This is a review of Nate Kranzo's newest offering to the magic community, Mene Tekel Miracles DVD. His work is outstanding — and we'll get to that in a second. But we have such a fond place in our chest cavity for the Mene Tekel concept that we need to take a side road first.
Two of the questions we are often asked after our wildly successful lecture, The Old Testament’s Writings’ Influence on Mid-Twentieth Century Gimmicked Card Decks are “Hey, what about the Mene Tekel deck?” “We came to hear about Mene Tekel and you completely skipped it.”
We explain the need to keep the presentation pithy and succinct and thereby avoiding a maundering stroll through the arcane forest of the Hebrew Scripture’s books of the Ketuvim. Our lecture audiences are there looking for a light, cheerful summary of the remarkable relationship between biblical writings and the post-Erdnase / pre-TV Magic Cards world.
Our bible scholar fans correctly point to the passage in Daniel wherein the prophet translates mysterious handwriting on a wall in Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s unclean dining chamber. The wise but honest Daniel reads the writing out loud, “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.”
Scholars have debated the meaning of these words, their proper translation, and their purpose in the Book of Daniel. Their presentation in the story sounds like a great idea for a magic trick:
Suddenly, opposite the lampstand, the fingers of a human hand appeared, writing on the plaster of the wall in the king's palace. When the king saw the wrist and hand that wrote, his face blanched; his thoughts terrified him, his hip joints shook, and his knees knocked.
(Daniel 5:5-6 from New American Bible)
It is from this passage that we derive the expression, "He read the writing on the wall" to mean, a sign of bad things to come.
We provide our gloss on the scholars’ work in a separate article here.
Ironically, we were repairing the paper-mâché head to the King Nebuchadnezzar puppet when we received word of Nathan Kranzo’s newest instructional DVD, Mene Tekel Miracles.
Mr. Kranzo belongs to the population of magicians who believe the Mene Tekel deck has value in today’s world of high-tech, expensive magic. Try as you might, it is impossible to make a Mene Tekel deck expensive. Its secret is its simplicity. Perhaps if it were more sophisticated, technical, or required incredible memory skills, it would be right up there with The Invisible, Svengali, or Stripper decks.
The DVD comes with two high quality decks to teasingly seduce the purchaser into the world of Mene Tekel.
There are many varieties of the Mene Tekel deck; spanning a spectrum from gimmicked to not gimmicked at all. Mr. Kranzo teaches effects for each type of deck in his usual clear and enthusiastic style. We are not sure what we expected, but we have such a deep feeling for the Mene Tekel deck. We would hate to see it given short shrift. Mr. Kranzo is one of us; he too is a devotee of the deck. The DVD is a great exploration of an under-appreciated classic of Magic led by a guide who knows the way.
The video quality varies as the DVD includes portions of Mr. Kranzo’s live show, shots from his or someone’s backyard and a studio but each segment is clear and helpful.
Mr. Kranzo provides demonstrates and teaches more than 20 effects using three varieties of the deck. We had favorite versions from each section but the impromptu Mene Tekel group stood out. Here is a “gimmicked” deck without gimmicks.
The quick sale and high demand actually caused us to think.
We decided to read Card College Volume One. That mean we had to take it off the shelf and buy it. We are cheap but apparently more curious than cheap.
We were amazed by Mr. Giobbi’s attention to detail and his innovative epistemological approach. His method of teaching was so effective that we even learned from the book. Our ability to learn totally new sleights ended at around 18 years of age.
(Sure, maybe you kept learning new knuckle-busting moves throughout life, but we didn’t. Agreed, that makes us terrible and not worthy of writing a Magic News Site so sue us).
But the fact that we resisted the easy and innuendo-laden path for the more noble and professional approach does not mean we have matured. It simply means we are writing this while on public transportation and afraid the person to our right will find it more titillating and deserving of his attention than his less than furtive glances already indicate.
In a word, Mark Kalin and Jinger perform real magic really well.
Sit back, relax, and keep reading: this may be a long review. It has already taken longer to write and edit than the act itself.
We have separated the review into its constituent parts only to ensure we do not leave anything out. But Mark Kalin and Jinger's act is greater than the sum of its parts. We have never witnessed a tighter 45 minutes of magic ever or anywhere.
