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Chan Canasta: A Remarkable Man by David Britland

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 2000)


Who was Chan Canasta? It's unfortunate that many readers won't know the answer to that question, and all the more so perhaps that many will be unwilling to part with the purchase price of this relatively slender volume in order to find out. Nevertheless, this little book will, one hopes, take a notable step toward restoring the name of Chan Canasta—as unusual in name as was his performance style—to the pantheon of important 20th century magicians among which he belongs.

Chan Canasta was born Chananel Mifelew in Poland in 1921. Little seems to be known of his early background, although it was claimed that he performed widely through-out India, Pakistan, Israel, Germany, and France, before achieving prominence in England circa 1950. By that time he had thoroughly polished the foundations of his repertoire, which consisted primarily of card divinations done with a decidedly mental magic flair, and a distinctive book test. Although those effects can be so baldly identified, the style was strikingly distinctive, and his success with them can be fairly called unprecedented.

Canasta's work was often risky and his performance style enigmatic. The methods were exceedingly simple; so simple that magicians often derided them and were further mystified by his success. The overwhelming majority of his card work was accomplished by means of the Eight Kings stack (as in the well-known mnemonic, "eight Kings threatened to save 95 ladies for one sick knave"), along with an extremely effective Classic Force; the book test could have been doped out by many magicians upon a second viewing, as was suggested in a published report of a Canasta performance written by Goodliffe (founding editor and publisher of the venerable British Journal, Abracadabra).

He spoke with an accent and was not particularly striking in appearance. His presentation was mostly confined to giving instructions along with a bit of passing commentary and the occasional wry observation, and did not contain much in the way of elaborate dramatic or humorous narrative. He claimed no extraordinary sleight-of-hand skills and denied any psychic abilities, not only claiming to accomplish his work primarily by psychological insight and influence accompanied by a substantial memory, but at times coming remarkably close to all but explaining what he was actually doing. And finally, he was so prone to taking risks that he didn't just make mistakes—he often and repeatedly failed. All this is true, yet for roughly a decade he was nothing less than a phenomenon in England, especially on television; he also made numerous major television talk show appearances in the United States, along with live performances touring the Playboy Club circuit.

The reasons for his success are far from simple, and doubtless remain arguable. But author David Britland goes far in identifying the root causes, aptly summarized in his introduction: "Canasta's blend of psychology and traditional conjuring, which he called psychomagic, was a breath of fresh air. He entertained without patronizing his audience or depending on glib jokes and he raised magic to a higher level in the process. He paved the way for others to follow but few did." What is perhaps most notable is that today we are finally seeing aspects of Canasta's work coming to the fore-front in professional and artistic conjuring circles, yet it is not so much as a result of Canasta's influence as it is that practitioners have finally managed to catch up with him.

In 1953 Canasta starred in a short film that was shown in British movie houses, entitled The Amazing Mr. Canasta. It included not only the first record of his core repertoire, but also an interactive piece in which Canasta executed the psychological riffle force on the viewer, by riffling through the cards with the faces toward the camera, then revealing the card that was exposed for a fraction of time longer. (Paging David Blaine!) Then in 1959 Canasta would have his own series on the BBC in which he per-formed weekly for a panel of guest celebrities, entitled "Chan Canasta is a Remarkable Man." It was not until Al Koran came along that a British mentalist/magician would achieve this kind of notoriety again, and Mr. Britland points out that in fact it was probably Canasta's success—and perhaps his unexpected retirement—that paved the way for Koran to fill that void.

Around 1960 Canasta took that early retirement from the magic stage, turning to painting as his main pursuit for the balance of his life. In 1966 he released his Book of Oopses, a unique book of interactive magic, designed to read the reader's mind (or charmingly explain its failure to do so). In 1971 Canasta returned to British television for a single guest appearance on a popular talk show, "The Parkinson Show." No less than 10 years after his last television appearance, he offered an astounding performance that lasted 22 minutes. He then vanished back into retirement.

David Britland, after assembling in an opening chapter what little biographical data exists, describes in great detail the 1953 film, the final episode of the Canasta TV series, and the entire Parkinson spot, speculating (albeit generally accurately) on Canasta's methods throughout, and offering commentary and analysis of Chan's approach and effectiveness. This material comprises the bulk of the book, along with an additional chapter on other Canasta tricks and ideas drawn from various sources, and a brief final chapter on the aforementioned Book of Oopses.

The film took an odd approach: the only voice is that of the narrator, neither the guest participants nor Canasta himself are ever heard to speak. Nevertheless, the material is mind-boggling, especially to laymen. There are five card routines. In one, a deck is shuffled, then a card freely select-ed. A second deck is spread across a table. Someone takes three cards from the tabled spread, places them in his own pocket, then removes one of the three. That card turns out to match the original selection. This kind of matching plot was distinctly Canasta, and he had many variations.

Eventually he comes to the book test. A spectator selects a book from among several. Canasta riffles the pages and invites the spectator to think of one by number, which the spectator keeps to himself for the time being. The book is handed to someone else, whom Canasta asks to think of a number of a line, counting from the top of the page. This line number is named, following which Canasta now writes down a line of text. The spectator turns the book to the thought-of page, and the named line is counted to: the text matches! As Mr. Britland comments, "In a world suffering from a surfeit of tricked up books it is ironic that what Goodliffe called a 'beautiful thing—an impromptu paralyser (sic) which is the greatest effect in its field which I have ever seen,' is still largely unknown and unperformed."

