Reviewed by Chet Cox
Rating: [5 of 5 Stars!] Date Added: Thursday 15 March, 2012
There should be a higher rating than 5 stars, because the rating code at the bottom of this page (the one on which I'm typing; not the one which you're reading) says that 5 stars means merely "good." This set is much, much more than "good." It is, according to your needs:
- an invaluable history of magic,
- the strongest collection of powerful effects from the greatest magicians who lived,
- completely and utterly searchable; you want background on Thurston? You've got it! Want a LOT of versions of any specific favorite of yours? It's instantly findable!
- the backgrounds, the photos of the great masters, the programs, the reviews of books and effects which are again new, and the ability to watch as someone is noted as a newcomer - and eventually becomes a master wizard by our time!
- John Mullholland, the MagiCIAn (Look it up)
When you get these disks, guard them well - let nothing happen to them. Because they are well worth far more than the asking price of $499 - there is information herein which would be otherwise lost to the ages.
Reviewed by Dustin Stinett
Rating: [5 of 5 Stars!] Date Added: Sunday 04 June, 2006
Sometime in my teens (during the 1970s) I became fascinated with old magic periodicals. They are little self-contained time machines: an easy trip in Mr. Peabody’s Way-Back Machine to times remembered by few but, thankfully because of these periodicals, never lost.
I began buying the reprinted copies of The Phoenix, The Jinx and other readily available works. Somewhere along the line I learned about The Sphinx and ignorantly wondered when a reprint of it would become available. It wasn’t until I became a member of the Magic Castle and I saw the complete file in the library that I fully grasped the enormity of the magazine. I realized that there was little chance that it would ever be reprinted. I decided that I was going to have to buy a complete file. Acquiring a file of The Sphinx became, so to speak, my “Holy Grail.”
“He who would cross this bridge must answer me these questions three, ere the other side ye shall see!”
Ask your questions, bridge-keeper!
“What is your quest?”
I seek a complete file of The Sphinx!
“What is your desire: bound or loose?”
It doesn’t matter! I’ll take either one!
“What is your bank balance?”
I quickly learned that money would be an issue in my quest; a major issue. So, for many years, I resigned myself to visits with Mr. Peabody and his Way-Back Machine during trips to the Magic Castle. For over twenty years, every time I visited, I looked at the light green clothbound volumes with longing.
So what is so special about this magazine that acquiring a file could become an obsession?
The Sphinx was published during the first half of the 20th century. This period of time covers much of the “Golden Age of Magic,” from its peak through to its demise, and it is well chronicled within the pages of this astounding magazine. In its pages we see Harry Houdini rise to fame, reinvent himself as needed, and then his untimely death. We can follow the careers of Kellar, Thurston, Dante, Germain, Malini, LeRoy and so many others. Fifty-plus years of magic history at our fingertips: I get shivers just thinking about it. Fifty years of magic journalism that captures the modern growth of a once great performance art (that was a cornerstone of show business) to its fall into mediocrity as a mere amusement and hobby. (It was then Genii magazine that chronicled magic’s partial resurrection.)
One of the great challenges of flipping through the pages of The Sphinx was pointed out to me by Mike Caveney: “I defy anyone to be able to go through that magazine and not get distracted.” Sure enough: You start in on one article, perhaps on a specific subject you are researching, and pretty soon you find yourself wandering off into other interesting worlds. The advertisements alone are an absolute joy to read!
I had to get a file of that magazine!
But then there was that whole money thing, and as time wore on, the price of complete files—when they became available—increased as my trips to the Castle decreased. Then an interesting thing happened: Somebody actually took the time to scan every page—nearly 17,000 of them—and put it on some little silver discs I could shove into my computer. Now I had some real soul searching to do. I am a casehardened book guy. One of the pleasures I get from looking through The Sphinx is visceral: I love the idea that a page I just turned is anywhere from fifty to one-hundred years old! And I guess I just love the smell and feel of deteriorating paper (many years of The Sphinx were printed on less than high-grade paper). “The text is on the discs; but it’s just not the same thing,” I told myself. But the price was right; frankly, this looked like my best opportunity to at least come close to my quest.
Then a miracle happened. I stepped into the dealer’s room of a magic collectors’ convention and something caught my attention. There were the sounds of angels singing and a wondrous light radiating from one corner of the room. Within this glow lay an unbelievable sight: My Holy Grail! It was a gorgeously bound, complete file of The Sphinx. The man selling them, who was dressed in flowing white robes, beckoned me. I went to him asked the price; he answered. It dawned on me that, at that time, I did have the money: I could acquire this treasure! “But I have a guy on a cruise ship right now who is interested,” he said. “I can have a cashier’s check here today,” I said. “You have first right of refusal after the guy on the ship,” was his answer.
Okay, so I’m exaggerating: The seller wasn’t wearing white robes.
Before we sealed the deal, I talked with many trusted advisors. Several said, “Get them; it’s a good price.” One said, “What? Are you nuts? Get he digital edition!” The best advice I got came in the form of a question:
“What is your goal?” (“…answer me these questions three…”)
I want the magazine! I want to read it and touch it and smell it! I’ve wanted this for a very long time. I had the answer to all three of the questions that would see me to the other side of the bridge.
