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Mastering the Art of Magic by Eugene Burger

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 2001)


Mastering the Art of Magic

In 1982, at the home of my friend and magic colleague, Peter Samelson, I came across a copy of Secrets and Mysteries for the Close-Up Entertainer by someone named Eugene Burger. Peter had been given the book by a mutual acquaintance of his and Mr. Burger's, although he'd not yet read it and knew nothing else about the book or its writer. I recall thinking the title rather curious and, as I scanned through the book, it quickly became clear that this was not your typical conjuring volume, what with chapters like "Names" and "Contact" and "Silence," and even one called "Discipline." Hmmm. I borrowed the book and, in reading it, was forever changed.

At that time I was not many years into my professional career, a mid-life change I had undertaken at the same age as had this Eugene Burger. I was deep in the throes of trying to figure out the differences between doing magic socially and performing it professionally, and Secrets and Mysteries arrived at that critical juncture with answers to questions, along with questions that had not yet even occurred to me. I was also wrestling with the iconic images of close-up magic, ever-present in my had since my formative years, and drawn especially from countless performances I had experienced by Albert Goshman and Tony Slydini. Both of these giants had performed in a formal setting, seated at a table before a seated audience, as if in the Close-Up Gallery of the Magic Castle (where in fact Goshman had honed his unmatchable act).

Much later, in the late 1970s, I had come upon Peter Samelson, a contemporary with whose work I subsequently became involved as a writer and director, learning much about art and theater in the process, before eventually setting out on a performing career of my own; Peter also performed close-up magic in that timeless concert, formalist style. Hence much of my problem amounted to a then-subconscious, unarticulated bias toward the weighty validity of this formal approach to close-up magic, over the more ephemeral, seemingly superficial conditions I was faced with as a new professional, namely walk-around magic at corporate cocktail parties. I was frustrated, confused, dissatisfied, and I think on some levels, uncommitted to the work.

Then I read about the level of thought and preparation that Eugene Burger had invested in what was clearly this same type of magic. I read about his routines for simple standards like the Sponge Balls. I read about nifty gadgets for the production of a shot glass of liquid or the ready obtaining of a finger tip. I read about mini-dramas with burned cards and candles and pentagrams, and close-up séances in which spirits were called upon to visibly animate the pencil and write the name of a selected card. And, what's more, I read about the differences between practice and rehearsal, and about the writing of scripts for even the briefest presentations of magical "close-up entertainment," and how the preparation and precision of a script was the best protection against unwarranted interruption. I read about writing down a list of my actual performing repertoire, which I proceeded to actually do, and which to this day is included in the homework of every new student I accept for personal instruction. I read about importance, and that if one does not invest one's own work with importance, then "no one else will," either. In fact, I read these ideas countless times over—at least fifty, and perhaps even double that in the coming months. I invoke no hyperbole when I say my life was changed. Interestingly, Mr. Burger himself refers to his first reading of Phil Wilmarth’s The Magic of Matt Schulien as "truly a life-changing experience;" equally truly, I know what he meant.

About a year later, I trekked out to a suburban lecture to see Eugene Burger perform in person. The travel effort was well rewarded, as I witnessed a lecture unlike most others I had seen before. Following a performance—perhaps the most instructive segment of all—various aspects of magic theory and theater were discussed, and a few tricks were explained along the way. Mr. Burger and I rode back to Manhattan together by train, and my copy of Secrets and Mysteries contains an inscription from that evening that mentions the "interesting conversation" that ensued. I believe that by that time I had probably recently obtained Intimate Power, and at the lecture I picked up his notes on Audience Involvement, along with Matt Schulien's Fabulous Card Discoveries. Perhaps not long after this I obtained his pamphlet on The Secrets of Restaurant Magic. Armed with these tools, and my already solid background in sleight-of-hand and the literature of magic, my professional career was thrust into the smelter.