In the final episode of the television series, there is a bounty of interesting material. Canasta begins by literally having handfuls of cards selected by several spectators, whereupon he rapidly identifies the cards by name. A coincidence trick follows in which two spectators select the same card, each from a different deck. Next someone selects three cards, thinks of one of them, and pockets all three. Canasta removes four cards from another deck, sets them upon a table, and asks another spectator to select one. That person chooses the exact match of the thought-of card.

And so on ... the mysteries continue. Britland—who describes meeting Canasta late in his life—thoroughly deconstructs the methodology, and there are aspects of Canasta's material explained that I have not seen discussed elsewhere, as in for example the system Canasta used to enable him to call off cards while trying to at least partially disguise the Eight Kings set-up. Eventually the book test is similarly examined. Anyone with the nerve and requisite skills will be able to duplicate it, as it requires absolutely no preparation of the materials; in other words, few will do so.

Eventually one comes to understand, to at least some degree, where much of Canasta's appeal was to be found. Mr. Britland offers that "Canasta liked to involve his audience whenever he could. We see him continually stretching the tricks further and further so that the audience becomes a key feature in the outcome of any feat. Canasta himself appears to be merely the facilitator, creating the conditions under which the psychological phenomena can take place." Elsewhere the author points out that "Canasta was very conscious of the fact that he could use the camera as a means of including the viewer in the experiments rather than them being passive observers."

We also learn that Canasta's methods were at one time exposed on national media, yet he not only survived the experience, he earned the unequivocal respect of the exposers! Canasta invariably got laughs, but while he was humorous, he was not a comedian. To use a phrase of Derren Brown's (author of Pure Effect), it could be said that Canasta was "serious, not solemn." Perhaps above all, Canasta never insulted the intelligence of his audience, which so much of magic does—be it by explicit insult of spectators by the performer, or implicit insult via a per-former's claims that vary from mere (if unfounded) superiority, all the way beyond to the suggesting of supernatural mechanisms. There are lessons to be learned from all of these observations—not merely from which stack he used to divine selected cards, or how he glimpsed a line of text in a freely-chosen book.

By now the reader should be able to determine if he or she is interested in the kind of material that exemplified Canasta's unique approach. Canasta is an excellent subject; I have seen two of the three performances described in the book, and they are revelatory and fascinating. If you have not seen them—and most will not have had the opportunity—I'm not sure how strong a sense you will extract from these pages. The material is certainly well-described, along with the details of performance, but I am not convinced that the persona of the man is adequately captured. Mr. Britland repeatedly refers to Canasta's "charm," but this may be mis-leading. Canasta undoubtedly held powerful sway with his audience—he could not only influence them, but they invariably ended up rooting for him, as is testified to by some amusing anecdotes herein—but it was not with all of the traditional trappings of charm. His humor was droll, his manner sophisticated, and when combined with his accent, I think he gave an impression of being slightly other-worldly, almost alien. All of this helped him immeasurably; all of it is impossible to communicate fully.

The book's production values are non-existent, and the pages are littered with typographical errors. (These will be corrected in a soon-to-be released second edition; an errata package, along with some bonus material, will be available from the publisher for purchasers of the first edition, which was limited to 500 copies, 100 of which were eventually irrecoverably damaged.) There is not a single photo amid its pages. The reviews and other written commentary to which the author frequently refers, including material by Goodliffe, Harry Stanley in The Gen, and Milbourne Christopher's writings as Frank Jonglar in Hugard’s Magic Monthly, are only lightly quoted from rather than being reprinted in whole, which might have added substantially to the value of this book; or least the Jonglar material is obtain-able in the current Hugard reprints from Magico, but this does not apply to the Goodliffe and Stanley material.

Perhaps my greatest disappointment is a stylistic fault in the manner by which the author decided to approach his narrative. That is, in his excellent article about Canasta in MAGIC magazine (published the very month that Canasta died, at the age of 79), Mr. Britland recounted a lively and absorbing story about his subject. In this book, while all of the material from that article in incorporated, he apparently decided to take a more straightforward approach, perhaps for the benefit of his readers who are magicians interested in methods. Thus from the outset we are faced with methodological explanations hand-in-hand with accounts of performance, thereby losing the drama—and pleasure!—of attempting to recreate the experience, and ponder the mystery.

And so, there will no doubt be many who wonder if this book is worth the asking price. To some there will not be a moment's hesitation, and many of you already know who you are. The price will certainly serve as a barrier to the casually curious, and that is in some ways a shame, as Canasta deserves a place in the consciousness of magic. Granting that most of this material has seen little if any description elsewhere, no doubt the author and publisher believe that that fact alone justifies the price tag. Although I cannot deny the value of the material, given the low production values I find the price somewhat difficult to entirely justify. With a bit more care, some photographs—a somewhat better effort by all told—any second guessing would have been unerringly transformed into unreserved appreciation. But there is little question that anyone who makes the investment will come to be convinced that Chan Canasta was a remarkable man indeed.

Chan Canasta: A Remarkable Man • David Britland • 6" x 9 " hardcover • 111 pages • 2 line drawings & 3 pages of reproductions