Silent Magic: Biographies of Deaf Magicians in the United States by Dr. Simon J. Carmel
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii November, 2011)
Can you name a professional magician who is or was deaf? Have you ever seen a magic act or show performed by a deaf or hard-of-hearing magician?
Actually, most anyone reading this should be able to name at least one example of the former. None other than that of "Okito," in fact; Theodore Bamberg, fifth generation in the Bamberg family of magicians, although born with normal hearing, lost his hearing completely as the result of an accident when he was 17 years old. Abandoning magic for a time, he would eventually partially regain his hearing and go on to develop the first silent magic act in the history of the Bamberg dynasty. Okito's story comprises the first biography in this new book by Simon Carmel.
The second entry is that of Pierre Brahma, of Marseilles, France, who in 1964 won the FISM Grand Prix with a gorgeous act of general magic featuring the production of jeweled necklaces and candelabras, and a feat of tossing and catching coins in a beautifully synchronized handling rich in movement and, in fact, a musicality of the sounds the coins make. I saw the act in the 1970s at a Tannen's Jubilee, and I still recall its beauty and distinctiveness and my surprise at subsequently learning that this talented performer was deaf.
Simon Carmel, the author of Silent Magic, was himself born deaf, and today serves as Secretary-General of the Society of World Deaf Magicians. A polymath who after a career as a physicist quit to become an anthropologist, he has been a ski racer and instructor, a teacher at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, a Fulbright scholar/lecturer in Moscow ... and his own biography and record of personal achievement amounts to one of the longest entries in his own book.
Thus Dr. Camel is uniquely qualified to write this book, which has been in the works for decades, since he first conceived the idea in 1966. In it he provides biographical profiles for 59 deaf and hard-of-hearing magicians in the United States, performers who lived in the course of approximately the past 200 years. Drawn from surveys sent to potential subjects (and those who knew them) over a period from 1969 to 2007, the author constructs profiles built from survey questions rather than full-fledged narrative biographies. But despite any limitations of the procedure, no reader can help but be inspired to see the extraordinary record of these human achievements, painstakingly gathered by the author and recorded for posterity. It is an act of profound respect, which implicitly demands and earns the same from its readers. (The book also includes a brief primer about deaf culture and community, which readers will find interesting and useful, particularly if they are previously unfamiliar with this alternate culture that lives side-by-side with hearing people but is often rendered invisible by our own hearing culture.)
Some of these sketches are brief, others more detailed; many of the subjects are amateurs and hobbyists, some were or are part-timers, a few are or were accomplished pros. Some of these performers did acts that were completely silent, without music; some specialized in performing for deaf audiences; some used music; some performed for hearing audiences who would never know of the performer's deafness. I, for one, was interested to read about Miaco, the stage name of Stephen Frisbie, a New York pro who was a successful nightclub worker in the 1930s and 40s, albeit that few knew he was deaf. Born in 1912, Miaco graced the cover of the Sphinx in 1937, and he published several items in magic journals, including a cleverly routined version of the "Bill in Cigarette" which he described in Hugard's Magic Monthly. Some of our greatest working pros of the 20' century performed during this famous "nightclub" era, and I'm sorry I missed seeing Miaco. Perhaps someone will find some film footage of his work someday.
This is just one story among many, and many others contain elements that readers will find equally engaging and memorable, if not more so. German magician Bob Hiltermann was inspired to become a magician through stories of an uncle he never met: Willi Hiltermann, who performed under the stage name of Alvata, was a fulltime pro in Germany, until he was murdered by the Gestapo for helping Jews to escape the country. His nephew became a world-traveled professional magician.
Samuel Ruiz, Jr., now 42, was inspired early in his magic life by the kindness and generosity of a mentor, the late Larry Jennings. Sammy pays it forward today in a program for young magicians he established in 2001, dubbed "Extreme Magicians." In 2006, the author met the well-known magician Kevin James when both performed at a fund-raising show for the program, and that encounter led to Mr. James contributing his introduction to this book. Each year Mr. Ruiz chooses seven or eight young magicians at the California School for the Deaf-Riverside, where he teaches, and they are given the opportunity to perform dozens of shows each year in Mr. Ruiz's innovative and committed program.
As Joseph Ledden, another deaf magician profiled here, and who died in 1979 at the age of 80, is quoted as having said: "One can overcome almost any obstacle with a magic wand if only one has, in addition to the wand, the will to work."
I hear that.