Fechter The Magic of Eddie Fechter by Jerry Mentzer
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2004)
"Magic bar" is to magic as jazz is to music: each is a distinctly American form of their respective arts. This is not just a matter of history, of mere dryly researched fact, but presents an idea of deeper cultural and artistic insight. Everything about Magic Bar speaks of the melting pot of American culture and values; it is an are that speaks to one and all, and even among the same audience makes its connections on levels high and low, subtle and extreme, superficial and profound. In Cheektowaga, New York, Eddie Fechter embodied the art of Magic Bar, and the idea of magic as an American performance art form.
The Magic Bar tradition came out of Chicago in the 1920s and '30s, led by the work of Matt Schulien (who was not actually a Magic Bartender but rather a cable worker in his own tavern) and Al "Heba Haba' Andrucci. Many other Chicago performers also presented magic between pouring cocktails, but Heba Haba's influence can be tracked to future generations through dissemination by his disciple Bob Sheets, who (along with Bill Malone, another Heba Haba acolyte), carried Heba's work to another generation of Magic Bartenders, including Steve Spill, J.C. Wagner, Doc Eason, Scott York, and even your humble reviewer. (For more on the history of the Magic Bar, interested readers may wish to consult my [recently reprinted) book, Shattering Illusions, which contains an extended piece on the subject.)
But long ago in an exotic and faraway land okay, so it was Buffalo—a wholly independent line of Magic Bar evolution was under way, under the auspices of the legendary Eddie Fechter. As proprietor of the Forks Hotel, actually a free-standing bar which included a small restaurant, Eddie Fechter brought a unique and powerful performing presence to the town of Buffalo. Eddie was a performing bartender in several establishments in the area from the time he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army in 1946, buying his first establishment in 1952. In 1957 he purchased the Forks Hotel, which in fact had formerly been a hotel in the little-known town of Forks, New York, on the border between Buffalo and Cheektowaga. Today, the town of Forks is hard to find, while the Forks Hotel is gone completely. But from 1957 until Eddie's retirement due to illness in 1978, Eddie's presence at "The Forks" was constant, and profound, and it continued at the Forks in influence and spirit in the years after his untimely death (from leukemia) in the annual gathering of close-up cognoscenti at Fechter's Finger-Flinging Frolics, (often known as the FFFF or just 4F), until The Forks was finally closed. Even so, Fechter's name and more continues to be honored at the annual convention, although no one can deny that something was lost the day that 4F had to leave its birthplace.
Eddie Fechter had much in common with the Chicago Magic Bar tradition, with his constant stream of jokes, bits of business, imitations, and gags, be they verbal or visual. As is always the case when real Magic Bar is at work, the magic also created an atmosphere that could unite young and old, rich and poor, male and female—whomever walks into such a place, a special warp seems to be present where divisions between people dissolve and one and all have a good time.
But Fechter not only devised his version of Magic Bar on his own, far from the taps of beer and magic that flowed in Chicago; he was also a distinctly original sleight-of-hand artist. Few of the most famed Magic Bar practitioners have been known as performers of sophisticated sleight-of-hand. Certainly each had his skills and specialties, and later generations (like J.C. Wagner and Bill Malone among others) updated the technical tools of the form. But in the 1950s and '60s, Eddie Fechter was in many ways not only a distinctive performer, but something of a cutting edge sleight-of-hand magician. When it came to handling a pack of cards, anyone who thinks that Fechter was just another gag-a-minute, flashy-revelation, pass-and-a-palm type had it wrong. Like all the masters behind the bar, Eddie would entertain the hell out of anyone—but he would also, as we say in the trade, fry you.
Opinions may differ as to whether Fechter could have properly been dubbed a "technician," but while his approach to effects was based invariably on clarity and frequently on brevity, nevertheless his thinking and command of true conjuring skills rendered him a true maestro. His work with the spectator peek was extensive and masterful. His work with outs and his ability to improvise was devastating. These are sophisticated skills. He was both a "worker" and an artist, a man capable of putting the esoteric to practical use. And he was by every account one hell of an entertainer, a charismatic, unforgettable "people person" who had deep insights into human behavior which he used extensively in his work.
And because of these many aspects of greatness, he also had a profound impact as a creative force, affecting countless magicians, some of whom gained local Fame, and some of whom went beyond it. Michael Skinner, Derek Dingle, and Paul Gertner all counted him as a mentor. Lou Gallo and his son, Mike, were intimates. Karl Norman and Bill Okal are names many should recognize. These are just the tips of a substantial iceberg of influence, many of whom have contributed to this marvelous book. And Buffalo remains a cultural center of sorts for magic activity, a generation after Fechter's passing, not the least thanks to Dan Block, who runs the "Buffalo Get-Together," and who is also a notable contributor to this volume.
