Salon Author Decries Houdini Industrial Complex

Harry HoudiniOnline magazine Salon has posted an article marveling at Houdini’s current cache with the public.

We read it a couple of times because we were not sure what the author hoped to express.

Its hook is the recent Potter and Potter auction of Houdini memorabilia and the History Channel’s miniseries, Houdini.

The author interviewed magician, writer and president of Potter and Potter Gabe Fajuri, Houdini historian extraordinaire and author of Wild About Harry, the definitive Houdini blog, John Cox and Lisa Cousins, Houdini-lover and outstanding librarian The Magic Castle’s William J. Larson Memorial Library, among other super-Houdini fans. She seemed to have an agenda and was seeking quotes to support her thesis that magicians are male, hide their secrets for no good reason and that there exists a “Houdini Industrial Complex.”

She writes, “[b]ut there is one irritating thing about Houdiniana today that also dates back to his life: the code of secrecy mystifying his tricks.”

Irritating? Why Irritating? Irritating to whom?

“It’s time to end the reflex of keeping these tricks secret—perpetrated most forcefully among the small group of magicians and magic collectors that in my darker moments I call the Houdini Industrial Complex.”

She admits that she admires – or at least a part of her admires – the commitment to keep magic’s secrets secret. “But part of me believes that it misses the point entirely. In the twenty-first century, it’s not how Houdini did it that matters. It’s who he was.”

We agree that Houdini’s mystique and staying power is due to his personality and star quality.  But he was  also someone who kept secrets. Audiences came to see him perform escapes and magic not provide lectures on how to open a pair of handcuffs or the best way to make elephants vanish.

Presumably, if we agreed with the author and would just expose our secrets, people would like us more. We learned long ago this logic does not work.  “C’mon tell us how you did it.” None of the relationships we thought we could enhance by exposing our magic secrets actually grew stronger.

But, even if we did publish our secrets, the authors says we would still be outsiders.

“Besides outliers like David Blaine, magicians are no longer part of the mainstream cultural conversation. And unlike burlesque, a twentieth century pop culture fad that has reinvented itself by using the language of gender studies, magic, with its largely male population, doesn’t really appeal to women.”

This is the first time we have heard that magic does not appeal to women. Our recent, very unscientific poling of magic audiences has confirmed that those in attendance were just about equally divided between the two main genders.

Perhaps the author is noting there are few female magicians. That is a valid point but we do not believe it can be attributed to a so-called Houdini Industrial Complex, the tendency of magicians to keep secrets or even the eccentric manner in which one magic library catalogs its volumes.

“The library at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, archivist Lisa Cousins explains, uses its own ‘eccentric cataloging system—not Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress’—and is closed to non-magicians. (She rushed to say that it allowed researchers.)”

We did study the Dewey Decimal system in the 1970s and agree that it is unfit for effectively cataloging an entire library of magic books. All of the books would have the same number, 793.8. In fact, the author could go to just about any public library and use that secret number to find troves of books that told her secrets to many effects.

It was nice to see Ms. Cousins quoted in the article but wonder if the author bothered to ask her questions about women in magic – a field Ms. Cousins knows well.

Could a magician perform tricks that he or she has exposed before performing? Sure. Would anyone go to see that magician?

A ventriloquist could do his or her routine without a figure and not hide the fact that he or she was speaking in a different voice.  We probably wouldn’t pay to see it though.

Part of the essence of magic is mystery. Mystery separates what we do from what one might see on a cooking show or at a craft class.

We are not sure what the author hoped to accomplish by her article. We hope she finds satisfaction in its publication and future success with other articles. And maybe it is us – it probably is – but we did not get her point. We think magic is doing fine and do not see a reason to change what has been working for hundreds of years. Again, that’s just us.

A Magician Seeks the Rough Way

Inside Magic Image of Harry Robson's Roughing StickThe magical principle of Rough and Smooth occupies a special place in the litany of things that matter to the world. Granted, it is very low on the list and even among magicians, it is still down there with the consistency of Magician’s Wax and the tensile strength of threads.

But, for some reason, likely attributable to the amount of time we have to think of such things, it has become of paramount importance to us.

In the old days, before Twitter, we would do our own roughing and smoothing using a fine liquid we purchased by mail from Tannen’s in New York. It came in a small bottle and had a very special aroma that likely led to our demonstrable brain damage in later life. We would use cotton balls to dab, never wipe the special liquid on to our decks. Wiping would lead to ink smearing and would ruin the deck forever. We had piles of otherwise perfect decks of cards throughout our room that had been marred by improper dabbing.

