In the July 1996 issue of The Little Egypt Gazette, which I naively thought would be the final issue of this journal, I included an article entitled "Mr. Parrish and Company." The piece was an appreciation of four books that significantly influenced me as a child and which, for better or worse, led me down this magical path so many of you have also chosen. The books were New Ways to Mystify and For Magicians Only, by Robert Parrish; Magic Made Easy, a soft-covered pulp how-to book by Carl March (a pseudonym for Sid Fleischman); and Magic for All, by magician/cartoonist Bob Dunn. For the sake of brevity, I omitted two other influential books from that article -- Our Magic, by Maskelyne and Devant (which I assumed all magicians to be familiar with), and an introductory tome, Everybody's Book of Magic, by Will Dexter.
As both these books are of British origin, and because they gave me, at a young age, a particularly British view of the overall world of magic, now is a fitting time in which to consider their merits, and especially to bring them to the attention of any reader who has yet to encounter them.
Nevil Maskelyne and David Devant
My home town library's edition of Our Magic looked (still looks, actually, as I now own it) more like a magic book than any other book I've ever seen. Its cover is a rich brown cloth, and, although the binding has been replaced with a stock library binding, replete with the Dewey decimal 793.8, the cover still clearly conveys the image of a Merlinesque figure holding a steaming bowl of something, with bats fluttering about his head. The three principal sections of the book, "The Art in Magic," "The Theory of Magic," and "The Practice of Magic," are prominently displayed along with the authors' names, Nevil Maskelyne and David Devant. (Maskelyne wrote the first two sections, Devant the last.) It's a surprisingly heavy book for its size, no doubt because of the weight of the 505 glossy pages within.
Although magic knew only one David Devant, it knew three Maskelynes, so perhaps we should clear up which one wrote this book. The eldest was J.N. Maskelyne (the J.N. stands for John Nevil, but he went by his initials in magic circles). Originally a watchmaker, he and his friend George Cooke attained a certain fame by debunking the fraudulent spiritualist Davenport Brothers. This led to a few years as traveling magicians, until J. N.M. and Cooke purchased Egyptian Hall in London, which became England's Home of Mystery for 30 years. J.N. bought St. George's Hall in 1904, at which time Cooke dropped out in favor of Devant. When Devant eventually retired in 1914, J.N.'s son Nevil joined the partnership. By this time a third Maskelyne, J.N.'s grandson Jasper, had already appeared on stage with Devant (he was nine when Devant used him as a prearranged "boy from the audience" for his famous egg trick). It was the middle one, Nevil, who wrote Our Magic along with Devant in 1911. Nevil's sections grew from articles he had contributed to The Magic Circular, house organ of The Magic Circle, while Devant's section describes in great detail the routines from an act that made him one of the most popular magicians of his time.
I should elaborate that the volume described so far was one of the earliest editions, published in London by George Routledge & Sons, Limited, and in New York by E. P. Dutton & Company. The book eventually went out of print and, after lying fallow for several decades, resurfaced in 1946 as part of The Fleming Magic Classic Series. The Fleming edition dropped the Merlin figure from the cover and inserted line drawings for what had previously been photographic plates.
But how did this physically heavy and technically ponderous volume affect me as a boy? Primarily, it was not only the first book I encountered that ran to 505 pages, but it was also the first magic book I encountered that took itself so seriously. In "The Art in Magic," Maskelyne lays out 24 rules with great authority. Until then, my contact with magicians had been one local fellow who wanted to be a clown as much as a magician, and another who would not really progress past Mak Magic effects. That an adult could utter such a phrase as "When Magic and Drama are combined in one presentation, the stage procedure should primarily be governed by the dramatic requirements of the case, rather than by the normal principles of Art in magic" was a revelation. As a boy I hadn't the foggiest idea of what the rule meant, and I'm not much more certain as an adult, but I knew it was a hell of a cool thing that Maskelyne said it, and that he laid it out as a commandment. These rules were incorporated within lengthy essays, followed by a section attempting to break magic down into various scientific categories, and then by all those photos of Devant and his apparatus on the St. George's Hall stage. Taken together, these three sections made me realize that there was far more to the study of magic than I had yet guessed.
Of course not everyone heeded Maskelyne's teachings. There were cries of not being able to "plough through all that stuff!" and "In any case, I don't agree with all of it." Similar cries have met more modern books on theory, including the works by Eugene Burger and Darwin Ortiz, Michael Close and Tommy Wonder. (I am convinced that virtually any rule in magic can be countered by its opposite, and that the opposite can work. "Learn only six tricks," the pundits say. "Learn them all!" Michael Skinner might counter, and it's worked for him.)
As to the rules in Our Magic, a few have remained quite popular and are oft-quoted:
Always endeavor to form an accurate conception of the point of view most likely to be adopted by a disinterested spectator.
