Magic Then and Magic Now

Robert-HoudinOn this day in 1886, the poet Joyce Kilmer was born. You know him because of his very famous and oft parodied poem “Trees.” You know: I think that I shall never see… By the time he was sent to fight in World War I, he was considered the leading American Catholic poet. And then, like millions others he was killed in that senseless war.

George Nelson (Real name: Lester Joseph Gillis.) was born in 1908. He is better known as “Baby Face” Nelson, a moniker that was given to him because of his youth. It was in reference to the song “Baby Face.” It was meant to be an insult and Nelson hated it. It made him angry. And you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. This is largely because he was a psychopath. Most people in his line of work were more desperate than evil. I don’t think you can say the same thing about him. Just the same, as he traveled across the nation robbing banks and murdering people, he maintained a rather normal life for his wife and child. Of course, that’s along the lines of, “Hitler was kind to his dogs.” But still, he was a fascinating guy.

Dave Brubeck was born in 1920. Alright, I admit it: he was great. It is just that Paul Desmond was greater. And, of course, he was no Bill Evans. Here is “Blue Rondo a la Turk”:

Comedian Steven Wright is 58. I really like his work. Below is a 49 second clip of a couple of his jokes. I just want to point out that the question about what would happen if you were traveling at the speed of light and you turned on your lights is exactly the question that Einstein asked. Let me answer Mr. Wright’s question. First, you could not travel at the speed of light, so let’s assume you are traveling just under the speed of light. If you turned on your lights, from your perspective, the light would stream out at the speed of light. That is the theory of relativity.

Other birthdays: astronomer Niccolo Zucchi (1586); painter Frederic Bazille (1841); poet Evelyn Underhill (1875); lyricist Ira Gershwin (1896); comedian David Ossman (77); actor JoBeth Williams (retired); actor Tom Hulce (60); musician Peter Buck (57); animator Nick Park (55); and film director Judd Apatow (46).

The day, however, belongs to one of the greatest magicians of all time, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, who was born on this day in 1805. He is widely considered the father of modern magic. Indeed, magic has not changed a great deal since then. In fact, up through Mark Wilson, it looked very much the same—in style and substance. Robert-Houdin was born to be a watch maker. There is a very famous story about how he got into magic. He went to a book seller and bought a two-volume set on clock construction but was accidentally given a two volume set on conjuring, Scientific Amusements. He became fascinated with the art of magic and the rest is history. Of course, it mightn’t have ever happened. Pretty much everything we know about Robert-Houdin comes from his own Memoirs of Robert-Houdin. And magicians are known to be liars.

I find it interesting to see people’s reactions to modern magic. The truth is that basically, nothing ever changes. The Tarbell Course in Magic, published in 1928 contains basically all the collected knowledge that magicians have today. But each generation dusts off the old tricks and makes them their own. This isn’t to say that there are no innovations. But it is marginal stuff. Consider the Ambitious Card routine. This is a card trick that has been around for a couple hundred years. The magician puts a card in the middle of a deck and it keeps coming back to the top of the deck. Pretty much every card magician has a version of it that suits their style. But check out Daryl doing his version. Everything he does is quite standard, except the very end where he uses a device that Robert-Houdin would have been proud of:

Other than style and some marginal changes, that’s Robert-Houdin. And that is not to put down Daryl at all. I think that’s a really clever, entertaining routine. But it owes a great deal to Robert-Houdin. Magic is history.

Happy birthday Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin!

5 thoughts on “Magic Then and Magic Now

  1. I just saw a movie, "Deceptive Practice," where Ricky Jay talks about his influences. I was a little disappointed; I wanted to see tricks, and the movie had very few. But it was an interesting window into how magicians pass learning onto each other over the ages. (Basically, you have to prove how dedicated to the craft you are for a mentor to help your development.) It also made the whole "code of secrecy" thing a bit clearer to me. A magician who reveals tricks isn’t just revealing her/his own work; that’s revealing the work of many who came before.

  2. @JMF – I think the whole code of secrecy is a crock. I see magic like juggling; the more you know, the more impressive it is. P&T (who I don’t much like, although Teller is a really good guy who is kind with his time to struggling magicians) do a great routine with the cups and balls. First, they do it traditionally; then they do it with transparent cups:


    I’ve done the cups and balls since I was like 12. And I am fooled by it every time I watch it. From a misdirection standpoint, it is the perfect trick. From the entertainment standpoint, it kind of sucks. It just isn’t that interesting.

    As far as I’m concerned, the best magician in the world is Juan Tamariz. His work is so good that in some cases I just can’t figure out how he does what he does. Also, I love his personality. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of him available on YouTube, especially in English. Check this out:


  3. What a joyful performer! I looked at some other stuff of his too. My favorites are all fun like that. I can’t stand the ominous "is it really magic" ones, even though some of them are really gifted. Maybe they just don’t have the charisma to be fun, and that’s why they get pretentious. But, hey, it works for them, and some audiences also, so no harm no foul!

  4. @JMF – I assume you mean Tamariz, although Daryl is also a very nice guy who I’ve met a few times and corresponded with. The only time I’ve seen Tamariz not performing was a lecture–which was in French. It’s an interesting contrast because he is very serious. His effects are are often extremely elaborate and highly polished. The thing about Daryl (who I first met when he was perhaps 17 years old–I was 12) is that he understands the dramatic aspects of the art. The big thing I learned from him is that tricks need a third act. That’s what Tamariz is doing when he has the two people bet against other.

    Every great magician has his own style. This most definitely does [b]not[/b] include David Blaine and Criss Angel. As I said, I see it mostly like juggling. So it should be fun. And being funny is good too. Ricky Jay isn’t a magician so much as a story teller. But even people like David Roth are fun–he’s such a dork, you can’t help but love him. What I really don’t like are the Vegas shows. They are what they are, I just don’t like what they are.

    The ultimate example of what I’m getting at though, is Michael Vincent. It’s just beautiful to watch him work. I know what he’s doing because he’s made kind of a career of doing old stuff–beautifully. But it’s like watching a great chef work:


    Or consider the very funny but brilliant Derek Dingle:


    As you can see, I’m a total nerd about this stuff.

  5. I could watch this stuff all day. As it’s not going to get above 0, I probably will. Card tricks are so wonderfully intimate; even if you’re not the volunteer participant, they feel like they’re being performed just for you (part of the misdirection, no doubt.)

    I saw a few minutes of some Blaine special a while back at work. He’s a ham (although I did admire his great con-man’s voice.) I got bored quickly. It was the same trick done over and over to "prove" it was Real Magic. What a silly thing to "prove." Showing off practiced skill is delightful. "Magic" is not, any more than the ability to wiggle one’s ears. If the audience isn’t laughing with amazement at the end, then you’re just bending spoons.

    And, hadn’t you heard? Nerdishness is cool, now. I would have preferred it were cool 25 years ago, but today it’s quite acceptable to have a fervent interest in something the herd doesn’t obsess over as temporary Hot Shit. Among the young, geekdom is increasingly OK. The kids are alright, in some ways . . .

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