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Digital Effects, The Magic Of Joe Mogar by Steve Beam

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

I read Jean Hugard's seminal text, Thimble Magic, when I was a kid. I learned a few vanishes and reproductions, fooled around with thimbles for a while, then put them away. I may have been a fat, four-eyed kid with a speech impediment, but I knew my limit: If the school bullies were already after me, waving a thimble in their faces wasn't about to improve my chances of survival.

While hanging around Tannen's in my late teens I saw comedy manipulator Bobby Baxter perform some incredible thimble magic, things I had never seen before nor since. I saw his two open hands with ten extended fingers bereft of thimbles; in a flash, all ten fingers were wearing thimbles. It was instantaneous. It was incomprehensible. It was unforgettable.

Years later, at one of the New York Magic Symposium conventions, Jeff McBride took the opportunity to acknowledge greatness when Mr. Baxter casually entered the room, announcing, "Ladies and Gentleman, here is Bobby Baxter, the world's greatest thimble man!" Bobby beamed. McBride continued. "But then again, what real man would use thimbles?" Mr. Baxter still laughs as he recalls the tale, while conceding the point.

Baxter is one of the few working pros still alive who made thimble manipulation a significant portion of a stage or platform act. Frenchman Gerard Majax is a recognized thimble enthusiast who wrote a book on the subject. Among contemporary American professionals, only two close-up performers come to mind: Mike Skinner's superb performance of the (Paul) Rosini Impromptu Thimble Routine from the Dai Vernon Book of Magic [page 101] by Lewis Ganson, and John Carney's longstanding use of a production sequence of John Ramsay's, distinctively punctuated with each thimble's audibly "popping" into view, combined with a finessed handling of the Rosini routine.

Yet as Steve Beam points out in this surprising new book, thimbles have much to recommend them in magical terms. They provide an extremely visual kind of magic, filled with productions, vanishes, transpositions and transformations. The objects are ordinary, unprepared and easily recognized. And, as the saying goes, they pack small and play, well—larger.

While Mr. Beam's excellent bibliography lists 51 books including 12 devoted entirely to thimble magic, most magicians will be familiar with little more beyond the aforementioned Hugard text, and perhaps the section in Volume 4 of the Tarbell Course. These still stand as among the best instructional material extant on the subject, and I would recommend them highly, especially since despite the scope of this new volume, it does not claim to be encyclopedic, providing only one basic single thimble vanish, for example. But Messrs. Mogar and Beam have inarguably made a substantial contribution to the advancement of the art with this impressive volume. Joe Mogar has devoted a lot of his life to a passion for thimble magic, and much of those efforts are recorded here for the first time. I've never seen Mr. Mogar work, but I certainly would like to.

The chapters, many of which are actually relevant to the declared topic, address subjects such as Moves, Productions, Vanishes, Color Changes, Gimmicks, Flourishes, Sound Effects, Sleeving and Routines. Incorporated into some of these are a number of effects and handlings that include the use of a silk, which provides even further variety. There is, suffice it to say, a lot of material here, more material than any single human could possibly make use of—except perhaps Joe Mogar.

There are a few terrific moves described here that will raise the level of your thimble arsenal to nuclear, especially the "Implosion" and "Explosion" moves, which respectively enable the magician to quickly, in about two seconds in fact, secretly relocate four thimbles from the four fingertips to one nested stack retained in thumbpalm, and to sequentially transfer a similarly thumbpalmed stack out to the fingertips. These moves are difficult but not impossible, and like most everything in the book, carefully and effectively described and illustrated by the author. In terms of effects, there are a variety of unusual color change sequences, and multiple vanishes and reproductions that occur both barehanded and with silks, and one excellent close-up segment in which four thimbles are produced from a dollar bill.

Learning these sleights is fun, and educational as well; while some of the mechanical principles are unique to these objects, other principles of manipulation, misdirection, routining and presentation have much greater implications in the study of sleight-of- hand conjuring in general.

As to the manner in which the material is presented, reactions will certainly differ. Mr. Beam should be well known to a substantial portion of magi, as for more than a decade he has published the excellent quarterly close-up journal The Trapdoor , and written a number of other books. He is one of those rare part-timers who certainly could become a pro if he so chose, and a pretty funny one at that. Faced with the daunting task of trying to make 229 pages of thimble magic palatable, he has chosen to go out of his way to make this a funny book—and let the chips fall where they may.

"Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. In other words, make sure that you are practicing the moves correctly. Analyze what you are doing, and why, to ensure you are learning the material properly. It is easier to learn correctly than to relearn correctly."—Steve Beam, Digital Effects, the Magic of Joe Mogar

They will no doubt fall in a variety of ways. I happen to think that students—of any age, including children— don't need to be trapped or connived into learning, at least not until they have been ruined by cynical teachers and poor parenting. I believe that most start out with an innate desire to learn, and find natural pleasure in the act of studying, including the joys that are direct outgrowths of the most challenging and difficult elements of learning. I don't need to be fooled into studying with a false promise of fun and games. Magic, like comedy, is serious business.

