The Blackstone Book of Magic & Illusion by Harry Blackstone
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 2002)
First published in 1985, this book, written for the public by Charles and Regina Reynolds and drawn from the life and words of Harry Blackstone, Jr., has now been reprinted. A sort of "magic history lite," with some instructional material included, the book is one of those jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none packages that nevertheless manages to rise significantly above the sometimes dreary standard of the form, and should garner interest from magic history buffs, even those who might already know much of the basic material reviewed in its pages.
By far the most enjoyable and distinctive feature of the book is the volume of material from the Blackstone family. Some 50 of the book's more than 200 pages address the Blackstone story directly, embracing the careers of both father and son, accompanied by pages and pages of photographs from the family album. Much of this material has not been seen elsewhere, and this segment of the con-tent serves as a veritable pictorial companion to Dan Waldron's superlative biography, Blackstone, A Magician's Lift (reviewed in Genii, October 1999).
There is fascinating, firsthand history here, including Harry, Jr.'s account of his father's friendly rivalry with Houdini, and Blackstone's role in the development of the underwater packing box escape stunt; Harry, Jr. also recounts his own some-what delayed entry into the family business (a story not recounted in the Waldron biography of his father). A wonderful comparison of Blackstone, Sr.'s style with that of his contemporaries is included: "The Blackstone style was very different from that of his major competitors. Thurston was a gentleman of the old school, and Houdini, although he certainly had a sense of humor, always took himself very seriously. [Blackstone, Sr.) performed each show as if he'd just thought up a new game in which he and the audience must participate." Along with such commentary there are no less than eight scrapbook-style pages of photographs, as well as many other compelling images scattered throughout. The Blackstone material also includes a segment on "Blackstone in the Comics," with Blackstone. Sr. having been "the world's only living comic book character" of the era, circa 1941, courtesy of Walter B. Gibson.
These probably comprise the most valuable elements of the book, along with a charming introductory text by famed science-fiction writer, Ray Bradbury, who claims that seeing Blackstone perform, when Bradbury was just a boy, is what inspired him to go on to write science fiction.
On the downside, while the original book was published in hard-bound with a quantity of color plates (referred to at least once in this text), this reprint is paperback, done entirely in black and white, and the reproduction quality is less than superlative. This edition probably could have used a bit of updating here and there; there are old myths occasionally repeated in the historical material (the shadowy claim, for example, that "no one will ever know the truth" about the death of Chung Ling Soo), and the bibliography is out of date in some derails. However, I actually found the annotated bibliography quits interesting; the opening section of "great magic books" comprises a mere 10 titles, and I think they make for an excellent and thoughtful selection.
The book also contains instructional material, and this is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the theoretical and general advice is truly excellent, and beginning magicians cool,' benefit from ready access to more of this sort, of thing. In a chapter on "the science of ills sloe the basic effects of magic are discussed, a smart theoretical approach that is unusual in texts of this kind, it might well be over the head of the casual reader, yet I still think it serves good purpose. Some of the advice proffered is either gleaned from Blackstone, Sr. or else at least attributed to him; much is borne of real experience and characterized by a plain-spoken frankness which seems to capture the elder's voice. As an example, on the subject of stooges: "... it is a very crude and unsophisticated way to fool an audience. If there is a better way, why not use it, if only for your own self-esteem as a magician." One wonders what Blackstone, Sr. might have thought of the parade of stooges of which some contemporary "magic" shows are comprised. (You can always find them by watching for the first dozen who rise for the standing ovation.)
The actual instructional text has been care-fully written, although I think much of the material is either beyond the general public reader at which the book is aimed (the traditional use of the "Cups and Balls" always seems out of place to me in such settings; it is most assuredly not a beginner's trick), or too good for him (as in the classic "Card Through the Handkerchief"). That said, the descriptions are clear and detailed, and they are accompanied by another strong feature of the book, namely illustrations by the late Eric Mason. If you're not fortunate enough to have a copy of the first edition on the shelf, you'll have to settle for this one, which nevertheless remains a good value and a warm recollection of the Great Blackstone.