The Little Egypt Gazette Book Review --
Mr. Parrish and Company

In the May 1995 MAGIC review of Great Tricks Revisited, by Robert Parrish, Mac King stated, "I must admit that I had never read a Robert Parrish book before . . ." That sentence thoroughly took me aback, as Robert Parrish almost singlehandedly lured me into magic at a vulnerable age, and it made me realize that many of today's younger magicians have probably not read any of the books I prized so highly as a boy. I'll therefore use this column to introduce you to a few of those books, and I regret in advance that I cannot tell you where to find them. Check with your favorite used magic book dealer, and keep on checking, because these are some of the finest books in the literature.

New Ways to Mystify

New Ways to Mystify , A Guide to the Art of Magic (1945), by Robert Parrish, illustrated by Doris Holly Peters.

This book is the prize of the lot. The general theme of New Ways to Mystify is that you can learn a few interesting magic tricks that "can be introduced into practically any social situation, tricks for all kinds of parties from afternoon teas to week-end house parties, or tricks that are useful in cafes or on trains, and even a few tricks that can be done in bed." Many of Mr. Parrish's social situations, like those encountered in P.G. Wodehouse novels, probably never existed, and some were admittedly speculative: "Though I have never been hired to entertain a ladies' sewing society, I suppose such an eventuality is conceivable." The following remarkable paragraph illustrates the wistful, bemused state of mind with which Mr. Parrish saw magic being performed.

People with sufficient leisure occasionally take to their beds for a period of days or weeks, depending upon the weather and the position of the planets, and during this interval it is sometimes necessary for them to receive callers. It is very difficult for a person who is comfortably ensconced in bed to put his visitor at ease unless he is on familiar enough terms with the person to extend an invitation to crawl under the covers. If he can't bring himself to do this, the really decent thing to do is to show a few magic tricks. The invalid might look wistfully out of the window and say, "Sometimes I get very despondent. Sometimes while I lie here smoking cigarettes, I get a terrible urge to set fire to the sheets." With this remark he would gather up a part of the sheet and light a match to it. After it had burned a little, he would blow out the fire and, laughing like mad, spread the sheet out whole and spotless. This and some less violent tricks to do in bed will be explained early in the book.
As a young boy, I completely missed the sexual overtones of inviting someone under the covers. Indeed Mr. Parrish's style is so gentlemanly that I would think he had no sexual overtones in mind were it not for a later chapter where, in describing a trick requiring an assistant, he mentions, "A beautiful blonde is the usual thing, but if there are none around there is sure to be someone who would like to be in on the secret of what is going on. Perhaps, happily enough, your hostess will be beautiful and interested and willing to help you." I later wondered if John Lennon and Yoko Ono had this Parrish paragraph in mind when they staged their in-bed interviews with the press. But these were later considerations. As a boy of ten my speculations ran no further than to shocking the hell out of my mom as she entered my bedroom and found me, a cigarette dangling from my lips, about to torch my sheets. This magic world, I thought, was pretty exciting.

Before launching into the chapters on various social situations, Mr. Parrish provides a chapter called "How To Be Deceptive." He uses a single item, the egg bag, to teach the "artfully laid psychological traps that play a part in the deception of all illusions." In creating magic from simple methods, he points out that "not that anyone believes that you did get the egg from the air, but the pleasure lies in the seeming and the strength with which seeming opposes reason."

The Egg Bag

First up in the social situation chapters is "The Magic Counterpane," in which the various tricks to be performed in bed include the Charlier cut, some manipulations with a golf ball, and the infamous "The Burned and Restored Bedsheet."

"The Magic Tea Table" ("It is by no means necessary to limit your magical activities to bed. There is a trick for nearly every occasion.") teaches two items you can demonstrate for friends invited in for tea, including a quarter to lemon effect and a psychic reading that is part billet reading and part cold reading (my first introduction to this most interesting field).

"Needlework Magic" includes "Knitting Made Easy" (some knitting needles and yarn become animated and turn into a partially knitted sweater), "The Unraveling Trick" (a child's mitten turns into a ball of yarn), and "The Needle Threading Trick" (a bunch of needles and some thread are dropped into a glass; when pulled out, the needles are seen to be threaded in intervals along the thread -- a "polite version" of the Hindu trick that doesn't use the mouth).

Chapter 6, "Take a Little Magic After Dinner," visits more familiar social territory. In addition to a sugar cube transposition, some vanishing and reappearing salt, and a lit cigarette production, the chapter teaches "Teacups and Sugar Cubes." This four-cup, four-cube cups and balls routine was the first "real" sleight of hand effect I learned, and I remember with great joy fooling my father with it.

