Big Friday sale

Chanin: The Man with the Magic Hands by Jack Chanin & David E. Haversat

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2003)


Jack Chanin was more than a magician and magic dealer. He was a force of nature. If you never had the chance to encounter him, you missed an indescribable experience. A master of countless styles of magic, from close-up to manipulation to comedy and stage magic, he was one of those rare people about whom, when you describe them as possessing a twinkle in the eye, you swear you really do see the twinkle.

Chanin was born in the Russian Ukraine in 1907, into a life of hostile elements and harrowing times, recounted in the opening pages of a new 76-page biography assembled here by David Haversat, who came to know Chanin firsthand sometime late in the latter's life. While Chanin's father escaped to the United States when Jack was only five, to try to build a life and eventually rescue his family to join him in Philadelphia, the reunion would be far in the future. In the 1920s, Jack, his mother, and brothers escaped to Poland. It would be another three years before 16-year-old Jack and his family would board ship to make their way to America. During the long passage Jack made the acquaintance of a shoe-maker and amateur magician who reawakened Jack's childhood interest in magic. By the time he hit the States, he was on his way to a new career.

In 1929 Chanin was working for Filderman's Magic Shop in Philadelphia, and by 1931 he owned his own store. He became something of a one-man institution in the Philadelphia magic scene, and those he influenced still speak of him in glowing terms today. In the 1995 Penn & Teller issue of Genii I prepared, Teller, who grew up in Philadelphia, recalled Chanin as an inspiration. "He was a wonderful performer. His imagination is so powerful. One of the best magical performances I ever saw was Jack Chanin. I saw it at some magic convention, I think in Philadelphia, late at night, just informally. And Chanin was a bit inebriated, not doing the trick very well. You could see the little piece of paper, that he was apparently vanishing, sticking our from where it was hidden. But he was acting the hell out of it. He was acting as though a great miracle had taken place. And you absolutely saw it happen in your mind's eye. It was very ... it affected me very much."

Chanin's publishing ventures began in 1933, when he released his first book Adventures of Seven In One, a multi-faceted approach to improvisational card magic that was well ahead of its time. The next year he wrote Hello, Sucker', which remains still my favorite written work on the Three-Shell Game—there is none better (although there might be whenever Whit Hayden gets to his volume on the subject). These and other fine Chanin manuscripts have long been unavailable, and have now been made available for the first time in many years in this collection of reprints. The two aforementioned titles—and Hello, Suckers is almost worth the price of this book—are included, along with Cigar Manipulations (perfectly timed to complement John Carney's routine for the "Cigars From Purse"), Silks at Your Fingertips; Handle With Gloves; and the Encyclopedia of Sleeving. These six manuscripts are a treasure trove of material to the thinking and working magician, written by a master who knew the power and potential of magic, and personally shared it with many of the greats of his era, as witnessed by the photos here of Chanin with the likes of Blackstone, Sr., Dai Vernon, and others. Chanin was also a member of the "Secret Six, along with Dick Jarrow, Duke Stern, Karrel Fox, Dick Mossey, and Jay Marshall, who contributes a brief foreword to this volume (Max Maven also contributes a glowing introduction.)

The new biography is far from well written, littered with typos and malapropisms, and the production values are strictly minimal. It amazes me that people who are obviously sincere and willing to work so hard to produce an invaluable book like this are then either too lazy or too egotistical to seek the kind of assistance they so desperately need. When one reads that the author/publisher has "re-edited" the original Chanin manuscripts "for clarity," one must wonder at the implications, since Mr. Chanin comes off as the better writer. Nevertheless, the value in this book lies in the value of those books it contains, and that value is substantial.

In Hello, Sucker!, don't overlook Chanin's diabolical work with an extra pea. Cigar Manipulations contains more than 70 items including all manner of stage and close-up manipulations, vanishes, productions, multiplications, and routines and ideas combining other props. In the final entry, Number 71, the author poses a question to the student: "If you had the following items ... two mirror glasses, two hand-kerchiefs, a stand, and some cigars ... what would you do with them?" Further shades of John Carney!

Chanin was fearless, and a veritable fountain of ideas, yet he was committed to a vision of what magic could be. "Remember, a magician cannot afford to make even one error," he reminds readers in Silks at Your Fingertips, a terrific booklet that presents a variety of ways to construct an entire act of silk magic—or a segment of an act. Not unlike Keith Clark's Silk Supreme, this is an under-appreciated treasure.

In Handle With Gloves, Chanin explains that manipulating with gloves is not as difficult as magicians might think, and that "wearing gloves adds greatly to the effect." Chanin was indeed a master manipulator, and when I think of him, several images come to mind, one of them being his impossible-looking manipulations not only with nor-mal coins but with oversized disks as well.

Chanin was a marvelous "sleever," and no one interested in this uncommon technique can afford to overlook his imaginative work on the subject. He covers a variety of objects including coins, cigars, silverware, the "Egg Bag," and including applications with playing cards, including a diabolical version of the "Six Card Repeat."

The author/editor has also provided a list of all the effects Chanin manufactured over the years, a page illustrating various Chanin Palming Tokens, and the instructions for two of Chanin's most popular items, the "Mesh Egg Bag" (now a standard dealer's item), and the legendary Chanin "Rip-It." Although I did not know Chanin well, I distinctly recall him as a ubiquitous presence at the many Tannen's Jubilees I attended as a teenager. In addition to manipulating those huge "coins," I recall him being able to produce or vanish a heavy iron railroad spike at the most unexpected moments a prop he apparently adopted as a young boy. I remember sitting in the lobby one evening, and watching Jack approach a few young women while he was carrying a cup and saucer. The cup began to rattle furiously in Chanin's hands, and the women became visibly concerned, until suddenly the cup flew completely off of the saucer, apparently headed for disaster in the ladies' laps but as the screams rose, they changed to laughter, because the cup had been empty, and had turned its shockingly fast somersault because Chanin had tightly clamped a spoon through the handle, on which the cup rotated!

But I remember nothing of Jack Chanin more vividly than his performance of "Rip-It." In this, Jack would carefully and unmistakably tear out a small piece from the center of a dollar bill, and then, just as deliberately, eat it. Whereupon he would blow a puff of air at the bill, snap it open, and it would be instantly restored. This was such a miracle in Jack's hands that magicians would seemingly pay any price for the secret perhaps five or even ten dollars, back in the 1960s, only to be handed a single sheet of written instructions. That page is reprinted in this book but the secret, and the magic, was Jack Chanin!

430 pages • Hardcover • 2002