Magicians at War…with Truth

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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.

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


 

Houdini’s Life and Afterlife

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I’m neither a Harry Houdini fan nor a scholar, but I’ve read several biographies on him over the past few decades (Kellock, Christopher, Silverman and Gresham come to mind, plus parts of Kalush/Sloman). And there are quite a few things I like about the particular approach Joe Posnanski, a sports writer by profession, has taken in this latest offer on the market. Let me tell you what and why in this brief review.

First, he’s trying hard not to rehash all the lore, but to tell the many myths about Houdini from the facts. For that, he sets himself on an enthusiastic journey to talk to a lot of knowledgeable magicians, both scholars and performers, some of them huge Houdini fanboys, others not so much.

So, secondly, we get to learn interesting insights and opinions from luminaries like Jim Steinmeyer, Mike Caveney, John Cox, David Copperfield, and others.

Third, the book is also, as the title promises, about the afterlife of Houdini. What makes him stand out still today? I found this an aspect worth spending time and thoughts on. However, it may appeal more to us magicians than to “normal” readers.

Fourth, Posnanski delivers a swift read and has a knack for catchy phrases and summaries that stick (like “Houdini never surrendered. That was what made him Houdini.” or “Death, ironically, gave Houdini a second life.”). He also has a great way of foreshadowing and leading you with hooks straight into the next chapter, which made me digest the entire book in only two sessions.

In terms of structure and dramatization, Posnanski decided to let us readers accompany him step by step on his quest. That’s why his attempts to contact Houdini expert Patrick Culliton (first futile, finally successful) are a recurrent theme and supposed to build some suspense. I agree with others that the book could have been done without this dramatization. And I found that Mr Culliton (whom I don’t know anything else about) comes across as a very strange and pitiable person. If this portrayal happens to be unfair and overdramatized, as claimed in the Genii Forum here and here, Mr Posnanski should be reprehended for that.

Apart from this quibble, which I cannot judge, I recommend this book for “Non-Houdinians” as a refreshing and enlightening addition to the bulk of “regular” Houdini biographies.


 

The Magic Art of Orimoto

As I’ve learned from Roberto Giobbi‘s recent newsletter (always an excellent and inspiring read, by the way), his wife Barbara is involved in Orimoto or Book Origami, a handcraft for creating artful objects by folding book pages. As Roberto explains, it is quite a laborious work, as each page is cut and folded in a particular way so that a message or design will be visible relief-style. Look at these wonderful samples (reproduced by permission here):

I think these are not only beautiful, magical objects to grace your bookshelf or collection; I could also see them play well in a parlor show within a story trick or as a very special revelation of a chosen word or playing card.

Actually, these pieces of art are for sale. Depending on complexity, they cost between $ 80 and 160 plus shipping. You can even ask for your personal design. For details, contact Roberto directly at giobbi@bluewin.ch.


 

 

Zauberhafte Nach-Weihnachts-Tipps

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Na, an Weihnachten zaubertechnisch leer ausgegangen oder zumindest das heiß begehrte neue Buch des Großen Trickserini oder die Best-of-DVD der Fettigen Finger doch nicht von der Liebsten erhalten?! Dann muss man sich in 2020 eben öfter selbst beschenken! Nachfolgend einige aktuelle Tipps.

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Nicolai Friedrich tritt noch bis zum 2. Februar 2020 in einem Zauber-Zelt am Frankfurter Waldstadion auf. Hier steht mehr darüber, und hier ist ein aktueller Artikel über ihn aus der F.A.Z.

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Wer in Berlin wohnt oder in den nächsten Wochen hinfahren möchte, mag sich vielleicht Zauber Zauber anschauen. Das Programm ist noch bis zum 26. Januar 2020 im Berliner Wintergarten Varieté zu sehen.

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Es kommt nicht mehr so häufig vor, dass englischsprachige Zauberbücher ins Deutsche übersetzt werden. Geschehen ist dies aber nun mit dem Titel The Spectacle of Illusion. Magic, the Paranormal and the Complicity of the Mind von Matthew Tompkins. Übersetzt heißt das Werk Die Kunst der Illusion. Magier, Spiritisten und wie wir uns täuschen lassen. Es umfasst 224 Seiten und enthält ca. 400 farbige Abbildungen. Mehr darüber gibt es hier zu lesen. Die deutsche Ausgabe kostet 34 Euro.

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Mark Lewis ist Misanthrop, Maulheld, Magier und (vermeintliches) Medium. Im Genii Forum sind seine Tiraden unter dem Namen “performer” gefürchtet, denn nach eigener Aussage hasst er die allermeisten Magier, liebt aber die Magie. Und als Profi weiß er, wovon er spricht bzw. schreibt, vor allem beim Thema Karten. So gilt er als ein Meister des Svengali Pitches. Sein Leben lang hat er von Hugards und Braues Royal Road to Card Magic gezehrt und nun seine umfassenden Anmerkungen und Ergänzungen dazu bei Chris Wasshubers Lybrary.com veröffentlicht. Zum Buch geht es direkt hier, der Preis beträgt gerade mal 15 Dollar.