That career of mine would finally be forged as Magic Bartender at Bob Sheets' Inn of Magic in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., and while that, as they say, is largely another story, these stories do intersect in important ways. Eugene Burger's body of written (and spoken!) work has influenced me profoundly, but our tastes in material are often at significant variance, and I don't consider my repertoire to be unduly filled with his material. Nonetheless, as a Magic Bartender in 1985 and 1986, some of the most important material in my repertoire—closing effects, and audience requested effects—came from that handful of small, unprepossessing Burger manuscripts.

My version of the Card in Matchbook, inspired by that from the Schulien revelations manuscript, became one of my two or three most favored closers, and eventually a feature of my own lectures. Second-Hand Smoke—with its "adult" presentation so well suited to the early '80s and so unsuitable today—was such a trademark that people would walk up to me on the streets of Washington, D.C. to mention it, or even phone the club to ask if the guy who did it was working that night! A Voodoo Ritual was a favorite of female customers—returnees would bring new friends and request that I perform it for them. The Top Change trick became an element in my repertoire specifically for resistant spectators. and a staple to this day of my instruction of private students, as an ideal lesson in the power and consistency of misdirection, and the meaning and value of audience involvement. A version of the Corner in the Glass was a some-time feature of my bar repertoire as well, as was the occasional use of the Water Suspension, often done with the loose sugar poured out of a paper packet.

Five staple tricks from as many pamphlets. What if our tastes in material had been similar!

Back at that lecture, Mr. Burger mentioned in passing that at the time he had 28 items in his working repertoire: "Down from 34—I'm moving in the right direction!" It occurred to me that given the number of tricks mentioned in his books, along with the tricks discussed or performed at the lecture, I might be able to synthesize a list that would comprise perhaps eighty percent or more of his entire performing repertoire, a rare opportunity in the study of a professional's working material, and an intriguing exercise that might produce some unanticipated insights. I constructed the list and studied it at length, and eventually made a couple of interesting discoveries, the most striking of which (and which he mentions briefly in this new volume) being that with only one exception, every item in the Burger repertoire included some sort of direct audience involvement!

Years later, I would note that even in performance of his then current version of the classic Torn and Restored Thread, typically done as a demonstration piece without audience interaction, Mr. Burger would invite a spectator to gently pinch the ball of pieces, thus actually performing the magical gesture that apparently served to transform and restore the thread. (Gattan Bloom is the only other magician I know who directly involves the audience—indeed, a large number of audience members—in his version of this effect.) As a result, I went through my repertoire, weeding out demonstration pieces unless I found strong grounds to maintain their inclusion, searching for opportunities to add audience involvement in other pieces, and trying to enhance such moments where they already existed.

By the time the Craft of Magic and Other Writings appeared in 1984, Mr. Burger's influence on my work had evolved from revolutionary to evolutionary, and now was more naturally integrated as part of my larger outlook, blended with my own interpretations, tastes, and ideas. From Audience Involvement I had learned about "failure of the imagination on the part of the performer," and also that "presentation is the point at which you put yourself into your magic," and thus (as I eventually learned from the Schulien manuscript) stealing material was not only immoral, but also theatrically unwise. From Secrets of Restaurant Magic I learned that "The opening effect is you," and that, when faced with a hostile audience, I was "not the target." (At least, not often.) I had actually seen Mr. Burger stop a difficult audience cold, in real life circumstances, with his sparkling delivery of the phrase, described in this some booklet, "You're getting a little frisky, aren't you?"

From this booklet I also learned that most people want to be appreciated and recognized, as well as praised, and how a close-up magician might achieve these important priorities. In the Schulien manuscript I learned why and how to stop and simply do nothing when a selected card is first returned to the pack, in order to better conceal an ensuing control, thereby following Erdnase's dictum that when you can't improve the technique, change the moment. From Intimate Power I learned that "If you have already been into magic for a year or more, you already know too many tricks." In the same book I learned a phrase that has often come to mind since, namely that assumptions comprise "those accumulated beliefs which seem so perfectly obvious ... that [one) wonders why everyone else doesn't share them as well," and I learned this by way of introducing the author's own shocking yet deeply accurate assumption that "Magic tricks really are not very entertaining in and of themselves." I learned this and much more from Intimate Power—more about the beauty and hard work of magic, and about how precision is "the source of the confidence and power which are the marks of the true magician."

