Classic Sampler, by Michael Skinner, published by L & L Publishing. $35 regular edition, $79.95 deluxe slipcased edition. From L & L Publishing, P.O. Box 100, Tahoma CA 96142.

Although I'm not sure I can pinpoint exactly why, most magicians (including myself) who have ever seen Michael Skinner work are rather in love with him. He evokes this admiration quietly, by performing exquisite sleight-of-hand in a gentlemanly way. As with Slydini, one of Michael's mentors, you sense when watching him work that you are watching an artist. In an age when many a skilled close-up magician's persona is founded in a certain outrageousness (Tom Mullica, David Williamson, even Ricky Jay, for example), it is refreshing that Michael reaches his audiences through a slow, deliberate style, and that he has made a good living at it. He has been at the Golden Nugget since 1975, where I regret never having seen him work. Fortunately, I watched him often during his early years at the Magic Castle, and have attended two of his lectures since then. What came through for me in those occasions was what Larry Jennings says in the book's Foreword, that "Michael was as likable as he was accomplished," as well as what Allen Okawa says in his Introduction, that "Michael Skinner is the consummate artist of intimate magic."

In addition to Larry Jennings' Foreword, Allen Okawa's Introduction, and Michael's own Preface (which contains thoughts on magic not easily found elsewhere), there is an extraordinary 15-page, nearly 8500-word Profile by William Murray. Mr. Murray is a New Yorker writer, and the piece was intended for publication in that magazine. (It was written a few years ago, when the Magic Castle library was still on an upper floor, and Dai Vernon was still alive. Although one occasionally stumbles on a line that exposes a layman's naivete, it's an engaging essay.) That it didn't make it into the magazine is The New Yorker's loss and our gain. In addition to being a fine biographical article on Michael, it contains partial or full patter presentations for many of Michael's signature effects, including a thimble trick, "Han Ping Chien," a ring on pen, "Trash Compactor," a cigarette paper tear, "Jumping Gems," the Slydini handkerchief knots, a dice twisting effect, a two-card transposition, an any-four-cards-to-aces effect, "Triumph," Edward Victor's "Eleven-Card Trick," "Three-Card Monte," and the cups and balls. The effects are described in the context of Murray introducing his friends to Michael via a close-up table performance in Las Vegas, and their gradual conversion to Michael Skinner fans both gives the reader a feeling of being there as well as of how good Michael really is. As one of Murray's companions says to Michael, "You know, Michael, you're challenging a whole concept of the universe. It's what shamans and magicians have always done -- lift people's hearts and minds beyond themselves."

At some point in Magic Grammar School, most of us encountered the bromide that we should learn but six tricks, and learn them well. Michael Skinner must have skipped class the day that lesson was taught (he was possibly out behind the school house learning a few more card tricks). Michael's reputation for an encyclopedic repertoire is as well-known as his skill, and he became a legend the week he worked at the Magic Castle without repeating a trick. (The management had to ask him to desist, as the other magicians kept crowding into the Close-up Gallery to witness as much of this marathon as possible.) It is perhaps because of this reputation that I sensed a feeling of disappointment when the book was announced as a "slim yet pregnant volume." I need not have despaired: the book is full of excellent magic, the largest Skinner collection to date, and I know from prior encounters with Michael that he truly favors the items in this book. Of purely performance items, there are 27 spread over 85 pages. (The entire book is around 120 pages with the biographical material and notes on theory.) In part the book is "slim" because Michael doesn't over elaborate in his descriptions. Where he assumes that the reader might have difficulty obtaining a reference, such as a file of Hierophant, he describes the move in question. On the other hand, if the move is readily available in The Amateur Magician's Handbook or The Dai Vernon Book of Magic, he doesn't, "as any card man, worth his salt, will have the above mentioned volumes in his library." (After reading a library book in high school on Scarne, the first book Michael purchased was Erdnase, and he frequently quotes it by page number as an Evangelist might quote Biblical text. Michael's fascination with this essential text no doubt endeared him to Dai Vernon on their meeting in 1967.) Also contributing to the "slim" characterization of the book is the fact that Michael has trimmed each effect down to its essential elements, containing only those required to produce an entertaining effect, and using only the fewest and most straightforward moves to achieve that effect. An example is "The Conus Aces," in which Michael eliminates the sucker aspects of the effect (". . . just too blatant for a modern audience to accept . . . just not subtle enough to entertain") while emphasizing its climax (". . . the production at the conclusion of the effect is just wonderful . . . This is a beautiful sequence and makes the effect worthwhile.").

As to the effects, there are 22 card items and 5 with other ordinary objects. A quick look at a few of them:

The Business on the Business Card Prediction -- Michael takes a familiar trick in which a business card, on which is written two predictions, is inserted between any two cards in the deck, which turn out to be the predicted cards. Two methods are offered, both considerably more difficult than the original, but which eliminate the phony turnover of the card and produce a more direct and unfathomable effect.

