Finding Dariel Fitzkee: The Man with the Trick Brain by David Goodsell

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 2009)

QUICK: Who was Dariel Fitzkee? The author of the remarkable "Fitzkee Trilogy" was a man of many talents, an accomplished autodidact who designed ingenious stage backdrops and curtaining, operating his own theatrical supply business; became a notable figure in the world of magic not only as an author, columnist, and book reviewer, but also as a producer and part-time performer; and eventually went on to become an honored expert in the science and technology of acoustics.

Author David Goodsell, Past National President of the S.A.M. and Editor Emeritus of M-U-M (which he stewarded for nearly three decades), serves up Fitzkee's life in substantial detail based on diligent research. Born in Illinois in 1898, Dariel Fitzkee excelled at an early age not only in magic but in theater, music, sports and academics. After moving to Chicago at age 22 and touring for a year as a musician on the Chautauqua circuit, the young Fitzkee turned to stage design. He developed a type of stage backdrop that, by altering the color of the lighting projected on it, would transform the appearance of the scene; a single backdrop could now appear as two entirely different scenes, and perhaps even as many as even three or four, without having to change or transport additional drops. His invention garnered him press notices and helped to fuel a move to San Francisco. There, after working for other theatrical supply firms, Fitzkee then began a theatrical supply company of his own, and after a time, began to also cater to magicians through his business. By the end of the decade Fitzkee was operating a magic shop in San Francisco.

Fitzkee would produce his first magic publication in 1929, Cut and Restored Rope Manipulation. Although generally well reviewed, Fitzkee was also criticized for republishing the works of others, even though he generally credited such origins as he found cause to re-describe, vary, or adapt. This would not be the last time Fitzkee would hear such grumblings. (Jay Marshall told me that Cardini was miffed when Fitzkee included some of Cardini's original but un-credited ring moves in his later book on the Linking Rings, and that Fitzkee had acknowledged as much in a personal inscription in the copy he gave to Cardini.)

Dr. Goodsell, unsurprisingly given his own resume, provides significant details of the political doings of newly minted magic organizations of the time, including the I.B.M, the P.C.A.M, and of course, the S.A.M., in which Fitzkee would eventually rise to national office, although he would never become President thanks in no small measure to his west coast locale and the organization's east coast focus, as the author explains. Dr. Goodsell's expertise here is deep, and he does a fine job of breathing life into historical figures like Julien Proskauer, Lloyd Jones, Tom Bowyer, U.F. Grant, and more of their contemporaries.

Continuing to produce magic publications as well, in September of 1937, a year after William Larsen, Sr. created Genii magazine, Fitzkee began contributing a monthly column entitled "Thoughts Are Things." Fitzkee would continue as a presence in this magazine for the next two decades.

But a new adventure lay ahead for Fitzkee, as producer and performer. Fitzkee successfully produced shows for the 1939 P.C.A.M. convention, which included an almost sold-out public show at the 4000-seat opera house, a show that began with the raising of a technologically sophisticated curtain that Fitzkee himself had designed seven years earlier. The P.C.A.M. shows took place in July; on November 26 of the same year, Dariel Fitzkee's International Magicians in Action would debut at the Curran Theatre in downtown San Francisco. Fitzkee was determined to modernize magic as he had written scant months previously in Genii. Inspired by the pace (and sex appeal) of the famed Folies Bergere, Fitzkee had created a fast-paced revue show in which every act was a magic act, and many were be it actual or claimed from different countries. Fitzkee himself was also on the bill.

The show received rave reviews from the public and theatrical press, and mixed reviews perhaps depending more on political allegiances and personal conflicts than actual merit from the magic press. The story of the International Magicians in Action show is one of the most interesting and intriguing segments of this biography, as many readers will know little if anything about this project, other than perhaps that it was a "failed" endeavor, according to the shorthand of some magic reference texts. By contrast, Dr. Goodsell makes the case that the show "should be remembered as perhaps the greatest full-evening magic show of its era." The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Whether or not the show was an artistic success, it remains a sad fact that it ended as a financial disaster, and the Fitzkees returned to San Francisco, while Dariel withdrew from organized magic. But late in 1943, following some two years of work, Fitzkee released Magic and Showmanship, a theoretical textbook. At 187 pages it was less than half the size of Expert Card Technique, taught not a single trick, and yet sold for the same substantial asking price of five dollars. It was unheard of—but it was also an unquestionable success. The first print run of a thousand copies sold out in a year, and a second run of equal number was released in 1945. Showmanship received generally terrific reviews, and helped reestablish Fitzkee's standing in the world of magic. He returned after an absence to the pages of Genii, becoming its book reviewer with his "Paper and Ink" column in March of 1944.

