The BOOKPRESS November 1999

Professor of Magic


S. Cushing Strout

The most interesting television program on magic in recent months was not the performance of any stage magician, but a surprising documentary about a dead magician on the Canadian History channel: "Dai Vernon: The Spirit of Magic." (It was aired on April 25, 1999.) Vernon, known among magicians as "the Professor," was a Canadian who made his career in New York and later became a resident sage at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, until he died not long ago in his late 90s.

Among magicians he was famous for his brilliant versions of the familiar classics, the Linking Rings and the Cups and Balls, which are probably the only tricks most people can remember having seen. For magicians Vernonís versions are the gold standard, and amateurs can dedicate themselves to learning his routines because he left a large legacy of magical literature. Vernon seldom performed on stage; more often he performed during the Depression as an entertainer at the private parties of the socially prominent and affluent. In the late 1930s, however, he created an innovative act in harlequin costume for the Rainbow Room and performed it at Radio City Music Hall.

Vernonís importance also lies in his style of magic, which can be traced back to the great 19th-century French conjuror Robert-Houdin. (He is a major figure in Brian Mooreís last novel, The Magicianís Wife.) In his memoirs the Frenchman spoke of regenerating the art of conjuring by getting rid of "all the paraphernalia of the ordinary conjuror, which looks more like a toy shop than a serious performance" and too often is "designed to make up for the performerís want of skill." He aimed for a style of "elegant simplicity." In a similar vein Vernon admired the vaudeville conjurors Nate Leipzig, Max Malini, and Silent Mora because "none of them used the type of apparatus that could only have been constructed for trickery." Vernon taught many outstanding contemporary magicians (such as Ricky Jay) who made pilgrimages to the Magic Castle to learn Vernonís "natural" gestures and handling instead of the showy staginess of most performers.

Vernonís sense of magical history made him a bridge to past masters to whom he paid tribute in books of his own. In a country and a field which tends to be obsessed with the here-and-now, Vernonís influence has been an invaluable corrective. But until the Canadian program (which narrated his biography with profound respect but drew no veil over his quirkiness as a teacher and his considerable liabilities as a husband and a father) few people outside a narrow circle knew anything about him. He was, as it were, not a name to conjure withóexcept among conjurors.

Nothing could be further from Vernonís "spirit of magic" than the contemporary style of theatrical magic that is centered in Las Vegas and exhibited monotonously on American television. These boring "spectaculars" with their prancing "bimbo" assistants and their redundant guest-celebrities of minor talent with nothing to say, shamelessly promise, with all the credibility of P.T. Barnum, that the performer will "vanish" a Stealth Bomber, the Statue of Liberty, or even an island, as if the illusion of doing so could be credited to the performer rather than to the technical abilities of his camera crew. This kind of theatrical humbuggery also conventionally highlights some "death-defying escape," as in Lance Burtonís last-second jump to avoid the plunging vehicle on the roller-coaster. Vernon appropriately insisted that the struggle to get out of a straightjacket, which Houdini routinely performed, might be an athletic form of showmanship; but it is not magic, which is the simulation of the impossible.

Magicians on stage necessarily tell lies, but like all art lying can be sabotaged by the extravagance of its ambition. Burton also vanished a donkey and later made a mouse appear under a cup, but these illusions were on a human scale and had a charm and credibility that (unlike the airplane vanish) went beyond the puzzle of how they were done. When a magician plucks cards, coins or balls from the air, we can imagine how in principle it could be done by natural means of manual skills. But that is beside the point when we are persuaded by the magicianís skill and patter to suspend our disbelief and enjoy the amusing plot about the peripatetic objects. There was no manual skill about the donkey vanish, of course, but it was still on a human scale, and the donkey engaged some of our sympathy by resisting cooperation. Ann Patchett was wise in her moving novel The Magicianís Assistant to focus on a couple who performed in small venues; the tricks the heroine learned involved only a deck of cards, or the cups and balls.

Aristotle in his classic The Art of Poetry never considered theatrical magic, but he made the pertinent point about poetic effect that "a convincing impossibility is preferable to an unconvincing possibility." Aristotle also observed that "whatever is beautiful" must be of "an appropriate size, for beauty is bound up with size and order." The "minutely small" and the "extremely large" are beyond the boundaries of Aristotleís rule, which should be applied to American show-business magic. There was a story in The New York Times recently about the crash of the multi-million-dollar plan to build a huge magical theme-restaurant on Broadway, filled with giant statues of the performer David Copperfield. I read of its demise with a sigh of relief.

An honorable exception to this mania for giantism is the company Le Grand David, which has been performing for decades on the north shore of Massachusetts. It is the achievement of Cesareo Pelaez, a professor of psychology at Salem College and a Cuban immigrant, who has recreated the style of magic he saw as a young man when the Bamberg family of magicians toured South America. The show uses lavish artistic costuming, mimes, clowns, and trumpet-players; and the stage illusions are all historical ones, built on a human scale. They share the stage with graceful and expert sleight-of-hand performed by the producerís apprentice. The company has a strong sense of ensemble and is closer in spirit to Canadaís Cirque de Soleil than it is to any magical performance current in the United States. We owe to two naturalized Americans, the Canadian Vernon and the Cuban Pelaez, the example of first-class magicians who brilliantly escaped the glitz and banality of American television magic. To appreciate them is to see how badly we have been short-changed by Las Vegas.

S. Cushing Strout is professor emeritus of English at Cornell University and an amateur magician.

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