By the time of Craft of Magic I had learned these many things, and had thought about them repeatedly and at length, and had turned them to my own use, and have indeed returned to many of these ideas again and again since. And so while I drew no tricks from Craft of Magic for my own use, and perhaps found fewer personal revelations, nevertheless I recommended the book far and wide for all the years it remained available, as perhaps comprising the author's best introductory work for beginners, with its emphasis on the practical fundamentals of learning magic, its examination of the meaning of practice, of rehearsal, and, in the chapter entitled "The Tools of Our Craft," the pragmatic prescriptions of notebook, mirror, tape recorder, along with honest self appraisal. And in fact, in a few words about practice, I discovered something about studs ins that became a key to my becoming an effective private instructor; namely that "... every student is different," and that "[w]hat might work for one student in helping him make progress, might for another student be a terrible burden and, consequently, will not work at all."

Years later, in the September 1994 Genii, I reviewed a set of Mr. Burger's lecture notes entitled Rediscoveries, in which he revisited and updated three routines from those earlier works, establishing along the way an admittedly unstated yet inarguable Burger axiom, to wit: There is no close-up trick that cannot be improved with the addition of flash paper. Equally evident was a potential accompanying corollary: There are few close-up tricks that cannot be improved with the addition of a "Glorpy." (Mind these lessons well, and dismiss them at your peril.) This pamphlet also included two updated versions of A Voodoo Ritual, a.k.a. the Ashes in the Hand: one suit.. able for walk-around conditions, the other for platform.

And so, there you have it: An extremely personal tour through the seven manuscripts, many long out of print, now collected in this single volume, aptly entitled, Mastering the Art of Magic. Of course, there are many more tricks included in these works that I have not mentioned, because they did not find their way into my personal repertoire; your experience and preferences will no doubt differ. Besides the five tricks I've mentioned with regard to my own use, there were certainly others with which I experimented, and about which I thought a great deal, along with some that I never used but certainly enjoyed. One of those would doubtless be Mr. Burger's routine for the Mullica Wallet, with which I once witnessed (at Chicago's Cafe Royal) him fool, very thoroughly indeed, two noted Marlo acolytes who likely didn't think these books worth reading. (They were in good company, however; no less than Larry Jennings was once taken in by the same element of this routine, and which he later attempted to reconstruct in his book, The Cardwright.)

There is also new content added in this edition, however, not the least of which includes a thorough complement of excellent illustrations by Earle Oakes. And each original book is capped by the author's contemporary thoughts upon re-reading those early works—thoughts about thoughts, as it were, along with updates of tricks and other ideas. Whether you are reading this material for the first time or the nth, it is all contemplative and stimulating, and these new commentaries are no less entertaining and enlightening. Included in one of these segments is a current version of the author's handling (in collaboration with David Parr) of the Grant Slow Motion Bill Transposition, and for some this will be the "worth-the-price-of-the-book" trick, since this latest approach now permits the use of the new U.S. currency, the circulation of which unfortunately renders useless Mr. Parr's superb prior version, described in his book Brain Food and used extensively by Mr. Burger, who first published his own version in Craft of Magic.

