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The Sphinx

reviewed by Dustin Stinett
Rating: ★★★★★ (Date Added: Sunday 04 June, 2006)

The SphinxSometime 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?”

Oh boy.

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.


Miracle Mongers and Their Methods

reviewed by Dustin Stinett
Rating: ★★★★★ (Date Added: Wednesday 07 September, 2005)

Miracle Mongers and Their MethodsA Magician’s Thoughts on "Miracle Mongers and Their Methods" By Harry Houdini

Those of you who read my thoughts on "Why EBooks" may have noticed that I cite Harry Houdini’s "Miracle Mongers and Their Methods" as a book I consider worthy of reading (and not just owning—a profound difference). You might, therefore, be wondering why I think that. After all, it’s easy to understand why someone would want to own a "real" copy of "Miracle Mongers": It was written by the most recognizable name in the world of magic. It would be an admirable piece in any book collection and an absolute "must have" for Houdini collectors. But why would a magician want, or in fact need, to read a book about a bunch of geeks? "I can understand," you might say to yourself, "why I might want the ‘real’ book. But why would I want to plunk down a few bucks to acquire just the text?"

I think that’s an excellent question and I am going to try to answer it. Whether the answer is worthy of the question is up to you, dear reader.

Let’s start with the obvious "kindred link" these sideshow/dime museum performers share with magicians. From a historic viewpoint, magicians should have at least a passing knowledge from whence they come. Like it or not, magicians are forever associated with the fair/circus sideshows, the streets and the dime museums of the not so distant past. These were our first venues: "legitimate theater" came later—much later—and even then our brethren still performed in those less than glamorous settings right along side the fire-eaters and resistors, stone-eaters, strongmen, sword-swallowers and frog swallowing poison resistors. Some still do.

Yep: those are my people. Learning about them is a fascinating and rewarding pastime for any magician. In fact, many of these sideshow artists also performed conjuring feats as part of their programs. Houdini became fascinated by them because he was one of those who performed, along side of several of those about who he writes, in those dime museums and circuses.

If your passion for magic history includes Houdini, then reading this book allows you a glimpse inside the man himself. His fascination with death makes more than one appearance. His renowned mother fixation appears as does his disdain for the mediums of his day. He also has scathing remarks for magicians who, by their performances, expose more secrets of magic than do the so-called "exposers" (all the while justifying his own "exposures" in the book). It’s quite interesting how little the "problems" facing the art of magic have changed in the ensuing decades.

We also learn that Houdini, not encumbered by today’s New Puritanism (read: being "PC"), had an appreciation for miracle mongers of the opposite sex that went beyond these ladies unusual talents. A small segment on female sword-swallowers is highlighted by Houdini’s observation regarding Mlle. Edith Clifford, who, he writes, "...is, perhaps, the most generously endowed." He also recounts the weakness his strongman friend John Grun Marx had for the gentler sex during a mutual performance in France: "...all a pretty woman had to do was to smile and John would wilt. And—Paris was Paris."

Houdini was passionately desperate to include himself in the world of the well-read intellectuals and academics of his time. He felt that, in order to do this, it would be necessary for him to publish something more than just the secrets of magic, and that meant presenting researched historical material. This book was one such attempt. It’s worth noting that Houdini pads this book with page after page (after page, in many cases) of transcripts taken directly from his source material. He makes few meaningful observations and fewer still interpretations of the material, instead forcing the reader to come to his own. This is not to say that is a bad thing, however, most true academics will present their conclusions as well as the source material for consideration. The lack of scholarship on Houdini’s part in this book is quite telling and thus important—in my opinion—for a Houdini enthusiast to reveal to himself by reading the book. Better than to take my word for it.

But this is still a scholarly work: There is some input from Houdini (notwithstanding the comment regarding Mlle. Clifford’s bosom), and source material abounds, taken directly from Houdini’s extensive collection, which spanned centuries. The reading can be tedious at times if you are not a fan of the rich language of these early centuries. If you are like me and find the cadence of such prose as fascinating as the material it describes, you are in for a double treat.

