Blake Vogt’s Abracadabra by Design

Blake Vogt_Abracadabra_VanInc
Screenshot from Vanishing Inc. Newsletter

As you can see in this special section of my blog, I’m a sucker for magic art and art in magic. So I do get excited when a magician puts his artistry into art. Creative mastermind Blake Vogt has just designed a cool graphic poster which displays the word ABRACADABRA in a stunning, not-so-obvious way. You can order this piece from Vanishing Inc. while supply lasts.


 

Debunking the Maskelyne Myth

Maskelyne_BBC
Screenshot from BBC video

Somewhat related to my recent review of H. Wayne Capps’s disappointing book, Magicians at War, a fews days ago I was pointed towards this nifty BBC video animation by Dan John and Michael Bialozej. In less than seven minutes, they give you a crash course about the myth how Jasper Maskelyne supposedly contributed eminently to the British War effort by employing means of magic and ingenious engineering in the North African theatre. (No, he didn’t.) Some experts on magic and deception are also quoted. (Richard Stokes, the main debunker, is sadly not among them.) Recommended!


 

Fröhliche Becher-Tage?!

Der Corona-Virus gibt uns immerhin gerade reichlich Gelegenheit, viele unserer alltäglichen Routinen zu hinterfragen und alternative Wege auszuprobieren. Warum zukünftig nicht auch mal beim Thema Zauberkongresse und -seminare?

Ich habe mich gefragt, ob zwischen diesen etablierten Formaten mit all ihren Vor- und Nachteilen noch Luft ist für ein “Zwischending”. Meine Idee: Statt bunt-beliebigen Verkaufskongressen – oder ergänzend dazu – monothematische Ein-Tages-Workshops mit begrenztem Teilnehmerkreis.

Am Beispiel “Becherspiel” könnte ein solcher Workshop etwa so ablaufen:

1. Video-Einstieg (und/oder Videos oder Live-Demonstrationen nach jedem Programmpunkt)

2. Historie und Bedeutung des Becherspiels in der Zauberkunst

3. Klassische Routinen und ihre Schöpfer (inkl. Detailanalysen)

4. Etwas Kultur: Das Becherspiel in der bildenden Kunst

5. Besonderheiten von Chop-Cup- und Zwei-Becher-Routinen

6. Praktische Tipps für das Becherspiel am Tisch / im “Salon” / auf der Bühne / auf der Straße

7. Schlussladung: Eine Parade neuer Griffe, Variationen und Präsentationsideen (unter Beteiligung des Fachpublikums)

Ich für meinen Teil hätte reges Interesse und große Lust, daran oder an ähnlich gestalteten monothematischen Veranstaltungen teilzunehmen!

Dies als kleine Anregung, die jemand hoffentlich in der Zukunft einmal aufgreifen und weiterdenken mag. Vielleicht ja die Stiftung Zauberkunst?

Andererseits gilt es zu bedenken: Vielleicht sind für so eine tiefe Auseinandersetzung nicht sehr viele Tricks und Themen geeignet? Wenig ist so vielseitig wie das Becherspiel. Insofern könnte ein ganzer Workshop-Tag über Theorie und Praxis des Ladens und Stehlens der DS vielleicht schnell ermüden? (Aber als Ermutigung könnte man ja vielleicht den “Goldenen Daumen” für eine echte Spitzen-Darbietung ausloben!)

Kurzfassungen dieses Konzeptes sind sicher auch für Zirkelabende denkbar und machbar. Es muss ja nicht immer gleich enzyklopäisch sein! Sonst gipfelt das Ganze am Ende noch in den Tollen Tübinger Thumbtip Tagen, dem Wuppertaler Wasserzeitungs-Wochenende oder gar im fünftägigen Remscheider Ringe-Piez…


 

ZDF und ORF mit neuer Show “1000 Tricks”

Fig1

Die ZDF-Pressestelle vermeldete jüngst dieses:

Zaubern wie die Großen: In Wien entsteht derzeit in einer ZDF/ORF-Koproduktion die Zaubershow “1000 Tricks”. Vier Nachwuchsmagierinnen und -magier entführen junge Zuschauerinnen und Zuschauer in 13 Folgen in die spektakuläre Welt der Zaubertricks. Die Ausstrahlung ist für 2020 im ORF und bei KiKA geplant.

