Great Tricks Revisited by Robert Parrish
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 2005)
This is the second in a posthumous Trilogy of Robert Parrish books being released by
David Meyer, following Words About Wizards (see my review in the Genii , September
1994 ). Whereas Words About Wizards was a delightful book of anecdotes (and was
nominated for an award by the Theatre Library Association), this volume is a book of
tricks and routines, primarily concerned with apparatus magic.
While large scale illusions continue to dominate stage magic in the public eye, it does
seem that the use of platform apparatus magic has fallen into disfavor in the latter part
of this century. Tricks like the Die Box, the Sand Frame, and the Nest of Boxes are rarely
seen today in the shows of top professionals who perform for adult audiences, and have
been largely relegated to children's shows and dealer's shelves. A glance at Hoffman's
Modern Magic will quickly demonstrate that the term "modern" has now, more often
than not, come to mean "without apparatus."
What happened? Perhaps the previous statement should be amended to read, "without
contrived or apparent apparatus." While audiences still seem willing to accept fantastic
Rube Goldberg-looking devices when they are large enough to encase a female assistant
in order to vanish, transform, or otherwise alter her condition, I suspect that
contemporary sensibilities have come to reject highly contrived objets d'art that can be
found nowhere on earth but in a magic shop or act. Before the effect ever happens, the
audience attributes the outcome—unforeseen or not—to the odd-looking contraption on
the odd-looking table. Any sense of "magic" has been lost before the performance even
As well, many apparatus tricks, clever in their time, now achieve effects that are
fundamentally unconvincing and banal by their very nature. Audiences simply aren't
fooled as easily as they once were, when magicians often relied on state-of-the art
technology that the general audience was not yet even fully aware of. It is not unusual to
see magicians who appear to be doing a better job of fooling themselves than the
audience as they portray transparent apparatus tricks as other-worldly miracles. Finally,
and perhaps most important, apparatus magic may have contained the seeds of its own
destruction. Since the method is mechanical—and seemingly "self-working" not only to
audiences, but to the performers themselves—all too often magicians have relied upon
the "secret" and added little more than a costume in the course of building a routine.
Sleight-of-hand magic may demand sophisticated thinking about misdirection and other
performance issues that "self-working" magic may not make obvious.
But if you long for the golden days of tripping levers instead of executing sleights (or
watching assistants wheel the box on and off stage)—if you're more likely to re-read
Hoffman every year instead of Erdnase—then have I got a book for you. Robert Parrish
demonstrates that apparatus magic can still have a great deal of magical life breathed
into if sound principles of misdirection, routining, presentation—and, above all,
thought—are brought intelligently and carefully to bear.
Here you will find fully developed routines not only for the Die Box, Sand Frame, and
the Nest of Boxes, but also the Rising Cards, the Spirit Hand, the Sucker Silk to Egg, the
Card Sword, the Jardine Ellis Ring, the Japanese Box, the eggs and glasses inertia stunt,
and more. In all, there are 19 platform routines and seven closeup routines; 12 involve
playing cards to varying degrees, however none rely on difficult sleights. Several of these
routines were the creations of Mr. Parrish's friend, magician Joe Scott.
This is a superb book about a subject that has been dramatically ignored in the
contemporary literature. It is remarkable to consider what logical routining and
intelligent handling can bring to what might otherwise seem mundane devices and
tricks. Virtually every item in the book contains some worthy thought that will doubtless
improve a performer's existing routine, or inspire him or her to add one of these pieces
in total. It is difficult to single out particular items, but there is a very funny Card Sword
presentation done with a child assistant, and relying upon the all-but-dead skill of secret
on-stage cueing. (I suppose the current thinking is, why learn to secretly cue when you
can just hire a stooge? On second thought, perhaps the thinking is why learn to manage
or even fool your on-stage assistant when you can just hire a stooge? But I digress—I
must be watching too many magic specials.)
I enjoyed this book a great deal, even though I do not do this type of magic. If you have
even the slightest interest in apparatus and/or platform magic, I strongly encourage you
to read this book. You are bound to learn something, even if it is contained in Mr.
Parrish's elegant digressions concerning utility props like the mirror glass. As always,
the production is largely up to David Meyer's consistently high standards, although I
was disappointed by the stick-on label on the front cover instead of the gold-stamping
found on the spine, and on the cover of the preceding volume; in a book designed to
bring lasting pleasure, this flaw mars an otherwise quality production. And the book is
written in a manner which brings life to every page, and with Mr. Parrish's ever-present
wit. When he introduces cloth-wrapped top hat in his Die Box routine, he remarks in his
presentation, "Here I have a human head. Actually, it's not a human head. I just say that
to add a festive note." What a guy.
Robert Parrish is already sadly missed, by those who knew him and those who only
knew his work, but he has left behind a wonderful legacy in these books. Collect the
whole set, kids.