Five feet of influence…

Writing about Patrick Page in my last post made me think about the other books that have influenced me. I’m talking about the books that I periodically return to, again and again, to refresh my interest, to inspire me to do better and sometimes, simply to be entertained by. Here is a list of the books that I go to the most – make of it what you will. Although I wrote this article pretty much off the top of my head, I have also included a bunch of links to Magicpedia (graciously hosted by Richard Kaufman and Genii Magazine and lovingly maintained by Joe Pecore and a cast of characters) for those who wish to dig a little deeper.

Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. The Tarbell Course in Magic by Harlan Tarbell. As my wife says, “it’s all you need.” Although, I might mildly disagree with her (and will as I continue to expand the list), there is enough material in the collected eight Tarbell volumes to have multiple lifelong careers in magic. This was originally issued as a correspondence course in magic and later collected (six volumes) and expanded (two volumes: one by Harry Lorayne and one by Richard Kaufman). It could be even considered nine or ten volumes if you include the additional volumes produced by other magicians on specific topics (Spiritual Applications for Tarbell 1, 2, 3, etc.)
  2. The Rice Encyclopedia of Silk Magic. Harold Rice was the king of silk magic. Literally: Silk King Studios. This was originally three volumes, later expanded into four with more contemporary material by Mark Trimble. It is also only one of two sets of books in my library that were entirely produced with handwritten lettering (Volume 4 used the same lettering style by scanning the letters and digitizing them as a font).
  3. The Mark Wilson Complete Course in Magic. Published by Mark Wilson and ghosted by Larry Anderson (with help from Walter Gibson), this book is still in print and a book I regularly gift to up and coming performers.
  4. The Amateur Magician’s Handbook by Henry Hay (June Barrows Mussey) – don’t knock the title, it has lots of remarkable material that is in the performing repertoire of many professional magicians.
  5. Magicians Tricks – How They Are Done by Henry Hatton and Adrian Plate. The diversity of material and keen eye of its authors produced a volume of practical, visual, audience-appealing magic.
  6. Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions Including Trick Photography by Albert A. Hopkins. The volume I have was published in 1911 (first published in 1897) and, while not the most current work, does a good job of capturing a sense of wonder and scale that many magic books do not. Dover put out a reprint of this title which is convenient and affordable.
  7. The Books of Wonder by Tommy Wonder & Stephen Minch (Stephen is a friend and deserves his own post, which he will get later on). Speaking of Wonder, these two volumes detail the original material and performance philosophy of one of magic’s greatest thinkers. I got to meet Tommy and spend a little time talking with him and he was the type of person I like to be around: generous, creative and passionate.
  8. The trio of books written by Bruce Elliott: Classic Secrets of Magic, Magic as a Hobby and Professional Magic Made Easy (technically it is a quartet, as The Best in Magic was in the series, but I don’t seem to go back to that volume often). Elliott was also the editor/publisher of The Phoenix. This periodical, collected in three hard bound volumes is like a living history of the formation of close-up magic.
  9. The Fine Art of Magic by George Kaplan (apparently there was some controversy over who actually authored the book, which you can read more about on Magicpedia). I have to confess that I don’t spend a lot of time with this volume, but when I do, my respect and love for the art and craft of magic grows.
  10. Sleight of Hand by Edwin T. Sachs. I can’t mention Kaplan without mentioning Sachs. The two books are an interesting complement to each other.
  11. Magician Nightly: The Magic of Eddie Fechter by Jerry Mentzer. Eddie Fechter was a god of bar magic and one of the few magicians with an entire convention named after him (also up there is Matt Schulien – while I don’t go back to Schulien’s book, The Magic of Matt Schulien written by Phil Willmarth, as frequently as others in this list, it is worth reading). Magician Nightly captures the development (hell, a movement) and repertoire of a man who set the scene for an explosion of magic in hospitality settings. Did I mention that David Blaine performed a piece from this book in his first special? ‘Nuff said. Get it.
  12. The Modern Conjurer and Drawing Room Entertainer by C. Lang Neil. Another, older magic book (1902), this is one of the first magic books to eschew lineart illustrations for photographs (Ellis Stanyon’s Conjuring for Amateurs from 1897 features several photographic plates but is mostly lineart illustrations). And the photographs are remarkable (T. Nelson Downs, Charles Bertram, J. N. Maskelyne, Ellis Stanyon, Paul Valadon, Fèlicien Trewey? Wow!) and profuse.
  13. The Magic with… series of books by Bill Severn. This series of (I think) thirteen volumes were produced for the amateur magician and are chock full of great material and performance premises.
  14. My Best by J. G. Thompson. Collected by Thompson, this volume features an amazing breadth of material (193 pieces) from card tricks to a complete silk act (Ade Duval). This featured the stars of magic before the Stars of Magic manuscripts (later collected in book form and oddly not a book I would include in this list).
  15. The Conjuring Anthology by Jim Steinmeyer. This remarkable collection of pieces (originally written for MAGIC Magazine) was collected (and in some instances expanded on from the original) in a volume published in 2006. If you are a stand-up performer looking for novel presentations and thoughtful magic you need to own this.
  16. Open Sesame by Wilfred Tyler and Eric Lewis (Lewis deserves another article as well). If you perform for children or families, the principles in this (older) book will serve you very well. Yes, one or two of the pieces are well, to put it frankly, racist, the performing philosophy and approach is incredibly sound.
  17. Illusion Show: A Life in Magic by David Bamberg. One of my “big three” favorite autobiographies of all time – the other two follow. Not a book of tricks, but a memoir by a working performer that gives a warts and all approach while documenting the end of the “golden era” of magic. Bamberg, as Fu Manchu, was the inspiration for the 34-year run of Le Grande David. It also delves into his relationship with his father – Okito/Theo Bamberg – and what it is like to be a human in a family dynasty. Also eminently readable, almost like a novel…
  18. Milo & Roger: A Magical Life by Arthur Brandon. Another amazing dive into what it means to be a working pro. Contains my favorite quote in magic (page 113; starting at “My father put it very succinctly…”).
  19. The Life and Times of Augustus Rapp: The Small Town Showman by Augustus Rapp. Chronologically this aligns with Illusion Show (slightly earlier), but where Bamberg goes into the trials and tribulations of trouping a large illusion show in Latin-speaking countries (on two continents), Rapp performed in town halls, tents, churches, school stages and toured in the most spartan manner (with different shows for every day of the week). A wonderful, eye-opening look at performing magic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By the way, there are two versions of this book. The first was originally published by Jay Marshall (for The Ireland Magic Co.) in 1959 (the version I have is an 8.5 x 11 GBC-bound edition that reproduces trade cards, articles, catalog info and the like). The latter version was published in 1991 by David Meyer Magic Books and contains a new foreword and some images that were not in the original (some other content may not be consistent). I recommend getting both.
  20. One Man Show by William Bagley. The last volume in my list; I wish I had had this book when I was first starting out. It is easily the slimmest of the volumes previously listed but contains an embarrassment of riches for the working performer. I have given away half a dozen or so of these over the years to other performers and, while there is no Magicpedia entry for it, I hope in the near future to write an extensive review which may help to see this volume get the love it deserves…

