Friday, July 15, 2011

Lessons Learned

I remember going to the Laurentien Hotel in Montreal to attend a magic lecture by Al Goshman.

Just up the street from Windsor Station, the Laurentien was a post-war streamlined, silver-tone hotel designed for travellers. It's lobby was decorated in varnished wood and plaster and most of the lighting was indirect.

It was one of those hotels with a mezzanine level--the floor in between the ground floor and the second floor that was not the first floor--that contained a number of store fronts including a barber shop. I remember thinking he had to be a pretty good barber if he could stay in business so far off the street.

Goshman was in Montreal as a guest of Morrissey's Magic Shop. Four or five times a year, Herb would bring performers into town to talk magic, demonstrate their techniques and gin up a little business.

Al Goshman was renowned for his sponge balls.  This is not a comment on any particular physical attribute, but rather the foam rubber spheres with which he made his magic.  In his hands, the balls would add, subtract, multiply and divide faster than the eye could follow.

I remember watching him us a purse frame--literally the metal frame from an old fashioned coin purse.  He would appear to show his hands empty and then, using the purse frame, he would produce a large quantity of those maddening red balls from inside the frame.

This was magic that had been honed to a razor's edge over many years and was precisely the type of thing that I could never get away with.

What was fascinating and also so frustrating about the magic lecture was that its format is that of a conversation among insiders.  The lecturer will show you his tricks, but then he explains how they are done.  The frustration comes from not having the luxury of following along with the props in your hand.  It's almost impossible to take it all in.  Like the high-speed disclaimers that run at the end of ads promoting contests, it's all there, but it's too much to process.  By the time you get home and find a set of props, "your individual results may vary."

To watch a professional magician give a lecture wherein he discloses his secrets--literally giving away the tools of his trade--is to understand something about mastery.

Like any other performance art, magic may be practiced in the rehearsal room, but it is perfected in front of an audience.  Each move--covert or not--is adjusted until the whole is greater, i.e. more magical, than the sum of its parts.  Every word , every pause, becomes part of a script designed to put the audience at ease and make them easier to fool.

By the time lecturers of Goshman's calibre get to the classroom, they have wrung all of the juice out of those routines, made the discoveries and are ready to move on to new material.

Now, it should be noted that the lecture I am referencing happened more than 30 years ago, long before YouTube and professional lecturers who are amateur performers.  The economics of magic were very different:  you could still find show rooms in larger cities that booked variety acts.

At the time I was learning about magic there were very few schools.  The primary pedagogical medium was the written word and only the very lucky would have the opportunity to study side-by-side with a working professional.  Having a performer with a recognizable name come through town was impressive.  That he was going to tip his material to local magicians was irresistible.

These lectures drew men and boys of all ages, all of whom were doing their best to seem collegial rather than confounded.  Among themselves they would talk like insiders about the art, but in the presence of a celebrity presenter, they would appear live over-anxious fanboys at a comic book convention.  You can always tell the super fans:  they are the ones with the biggest grins.

My memory may be failing me, but I believe it was at this lecture that I purchased a non-sponge ball trick of Goshman's:  the rising cards. 

This is one of the classics of magic.  The performer invites the spectator to select a card which is noted, or perhaps signed, and then returned to the deck.  The deck is placed in a glass and the performer, concentrating all of his energy on the pasteboards, is able to command the card to rise from the pack.

What's not to love about a trick like that?  The plot is simple and direct and it looks like real magic.  And it has stood the test of time for almost four hundred years.

I thought so much of this trick that I tried to make it the new closer for my birthday party shows.

I thought I was being terribly clever.  I would get the birthday honoree to select a card and then, when the magic happened, the card would rise out of the deck with their name on it.

I did that trick exactly once and I learned a very important lesson:  children do not care about card tricks.  And, perhaps more importantly, however magical the rising cards might appear, they do not hold a candle to the magic candy glass.

I offer all of this by way of prologue for some observations on what has got to have been the ultimate magician lecture:  the historic presentation of the rising cards by Dr. Samuel Hooker.

Dr. Samuel Cox Hooker
Hooker was a chemist by trade and a magician by avocation.  He was an active member of several magician's fraternities. 

In 1914 he invited a small number of his breatheren to his home and demonstrated a series of effects which he justifiably called "impossibilities."  Each of these rising card effects was presented under conditions that appeared to preclude any of the traditional methods.

A centerpiece of the demonstration was that the spectators could shuffle the cards and then the pack would be placed under a bell jar and another spectator would name any card at random at which point the named card would rise from the deck.

Hooker gave a second demonstration of his "impossibilities" in 1918.  He died in 1935 without ever revealing his methods.

Hooker's rationale for withholding his technique is a reflection of his profession as a scientist.  He felt that the research of those looking for possible solutions would do more to advance the art of magic than anything else.  The education of a scientist, a magician, or any other artist has more to do with trial and error than it does with following the instructions worked out by somebody else.

It's almost 100 years later and magicians are still fascinated by Dr. Hooker's effects.  Through a remarkable set of circumstance, the apparatus used to create them has survived and twice in the last 20 years Dr. Hooker's cards have taken flight at meetings of the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History and each time they have been demonstrated the effects have ignited much praise and more speculation.

I am reminded of the line from "The Usual Suspects" where Kevin Spacey's character talks about the "spook story" that is Keyser Soze.

Dr. Hooker's greatest trick is not the rising cards, but starting a creative reaction that is still bubbling away and, in so doing, is still teaching generations of magicians more about magic than would have been possible had he given up his secrets.

1 comment:

  1. Always leave them wondering, I guess was Hooker's MO.