Even the language of the early 20th century is worthy of historical note for today’s magicians. Most of us know that magic was commonly referred to as "juggling" during the centuries preceding the 20th, but many may be surprised to know that magic—in fact any deception—was still referred to as a "juggle" during the early part of the 20th century. Houdini refers to the bullet catch as an "ill-omened juggle" and, during a passing reference, he comments about the, "...flimsy juggling of pseudo-mediums."

Secrets also are to be found within the text—though I am personally not tempted to test any of them (and wouldn’t recommend anyone to do so without proper guidance). Almost the entire first half of the book covers fire eating and resisting from the historic, scientific (of the times) and arcane points of view. The secrets of the "Georgia Magnet" (Lulu Hurst) are discussed (though not thoroughly) as are many other "techniques" used by these unusual entertainers.

However, the historic aspect of "Miracle Mongers" is obvious and an easy target upon which one can set his aim. More obscure within this rich text are the presentational opportunities the creative magician can find and exploit. Several such opportunities came to me as I read the book, and I wasn’t looking for them (but I still wrote them down—as should all performers when an idea, no matter how obscure, comes to mind). Who’s to say how many I missed? My guess is that there is plenty of gold still to be found in this old mine.

I am reluctant to share—after all, they are the fruits of my labor, both creative and academic—why should I deprive the reader of the joy of these discoveries? However, since it unlikely that escapology will ever find its way into my program, perhaps I can share one morsel as an appetizer. Imagine, while being buttressed in (say) 100 feet of rope, the escape artist speaks of Houdini (who wouldn’t?) and the time he was restrained by Billington, the official hangman of Bolton, England, in the same restraints used on his victims prior to their gruesome demise. During their encounter, Billington enlightened Houdini that, "...he hardened himself to the demands of his office by killing rats with his teeth." Ah yes, the things we will do for the sake of our profession!

I’m certain such a script would not fit everyone who chooses to escape from rope—or any kind of restraint for that matter—but hopefully the reader gets the idea. This book is alive with such memorable lines and anecdotes. Whether used directly (as above) or used in a developmental capacity from which a complete presentation can be adapted, the material—often the most difficult kind of material for many magicians to find, is there. Not to mention that the search is fun (and you might learn something along the way) and one need not invest in an expensive collectable volume to find it. I call that a bargain—and a valuable secret!

PS: I will be appearing here from time to time, and while I cannot promise a response (though I will try), I would very much like to read your comments.

It’s important that you put something clearly relating to lybrary.com or this piece in the subject line so you may get past my indiscriminate method of SPAM deletion: don’t know him—click; don’t know him—click; don’t know him—click. You get the idea.

Thanks for reading!


Closely Guarded Secrets

reviewed by Dustin Stinett
Rating: ★★★★★ (Date Added: Tuesday 06 September, 2005)

Closely Guarded SecretsDuring my “magic lifetime” (a tad over 35 years) magic publishing has experienced two major paradigm shifts. When I started buying magic books in earnest (a nice way of saying “out of control”), most new publications were usually paperback. Generally octavo in size, perfect bound, stapled or comb bound affairs, many with questionable production values—but they were quite affordable ($5-$15). There was the occasional hardbound book (at premium prices, about $15-$25), and many of the older books (those not yet reprinted by Dover) were hardbound as well. But the majority of the new stuff was inexpensively produced (keep in mind that there were, of course, many exceptions).

Sometime in the late 1970s somebody got the wild notion that magic books could be better—a lot better: Quarto in size, quality boards and acid-free paper with prices that matched this premium level of quality. Pretty soon everyone was in the big-book, big-price ($35-$45) business. Hardbound books in the $25 to $30 range were bargains! Paperbacks at $20 were steals since that’s how much lecture notes were beginning to cost.

