Kort by Stephen Minch
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii December, 1999)
Milt Kort is certainly a name to conjure with; who among us was not fascinated by the man behind the substantial multiple entries in that seminal text-book, New Modern Coin Magic by J.B. Bobo? We may not have known how much John Braun contributed, behind the scenes to the first edition of that famed and now beloved volume, but we certainly tried out the copper-silver transposition without a gimmick or extra coin, and first had our coin-box consciousness expanded with the "Okorto Box Routine."
We might have read Kort is Now in Session and Off-Color Card Tricks, or the occasional Kort contribution to various journals; we might have known that he was the inventor of MIKO, better known as the 3 of Clubs trick; we came to hear later that Kort was on the short list of authoritative names to con sult if you needed to check an obscure source or reference in the literature. But who is Milt Kort?
Well, now we know—or least, know substantially more. We learn in this charming volume that Milt Kort is a professional pharmacist (now retired) and a passionate amateur magician who has spent his life in the environs of Michigan, providing guidance and amazement to all who have come his way, and obviously serving as a beacon of sorts to the several generations of upcoming magi in that part of the world. A man who delights in the opportunities unique to the amateur—of solving problems, exploring eccentric avenues, and regularly astonishing his brother magi—Kort's name became legendary if somewhat chimerical in the now more than eight decades he's been on the planet. At last, the chimera has been run to ground—and he is not a fire-breathing monster, but rather more of a mischievous imp with the proverbial twinkle in his eye.
Much to the author's credit, Stephen Minch has elected to try to bring both the person and the prestidigitation to life, and so this volume is generously scattered with anecdotes drawn from Mr. Kort's life and times. Kort—as he prefers to be called—demonstrated his waggish sensibilities at a young age, and so his escapades range from his early days of practical jokes in school, to using his wiles to maintain order among teenage toughs in his pharmacy, to fooling some of the best minds in magic. These entries serve the task well of providing a portrait of the man while creating a legacy of his magic.
And rest assured, there is plenty of magic here, done with cards, coins, dice, balls, eggs, handkerchiefs, pens, and more. There is even an item of sleight of hand—essentially a vanish and recovery—done with a brand new, no-kidding-sharp, single-edge razor blade—for the brave or insane, depending on your perspective. A fair amount of this material falls into the categories of interest, already mentioned, for which Kort has a particular passion, namely the solving of magical "problems," and the fooling of the magical brethren. If you have much interest in either of these pursuits, you will find plenty here to reward your interest; I guarantee you that there are numerous items with which you can lead your fellow magi sufficiently far down the garden path so as to render their return to the main house a lengthy detour indeed.
Kort is a fan of routining his material, a seemingly diminishing art these days. Thus you will find excellent examples here of how to put several tricks together, building upon both a presentational theme and a set of props, to create a more entertaining and lasting impression. In the card material, for example, a series of transposition effects done with eight cards gradually works its way down, over subsequent phases, to only two; a "You-Can't-Do-As-I-Do" routine (the origins of "Vernon's Variant"—indeed, the trick Vernon varied in Vemon's Ultimate Card Secrets!) starts with five cards and actually is eventually whittled down to only one. These are fine examples of this style of work, many of which rely on valuable old standards that have been overlooked by contemporary practitioners, and often require little in the way of technical demands.
Another multi-phase, two-deck routine begins with a version of the "Color-Changing Deck" in which the cards visibly transform one-at-a-time as they are rapidly dealt from the deck—a clever and startling effect. A dual-phase "Card to Shoes" (!) routine is not only a funny premise, but grows increasingly mysterious with a repetition. And a four-phase routine with two bills shows how two relatively simple tricks can be used to establish the apparent normalcy of props and thereby create an even stronger effect with a popular trick like the "Grant Bill Transposition."
