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The Original Stars Of Magic by Various Authors

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 2009)


Stars of Magic (Soft Cover)

The two most important books of close-up sleight of-hand magic, both written at about the midpoint of the 20th century, are The Vernon Book of Magic by Lewis Ganson, and the original Stars of Magic. These books are important not only as source material but also in view of their influence and longevity and while there is no shortage of other masterpieces, from Expert at the Card Table, Expert Card Technique, and Greater Magic, to Derek Dingle's Complete Works, and The Books of Wonder, nevertheless, if you want to learn the fundamental principles, sleights, and tricks of general close-up magic, including but not limited to cards, I believe that even among so many admittedly required texts, these are the two that are most required of all.

And yet, The Stars of Magic didn't actually start out as a book. It began, rather, as a series of monographs, each featuring a single contributor offering anywhere from three to five tricks. The original series was the joint creation of businessman and writer George L. Starke and photographer George Karger, both amateur magicians, who created the project "for the sole purpose of ... improving the art of magic." They certainly delivered in spades.

After the release of the 11"' installment in 1952, Stark and Karger began selling sets in a clip binder. In 1953, Jacob Daley, who had been a contributor previously and had also helped with some aspects of the original series, produced one more monograph in similar vein, featuring two items, one from Dai Vernon and the other from Slydini, both previous Stars of Magic contributors. In 1961, Louis Tannen released the entire collection, including the additional Daley-produced installment, in a hardcover text. And a genuine classic was completed.

The book was remarkably well produced, in a large format with glossy paper and large photographs positioned alongside the text. The contributors were a genuine Who's Who indeed, four of them were members of what Jean Hugard dubbed the 10 "Card Stars of the U.S.A." in 1938 in the pages of Greater Magic including John Scarne, Sam Horowitz, Nate Leipzig (via Vernon), and of course, Vernon himself, who, wherever he happened to be in his peripatetic life at any given moment, served as the embodiment of the molten core that was the sleight-of hand universe of the time.

But enough background; what's in the book? John Scarne, the best-known (to the public) gambling authority and sleight-of-hand card man of the time, began the series with the "Classic Ball Routine," a three-ball routine in which the balls appear, multiply, transpose, and eventually vanish; David Roth uses elements of this routine as a leading to the Vernon three-ball routine from The Vernon Book of Magic. The "Triple Coincidence" is an effective and almost sleight-free two-deck trick. And Scarne describes the classic "Silver and Copper Trick," possibly the single greatest coin effect of all time (and vastly superior to any and all gaffed versions), which students would be well advised to augment their study of with work from Malini, Leipzig, and especially, Vernon himself.

In the second series, Dai Vernon himself begins with "Triumph," one of his greatest and most timeless creations. He continues with "Cutting the Aces," a terrific trick utilizing his original One-Handed Slip Cut, in which a demonstration of skill is turned into a compelling performance piece with the accompaniment of an engaging story presentation. These two card tricks are followed by Vernon's "Spellbound," a fundamental routine in the canon of coin magic, and the "Kangaroo Coins," a version of the Coins Through the Table in which the coins pass audibly into a glass (students might want to consult Derek Dingle's later approach to this plot, to see what his gaffed approach offered in added cleanliness).

Is there a trick here yet that's not worth doing today? Hardly. Most of them have been in my repertoire at one time or another, and several have never left it.

In Series 3, Bert Allerton, a ground-breaking professional close-up magician who worked at Chicago's famed Pump Room, contributes two items, a commercial four-Ace routine, and a short-change routine with bills. Vernon's close confidant and card maestro, Sam Horowitz, contributed the second part of the third series, with "Chink-A-Chink" an impromptu standard and a pet effect of Malini's and his "Egyptian Ball Mystery," a lovely Parlor magic sequence with a silk and billiard ball(s). Emil Jarrow, a vaudeville headliner, completed the third series with "Hanky Panky," an impromptu penetration of a lit cigarette through a handkerchief.

Series 4 consists of three items from the incomparable Francis Carlyle. "The Homing Card" is as much a standard today as any trick in the book, and the details and subtleties of his construction, often overlooked, remain the high points of any elegant execution. This is followed by Carlyle's version of the watch steal, and many performers make a living on some version of this feat today.

Series 5 and 6 return us to the magic of Dai Vernon. His "Impromptu Cups and Balls" draws heavily on the influence of Max Malini, with glasses wrapped in paper and final loads secreted in the pockets rather than a servante; eventually, Vernon's routine, as described in the Book of Magic, would become the standard from that time to the present day. Vernon's "Ambitious Card" is a model of compact construction, and includes Vernon's Double Lift, with which he fooled all and sundry when he first came to New York, and the Double Lift was far from commonplace while the Top Change remained the standard move. The "Mental Card Miracle," relying on the Gambler's Cop, a cutting-edge move even today, was a favorite of Ascanio's, whose version was recently published in the third volume of The Magic of Ascanio series by Jesus Etcheverry.

In Series 6, Vernon continues with the "Ring on Wand," another standard; David Ben's multi-phase routine, which can be done close-up or stage, can be found in his book, Tricks, and incorporates elements of the Vernon handling. The "Slow-Motion Four Aces" was nothing less than revolutionary at the time, taking as it did the classic plot of the four-Ace trick and "slowing" it so that each Ace transposed completely, one at a time as difficult as it is astonishing. No less remarkable however is the next trick, Vernon's "The Travelers," and experts will argue whether this innovation or "Triumph" constitute Vernon's greatest single card trick. (I still can't decide, so I continue to perform both.)