Over what now approaches almost two decades, Eugene Burger has had an unarguable impact on the culture and art of contemporary close-up magic. It is fair to say that he altered the terms of the discussion, lifting presentation to a place much higher on the agenda than it had previously appeared. He significantly enlarged interest in and opportunity for the discussion of theory and performance in lectures on close-up magic, and he describes in this volume his experiences of delivering lectures which lacked any tricks whatsoever (an experiment in which Max Maven had preceded him). He has had these effects and more, but what is often less appreciated is that he also brings an eminently practical focus to the conversation as well, wrestling high falutin abstractions to the hardened terra firma of "real world" magic. Bob Read, himself a blend of high-art thinker and down and dirty practitioner, is quoted by Phil Willmarth in the introduction to Secrets and Mysteries as exclaiming, after watching Mr. Burger perform in a Chicago nightspot, that "Every item's a closer!" Indeed.

And so it is interesting to watch the evolution of an important magical influence, in the form of his early works and later reconsiderations. It is interesting to note that the production of a shot glass of liquid appears in this first volume (and from which I immediately adapted the holder described therein to other purposes), and that these many years later, the production of a shot glass of liquid is now a staple of Mr. Burger's repertoire. (And indeed is the most recent Burger creation to wend its way into my own current use. The author's latest work on this trick has not been included, which would have made a fitting climax to the book, especially in light of the fact that the version described on his videotape, Gourmet Close-Up Magic, no longer reflects his current practice, and is available only to purchasers of the apparatus, dubbed Shot Glass Surprise.) It is interesting to see a version of the Brainwave Deck in Audience Involvement that would eventually evolve into Burger's Devil's Deck and then finally his Thought Sender, a staple of his repertoire today and also a popular marketed item. All these facets are, yes, abundantly interesting.

But this book is more than the sum of these admittedly interesting elements, or its practical yet enormously effective tricks. It is more than the sum of the various ideas that I discovered in its pages, and have so often found relevant not only to my magic but in fact to my life. This book really is about what its title declares: it is a how-to guide to mastering the art that is magic. Having just written an eleven-and-a-half thousand-word essay about magic books, it may seem folly for me to make the following statement, but it is one I have expressed repeatedly to people in the past month, trying out the sound and feel of it to see if it struck a sour chord in my own head, and it has consistently passed these preliminary tests; and so I will now say here that if one really wanted to learn the performing art of close-up magic with the least number of instructional texts at hand, then I would say that you could probably manage it armed only with the (original) Stars of Magic, The Dai Vernon Book of Magic by Lewis Ganson, Roberto Giobbi's Card College, and this, Eugene Burger's Mastering the Art of Magic. And you need this last volume not for its potentially useful trick content, but for the fact that it tells you a great deal about the difference between doing tricks and performing magic, and about how the performance of close-up magic is distinguished from the performance of other types of magic—ideas and principles that you can and in fact must apply to all of the grand material and instruction to be found in the other three volumes I have named.

Mastering the Art of Magic is published by Richard Kaufman (complete with a stunning dustjacket photograph by Don Camp). This fact is interesting in itself when one considers this remark about the then recently released Craft of Magic, taken from Mr. Kaufman's "Bull" column in his early-80s journal, Richard's Almanac, that "The people who are capable and willing to absorb this kind of advice .... have already figured out most of this stuff and done it! The people who haven't, won't, even after reading it." Had that turned out to be true, Mr. Burger would not have gone on to achieve his obvious influence and success, because part of what he was saying was inseparable from the fact that he believed deeply that others could under-stand him—and as time went on, many clearly did so. This is all the more interesting however when one notes that in Audience Involvement Mr. Burger himself wrote, "I agree with Leo Buscaglia when he said, 'Beware of giving advice. Wise men don't need it and fools won't heed it.— Then again, Mr. Kaufman began his remarks by declaring Craft of Magic to be "Burger's finest book to date," and eventually turned out to become Mr. Burger's steady publisher, a fact not nearly as surprising when one considers that the names of Kaufman, Burger, Racherbaumer, and Swiss can all be found on the current masthead of this magazine. Ah, sweet mystery of life!

Mastering the Art of Magic • Eugene Burger • 8" x 11" • hardbound with dustjacket • 228 pages • illustrated with 176 line drawings and accompanied by 12 photographs of the author • 2000

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