As is perhaps to be expected, the coin material is among the most dynamic in the book; although at times a bit dated in style (that is, to the era of the Bobo book), nevertheless there are some quite practicable pieces here, not the least of which is Ron Bauer's updated and fully detailed description of the "Okorto Box Routine," a multi-phase coin box routine that will, with skillful execution, no doubt entertain and amaze any audience. A version of Slydini's rarely-seen "Flyaway Coin" provides no less than four repetitions of a coin's envanishment and subsequent arrival in the spectator's various jacket pockets. And Kort has a barrel-full of interesting uses for the famed L'Homme Masque Load that we all learned from the Bobo book (including with a group of coins) and which will long keep the name of this enigmatic personage alive.
Some of the strongest if most difficult material is in the handful of dice routines, all based upon Kort's original handling of the standard dice palm switch (a move that formed the inspiration for the One-Hand Palm Change with coins invented by Earl "Presto" Johnson, now known as the Palm-to-Palm Switch). Kort has created a somewhat more reliable (albeit not easy) handling for this secret exchange, which will certainly be of interest to both magicians and those interesting in cheating methods. This segment includes an elaborate cups-and-balls type routine done with pairs of dice of three colors, if you can imagine that; like most of the material in this chapter, it can be presented as conjuring or, as Kort him-self prefers, as demonstrations of fantastic skill. While I personally found the cups-and-dice routine rather elaborate for commercial use, a performance of two short routines, dubbed "Changing Trains" and "Quick-change Crap" will provide a mystifying, entertaining, and impressive display of dice abilities for any gambling performance.
Among the more general magic, notable routines include Kort's version of the "Egg Bag" done without an egg bag—that is, a multi-phase routine done with nothing more than an ordinary folded handkerchief, a wooden egg, and some clever and elegant handling. "Kortospheres," namely Kort's version of Dr. Daley's "Chromo-spheres," is another solution to the Daley problem of performing the classic three-ball routine with balls of different colors; while perhaps a bit much for laymen, the routining is sound and includes Kort's original alter-native to the Pop-up Move, a worthy technique. The final entry, entitled "Umgowal," is a charming vanish of a miniature elephant, essentially a miniature recreation of the famed Houdini effect (requiring far fewer assistants), accompanied by a less obvious but whimsical presentation that comes across as typical of the creator's personality. I can see this becoming a feature in the repertoire of a suit-ably fanciful performer.
While there is no single routine here that will set the magic world on fire, one does get glimpses of the reasons that Kort is beloved by those who know him. One must fill in some of the gaps oneself; when one is a mentor and guiding resource like Kort, it is not always easy to communicate those strengths in a book of this nature. While some of the material is drawn from sources and times long past, the reader is not only afforded an insight into the back-room session magic of an earlier time, but is presented with sources and instruction in ideas and tricks that deserve to see the light of day yet again in contemporary hands. The student is ably assisted in these pursuits by the superbly readable work of Mr. Minch, whose distinctive literary styling, clear instructional ability, and thorough historical research is always a pleasure to read. As with per-formers, writers seem to grow more comfortable in their literary voice and at home in their literary clothing as they mature, and so now when Mr. Minch exhorts us to "stop grimacing and go get" the necessary duplicates for a less-than-purist methodological approach to Vernon's "Travellers," one smiles at the rather less than typically demure Minchian instruction—and one does indeed go and get the requisite materials.
The author/publisher has clearly made great and thoughtful effort to present a work that reflects its subject in full, and as mentioned, the distribution of anecdotes aids greatly in this plan, stories that reflect not only a cagey character with a lilt in his step, but at occasional moments a touch of ego and even a tad of irascibility, all contributing to the final product as effectively and distinctively as the carefully chosen fonts and other design elements. Considered piecemeal, these tricks might not capture your attention, these anecdotes won't make you laugh out loud—but in reviewing the material I find myself nodding approvingly and appreciatively at having captured a bit of a person behind the magic—a bit of the magic that is Milt Kort, as well as the magic he's made. I've enjoyed the time spent with both, and I think you will too.