Houdini’s Life and Afterlife


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.



A Rant on Exposure and Saving Magic from Extinction


Further thoughts on the current debate on the Genii Forum, passionately started and fought by Mahdi Gilbert, about the evils of exposure and thieves in magic and how to react to them:


I respect you as a performer and your dedication, and I think I fully understand your concerns. You deeply care for magic, you see our beloved art in extreme danger through exposure and theft and you want (us) to fight back. I subscribe to all of that. However, we seem to differ significantly on the judgement of the degree of urgency and on reasonable paths to solutions. We may also disagree on what the “real” secret of magic worth protecting is. I will go into that in a minute.

But first, let me state that I feel a bit insulted by your undifferentiated claims that magicians would do nothing against stealing and exposure. Like many others, I am also a magician who does care and act (at least a bit, as you can read here). And I don’t want to be driven out of magic by you for not fully sharing your beliefs about the importance of secrets. I could respond with the well-known quote that the definition of insanity (or foolishness) is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” But unlike you in your rage, I am willing to accept dissenting views and concepts.

So what do you suggest?

Okay, here’s my take on what’s probably helpful and what isn’t. To me, it’s morally right and understandable, but finally useless and pointless

  • to whine and complain about the world of exposure, copycats and thieves we are living in
  • to set up alliances
  • to write letters to media platforms, advertisers, politicians, regulators, trick pirates, and others
  • to involve lawyers and waste money.

Don’t get me wrong. It is an important and worthy cause, and we shouldn’t let all of this happen without caring and speaking out against it. But I simply believe these noble actions won’t change a thing about theft or exposure. Zero. Nada. None of these bastards will stop their actions, change their mindset, or question their business model. They won’t even listen or respond. Thus, this path is a waste of time and energy, and a constant downer. I would rather stay positive and work on a new trick or develop my skill set further in that time and pursue other paths. Sadly, the world’s not fair. Fame and money rule. Many people are crooks or trolls or idiots, outside and inside of magic. So be it. Yet life is great and full of opportunities. The same goes for magic.

So what might help instead?

My first point is this: Without taking any blame away from the crooks, we as magicians are partly responsible, too, for the mess we’re in. So the problem is not only caused by “them,” but also by “us.” We need to understand that.

Think about it: For each secret to be exposed, shared, copied or even sold there needs to be a published trick, method, or presentation out there. It’s that simple to me. The less magic we as magicians unload into the visible world of YouBurp and other platforms and media, the less can be stolen from us. Granted, this will never bring the damage down to zero, but it could reduce the scale in the future.

By publishing and selling tricks, we are not exactly protecting secrets, are we? No, we are willing to sell them to anybody for a profit (which is legitimate). We have every right to complain about the trick pirates stealing our products and our potential income, but we cannot blame them for uncovering the secret which we published. They don’t care for the secret anyway; they care for the business model of selling stolen products cheaper than the originator.

So we may consider publishing less and less tricks and, in particular, videos, be it for free or as a download for a few dollars, it doesn’t matter. How about learning to shut up and to share our best stuff, like in the past, only among the worthy, in private sessions or in small pamphlets or obscure offline magazines, but not on YouBurp, Fakebook and Instaharm?!

Another thought: The better the video performance, the bigger the artist’s name and the alleged secret (= the challenge!), the more likely it is that you will find a number of (maybe false) explanations a few lines down in the comments. Sad, but probably true!

What else have you got?

Along these lines, here are some more things we can do proactively, instead of whining and pointing fingers:

  • Let’s stop performing all the popular standard tricks that everyone else is also doing. It doesn’t set you apart from the herd anyway. And you simply are more endangered through exposure the better the tricks are known.
  • When you do use a classic trick, at least make it your own in presentation. The more you personalize it, the more you will disguise it and make it harder to identify the original trick and its secret.
  • Go the extra mile. For example, don’t use the dealers’ standard magic coloring book that says “Magic Coloring Book” on the title when you are living and performing in a non-English speaking country, for God’s sake. If you do, you simply deserve being chased by the rugrats and other debunkers!
  • Even better: Try to come up with and perform your own material. If a trick has no name, no legacy, and no visibility on social media, it does not exist for exposure! (Except among your live audiences, but that challenge has always been there.) I think you can still fool enough people with a DL, just don’t call it your “personal rendition of the time-honored Ambitious Card Trick”.
  • Which leads straight into the next point: Never ever mention the name of a trick or its creator in public. And if you do, make it all up. The fancier, the better!
  • Reduce the challenge aspect in your performance. It’s an old saying, but I think it still holds true: The better you are as a performer–likeable, entertaining, on the same side with your audience–, the more personal, poetic or edgy your shtick, the more the audience gets involved and wants you to succeed, and the more the secret/solution dilemma will be pushed into the background. (Yes, this will likely work better with your live audience than with online viewers.)
  • Along these lines, stop pretending you have super-psychic powers and other crap like that. Most intelligent people won’t believe you anyway, instead they’ll think you’re a jerk, and you will only nurture their effort to debunk you. And how right they are!
  • Bring magic back to one on one, performer and spectator, teacher and pupil. Back into real life, the offline world and private sphere.
  • Take a light Penn & Teller approach and do the “overall exposure” yourself in a clever way and profit from it:
    “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! My name is Fakalini the Minor (insert your name here.) Honestly, I wished I could do magic. But I can’t, like everyone else. So, yes, I’m relying on all sorts of secrets and tricks. Some are dirty and cheap, like the proverbial mirrors and trapdoors, and other gimmicks. I may even stuff something inside my sleeve later on. Some others are pretty sneaky, cutting-edge technological stuff or mathmatical and psychological principles you most likely have never heard of.
    I know it bothers some of you that I know and you don’t. That’s why it’s tempting for you to try to catch me “do something”. I understand that, and it’s okay for me. I wish you luck. But I can tell you from my heart: The real secret of magic is not in the secret or in the sneaky gimmick. It goes much deeper. It’s a huge effort, like bringing together an orchestra. I therefore invite you to sit back and enjoy some moments of wonder.
    There’s not much magic left in our lives today. So let’s pretend there is, and enjoy some sensations of wonder and limitless opportunities tonight. I look forward to our joint magical journey!”
    (I just made this up as I wrote along. You can certainly do better, but you get the idea.)
  • The most important point: Shun all people who disrespect magic and its creators, who expose, steal, copy and sell other people’s intellectual properties and their secrets. Do not click or like or comment on their stuff or link to or forward their wrong doings. Do not encourage them. Do not interact. Do not even mention their sites or their names. And, of course, do not buy from them. If they pretend to be insiders, excommunicate them from your magic community. They are not part of it anyway. They are not worthy. Ignore them and forget them.

OK, cool. But most secrets are already out there and available, if you want to find out. Won’t this kill magic in the end?

Now here’s a big point I feel we need to understand better. Yes, magic is a secret art. Painting isn’t. Music isn’t. Drama isn’t. Literature isn’t. Juggling isn’t. Usually, you pretty much get what you see and hear before you. Not in magic. You get something, but to no small part from what you don’t know and don’t see. Without secrets, no magic performance and no magic experience. Maybe a scientific demonstration or a Show & Tell (“There’s a funny toy company called Tenyo, and they produce pretty sneaky magic stuff for kids. I’ll do it for you.  Look how clever this little box works!”), but no magic. Agreed!


Jim Steinmeyer once wrote the great line, “Magicians guard an empty safe.” I interpret its meaning like this: We are jealously guarding our oh so precious secrets. Because we feel important and become “insiders”, the more secrets we know. We brag about the other guy’s secrets and use them as a currency and a signifier of our level of hierarchy in magic. But, in fact, that safe is pretty empty. Because there are hardly any real secrets left. Or because they are not even worth storing. (Fake Fingers? Mirror boxes? Trick decks? Threads? Come on!) Or because the true core of magic is not that mostly shabby, deplorable feke or fake prop.

But if it’s not all about the secret–what is it?

Here’s my take: Yes, magic is a secret art. But the secret is not the secret gaff or gimmick or move. To me, the core of magic–the real secret–is deception. And deception is multi-layered. It’s a concept, not a tool. It’s a painting, not a brush. It’s an orchestration. A gaff isn’t. Deception creates magic and wonder. The gaff is just one part of the deception, quite often a pretty small one, I’d say. Other parts are routining, presentational frame, performer’s style and demeanor, script, stage action, music, lighting, audience interaction, and what not. And people will never grasp that fully by googling a trick or reading someone else’s commentary on how it’s done in the video. That’s why knowing the secret gaff does not equal knowing the magic, neither on the magicians’ nor on the spectators’ side. Yet more magi seem obsessed with hoarding and guarding secrets than laymen would care to uncover them.

But that infinite number of exposure videos, available globally…?

In effect, I think exposure was much worse in Pinetti’s time (remember Decremps!) when a street or stage performer’s repertoire probably consisted of three to ten tricks in total–and they were all exposed! Yet they survived and marched on (remember Geller?), they reinvented and developed further. Today, the equation seems much more balanced to me. Yes, almost anything is available online, but everything else as well, and our attention spans and time budgets are very limited. Who would spend hours and hours over days and weeks, as a nonmagician, just to hunt down secret after secret? Maybe 1 in 10,000? 1 in a million? That ratio would not worry me.

