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Street Magic by Edward Claflin and Jeff Sheridan

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii August, 1998)


Jeff Sheridan is a far too well kept secret, a magical treasure who has been enormously influential in magic and yet whose name is known to only a fraction of the magic community. Mr. Sheridan is an extraordinarily skillful manipulator, a remarkable inventor as well as a deeply original performance stylist, who has had untold influence on performers who have passed in his wake, from David Copperfield to Jeff McBride. What's more, Jeff Sheridan brought magic back to the streets in the late 1960s and early 1970s in New York City, becoming locally famous for regularly commandeering the statue of Sir Walther Raleigh in Central Park, where he performed, dressed in black, in complete silence, without music or speech, a style which at that time remained virtually exclusively and yet completely independently that of both Mr. Sheridan and, as it happens, Teller.

Although New York City eventually was all but overcome with street magicians in the mid- and late 1970s, few others know how much of a groundbreaker Mr. Sheridan was in exploring this field. In 1977 this book was released to the public, a collaboration between Mr. Sheridan and a writer, Edward Claflin, who happened upon one of Mr. Sheridan's street performances and became enchanted by both the show and the showman. The result was this unusual book which, ironically, many in the conjuring community missed because it was released to the public and not exclusively within the trade. Now a new edition has been produced for magicians and those who missed it the first time around have a second chance. Don't miss it again.

Considering the current fashion for attempting to tie magic to its earliest tribal roots, this book now appears remarkably prescient for its historic recounting of magicians and their roles through the ages. Beginning with "Tribal Ways and Ancient Traces," the book traces the magician, only barely restricted to the context of street performance, throughout time and across place and locale, with chapters considering magic from India, the Far East and Europe, through stage performers and up through Houdini and into present day. The authors are neither historians nor anthropologists, and so there is a sizable amount of material here that consists of carefully gathered anecdotes in which stories are repeated but often far from verified, and folk wisdom and myth are often served hand in hand with history. It is ironic for example that while the authors, in discussing biblical magic such as the report of Moses turning a rod into a snake, acknowledge that such legends often find that "fact is freely mingled with fiction," they go on to repeat the ancient foolishness that a cobra can be made to become rigid by pressing on the back of its neck. Please be so kind as to try this and let me know if it works—if you manage to live through the experience.

When the magician begins with a private vision rather than a popular product, with an inspiration rather than a technique, then he himself will find all the magical props and history of conjuring at his disposal, and he will bend these elements to his will.Street Magic_ by Edward Claflin and Jeff Sheridan

Elsewhere we are told yet again about the cups and balls heiroglyph in Beni Hasan; the current edition does not update the record by correcting this bit of misinformation. The Linking Rings are yet again misattributed to the Chinese. And perhaps most annoyingly, the authors often propose wonderments where none exist, trying to palm off the Indian Rope Trick as as an unsolved mystery rather than the myth that it is; for that matter even the likes of Kreskin and Uri Geller are addressed as potentially unsolved mysteries, a difficult case to make with a straight face to anyone who knows even a smidgen of information about magic. There are other examples of this kind of fanciful reportage throughout the book, but just because someone makes a claim doesn't mean there's a mystery afoot; oftentimes the complete explanation is that nothing happened, therefore no explanation is necessary. This is simply not a book of rigorous critical inquiry or academically sound historical research.

However, this book is a treasure trove of material, as it gathers together a wealth of material from disparate sources that had never been previously collected and has never been matched since. As long as you accept this as a book of anecdotes and mythology rather than a rigorous history, you will be amply rewarded by the time spent in enjoying this rich and varied book. It is filled with stories, stories of magic and imagination that are bound to inspire you, and may well provide a great deal of fodder for your own stories about your art, and even presentations for your work. What's more, this is written with a serious and respectful voice that is deeply appreciative of our art, and goodness knows that magic desperately needs this kind of consideration. This is a book you will enjoy reading but will also be proud to share with and recommend to others who may wish to learn more about your art without actually wishing to become a practitioner of it, a distinction that far too many books (and other presentations of magic) fail to make. The book is also filled with a wonderful array of photographs and other graphic material that, while not always fabulously reproduced, will find favor and fascination with any reader. Finally, there is a great deal of material here, primarily in the final chapter, about Jeff Sheridan, and the portrait that is produced is a thoughtful and stimulating one, even more so by deem of the text than by the many wonderful photographs. This is not a book about his tricks, this is a book about a performer, as perceived by someone who was obviously deeply moved by what he experienced. Readers can only hope that they might on occasion achieve similar impact.

8 - 1/2" X 11" Softcover, 156 pages; illustrated with historical photographs and assorted drawings; 1998; Publisher: Kaufman