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House of Cards: The Life & Magic Of Paul Rosini by Chuck Romano

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 1999)


Even magicians who are familiar with the name of Paul Rosini may be surprised to learn in the pages of this new biographical collection that, at the peak of his career, during an extended run of 21 continuous weeks at Philadelphia's Empire Room—the longest of any entertainer before or after him at the famed night club—he was billed as the "World's Greatest Magician." Such was the commercial success and stature of this con-juror who specialized in small classical feats of sleight-of-hand magic, performed with a debonair style and sly wit. Rosini's brief professional career, spanning all of 23 years until his untimely death at the age of 45, left an indelible mark, the imprint of which is closely examined in this interesting effort by Chuck Romano.

Mr. Romano is the author of the book The Art of Deception (reviewed in the June 1997 Genii), a substantial and generally well-received volume addressing the graphic arts side of conjuring history and literature (and based on the photograph he provides in this book, he is also the proud owner of a chick pan). Although the Rosini book is a less ambitious project, it reflects many of the same strengths and weaknesses of the previous work. The author is an energetic researcher who has unearthed a number of interesting facts about his subject, beginning with his name: Paul Vucci, often erroneously given as Vucci in the conjuring literature.

Paul Rosini would learn from a great many influences, from Dai Vernon to Jack Chanin; he was personally taught the "Thumb Tie" by Ten Ichi during an American visit. But one of his most important conjuring influences came to be Nate Leipzig, whom Rosini met fairly early in his career, when the latter was about 27 and living with his wife and first child in Philadelphia. Their friendship was a deep one, as indicated by Leipzig's gift to Rosini of a copy of the magician's "wishbone" ring that Leipzig always wore, and which can be seen in many of Rosini's publicity stills; the design remains popular with magicians to this day, despite mysterious origins which the author briefly explores.

Mr. Romano's biographical account is completed in a scant 101 pages, which make for interesting, if not always elegant reading. Future students of Rosini's life will be frustrated by the lack of sources provided for specific information; one wonders what facts are derived from primary versus secondary sources, and where the author might have learned, for example, that "approximately 27 out-of-town magicians were working in or around Chicago in the summer of '37," or that Rosini's "departure (from his family) turned his sons' world upside-down and they never really forgave their father for leaving them." Scholarship falls short elsewhere, as when for example a second wife is barely alluded to, without the marriage ever having been previously noted; a lack of information is certainly understandable, but should have been addressed directly. Incredibly, the author fails to note that Rosini spoke with a slight accent.

Mr. Romano's literary stylings remain artless, littered with leaden adjectives and banalities (and misplaced commas), and bereft of the kind of imagination and skill that is called for when attempting to bring a character or a performance to life from the printed page, relying instead on tiresome repetitions of words like "unique." Whereas Mr. Romano sometimes turns a phrase that is reminiscent of a small-town conjuring magazine of the 1950s, a talented writer like Robert Parish, in a few pages in Words On Wizards, probably came closer to capturing the essence of Rosini than this author does in an entire book. Here is how Mr. Romano chooses to conclude his entire 101-page biography, invoking Rosini's use of Malini's catch phrase, "a tiny waltz." "So, professor, play 'a tiny waltz' one more time as a tribute to the dashing conjuror with a twinkle in his eye and a spring in his step who believed in the power of magic."

Next follows 116 pages of "The Magic of Paul Rosini," consisting of descriptions of tricks from Rosini's vast repertoire garnered from a variety of sources, many previously published but never before gathered in one place. These specific accounts of how Rosini actually routined and performed his magic come much closer to capturing occasional flashes of insight into Rosini's distinctive style than does much of the previous hundred pages, and the author deserves some credit for this as, while much of the material is gleaned from pre-existing sources, some of these descriptions are his.

Unfortunately this section is occasionally marred by the author's own intrusive observations and additions, including comments on trick "improvements" and alternate handlings, and his scattered and inconsistent references to other sources in the literature or to other performers, which are of limited value and are often naively incomplete. Mr. Romano's card-in-impossible-location handling, for example, far inferior to Rosini's "Card in Cigarette" to which it has been appended, would, for example, be better suited to publication elsewhere, if at all, and suggests by its inclusion that the author may in fact have completely missed the brilliance in Rosini's own distinctive version.

