Monday, October 16, 2017
There is an amazing story of how a young Howard Thurston fooled Herrmann the Great. He fooled him with a Rising Card effect. Thurston invited a newspaper man to join him on the day he was to present the trick to Herrmann. In a rushed performance, only a few minutes before Herrmann's show was to begin, Thurston had four cards selected and returned to a pack of cards and each one, one at a time floated up out of the deck. Herrmann was amazed and said so. The next day the newspaper had a headline that read, "The Man Who Mystified Herrmann." Thurston, understandibly got really full of himself really fast. His bubble was soon burst however, when he met with Herrmann the next day and Herrmann was incensed over the headline. He felt he had been used, and he had been. Plus, Thurston had not fooled Herrmann the Great. He fooled Leon Herrmann, Alexander's nephew. And Leon was no where near the magician that his Uncle had been.
Back in those days, you sometimes needed a boost, something to give you an edge to break into show business or make a bigger name in show business. Defeating a rival or besting the number one person was a great way to get publicity. For those interested, the story is well recounted in the wonderful Jim Steinmeyer book, The Last Greatest Magician In the World, Chapter 6.
As I stated in a previous column, Houdini really felt like he was number one and in many ways he was. It is said that he made the claim that he couldn't be fooled by a trick if he saw it three times. In Houdini's defense, this is not a unrealistic statement. In magic we are taught not to repeat a trick. The reason being, after a spectator sees a trick once, they are more likely to catch on to the method with a second viewing. There are exceptions of course. But when people know you've made a statement like Houdini's, someone is liable to try and prove you wrong. Keep in mind, none of the following stories appear in any of the Houdini biographies. But they all appear in print in other books. The first one, is fairly well known magic lore.
He Fooled Houdini
Thereafter, Dai Vernon, who was going by Dale Vernon at that time, used the moniker 'He Fooled Houdini' in all his promotions. Quite reminiscent of Thurston's approach with Herrmann. If you're wondering about sources, I found this story in Genii Magazine, but also in the book, He Fooled Houdini-Dai Vernon A Magical Life by Bruce Cervon and Keith Burns, and it's in other books as well.
He Fooled Houdini First
Here's a story you may not have heard. In 1907, Houdini and Karl Germain were both in England. Germain, happened to run into Houdini at a banquet and decided he wanted to amaze his friend. He then proceeded to present his favorite pocket trick, the term that was used then for close-up magic. The trick was called The Spirit Writing On Cigarette Paper. Houdini watched like a hawk, but in the end was amazed by the presentation. Did he fly off the handle or ask that the trick be repeated numerous times? Apparently not. Germain used a somewhat unorthodox method for this one showing and he felt it best not to share the 'how' with Houdini, who then might have been offended by the ruse. This story comes from Stuart Kramer's Germain the Wizard book, the Miracle Factory edition.
Houdini Enjoying The Magic
THE ODDS AGAINST ME: The Autobiography of John Scarne. This story takes place at Horrnmann's Magic Shop in NYC. Some of the players involved in the story include Frank Ducrot, Daisy White, Jim Collins, Houdini and a young John Scarne. Mr. Scarne had come to the shop to take lessons in magic from Ducrot. However, upon his first set of lessons in card magic, he asked Mr. Ducrot about midway during the lesson if maybe he could skip cards and learn something else. Ducrot asked why, and Scarne tells him he already knows cards pretty well. Ducrot asks to see something, figuring they'll be some rather simplistic tricks. But to his amazement, he is dumbfounded by what he sees. He calls Daisy White into the room, she worked as a demonstrator at the shop, and Scarne repeats the tricks. Fools them both!
Ducrot, who has been around magic his whole life, wants to know where he learned this, and Scarne tells him he learned it from card mechanics. It's the first time, Ducrot has heard this term. He suggests that Houdini, who is in town performing, and habitually stops by the shop, should see these tricks. So Ducrot sets up a meeting and a few days later, young John Scarne gets to meet the great Houdini.
Houdini shows up at Horrnmann's shop along with Jim Collins. He is greeted cordially by everyone and then introduced to the 'kid'. According to the Scarne story, Houdini took out a beat up deck of cards and started to do some manipulations and asked Scarne if he could do those. Scarne was about to when Ducrot interrupted and said, "That's easy for Johnny, but it's not what I wanted you to see." And encourages the kid to show Houdini the same tricks from a few nights earlier. The first trick he does is a signed card to pocket which catches Houdini by surprise. In fact, most if not all the tricks amazed Houdini. Scarne could tell by Houdini's reaction that he'd been fooled multiple times. But he didn't come out and say so. Instead, Houdini invited Scarne to come to the theater and see the show and then he wanted to have him come back to the dressing room so he could show Bess some of these clever gambling style tricks.