The author, Jerry Mentzer, wrote the first Fechter Book, Magician Nitely, in 1974. That's probably when I first became aware of Fechter, and I loved the book immediately. I went back to it many times, and many tricks, techniques, and ideas found their way into my work. In ensuing years I would see Paul Gertner perform "Be Honest—What Is It?" and adopt it shortly thereafter; it has been a staple of my core repertoire ever since, as has "I've Got a Surprise For You" ever since Michael Skinner showed it to me. "Be Honest" has become some-thing of a neo-classic, a stunning piece of construction and performance material, yet one that is all too easily wrecked (more than once on television) in a mass of multiple transposition confusion when executed in poor hands. Derek Dingle first showed me Fechter's diabolical "Tiniest Peek I've Ever Seen" dodge. Although Fechter's multiple selection routine was not the first of its kind, it is without doubt one of the seminal routines that eventually led to the current ubiquitous popularity of this plot theme.
In 1993, long after Magician Nicely had fallen out of print, Jerry Mentzer prepared this book, an expanded volume on Fechter, which included the contents of Magician Nitely along with most of Fechter's other published oeuvre, along with newly released material from various contributors. Once again the book sold out, and has become more and more difficult to obtain in the past few years. Now, this invaluable reprint is once again available—and you have no excuse left nor to have is in your hands.
Since I was intimately familiar with Magician Nitely (the title comes from a sign that was always posted at The Forks), I never got around to reading this book when it was first released. Now I'm sorry I waited this long, but on the other hand, I found it full of delightful surprises. There is much more here than just a few new odds and ends. As mentioned, there are never-before-published tricks and other material, including a great deal of Fechter's gag and comic repertoire. Everything of Fechter's that appeared in the Mentzer Card Cavakade book is gathered and reprinted here. And there are personal recollections by some of the people who knew him best, including Ed Eclk, Harrisson Carroll, Rob Allen, the late Michael Skinner, and a simply wonderful chapter of more than 30 pages of reminiscence by the fine magician Bill Okal. Mr. Okal takes his time and offers not only descriptions of tricks and other bits of Fechter material, but thoughtful and insightful analysis of Fechter's performing style, and what made him "tic" as a magician. Throughout all of this superb chapter, the writer's tremendous affection for Fechter informs and infuses the content with meaning and emotional power. As much as any trick could ever be so, this section is worth the price of the book.
But as for the tricks, there are loads of them, and great ideas throughout—principles and ideas that are food for thought and fodder for great magic. And there is countless exotica with which you can fool the laity and the conjuring elite simultaneously, like the "Imperfection Peek" and the "Natural Break Peek," newly described in this volume. All of Fechter's peek work is worthy of careful study. including the Peek Force and its application to the multiple selection routine, herein titled "Eight Selections."
There are truly funny tricks like "You've Been Real Good To Me," and also "That's It," essentially Fechter's presentation (and a kicker) for the "Dunbury Delusion." The aforementioned "I've Got a Surprise For You" is not only a staple of my repertoire, but is a trick I have studied over and over with countless students; you might want to consult the first issue of Richard’s Almanac for Derek Dingle's excel-lent improved handling of the Toss Change. Also previously mentioned was "Be Honest, What Is It," and you might try and track down David Williamson's thoughtful refinements on that master-piece. There are simple plots and methods that yield devastating effects, like the "Knockout Prediction." Karl Norman's work on the "Card on Ceiling" is here, including Ed Eckl’s now standard gag with the Sucrets tin (although there are precious few whom it actually fits anywhere near as well as it suits him or Karl Norman). There are effective Fechter lines and bits that have become part of "stock" usage, including his marvelous "Which Three did you pick" or simply, "The Three of What?"
And then there are truly sophisticated ideas, like all of Fechter's approaches to the "Stop Trick" and other related psychological subtleties, and his "How do You Want Me to Find Your Card?," which may qualify as the ultimate lesson in "outs" for actual performance, as entertaining as it is effective.
Penn and Teller happened upon The Forks Hotel in the '70s, and were captivated by Fechter. When I first met them, it was clear that he was the most memorable close-up performer either of them had ever seen. Today Teller offers that, "Eddie looked as though, were he in the mood, he could tear you apart joint by joint. But instead, he went with lumbering bear-grace, from table to table, ceasing laughs out of the over-civilized. Eddie anticipated your every thought, especially the smart-ass ones, and was always two steps ahead. So you got a feeling of warm security coupled with a wild thrill of the unknown. And he kept you laughing the whole time, partly because his material was funny, and partly because you felt so deliciously helpless in his grip, there was nothing you could do but laugh."
I never met Eddie Fechter. I think my first of many visits to the 4F convention was probably in 1980 and, sad to say, I had just missed him. But I made it to The Forks at a number of those gatherings, and the place was clearly imbued with Fechter's artistic presence. I remember performing at tables for the locals, and often behind the bar with Karl Norman and others, once in tandem with Tom Mullica. I've been fortunate to hear the tales told firsthand by many of Eddie's friends and cohorts, some of them now my own friends as well. All that has helped to bring Fechter to life in my own mind and magic. This book can start to do the same for you, if you try hard enough to imagine the smiling guy with the big tattooed arms, and soft couch with people and a pack of cards.
Constant Readers are doubtless aware that I rarely review lecture notes and other slight fodder, but several items of interest and merit have reached me of late which I think very worthy of your time and attention, as you are about to discover.