Dr. Jacob Daley, an amateur magician and professional plastic surgeon, was as fine a sleight-of-hand man with cards as any of the Card Stars, and all three of his contributions stand up today, beginning with his streamlined version of the "Cards Up The Sleeve," a plot that was a favorite of Vernon's, as were Erdnase's pithy instructions stating that the trick required "Masterly feats of Palming and Unflinching Audacity." In Daley's "Itinerant Pasteboards" you will find a description of the good doctor's "Instantaneous Double-Lift," which we now know more commonly as the Hit or Strike Lift. And finally, Daley's "The Cavorting Aces," still one of the best close-up card tricks that relies on the Pass, includes a description of the Turnover Pass.

No discussion of revolutionary ideas in misdirection can be started, much less completed, without the name of Slydini quickly arising. Series Number 8 describes that maestro's incomparable Torn-And-Restored Lit Cigarette, followed by the masterpiece that has become known as "The Paper Balls Over the Head" is there a word that means more classic than "classic" does? and this is followed by "The Flyaway Coin," an often overlooked routine in which a coin vanishes and reappears in a spectator's pocket repeatedly! [Editor's Note: Slydini told me that the version of his "Flyaway Coin" which appears in Stars of Magic was greatly simplified and shortened at the request of the publishers. His actual routine has never been published.]

Series 9 features the work of the great Canadian sleight of-hand professional, Ross Bertram. Although Bertram was an accomplished card man, gambling expert, and general practitioner, as reflected in the two invaluable books that bear his name Magic and Methods of Ross Bertram and Ross Bertram on Sleight of Hand he is still greatly remembered as a coin man, and it is his com work that is featured here in five stylish and distinctive pieces. His "Coin Assembly" is still a model of mystery and commercial appeal; ask David Ben, a Bertram student, to do it for you if you ever get the chance (along with a tremendous catalog of Bertram work that remains vibrant in his repertoire today).

In Series 10 and 11, Dai Vernon paid tribute to two of his greatest influences, Nate Leipzig and Max Malini; eventually Vernon would contribute a book-length tribute about each, recorded for him by Lewis Ganson. Vernon begins his mission to keep their names and work alive as true Stars of Magic here, beginning with "Leipzig's Opener," a pet trick of the late Michael Skinner's, as it remains today with John Carney, who has drawn on the work of both these masters, contributing his own refinements in his own masterwork, The Book of Secrets. This series includes "Leipzig's Pride," his handling of the stack of quarters through a spectator's hand still a killer effect today and concludes with "Tear-up With A Twist," a sucker handling of the Torn and Restored Cigarette Paper; while the "twist" in the title, namely a sucker repetition, has fallen out of use, the fundamental details of the handling are still elegant and effective (albeit that, for intimate close-up use, Ross Bertram's handling , published elsewhere, is also hard to beat).

"Vernon on Malini" in Series 11 leads with the trick probably most associated with Malini, namely his blindfolded "Card Stabbing." If you haven't seen Bob Sheets perform this, you've missed something very special, and versions remain in the repertoires of performers like John Thompson, David Ben, and more.

The bonus lesson, produced by Dr. Daley as mentioned, includes Vernon's "Royal Monte," and Slydini's lesson in fundamentals about "The Art of Using the Lap as a Servant," which should be required study for anyone who thinks you can fool people just by dropping things in your lap when nobody is looking.

For the record, that's 41 items, most of them timeless and, dare I use the term again: classic. And, above all, beautiful, engaging, deceptive, amazing feats that reflect the essence of magic at its artistic best.

And what of this new edition? The news is mixed. Meir Yedid has added a few things, including an introduction with personal commentary as well as historical background, and a small "bonus section" consisting of reproductions of three letters from George Starke to the book reviewer and publisher, Paul Fleming. When one considers what might have been added to a work of this nature, in the way of historical details and artistic analysis when one looks, for example, at what was recently accomplished with the new edition of Dai Vernon's Revelation, for one remarkable example one can't help but be a tad disappointed at this somewhat lackluster conception. What's more, even though the publisher claims that the photographs have been "professionally enhanced," and they are certainly a vast improvement over the awful un-screened version we've suffered with for years after Tannen's sold their publishing business to D. Robbins & Co., nevertheless I am compelled to say that the photographic reproduction remains a disappointment. Scanning photos that have already been screened is a tricky job, to be sure, and the results here leave significant room for improvement; this version suffers palpably in a side-by-side comparison with my original Tannen's edition. Considering the artistic and historical influence as well as the emotional impact this great book is freighted with, one wishes that the entire project had been conceived of with greater vision, and on a more ambitious and sophisticated scale.

Nevertheless: need it be said that if you compare the value of $35 spent on this book versus so much that is being peddled today as single-trick DVDs and instant downloads for almost as much money and often as not, a lousy trick at that the comparison becomes laughable, if not simultaneously tragic. If you genuinely study the contents of this book, you will learn the true fundamentals of great sleight of hand, and you will have a repertoire that will serve you throughout your life long after "street magic" has gone the way of eight-track music cassettes and the hula hoop.

The Original Stars Of Magic • 8V2" x 11" • illustrated with 371 photographs • 176 pages

Buy Stars of Magic (Soft Cover) now