John Scarne went on to become a regular at Horrnmann's and quite popular among the magicians in NYC. So popular that Frank Ducrot eventually suggested to Scarne that he use the tag line "The Magician Who Fools Magicians."
So here you have three different stories of Houdini being fooled and you have three different endings. In one, Houdini is livid. In the second, there is no mention of his temper flaring, in fact, Germain mentions that he purposely did not share the secret so as to avoid that potential disaster. And in the third instance Houdini is fooled and very cordial.
Do I believe the stories? Yes, I believe all three took place. Do I believe they happened the way they are told? No.
Vernon made no bones about not liking Houdini. His feeling was Houdini was a bad magician and escapes were not magic. So I tend to think there is a bit of an anti-Houdini bias that creeped into the story. Do I think Vernon fooled Houdini with a version of what we know today as The Ambitious Card? Yes, I do. Vernon was a revolutionary card man. He learned all the sleights of Erdnase and, like John Scarne, knew methods used by gamblers and perfected them. The methods and techniques for The Ambitious Card were not as well known in Houdini's day. Nor was that kind of close-up style card magic popular. It would take Vernon and others to make it popular over time. So I do believe the story is true, but I tend to think there might be a bit of embellishment along the way. For example, I have seen the dates listed by Vernon as 1919, and 1922, so something is wrong there (it was definitely 1922). The quote where Houdini supposedly admits defeat and calls Vernon the greatest man with cards he's ever seen, I think is false. I think that was made up for promotional purposes as it appeared in a promo piece of Vernon's. In fact, Vernon even says on page 131 of Dai Vernon A Magical Life, "Harry would never admit that anyone could fool him". So I don't believe Houdini said that he did. In addition, if you've ever read Elliott's Last Legacy, Houdini felt, at least in 1923, that the two best card men in the country were Dr. James Elliott and himself, no mention of Vernon.
As for the Germain story. Yes I believe it and it likely played out just the say he described it. The one thing I left out, when describing the story, was the unorthodox move. Germain used an accomplice to make the trick happen, which is why it fooled Houdini. If he had used his regular method, Houdini likely would have not been fooled. In the end, Germain didn't go around bragging about fooling Houdini afterward, as Vernon had done.
Correction: An addition to the Germain story, Pat Culliton points out that Houdini was in America in all of 1907, so either the story is not true or Germain has his dates wrong. I meant to check the date too before posting and I didn't, so now I'm checking.
Further Correction: I went back and did the checking that I should have done in the beginning. It appears that Houdini was in England in 1907 for a short time. In the book The Great Houdini-His British Tours by Derek Tait, chapter 7 is about Houdini's brief time in England in 1907. Mr. Tait even mentions that Houdini wasn't thought to have made any appearances in the UK in 1907, but it turns out he did. Now, some still dispute this, and that's ok. I think, given the fact that Houdini was doing a gig for the Sheffield Empire Palace, and he had been there a previous time, that's proof enough for me that he was in England in 1907. Plus Germain, who was in England, claims to have showed Houdini a trick IN England at that time.
The final Scarne story is my favorite I think. In his biography, Scarne describes seeing Houdini's show for the first time and he is amazed by it. He clearly looked up to Houdini. Unlike the Vernon story, Houdini didn't loose his temper. He actually watched the magic for 20 minutes! And then invited Scarne to the theater so that he could show Bess. No doubt, that was also so Houdini could see the tricks again. But this event was less adversarial. The Vernon event with the whole, 'I Can't Be Fooled If I See A Trick Three Times' sets up more of a contest and pits Vernon against Houdini or vice versa.
Incidentally, I do believe this statement about Houdini bringing out a beat-up or well worn- deck of cards, from the Scarne story. I don't think it was intended as any sort of insult towards Houdini. Sure, Houdini could afford a new deck. But Houdini's card act was mainly a manipulation act and one of the keys in card manipulation are softer cards. There are techniques magicians use to make cards softer in order to manipulate them. Today, it's easy to purchase cards that are already softer and idea for manipulations, but this was not always the case. So I do believe Houdini carried this worn deck of cards which made his manipulations easier. It makes total sense.
I can also add, that a lot of old timers had this 'I can't be fooled' attitude for whatever reason. I personally, LOVE to be fooled. I'm not fooled often, but that's because I've been in the magic biz for a long time. If someone fools me with great magic, I really do love it. But I guess I also don't think of it as 'being fooled' either. That term has a bit of a negative connotation, like 'making a fool out of someone'. I prefer the term 'being amazed'. But in the early 20th Century, they were not out to amaze, they were out to FOOL!