That’s it for now. I’m sure some will be surprised at some of the titles I have left off (no Expert at the Card Table or Modern Coin Magic?), this was essentially an off-the-top-of-my-head run at the books that continue to inspire and influence me. I deliberately omitted listing periodicals (except one) as I think that will make a great article down the road…

Enjoy and let me know what you agree with as well as what titles you think deserve to be added…


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Patrick Page

I have had the great pleasure to meet, learn from (and occasionally bring to NH) many remarkable performers from around the world. Patrick Page was one of the finest “journeyman” performers I ever knew and one of my favorite performers to watch. I got to talk with him a few times over the years beginning over twenty years ago when he performed at NEMCON in CT. Pat’s knowledge of magic was encyclopedic as well as practical. He was a working performer in every sense of the word.

He was also a remarkable teacher and brilliant creator.

Pat passed away in 2010, but not before working with Matthew Field to produce one of the finest books on magic for the working professional: Magic Page by Page (still available from Pat’s family here). He not only teaches you what to do (for each piece), but also the “why” behind the how… I highly recommend that every working performer own this book, study it and periodically dip into it for new insights, not only for Pat’s material, but rather for what it will teach you about what you perform and how.

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Talk is *not* cheap…

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. It doesn’t matter who “they” is, but the statement is interesting. Ever since I was little I have seen the world as a series of pictures – vignettes, if you will. When I perform, I try to convey as much as possible through visual communication (at least the important bits). I want audiences to interpret for themselves and try to use language to engage them in a pleasant game of cat and mouse.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to talk. I can go on (and on) for hours just for the intellectual workout. Just because you *can* talk, doesn’t mean you should. Sometimes silence is truly the best medicine.

Why this topic? Yesterday, I recorded an interview for our state’s public radio station with a prominent, excellent interviewer. I arrive at the studio with a list of topics that I hoped to discuss and was pleasantly surprised to see that we diverged greatly from my “prepared” conversation starters.

She expressed interest in my latest project (a performance as 19th century magician Jonathan Harrington) and then the conversation turned far afield to seances, spiritualism, skepticism, technology and magic. It made for a very engaging conversation and I could have talked all day… Radio being what it is, though, the segment had to end, leaving me (and hopefully the audience) wanting more.

