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The Annotated Magic of Slydini by Lewis Ganson

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 2001)


The Annotated Magic of Slydini

I first encountered the incomparable magic of Slydini when I was about 15 years old, attending my first Tannen's Jubilee. Only one specific recollection of that convention now remains with me, and it is a mental snapshot of a thought that occurred during Slydini's performance. I do generally remember that he presented a number of his signature effects that day, including magic with cigarettes, the "Paper Balls to Box," and his multi-phase routine for the "Coins Through the Table," ending with the "One Coin Routine." And the exquisite specificity of this memory concerns my experience of that sequence with a single coin, during which I distinctly recall thinking: "If this isn't real magic, then this is what real magic must look like."

I never entirely lost that feeling when watching Slydini perform, even though I had the great pleasure of seeing him countless times after that initial encounter, not only at magic conventions and on television but also in what became, late in his life, his regular spot on the Friday night early show at Mostly Magic in New York City. Although the man left us in 1991, the magic remains; glittering images of him and his extraordinary magic remain forever etched in my mind, and will no doubt accompany me the rest of my days.

Fortunately, we have some substantial literature that carefully records much of Slydini's work, beginning with the Stars of Magic, which included Slydini's monograph on "The Art of Using the Lap as a Servante." That publication established the format that would forever be associated with the literature of Slydini, in that the descriptions were accompanied with numerous photographs, which lent the appearance of an almost frame-by-frame sensation. Although such intensive photographic illustration was probably first seen in the wonderful photographs of Charles Bertram in The Modern Conjuror by C. Lang Neil, published in 1903, this approach was particularly appropriate to Slydini's work because of the integral role his posture, body language, and facial expressions played in the actual methodology of his material.

Lewis Ganson's Magic of Slydini, published in 1960 by Harry Stanley, continued in this form, and described many of Slydini's trademark routines. The book was followed by Slydini Encores, writ-ten by Leon Nathanson in 1966. Then in 1976, Karl Fulves wrote The Best of Slydini ... and More, followed in 1979 by The Magical World of Slydini; both these substantial works were produced in paired volumes, one consisting entirely of text, the mate containing hundreds of photographs by Arthur Manfredi. (The initial 100 copies of the first two-volume set were produced in a now rare edition under the title The Magic of Slydini ... and More, that Supreme, which had republished the Ganson book, challenged, resulting in a re-titling.) Slydini also contributed to journals, notably publishing his "Linking Pins" routine in Apocalypse in 1978.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to imagine, much less fully appreciate, the unique experience of Slydini's magic without seeing it per-formed by him, be it in person for those of us fortunate to have done so, or today on videotape. While there is a quantity of broadcast video circulating, none of it is commercially available; much of it consists of appearances on a number of magic specials hosted by Dick avert, himself a Slydini student, in the earliest days of pay television (i.e., HBO). Most of these performances are quite wonderful, even though shot late in Slydini's life, apparently with little in the way of re-takes, and despite the occasional unkindness of the camera's frozen eye when locked on work highly dependent upon misdirection. (A stockpile of quality film also purportedly exists, as mentioned in this month's Genii Speaks, page 8.)

This is not to say that Slydini's tricks cannot be learned from these books; although some would disagree, I believe that much of it indeed can be mastered in this manner. In fact, I would go so far as to say that as is most often the case, learning the material from book study is preferable to video instruction or performance, because students invariably internalize the performances and demonstrations they see on video, and it is difficult to avoid replicating them, whereas the student is compelled to bring his own interpretation to bear, both technically and presentationally, when learning from written description. All of these factors are even more exaggerated in the case of Slydini, whose performance style was both overpowering and eccentric in the extreme. Nevertheless, I confess that to begin to grasp the remarkably magical sensation that Slydini created for his audience, one desperately needs to see an actual performance. Once you have done so, however, you might do well to step away from it and study the detailed instructional material that is, thankfully, available in print.

That having been said, that body of published instruction has now been immeasurably enhanced by the release of this annotated version of The Magic of Slydini by Lewis Ganson, part of the package of Ganson works that L&L Publishing has recently republished (including all of the Vernon/Ganson titles). Without a doubt, this volume is one of the best projects that L&L has produced in years and the outcome turns out to have been well worth the lengthy waiting period which served to encourage so much anxious speculation.