A year later, Fitzkee followed with The Trick Brain, which remains to this day the most controversial installment of the trilogy. Advertised as providing a unique original system for the creation of new magic tricks, the book is primarily, in fact, a systematic analysis of the effects and methods of magic. For almost 20 years, Fitzkee had accumulated a vast cross-referenced file that he would use to eventually cull his master list of 19 basic magic effects. As he set forth in his opening chapter, he was not the first to make such an attempt; other systems had been devised by Sam Sharpe, Winston Freer, and T. Page Wright. The book was a success, albeit there were critics then, as now (this writer being one among the many) of the "trick brain" feature, an absurdly mechanistic approach to pseudocreativity. Dr. Goodsell emphasizes that the system was not the primary purpose of the book, albeit that it was chosen as the title, perhaps as a marketing device. Like its predecessor, the book sold out its first run of a thousand copies and a second thousand was printed; the price was $10, the same as Greater Magic, with only a third of the heft. A year later the trilogy concluded with Magic By Misdirection, the book that Fitzkee had initially conceived when he set out to writing his three textbooks. Although reaction to the book was perhaps weaker than to the two previous titles, it was still generally well received; publisher and noted book critic Paul Fleming devoted some 1,700 words to his own generally positive review.

The remainder of the Fitzkee story recounts yet another successful stage of his life, as he increasingly withdrew from the world of magic, and launched himself on a career in acoustics and sound engineering. He would eventually be made a Fellow of the Acoustical Society of America, the organization's highest honor despite the fact that Fitzkee was entirely self-taught.

Finding Dariel Fitzkee is a fascinating investigation of a well-known but little understood figure in the history of magic, and one of its most important writers of our limited theoretical literature. Dr. Goodsell's substantial research is not set dispassionately on view for the reader to decipher; rather, he unabashedly sets forth to defend his subject's honor and protect him from most, albeit not all, of his critics. I confess I would have preferred a bit less cheer leading (and the book cries out for an index); at several points the author allows himself, in his enthusiasm, to write whole paragraphs, within quotation marks, of what Dariel Fitzkee "might" have said, and this is a confusing and distracting device. A chapter about "The Importance of Dariel Fitzkee" selects from a very narrow sample of confirming evidence, rather than presenting a moderated evaluation. Even then, while the author repeatedly claims that Magic By Misdirection was the weakest and least successful volume of the trilogy, in my own case it is still the misdirection book that I find myself thinking of from time to time in my work, while Magic and Showmanship seemed terribly dated and, well, more theoretical rather than practical, even when I first read it decades ago. As for The Trick Brain, it is a seriously flawed conception that, while it still offers lessons in analytical thinking for developing students, I have always believed Fitzkee's list of 19 effects to be overly complex and vastly less useful than Sam Sharpe's efficient list of six effect categories, from his own landmark theory text, Neo-Magic (and which preceded the trilogy). Although Dariel Fitzkee was self-educated, I agree with David Goodsell and think it fair to say that fundamentally Fitzkee had the mind of an engineer, and approached every challenge in an engineer's systematic way. This may in fact have been partly what limited his success as a performer, since there is art to art, as well as craft and while his passion for magic was great, and the reach of his expertise immeasurable, his insistently methodical vantage lay at the core of his greatest contributions while at the same time served as his Achilles' heel. (His somewhat lunatic system for reviewing books, described in a Genii column, and which he himself eventually found to be unworkable, is a perfect example.) These conflicting facets of the man are explored in the pages of this thought-provoking and informative biography, and the book is an important addition to our literature, in helping us to understand the man who William Larsen, Sr., in the pages of this magazine, called "the most knowledgeable man in magic."

Finding Dariel Fitzkee: The Man with the Trick Brain • by David R. Goodsell • 8 1/2" x 11" hardbound with dustjacket • 288 page