In performances of magic, all too often the patter is expository and descriptive of the actions in process. For the most part, most of the words mean nothing and serve little purpose except perhaps to cast a sort of hypnotic spell over audiences so they will be less critical (or perhaps less vocal in their critique). Left to their own, audiences can interpret what’s happening in front of them on their own. Better, perhaps, to use this time to engage them in a game of “what ifs” and let them discover the magic before it is revealed…

Tonight, I have my monthly “Discovering Magic” performance for the ticket-buying public and look forward to engaging my audience in a dialogue about the experience that leads them away from the “how” the tricks are done to the “why” magic and magical experiences affect us in this era of knowledge and sophistication.

Should be fun!

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Stepping on Memories…

I read a Facebook post today by a magician remarking on the impact pieces can have on spectators. Basically, he stated how a current audience member described a powerful experience a few weeks earlier where their property ended up in an impossible location. The audience member couldn’t remember the name of the previous performer, but remembered significant details of the routine performed for them.

The poster stated, “This memory stuck with him from that afternoon/evening when little else did and it demonstrates how powerful a good performance can be. The trick itself doesn’t need to be hard, it just needs to be performed well for it to create that lasting memory. Whoever the magician was he did a very good job.” He then went on to write: “I find it great when lay-people remember these stand out moments of magic, irrespective of who it’s performed by and it re-enforces the ability that we all have as magicians to create these memorable and lasting memories for people. I’m just pleased that I had my [piece of equipment] with me.”

Now, at first read it looks like the poster might “whip out” their version of the trick to “top” the previous performer.  Would be that be an appropriate choice? I believe that this would be a huge mistake as he would be competing with a memory that he has no chance of topping and would only diminish his standing with the audience.

What did he ultimately do? He chose to leave the spectator “with his original memory”. He was all set to repeat the effect (albeit weeks later) and decided that it would be better to perform material that they hadn’t seen.

The memory of a magical performance often reaches mythic proportions. Over time the experience becomes more impossible and can be recalled with details that are different from what actually occurred. Many scientists who have studied memory have come to believe that when one recalls an event, they are creating a new memory with each recall, resulting in memories of experiences that never occurred. There is often some migration and exaggeration of the original experience with new details.

Our reputation often benefits from such migratory memory.

When I performed regularly in restaurants, I would occasionally have people recount their experiences with other performers including specific details about the “trick” that they were most impacted by. Often, their retelling of the story made for an entertaining experience for me as the details often didn’t support the effect as described. Rather than feel competitive towards the other performer, I always admired the fact that they got to the spectator first and had such a profound impact. It helped me select material and an approach to perform for a group that was already primed for the experience.

How would you react? Did the poster make the right decision? I look forward to hearing some thoughts from you…

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Open Registrations

We have enabled Comments for posts as long as you are a registered user. We simply ask that you register with your actual first and last name. As we become more of a community, I may invite some users to be contributors to the site to make it more dynamic.

Thanks for your participation and we hope that you will become a contributing member of our little community…

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Sensuality in Magic inspires a community…

Today I posted the following to @magicmatters:

“Sensuality in magic. Is it going the way of the dodo? Quiet moments, profound impact – all affect the experience…”

My twitter feeds directly into my Facebook account and I got several responses there (hopefully you can read the thread whether you are my “friend” or not):

I am enjoying the discussion and would like to use this as an opportunity to begin expanding our contributor base. For that reason, I have invited Naphtalia Leba, a Los Angeles-based magic performer, demonstrator and thinker to join us and post on topics she finds of interest. We will begin opening the comment opportunities to some threads to let you participate (although I know that will result in buttloads of spam) as I would like to see this blog turn more into a community. We will try to approve accounts as quickly as possible so that you can be part of the discussion…


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When we go see a performance of stage magic, one key to entertaining and effective presentations involves a sense of precision. Movement, Sound, and Vision are coordinated to create a pleasing fusion of visual magic. The more precise and dictated the performance the more we are willing to sit back and let the pure sensual delight overcome our senses. Precision adds a degree of professionalism to your performance.

What of the close-up performer? Precision is necessary in performing the technical aspects of our craft, but what of the overall presentation? In the real world, precision is infrequently observed, usually seen in professions that require repetitive movement (factory work, workers at Kinko’s). The repetitive patterns encourage our brains to process and dismiss. This can work to our advantage in minimizing attention or redirecting attention away from things we don’t want seen, but let’s give some credit to our audiences: they do remember overt distractions.

The real world is messy. Things happen for no apparent reason and coincidences are regarded as chance. Suspension of disbelief doesn’t happen in the real world, because there are too many things that remind us that we are not in some land of make-believe. In Jack Finney’s classic novel, Time and Again, the main character, Simon Morley manages to travel through time by eliminating all of the features that tie him to the present. By surrounding himself with the clothing and locations of another era and positioning himself such that no distractions of the present lock him here, he is able to walk into another era simply through an act of will. It is easier to suspend our disbelief when we have the trappings of the legitimate theatre. The ritual of going to the theatre involves hundreds of small—seemingly insignificant—actions that buttress our willingness to immerse ourselves in a world of make believe.

