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Dai Vernon's Symphony of the Rings by Lewis Ganson

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 1997)


Dai Vernon was many things; but close to, if not at the root of his contributions to magic, Vernon was (not unlike Michael Skinner today) a routiner, an orchestrator, a man who had an eye for the best elements in magic around him, the ability to bring them together from disparate sources, add his own very special Vernon Touch, and synthesize a whole that was bigger---and more long-lasting---than the sum of its individual parts, Yes, he created original sleights and methods, and occasional effects, but above all, he made careful and inspired choices that have influenced countless magicians in his wake. It is not by deem of chance or myth-making that, as Johnny Thompson recently commented to me, "More magicians probably use some version of Vernon's routines for the Cups and Balls and the Linking Rings than any others." Perhaps, in fact, than all others combined.

The reasons these routines have become standards, along with Vernon's routine for the Three Card Monte, or even his "Climax for a Dice Routine" from the Vernon Book of Magic---or classics, like his Five Coins and a Glass, Silk and Silver, the Travellers, or the Ball, Cone and Handkerchief---is because of the attention to detail and the eye for sheer beauty that Vernon possessed. But it was these broad conceptual elements, more than narrow factors like mere technical skill or invention, that Vernon brought to the process, just as those who truly knew and appreciated the man speak of the unique nature of his character as being even more remarkable and memorable than the profound effect he had on their magic. And indeed it becomes increasingly clear that these great and lasting routines were collaborations of one sort or another. Just as Vernon cobbled together his Monte routine with elements from Erdnase combined with street sequences and Vernon's own conjuring insights, magicians have forgotten that two phases of the Vernon Cups and Balls first appeared in S. Leo Horowitz' routine in the Sphinx.When it finally appeared in book form, was it Lewis Ganson who chose to simplify matters by attaching Vernon's name alone to the routine? We will likely never know. Late in his life Vernon was a generous creditor, using the Chronicles volumes to correct credit errors from his earlier publications, and throughout his life he promoted names that might only be footnotes today if not for Vernon's efforts. There is no shortage of blind acolytes who will tolerate no critique, nor similarly narrow-focused detractors who would have us revise all our histories downward, and leave the feet of all our giants cast in clay. The truth is invariably somewhere between; simply put, the Vernon Book of Magic changed my life, and no revisionist will ever be able to alter that fact.

These musings are far from idle, however, as the pamphlet under discussion brings these thoughts prominently to mind. If you do the Linking Rings then chances are high that you use some version of the Symphony of the Rings, and it is all but a sure bet that you have at very least studied it in some manner or other.

That has been a bit more difficult in recent years as the manuscript has been out of print, and copies were getting progressively more and more scarce. Now L & L Publishing, in the course of its ongoing project to republish all of the Vernon works (and other non-Vernon material as well) that were written by Lewis Ganson and originally published by Harry Stanley and/or Supreme Magic, has re-released the Vernon routine, putting it once again in easy reach of anyone who wishes to study the rings. While linking ring material litters the landscape o f conjuring literature, there are in fact only a handful of critically important texts, none more so than Dariel Fitzkee's Rings In Your Fingers. Armed with Fitzkee and Vernon, and needless to say, Tarbell ... perhaps the Richard Ross routine ... well, there are several good comedy routines like Whit Haydn's ... there's the rarely seen Slydini routine ... the Al Koran three ring routine, originally published by Ken Brooke ... Howard Flint has a great three ring routine, but I don't think he ever published it ... of course there's the remarkable Jack Miller routine, which is undergoing a renaissance of interest in some circles ... well, okay, I seem to have drifted off there for a bit, but certainly if you have the Fitzkee volume and the Vernon routine and Tarbell, you're off to a running start. If you doubt the strength and flexibility o f the Vernon routine then check out Bob Sheets and Jeff McBride for two widely divergent interpretations. The Vernon Symphony has become a standard because it unquestionably possesses such compelling external flow and internal logic, with moments of variety and texture, change-ups in rhythm and pacing; in sum, all the ingredients that make for great magic.

That said, it must be acknowledged that there has been growing murmuring of late about the paternity of the Vernon routine. Due largely to an unflattering story circulated late in her life by Swan Cardini, wife (and impeccable stage assistant) to the incomparable Dick Cardini, critics, rumor-mongers and historians alike have begun to wonder whether the Vernon ring routine was in fact entirely Vernon's. Late in Cardini's life, Swan claimed that, during an overnight visit to their home, she found Vernon sneaking a view of Cardini's notes on the Linking Rings in the basement. It would be another decade before she shared this tale with her husband and others. Cardini himself repeated the story to very few, although on the night of a New York tribute show to Cardini, circa 1962, which the master himself closed with his now timeless act, Cardini quietly told the tale to the show's emcee, Bobby Baxter. But in the years after Cardini's death, his widow repeated the story to others, and one hears it more and more frequently bubbling its way to the surface of conversations about the rings.

What is the truth? The short answer is that we will probably never know; all the key players are gone. Vernon and Cardini were inarguably good friends, at very least up until Vernon's departure from New York in the early 1960s. There are countless witnesses to that close relationship, to their frequent companion' ship at the Saturday night "soirees" at Ed Balducci's and elsewhere around the New York scene at that time. This period certainly extends past the publication of The Vernon Book of Magic in 1956, which included several linking ring moves contributed by Vernon, although not necessarily of his own origination. It was not until approximately the time that Vernon had migrated West that Swan told her story to her husband, and that Cardini told Baxter that Vernon was "no friend of mine." Cardini was certainly a performer of the rings; he used it on cruise ship gigs when he needed to do more time, and, according to Jay Marshall, had been a collector of oddball ring moves since the days when he had been a demonstrator at Gamages in London before emigrating to the United States. Marshall also reports that Fitzkee lifted some items from Cardini without credit for his aforementioned book on the rings, including an unusual count with a slightly smaller ring that could pass through the other rings to effect a switch, an item of which Cardini was quite proud, and about which he was resentful of Fitzkee's pilfering. Fitzkee apparently acknowledged the theft in some manner to Cardini, at least privately, because the latter showed a copy of the book to Marshall that Fitzkee h ad inscribed to Cardini, thanking him for the use of his ideas.

Meanwhile, Vernon was also a long-time performer of the rings, and had included a linking ring routine in one o f the various iterations of the famed Harlequin Act, dating back to 1939. This means he had long possessed a routine of his own. But Vernon had a voracious appetite for magic and secrets---this was, after all, the man who scoured the country until he tracked down the Kennedy Center Deal---perhaps he looked at Cardini's notes like the proverbial curious cat, but was satisfaction then sufficient, or was there an eventual connection to the 1958 publication of the Symphony routine? And if there was a connection, why was Cardini never specific or public about it, a man who was never shy about complaining when his creative toes had been stepped on (or when he imagined they had), and who once (understandably) walked out of an SAM tribute night in New York because the club nimrods had booked a Cardini imitator to perform. Unfortunately, it seems doubtful we will ever have the complete answers to these questions. Rumor has it that a set of Cardini's unpublished notes on the rings remains in private hands; perhaps the community will someday be permitted to see a complete and unexpurgated version, that we may judge for ourselves without agenda-driven guidance. Despite the rumors of more extreme claims to the contrary, it seems unlikely, and inconsistent with objective study of his record, that Vernon would have lifted anyone's routine in its entirety; it does seem quite likely that he would have incorporated isolated elements from diverse sources. Some of these mysteries remain, and some may never be entirely solved to our satisfaction, but the Symphony of the Rings remains a timelessly beautiful and well-constructed routine that will doubtless, and deservedly, outlive us all.