Secrets of an Escamoteur by Harry Riser
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2006)
It's great to live in the future. Cell phones, e-mail, DVDs life is better for all of it, and I can't wait to see what tomorrow will bring even while I have no desire to hasten reaching my own personal end of days. These dualities of time relentlessly impose themselves for our consideration and incessantly juxtapose themselves for our confuszion. In the world of conjuring, even as we bemoan the seemingly imminent death of the book, great books not only continue to come our way, but also serve to evoke the past and remind us of our inextricable links to it.
How is that time seems to crawl so slowly in our youth, the future apparently stretching infinitely before us, while it speeds by in later years with the sounds of time's wind howling in our ears? Life is filled with such perplexing and beautiful illusions, and now Harry Riser has filled a whole book of them or another book, more correctly, since this is a second collection of this maestro's mysteries, sharing strengths with the preceding volume while presenting many appealing new features as well.
Harry Riser is both a vital presence in the world of American sleight-of-hand magic, and at the same time an indelible link to its past. His conjuring history is inextricably connected with the evolution of 20th century intimate sleight-of-hand magic, not only by his intimate connection with mentors like Charlie Miller and Dai Vernon, but through his collegial relationships with Ed Marlo and the "Chicago Round Table," along with a litany of conjuring legends that range literally from coast to coast. Mr. Riser's magical history is both distinguished and distinctive few can duplicate the range of his experiences and influences, as well as the breadth of his knowledge and ability. While his name has been revered in the underground for decades, his column "The Riser Repertoire" has appeared for a notable run of 21 years in M-U-M; and while there was a time when he was far more visible on the national scene, it is gratifying to see that his name has once again returned to the forefront of the conjuring community in recent years, with the publication of two substantial books. Harry Riser is the real deal, and the epitome of the real work.
But if you somehow overlooked that spectacular manual of sophisticated sleight-of-hand magic—The Feints and Temps of Harry Riser by Ed Brown here's your chance to get a different perspective with a fresh dose of Riser's remarkable repertoire. Tastefully designed by Hermetic Press to physically match Feints and Temps, the new volume, Secrets of an Escamoteur differs not only in content from its predecessor but also in structure and voice. This book is written by Mr. Riser himself, and his intimate knowledge of the subject matter, coupled with great clarity and precision in his writing style, lends the book a crispness of tone that makes it a pleasure to study as a teaching text. At the same time, Mr. Riser provides a wealth of personal and historical anecdotes from his extensive mental storehouse, all smartly integrated with the material, serving throughout as engaging preludes to every trick. Thus the book pro-vides both a highly functional instructional manual, as well as a thoughtful stroll through the world of sleight-of-hand magic in the second half of the 20th century.
The author has been an important influence on many magicians, both among his contemporaries as well as several generations to follow; thus the book begins with introductory remarks and tributes from Teller; Mr. Riser's notable protégé, Michael Close; and (note in the interests of full disclosure) this writer, who was privileged to be included. It may be worth reminding readers that Feints and Temps included a tribute from no less than John Thompson, who therein notably declared Mr. Riser as his own mentor.
The book is thereafter divided into four efficient segments: "Travels With Charlie," "Dreams of Flatland," "In the Land of the Faro," and "The Riser Rings." The "Charlie" of the first section (titled with a nod toward Steinbeck—who, by the way, shared Mr. Riser's interest in jazz) is none other than the author's most influential men-tor, Charlie Miller. Students of the Vernon/Miller/Erdnase will be eager to read this section, considering the paucity of Miller material that has escaped the tiny cabal that continues to hoard many of his secrets. The section begins with the story of how Mr. Riser's wife, Margy, an expert seamstress, constructed the first Malini Egg Bags under the guidance of Miller, who, having been a Malini confidant, alone carried the secrets of the bag in his head for many years. No actual prop existed at the time, but over months of work, Margy Riser and Charlie Miller managed to conjure the thing into being. And indeed, Mrs. Riser provides, for the first time in public, the construction details for the bag! (That said, be forewarned, this is not a job for an amateur.)
Mr. Riser then provides his own distinctive routine for the Egg Bag. Considering that there are so few authoritative sources for work on the Egg Bag, and that the trick appears to have undergone something of a resurgence in popularity in recent years, I daresay that any student of the trick will consider this material required reading. Mr. Riser's routine is simple in structure—he vanishes the egg once, then reproduces it once—but the details and finesse of his handling are subtle and exquisite, and many if not most have not appeared elsewhere in print. Mr. Riser, like John Thompson, learned the workings of the bag from Charlie Miller, who learned it from Malini himself. I myself was personally taught the work by John Thompson, and was subsequently influenced by Mr. Riser, and the literal thrill and privilege of these experiences are now yours for the asking. Study this well, do it justice, and you will gain an understanding of the Malini Egg Bag that has previously been available only to an exclusive coterie.
The Miller section of the book continues with an array of anecdotes along with nine additional card items. This section will be relished by serious cardicians, who will appreciate the finely attenuated nuances of Miller's takes on card controls; his finessed work on breaks; two superb Double-Turnovers; ideas (from both Miller and Vernon) on the corner short card; and the complete details on Miller's Strike Second Deal, dealt from a natural full grip and designed not merely as a conjuring tool, but in fact capable of serving the cheater's arsenal for use under fire at the card table. While much of the book's card content has seen publication in Mr. Riser's column over the years, not only does the book contain a careful selection of appealing and useful material, but it's fair to say that most has escaped notice over the years, adhering to the age-old status of having been effectively "buried in print." When you read about the Miller Force, for example, you will likely be amazed to learn that it was first published in 1997; yet it has continued to have been kept a closely held secret among those who appreciated it—and have used it to devastating result.
