions alone or with his teenage friends to spend long hours “hanging out” with strangers in hotels.  But our dad trusted us and the instincts he hoped we had developed.  And when we failed to live up to those standards for behavior, he counseled us and forgave us.  He provided a powerful lesson in that response.

We are blessed to have him with us still.  As is required of all parents from the Midwest, he has been relocated to the Gulf Coast of Florida.  We are pretty sure that is a law.  He remains our counselor, supporter and confessor.  His love was never absent or in doubt.

Father’s Day is nigh and so is our father, always.

Performing Magic for the Tipsy without Judging

Steve Martin, the magician and comedian, said one of the reasons he quit touring was because he hated performing for drunks.  There may have been other reasons as well but if that was the only rationale for getting off the road and living the life of a Hollywood star, we would understand.

We have performed for many audiences with one or two drunk members – some even outside of our own home and family reunions.  It never really bothered us philosophically or practically.  Our proud Irish heritage comes with a built-in ability to work with and around the inebriated.

Friday night we performed for about a dozen folks who were all at the same moderate-to-high level of intoxication.  They were an otherwise delightful and attractive crowd.  Ladies in their finest and men in their “I don’t want to dress up, but she’s all dressed up so I will do it but I won’t like it” best.  All but one of the guests were clutching their drink glasses as they watched with varying degrees of interest.

Our routine runs just about 18 minutes.  From the opening joke to the final card reveal, it clocks pretty much the same each time we perform it.  Sure there could be some spontaneous, momentary detour that adds a half-minute but we never go beyond 20 minutes.  Friday night, that 18 minutes lasted almost 30 minutes as we dealt with well-intentioned heckling, requests to “do it again but slower” and the restart of a trick because the audience member forgot her choice.

We know we should be indignant about the experience.  We should take to these virtual pages to complain about the group, throw shade their way for enjoying themselves on a Friday night in a manner that lengthened our show and ruined our rehearsed routine and made a mess of the timing.  But we just can’t.

They were, as we mentioned, all at the same approximate level of dysfunction.  No one was belligerent or offensive.  They were very complimentary of our skills during and after the performance and no one became physically ill on or near us.   Yes, the act lasted longer but perhaps in their time reference, it worked out to be 18 minutes.  Sure, they did not laugh right after we said our lines but they usually caught up with the joke within a minute or two – occasionally  repeating the line aloud as they laughed.

We are not condoning or encouraging irresponsible behavior or rude drunkenness.  We have performed for rude drunks and did not enjoy the experience at all – not even a little.  We have had altered audience members attempt to take cards from us or demand we follow their instructions as we perform.  That isn’t fun.

We don’t want to romanticize the experience.  It wasn’t as if we were performing for a private party in a salon owned by Jay Gatsby where the champagne flowed and all were imbued with an ebullient joie de vivre without the painful bloating and gas.  These were people who were having a nice evening and came together to see a show they seemed to enjoy.  The performer didn’t mind working his act a little differently – a little slower in some respects – to help them enjoy what they were seeing.  No harm, no foul from our point of view.

Plus, we were finally able to confidently perform really tough (for us) card sleights without the slightest fear of being detected.  It was good for all concerned. Does that mean we are enabling bad behavior?  We don’t think so.  We’re just happy to have had the chance to perform for people who seemed happy to have us perform for them.

The Magic Castle Looks Back on Johnny Carson’s Magic

The Magic Castle had a great presentation last night tracing the late Johnny Carson’s life-long appreciation of magic.

Dick Carson is an Emmy Award winning television director and the younger brother of the performer known as The Great Carsoni and proved be a great historian on the topic.

Dean Dill, Brian Gillis and the incomparable Mark Wilson came on after Dick Carson’s segment to share their experiences as performers on the iconic late night mainstay.  Mr. Gillis and Mr. Dill were also called  to provide the star personal tutorials in his Malibu home.

It was a great night to again enjoy the very unique talent Mr. Carson shared with the nation for so many decades.

Although Mr. Carson was very modest about his magic abilities, his talents were anything but modest.  He performed difficult sleights with polish and skill.  So many great magicians got their big break on Mr. Carson’s show and his support of the local (Los Angeles) magic community in general (and The Magic Castle specifically) was constant through the years.

One of the commentators observed he has never been replaced.  We agree.

Houdini Teaches Us How to Be More Manly

Someone smart once wrote, “Pride goeth before the Fall.”  We think that has something to do about not wearing white shoes after Labor Day but haven’t had the time to run a Google search on it yet.

We have been too  busy learning how to be far more manly that we have been heretofore.  We try to be manly every chance we get (not that often) but even when we try our rather effeminate laugh gets in the way.

Imagine our joy, then, when we found the website The Art of Manliness.  Imagine our double joy, even more, when we found their article Lessons in Manliness from Harry Houdini.

