So this week, we had a couple birthdays in the magic world. One was my old escape mentor Steve Baker. He passed away a few years ago. The last few years of his life were pretty hard because his health had declined rather rapidly. He always had planned to make a comeback, even at his advanced age. I’m sorry that chance never came. In fact, there is a story about it, that I’ll share one day. But I have a different story to share with you instead.
And also this week was the birthday of Jonathan Pendragon. He is still very much alive, thankfully. And I consider him a mentor of Illusion, even though we have never truly met. I did meet him causally at a magic conference once, but I doubt he recalls. And he did send me a very nice note after I wrote about the Pendragons on my blog, the Magic Detective.com. But beyond that we’ve had no contact. The reason I refer to him as a mentor was because of his writings in Genii Magazine. There were a number of Pendragon issues and those were instrumental in getting me started in the world of grand illusion.
Let me begin however with a funny Steve Baker story. Now Steve was an escape artist and he was also a stunt man, which is not as well known. He had lots of Hollywood connections because of his work as a stunt man. One day, in 1986, he gets a call from a buddy of his who is a tech advisor on the new movie Lethal Weapon. The guy remembered a story Steve had told him about his first encounter with a straitjacket.
The story was this. Steve Baker’s mom worked in healthcare. One day Steve asked if she could borrow a straitjacket from work. She checked with her employer and sure enough they let her borrow one. Steve was just a teenager at the time. And not well read in the methods of escaping a straitjacket. In Steve’s own words, “I was in my garage with my best buddy, Lee, and he proceeded to strap me into this thing. I was wearing a T-shirt which I later learned was a big mistake.
I twisted and turned and bent my body in ways that I didn't even know were possible. Then I had an idea. If I could shift my body within the jacket it might help me to gain slack and get my arm over my head, then I could get out. My solution, run full speed into the garage wall slamming my shoulder against it.WHAMMO! And OUCH! To make a long story short, I did get out, eventually. With plenty of marks and scrapes from only wearing a t-shirt.”
So back to Steve’s friend from the movie. He asks Steve if he can come in and share that story with the crew. So sure enough he goes on the set and shares the story. Mel Gibson, one of the stars of the movie was not on set that day, but the story gets back to him. He asks Steve if it’s true? And Steve assures him it’s exactly what happened. Then he asks, “did it hurt?” Steve says, YES. Mel Gibson apparently loved the story so much, he incorporated it into a scene in the movie. If you have ever watched the film, there is a scene where Mel Gibson’s character is put in a straitjacket and then slams himself into a filing cabinet in order to get slack to get out, ala the young Steve Baker.
Now, I guess I could share some Pendragon stories, but I’d rather save those for another day. Instead I’d like to give you some tidbits from these Genii articles. The first memory of one has stood out ever since I read about it. I believe it’s also from 1986, and the article by Jonathan was called ‘The Magician Versus the Prop”. He begins by relating a story from his youth. It seems that as a teen, another magician moved into his neighborhood, that would be a very young Harry Anderson. One day, Jonathan was visiting Harry and he noticed a very ornately decorated magic prop on a shelf. Harry asked him what he thought of it, and Jonathan replied, “I think it’s beautiful.” Just then Harry Anderson grabs it out of his hands and threw it across the room. He then looked at a stunned Jonathan and said, “Magic is an art, not a craft!” I’d say that’s a strong lesson. And I can just imagine how it would send a shiver of pain up the spine of those of us who collect props, LOL. The point was of course, is to not let the prop over shadow the performer. He makes one very poignant statement at the end of the article and said, when a concert pianist is taking his bows, he doesn’t turn and point to his or her piano, lol. Good point.
My favorite Pendragon issue was Jan 1992. The Pendragons are on the cover. And the proceeding articles are fantastic, but one stood out above the others to me. It was simply titled, BOOKS. “If I were stranded on a desert island, what books would I want on Grand Illusion?” NONE, I wouldn’t want any books on Grand Illusion, I would want books on Long Distance Swimming In Ten Easy Lessons!”. Then he gives a list of books for anyone really serious about Grand Illusion. Here is the list (with my own commentary underneath)
1. The Jarret Book by Guy Jarret and Jim Steinmeyer. To date there are three Jarret books. First is the original that Guy Jarret printed himself. Second is the first version that Jim Steinmeyer put out. Then years later who published The Complete Jarret. These are wonderful books by a complex individual (Jarret) and his unusual way to approaching Grand Illusion. It's hard to dismiss anything here because it all makes so much sense. His Bangkok Bungalow is about as unorthodox an illusion I've ever and yet it's a thing of beauty. His 21 Person Cabinet, proved to be another winner. Doug Henning, Harry Blackstone Jr, and Scott Alexander have all used it for great results. It is a must have for an illusionist.
2. The Harbin Book. This is the only book on the list that I do not have. Of course it's known for being the book that includes how to build the Zig Zag Illusion. That would be the crowning jewel in the book, but there is much more there. There is something called The Upside DownBox that my friend David Bull built, and what a wonderful mystery that was. I did pick up the books, Harbincadabra and The Genuis of Robert Harbin.
3. ILLUSION SHOW by David Bamberg
Wow, this is David Bamberg's autobiography. He shares stories from his entire life...when he started out as Psyco as a youth, until he became FuManchu. Along the way he encounters many personalities including: Houdini, Raymond, Chang, Eva Peron, Okito, and many others. It's a must read in my opinion. One of the best books of it's kind and quite an eye opener.