Plus: People forget. We know that. The tricks, the urge to find out later, the secret. Hey, most of us can be fooled by tricks from books we thought we had studied. Because we forget. Because we don’t pay attention. Because we don’t recognize the same old trick in a new dress. I’ve forgotten the name, but once there was a pro who demonstrated with a golden TT that you could well be fooled even if you were “in on it”!

(Interlude: Speaking of TTs, I love envisioning this small scene: You are doing a TT vanish of a silk. A heckler shouts, “I know that one. You have one of those fake Ts!” You grab a handful of other TTs from your pocket, throw them at the spectator and shout, “I know, I’m actually using half a dozen of them, but guess what, they are all EMPTY. Eat this, dimwit! Nee-ne-ne-nee-nee!”)

So magic is not in immediate danger of dying?

Not for me. Magic won’t die from today’s level of exposure. Bad tricks and overexposed tricks may die one day. I think that would actually be a good thing, or at least an adequate price to pay. But I feel even that won’t happen. Why? Because there are just too many people out there, too many tricks and performers. Yes, there’s a sucker born every minute and probably a coming thief, but at the same time there are also ten or a hundred or a thousand new spectators on the block. Believe me, not all of them will go hunting for the secret of each and every trick they will ever see in their lives. Not even half of them. Which comes to show again that we take that secret/exposure thing much more seriously than probably 95 or 99% of our audience. (But that’s okay, because it shows that we think and care!)

Hell, religion hasn’t died and won’t die just because of advances in science or growing skepticism. Same with superstition. I guess at least 30% of all supposedly educated, enlightened, intelligent people today believe in one sort of crap or the other. Sometimes even 60 or 70%. (Welcome to America!) Lucky numbers, psychic abilities, angels, moon water, witchcraft, flat earth, U.F.O.s, predetermination–you name it. How ridiculous is it that most airlines and most hotels in 2019 won’t have a 13th floor or a 13th row of seating? And just the other day, a Catholic school in Nashville, Tennessee has banned the “Harry Potter” series because a reverend at the school claims that the “curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits.” Yeah, right!

I find that utterly amazing. And yet, our magic thrives on the same human flaws and inconsistencies, only in an agreeable and hazard-free way!

That sounds about right. But what about the lack of wonder once you learn how the trick was done?

Learning a secret afterwards may change in retrospect your rational assessment of the performance you have attended, when in fact, without knowing the secret, without seeing through the layers of deception, you had experienced awe and surprise, a rush of blood, a racing mind, a beating heart, and a precious moment of childlike astonishment.

When I watched David Copperfield’s game-changing “Flying” illusion, I had no idea how it was done (without camera tricks or CGI). I shrieked when the curtain fell and the Statue of Liberty was gone. I gasped in awe and wonder on many other magic occasions, and I am grateful for all these moments. Having learned many secrets much later has not–and logically, it simply cannot have–altered my initial magic experience. The ex post exposure may kill the warm shudder we would get when we think back on that special moment, but it can never extinguish the initial emotional response.

Your point in a nutshell?

Let’s relax, examine our own responsibilities and choose our actions wisely. Let’s not waste time and energy on fighting windmills. It’s futile and frustrating. Let’s take up the challenge, transform it into positive energy and try harder and do better. Our magic deserves it. And she will pay back amply, both to ourselves and our audiences. Thank you, all you thieves and copycats and whistleblowers out there, for pushing us further! (Yet you remain despicable scum.)


Sorry for the long rant, by this felt very important to me, and I wanted to embed my reaction to Mahdi’s points into a broader context. As always, feel free to agree or disagree, but be invited to mull over this important matter, too, and decide what YOU will actually DO!


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.”



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


Vanishing Julian Assange

Let’s not get too political here. Let’s simply state that WikiLeaks frontman Julian Assange has been living and hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for more than three and a half years now (!) in order to avoid being arrested by British authorities and, subsequently, turned over to Swedish or U.S. authorities. His future path is uncharted and most likely stony.

Now, if you were an illusionist like David Copperfield or Franz Harary and called in for help, how would you make him disappear from the embassy without his guardians, his persecutors, and the press bloodhounds noticing in due time?

Having just watched several old TV specials by Copperfield and the late great Paul Daniels, I would have an idea or two. (O.K., Jim Steinmeyer would probably come up with 27 solutions at once.)

If someone were to pull this off – can you imagine the hoot and the headlines?!

This is not your grandfather’s egg bag trick. This is not the latest poor poo-poo card move. This is truly magic with a meaning!