Houdini was (and is) a role model for our development.  He was into the exercise craze before it was even a craze or socially acceptable.  He didn’t drink, smoke, use drugs and worked hard at everything he tried.  Perhaps that is why he remains such an important figure in the public consciousness almost 100 years after his untimely death.

The advice derived from his robust approach to life is applicable to non-magicians and even non-males.  Maybe the article should have been titled “Lessons in Personliness from Harry Houdini” or maybe not.  Probably not.

Check out the full article and be inspired in your pursuit of goals important to you.

Penn Jillette’s Tribute to Lou Reed

Lou Reed was not a magician but his friend and Inside Magic Favorite Penn Jillette’s moving tribute to the musician and innovator deserves mention on these august, virtual pages.

We are regular listeners to the Penn’s Sunday School weekly podcast and relish the time we spend with the taller of the magic duo Penn & Teller and his sidekick, and former juggler with Master Magician Lance Burton, Michael Goudeau.  The show is rarely structured and that is just fine with us.

One of the great joys of our youth was listening to the great magicians who visited our favorite magic shops.  Whether we were working or just loitering, we lived on their stories (even those repeated and embellished over time) and looked forward to learning from them.  We were not anxious to demonstrate our skills or try to compete with the professionals who stopped by Paul Diamond’s Magic & Fun Wagon (later just The Magic & Fun Wagon) in the newly built Palm Beach Mall, or A & B Magic owned by our mentors Ari DiArmona and Barry Gibbs.  We were content to listen and ask for more information or background.

It must be difficult for younger magicians to learn from their more seasoned elders without brick-and-mortar stores in which they can linger or act as a clerk/demonstrator/gofer.  Perhaps podcasts like Penn’s Sunday School can help meet this need.

Penn’s stories about the formation of Penn & Teller (we learned this week it was originally “Penn Jillette and/or Teller”) are fascinating, riveting.  On those rare occasions when Teller joins the podcast, his stories keep us spellbound.  Teller, for instance, shared a story of why he practices every trick thoroughly, to the point of a full dress rehearsal.  His description of his production of a previously live animal was hysterical and wonderful.

Folks who have seen Penn either on stage at The Rio, on television or in one of their many shows across the country, realize he is not restrained by conventions of good taste or polite discourse.  He is honest and, at times, not appropriate for children or the easily offended.  It must say something about us that we have no problem with his style, message or language.

Penn is also a profoundly sentimental person.  His recent books have recounted his emotional reaction to the loss of his father, mother and sister.  He comes across as sincere and for all of his bravado and bluster, he is also very human.

His tribute to Lou Reed is still available as a download from PennsSundaySchool.com and worth your time.  We were never really into Lou Reed but have found a new appreciation for his music and his work thanks to the heartfelt sharing of Penn Jillette.

Ask Alexander Magic Questions for Free!

Great News from the folks at The Conjuring Arts Research Center.   Ask Alexander, their incredible search engine / database is now free to use.

Their newest iteration is the Alex 3.0 and allows users to search and browse for free.

Visit the Ask Alexander page, type in your question or terms, and presto, Alexander delivers the images of the journals or sources containing your terms.

It is fast and very helpful.  You will need to login if you want to see the responsive pages — assuming the sources are available at your subscription level.

The Ask Alexander team inform Inside Magic that users can “test drive” the system for free.  “Though this subscription level is smaller than our Bronze, Silver, and Gold subscriptions (Gold now has over 1,000,000 pages!), it still contains a lot of great material. This free account even supports all of Alex’s features like collection building, instant translation and adding notes, just to name a few.”

Inside Magic intends to release its long-anticipated Ask Paw Lawton page in the coming weeks.  It has been in beta testing since 1997 but is almost ready for launch.  Unlike Ask Alexander, the Ask Paw Lawton service provides the instant recollections of our sainted father, Li’l Tom Hardy’s Road Chief on almost any topic you can name.  The answers are not nearly as accurate or complete as Ask Alexander and currently many of the responses are not truly safe for work or polite audiences (we’re working on that) but it should be a major step forward.

Until Ask Paw Lawton launches, though, we suggest you take advantage of Ask Alexander.  As Paw Lawton once said, “You can’t beat free, but you can beat cheap.”

Our Award Winning List of Magic Loves and Loathes

There are things in magic we love and hate.

If there is one thing we cannot stand, it is trite or cliché opening sentences to rambling essays about personal likes or dislikes by someone hiding behind an artificially inflated pronoun choice.

But that is just us.

