Del Ray: America's Foremost by John Moehring
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 2011)
At the height of Del Ray's career, he was advertised as America's foremost magician hence the title of this posthumous biography and it might surprise readers that the moniker was not mere promotional hyperbole. If nothing else, what one learns from John Moehnng's biography produced with the significant assistance of materials and information provided by three of Ray's longtime friends and colleagues, in addition to interviews and other research is that Del Ray was an incredibly successful, busy, hard-working, highly paid professional magician throughout a lengthy and stellar career. In the 1950s he was steadily working the very top of the nightclub market, from Beverly Hills to New York City, Texas to Chicago, and even Cuba. His remarkable silent stage act, a marvel of electromechanical engineering as much as of sleight of hand, had set him apart from all other performers. Spontaneous bursts of fire flew through the air while cards were manipulated, canaries vanished and reappeared, and a mechanical bear repeatedly poured and drank a toast on command. No one had ever seen anything quiet like it.
The man behind the bear was raised in an orphanage in a small town in Ohio, became interested in magic at a young age, and had quickly become an obsessive sleight-of-hand perfectionist as well as a mechanical innovator. His capacity for practice was apparently endless, as testified to by a marvelous anecdote concerning his first discovery of the Brother Hamman "Final Aces" routine, which was to become a pet trick of Dels. Seeing it at a convention, he buys the trick and, for the next two days and nights, barely sleeps or eats while he develops, refines, and practices his routine essentially missing the convention he was supposed to be attending with his roommate magic pals.
A young Del Ray saw the Harry Blackstone show and managed to meet the man afterward and make an impression. Sometime later, at one of those magic conventions, he looked up Blackstone again, and taking some advice from Howard Thurston's Fifty Card Tricks, among Dels first magic books as a boy, he managed to land a job with the Blackstone show, getting his start in a peripatetic lifestyle of the touring magician, and learning lessons that would last a lifetime. Dels obsessive attention to detail caused him to rise in the ranks of the Blackstone show, and would of course later serve his own career as well.
Throughout his nightclub career, Del would often perform close-up magic at tables or for private groups, late at night after the cabaret show. Sometimes this was a function of his determination to please the nightclub owner as well as the clientele; other times there was also good extra money in it. By the 1960s, he had developed an incredible repertoire that, like the inimitable stage act, consisted of a blend of stunning and unfathomable sleight of hand magic, particularly card work, deeply integrated with unprecedented electronics and remote control devices. A tiny bird sang and revealed selected cards and predicted the outcomes of multiple dice rolls; tiny ceramic animals performed feats of balance on command; and a little mouse crawled all around the surface of a large table, eventually locating a spectator's card.
And so, as the nightclub circuit changed and faded, in the 1960s and 70s Del Ray continued to be an incredibly busy and highly paid performer, but now primarily as a close-up entertainer at private events, hospitality suites, golf clubs, and trade shows. And, in the 70s and beyond, he would be seen increasingly at magic conventions, as his legendary reputation and stature among magicians continued to grow. Those who saw him perform live, even once, would never forget the experience that is fact, not hyperbole.
I was fortunate enough to see Del Ray perform on a number of occasions, including in a long show at the FFFF convention in 1988, portions of which are excerpted on the DVD which accompanies the book. Even in that setting, most attendees found themselves repeatedly and thoroughly fooled. A few days later I was privy to a conversation in which two noted attendees were discussing the Del Ray poker deal routine, and they simply hadn't the slightest idea how it worked.
I had heard about Del Ray for years, but I recall that when I first saw him in that performance which if memory serves ran close to 90 minutes I was surprised by the differences between what I had previously heard, and what I had now seen. Magicians would always talk about the little mechanical animals, and theorize about the nature of the technology behind these effects. By the 1980s and 90s it wasn't hard to speculate that the table was gimmicked with electromagnets among other things, and that Del was using concealed radio control devices. Such technology probably looked like real magic to most of the world in the early years of Del Ray's use; he was a pioneer, certainly in his applications to magic.