Lewis Annotated

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Bilbiophile Zauberfreunde und Sammler seien noch einmal an das neueste Werk von Wittus Witt erinnert, das wunderschön aufgemachte A-B-C der Taschenspieler-Kunst. Die Auflage ist limitiert. Zu bestellen direkt beim Herausgeber per Mail an abc [at] wittuswitt.de.

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Und wer gar nichts ausgeben, aber sich kostenlos in Sachen Kartenkunst weiterbilden will, dem sei noch einmal der 554-Seiten-Schmöker The Passion of an Amateur Card Magician von Paco Nagata ans Herz gelegt. Der Spanier ist ein Amateur im besten Sinne des Wortes, ein Liebhaber, der sein Lebenswerk selbst ins Englische übersetzt hat, es nun mit Begeisterung völlig unneigennützig teilt und sich über jeden Leser herzlich und bescheiden freut. Einfach hier herunterladen!

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Noch 3 After-Burners!

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Alexander de Cova legt nach: Wie er dieser Tage ankündigte, erhält seine bisher schon sechsteilige Buchreihe Burners noch drei weitere Bände, von denen der erste noch vor Weihnachten erscheinen soll. Er kann jetzt zum Subskriptionspreis von 75 Euro bestellt werden. In den dann neun Bänden aus seinem schier unendlich weiten Zauber-Universum sieht Alexander eine passende Parallele zu den drei “Star Wars”-Trilogien. (Kleine Frage am Rande: Was ist eigentlich der Unterschied zwischen “Urban Street Magic” und “Street Magic”? Oder umgekehrt: Gibt es auch einen ländlichen Ableger, also “Rural Street Magic”??? Mal schauen, ob das Buch darüber Aufschluss gibt! 😉 )

Sehr lohnenswert ist übrigens auch ein regelmäßiger Besuch in Alexanders englischsprachigem Blog. Seit dem letzten Relaunch im August hat er bereits an die 100 (!) Beiträge – Tricks, Tipps und Analysen – veröffentlicht.


 

The Definite German Magic Bibliography

A moment of silent awe and admiration, please.

40 years in the making, here it finally is: THE Bibliography of German magic books and other publications until 1945, Almost 700 pages, more than 3,000 entries, thorough, and heavy as hell!

Big kudos to Volker Huber and Christian Theiß for making this happen!

I have already started to identify the exact editions of some books in my collection. Can’t wait to dig in deeper on the weekend!

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The first edition of this masterpiece is limited to 300 copies. You may want to check it out here.


 

An Interview with David Regal

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„The process is my favorite part“

David Regal is one of the most original and most prolific creators in our field, and I am a huge fan. He is also a super nice guy who graciously cut out some time from his current schedule of shooting the final episodes of “The Carbonaro Effect” to do this interview about inspiration, creating magic, and considering retirement.

Hi David! Ten years after Approaching Magic your new book, Interpreting Magic, is finally coming out. What has taken you so long? 🙂

It doesn’t seem like a long time to me. It was simply the amount of time it took to develop material, interview people from different places around the world, and write the book.

Besides format and weight, how are the two titles or their content related? Do we read them like a progression, culminating later maybe in Strengthening Magic or Selling Magic, or is it more about a shift in your focus?

You think there will be another book?! I can’t conceive of such a thing. I honestly can’t imagine trying to tackle it again. I do think that Approaching Magic and Interpreting Magic link insofar as both deal with ways to individualize the magic we do. Either can be read alone, though.

Has your magic somehow changed over the past years, and if so, does this show in the book?

I have matured, but I don’t mean that in the way of something I have accomplished by virtue of will, more like something that happened to me. Over the past ten years I’ve written or collaborated on literally hundreds of magic routines, for television and in theatrical venues. I’ve tried to pay attention and learn, and my observations and experiences are part of my current book… in addition to a lot of material.

That is indeed a lot! Besides presenting dozens of new tricks, you have conducted more than 30 interviews with many of magic’s top creators and performers, from Simon Aronson to Rob Zabrecky. With what intention and to what overall effect?

I feel that by looking at so many different people’s “way in” to magic and their process, the cumulative effect is both inspiring and welcoming.

What’s your own favorite approach to developing new material? Do you rather start from the effect, or the method, or with an interesting premise or prop?

There is no one way. It all comes down to “What if…?”

Many creative people will tell you that they have special moments and places where their next big idea is more likely to strike them, like during their morning shower or while walking the dog late at night. How about you?

I come from television writing, where one cannot choose to wait for inspiration. Inspiration is lovely, but my training has been on the battlefield of production demands. Your favorite TV show? The one that seems particularly funny or well-crafted? It was at one time writers in a room with a deadline!

If pressed, who’s your favorite creator in magic, and why?

I particularly like Al Baker, maybe because I was fortunate to be loaned an Al Baker book by a neighbor when I was too young to understand or appreciate it all. As I grew the book magically informed me in new ways.