Dr. Gene Matsuura, physician and amateur magician, is known to many on the magic scene as a dedicated and detail-oriented student and researcher; readers may note that he was the author of the excellent booklet, Tommy Wonder Entertains, which included among other items the first detailed description, circa 1983, of Mr. Wonder's ground-breaking "Cups and Balls" routine. Dr. Matsuura is possessed of myriad deep and specialized interests concerning the art of magic, and we can only hope that much more of his explorations will continue to see their way into the literature of conjuring in the coming years. One of his long-term passions is the work of Slydini, and Dr. Matsuura spent countless hours speaking with the maestro from the 1970s on through the remainder of his life—and taking copious notes in the process. Some of that work has now been added to this marvelous new edition of The Magic of Slydini.

Dr. Matsuura makes several very important points in his introduction, taking pains to insist that his annotations strictly document Slydini's own thoughts about the material, and that "I do want to make it abundantly clear that these notes are not in any way my versions or opinions or thinking with regard to Slydini’s material." This statement is reflected in the new edition's sub-titling: "Annotations by Slydini, as dictated to Dr. Gene Matsuura," and one could not ask for a more cautious and responsible approach. In a perhaps more provocative note, Dr. Matsuura adds that "This edition was not meant to include all my notes on Slydini, nor to include notes on every routine in the book, but to reproduce my own particular copy of this book with its existing notes." And who among us wouldn't like to see the rest of the good doctor's notations?

These remarks serve to introduce the concept of the book, which in turn presents some problems to a diligent and conservative researcher: How is one to add such notations without damaging the integrity of the original content? The innovative solution is to produce the book in two colors of text: While all of the original text is included intact, all of the newly added notations are printed in blue. In addition, any incorrect material from the original is bracketed in blue brackets, so the reader knows to ignore such bracketed words and substitute the blue additions. The scheme is simple, elegant, and enormously effective, and the blue is also incorporated as a design element in the footers and page numbering, along with a cleverly reproduced Slydini autograph on the first page. A beautiful new color dustjacket, over a genuine cloth hardcover binding, completes the lovely outer package.

But the transformation within this new edition does not stop there. In the original edition of Magic of Slydini, the photos were confined so full-page groupings, six photos to a page, with text provided on separate pages. In reading, this format necessitated frequent paging back and forth to locate the photos correctly associated with the text. In this new edition from L&L, the book has been completely redesigned, slightly enlarging the type, and breaking the photos out of the blocks into locations directly adjacent to their relevant text.

This is a dramatic improvement from the original, as is the glossy stock for this edition, in contrast to the original Stanley volume, which mysteriously abandoned the use of coated stock that was the norm for the Ganson/Vernon titles. As a result, the photos in the original are quite murky, and so their appearance can unfortunately not be dramatically improved for this edition. Nevertheless, the overall effect is impressive: In a volume that now expands fully a third in size from the original, form has followed function, and the result is an outstanding piece of work.

Of course, all the design cleverness in the world is pointless if the content isn't worthy. Needless to say, the original material is already among the most distinctive in the annals of magic, including trademark Slydini miracles like "The Paper Balls in Hat" (for which Slydini later replaced the hat with a simple folding cardboard box that lacked top or bottom); "Slydini's New Cigarette Miracle" (the broken and restored lit cigarette); "Coins Through The Table" (which here excludes "The One Coin Routine"); "The Helicopter Card;" the "Knotted Silks" (Slydini's favorite, and likely most difficult routine, with much invaluable new information added here); and the "Flight of the Paper Balls," known colloquially as "The Paper Balls Over the Head." And so this edition is all the more exciting, because there arc significant notations added to every effect in the book with the sole exception of the "Cigarette Fantasy," a close-up cigarette manipulation routine.