"Dreams of Flatland" presents 15 card items, and while most are original with Mr. Riser, many contain elements of contributions from Vernon, Marlo, and other of the author's great conjuring colleagues. One of the noteworthy elements of this material, as well as of the section of Faro material which follows it, is the ingenious combination of skills that Mr. Riser brings to his work, which in many cases actually provides for surprisingly easy execution. Although Mr. Riser is himself an expert by any standard, much of his card material can be done thorough justice with intermediate skills. Deep knowledge of principles like key cards, corner shorts, One-Way Decks, and Overhand Shuffle Controls are herein utilized to achieve diabolical results. There is a little of everything here: a commercial revelation like "The Descending Cards Revisited" that is not only impromptu but downright easy to do; utility tools like "The Riser Key-and-Stock Control"; an approach to the standard Handkerchief Force that enables it to be effectively used with a sheer men's pocket hank; superb ideas about estimation that, while possessing the mark of a true expert, actually provides excellent instruction and introductory ideas that render such exotica useable by new students; and throughout, perfect locations and the like with which you can readily fry your conjuring brethren, relying more on subtlety and clever management rather than brute force sleight of hand, and perfectly suited to readers who enjoy material that will keep "fellow magi worried into the wee hours," as Mr. Riser aptly puts it. The standout routine of this segment, which I have seen Mr. Riser perform many times and with stunning impact, is his "Almost Legitimate Cutting the Aces." This tour de force of cardmanship, while it requires mental as well as physical deftness, is not nearly as mechanically difficult as it appears, and is guar-anteed to demolish any viewer, layman and mage alike.
Proceeding on to "In the Land of the Faro," you will learn that Harry Riser was in fact a pioneer of the Faro, mastering the perfect shuffle at a time when, as he explains, "you could count on one hand those magicians who could flawlessly execute the faro." He adds that in fact, "magicians who saw (his) performances were seeing the faro shuffle for the first time, and many thought (he) had some way of faking it.... (the] perfect weave had long been considered impossible."
Hard to imagine that today, but try to conceive of what it must have been like. Mr. Riser has thus been using the Faro and thinking about its applications for half a century, and the carefully chosen items presented here, while reflecting only a fraction of his output on the subject, will be of great interest and use to anyone who can execute a single Faro Shuffle. I mention "single" because Mr. Riser, along with Dai Vernon, considered a single Faro Shuffle the most desirable manner of application, as additional such contrivances generally serve to draw undue focus and suspicion. Many of these routines not only provide excel-lent insight into ingenious applications for the Faro, but combine the shuffle with other subtle tools, resulting in impenetrable methods that, provided you can manage a single Faro Shuffle, otherwise rely more on subtlety than on demanding sleight of hand. There are terrific utility tools here as well, including the superb "Riser-Zingone Four-Card Control," which cleverly solves a visual flaw of the ingenious Zingone principle described in Expert Card Technique, one of Mr Riser's most seminal texts. When you think about it, there are precious few concentrated sources of Faro material in the literature: the two volumes of The Collected Works of Alex Elmsley; the two chapters in Marlo's Revolutionary Card Technique series; Lorayne's Close-up Card Magic; and now, this little treasure chest filled with jewels of devious thinking from Mr Riser. Try out "Needle in a Haystack," which uses a method not only brilliantly deceptive but positively fun to do, given its cleverness. It bears repeating that the card material throughout this book will not only vastly expand your understanding of the multi-faceted nature of card magic methodology, but will flat out fool the hell out of people!
But let's say you don't give a whit about subtle and deceptive card material that can teach something to experts but isn't too challenging for intermediate students. Let's say you foolishly scan the Egg Bag material at the magic shop counter and elect not to buy a copy for in-depth and repeated study. Does that mean you can afford to leave this book behind? The answer Not if you have even a remote interest in the Linking Rings.
I first heard about Harry Riser's ring routine years ago from John Thompson, who was taught the routine by Mr. Riser—the only Linking Ring routine Mr Thompson ever used professionally! I finally saw Mr Riser perform the routine some years ago at a rare lecture presented at the Desert Magic Seminar in Las Vegas and it more than lived up to its reputation. I have studied many routines for the Linking Rings in my life, and the Riser Rings is one of the very best I have ever come across, possessing unique features not shared with any other.
Mr. Riser's signature routine uses three rings one of the earliest of its kind a choice pioneered by Mr. Riser Ed Marlo (as explained by Mr Riser), and, I believe sometime afterward, in the U.K. by Al Koran. In keeping with Mr. Riser's interest in magic that can be performed on stage as well as in intimate close-up conditions equally true of his routine for the Egg Bag this routine is perfectly suited for both circumstances. This is not merely because there are only three rings involved, however. Equally significant if not more so is the extremely deceptive construction of the Riser routine. For those familiar with the rarely seen Jack Miller routine one of the most original Linking Ring routines of all time Mr. Riser's routine applies most of Miller's innovative techniques to three rings, includes an elegant assist from "Rink" (Johan H. van Rinkhuyzen of Holland), and then concludes with Vernon's three-ring unlinking sequence from the Symphony of the Rings. If you're not familiar with Miller's ingenuity, his routine, originally created with five rings, included startling and unprecedented effects like the penetration of a ring through the performer's arm, the jumping of a ring from one arm to another. All of this is woven together with the inclusion of the Riser Twirl Display, one of the most convincing displays of three rings, while concealing the existence of the key ring, ever devised, and which can be readily put to use in any routine relying on three rings. Although I hate to fall prey to cliché, I am compelled to say it here: The Riser Rings along with Mr. Riser's work on the Egg Bag is simply worth the price of the book. What, oh what, are you waiting for?