Big Friday sale

Arcade Dreams by Jon Racherbaumer and Ed Marlo

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii December, 1997)


If you're already a living legend, what is left for your legacy in death? With the passing in recent years of such legends as Dai Vernon, Ed Marlo, and recently a member of a later generation, Larry Jennings, survivors now bear witness to the aftermath: both the reasonable contemplations and revisionist agendas of the still living; the lauding and libeling and perhaps occasional leveling of perspectives. The controversies of lives past are not simplified in death; while battlefields may shift and warriors may change sides, even as new skirmishes ebb, ancient rivalries continue to smolder, flare, wane and then erupt anew.

Into these contested territories and mine fields boldly step two interesting new books from Kaufman and Company. These works are all the more intriguing because, thanks to fluidity of alliances, the two books represent two controversial members of frequently warring factions: Larry Jennings, one of the leading acolytes of the Vernon school, and Ed Marlo, traditionally if not always accurately or appropriately regarded as a Vernon rival. While Jennings clearly has an unabashed fan in author Richard Kaufman, the Marlo book has been assembled and constructed with additional commentary by longtime Marlo spin doctor Jon Racherbaumer. As it happens, the Marlo/Racherbaumer work seems positioned to quietly (some might suggest stealthily) expand and improve our view of Marlo while skirting around controversy, while the Jennings text seems poised for battle not, as it happens, with outside forces from Chicago, but rather for disputes within the more local ranks of Vernonia. And you thought the fall of the Soviet Union made life complicated for mapmakers!

I begin with the Marlo book for no other reason than that I thoroughly enjoyed it. When news first began to circulate that there was to be a book of Marlo non-card material, there hadn't been as many skeptical eyebrows raised since word that Darwin Ortiz was planning a book on showmanship. As it turns out, the latter book became quite popular in some circles, and I suspect there will be similar if not even greater success for Arcade Dreams and, unexpectedly enough, probably accompanied by even less controversy.

If you're surprised to learn that Ed Marlo produced some first-rate non-card material, you may be even more startled to discover that there are no less than 67 routines contained in these pages, culled from various journals and pamphlets over the years. Some of this material is still in print in the original sources, such as in the booklet, Coining Magic, published by Magic, Inc., and has clearly been culled for inclusion here to beef up the contents, as well as bring some better but perhaps forgotten material to light; however, the text of all of these items appears to have been rewritten for the book by Mr. Racherbaumer. While this is generally an improvement over Mr. Marlo's invariably terse literary style, in the case of alterations in dialogue provided between quotation marks, one might wonder in passing if the surviving author channeled these new additions. It is perfectly fine for the contemporary author to make new presentational suggestions to the reader, but to me, quotation marks, while I understand intended to direct the student's speech, seem to me to also strongly suggest the spoken words of the original creator. I would have preferred a slightly more conservative and responsible approach toward the original material, although such fancy-free revisionist cowboyism is certainly nothing new to the Racherbaumer ouevre.

The first section, Coin Connivery, consists of 16 coin items and routines. Much of this material is very good, including Marlo's work on the coin fold, the copper/silver transposition, and perhaps most notably, the Okito Coin Box. The latter routine, entitled S.O.C. (which first appeared in the aforementioned Coining Magic), featuring multiple transpositions and transformations without the use of standard turnover moves, certainly prefigured and indeed likely inspired later work by David Roth and Geoff Latta in this vein, with Marlo's fundamental construction ideas often remaining present but combined with updated technology (sleights and finesse) by these later coin masters.

The second section (and source of the book's title), Arcade Dreams, consists of Marlo's routines and handling for "slum" magic items developed when he pitched magic on Saturdays at Baer's Treasure Chest in Chicago, circa 1968. There is some superb material here, and what is particularly interesting about much of it is that these are not examples of applying advanced sleight of hand to simple props like the Red Snapper, Color Vision Box, the Ball and Vase, and the like; rather, these are mostly cases of bringing expert thinking, routining and construction to bear on material that can still be utilized by the customer unskilled in sleight of hand. Hence a beginner can fool the knowledgeable with Marlo's handling of the Ball and Vase because it relies primarily on the use of a second feke and some relatively simple sleight of hand, unlike subsequent excellent routines with this prop developed by Michael Skinner and Mike Gallo, which rely on not only sophisticated thinking but advanced technical skills.

The final section of Bar Magic contains the interesting news that Marlo once operated a saloon for a brief period, and includes material that Marlo presumably developed and performed there. There are 21 tricks and routines here, including dice stacking, Cups and Balls, Linking Pins, Ring on Stick, the Thumb Tie, sponge balls, Linking Rings and the Egg Bag. This section also includes Silver Spheres, a multi-phase three-ball routine which introduced, but without credit, the ingenious Oscar Platek double roll-up move, later adopted and popularized by Charlie Miller, Johnny Thompson and David Roth. Although this sleight was first published in a Marlo non-card Parade in the June 1957 Linking Ring, copies quietly circulated for many years and the move remained somewhat guarded, even long after Platek's original routine finally saw print in Pallbearer's Review in 1973, albeit excluding description of the sleight which Platek had shown to Marlo so many years before.

Contemporary students should consider much of this material for real-world use, as there tends to be a healthy emphasis here on both simplicity of prop, clarity of effect, and careful routining skills, habits which appear to be on the wane if current trends are any indication. Mr. Racherbaumer comments that "Professional performers, especially oldtimers, knew that the basic effect was a theatrical, one-shot item. On the other hand, amateurs are smitten by methodologies. They love to playfully experiment with the intricacies of doing things several different ways. To them, a routine must feature several phases." Interestingly, both trends are present in this volume; while some routines are clearly overlong, typically reflective of an amateur's fascination with methodology, nevertheless the manner in which these multi-phase routines are developed show sound routining skills. Students would be wise to consider the thinking behind these lengthy routines, and then carefully select two, three or perhaps four phases for most practical purposes, going beyond the simple "one-shot" approach that walk-around magicians in particular are often compelled to settle for.

This is a content-driven work, and that content is solid, useful and enjoyable to read. The production of the book is fairly straightforward, with the only design flourishes consisting of the reproduction of an old photo of the Treasure Chest on the front of the dustjacket, and some wonderful Nelson Hahne catalog illustrations, one of which accompanies each entry in the book. The illustrations by Joseph K. Schmidt are well suited to the material. The sans serif type style seems a tad out of place in a book which one assumes the publisher hopes will not only be easy to read, but for which he also desires to conjure up a nostalgic sense of the atmospheric past. The living author's commentary is measured and reasonably efficient, and along with the recent Eddie Fields book represents some of his best work. His contributions here also contain bits of correspondence from Marlo and others that are interesting, if not always precisely on point. One notable example would be an excerpt from a letter of Luis Zingone, who complains of the theft of his now standard One-Hand Top Palm by Jean Hugard. Mr. Racherbaumer lets pass opportunities to offer similar clarifications and/or corrections of the published record concerning Mr. Marlo's own excesses.

8 - 1/2" X 11" hardbound with dustjacket: 203 pages; illustrated with more than 350 line drawings; 1997; Publisher. Kaufman & Company