By the way, the photo at the top of the page has NOTHING to do with any of the three stories. I just thought it made a good visual hook for the topic.
Friday, October 13, 2017
Believe it or not, NOT everyone liked Houdini. Naturally, his competitors didn't like him. Those doing a similar act didn't like him, especially if he got wind of it and went after them. Whenever I think about people who disliked Houdini, one name really comes to mind and that is Dai Vernon. I think Dai Vernon really did a lot to help push the image of Houdini as a bad magician. Although, in defense of Vernon, Houdini could be his own worse enemy when his ego was in full gear.
There was another reason Jarrett disliked Houdini and that was because Jarrett was married to an escape artist named Minerva. She had a run in with Houdini's people, who apparently put acid into her water filled barrel escape. Quite an underhanded thing to do, not to mention potentially life threatening. I can see where one might hold a grudge.
But at least that story has a happy ending. The two men eventually reconciled and became good friends until Houdini's last days. I first learned of this feud when I researching the Great Maro for a lecture I had to do in 2015. Wilson was the person to first expose the Great Maro to the world of magic. And as can happen when researching something, looking for info on Wilson led me to the various stories of his feud with Houdini. I never published the information however, as I focused on Maro at the time and planned to use it at a later date. But, I see my friend John Cox has written up in a fine article and even uncovered more than what I learned. Please check out his article about the Wilson & Houdini Feud.
And finally onto Sam Margules. In The Vernon Touch column from 1989, I mentioned earlier, the column finishes with a paragraph about Sam Margules, who according to Vernon, "he was one of the most genuine, nicest guys I've ever met". But then he also added, "Sam Margules thought the worst of Houdini." But a few years earlier, in Vernon's column, October 1971, he says this, "I knew Houdini pretty well because I was around Sam Margules, who was one of Houdini's closest friends in those days." So which was it, Sam the fan, or Sam the hater? I had to look further. And though Margules is featured in a rather interesting event in Houdini's life, I can find no evidence of dislike. In fact, it appears that Margules remained quite friendly with Bess Houdini after Houdini died. If you're wondering what the 'interesting event' is, I'll share it shortly in another article. Please don't give it away if you already know.
The folks above are just the tip of the iceberg when it came to people who disliked Houdini. There are many reasons, among them jealousy, the fact that Houdini could be ruthless, Houdini's huge ego, and I'm sure there are other reasons why he was disliked by his peers. But part of the reason was also due to Houdini's attitude of being perceived as #1. I'm reminded of something that I read in a book called Smoke and Mirrors by Rick Marcelli. He tells the story of a young David Copperfield and Orson Wells. It appears that Orson took David aside and told him" to NEVER put himself on stage with another magician. never share the stage with another magician because only one person can hold that power with an audience. If there is more than one magician on stage that has magical powers then the power dissipates. One lone magician has great power." When I read that I instantly thought of Houdini. It's very reminiscent of his mindset. And though he was friendly with other magicians (as well as not so friendly) he really wanted people to believe he was number one. And in the end it's the perception that rules more than the truth. Today, despite the many magicians who will tell you that Houdini was not a good magician, the public perceives Houdini as the best. For me personally, I'll take Houdini warts and all. I recognize he could be a real SOB and I also recognize areas of genius. He was and continues to be an amazing figure in the history of the world, like him or not.
Sunday, July 14, 2013
He was revered by folks like Larry Jennings, Ricky Jay and Johnny Thompson. Dai Vernon said he was one of the greatest card men to ever live. He was friends with Paul Fox, Cardini, Faucet Ross, Max Malini and other greats of yesterday. He was a link between two different time periods of magic. He was born during a time of the great Vaudeville acts and yet he lived to see the rise of close-up magic. His name was Charlie Miller and this is a brief look into his life.
He was born in Indianapolis Indiana on May 25th, 1909. He was well educated and could speak several languages and also had an incredible ability to mimic any dialect he heard. It is believed that Charlie had a photographic memory. He apparently was exposed to magic through his older brother who then taught him a couple tricks, but after that he was off on his own. At the young age of 20 Charlie Miller was thought to be one of the best sleight of hand artists in the country. He could present any sleight called for from the Erdnase book Expert At The Card Table.