The Mona Lisa Card Trick -- A "favorite with the ladies in the audience," this is a routine in which classic paintings is the subtext, as a random card on display changes to a selected card. Quite easy to do and a nice climax.

The Conus Aces -- In Michael's stripped down version, four random cards become aces as you brush them over the back of a spectator's hand, as the four aces under the spectator's hand become queens, to a patter story that neatly ties it all together.

Oil and Water Rides Again -- An eight-card oil and water sequence in which all the cards eventually turn red. Again, a relevant story line makes it all work together. (It's a strong, novel effect, but I'll still stick with the routine in our October issue.)

A Deeper Mystery -- I'd just as soon Michael had not published this, as I learned it from him years ago, in one of his lectures, and would rather others not know it. It's the best version I know of Al Koran's "Lazy Man Card Trick."

On the Card to Wallet -- A difficult maneuver, but one that should confound the most observant spectator or video camera. The card is loaded via two justified trips to the pocket. In both cases, the hand going to the pocket is clearly empty.

Birthday Telepathy -- This is an easy mathematical stunt (no cards involved), but Michael's presentational touches raise it to the miracle class.

The Mental Photography Deck -- I find it interesting that magicians of the technical caliber of Michael Skinner and the late Albert Goshman both have seen fit to feature the old dealer item also known as "The Nudist Deck." In his Preface, and throughout the various card tricks, Michael reveals himself to be a perfectionist regarding cleaning up, often doing so well ahead of time. This effect is a case in point.

The Memorized Deck -- There are three sections in the book on the memorized deck, and several of the routines in them require repeated perfect Faro shuffles. If this move is part of your arsenal, the effects are stunning. I particularly liked "The Monkey's Paw," which produces an effect similar to Paul Gertner's "Unshuffled," but better to my mind, and with a perfect patter line. (I keep coming back to Michael's lines, which thoroughly impressed me in this book. As Don Alan does, Michael uses few lines, but lines that are potent with suggestion and leave lasting impressions on the audience. )

Torn and Restored Soda Straw Wrapper -- The title describes the effect, a clean version owing much to Leipzig and to a relevant story with some really bad puns.

Instant Replay -- Michael's very commercial version of the "Chicago Opener," with no mention of red hot mamas.

A Poker Deal -- Again, this is a routine that requires Faro shuffles, a skill that eludes me, but it's the presentation here, in which a spectator deals the royal flush, and with perfect lines, that makes this sell. With a little work you could map this version to one requiring more undergraduate skill.

Did You Wash Behind Your Ears? -- Ever produce a coin from behind a child's ear? Here's a method that will fool others who have done so. Again, perfect lines and entertaining byplay with the spectator make this play. Thanks are noted to Jack Chanin.

The Trash Compactor -- A perfect restaurant routine: a paper napkin is magically compressed to a small pellet of paper, which then vanishes completely.

Top and Bottom Blackstone -- This is one of the easiest effects in the book, and one that will cause audiences to credit you with the most skill. It's most interesting to compare this with the equally strong and impromptu "Larry's Favorite" in Larry Jennings' book, The Cardwright. You start with a spectator-shuffled deck. A card is selected and replaced, the deck is cut into four piles and reassembled in a different order. You look at the top and bottom cards which now add up to, say, 17. You then cut 16 cards cleanly off the top, in one quick move, and count them to verify your accuracy. The 17th card, now on top of the deck, proves to be the spectator's card.

Rouge et Noir -- Some bold but easy moves make possible this "Oil and Water" effect in which the specator seemingly does all the work. A spectator shuffles seven black and red cards together and then hands you seven of them. You turn them over to reveal them to be all red. The spectator examines the cards remaining in his hands to discover he holds the seven black cards. You end clean with a full deck with no duplicates.

Classic Sampler is a hard-cover book, 8 1/2 by 11, 120 pp. Although Michael felt no illustrations were necessary, the book is liberally illustrated with over 100 clear hand photographs by Anne White. Photos of Michael with various friends in magic also appear throughout the book. The attractive layout is by Daniel McCarthy, and the book is printed on glossy paper. (My only quibble, and this occurred only in the introductory material, is that I have a prejudice against the use of underlining for emphasis in printed matter; I prefer italics. Marlo was a great card man, but one shouldn't use him as a style guide.) There is a quite beautiful full-color dust jacket, and the overleaf contains a very nice introduction of Michael by his boss, Steve Wynn. (Mr. Wynn's other staff magicians include Siegfried and Roy and Lance Burton.) So -- while the book may not be the Every Trick Michael Skinner Knows In The World (over 2000 at the time of the William Murray article) book that one might have hoped for, it nevertheless contains a substantial amount of wonderful material, enough to keep you busy and your audiences entertained for years to come. At $35, it's also a bargain and should fill magicians' stockings around the world this Christmas.

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Copyright© 1996 by Steve Bryant