The guy on the ship passed and the magazines were mine. So the wondrous glow and sound of angels singing now radiates from my library shelves.
One day I was working under a deadline (something I never had to deal with in my past) and turned to my treasure for some research. The indices of The Sphinx are adequate, but not perfect. So, as is usually the case, I dialed down to a year and began looking through issues. The mixing of love and work is intoxicating! And I promptly failed the challenge offered by Mike Caveney: I was distracted. But I couldn’t afford to be distracted! I was under a deadline! For the first time ever, time became an issue.
I found what I was looking for and completed my project. But I realized I had to do something radical for a casehardened book-guy: I would acquire a copy of The Digital Sphinx to complement my real file. Now, when time (which runs faster the older you get) becomes an issue, I can save a lot by using the search capabilities of the PDF files. A list of entries for my subject quickly appears on my computer screen and in a mouse click I am reading what I need to read. Acquiring the bound file of The Sphinx was a miracle for Dustin the collector and lover of books and magazines. But The Digital Sphinx is a miracle of modern technology for the time-challenged multiple job-holding Dustin.
I know that my historian-collector friends reading this now are shaking their heads in dismay, but I beg them to consider my plight. And, it’s not like I have given up on my treasure: Not at all! In fact, it’s become more of a treasure. I now have the best of both worlds. I can still get lost in the never-ending trails one finds leafing through the magazine; discovering forgotten names and events. And I can use it more efficiently; recording every aspect of a subject without missing some important, but hidden factoid that might be missed during a page-by-page search. To borrow a phrase, the “tapestry of time” that is the history of magic deserves our best, most efficient effort when we are attempting to add to it or put the threads into the right place. As researchers, it is incumbent on us to use the best tools available to make sure we get it right.
Is The Digital Sphinx only for serious historians? Again, not at all! Anyone who loves this art will love rummaging through the pages—electronic or otherwise—of The Sphinx. There are many hundreds of effects, many that have not seen the lights of the stage or the close-up table in decades. “Something new” for your act can very easily be something old enough to be new again!
The treasures of The Sphinx were once available only to those who had (or had access to) a complete file; and they probably paid a hefty price for it. Now, this Holy Grail of Magic is available for a fraction of the cost of what a complete, bound file will cost you.
Don’t get me wrong: If you have the means, go out and find a complete file and relish in its visceral glory. Enjoy, as I do, the smell and feel of old paper coupled with the intellectual wonder of discovery every time you turn a page that is as much as one hundred years old! But, if acquiring a file is just not in the realm of possibilities, but you still want the intellectual pleasures of owning an entire file of The Sphinx, then The Digital Sphinx is most certainly for you.
Reviewed by Richard Hatch
Rating: [5 of 5 Stars!] Date Added: Saturday 03 December, 2005
A complete file of "The Sphinx" is probably the greatest single resource in English for research on 20th-century magic. From the first issue in March 1902 till the final one in March 1953, it documented the golden age of magic with a profusion of tricks, reviews, photos, playbills, tour routes, letters, and gossip. About four years ago, Christoph Wasshuber of Lybrary.com purchased a near-complete file of "The Sphinx" to scan the pages for this digital project. After he finished, about two years later, the 'digital facsimile edition' was released in 2003, and I received a copy. While the facsimile version came with a searchable index of articles (more on that in a moment), there is a huge difference between searching the index and searching the actual file. Searching the index would tell me every time 'Vernon,' for example, was mentioned in the title or as the author of an article or trick, but to find the many 'Vernon' references in the body of the text you need a version where the digital images have been subjected to high-resolution optical character recognition software, converting the images to reliably searchable text. Essentially, the facsimile edition was page, after page, after page of "The Sphinx" on two DVDs. It wasn't easy to use. This summer Lybrary.com completed and released a searchable version.
The product, "The Digital Sphinx", comes on two DVDs, organized into 54 PDF files, one for each volume, plus one for the index and one containing introductory essays by Wasshuber and Gabe Fajuri (both an expanded version of his March 2002 "Magic" article commemorating "The Sphinx" on its 100-year anniversary and a Power Point presentation he gave at that year's Yankee Magic Collectors' Weekend), and an article by magical scholar Bill Kuethe on "The Lore of The Sphinx", and another on longtime editor/publisher Dr. A. M. Wilson by his great granddaughter, Mary F. Syphus. The latter two were especially prepared for inclusion in "The Digital Sphinx" and have not been published elsewhere. There is also an html file with a hyperlinked version of the index, allowing you to jump to the article of interest by clicking on its indexed entry.
While you can access and search the DVDs themselves, Wasshuber recommends that you copy the files onto the hard-drive of your computer, which will both protect your DVDs and speed up access to the files.