Now books in this price range are cheap. We had become accustomed to paying $40 to $50 for a good book when the next change occurred: bigger, better, “deluxe.” Somebody else decided that we would be prepared to pay $100 (give or take a 20) for a quality book—sometimes more. “Trade” editions routinely sell for $50 to $100 while their deluxe, slip-cased and signed/numbered counterparts—the “must have” editions—sell for at least twice the price. Some of these books are mammoth in size; many hundreds of quarto size pages with color plates and work-of-art dust jackets worthy of framing. And the publishers were correct: we shelled out the cash—willingly, sometimes wantonly.

There are, of course, reasons for this major price escalation, but one in particular stands out: For centuries, the only way magical information could be disseminated (beyond a personal relationship with a teacher) was through the printed word. Video changed all that and DVDs have made videotape nearly obsolete. Simply put, books have become a hard sell. Publishers are producing and selling fewer units, therefore they have to price their works higher and in order to justify that, the books have to be perceived as high-end in terms of production values, size and/or content. Most of the time they are and some of the time, well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Somewhere during the “big” era and into the transitional period to “bigger,” desktop publishing snuck in. Anyone with a PC could publish their “contributions” to magic. Much of the time we would wonder why they bothered. Other times we thanked our lucky stars they did bother (with some of us privately wishing they hadn’t).

We are lucky when someone like Michael Close is compelled to share his contributions with us. It’s widely known that one of the reasons Mr. Close released his Workers series was to get his work into the printed record before someone else chose to do it for him. It’s quite possible he really didn’t want to do it: it’s just that he realized that he had to do it. So we become the beneficiary of this paradox. But we are also very lucky that Michael Close’s character and his love of—and sense of responsibility to—the art of magic prevented him from taking the low road of simply publishing his tricks (effect and method only). This would have satisfied the “printed record” issue and, frankly, he probably would have sold just as many books. But this would not have satisfied his sense of duty. Since he had to do it, he chose to do it thoroughly: every possible aspect of the magic shared in the Workers books was offered up; nothing was held back. Included with the magic are some of the most lucid essays ever written on the myriad of subjects that he covers. Combined, the five Workers books may very well be the most focused lessons in magic ever published. Closely Guarded Secrets takes up where Workers left off—and then some.

The Times They Are A-Changin’.

It would have been very simple for Michael Close to call his latest work Workers Six and then publish it with the same production values as the previous five. However, to do so would have meant that Mr. Close would have chosen the low road and he has already shown us that this is not in his character. CGS is as much about evolution as it is about Mr. Close’s latest performance pieces and this evolution touches every aspect of this book: the effects, the thinking; the production values and the medium in which they are all captured.

In regard to that medium, the book purists out there, though perhaps a bit miffed by the necessity to print it themselves, will be very pleased with the final product. Those with the pragmatic (and I believe correctly held) belief that video can be a valuable subsidiary tool when learning sleight of hand will be pleased with the amazing imbedded videos. For those who think they can learn only from video, well, bummer. You’ll have to wait and see if Mr. Close releases this material on DVD. In the mean time, the rest of us will benefit from the lessons and the material included in this EBook. But keep in mind that since not everything shared here in print could possibly be included on a DVD, you will short-change yourself. That would be a shame since there is so much here that can enrich the growth of any student of the art. Even in the case, like me, that you cannot find one trick (out of the many very good ones) here that you plan to add to your repertoire (and this is perhaps the highest complement I can give any book) you will find that the true value of this book is not the tricks, but the substance that is behind every one of them.

Reading through each piece is requisite if you wish to garner everything you can from this book. Skipping an effect because it doesn’t interest you or is beyond your level of expertise could mean missing valuable lessons on multiple levels of magical thinking that can be applied immediately to the magic you already do. Years of experience on what to do in many given situations which are common to many magic tricks are offered here—One simply cannot put a price on that, and all the reader has to do is recognize those given circumstances and apply the lessons. For example, should you skip any one of the first three effects you will miss a lesson in the construction of a “set” of tricks: The blending three individual effects into one cohesive performance piece without ever saying “And for my next trick” (or anything even suggesting that vulgarity).

