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19th century magic.

Return to our March 2020 issue to tackle Steve Forte's Gambling Sleight of Hand, to enjoy Lucy Darling's Indulgence, and to peruse a New Yorker article on Houdini.

April 2020

This month we enjoy a new book of parlor, or parlour if you will, tricks. It is not as though I didn't have enough spare time to read it. Morgan and West are talented and funny entertainers, apparently hailing from two centuries back, and I love listening their rapid-fire patter as they talk over each other's sentences. Their new book and video are great.

Also a sad farewell to Joan Lawton. I didn't really know her as a friend, but she was always nice to me whenever we had an encounter. A fixture as part of the Magic Castle's startup story, she will be missed whenever the the old place fills back up. Fingers are crossed.

And thank you to the magicians everywhere who are sharing their time and talent on the internet as we all hunker down. And do, my friends, keep on hunkering.

WEIRD SCIENCE -- "Put your hands together for the 19th century's greatest magical duo, Morgan and West ... magicians, time travelers, and all round spiffing chaps." So go the introductory words to a collaboration I have enjoyed several times live, ably performed by said duo who have now given every word, magical secret, and background thinking to their newest project, Parlour Tricks.

Impressive place to attend college.

From Vanishing Inc., Parlour Tricks is a 90-minute streaming magic show packaged with a handsome 356-page hardback. Something seems "right" about Rhys Morgan and Rob West creating a 19th-century magic show, given that the fellows are Oxford trained scientists (Rhys in physics, Rob in chemistry). Who else could toss out terms such as eigenvector in their patter?

Does the Bodleian have a copy of Parlour Tricks?

The show Parlour Tricks is a 90-minute, two-act theatrical presentation with half a dozen routines in each act. In case you've never seen it, it contains a generous, eclectic range of parlor-scale material, including visual magic (Multiplying Bottles, Ring on Ribbon, Cups and Liquid), two card tricks, several mentalism pieces, some math wizardry, a costume change, and a pair of escapes (Thumb Tie, Bag Escape). What distinguishes each is that Morgan and West attempt, with no false modesty, to make it the best possible version of itself. And they explain how and why.

Step into my parlour.

Much of the above fooled me, especially the two card tricks. In the first, a signed card in a boxed deck transposes into one of those impossible objects, a deck in a jar that you cannot extract. Through a small window in the box, the spectator can see his signature on the face card of the deck. (And he really does!) The second is a single Thought Of Card Across. I know many methods, but this one appears squeaky clean and direct.

Can he escape?

The organization of each item is efficient. For each you get the Effect, the Props, the Preparation, the Method, the Performance (script and stage directions), and an Essay (what the heck they were thinking). In addition to all this are copious footnotes, the best I have seen since John Lovick's in The Performance Pieces & Divertissements of the Famous Handsome Jack etc. or in Paul Harris's Phootnotes in The Art of Astonishment.

Although you may, I doubt that I will ever perform any of the "vintage" tricks, even though I was born closer to the 19th century than to the 21st. Rather, the take away for me is the wonderful thinking in the essays and footnotes, especially that the material should make sense. Some specific snippets: Don't make the trick about someone else (your grandfather, Houdini, etc.), or about "the first trick you ever learned," or even a classic of magic (the audience has therefore probably seen it before). Try turning a card trick you enjoy into something that doesn't involve cards. Don't demean what you do with lines such as "Yep, ten years of my lie wasted learning to do that!" Be aware that children don't act like adults. ("They're like drunk adults.") Don't boast of your general knowledge or expertise; rather, demonstrate it. Don't portray your magic as genuine skill (such as boasting that you have been banned from casinos, or can memorize a deck in a few seconds); they will figure out you are a liar. Don't struggle to read someone's mind, then render that struggle moot by having predicted that word in a book in advance. And so on, fully discussed, and much more.

Production values are top notch. The video is nicely shot and edited, with multiple viewpoints, and I loved the frequent cuts to a very happy audience. The book itself is gorgeous, opens nicely and sports a handy ribbon bookmark, is chock full of color photos, has an intricately designed cover that bears close scrutiny, and is most amusingly written. You are going to love the footnotes. It surprised me to note, upon finishing reading, that I tallied no typos, so kudos to the writers and editors. There may have been some, but I didn't see any. Unless you want to quibble over the spelling of Parlour. From Vanishing Inc. $60.

Note: Outdoor photos above are from my travels to England in 2012. Oxford was breathtaking.