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With six big books under your belt now, your magic output is amazingly huge, diverse, and original. What drives and inspires you to go on and on?

The process of putting things together, working out the puzzle of it all, appeals to me. The process is my favorite part. For a while I felt guilty about that. Only recently have I started to accept who I am and what I’m drawn to, but better late than never.

Definitely! You are obviously way too young to retire, but if there was only one accomplishment in magic you wanted to be remembered for, which one would it be?

I am not too young to retire, but I like to occasionally flatter myself by imagining that my new book might one day be looked back on as something that was good for magic. I realize that sounds egotistical, but why would anyone go to the effort of writing a book like this without hoping the same thing?

Right, who isn’t into writing also with a faint hope of leaving a worthy legacy… Final question, totally unrelated: Any chances of welcoming you in Germany, the land of The Mugs & Balls (beer and soccer!) and the home of the Flicking Fingers, in the future?

I’d love a trip to Germany!

Great, let’s hope our convention and tour bookers are listening! Thank you so much for your time, David, and best of success with Interpreting Magic!

(Interview: Jan Isenbart)


MORE REGAL:

Check out the full table of content of Interpreting Magic here (PDF) and his website and online shop here.

You will find a lengthy, glowing review of Interpreting Magic by Michael Close in this thread over at the Genii Forum. In addition, Michael offers a podcast interview with David on his website. You have to subscribe to his newsletter to catch it, but you won’t regret it!

In addition, here’s a recent podcast interview of David by Scott Wells from The Magic Word.

And finally, do yourself a favor and enjoy one of his shows from The Magic Castle, featuring Herman! (Spoiler alert: Watch out for the cheese!)


 

A Word on Regal

David Regal is very high up on my personal list of favorite magic creators and performers. Hell, if I were much younger, I‘d probably be a fan-boy with a cheesy t-shirt, chasing him for autographs! I treasure all of his books, and I am particularly impressed by his talent for creating audience engagement through meaningful, original trick premises and quirky routines. He also seems to be an all-around nice and funny guy you‘d love to have a good (German) beer with. And his last book, Approaching Magic, came out already a decade ago.

Having said that, I am very excited to learn about his upcoming book, Interpreting Magic. According to his website, this tome delivers another 550+ pages of original magic, among them 60+ routines with more than 1,000 photographs and some 30 conversations with other magic inventors and artists. See the full table of contents here.

The book will be available mid-September, the price is 75$ plus shipping, which is, sadly, very steep to Europe (though already heavily discounted over regular rates, as David points out).

Find out more or order directly here: http://www.davidregal.com

I have no doubt that this will be rated one of the top books of 2019, and in my experience you cannot go wrong with a Regal book. Heck, this one brings his contributions to our art up to about 2,000 pages in total, if I am not mistaken! There are (or were) very, very few others out there to match or even top this output. And I can testify that this is not just about quantity!

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Zabrecky’s Strange Cures

Rob Zabrecky is a mainstay of the Magic Castle and a fine magician with a well-defined stage persona that borders on the dark and bizarre. Before his magic career, he was a professional musician. Even though he has just turned 51, Zabrecky has recently published his autobiography, Strange Cures, subtitled “A memoir”. It’s available at Amazon now in a paperback edition for 19,95 Dollars.

From the blurb:

Strange Cures is a turbulent, against-all odds memoir of self-discovery, success, failure, and reinvention, told by one of LA’s most interesting natives. With an unflinching gaze, musician/magician/actor Zabrecky recounts his bizarre coming-of-age tale and his quest to find a place in the arts–and the world.

The author reveals a young life filled with both physical miracles and subversive role models, including an uncle who impersonated an FBI agent and, in a drunken delusion, shot and nearly killed him. He takes readers on a roller coaster ride through the nascent days of Silver Lake’s music and art community, as seen through the lens of his critically acclaimed band, Possum Dixon.

As Jim Steinmeyer, magic author, inventor and performer, comments:

Zabrecky’s memoirs are surprising, addictive, terrifying, magical. He careens through childhood, rock and roll, and popular entertainment by driving on the shoulder, passing on the right, and then playing bumper cars with the cold, hard truth. You’re in for a fantastic ride.

Here’s a nice review from the Los Angeles Times, and it ends with a great line:  The reader of Strange Cures is reminded “that life is what you make of it, and what you make of it is rarely what you dream it to be.”

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Addendum:

Here’s a free excerpt of the book from the LA Weekly. Enjoy!


 

A Surprising Comeback by Ricky Jay

Just a couple of days ago Ricky Jay’s early masterpiece, Cards as Weapons, made a surprising encore on Amazon with a new paperback edition of this long sold-out, highly sought after classic. Prices on the second market for older editions are likely to drop significantly now, I guess.

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Addendum: Some guys over on the Genii Forum think that this is an illegal product and not endorsed by the estate of Ricky Jay. Too bad!

O tempora, o mores!