Nevertheless, this section bears careful reading by the student seeking to understand Rosini's particular approach. Much of this material has been gathered from sources including Expert Card Technique, Hugard's Magic Monthly, The Sphinx, The Conjurors Magazine, and the like. Noteworthy is the inclusion of several items contributed by Neil Elias, although a Double Lift description is difficult to discern, especially in the absence of accompanying illustrations. The author has also provided a brief but useful summary of Rosini's work that appears in Hilliard's Greater Magic and the Tarbell Course.

Some of this material has also been extracted and expanded upon from a privately circulated but unpublished letter written by Charles Maly in 1936. It might have been interesting to have provided the unedited original text of the Maly letter; instead we are left to ponder why the author has elected to deprive us of the information that in Maly's discussion of the bill tear, Maly attributes Rosini's method to that described in Kaplan's The Fine Art of Magic. Instead Mr. Romano has mysteriously chosen to insert his own recommendation—without even troubling to provide the crediting specifics—of a version that is performed by Jeff McBride on a recent videotape, overlooking as well such superb examples as the Jim Ryan "Bill Tear," used so effectively by Tom Mullica. One wonders what other omissions the author has made, be it by choice or oversight.

Despite such distractions—I would suggest that the role of the biographer is best kept transparent—this is a terrific assemblage of material and, if you are new to Rosini's work, you will find a treasure trove of material here, while old fans will certainly appreciate having so much gathered between one set of covers. There is much too much material here to address in detail, but this, combined with the reprinting of Paul Rosini's Magical Gems (ghost written by Robert Parrish for the officially credited W. E [Rufus] Steele), provides a terrific resource of material for any magician. Along with classics like the "Egg Bag," "Cups and Balls" (two of Rosini's pet openers), the "Thumb Tie," "Vanishing Bird Cage," "Sympathetic Silks," "Miser's Dream," "Ring on Stick," "Linking Rings" and the like, Rosini did a great deal of card magic.

Besides full-dress productions like the "Blindfold Card Stab" and "Card in Cigarette," Rosini had a substantial repertoire of quick routines and discoveries. Indeed, many of his night club audiences would, during extended runs, return night after night to see him repeatedly, and hence he often varied not only his repertoire, but even on occasion his methods. He had a taste for tricks that went beyond mere locations—although his locations were consistently mysterious—and that tended to possess elements of plot that were rich in appeal and the potential upon which entertaining performances can be built. This was the essence of Rosini's work, an effective combination of plot, effect, method, presentation, performance, character, style—all difficult to define but that in sum totaled that ineffable "something" that made Rosini a memorable character to those who saw him perform.

It warrants mention that I detect the author having some kind of odd and mildly annoying axe to grind, constantly reminding the reader that Rosini's work was based on "simple" ideas and routines, and seeming to give only superficial acknowledgement to Rosini's substantial technical skills, as if these were not also a significant element in his success. One wonders if by "simple" the author is implying "easy," yet the two terms are by no means synonymous. The author seems to go out of his way in reaching for odd comparisons between Rosini and, for example, Dai Vernon—whom the author describes as "more methodical," whatever that means in this context, by comparison with Rosini, who "was not a purist." But the suggestion that Vernon somehow lacked focus on effect seems ill-informed at best and ludicrous at worst, especially in light of the fact that the author goes on at length about Rosini's use of the "Brainwave" deck—as if somehow Vernon had failed to recognize the essential value of his own creation!

Be that as it may, there are simply too many good tricks here to focus on any in particular—but for the card worker especially, these are the kinds of plots that human beings respond to, and that will also, as it happens, fool your fellow magician badly, as Rosini obviously delighted in doing (another point to which the author seemingly prefers to avoid attaching any significance). If you have the skills to effortlessly perform these quick and elegantly simple routines with powerhouse punch lines, a few trials on real people might well sweep your more contemporary favorites aside. And the author, despite his limitations, should be sincerely thanked and appreciated for keeping Rosini's name alive, adding to the historical record, and providing students with a wealth of material from which to benefit. Rosini was a complex, multi-faceted character—apparently a poor family man, who stole his stage name, did private readings for money, and drank himself to death—yet was beloved by audiences and conjuring colleagues alike. His memory is not ill-served by this book, and perhaps best served in the pages of thrilling magic he left behind.

Note: A few issues ago I mentioned that the book Illusion Show was written by Theo Bamberg. This, of course, is incorrect: the book was written by David Bamberg.

House of Cards: The Life & Magic of Paul Rosini • Chuck Romano • Charles J. Romano