Wie lässt man eine Cola-Dose fliegen, liest die Gedanken seiner Freunde oder drückt eine Münze mühelos durch einen massiven Holztisch? Die jungen Zauberer Melli und Christoph verblüffen die Zuschauer zu Beginn jeder Sendung mit perfekt vorgetragenen Illusionen. Doch bevor sie ihre Geheimnisse lüften, zeigt Magier Tristan unter dem kritischen Blick seinen Zauberschüler, wie man Menschen ganz einfach verschwinden lassen oder zum Schweben bringen kann. Doch dass beim Zaubern nicht immer alles glatt geht, zeigt “Magic Max”: Seine Kunststücke bewegen sich immer am Rand einer kleinen Katastrophe. Alle vier Protagonisten teilen ihr geheimes Wissen mit den Zuschauerinnen und Zuschauern – mit etwas Übung zu Hause kann so jeder zum umjubelten Magier werden. Doch nicht alle Tricks werden auch aufgelöst. Begleitend erklären Bilder und Grafiken, wie weit Wahrnehmung und Realität bei optischen Täuschungen auseinanderliegen können.

“1000 Tricks” ist eine Produktion der Tower 10 Kids TV im Auftrag des ORF und des ZDF. Die verantwortliche ZDF-Redaktion hat Jochen Steuernagel. Gedreht wird bis 10. Juli 2020.

Ob Magic Max wohl “unser” Magic Maxl ist?! Wir werden sehen!


 

Well Said: Eric Jones on Racism

Eric Jones has a short, but pointed essay on racism outside and inside of magic in the latest issue of Genii magazine (July 2020). Let me quote:

We have to be able to see the racism in the history of magic for what it is. If we cannot understand the complexity of how we can and should evolve from our past, plagued by bigotry and systematic racism, we will certainly fail at building a future free from it. (…)

Let’s not ignore, encode, or erase the stains in our past or use our skills of deception to deceive ourselves about the flaws in our family and even our heroes. Let’s talk about things head on, straight up, and share our stories, learn about each other, listen to each other, and make room for mistakes. Sometimes we have to unlearn what we know to make space for growth and change. This is one of those times.

Well said, Mr. Jones!

For some blatant older examples of racial stereotypes in magic catalogues, see my posts here and here!


 

On the Fascination of Gambling for Majishuns

Blackjack2

In a discussion on the Genii Forum a while back, Mark Lewis wrote:

I am quite astonished at the interest of magicians in anything to do with poker, card sharking and gambling generally. I strongly suspect that any book with a gambling theme sells very well to magicians. (…)
As a result I strongly suspect that if a writer was to write any kind of book concerning gambling whether it had card tricks and sleights or not would sell very well if marketed to magicians. That is probably why the Steve Forte book has done so well.

Well, my personal guess is that there are (at least) two reasons for that:

First, we majishuns simply love magic lore, stories, and riddles, the more fantastic the better. Real-world deceivers like cheats and hustlers attract our attention, earn our respect and trigger our imagination.

Second, I think we love to fancy ourselves as suave card mechanics with nerves of steel at the poker table, but because of our embarrassing shortcomings in the real world we resort to the second best thing: we pretend to be experts at the card table by doing risk-free gambling tricks and demonstrations!


 

Magicians at War…with Truth

Capps

A Review of Magicians at War by H. Wayne Capps (2020)

“Great liars are also great magicians,” Adolf Hitler supposedly once said or wrote. I have yet to find a German source for this alleged quote (any help?), but hey, it’s all over the internet, so it must be true, right?! And it’s printed in this book, like many other tales, semi-truths and lies. But if you turn the quote around, you will get an undisputed truth: Great magicians are also great liars. Just like, among others, many politicians or trumping spin doctors. So I wouldn’t dream of buying juicy or heroic stories from any of them easily. You have to take them with a grain of salt, if not with a big handful of woofledust.

Yet magic lore is full of these stories, and we all love them, don’t we? Because it sounds so exciting, so great and reassuring for our magic passion or profession: “How Espionage and Deceit Changed History” (subtitle of the book); “The Card Trick That Stopped WWII” (title of chapter 5); “Magicians in history have literally changed the world” (final chapter). Yeah, right! Sadly, the backstage view of magic is less glorious, less interesting and often shabby.