"Magic for a Night Out" takes the reader out on the town to "gatherings that are exclusively masculine." (This was 1945; I don't know if such a place exists anymore.) Again tipping his preferences, Mr. Parrish advises, "Unless you have a beautiful blonde assistant, the best bet for stag entertainment is card tricks." Several card tricks follow, one of the most interesting being a torn and restored card in which the card is torn into four pieces. The spectator freely selects any of the pieces and the other three vanish, to eventually be restored except for the correct missing piece.

"Bring Magic to Your Week Ends" covers situations for which you are a weekend house guest. Taught are a two-person code act, the vanish of your hostess from behind a blanket, the production of a family pet from a hat, and, for the kiddies ("the object of this trick is to appease children rather than to amaze them"), the magic candy box.

"The Magician on the Brass Rail Road" takes the wonder worker to the corner cafe, where "the patrons are in a congenial mood and their perception is likely to be slightly hazy. The lighting is likely to be slightly hazy too." The eclectic array of material for this venue includes an olive that reappears in your martini (another heady trick for a boy of ten to be reading about), the magic key rings, a cigarette that clings mysteriously to the edge of a bar, a great vanishing quarter, the divided banana trick, and the torn and restored newspaper.

"The Show," the final chapter, teaches the reader how to routine the more or less impromptu effects from the previous chapters into a formal magic show. "This is a good thing, because sooner or later, once you have begun pulling tricks, someone is going to induce you to put on a show for one or another occasion." Brevity is a hallmark of Mr. Parrish's writing, and in very few words he imparts important lessons on routining, themes, formal show conditions, and other factors that contribute to "the magician's special command over the world of appearances."

As you can see for yourselves from the quoted material above, Robert Parrish had a light, sure touch with the English language, with a special knack for evoking a kinder, gentler world than actually exists, and one in which a person might have a good time performing magic. His artful prose was complemented by the equally evocative and spare line drawings of his illustrator, Doris Holly Peters.

For Magicians Only

For Magicians Only, A Guide to the Art of Mystifying (1944), by Robert Parrish, "With Pertinent Diagrams and Impertinent Decorations" by Doris Holley Peters.

This book came out a year earlier than New Ways to Mystify, when Miss Peters still had an e in her middle name. Written and illustrated in the same style, the chapters include:

  • Warning: The Fun of Magic
  • The Way It Looks and The Way It Is
  • The Old Ways and The New
  • After-Dinner Magic
  • Card Magic With the Greatest of Ease
  • How to Be Psychic
  • Manipulating Many Things
  • Larger Tricks
  • The Show

A few brief quotes will further convey Mr. Parrish's style and wisdom:

On the fun of magic:

It is less arduous to learn some good magic tricks than to become a capable pianist, ventriloquist, Yoga, sword swallower, snake charmer, tap dancer, or even an accordion player, to name a few of the accomplishments that can make one outstanding among a group of people. Also, it is a great deal of fun to do magic. No one ever became a magician except through personal inclination. Consequently all magicians love their work.

On kid shows:

My chief objection to giving shows for children is that they are too hazardous. There is the constant danger of being personally attacked by over-zealous onlookers who are not satisfied with what they see and want to get their hands on the paraphernalia. Also one is likely to trip over spectators who have crawled underfoot for a closer view of things. My most frightening experience was a narrow escape from drowning. The performance took place before a fishpond at a garden party. The audience of small, attentive people was arranged in a semi-circle in front of me. They were very nice and very interested, but as the show progressed the semi-circle inched forwards and I withdrew backwards to maintain the distance favorable to illusion. It was a good thing that I remembered, in the nick of time, the fishpond behind me.

On secrets:

The secret of a trick is always fathomable: an escape through a backdrop and the use of bottomless bottles are not such remarkable devices that their use would not occur to many spectators. The secret of successful magic lies in the employment of every mannerism, every seemingly unimportant action, every movement and word, to mislead the spectators. These indirect, misdirecting ways are the means with which great performers produce seeming miracles with simple, even crude tricks.

Advice we've all heard and most of us will never heed:

This magic book has explained thirty tricks. That is a lot more tricks than you need to know how to do. If you really master four or five of the tricks, performing them again and again, you will be a much better magician than a person who has read many books and knows how hundreds of tricks are done but has never learned to actually do any of them. Every famous magician has a few tricks that he has used throughout his career. In the course of thousands of performances these tricks have become his masterpieces. They have become part of his life and he has put into them all that he has learned. That is the way a man becomes a magician.

Note: New Ways to Mystify and For Magicians Only were later published in one volume as The Magician's Handbook.

Magic Made Easy

Magic Made Easy, An Introduction to Conjuring (1953), by Carl March, photographs by Willis Deits.