Having said that, I don't wish to appear overly grouchy. Mr. Beam caused me to laugh out loud more than once in reading this book. But along the way, I had to read a hell of a lot of potentially funny stuff that didn't make me laugh. Much of the humor stems from Mr. Beam's confronting issues of sexual identity, both his and the imagined student's, and the discomfort which may arise when a grown man asks his fellows to watch him play with thimbles. One very funny introductory essay on this subject would have suited me fine. References on what eventually comes to seem like every page can get tiresome. (Although I will acknowledge that the "Testosterone Vanish" seems more an accurate name than a merely humorous one.) Some might also accuse the author of padding, a charge which takes on a bit more weight when you consider the amount of blank space produced when every new item begins on a new page, and the number of pages devoted to purely humorous material with little or no bearing on the subject whatsoever. My greatest frustration however is that Mr. Mogar's voice is completely plowed under by that of Mr. Beam; I completed the book with little sense of who the former is, but I certainly learned a great deal more about the latter.

Of course, there is much to Mr. Beam's distinctive style to recommend it, as he is an excellent teacher, who does not merely describe, he instructs, a far too rare quality in conjuring literature. (The addition of some "see-through" views in the illustrations, to indicate concealed thimbles as well as visible ones, for example, might have been effective in a few places.) Also, for all the effort Mr. Beam expends on joking about the challenges inherent in making the presentation of thimble magic interesting and entertaining, he also applies a great deal of energy to solutions, many of which are quite clever, including a wide array of presentational ideas ranging from isolated one-liners to entire scripts. And he provides an amazing "routine builder" chart that categorizes much of the material in the book as an aid in combining sequences into larger routines.

The author's academic efforts are also excellent, and clearly a great deal of research has gone into this. Mr. Beam even gives detailed corrections for the Hugard pamphlet. It is worth briefly noting that a method described for catching a tossed thimble on an extended fingertip owes a great deal to a Karate Coin handling of Geoff Latta's from Kaufman's Coinmagic. Additionally, the following historical points of interest are offered courtesy of Bobby Baxter:

  • The author references a 1971 published description of a gag in which a thimble is swallowed and then reproduced, accompanied by a popping sound, from the vicinity of the performer's derriere. Mr. Baxter reports using this as early as 1935, yet insists that it was by no means original with him even then.
  • Mr. Mogar has a variation of the Geoffrey Buckingham multiple palm and recovery of four thimbles. This approach tends to produce the four thimbles almost but not quite simultaneously. Mr. Baxter, upon reading a similar idea in the Hugard book in his youth, conceived a production of five thimbles instead of four, eventually devising and mastering a still unpublished method which, as I witnessed many years ago, produces the thimbles instantly and truly simultaneously.
  • Despite claims to the contrary in Dai Vernon's Tribute to Nate Leipzig [page 565], Mr. Baxter, who saw Leipzig perform, informs me that Leipzig never used ten thimbles, but rather eight. The ten-thimble climax was a Baxter origination.
  • Mr. Mogar contributes his work on what he calls the "Big Pocket," a form of simplified Topit. Mr. Baxter has previously recounted how many years ago, after being shown the Topit by Patrick Page, Mr. Baxter cut a slit in the lining of his coat to serve as a Topit, and then developed the pass-through idea for retrievals from the pocket (an idea that may have also been independently conceived by Fred Lowe, among others). Interestingly, Mr. Baxter later shared this with Topit enthusiast Ger Copper in the early 1980s, during the years they worked together in the Richiardi show at Top of the Gate in Greenwich Village. And it was Mr. Copper, perhaps among others, who eventually showed the principle to Michael Ammar. The rest, as they say, is history—of a sort.

I should mention that after years of difficulty in locating nesting celluloid thimbles, Joe Mogar has now produced a line for magicians, in both white and varied colors. Sets of seven white are available for $8 or three sets for $20; a single set of mixed (four) colors is $10. Bobby Baxter points out that these one-size-doesn't-fit-all may be problematic for some users, and a second smaller size would be highly desirable for use on the fourth finger in mixed sets or for entire sets for those with small hands. He also explains that the thimbles can be sized to some extent by applying narrow strips of cloth tape vertically inside the thimbles, making them tighter for smaller digits, although care and experimentation are called for in order not to interfere with the nesting function. Finally, note that these celluloid thimbles are most applicable for close-up use; for platform, longer thimbles provide for more size and hence visibility at a distance.

8 - 1/2" X 11" hardbound with dustjacket; 229 pages; illustrated with 219 line drawings plus several photographs; 1997; Publisher. Trapdoor Productions