Never perform, in public, anything that cannot be performed with the utmost ease in private.
If you don't have a copy of Our Magic, you can find all 24 rules at Martin Lewis's web site, accessible from our "Favorite Links" page. As an adult, I find the book a trifle stuffy, and the rules a bit repetitious. I prefer more modern writings on magic. But I still get that old thrill, as Vernon did with the rules in Erdnase, to find these concepts laid out as rules, and with such an air of importance.
Everybody's Book of Magic was a book for the general marketplace, and it follows a format that seems to have been handed down by God for general marketplace magic books: half interesting essays followed by tricks-you-can-do. It saw light in July, 1956, copyrighted by Arco Publishers Limited, with a London and a New York address. A publisher's statement at the bottom of the page was more distinctly British: "Made and Printed in Great Britain by the Garden City Press Limited, Letchworth, Hertfordshire, On Paper Supplied by Robert Horne Limited." The First Edition ran to 10,000 copies, and its author, Will Dexter, cleverly sought to enhance that figure in his Introduction:
Read it, revel in it, and insist that all your friends by a copy for themselves. The publisher will spare no effort to have more copies printed if there aren't enough to go around, so don't stint yourselves.
Will Dexter of the Magic Circle, as the author lists himself*, possessed that Robert Parrish quality of writing that could make magic seem more wonderful than it is, and this is no doubt why I found the book so influential. Furthermore, Dexter wasn't shy about expressing his opinion, and he won my heart on the first page by calling a trick a trick. By this I mean that he opposed the thinking of some magicians, especially when they band together in clubs, that a trick should be called an "effect" or a "problem" or an "experiment," anything but a trick because then your audience wouldn't think you were doing real magic. (Even as a bony eleven-year-old I found fault with this dim view of an audience's intellect.) Dexter countered by asking who ever heard of the Indian Rope "Effect" or the Sawing a Lady in Half "Experiment."
So, as it's more likely that you, kind reader, are a member of the non-magical public, who know a trick as a trick, shall we call a trick a trick? Right. That's settled, then.
In the chapter "So You Want To Be A Magician?" Dexter casually introduces the reader to such magicians as Bobby Bernard and Gus Southall and David Nixon as he explains the importance of entertainment over puzzles, the distinction between effect and method, the practicality of walk-around effects over those that need tabletops, the importance of misdirection, and numerous other essential considerations, not the least of which is how much it costs to become a magician. His closing sentence should be pasted up on every magician's office wall: "Ah well! If you're bent on being a magician, you won't let a little thing like money stand in your way."
I met such mentalists as the Piddingtons and Maurice Fogel in the chapter "A Mindreader, Eh?" This chapter possibly influenced me as much toward the mental and later occult fields as did my early encounters with Nelson Enterprises catalogs. Dexter had a high regard for mentalists:
The expert mentalist, you will find, is a mentalist. In other words, he has powers that few other people possess. But those powers are by no means supernatural or supernormal. Some -- indeed most -- mentalists are masters of one or other well-known memory systems. Many of them are lightning calculators of high ability. Others are blessed with unusually keen eyesight and sharp perception. All the good ones are practised experts in psychology, and from experience can divine the track of a person's thoughts. They will direct those thoughts into their own channel by subtle suggestion, so the spectator unwittingly thinks what the mentalist wants him to think.
We delve deeper into the English magic world in "Meet the Magic Circle." My favorite line there -- this is 1956, remember -- is the introduction of a young man named "Alex Elmsley, President of Cambridge University's Pentacle Club, and today regarded as one of tomorrow's masters of sleight of hand." I wonder what became of him? The chapter offers a tour inside the Magic Circle's clubhouse of that day, with its collections of ancient magic and a library of over 2000 books. I found it fascinating that a librarian named Colin Donister was standing at the counter, "apparently guarding the Occult Section."
"The International Brotherhood of Magicians" chapter might have taken a more American turn, but this is a British world view, aptly so, and so the club is formed by a Canadian amateur magician, Len Vintus, and a couple of his pals "over the border in the U.S.A." The chapter quickly segues to the British Ring, where one meets Bill Stickland and Bobby Voltaire and Peter Warlock and Francis Haxton, among others. A favorite here is Eric "Nitwit" Williams, who performed as a variety of characters, several in drag. Most interesting was his "curious cowboy, who carries his horse's false teeth in his pocket."
Although the book was intended for the public, it included its share of inside jokes for magicians. In the introduction of Francis Haxton, above, Dexter described a most interesting card trick as follows:
Slowly, softly, in a modest, grave voice, Haxton will tell you that he proposes that you shall handle the cards yourself. You shuffle them, you cut them, you deal them completely at random into two piles, face down. You turn over the cards . . . and you find that somehow you have dealt all the red cards into one pile and all the black cards into another. "Out of this world!" I've heard magicians mutter when seeing this feat.
