Bruce Cervon's Castle Notebooks Volume One by Bruce Cervon
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 2008)
When Dai Vernon moved to Los Angeles to become the resident guru at The Magic Castle, the fledgling magic venue that Milt and Bill Larsen built as a realization of their father's dream, the earth didn't move—the universe did. It realigned itself such that The Magic Castle became the center of the magic cosmos, and many would flock to its core. Among those that picked up and moved their lives were two who would become among Vernon's most famous students: Bruce Cervon and Larry Jennings.
Cervon was in his early 20s when he left Ohio for Hollywood, and there began his career as a professional magician and his life as a key Vernon student and interpreter. Cervon's and Jennings' destinies would forever be as entwined with one another as they were with Vernon's. Vernon did not give lessons so much as he brainstormed, told stories, proposed problems, critiqued solutions the two students competing with one another for the master's approval, the master guiding and inspiring both, and sometimes pitting them against one another, at least creatively.
Early in their collaboration and they were often collaborators during their years of sharing their mentor Jennings suggested to Cervon that he begin to keep careful records of what they were working on with Vernon, with one another, and other close colleagues at the Castle. Jennings knew he would never be a good recording secretary, and Cervon took his friend's proposal to heart, and began keeping detailed notes on everything Vernon showed to him and Jennings, as well as on both Cervon's and Jennings' own innovations, along with whatever else of interest came across their radar at the Castle. Thus began the legend that would become "The Castle Notebooks."
Bruce Cervon died on May 24, 2007, about a decade after Jennings' departure both sadly taken before their times. Although Cervon was the author of many books, he certainly had intended more. The three neo-classic volumes of the Vernon Chronicles, written by Stephen Minch, were substantially constructed out of Cervon's notebooks, as Mr. Minch explains in his preface to this first volume, and more were planned. When I asked Bruce if he would contribute his marvelous presentation for the "$100 Bill Switch" to the book, Switch, that I was helping author John Lovick in shepherding, Bruce thanked me for the request but declined, saying that he planned to eventually include it in a book of his own performance repertoire. I now desperately hope that someone will eventually mount a careful and respectful work containing Bruce Cervon's professional performing repertoire; when I saw him perform in the Close-up Gallery and in the Parlor at The Magic Castle, I saw some of the greatest magic of my lifetime.
With so much unfinished business, Linda Cervon has elected to release her late husband's "Castle Notebooks" in their entirety, through L & L Publishing; she offers her own brief explanatory note to readers at the start of the volume. The notebooks are scanned and printed in facsimile, bound in hardcover, with this first volume, circa 1964-1965, including the first three original notebooks; the balance will be released progressively in a series eventually totaling four or five volumes and more than 1500 pages.
And so, here they are. The truly legendary Cervon Castle Notebooks, in my hands, at long last. So long a wait, yet so sudden an arrival.
It's difficult to know exactly how to review what is here at hand. Cervon probably considered that someday the notebooks would become a matter of public record to some extent or another, but he likely never planned for them being published in this form. One cannot review the writing style because, as they are titled, these are notebooks. As books, they leave much to be desired: they are challenging and tiring to read, and it is difficult to understand the material at times unless you work through it step by step with the props in your hands. On the other hand, as notebooks they are nothing short of remarkable: The handwriting is very legible, and the instructions are, more often than not, remarkably detailed.
For those who buy videotapes because they have difficulty learning from even contemporary magic books, complete as they are with instructional and theoretical detail and often awash with photographs, these notebooks will probably seem like little more than formulae from an astrophysics textbook. And even for the average magic reader, these books may present formidable obstacles to ready comprehension. These facts must be acknowledged.
But for those of us who care about expert sleight-of hand card magic; about Vernon's influence and legacy; about the revolution in close-up card magic that was underway in the 60s and 70s and into the early 80s, and about one of the front lines of that revolution that was advancing nightly at The Magic Castle; then these books are among the most important archaeological artifacts that we will ever have in our hunt for the Real Work of that era. (And if you don't think something special was going on there and then, be sure to read Joan Lawton's evocative foreword.)
It seems a fool's errand to attempt to describe the contents in much detail. The 1964 notebook, dated December 8, 1964 to June 23, 1965, includes 33 items, and where it concludes on June 23, 1965, it will have described 183. By the time we reach the conclusion of the third notebook, dated November 13, 1965, there are almost 400 entries in this single volume alone. Besides the creations of Vernon, Cervon, and Jennings, there are entries credited to Jacob Daley, Jay Ose, Alex Elmsley, Persi Diaconis (who appears as "Percy"), and more. There's a simple and practical false overhand shuffle from Vernon, to which Cervon appropriately adds the comment, "GREAT." There's a diabolical method for determining red cards and black cards by touch, which predates by several decades a related method published in a limited manuscript for mentalists in recent years.