DEAR JOAN -- I was sad to learn on April 5 that Joan Lawton had passed away. The news seemed of even more immediate impact because I had just spent a few days enjoying her on video. As part of the Magic Castle Heritage Committee, she posted an interview with Leo Behnke, and she herself was the subject of a two-part interview by Michael Perovich and Sara Ballantine. Joan was a fixture at the Magic Castle from Year One, a formidable receptionist, and friend to many members, including legendary magicians. Although her parents initially disapproved of her working in "a saloon," they changed that opinion when the Castle crowd welcomed their first visit, and particularly when her mom found out that she was friends with Cary Grant.

Joan and Sara.

She enjoyed a happy marriage with magician and eventual Castle host Don Lawton. About ten years after Don's passing, she discovered among his stuf a "ratty little book" full of autographs that Don had collected from the magicians of the 1940s and 1950s. Although she would discuss this find with savvy magicians for the next nine years or so, it wasn't until early 2007 that she hit upon a great idea. She would turn the autographs into a keepsake book, accompanied by photos, handwriting analysis, tributes from Don's friends, and samples of his writing and scripts. The book debuted in 2008 and is a delight to spend time with.

When I acquired a copy in 2009, I reviewed it here and will close with a reprint of that review. Joan Lawton was a really nice lady, and her book was one of the nicest things she created. I expect that Don would have been ecstatic over how special it turned out. Aloha, Joan.

Paul LePaul.

SIGNATURE EFFECTS (From May 2009) -- Don Lawton's Autograph Book, which I acquired last month at the MCA Weekend, is a thoroughly delightful book. Although I never had a true mentor when growing up, we did have one nice older magician in my home town named Albert Lee. When Albert finally managed a trip to the Magic Castle late in his life, he entered the Grand Salon to be greeted by then host Don Lawton. Upon telling Don that he was from Cairo, Illinois, Don immediately rattled off Albert's street address! (This bit of magic was aided by Don's having once been a St. Louis magic dealer and having frequently shipped packages to Albert.) The Castle has not had a nicer or more knowledgeable host since. Don's book, put together by his wife Joan, is not only a tribute to Don, but is Don's tribute to early and mid-twentieth century magic. The bulk of the book is allotted to forty photos and autographs from top-flight magicians. Each autograph and photo is accompanied by a graphologist's analysis of the inscription, and my only quibble with the book is that I think history would have been better served by a one-page biography than by this handwriting mumbo-jumbo. But the variety of the inscriptions and the warmth of the photos make this an inspiring work, ranking up there with Hyla Clark's The World's Greatest Magic. Rounding out the book are forewords and biographical information by Leo Behnke, Lance Burton, Bruce Cervon, John Gaughan, Mark Nelson, and Jim Steinmeyer, and patter presentations for some of Don Lawton's signature effects: "Clippo," "Disecto," the "Sucker Paper Tear," and the "Egg Bag." The stunning design is by Steve Mitchell. At $48.50, this is one of the finest coffee table magic books I've seen in a long time and a delight to spend an afternoon with.

Family album.

MAGICIANS ARE NICER THAN PEOPLE -- As the world suffers under its biggest April Fool joke ever, magicians around the planet are uniting and sharing their gifts. Last month I mentioned the Chicago show Indulgence from Lucy Darling and the early book Cardworks from Richard Kaufman. This month I enjoyed an internet attendance to the Portland Magic Jam, featuring John Shryock, Max Maven, Stephen Bargatze, and Shawn Farquhar. It's still online!

How does he do it?

Friends are sending each other links to all sorts of magic-related material, such as the pictured Ernie Kovacs performance. (This should have been performed in the MAGIC Live sawing in half retrospective.) The Magic Castle is making its AMA archives available to members, including among such videos as Who's Hoo, the Heritage Committee interviews, the Genii Video Series (Daniel Ulin), and the William W. Larsen Library performances with Bill Goodwin. And the whopper free "convention" was the Vanishing Inc. five-hour broadcast of ShareMagic: Live2020, on April 5, to which 30,000 different magi logged in, making it the largest magic event in history. Featured artists included David Blaine, Dynamo, Justin Willman, Jeff McBride, Dani DaOrtiz, Danny Garcia, Jim Krenz, Joshua Jay, Andi Gladwin, Harapan Ong, Morgan and West, Caroline Ravn, Ben Hart, and Jeff McBride. Wow. Thanks to all. It is no fun to be sitting at home, but you guys are making it special.


One of my first books of parlor magic.




Happy birthday, Milt Larsen.



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Steve Bryant is an obscure magician and writer who generates this site from an iMac in Bloomington, Indiana. He used to frequently journey to and perform magic in Little Egypt, the local name for extreme southern Illinois, where the towns bear such names as Cairo, Thebes, and Karnak.

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