The author, H. Wayne Capps, is both a professional magician (under the name of Howard Blackwell) and a U.S. Air Force Reserve Lieutenant Colonel. With this slim booklet, which has grown out of a magic club mini lecture, he has tried to fuse his two occupations and passions. As the author states, this book was mainly written in the back of a C-17 cargo aircraft that took him around the world on military missions. That may explain why his offer is somewhat drafty and shaky. Why exactly?

Despite a fascinating and broad topic, the author has chosen the path of least resistence and has limited his work to mainly retelling the best, and already best-known, rehashed stories. Now, if you are a bit proficient in magic history, which names would you list with regard to magicians in and around the battlefields of war and espionage? Right, Robert-Houdin, Jasper Maskelyne, John Mulholland, Kalanag, maybe Houdini, “the spy” (?). And yes, all of them are covered in this book, plus a few other obvious ones (see www.magiciansatwar.com for the table of contents). Surprisingly, neither the Trojan Horse nor The Man Who Never Was nor The Death Camp Magicians are covered, not to mention Dudley Clarke, the real British master deceiver in World War II.

Capps is aware of the lore and its questionable lure, as he points out several times. At the same time, he exploits these myths carelessly, in order to tell and sell, and shows little interest in unlinking the rings of fiction and facts. I find this annoying, as uninitiated readers have no chance of making up their own mind because of the poor crediting. With a few notable exceptions, only the most basic sources are given.

The two main sources on Jasper Maskelyne, for example, are his own, largely fictitious “autobiography” and David Fisher’s subsequent super-fiction novel, The War Magician. Richard Stokes, who has done so much research to investigate and debunk the Maskelyne myths, is not even mentioned. At times, the crediting is also sloppy. Robert-Houdin’s seminal autobiography is not even listed as a primary source; and as I looked up a supposed author named Clarke Sternberg, “he” turned out be the U.K.-based Sternberg Clarke entertainment agency which once ran a blog post on Robert-Houdin on their website. Duh!

Yet the author emphasizes more than once that he has “thoroughly researched” the field, despite quoting sources like ABC News or writing sentences like this: “John Mulholland was a New York based magician and according to his widow, performed several times at Radio City Music Hall and wrote a number of books on magic.” He also claims that Robert-Houdin had toured the United States. And we learn that his in-depth research of the obscure (?) artist Paul Potassy made the author discover two important sources, Potassy’s biography & trick book by Uwe Schenk and Michael Sondermeyer and his 3-DVD set from L&L Publishing. Wow!

Sadly, and although announced in the introduction, there is no noticeable attempt of the reserve author to cast the actions and magic principles described into a bigger theoretical context on the role of deception in warfare or the parallels between the theaters of war and theater illusions. With a bit more care and effort, he could have dug into Sun Tzu or the eminent works of Barton Whaley and many other scholars.

Capps’ original contributions are limited to interviews with two fellow magicians, one an Army veteran, the other a former CIA director. While the brief chapter on military veterans “who used magic as a healing tool to fight the war within” taps into uncharted territory that I feel would have deserved a much bigger expedition, the CIA chapter falls short of its promise of top secrets revealed. As we learn, the CIA magician was merely fond of showing tricks to foreign diplomats and helped train his team on hostile deception tactics “to benefit a nation.” Abraca-poof!

Like almost any self-published book, this one could have used an editor and a spell checker to good results. Without, the “proverbial” cat becomes “preverbal”, the “ruse” a “rouse”, and Eugene Burger is misspelled as Berger. Ouch! If the chapters are in any meaningful order, I must have missed it. I also find it both amusing and irritating that the book’s cover image of my Kindle edition is still speckled with the watermark logo from fiverr, a web platform for freelance services…

I realize this review is already much longer than some of the book’s chapters, which is not a good thing. So to conclude, if you have never heard of any of the magicians mentioned above and are mildly interested in their claimed endeavors and achievements in the wars of the world, this slim book of 72 pages might serve as a quick and unambitious introduction. I would advise you, however, to consider getting the Kindle version via Amazon for less than €5 and not bother with the paperback edition for a hefty $24,95.

But if you have some background in magic history and more than a passing interest in this topic, you likely won’t find much of value here. For an in-depth, no-nonsense approach on the bigger context of military deception, let me recommend some major sources instead (out of about 30+ books on this subject in my library): Jon Latimer’s Deception in War, Thaddeus Holt’s The Deceivers, and any book by Barton Whaley, like Stratagem.

