Tales from the Uncanny Scot by Ron Wilson
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii November, 2010)
In the July issue of this magazine I reviewed a book of anecdotes drawn from magic's oral history. The opening sentence of my piece comprised a succinct review: "In a sentence: I wish this book were better."
Well, the better book has arrived. Ron Wilson's Tales from the Uncanny Scot is the book that other book hoped to be.
Mr. Wilson's delightful collection of tales tall and short are drawn from a lifetime in magic that has taken him from his native Scotland, to around the world on the greatest cruise ships, and of course to Los Angeles where he arrived in 1966, when The Magic Castle was barely in its infancy, and where he has since lived as a key player in the Castle's storied history. An award-winning Castle performer, as well as board member, talent booker, and past President,Ron Wilson has lived his long and successful life deeply absorbed in the art and culture and business of magic. And fortunately for us, he has a pretty good memory.
Much of the book is focused on the author's recollections of memorable Castle characters, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about those I've known, those I've never met, stories I'd never heard, and those I'd heard before and loved encountering again from a living witness to history.
Of 34 chapters, 19 are named after individuals about whom Mr. Wilson offers his personal remembrances. There is Jay Ose the Castle's first resident magician; John Ramsay whom the author, at age 20, met in Scotland; Larry Jennings who Ron Wilson actually started in magic;Mike Skinner and Charlie Miller, both of whom the author lived with at one time; and of course, Dai Vernon, whom Mr. Wilson knew long and intimately, as not only a fellow artist but also traveling companion, card player, chess player, and more. And as well, there are chapters about the author's extensive career performing, and later booking other performers to perform, on world-class cruise ships;on his first major world cruise he sailed for three months and did all of three shows while collecting his pay checks and enjoying the facilities.
There are stories of celebrity encounters and friendships, with the likes of Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, Rod Stewart, Muhammad Ali,Dick Cavett, Karl Maiden, Johnny Carson, and many more. There are stories Mr. Wilson experienced firsthand, and those he's heard secondhand that are well worth his pass-ing along for our benefit. There's an entire chapter devoted just to levitations, primarily to infamous mishaps with them (like the Asrah form that landed in some front row laps in the Castle's Palace of Mystery not all that long ago).
Delightful little surprises and insights abound. About Clarke Crandall: "Crandall had a knack of insulting people in a friendly sort of way. Hardly a month went by that Bill Larsen didn't get a complaint of some kind, but that was an integral part of Crandall's persona." Does anybody wonder why Bill Larsen is missed? About Channing Pollock:"One night I was performing in the Close-up Gallery in the Castle and noticed [Pollock] in the audience. At the end of the show when I went outside the room Channing came over. He said just five words which I'll never forget. He said'Ron, you're one of us.' That was the finest compliment Iever received." It gives one smiling pause to be reminded that even heroes have heroes.
Amid this trove of treasures is mixed a wealth of photos assembled by the author and the book's designer and producer, Steve Mitchell, drawn from many generous sources.There are many, many photos here that you will have never seen before, beginning right in the author's preface with a photo of Dai Vernon, Bruce Cervon, and Ron Wilson in as swimming pool, to a final photo on page 195 of a smiling Dai Vernon seated at Invisible Irma's piano.
It would have been sometime in the 1980s when I first saw Ron Wilson perform in the Close-up Gallery at the Castle. I don't recall the precise year but I do recall the experience: he fooled the crap out of me, and more than once. It was about as perfect an act as I ever saw in the close-up showroom, and I've seen many. Ron Wilson was equally at ease on stage where he began his performing career, in fact as at the close-up table, and he's already given us a superb book of magic: The Uncanny Scot by Richard Kaufman (Kaufman & Greenberg, 1987). This new book a companion volume of a sort, a book of memories and life rather than tricks is accompanied by a DVD that includes an interview with Nick Lewin, a number of very good clips of Mr. Wilson's terrific stage act, and a performance and explanation of a pet card trick of Mr. Wilson's,"The Highland Hop," provided by fellow Scotsman R. Paul Wilson. The DVD is a marvelous bonus to a book already well worth your purchase. This is the book others might wish to write; it took Ron Wilson to do it.