Okay, let's give it a 'test drive': If we want to find the earliest reference to Dai Vernon, we don't want to miss possible references to him under his birth name of David W. Verner, so let's search for every time the consecutive letters 'vern' appear in "The Sphinx". As the search runs, you can see each 'hit' as the Adobe Acrobat reader finds them. Fortunately, you can view them in context without needing to jump to each entry, so it is easy to dismiss the numerous hits on 'Vernelo,' the first publisher of "The Sphinx," the vaudeville act 'Ziska and Vernon,' the ventriloquist Vernon, Harry Vernon of Glasgow, references to 'Mt. Vernon,' as well as any use of the terms 'cleverness,' 'government,' 'cavern,' and so on. When you do want to take a closer look at an entry, clicking on it takes you to the page on which it appears, and the search word is highlighted in context. Within a matter of minutes, we find on page 27 of the April 1916 issue (Volume 15, number 2, page 27, henceforth 15: 2: 27), under the heading 'Broadway Chatter' by 'One of the Boys,' the following quote from, 'Verner (fresh from Canada)': 'You're all a bunch of pessimists. The man with the goods will make good.' In the very next issue, our suspicion that this is indeed the 22-year-old Vernon is confirmed when we learn that 'Dav [sic] W. Verner' and his friend Cliff Greene were elected members of the Magicians' Club of New York on April 25th and showed the others 'some of their work, which is truly wonderful...Verner does second sight and mind reading with cards. He showed us several which are wonders.'
Vernon does not get mentioned again until nearly six years later, when the February 1922 issue notes the presence of 'D. W. Verner of Ottawa, Ontario' as one of 98 participants in Chicago's Houdini Night at the Crystal Room of the Great Northern Hotel, a post-performance celebration that began at 11:30 p.m. and did not disperse until 3 a.m. Could that have been when Vernon famously fooled Houdini?
His first entry as 'Vernon' comes a few months later, in the July issue (21: 5: 171), where Leslie Guest of Cincinnati reports: 'Vernon was in town for a few days recently, and those of the boys who called on him saw some card work that smacked of black magic.' The next issue notes the presence of 'Dallas [sic] W. Vernon, pasteboard expert and magical enthusiast of Ottawa, Canada' at a show in New York City (21: 6: 206). A few pages later in that same issue (21: 6: 211), Leslie Guest reports that he and Stewart Judah had 'each showed some of the card mysteries entrusted to them by Vernon on his recent visit' at the July 11th meeting of the Queen City Mystics.
One of the pleasures of such browsing is finding things you weren't looking for. Just above this last mention is a notice of Blackstone performances in Holyoke, Massachusetts on July 13-15, at which 1,000 people were turned away at each performance. The reviewer notes that, 'Adding the horse to his Ku Klux illusion is sure marvelous.' Does anyone know the nature of that illusion?
Well, we could go on with the many increasing Vernon references, but you get the idea. I literally spent the entire first weekend I had this finding the answers to many things that had long puzzled me, while opening many new avenues for further exploration. Obviously, the same kind of search can be done on Houdini, Kellar, Drs. Elliott, or Daley, Thurston, Blackstone, Malini, etc., or on a particular trick or sleight. The possibilities are literally limited only by one's interests and imagination.
In order to access "The Digital Sphinx," you need a computer with a DVD drive, AcrobatReader 6.0 (available as a free download), and nine gigabytes of space if you want to copy it to your hard drive. Because of its large size, searching the complete file is not instantaneous, and the time will vary greatly depending on the search parameters and the capacity of your computer. I conducted my test drive on an ancient three-year-old home computer and the initial search took nearly three hours to find the 2,538 occurrences of 'vern' in all 54 PDF files. Wasshuber, with a newer, faster computer, can search his 'entire digital library' in just 25 minutes, 20 of which he estimates are due to "The Sphinx." He has a number of recommendations for streamlining searches, such as increasing the size of the Acrobat cache setting, which will speed up subsequent searches, or using one of the emerging third-party desktop search utilities, many of which are available as free downloads and are rapidly improving their indexing capabilities. Adobe Professional (as opposed to the free download) also has an indexing capability, he says, which would make searches virtually instantaneous.
Wasshuber estimates that he and his staff spent 3,000 hours preparing this product, the equivalent of nearly a year and a half of 40-hour work weeks, so he will have to sell quite a few of these at this price to get a decent return on his investment. I hope he does, because this is a terrific product for anyone interested in magic history.
For those who already have a file of "The Sphinx" and just want an index to facilitate their non-digital searching, Lybrary.com's PDF file index to "The Sphinx" is available as a stand alone product, either as a download or on a CD for just $20. The index has nearly 14,000 entries covering tricks (indexed by category), articles (with the exception of monthly columns of local news, such as club reports), obituaries, and even photographs (indexed by caption). This file alone runs 540 pages and is a fantastic resource as well as a way to find out what is available on the complete file. Quick searches on it (each took less than a minute on my computer) produced 29 hits for 'Vernon,' but just 21 on the complete word 'Dai' (to eliminate hits for 'daily,' for example). Given the hundreds of hours Wasshuber estimates it took to prepare the index alone and the fact that the $20 is applicable toward later purchase of the complete file should one decide to upgrade, this is an outstanding value.
[With permission from Magic Magazine, September 2005, p. 38-39. While Magic Magazine does not rate products, Richard Hatch personally gave the five star rating below.]