I first picked up Magic Made Easy (a soft-covered pulp how-to book) in my grandfather's drug store, where I found it among the comic books. It was not until 1993, some 40 years after I first encountered this heavy introduction to magic, that I learned that the author's name, Carl March, was a pseudonym for the novelist and screenwriter, Sid Fleischman. Mr. Fleischman had begun publishing novels under his own name by 1953, and his regular publisher suggested he change his name for this "rather shabby craft publisher." (He took Carl from Carl Stenquist, and March from his birth month.)

The content was anything but shabby. Illustrated with over 200 photographs, the nine chapters contained strong material under the headings "Intimate Tricks," "Basic Card Sleights," "Magic With Cards," "Coin Magic," "Conjuring With Cigarettes," "Stage Tricks," "Card Tricks," "Card Fans and Flourishes," and "Hints to the Amateur Magician."

The most fascinating aspect of Magic Made Easy is that it included, for every item in the book, a recommended practice time required to learn the effect. This was a helpful guide to the reader as to which tricks were the most difficult, and it must surely give more educated readers considerable cause for second-guessing. A few selected practice times:

  • Classic coin palm: 50 minutes
  • The thumb tie: 25 minutes
  • The famous three-shell game: 1 hour, 30 minutes
  • Top card palm: 10 minutes
  • Double lift: 15 minutes
  • The secret coin fold: 35 minutes
  • Torn and restored newspaper: 1 hour
  • Multiplying cigars: 40 minutes
  • Classic force: 1 hour
  • Three-card monte: 50 minutes
  • The card fan: 2 hours, 30 minutes
  • One-hand fanning: 1 hour, 45 minutes
  • Charlier cut: 50 minutes

For a book that was marketed to kids on the comic book stands, the material was quite strong, and anything that was going to require a kid two and a half hours to learn seemed daunting at the time. But it was all time well spent. I don't smoke and therefore seldom have cause to even touch a cigarette. Someone a few days ago handed me an unlit cigarette and asked me to do something magical with it. Fortunately "The Pivot Vanish" (25 minutes) and "The Fist Vanish" (15 minutes) were part of my childhood education, and that 40 minutes I had invested over 40 years ago came through for me. The guy went away thinking I was pretty cool.

The book contains one special item that you may be familiar with, "The Trick Without a Name." This is the effect in which a spectator writes his name on a page in a magazine. The page is torn out of the magazine and burned, and the spectator sees his name up to the last minute. After "the magician pronounces a mystical incantation," the magazine is opened and the page has returned, still signed! Fleischman published the effect earlier, and under his own name, in 1945, in J.G. Thompson, Jr.'s My Best. Variations on this trick are still popular today.

Magic for All

Magic for All (1946), by Bob Dunn ("Famous Artist and Magician").

Somewhere along the way I received this book on my birthday from a slightly older cousin, a dentist. I've never seen it elsewhere.

The book contains but one page of text, a pithy introduction that includes such gems as

I have never met anyone who wasn't captivated by magic. Legerdemain or sleight-of-hand unfailingly commands attention of persons of all ages anywhere. Magician friends of mine can tour the world, speaking only English and double-talk; for magic is its own Esperanto.


You must have a bag of tricks: Columbus was the only man who ever made a big hit with only one trick.

The entire rest of the book is presented in cartoon drawings, per the figure below. In general one page is devoted to a single trick or item. Chapters include "Tricks With a Simple Twist," "Great Magicians: Their Specialties," "Tricks of the Trade with a Professional Touch," "Solving Card Magic," "Coins with Strange Behavior," "Hypnotism and Thought Transference," and "Miscellaneous Tricks and Pastimes."

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on famous magicians, which introduced me to magicians and secrets including Cagliostro (alchemy: mercury to silver), Houdini (escapes and debunking spiritualists), Hermann the Great (the bullet catch), Ching Ling Foo (materialization of a boy from thin air), Howard Thurston (the floating card), Russell Swann (comedy), Jarrow (the paper tree), and Harry Kellar (levitation of a lady). The latter was my first encounter with the S-shaped floatation mechanism.

The cartoon format added a special allure to all the tricks, some of which were of professional caliber and some of which were only parlor stunts, and the book as a whole was one more piece of evidence that magic was indeed a field of interest worth my time.

These of course were some of the earliest books I encountered. A few short years after these I stumbled onto more common sources, such as Maskelyne and Devant's Our Magic and Henry Hay's Cyclopedia of Magic, which were in our public library, as well as upon decidedly uncommon sources, such as Robert Nelson's Ghost Book of Dark Secrets. I also finally took the advice in the back of Magic Made Easy and sent a letter off to Genii, which eventually opened up the entire gamut of magical literature to me.

©Copyright 1996 by Steve Bryant
Return to Little Egypt Magic.