For a performance to feel genuine, however, this precision must feel organic and in the moment. Compare two people playing golf. One has never played the game and is concentrating on every movement. The other is a golf pro who has hit tens of thousands of balls. The first will be awkward in their movements as they concentrate on every action. The second will be fluid and graceful in their actions as they have trained to focus their attention on only the most important of actions, and even that will not necessarily be apparent to the observer. Both are genuine in the context of their experience and will be accepted by the audience.

When presenting a character as part of an act, it is vitally important to use precision as one criteria for developing blocking, choreography, set dressings and prop placement. Precision aids in focusing audience attention on the elements of a performance that reinforce the desired effect and help audiences experience the performance on a deeper, richer and possibly more satisfying level.

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Aesthetics: Communication without Words

It’s been a busy summer so far with performances in at least three styles (contemporary, vaudeville & renaissance work) and it got me thinking about how important the artistic choices you make in selection of costume, props, equipment, scenery and personal grooming are in helping audiences “get” your performance. Art is about choices; the decisions you make when you define your act can either help audiences or detract from your performance.

Defining your act’s aesthetic and viewing all of your decisions through the lens of that aesthetic is an important exercise that every performer can benefit from. As the creator of an act, any choices you don’t make are left up to interpretation by the individual audience member. Unintended or unclear actions, props, costumes, etc. may cause them disengage at the moment you need them to be most involved.

Take a look at your show and create a history and relationship to every tangible piece of equipment. Spend time trying to justify the equipment in the world of your act. Ruthlessly eliminate items that have no justification or solid, defined relationship to your character or the world in which you travel. Modify existing props or create/locate new ones that fit in with what are trying to communicate. You don’t need to explain every relationship to your audiences, but having one will help to communicate consistency and confidence while minimizing distractions or “disconnects” by your audience.

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Road Worker

If you want to get a sense of what it means to be a full-time performer who retains a full-time enthusiasm for magic, you can do no better than to read Nick Lewin’s wonderful blog: Nick writes on a variety of topics regarding magic, music, film, performing and the personalities who have influenced him over the years. His writing style is light and breezy and belies the depths of knowledge and wisdom contained within. If you find yourself with a few minute (or hours) spend some time with Nick, he won’t fail to disappoint!

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Being present…

Expanding on my last post…

Letting go is the first step to expanding your performance skill set. What you are ultimately shooting for is the ability to “be present”.

What the heck does that mean? That means truly listening and responding to your audience in a deep, meaningful way. That means knowing your stuff so well that you can focus on experiencing the moment with your audience rather performing to your audience.

This is not easy, and is particularly difficult when you are starting out; even more so when you’ve been performing full-time for a while.

Why? Let’s tackle the first scenario. When you are breaking in new material, you are present in the moment (at times terrifyingly so), but your attention is focused on the “whats” and “hows”. The emphasis is on the mechanics. Think about when you first learned how to ride a bike. If you are like me, you probably spent all your time thinking about the little details about pedaling, steering, pushing off, balancing, conquering your fears, etc. As you master the smaller skills that build up to actually riding, the details are overwhelming and actually make it harder to ride the bicycle. You try and try again until finally you find yourself coasting down the street. For a moment, you forget all the details and realize, “Hey, I’m actually riding the bike!” The excitement and adrenaline take over and for a few seconds you are actually in the moment of “riding the bike”. That is, until the enormity of what you are doing kicks in and you start focusing not on riding, but on controlling. This is typically the moment when we come crashing to the ground. Over time we learn to let the details go and focus on the bigger picture, which is when it becomes pure pleasure and you can savor the experience.

Once you’ve “mastered” (how I hate that term) the small stuff, you then spend months, years or more enjoying and refining the experience. If you are lucky enough to experience this joy and get paid for it you are a fortunate soul indeed.

Until… it becomes a job, a chore, a task. Just one more thing you need to do in between other things.

This is the most dangerous time, as now your focus can drift from the experience you are in to other concerns: the commute, financial or relationship issues, small annoyances (perhaps how tight your shoes are), where you are going to eat after the show, and other unrelated details. You are at that place where you are just doing another _____________ (fill in the blank: job, task, show, performance, favor, etc.).

Once you begin to drift, you are no longer present, and others can sense it. It has a negative impact on other people’s engagement and can have calamitous effect on the quality of your work.

Sure, you are still providing the same service, but the quality of it has taken a hit.

There are tools that actors and other performers use to remain in the moment, but the most significant are awareness of the issue and a commitment to being present. If you are not present, there is no way you can truly “let go” (at least not in a way that will benefit your work).

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