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Cellini: The Royal Touch A Guide To The Art Of Street Magic by E. M. McFalls

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


The magician known as Cellini has traveled the United States and the world for more than 20 years as a performer of street magic. Street magic is not simply magic performed out of doors, any more than bar magic is merely a close-up trick performed behind a bar, or trade-show magic that same close-up trick performed in a trade-show booth. Street magic is a distinct branch of the art, probably performed ably by fewer and fewer practitioners these days, as the places in which such performance is permitted grow increasingly scarce in these Uptight States. While a handful of past masters of the form (like Johnny Fox) remain on the streets and in Renaissance Fairs and similar venues, most others have, like Magic Bar specialists, gone on to greener, if less politically incorrect, pastures. And Cellini has moved on to Scandinavia, where he has resided for some years.

This is a problematic and frustrating, if unusual, volume. At first glance, with its oversized dimensions and sumptuous illustrations, it appears to be an utterly beautiful magic book. At this price it should be. Visually the book is a scrapbook of an inarguably interesting life, with photographs and drawings, sketches and doodlings, a monochromatic kaleidoscope of visual impressions. Upon further investigation, however, we find that it has been written by someone who lacks a first language, or if they have one it bears little relation to English. Nary a page goes by without a multitude of typos, grammatical tradjedies, spelling disasters, and name mangling. The book is a mess.

The first 31 pages may be worth the price of purchase to anyone who has a serious interest in street magic, because these few pages provide almost the sum total of meaningful writing on the subject in the literature of conjuring. Sample openings and closings are provided, along with commentary on pitching for money when you pass the hat. This is far from the complete work and nothing close to the many possible variations in approach, but at least what is to be found here is the Real Work, so far as it goes.

The book is written in first person so we have no idea who E. M. McFalls is, or for that matter if he even exists as other than perhaps a nom de plume of Dick Sullivan, i.e., Cellini himself. Hence Cellini, as it were, describes his early experiences busking in Colorado, and provides invaluable details on making a waist servante (commonly known as a gibeciere, although the term does not appear here) and an excellent portable table. Although dates are as nonexistent as other historical specifics in this book, the mid- 1970s to which the author refers must have been a pretty special time in the environs of Boulder, Colorado. It was 1974 when Bob Sheets, hailing from his native San Diego, found himself working for a place called the Jolly Jester, and in searching the old books chose to revive the look of the old-world street busker as a jester character, complete with waist servant (constructed at first of cloth) and eccentric hat. When Johnny Fox showed up on the scene (and wearing a corduroy servante) the first thing he was told by the locals was that Sheets was the cups-and-balls worker of the territory; the trick was not to be used by interlopers. The time and place was a cauldron of street wizardry evolution, and so by 1976 the by then leather-gibeciere/portable table/cups-and-balls package was in full flower, revivals which have continued to endure and extend far beyond Colorado's borders.

Cellini found himself in and out of New York City in later years, where he became a passionate student of Slydini, while also working the streets. Street magic in New York had been awakened by the seminal artist, Jeff Sheridan, about the same time that Sheets was getting his act together in Colorado. By the late '70s Bill McQueen was yet another fine Manhattan street worker, and there were many others coming up around town as well. During one of Cellini's New York periods in the early '80s, he passed along the act to a number of other workers and within a short time, Cellini clones in the same getup and equipped with the same act, were performing all around town. Some called this generosity, while others might have found it an odd artistic sensibility; perhaps it was a bit of both. Within a few years the difference didn't matter; multiple forces—cultural, political and economic as well as artistic—led to the downfall of most street magic in New York.

Following these opening 31 pages of history and theory, along with personal reminiscence of his mentor, Slydini, the book embarks on a description of actual practice, beginning with a section of general magic (including thumbtip work and effects with silks, wands, and other miscellaneous items) continuing through a section ostensibly on money magic according to the table of contents, but actually drifting toward the inclusion of everything from Cups and Balls to fire eating to escapes to Sponge Balls, cigarettes and Linking Rings; followed by a small section of card magic, and concluding with a substantial section of coin magic. To say that the magic described in the book is a mixed bag would be a kindness.

In additional to the appalling language and typography errors already mentioned, the descriptions of the magic vary from thoroughly described and illustrated to completely incoherent. In several places there are references to illustrations that do not exist. In other places there are no such references but illustrations are desperately needed nonetheless in order to make sense of the terse prose. Some of the magic is obvious or ancient or both. Some of it is very, very good. Some of it is neither here nor quite there.

There is a comedy sequence with a paper bag, significant portions of which (not the least of which is the basic prop) are rendered incomprehensible due to the lack of illustrations and clear description. There is an interesting device for the production of a live mouse. There is a handkerchief sequence, loosely described at best, that fails to mention that before you stick a lit butane lighter under your handkerchief for the penetrating flame effect, you had better make sure it's cotton and not synthetic, or there is a good chance you will wind up in the hospital. There is a very nice cigarette routine described poorly, albeit at length. (The "explanation" of the climax of a pipe production is likely to inspire a resounding "Huh?" from most readers.) There's a clever utility device for vanishing a standard glass tumbler under a handkerchief.