4. Secrets of My Magic by David Devant
In the Genii article by Jonathan Pendragon, he mentions that he likely has spent more time with this book than all of the others. Why? Well, inside you'll find the Mascot Moth, the Artist's Dream, Biff and other incredible Devant creations. I would add another book along with this one at that would be My Magic Life by David Devant. There is some cross over in material, but it gives a great overview of the mind and magic of Devant. By the way, I recall exactly where I found this book, it was at Barry's Magic Shop in Wheaton MD. I was visiting the shop one day when I noticed stacks and stacks of books behind a counter. I asked Suzie, Barry's wife, if I could look through them and she said yes. I was overwhelmed to find Secrets of My Magic among the stack!
5. Hopkins Magic by Albert Hopkins
I will admit this was one of the tougher books to locate on the list. It was published in 1897. Thankfully, it had been republished several times and I was able to find a copy in excellent condition at a very good price. This book I purchased from Denny & Lee's Magic Studio. I think likely half the books on this list came from Dennys. He had the first magic shop I'd ever seen with a massive amount of books
6. Device & Illusion by Jim Steinmeyer
This book was published in 1991. I'm sad to say when I read over the list originally, I did not know who Jim Steinmeyer was. Suffice to say, I would learn very quickly. I don't recall where I got the book, I may have ordered it direct from Jim. Jonathan points out two effects in the book as being his favorites: Lady in a Puzzle and Small Packages. He also mentions that his small apparatus effects are some of the best in the book. I would agree with that. In regards to illusions, my favorites are Lady in a Puzzle, and Perforation. I own Lady in a Puzzle and it's a fantastic illusion. I used to own Through a One Inch Hole, but I never found it be play as strong as it reads. I can tell you one of the most amazing illusions in the book is a little piece called India Rubber. Honestly, I was not impressed when I read the description. But recently I saw a video of it being presented and it fooled me!!!! Device and Illusion is a great book for the illusionist.
7. Conjurer's Optical Secrets by S.H. Sharpe
Well, I just realized, I do not have this book on hand. I have Conjurer's Mechanical Secrets, which is brilliant. This is part of a set of books including: Conjurers Psychological Secrets, Conjurers Optical Secrets, and I think there are one or two more. Great reference books for the illusionist. I actually have Optical Secrets, it's just not in with the box of books in my house, it may still be in storage.
8. Modern Illusions by Tom Palmer
Another book that I have in storage but not in front of me. If memory serves this book has the Throne Chair that Lance Burton used in his show that was highly effective. I think Doug Henning also used it in the musical MERLIN on Broadway. Quite a few clever, unique and rarely seen illusions contained in this small volume.
9. The Magic Poster Book by Charles Reynolds and Regina Reynolds
Who has not seen this book??? Filled with large format magic posters from the Golden Age of Magic. Clearly a source of inspiration for any illusionist whether starting out or seasoned pro.
10. TIED FOR 10th Place: OUR MAGIC & NEO MAGIC
Our Magic by Maskelyne and Devant is a powerhouse volume. The essay on the different levels of Art is fantastic. The entire book is a must read for the magician who is serious about his/her magical education.
Next is NEO Magic by S.H. Sharpe. A book filled with theory and the philosophy of magic and performance. At the time I purchased this book, it was the most I'd ever paid for a single book. ( If you have a subscription to Genii or you have access to AskAlexander.com, look up the Jan 1992 issue of Genii and on page 181, you can read Jonathan Pendragon's thoughts on all of the above books)
I would have to agree. In fact, when I read this back in 1992, I set out to find the books, no small task. This was before the days when magic shops were loaded with books. My go to shop was Al’s Magic Shop and though they had books, noe one on this list was to be found there. I did eventually get every book on that list except one, the Harbin book. I did however get other Harbin books, Harbincadabra and the later book The Genius of Robert Harbin.
And since 1992 there have been quite a few incredible books on Grand Illusion, but this grouping by Jonathan is fantastic.
By the way, one of the stories Jonathan shared in his Genii articles comes to mind. It was when he was working at Hollywood Magic part time. It was the Christmas season, and someone walked into the shop who gave him pause. I should say more accurately he was awed by the gentleman who appeared even bigger in person that he did on the screen, the man was John Wayne.
Mr. Wayne said he son was interested in magic and could he recommend a stocking stuffer. Jonathan suggested the Cups and Balls and did a demonstration of a simple routine. Wayne was thrilled and said, “I’ll take it, but you have to teach it to me because I don’t want my son fooling me.” For the next 30 minutes Jonathan taught the Duke how to present the Cups and Balls. I would love to have seen John Wayne present the cups and balls for his family on Christmas morning and then teach it to his son, likely son Ethan.
But there is more to the story. After John Wayne exited the shop he was walking to his car when
he stopped to let another man pass down the sidewalk in front of him. According to the article, “The other was a young man with long hair tied back in a pigtail. For a moment the two stood there until the young man gestured for John Wayne to pass first, “Please sir” Wayne dipped his head in a gesture that is familiar to anyone who watches his films. “thank you and Merry Christmas.” Wayne replied. “the same to you Sir.” said the other man who smiled and continued on his way. This was the mid seventies and here were two icons of radically different political beliefs, but this didnt seem to matter much. It was Christmas in Southern California and almost anything can happen.
I like that story because the end reminds me of how divided folks are today and how little kindness and common decency towards each other can go a long way. I”m not getting political it’s just an observation.