To end on a positive note, I fully agree with the author’s final assessment: “All of these stories, no matter how far-fetched, are certainly fun to tell and will no doubt outlive us all.” Amen to that, and cheers to all you great liars and master deceivers out there!


Full disclosure: I consider myself rather well-read in this particular area of magic and military deception, and I have delivered a detailed lecture about “Magicians at War” (sic!) at the recent 8th European Magic History Conference in Vienna in 2019. That’s why I’m both a bit saddened and annoyed that this book underdelivers on a truly fascinating facet of our beloved art.

MaW_EMHC


A slightly shorter version of this review has just appeared in Marco Pusterla‘s fine Ye Olde Magic Mag (Vol. 6, Issue 3).


 

Faking Impossible Bottles…

I have hesitated for a while whether to share this cheap cheat bit here or not, because if you have ever dealt seriously with the subject of “impossible bottles” and its masters like Harry Eng, you will know that it’s an absolute no-go and a disgrace to temper with the bottle you are trying to stuff stuff into in any way!

Yet it is understandable that not everybody with just a passing interest in this matter has the means or know-how, not to mention the patience, to master this craft and art. (I have actually tried it, and it is both an arduous and satisfying experience. You can read a bit more about it here.)

So for those easy come, easy go folks among you, let me tell you that there’s a fake “bottle” out there (it’s not even made of glass) that you can easily fill with the biggest and most complex objects, which should make for a nice display on any shelf. This bottle I came across is produced by Peleg Design (they also produce other magic-themed paraphernalia), and its shabby secret is not actually designed to be hidden well:

ImpBottle_ch

Let’s consider this as a beginner’s ticket into the wonderful world of impossible bottles. But please do not trick yourself into believing that you have accomplished anything magical by filling and displaying this kind of bottle!


 

Magic History: Miracle Infants, Fish and Dicks

One of the fascinating aspects of studying history is the constant realization that a lot of ideas, fashions and actions come around again and again in circles over the ages, sometimes just rediscovered or copied, sometimes reinvented, and sometimes as old stuff simply dressed in new clothes. Naturally, the same goes for magic tricks and plots. Here’s an interesting example.

In recent years, you may have gotten in contact with a minor novelty called the “Fortune Teller Miracle Fish” in one form or the other. It’s a cheap piece of thin plastic foil in the shape of a fish (or else, see below), and when put on someone’s hand it starts to move, turn or curl. Depending on the movement, you can consult a little clue sheet that comes with the fish to find some meaning in this mildly amusing spiel.

The provenance of this trick was under discussion in a recent Genii Forum thread, and it seems to have many forms and “fathers” who claim to have invented it many decades ago.

Alas, there isn’t much new under the same old magic sun. I happened to come across a description of a truly magical performance of this feat (rather than as a joke or novelty), and this book was already published back in the 1780s! It’s called Testament de Jérôme Sharp by Henri Decremps, an eminent, early French magic writer. (I browsed through the German translation of this book.)

He vividly describes an eery performance by an old gypsy woman: She puts a piece of paper with the drawing of an infant in a cloth (see below)  into the hands of two women. The paper then twists and wiggles in one woman’s hand only, which “proves” that she has given birth to a child, while the other woman has not. (The secret lies in the organic material of one of the two pieces used. No chemicals here. Plus some pre-show work, I assume.)

Miracle Baby_2

Now, compare this haunting plot and its deeper meaning to today’s slum version with its shallow horoscope-like “reading”, and you will have both a good and sad example of the ongoing trivialization in many branches of magic today!

It’s almost superfluous to mention that there are other meaningfuless and “blue” variations around today, including miraculous bacon stripes and dicks . . .

Fortune Teller Miracle Dick


Postscript:

When I looked up the availability and prices of these fish on Amazon, I came across this funny screen display: People who bought the fish had also bought this fine fortune teller’s turban… Well, some things will probably never change!

FortuneTeller


 

A Word on Thurston: Loving Your Audience

Thurston2

I’m sure most of you have heard or read one time or the other that part of grand illusionist Howard Thurston’s success was his love for his audience. Until very recently, however, I had not been aware of an early source of his mantra in the context of success. Then, by chance, I came across Thurston while reading Dale Carnegie’s bestselling book How To Win Friends And Influence People, first published in the 1930s and still a best seller today.

Let me quote from Carnegie (p. 53 of my Kindle edition), who had visited Thurston backstage in NYC late in his career:

Thurston_quote

I feel there’s a great lesson to be learned here.