An extensive segment on the Linking Rings contains amongst the best material in the book, beginning with some interesting key ring handlings designed to display the ring while concealing the key. Here are some examples typical of the often flourishy and flashy nature of street work; most formal presentations of the trick would tend to be more restrained these days by comparison.

My sincere apologies to anyone I failed to credit."—Endpage from Cellini: The Royal Touch , by E.M. McFalls

Following some rope material there's a section on cards, with a fairly standard Ambitious Card sequence and some other stock material, beautifully illustrated and elaborately described. Finally, the book segues into a substantial section of coin magic, beginning with a lovely manipulative routine with three-inch coins and a handkerchief. Following some other miscellaneous coin items, much of which are either standard or indecipherable or both, there is a full-page description of an effect using a so-called "C.B. Coin Gimmick," which is never described and hence completely incomprehensible. (I guess it's some sort of multi-coin clip, to the degree that's useful. It's not.) The book ends with some ideas on the Miser's Dream.

As Janet Reno might have said after Waco, "Wow, what a mess." You probably think I've covered the worst part; guess again. We haven't really mentioned credits, have we? "Credits," we might imagine the author of this book asking, "what's a credit?"

Exactly. Spellbound is not credited to Dai Vernon. The specific handling for the hat production is not credited to Danny Korem, nor is mention made of any of the many precursors to this effect which appear in books by Jean Hugard, Don Alan, and many others. (Cellini probably first saw this effect combined with the cups and balls by Charlie Cambra in Cellini's original native haunts of Connecticut.) Cellini's much bally-hooed "Wand of Merlin" is excerpted from Flip Hallema's classic Flipstick, but no mention of Flip or his eponymous stick is mentioned herein.

Two wand spin variants are described, the first of which was published some years back by David Williamson. Sid Lorraine's Slop Shuffle goes uncredited, described as "this simplest and oldest" method. Jack Merlin's drop sleight is mistakenly credited to Charlie Miller's Dunbury Delusion; while later versions often relied on this sleight, the original Miller trick utilized a Second Deal. Of course the old bent card climax for the Ambitious Card makes yet another appearance here; this sequence, from Expert Card Technique, has been uselessly redescribed in print more often than the Kozlowski $100 Bill Change. Jerry Andrus becomes Andrews; Brother John Hamman becomes Hammond. Oh, Dr. Sawa's slot machine effect is actually credited to Dr. Sawa—we win this round. (Here as elsewhere, good luck dipping in and out of your "pocket" unnoticed, as opposed to one's handy waist servante.)

The illustrations are really, really nice. Did I mention that?

Okay, what's the deal here? The deal is that street workers are a special breed. Most of them live first, last and always by the day's take, by how good or bad "the hat" is that day. Recently, Cellini presented a lecture at FISM, and doubtless planned and produced this book in time for the FISM appearance. I'm sure it brought him a substantial return; that's something street workers pride themselves on. Perhaps not unlike magicians who specialize in gambling material, street workers are often myth makers, and the myth they're engaged in making is their very own. There is no small amount of myth-making in this book—Lord of the Rings, indeed!—and the author would perhaps have us believe that many of these uncredited items are his own creations.

Another thing: Street performers, with a few notable exceptions, tend to work extremely "strong." They can't afford to let up on their audience for an instant, lest they lose the crowd and their paycheck. They tend to get by on strong personality and plenty of flash and bluster—the ring routine here uses about a dozen shapes and forms, which would be passe almost any where today but on the street. The examples of jokes here are mostly warmed-over Bob Orben; hoary old clunkers, corny puns, and relentless quantities of sexual innuendo. You can almost always pick out a street worker when you bring him inside into a theater—he's the one screaming and carrying on and beating the hell out of his audience like he's afraid they're going to walk out any second. There are very few performers who successfully make the transition from the streets to inside—Penn & Teller did it, so did Bob Sheets. But these are the exceptions. Many of these acts never quite tame down enough to be around civilized company. Warning: if you think the patter in this book—a word I rarely use but it fits in this case—is good, think again. And then again and again and again until you figure out that it pretty much sucks.

Here's what I know: I know that Cellini is a great street worker. No argument I also know that he is beloved by many who have had the chance to experience his genuine warmth, generosity and common-man touch. I also know that no amount of kind-and- gentle thoughts can excuse the rampant egoism and arrogance it requires to be able to take 70 dollars of a purchaser's hard-earned without making even the slightest attempt to minimally edit and proofread a book like this. This is a triumph of style over substance. If you want to do street work, at least get your hands on the first 31 pages. If not, save your money for authors and publishers who show you, the buyer, a modicum of respect, and who don't insult your intelligence like some two-bit con man who smiles to your face and then picks your pocket as you pass him by. If you buy this book, check for the chalk mark on your back before you leave the store.

9 - 1/2" X 12" hardcover; 1997; lavishly illustrated with photographs and line drawings, Publisher: Magical Classics Verlag