Historically we find probably the first description of a number of Jennings innovations, including Larreverse (here as "Larryverse"), along with applications by Jennings, Cervon, and Vernon, and Cards and Coin, later made famous by Juan Tamariz in The Five Points in Magic. On June 29, 1965, Cervon records Vernon's thoughts on the "Conus Aces," which would eventually become a signature routine for Bruce, who published his handling in 1990 in Ultra-Cervon. Cervon records Jay Ose's commercial presentation for the venerable "Glass Through Table"; Ose was the first resident close-up magician at the Castle and became an influence of sorts on Vernon's performing style. Also recorded is Vernon's "Walnut Trick," another item that remained shrouded for decades until finally being included in the Vernon Chronicles; Cervon puts a star next to the title, denoting, one assumes, his valuation of that unique Vernon routine. Later he records Vernon's "Loose Lifts," also published decades later in the Chronicles. One grows increasingly grateful for Cervon's dedication the more one realizes how much material eventually saw the light of day in detailed form solely because of his careful efforts.
Some of these items eventually reached print, as I have pointed out. But there is also plenty that has not seen public light until this moment. In 1965, Cervon recorded a page of notes from Vernon about the "Ping Pong" table pass, a move steeped in legend and mystery to this day. Vernon biographer David Ben apprises me that the description is incorrect in an important detail, based on his own research and the discovery of photographs of Vernon demonstrating the shift. Cervon took his notes 34 years after Jeanne Vernon took those photographs, and it is impossible to know whether the error was in Vernon's recollection, in Cervon's comprehension, or in his notetaking, albeit that it is more than likely the photographs tell the true story, since they were shot within a week of Vernon having been tipped the work.
Similarly, it is not always possible to know for certain what Cervon meant by his crediting, although it does seem that more often than not he tries to be clear, establishing his own credits either with the word "mine" or with his own initials, and grants credit to others by name and initials as well, often distinguishing the difference between the source and the originator; for example, crediting an item to Elmsley that was explained to him by Ose, or a Daley item described by Vernon. And thus our artistic history continues to be pieced together from various and disparate clues by the cherished detectives who help to preserve it.
There is also a significant amount of gambling-related material, much of it credited to Tony Giorgio, who obviously was very much a presence among the hard core boys at the time. One of these items begins with Cervon noting that "Vernon says this is the best thing Tony knows." There is much of interest for the cheating aficionados, including a description of "Vernon's Bug" which is followed, quite logically, by Vernon's description of a "shiner" device that belonged to none other than the legendarily mysterious "Dad" Stevens. And amid the various shuffle entries an ongoing fascination of Cervon's there is much work on the Stevens Control as well, including the Jennings "hit" technique that was eventually described in The Classic Magic of Larry Jennings.
Clearly, this book, and those volumes to follow, are not for everyone, and that is a fine thing. In these pages are exciting doorways to new ideas along with compelling clues to the past. That they are immensely valuable to the history of magic and to students of various specific areas of interest is unarguable. One is compelled, however, to address, if only briefly, the subject of the asking price. Some will say that the material is priceless, or that the only price is the one that someone will pay for it. This is hyperbole at best and cynicism at worst. The fact is that virtually no effort has gone into the production of this book whatsoever, or likely into those still to come (unless the format changes). The pages have been scanned, printed, and bound. A few photographs and various introductions have been added at the front (the photos don't reproduce terribly well given the choice of paper), and Cervon's own "contents" lists have been typed into a paginated table of contents. Therein the energy and investment on the part of the publishers ceases.
Except, of course, for the exorbitant price tag they troubled to attach. At $200 per volume, the complete set will cost $1,000. With 500 copies being produced, that's a quick and easy half a million dollars of gross income. Deduct the cost of production at approximately ten percent of that tally, and the balance will be shared by Mrs. Cervon and L & L Publishing. Have they done Bruce Cervon's legacy a service? That is only for her to decide. Have they done the magic community a service? Well, perhaps the best way to describe the book in that context is that it's better than nothing. Far better than nothing, assuredly, but it could also have been so much more.
Perhaps had they cared more about the magic community that Cervon "loved so much" (in Mrs. Cervon's words) than about making a quick buck, they might have at very least doubled the print run, halved the price, and they would have made the same amount of money had they been willing to have the patience to wait the time it would have taken to gradually sell out a print run of 1,000 copies rather than the anticipated rapid sellout of 500. By running only 500 at $200 per copy, they assured themselves of an instant sellout (at least in the earlier volumes) because collectors and eBay speculators will snap them up. But the young hobbyist, or even average middle-class, middle-aged enthusiast, who might care most of all about this material will not have $1,000 to spend on it and will be lucky to get his hands on it somehow, if at all. That could have been far more possible with a bit of patience and a tad less avarice.
Further still, they could have put together a plan with the right people to carefully examine the material, research its place in the literature, consider and correct credits, expand the notes into fully written descriptions, provide thorough illustrations, make selections of the most important and significant content ... and, eventually, produce a fitting tribute to a conjuring giant like Bruce Cervon. That might seem like an unrealistic amount of work to expect but of course, it is essentially what was done with The Chronicles, and it is precisely what is being done now by Richard Kaufman as he slowly but deliberately attempts to do final justice to the Larry Jennings legacy that rests in his hands. [Note: I mention this inescapably pertinent fact on my own, without suggestion or interference from the publisher of this magazine.]
And so, this book is a wonder, and I'm glad to have it. But it's also a crying shame.