Many of these lessons are in the application of timing patter with technique (Mr. Close is a devotee of the Erdnase admonition of “changing the moment”), but for him it goes beyond just saying “something” (or cracking a meaningless joke) at the right time to cover technique: It’s about meaning and logic. Some of the most powerful misdirection in magic is when that misdirection is something so natural that it is innocuous. The amount of thought and effort Michael Close puts into the seemingly ordinary (in the minds of the audience) is extraordinary and he is freely shares the fruits of that effort time and again in CGS.

To lift magic—all magic—out of the realm of puzzles, an emotional hook is needed. One of the things we learn here is that, besides something interesting about the trick (the story, the circumstances, etc.), the emotional hook must also be the performer—particularly in close-up situations. If your audience likes you and/or can relate to you, they will give you miles of latitude. This is exactly why good performers can successfully do card tricks for people who otherwise hate card tricks. Puzzles become magical and the “challenge” aspect of some effects goes unnoticed. Throughout CGS we see how Mr. Close hooks his audience. Though he uses gambits such as winning at gambling, these strategies are always bolstered by the audience’s interest in him.

Years of technical expertise and finesse is also revealed in CGS in the “On Sleights” section. Like most great performers, Mr. Close chooses the technique that gets him where he wants the effect to take his audience. If this means a palm or using a pass is the best tool, he uses it. But he doesn’t use a sleight just for the sake of using the sleight. In fact, one of his best pieces of advice in regard to learning sleight of hand appears early in the book and is a testament to one of the many subtexts that run throughout this book: this one being the subtext of “focus.”

A Michael Close book (‘E’ or otherwise) would not be complete without an essay or two. Though the introduction covers aspects of the medium he chose to publish the book, there is also food for thought in the reaffirmation of Mr. Close’s firmly held belief of what magic is to him (and thus to his audience). And while short, in “On Venue and Evolution” Mr. Close shares more valuable experience that could otherwise only be learned through personal trials (and if there is “trial” there must be “error”). Pay attention and you can save some of what is the most precious commodity we all have: time.

In keeping with the subtext of “evolution,” there are two sections in this EBook that are a departure for Michael Close: a section devoted to fooling only other magicians and a section of “Pipedreams”: untried ideas that have merit and might get your creative juices flowing. But a personal word of caution: If you do expand on any of these ideas and create something you feel worthy of dissemination, don’t forget where you got the idea and take the appropriate (and ethical) steps prior to doing so.

I must confess that the penultimate section on Dean Dill’s Box made my stomach sink. Not because it was included (I understand his reasons for doing so), but because of the similarity some of the introductory patter I came up with for the piece has with that given here (keeping in mind that I have never seen Mr. Close perform his version). The upside is that I cannot be accused of stealing (since his is now published), but the downside is that I will be seen as unoriginal and the very unattractive fact that others will be doing his piece; it’s that good. (For the record—for those keeping score—I talk briefly about the Fox sisters and the Davenports and their cabinet).

To close out the EBook, the author revisits (some briefly, some more extensively) several of the pieces that appeared in the Workers series. Two things in particular caught my attention. First, I am curious about how many magicians went running to their shelves to scour through 20 years of Apocalypse indexes (you’ll have to buy the EBook to find out what I’m talking about, as long as no one else spills the beans). Second, and most interesting to me, is that Mr. Close never specifically mentions any of the several superb essays that appeared throughout the Workers series. I see this as an affirmation of my belief that he “got it right” the first time.

Closely Guarded Secrets is a triumph in terms of content as well as medium. Though not the first of its kind, I believe CGS will be recognized as the rocket that propelled (from the launching pad of the e-version of Giobbi’s Card College 1) magic publishing into a new era. Yes, the times they are a-changin’.

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