But what I found revelatory was that it didn't matter that by 1990 you could probably grasp the essential elements of the methodology; to me, this was in some ways the least interesting aspect of Del Ray's magic and performance. What no one had told me was that Del Ray was one of the great character acts in the history of magic. To me, he was comparable to another great sleight-of-hand entertainer and character whom I had grown up watching and being inspired by; Albert Goshman. Goshman was a complete package: the magic was impeccable and astonishing; the performance was hilarious as well as mystifying; and the character was distinct and memorable. All this was equally true of Del Ray.
With his Southwestern accent and string tie, the running gag of "You could win this $50 bill—it's a very old bill," a nonstop stream of perfectly timed one-liners, his stylish and distinctive brand of playing-card handling, a repertoire of spectacularly engaging and consistently impenetrable miracles to me, the little animals were merely a bonus of sorts. And even there, what rendered the automata so thoroughly entertaining was, in the end, not the technology, but the magical plots themselves as conceived by Del that is, the role the animals played and the manner in which they were integrated with the magic plots plus, yet again, his character. Del Ray was, in fact, nothing less than a remarkable puppeteer. His manner of relating to the animals is what elevated them from clever mechanical devices and imbued them with life and personality, and the performance became a portrayal of the relationships that Del had with his charming little colleagues. This is puppetry and acting on a high level. And to me, that was the essence of Del Ray.
Del Ray was notoriously secretive about his work, and eschewed publicity in the magic world, interviews, and above all, virtually any discussion or publication of his work. His desire for secrecy was intended to operate beyond his death not unlike some other notable and secretive past masters, from Hofzinser to Charlie Miller. But friends, colleagues, and acolytes of such artists justifiably wish to pay tribute to such men, in order to give them credit and keep their names and achievements alive in the annals of magic, and so they should. But they are often conflicted as to how best to go about this, and how to manage the issue of secrecy.
Given Del Ray's legendary secrecy, it was a momentary shock to turn a page and see photos of the inner mechanics of the Del Ray table! What's more, those friends who helped to assemble the material of this book actually possess a good understanding of the mechanics, and, wanting to make it clear how innovative the work was at the time it was developed, they offer reasonably detailed explanations of the workings. This is an appropriate tribute and I am glad they made this choice.
There are far fewer explanations when it comes to the workings of the stage act, or particularly, of the close-up sleight-of-hand material, however. A segment of the book does include straightforward technical descriptions (accurately reconstructed by Gary Plants) of eight tricks, all of which (along with many others) can be seen performed by Del on the accompanying DVD (which, even with its barebones production values, is probably worth the price of the book, particularly to those who were never privileged to see the maestro in life). But a linear description of the workings of individual routines is a very different thing than attempting to bring an individual to life, much less providing insights and understanding as to what sets an artist's thinking and creativity apart when it came to sleight-of-hand magic. We are repeatedly told, for example, that early in his career, Ray could entertain with an hour of card tricks, but we rarely know what tricks, and when they are being developed, and how much less, if you will, why. We are told of occasions when, in his early development, Del Ray met with and befriended some of the elite of sleight-of-hand card magic, from John Scarne to Ed Marlo to Eddie Fechter (whom, in my own personal guess, likely was the first to teach Del about controlled dice cup shots). And we learn, too, that Del tossed Monte for money in his youth and while in the military (and one wonders if, given some of his particular cardman ship skills, and his deep knowledge of gambling, if his hustling experiences ever extended to private games).
And so, America's Foremost is a somewhat mixed bag of tricks. Collections of scrapbooks and handbills and brochures and journal articles have been turned into a detailed and readable narrative of who, what, and where, thanks to the careful work of John Moehring; Del Ray's electromechanical magic innovations are well established thanks to his friends David Baldwin, Robert Escher, and William Spooner; and Del Ray the remarkable artist remains an enigma. The mystery endures.