In our humble and poorly informed opinion, The Magic Castle's Palace of Mystery is a tough room to play well. We have seen big illusions squeezed on to the platform and performers work through their best approximation of a scaled version of their regular stage show. While traveling illusionists must constantly adjust to the venue du jour, this stage makes for tight fits and, consequently, less than optimal performances.
On the other hand, the Palace of Mystery is perfect for magic-loving audiences. Every seat is perfect, no obstructions or awkward tier structure to block views. The sound system is perfect and the lighting is always professionally done.
We have a chance to see the very best in our business from the moral equivalent of a front-row seat — even if that means they must perform in tight quarters.
Mr. Kalin and Jinger are known for their full-scale illusions and we wondered how they would cope with the restrictions posed by The Palace.
In a word, they owned the joint.
We have longed to see their Magic Underground theater in Reno, Nevada. The couple built the showplace to serve as the perfect forum to perform and watch magic.
Real magic only happens when all the elements are perfect, the setting, the audience, the stage and the pace of the show. Over the years, we've had a chance to present our magic in many different settings, but it has only served to convince us of the perfect opportunity, the perfect showplace. We've finally found that home at Magic Underground.
We thought there could be no better place to see their show than in the theater they built. We also worried we would never have a chance to see the couple live unless we traveled to Reno.
Mr. Kalin and Jinger are wonderful to watch — a plus for performers. We admit our infatuation and schoolboy crush could bias our opinion but it does not. (The crush, by the way is on Jinger — although Mr. Kalin is no slouch).
Mr. Kalin either truly enjoys what he does or he is the best of all possible actors. His energy-level is high but not contrived or over-the-top. We saw the second show of the evening and yet he bounded onto the stage as if it was the first — not just of the evening but ever.
Recall the enthusiasm you felt when first performing a new, well-practiced routine for family or close friends? You could not wait to get started and share the reason for your excitement.
Mr. Kalin was that excited.
There was no question he was well-prepared and what we were about to see had been rehearsed, blocked, and practiced; but tonight was different. This show would be different than any they ever put on. Mr. Kalin's body-language and persona said, "all of our practice and development was to prepare for this very show."
The Production of Jinger
Mr. Kalin's first illusion ended with the incredible production of Jinger.
Jinger's appearance was magical on so many levels.
First, we had not previously seen this production and enjoyed the impossible vanish of a tall male assistant, and the appearance of Jinger. Note this was not a transformation of the assistant into Jinger. The assistant vanished, the apparatus was freely shown to be empty, and then Jinger appeared.
But the production of a magician's assistant — even as lovely as Jinger — is not enough to warrant our high praise. When Mr. Kalin saw Jinger appear, he seemed genuinely delighted, surprised. He must have known Jinger would appear at the end of the illusion. After all, that is what rehearsal is for. But the couple seemed genuinely happy to be reunited on stage for this all important show.
Finally, Jinger's smile, poise, beauty, and complete ease on stage brought what appeared to be a natural and involuntary smile to Mr. Kalin's face. His admiration for her was clearly shared by the audience.
We have seen many husband and wife magic acts. We have seen very few with the natural charisma and ineffable quality to be endearing rather than annoying or cloying. Mr. Kalin and Jinger have wonderful chemistry. They share what appear to be spontaneous asides and inside jokes as any would any good friends.
The late Alan Wakeling's version of Sawing a Woman in Half is one of the most amazing effects we have ever witnessed. We first saw Mr. Kalin and Jinger perform the seemingly impossible illusion on a television special, and then at the last Magic Live convention in Las Vegas. Jinger is held to a steel surgical table developed by "Dr. Alan Wakeling" during the Civil War. The straps holding her neck and feet to the very thin steel platform are threaded through holes and held firmly in place by volunteers from the audience.
So let's review: Jinger lies down on a surgical table. Her neck is bound with a leather collar and attached to a strap (or "leash" according to Mr. Kalin). The strap is passed through a hole in the table and held tightly by a committeeman from the audience. Is that fair enough? There are no boxes covering any part of her yet and as the volunteer pulls on the strap, Jinger is pulled to the surface of the cold steel table.