"There Are Names To Conjure With" introduced the Maskelynes along with David Devant. Most of the facts mentioned above regarding the Maskelynes came from this chapter, which makes this essay rather incestuously self-referencing. After the war (we are up to WW II now), Jasper Maskelyne staged a show at London's Westminster Theatre. On the bill was Kuda Bux, the "Man with the X-ray Eyes." (Was this where I first heard of Kuda?) Also on the bill was a female variety act, Donna Delbert, who did conjuring, whip-cracking, and fire-eating. Delbert was eventually unmasked to the headlines "American Deserter Poses As Woman Magician." He was actually Don Delbert, Pfc. U.S. Armed Forces. The joke was that, if Kuda Bux had X-ray eyes, why didn't he see through "Donna Delbert's guilty secret"? (My theory is that Kuda did spot the secret but was too much of a good egg to turn in a fellow performer. I also note that, if this story is accurate, Delbert's "sex change" was quite effective, but his name change was about as transparent as Superman putting on glasses to pass as Clark Kent.)
"Top of the Bill" presented character studies of some of the top names of the day, including Cardini (the silent manipulator who in retirement still "carries the accent of the Welsh valleys"), Robert Harbin, Dai Vernon, and, perhaps my favorite British stage act, Tommy Cooper, whose laugh was like cannon shots.
The audience laughed. Tommy glared balefully at them -- and then split our eardrums with that eldritch screech of his that he calls a laugh. In an instant his face was straight again.
"They Make the Magic" addressed the dealers and manufacturers of 1950s' England, with more than a little attention to the Martin rising card deck and to another made by Harry Mitchell (Devano). The Devano deck has been a part of my paid performances for as long as I can remember, and I wonder to what extent I was influenced by the fact that it was also used by one Hugo Adler, a "ship's officer who sailed the Seven Seas" and who had shown the mystery "to night-club audiences and to head-hunters' jamborees."
I first encountered Goodliffe (Abracadabra) and Harry Stanley and Lieut.-Col. Lewis Ganson (The Gen) in the chapter "The Ephemera of Mystery," on the magic journals of the day. Peter Warlock is there with his Pentagram (recently reissued by L & L Publishing). Appendix IV of the book listed all the British magic periodicals of 1956: Abracadabra, The Gen, Hughes' News, Magic Magazine, The Magic Wand, Magical Digest, Pentagram, The Wizard, and World's Fair.
Dexter made the most of the apparent Law that there must be a trick section. Each trick in the book is contributed by a famous professional or amateur British magician, and while the basis of each item is well-known or common in magic circles (the prayer vase, the Afghan bands, etc.), the contributors added special touches to lift the items out of the ordinary and in some cases to a degree that would fool other magicians. There is also a charming short bio on each of the contributors. My British indoctrination thus continued with excellent tricks from Devano, David Nixon, Lewis Ganson, Robert Harbin, and so on. There is a lovely telephone mentalism effect by Arthur Carter, and Tommy Cooper's two cigarette tricks might play well today in Tom Mullica's act. In one, you light the cigarette, and a "tiny spark leaves the glowing end and rapidly travels round and round the cigarette in a spiral path, until you find yourself left with a cigarette end between your lips, from which dangles a long spiral piece of paper, while a shower of tobacco has fallen to the floor." In the second, the cigarette burns normally to the finish, but the ash never falls off, leaving you holding a cigarette-length ash.
In closing, I note that British magicians of that era must have been a gregarious lot. Appendix II lists at least 69 British magic societies. Only seven of these were in London, including, along with the Magic Circle, such intriguing titles as the Unique Magicians' Club, the Vampire Magic Club, and the Zodiac Magical Society. The rest were strewn throughout Great Britain, including the Aberdeen Magical Society, the [Belfast] Ulster Society of Magicians, the Blackpool Magic Circle, the [Brighton] Regency Magical Society, the [Burton-on-Trent] Circle of Magicians, the [Endfield] Merlin Magical Society, the [Glasgow] Scottish Conjurers' Association, the [Liverpool] Mahatma Circle of Magicians, the Newcastle Upon Tyne Magic Circle, the [Prestatyn] North Wales Magic Circle, the [Slough] Wizards of the Silver Star, the [Southhampton] Associated Wizards of the South, and the York Society of Magicians, to pass along the flavor of a few names. The magicians who populated the rolls of these organizations must have kept the 36 British dealers and 9 British publishers of Appendix III afloat. (For those who are counting appendices and note one is missing, Appendix I was a glossary of magical terms, no doubt helpful to me as a young boy.) It would be interesting to hear from our British readers on how many of these original organizations are still around today.
*My handy copy of T.A. Waters' The Encyclopedia of Magic and Magicians notes that Will Dexter was born William Pritchard, and that David Devant was born David Wighton.