Charlie is regarded as one of the true great card men, and of course as I just mentioned above, Dai Vernon also agreed with that assessment. A lesser known fact was that Miller was just as adept with apparatus magic. He was truly a well rounded performer. In today's world so many of the sleight of hand performers shun any sort of apparatus. This is unfortunate and Charlie Miller shows that the bias against prop magic didn't always exist. I'm not going to go into a big rant over that topic, but I do want to point out the fact that Charlie could perform apparatus magic just as easily as his sleight of hand material.
In the 1930's Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller heard about a man from the midwest who could deal cards from the center of a deck. They dropped everything and headed to Wichita Kansas on the hunt for a man named Allan Kennedy. The story is related by Ricky Jay in his new documentary 'Ricky Jay-Deceptive Practice' and also in the book The Magician and the Cardsharp by Karl Johnson.
Charlie Miller was affectionately known as the guest who wouldn't leave and in the 1950s lived with Harry Riser and his family. When Charlie moved to Chicago he stayed in a room at Magic Inc. that became known as The Charlie Miller Suite. And later in the 1960's Charlies moved out to California to be near the Magic Castle and became a resident/guest of Johnny Thompson. Both Johnny and Harry Riser were students of Charlie's and speak of him in the highest regard.
In 1964 he became the writer and editor to a special series in GENII magazine called 'Magicana'. There was and is some incredible magic and history in those pages. If you have access to Ask Alexander.com I would encourage you to spend some time with Charlie Miller's Magicana.
In the 1970's Charlie Miller started performing magic on Cruise Ships. I don't know what material he did but given his vast knowledge and abilities I imagine he did a stage act and probably close-up act as well.
The Greater Magic Video Library, first produced by Steven's Magic I believe, filmed Charlie performing a number of effects. Volumes 17,18 and 29 all have Charlie Miller on them, but 29 also includes Johnny Thompson. I must say that I think Charlie was past his prime when these videos were shot. His hands shake a lot and his handling of cards is not up to the legendary status that we've come to believe. However, despite this fact, I think these videos are important to watch. For the true student of magic and for magic historians there are tons of subtleties and trivia mixed within the various routines he presents. For example, on Volume 17 he opens with a demonstration of the Misers Dreams. There is no explanation included and it's a pretty routine with a couple interesting old jokes included. What is really fascinating is Charlie's production of the coin. He is actually doing the Allan Shaw Coin Production. But he doesn't teach it (more on this later). There are two other performance only routines on Volume 17, The Rice Bowls with the Al Baker Bowls and The Chinese Sticks. Then he presents 5 routines which are demonstrated and taught.
Volume 18 begins with three performance only routines: The Paper Mystery, Mutilated Parasol and Malini Egg Bag and then he presents and teaches 5 other routines. The real gem of the bunch though is Volume 29, which has Charlie Miller and Johnny Thompson. The presentation is far more conversational and it's more of a look inside a magic session rather than your typical teaching tape.
Volume 29 has a segment on the Cups and Balls with some really interesting moves. The Egg Bag with Charlie presenting his version and Johnny doing his version. Part 3 covers cards and again you get two masters sharing thoughts and ideas on various routines. Don't judge Charlie Miller on his skill level on these videos because he was much older. Instead, enjoy the knowledge and insight he shares on the various magic pieces.
I want to go back for a moment and talk about his Misers Dream routine. Charlie Miller is not easy to find in print, but he is there. For example, in Bobo's Modern Coin Magic Book you'll find a number of pieces by Charlie. And on video try Levent's DVD The Ultimate Guide to The Misers Dream (3 DVD Set). On DVD#2 there is a whole section on Charlie Miller and his routine and some extra bits and ideas. You can also learn the Allan Shaw coin production on DVD#1 of Levent's series on the Misers Dream. And if you really want to explore more on Charlie's coin work, check out John Carney's DVD The Video of SECRETS Volume 1. John demonstrates the Misers Dream and shares a technique for producing a coin taught to him by Charlie Miller.
In regards to his card work, Jean Hugard's book Expert Card Technique has several items credited to Charlie Miller and a number of things that were Charlie's that are not credited to him. There are also some smaller books/pamplets with Charlie's material which include: "An Evening With Charlie Miller, "Black Art Well Tricks", "Charlie Miller on the Card Index", "The Charlie Miller Lecture Notes", "Charlie Miller's Diminishing Cards", and "Charlie Miller on the Malini Egg Bag" all published by Magic Inc..
Charles Earl Miller passed away on August 13th, 1989. He was one of the true greats of the 20th Century. Below is some footage of Charlie doing card magic. He is much younger here than he was in the Greater Magic Video Library videos and his skill and dexterity are apparent.