At the other end, Jinger's ankles are fixed within another leather device, the attached strap is threaded through a hole in the table and pulled taut by another volunteer. In the course of the next five minutes, Jinger's body is covered by two wooden cabinets no taller than necessary to accommodate her body. The cabinets' side-doors are opened immediately after she is covered, the committeemen verify she is within the cabinets and that they have not allowed any slack in their respective straps.
Immediately, Mr. Kalin pushes steel blades through Jinger's torso and the boxes are separated. The effect is like nothing we have ever witnessed.
From the first time we saw the couple perform this effect, we were baffled. We had no idea how the effect could be accomplished and that was fine with us. We like to be fooled and were very happy knowing Mr. Kalin and Jinger were one of the few in the world performing this miracle and that we had a chance to witness it live.
Unfortunately, in perusing our neighborhood bookstore, we found a book exposing the effect's secret method to anyone browsing the shelves. We will not identify the title of the book or the author. The author says Mr. Wakeling approved of the exposure. We do not doubt the author's representation; we just were disappointed it was in such wide release.
Consequently, when we saw Mr. Kalin and Jinger perform the effect at The Magic Castle, we knew the method. We were impressed by the incredible skill necessary to accomplish the effect and certainly the showmanship employed in its presentation; but it did not bring the same sense of amazement. We were no longer mystified; only impressed by Mr. Kalin and Jinger's abilities.
Next to "Dr. Wakeling's" sawing illusion, The Spirit Cabinet is our all-time favorite effect. We were looking forward to seeing Mr. Kalin and Jinger perform the effect live but had no idea we would be sitting within the spirit cabinet next to Jinger during a final manifestation of the spirits.
As one of the two volunteers from the audience, we had the honor of tying Jinger's ankles together and her wrists to each other and through a wooden post. We have rarely been as nervous. There was no intent to tie to tightly but we also had no desire to make it too easy.
Mr. Kalin and Jinger perform The Spirit Cabinet superbly; on par with Glenn Falkenstein and Frances Willard — our gold standard. Ms. Willard and Jinger are authentic, compelling, and sensual figures within the cabinet.
We were delighted but nervous when asked to sit in the cabinet with Jinger. Fortunately, our eyes were covered with a very effective blindfold before the curtains were closed. Almost immediately after the curtain could be heard closing, we were aware of spirit activity near us.
Even without a blindfold, we doubt we would have discerned the method for this illusion. When the blindfold was untied, we found a bucket on our head and our pant legs pulled up to past our knees.
We were asked by another audience member if we knew how the spirit demonstration worked. We told her honestly that we had not a clue.
We did not expect Mr. Kalin and Jinger to disappoint. Chances are, we would have written a positive review even if their performance was average or even better than average. But we doubt we would have written a review of more than 1200 words.
Mr. Kalin and Jinger performed the finest magic show we have ever seen. Their dedication, enthusiasm, choice of effects, and unique charisma are just some of the reasons we feel secure making such an unequivocal statement. How fortunate to see their performance in such a perfect venue.
As we drove back to downtown Los Angeles from Hollywood later that evening, we felt a pain in our jaw from smiling so much.
It hurt but it was a good kind of hurt.
Some pain is worth enduring. Do not miss Mr. Kalin and Jinger — in fact, affirmatively seek out their next live performance. Life is so uncertain and there is no sense putting off such a wonderful experience.
Assume you grew up in the wild and never knew of civilization; as if you were a modern day Kaspar Hauser.
This strange man/boy wandered into a German town and lived a short, mysterious life. He lacked the social, hygienic and language skills that come from being raised by humans.
And yet he was very bright and inquisitive. He was plagued with a terrible hunchback apparently caused by his prior imprisonment in a small space.
He was either murdered or killed himself in the center of the town one evening and the cause of his death has never been determined.
Now, you as little Kaspar, stumble into civilization and are adopted by a very rich person and treated to only the best in life.
You have the best food, even though your palate lacked the sophistication necessary to discern Filet Mignon with a fine 1989 Mondavi Cabernet Reserve from Beanie Weenies and Grape Kool-Aid.
You would rightfully guess that all food in this brave new world tastes so wonderful and that all homes were stately mansions populated by caring and giving people.
You’re probably thinking, “what the heck is he talking about? So much for modern psychotropic medication!” Or maybe your thinking, “I haven’t even read this far. I gave up in the first paragraph.” Actually, no, I don’t know how you could think that if you stopped reading in the first paragraph.