Other things that bother us include the following:

  1. Older magicians telling younger magicians that they have no future in the business.
  2. Younger magicians refusing to listen to older magicians when they are telling them how it is.
  3. The meaningless objectification of women as mere props for male mutilation fantasies poorly set forth as some sort of “illusion set.”
  4. Magicians explicitly or implicitly demeaning their assistants or any audience member.
  5. All one-trick DVDs – even if the DVD is free.  Write it down, make a photocopy of what you wrote and wrap it around the trick, bundled with a DVD if you must.  We won’t watch the DVD unless it is absolutely necessary to do so – perhaps because we are reviewing the trick as sold.  If you cannot write the trick, chances are you cannot teach it on a DVD or at least teach it in a cogent, organized way.
  6. Theft of another magician’s bit, trick, flourish or act.  Sure, if we could do all the moves and flourishes necessary to duplicate Lance Burton or Dai Vernon’s best routines, we wouldn’t.
  7. Mentalists who claim they have real supernatural powers.
  8. Jugglers who claim they do not, that it all comes from practice and skill.
  9. Magicians who perform whilst attending another magician’s show.  If you’re not on the bill, keep you tricks in your pockets.
  10. Balloon sculptors who use pre-inflated balloons.
  11. Anyone who still uses the line “This silk is imported, I got it from a broad.”  It is the modern era – we can call them by their proper name, handkerchiefs or pocket squares Continue reading “Our Award Winning List of Magic Loves and Loathes”

Magician Ricky Jay Can Make You Cry, He’s So Good

Inside Magic Favorite Magician Ricky Jay is so good, his magic can make people cry.

That’s how The Jerusalem Journal begins its very positive review of Deceptive Practices: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.

We are told of a British journalist who dined with Mr. Jay in a café on a hot, sticky day. (The article doesn’t say “sticky” but we believe it was implied and will stand by our interpretation).

He related a story about Max Malini, “who once borrowed a woman’s hat, placed a silver dollar underneath it, then lifted the hat to reveal that the coin had transformed into an enormous chunk of ice. And at that moment, the journalist recounts, Jay lifted his menu with a flourish to reveal his own 1-foot-square block of ice, which materialized as if out of thin air. The journalist was so astounded by ‘this supreme piece of artistry,’ she says, that she ‘burst into tears.'”

Deceptive Practices lovingly created by filmmakers Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein will open this Friday, May 17th in Los Angeles. You can check out the official movie site for listings in other areas and states here.

The Journal says Mr. Jay keeps his secrets – particularly when it comes to magic effects or personal matters – but does perform some pretty amazing things for the camera and the audience beyond.  It “unfolds like a magical mystery tour of Jay’s professional art and artifice. On camera, he transforms a paper moth into a real insect, flings a card at 90 miles per hour to pierce the skin of a watermelon and dazzles audiences with his specialty — astonishing card tricks — with maneuvers so virtuosic they defy the imagination.” Continue reading “Magician Ricky Jay Can Make You Cry, He’s So Good”

How Broadway Works: Magic Author Steinmeyer Recalls “The Merlin Crusade”

We received the May edition of Genii today and were delighted to read Jim Steinmeyer’s incredible recollection of the logistics, politics and creative process that went to bring Doug Henning’s second Broadway show to life.

Mr. Steinmeyer’s “The Merlin Crusade” (subtitled, “Doug Henning’s Infamous Magical Musical Appeared 30 Years Ago.  Onstage It Was a Magic Show.  Offstage It Was a Holy War”) is a compelling read.  We could not stop reading once we began.

Yes, we had to apologize to those waiting to use the restroom, but to be fair, providing just two lavatories for a full coach section of a cross-country flight is hardly our fault.

We have two great loves: magic and logistics.  You give us an article about the logistical challenges of creating great illusions for a Broadway show and we give you our undivided attention.  It is an incredibly detailed account of a 24-year-old Mr. Steinmeyer as both participant and observer.  You should subscribe to Genii as a matter of principle but if you have not, get to your local magic shop or the  Genii website to get the May edition.

Mr. Steinmeyer was part of the “magic department” brought to Broadway to seamlessly integrate Mr. Henning’s magic into a complex and challenging musical.

Because the magic was integrated with everything in the show, there wasn’t a repair, a change, or a piece of scenery that didn’t have something to do with a trick.  Each of our changes on the work list was worded, “fix,” or “add,” or “align.”  Because no other department cared to understand the magic, it was the magic department that had to work with everyone else, watching what the painters were doing, seeing if the new pieces of scenery would foul on our illusions.  Each one of these jobs involved standing in front of the prop, scratching your head, experimenting, figuring out how the dancers were doing the routine, and then devising some solution.

You can read about the endless tuning of the show’s story, style and magic right up to its official opening.   The depiction of Mr. Henning is true to our memory of the great magician and truly gentle man.  Continue reading “How Broadway Works: Magic Author Steinmeyer Recalls “The Merlin Crusade””