There is material here that is so idiosyncratic that it would be difficult to imagine anyone but Slydini performing it; I have never seen another magician attempt "The Helicopter Card," with its odd rhythm and pacing, seemingly more a private and bizarre conversation with a spectator than the performance piece it actually became in Slydini’s hands. Yet at the other extreme, is there any trick more painfully ubiquitous and yet so invariably poorly performed as the "Flight of the Paper Balls?" It is astounding that others have even produced instructional videotapes about a trick they themselves fail to understand. When Slydini did this trick—and this is even apparent in probably the last taped performance of it, when he received the Louie Award at a Tannen's Jubilee—the audience could not fully comprehend why the spectator did not see the ball, because Slydini's movements were so slow and deliberate, and his hands remained ever so perilously close to the spectator's line of sight. Yet inevitably, when I see the trick performed by others, there is so much flapping and waving of the hands, so much added chaos and confusion with "guess which hand" sequences in which both hands simultaneously move, that to compare such performances with the original is to compare a home-made Italian feast with a frozen pizza.

Those who studied directly under Slydini's tutelage will today attest to their master's ability to analyze his own material and actions in exquisite and infinite detail. There seemed to be no limit in his capacity to articulate his reasoning for every choice, every step. And even when a long-term student revisited material apparently thoroughly dissected, Slydini could break forth with a whole new area of scrutiny. Hence, the extensive additions and modifications to the earlier version of the book only occasionally reflect outright errors in the original, and rather more likely represent Slydini's inclination to constantly examine and refine his own work on an ongoing basis.

Slydini was an eccentric in every way—as a person, an artist, a teacher. Renowned as a personal instructor late in his life, he insisted that his material be mastered exactly as he himself performed it, making it difficult for many students to break the yoke of mimicry. The relentless drilling of his students through repetition of material was hence both a strength and a weakness, trapping many students in inescapable imitation but instructing them on a deep level in the innermost working of Slydini's thinking. A handful of the most serious students no doubt retain great stories and insights of their experiences with their beloved teacher, and we can only hope that the time will come when some of those stories will be told, that we may come to better know the artist behind the legend.

But true to the annotator's words, there are no anecdotes or theoretical analyses here. We are not treated, for example, to any exploration of Slydini's unprecedented ability to challenge his audience outright, while simultaneously winning their affection—a pattern which students imitated at their peril. I will never forget the time I witnessed a performance by a Slydini student at the old Magic Towne House in New York City. "How many coins in my right hand?" the performer asked a spectator. "Three." How many in my left hand?" "None, they're in your lap." And many observers have misunderstood Slydini's approach, because while few performers could get away with looking a spectator in the eye and declaring, "You know why you don't see? Because you don't watch!," fewer still understand that Slydini's performance was filled with affectionate playfulness, and not aggression; he was your teasing favorite uncle, not your punishing grandfather.

As Dr. Matsuura makes clear in his frequent references to all of the other major Slydini texts, this volume is not a complete stand-alone course in Slydini's magic. For starters, you will have to look elsewhere (to both Slydini Encores and the Fulves titles) for two of Slydini's most fundamental techniques, namely the Revolve Vanish and the Imp-Pass, both of which are mentioned but not explained in this text. These are not techniques that are readily understood, and indeed none of Slydini's magic is for the instant magician set, but these arc utility techniques that, once mastered, will serve you for the rest of your life, for every time you ever sit down at a table you can immediately cause any small object to vanish and reappear at will. Aye, and there's the rub: one of the reasons that Slydini's magic, despite undergoing an extraordinary vogue in the 1980s, has since fallen into disuse, is not only the lack of readily available sources of video to imitate, but also the fact that so much of his material was dependent upon lapping. The conditions for this kind of magic simply do not exist in contemporary professional venues for close-up magic, and few seem interested in pursuing this style of work for the sheer artistry one can attain with it, albeit that much of it may be more conducive to leisurely social performance than the rigors current commercialism might allow.

Nevertheless, students would be well rewarded by committing to an in-depth study of Slydini's magic, as the lessons in misdirection can be invaluably applied to all of one's magic, whether you are secretly ditching an object in your lap or in a pocket or via a pull or in a Topit. Ultimately, the principles of Slydini's magic are universal, but they are not readily apprehended from mere casual view. Yet a year's investment in a handful of these great routines could open fresh new doors to any magician's under-standing of his own work, much less the expansion of his repertoire into unique areas. The doorway is there, the path is lit ... who among us has the vision and commitment to begin?

The Annotated Magic of Slydini •Lewis Ganson • Annotations by Slydini, as dictated to Dr. Gene Matsuura • L&L Publishing

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