Sure, we could have bought decks already treated with the special liquid but that cost money – likely less than what we were paying for new decks and the special liquid – and we thought it inhibited our creativity. And what creativity we had!

We made several otherwise commercially available decks and thousands of unworthy packet tricks over the years. In fact, we are pretty sure we never used a deck we prepared in an actual performance, anywhere.

Perhaps, we thought, we were wasting our time. Perhaps we just liked mastering the artistic technique of dabbing. Perhaps we were addicted to the fumes. There is, a wise man once said, a fine line between aroma therapy and huffing.

Then came the revolution wrought by the aerosol spray technology. It worked for processed cheese and string so it made sense that roughing fluid would be the next application. We purchased special cans of roughing fluid and made our own decks and learned that the fumes could now fill a house, a porch (when we were forced out of the house because of the fumes) and finally a garage.

The spray worked wonderfully. We could do entire decks at a time and never worried about smearing the ink. Now we had perfectly produced decks that we still never used in real-world performances.

At a convention, we learned that one could buy commercial products for the lay consumer that did what the roughing spray did and at a tenth of the cost. We bought cans of the product from our hobby store and went to work. Same quality, less cost but we still never used a single deck or packet in real performance.

Recently, the magic world learned of a new substance from Card Shark called Science Friction. It was a roughing fluid applied by aerosol technology. It got rave reviews from critics and chemists weighed in on its likely composition and less expensive alternatives. We almost bought it but balked given our new living situation in a small apartment in West Hollywood next to a bakery for dog treats. We did not want to be evicted because of the odors – the dog treat bakery actually smells wonderful – and had no desire to buy a special, portable spraying booth just for roughing and smoothing.


Continue reading A Magician Seeks the Rough Way

Caveney, Lenert, Gaughan, Valentine & Mystina – Amazing Night

Inside Magic Image of Herrmann's Astarte or Maid of the Moon IllusionThursday night at The Magic Castle offered an amazing lineup of incredible magic and magic history.  Mike Caveney, Tina LenertJohn Gaughan and Mystina brought about a standing ovation with their show in the Palace of Mystery.  Steve Valentine similarly received a standing ovation in the Close-up Gallery.

Standing ovations are not often seen in either venue but were appropriate in each instance.

The Palace show was a treat and of great historical significance.  Mr. Caveney and Ms. Lenert performed with their usual charming style: Mr. Caveney working the audience as emcee and Ms. Lenert performing her perfect pantomime routine.  We have seen these performers on several occasions over the years and can honestly say this was their best.  Ms. Lenert is a master of her craft and brings so much authenticity to her portrayal of a lonely cleaning woman who yearns for love and attention. Mr. Caveney is the perfect counter for the romanticized magic of Ms. Lenert with his easy rapport with the audience and astounding magic.

A woman seated in front of us commented, “They seem like they would be a good couple.”

But the matchmaker audience member was blown away by John Gaughan’s presentation of Astarte or Maid of the Moon.  We know that it had precisely that effect on her because she nearly screamed to her friend (over the standing ovation), “Oh my God!  That totally blew me away!”

Indeed, she had good reason to “be blown away.”  Mr. Gaughan enlisted the assistance of Inside Magic Favorite Mystina to perform the most baffling levitation or flying effect we have ever witnessed.

After a short historical introduction of the Astarte‘s origins, Mr. Gaughan presented the illusion flawlessly with Mystina.  She serenaded the moon and flew to a perch on its crescent shape. From there, she pirouetted about the very brightly lit stage, turned 360 degrees both vertically and horizontally.  

She glided through a solid steel hoop first while Mr. Gaughan held it, and then, incredibly, while she held it. It was lovely.

It was truly magic.

“How was it done?”  The talkative audience member asked after again attesting that she had been “blown away.”

No one offered a solution.  That made us very happy.

Mr. Valentine is a master of many skills.  He is an actor who plays the part of a magician who is an actor who is really a very funny person with exceptional sleight of hands skills. 

A woman seated next to us in the close-up gallery described him (before the show began) as the “best looking magician ever.”  That is either damming with faint praise or an earnest compliment if one includes Cary Grant and Tony Curtis in the category against which she is comparing Mr. Valentine.

Mr. Valentine’s routine is anything but routine.  He is irreverent and rapid-fire with high energy and higher trick-per-minute ratio than any performer we have witnessed.  (We do not know how trick-per-minute is translated into the metric system). 

His mastery of cards is outdone only by his mastery of the audience.  He is a gutsy performer who uses the Classic Force with the confidence of someone using a one-way forcing deck.

He is funny, charming and completely in control even though at times it seemed impossible that any of what we were seeing was planned. 

