Once Upon a Time by Punx

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 2002)

THE GERMAN MENTALIST, Ted Lesley, in his foreword to this book, describes the magician, Puns, as a "fabulist." It seems a perfect word—all the more impressive when you realize that Mr. Lesley is not writing in his first language.

Punx was born Ludwig Hanemann in England in 1907; while still a youth he returned to his parents native Germany where he was raised. An amateur magician through the first half of his life, he served in the German Army in World War II until he was captured by the French and interred in a British POW camp. Two years later he was repatriated to Germany, and began his professional performing career under the stage name of Puns.

This volume's penultimate entry is a brief biography by Richard Hatch and includes a description of Punx's 1948 theatrical debut. The show was in four sections, in each of which Punx played a different character. Accompanied by a pianist, Punx began the show as Cagliostro, during which he did a mind-reading performance; he then appeared as a "merry prankster" character, performing card tricks in a humorous vein; he then became Baron von Munchausen, the famed teller of tall tales—truly a "fabulist"—with the tales accompanied by magic tricks, concluding with his moving "Heart of Glass" routine, described in this volume; and finally the last segment consisted of Punx as himself, using magic to address issues of the time. I quote from Mr. Hatch's text: "Here Punx used magic to create food, money, cigarettes, silk stockings and other precious commodities of the postwar era. Finally Punx produced soap bubbles from an empty glass pipe and as he magically played with the bubbles he delivered his epilogue, the fragile yet beautiful and transparent spheres becoming a symbol of his art."

Okay, so I guess this wasn't your typical "Die Box" and "Square Circle" kinds guy.

Punx, who died in 1996, published a number of books on magic in his native Germany. The book at hand was first published in Germany in 1977, and subsequently released in an English-language edition in 1987 as Magical Adventures and Fairy Tales, translated by Bill Palmer. Arid Frailich is a Canadian magician who is interested in the story-telling approach to magic, having written his own book on the subject entitled Card Stories [reviewed in Genii, November 1996[. Learning that only 500 copies of the English edition had been produced, Mr. Frailich sought to help make the book more readily avail-able, but learned that the publisher was since deceased. Eventually he was put in touch with Bill Palmer, the original translator, and thus the current project was underway. Mr. Frailich has produced this new and nicely produced English edition, with a corrected translation by the original translator, and accompanied by several new routines previously only available in German.

The result is a delightful piece of work and we should be grateful to the collaborators for their efforts. Punx began his show with the words, "Do not call me a magician or a conjurer; storyteller would be just right ..." and these lines are reprinted in Siegfried & Roy's pro-gram today. It certainly is a better description and, by contemporary standards, "conjurer" barely seems fitting at all.

The book begins with an original fable, a story about an encounter between fairy tale and truth, who are in fact characters in the story. In this Punx puts forth his theory that "fantasy is the basis of reality," and hence makes his case for the use of fantasy as a tool by which to talk about and communicate with the real world. Punx was, in effect, an original mythmaker, and his stories sound like myths although they are new inventions intended to suit magic tricks.

Punx's work is not dissimilar to so-called "Bizarre Magick," although in Punx's case he more typically addressed a sort of White Magic approach rather than the Black Magic or medieval occult seasonings so favored by the Andruzzi school and its progeny. Story is used to greatly enhance and enlarge the fundamental effects, which in Punx's case range from apparatus tricks like the "Penetration Frame" (for the above-mentioned "Heart of Glass" routine) and Al Baker's "Arabian Beads," to basic sleight-of-hand routines like Vernon's "Cutting the Aces" or a simple handling of "MacDonald Aces" done with jumbo cards. The venerable paddle move comes into play more than once, in one instance combined with the old "Chinese Compass." The now-standard tape recorder prediction is here; so is the "Haunted Key" that mysteriously rolls over while balanced on your fingertip; one routine features the "Slydini Newspaper Tear;" there's even a version of the "Six Card Repeat," perhaps aptly titled "The Nightmare." Actually, the nightmare is a story about dreaming of a hated mathematics instructor, and includes the line, "Because you are in Hell, where all mathematicians and magicians go." Indeed.

Of course, clearly it does no justice to this work to provide the pedestrian tricks that are intended to be accompanied by Punx's fantastical stories. But it also seems unlikely that any secondhand accounting of the stories themselves can usefully describe them either. But here is one: the "MacDonald Aces" is accompanied by a story about four wishes. In a dream a Fairy comes to our young protagonist and explains that "These are the four things that men have pursued for all time: Fame, Honor, Love, and Wealth," and that she will grant him just one. The Aces are laid out as symbols of these elements and each is accompanied by three cards "because you must say it three times for a wish to come true." Eventually, the boy wishes for Love.

"The fairy smiled happily and said softly, 'Indeed, you have chosen wisely, little shepherd boy. See how fleeting Fame is, and Fame and Honor have been brothers since ages past. Nothing more remains of it. And Wealth can disappear quickly and never really brings happiness. Look, you have chosen Love. However, Love secretly contains all four of the other wishes, Fame, Honor, and the Wealth niche Heart."

And you can guess what happens to the cards.

You probably already know by now if this is your cup of tea or not. I would point out that while Punts apparently performed all of his magic in this story-telling style, this is far from a requirement; just one of these pieces, carefully chosen, could provide an effective change of pace if properly placed in a more conventional performance. In fact, Punx's story for Vernon's "Cutting the Aces" concludes on several lines that I unknowingly echoed, almost word for word, when I wrote and performed an elaborate version of this kind of routine in my amateur work in the late 1970s. The piece was nor typical of my style in general, but reserved for special occasions it was very effective, and the similarity in wording was startling when I first read Punx's version.

Some will find this kind of material anathema, and I am sympathetic. The mysticism and other mumbo-jumbo that occasionally crops up is certainly not to my taste, but there are useful lessons here to be discovered no matter the kind of story that one is inclined to tell, or how one is inclined to tell it. A more serious criticism might be that it does seem to me that many of these stories were adapted to the tricks, rather than the other way around, and while of course we often find it necessary to do this, one of the revealing results is that the stories often lack logical dramatic structure or meaningful conflict and resolution. Some-times the oddly magical happenings are attributed to a kind of random lunacy of the gods, rather than understandable human motivation. This only means that there are still better stories to tell and perhaps better ways to tell them, but Puns was a pioneer in the idea that magic needed any stories to be told at all, and with that thought in mind, this is a book of stories well worth your reading.

Once Upon a Time Magical Stories by Punx 6"x 9" laminated hardcover; 113 pages Illustrated with 35 photographs; 2001