We intended to provide a description of every effect he performed in the set but that would have taken several days of writing and a new thesaurus – there was too much and it was all too good. 

Our favorite effect, though, had to be his barehanded production of a fairy.

We were reluctant to write anything about the shows because we intend to return to see both tonight and this weekend.  As it was, the lines for both were lengthy and not everyone made it into the show rooms.  We fear our praise of the acts will only exacerbate (not a dirty word, we checked) the problem.  Fortunately, we have a very low readership and we are rarely considered an authoritative source for show recommendations.

Richard Turner’s Card Mechanics Lecture – Inside Magic Review

Richard_TurnerRichard Turner is an incredible performer with exceptional talents and amazing skills.

He is, in our very humble opinion, one of the best cardsharps we have ever seen – ever.  His lecture at The Magic Castle on Sunday was more of an exhibition of amazing card technique that even if we were taught with hours of patient instruction, we would still be unable to perform without his “fifty years of dedicated practice.”

The Second Deal is a personal point of pride for us.  We have only been practicing it for about 30 years and of that 30 years, we slept, ate, had a life and worked in our non-magic world so it was not entirely dedicated to perfecting our work.

We saw Mr. Turner’s incredible dealing prowess and later performed our routine in which we rely on Seconds and felt shame.  We wanted to stop our presentation and admit to the innocent lay audience that we were showing them the clutching, tightly gripped mechanics of muscle memory when they deserved so much better.

We did not actually stop our performance mid-deal but we felt it would have been warranted.  We watched our hands deal Seconds that seemed so apparent that they looked (to us) more like a Glide from the top.  We try to be humble (maybe not the most humble but of course if we were the most humble we would not claim to be) but seeing Mr. Turner’s lecture brought us down several rungs on the humble ladder towards humility.

Did we mention that Mr. Turner is blind?  He is blind.  Not “legally blind” or “partially blind” but really blind.  He is demonstrating cardsharping with absolutely no ability to see what he is doing.

He has perfected the perfect Second deal without a visual reference.  His Seconds are slowly done as if he were dealing directly from the top of the pack.  There are no moves, no tells, no flashing or signs that a Second is in the offing, is occurring or has just happened.

Seeing Mr. Turner perform is like sitting in Plato’s Cave with a periscope for just a few minutes.  We saw, briefly, what the real Second Deal looks like rather than the shadows on the wall we have been watching in our own hands or the hands of other performers.

His lecture is a delight to attend.  It is not a study in basic sleights or fundamentals.  In fact, there were very few sleights actually taught.  It is more of an opportunity to watch a true master perform impossible effects using imperceptible skills.  He discussed his involvement with the United States Playing Card Company and playing card production methods.  We could have listened to that type of inside information for another ten hours.  He told us about his interaction with Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller and their collaborative work on cardsharping skills.  We would have gladly paid to listen to more of those stories.

The lecture went for about two hours but we had a feeling he was just getting started.  We departed humbled but hopeful.  It is satisfying to know that there is a perfect Second Deal.  While we will likely never achieve it, we at least know our quest is not Quixotic.

Max Maven Live: A Review

Inside Magic Image of Max MavenMax Maven has probably performed the routine presented last night at the Peller Theatre hundreds, if not thousands, of times.  Yet, to watch his interaction with the capacity crowd, he gave the impression he was sharing with them new experiences and unexpected — but amazing — results.

Let’s not kid ourselves, Max Maven is an incredible presence on stage.  From his opening to finale, he is firmly in control of all things at all times.  He has the look, the voice and the words to cause us to trust him even though our instincts tell us otherwise.  He is precisely the type of person we should avoid.

His work with audience volunteers is flawless.  He allows them space to identify with their seated brethren and, while never rude, keeps them in line with a well-timed aside or one of his penetrating stares.

But being an imposing and impressive figure is not enough.  Can Mr. Maven, author, inventor, historian and larger-than-life figure deliver on the implicit promise of his stage persona?

In a word, yes.  In two words, yes siree!

His effects are baffling and so well-presented that one is never sure if we are watching his ability to work with the unexpected turn of events or unanticipated selection by an audience member.  One is left to assume that he has either anticipated every contingency or he possesses real magical powers.  Because we are famously lazy, we presume no one would ever work as many hours in front of real people to gain the experience necessary to handle every contingency and so we conclude he has special skills that defy explanation.

Mr. Maven will be performing at the Magic Castle’s Peller Theatre tonight (Friday) and tomorrow.  If you have a chance to see him perform, take it.  We have no doubt he has already anticipated your attendance and will have something special to show you.

Inside Magic Rating: Five Out of Five