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The Magic of Paul Potassy by Uwe Schenk & Michael Sondermeyer

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 2006)


Last July, I had the pleasure of attending the Magic Circle Centenary Celebrations in London. For me, the highlight of all the performances I witnessed was seeing Paul Potassy, along with having the chance to meet him and share some sociable time backstage.

Although the majority of American magicians may not be familiar with Mr. Potassy, he is without a doubt one of the most successful working stage and cabaret magicians of his time. Born in Vienna, Austria in 1923, in 1936, at age 13, Paul Potassy saw a full-evening performance by the magician Morelli, and the hook was baited and set. Moving to Berlin with his family in 1938, he had access to Conradi-Horster's Academy of Magical Art, helping him to continue his interest and expand his repertoire, not to mention seeing countless live performances in a city then renowned for its cabarets and nightlife. When he was 16, the young Potassy traveled alone to a seaside resort town in Poland, talked his way into a tryout performance which resulted in a week's booking. For all intents and purposes, he never stopped working.

At least, that is, until he was inducted into the German Army in 1941. The following year he was fighting in the frigid Russian winter, when his small group of soldiers were over-run; exhausted, the young soldier collapsed and played dead. Caught by a Russian soldier, a gun was held to the captive's head, whereupon the resourceful soldier-magician produced a pack of cards, and in the freezing cold, began to perform. Rather than being executed on the spot, the cards saved his life, and he was transported to a Russian POW camp, where he continued to perform for the next four years, and somehow managed to continually freshen his repertoire in order to survive.

After the war he joined his family, now in Hungary, and took on a full-time performing career. By the age of 25 he was performing in a revue in Budapest and out-earning his father. More than a decade of success later, in 1956, Mr. Potassy would engineer an escape from behind the "Iron Curtain" of the Soviet empire, emigrating to West Germany. By 1958 he was working in Paris, beginning a five-year run at the best of the city's famed nightclubs. This led to international bookings that carried him throughout Europe and as far as Chicago. It was at this time that he began to perform in multiple languages, the mixing of which in any given performance would became a trademark a speaking performer who could work for any audience, even those of mixed languages.

The biographical chapter that begins The Magic of Paul Potassy recounts a truly remarkable life in show business. "In 1962 ) Poassy) set a personal performance record, with engagements on 363 out of 365 days. ... In 1963 he set another personal record, enjoying five consecutive months in Paris performing five 20-minutes shows each night at four different nightclubs." If I hadn't read it, I wouldn't have believed it. What made Paul Potassy so successful? A combination of factors, many but not all of which are captured in the pages of this book. One was a superbly selected repertoire of solid, punchy, powerful magic. His signature routines included "The Sympathetic Silks" (his opener), the Razor Blade trick, a pick-pocketing routine, a Torn-and-Restored Newspaper, a signed bill in potato, a routine he calls "Sing-Sing" which combines the card in wallet with the card between banded metal plates, the "Lassoed Card," a book test, and the "Malini Card Stab." All of these routines are described in detail in the book, along with Mr. Potassy's work on the Classic Force, the think-of-a-card, a bill transformation, the "Anverdi Jumbo Rising Cards," a Headline Prediction, a stage presentation for the "Brainwave Deck," the "Card in Cigarette," and the "Cards Across" (which used to serve as the anchor for his pick-pocketing routine).

If you look over this list, what you will see at first glance is that they are virtually all classics. Given a bit more thought, you will also see that they share in common what has served to make them classics, namely clear, direct, uncomplicated and powerful effects. Given access to this wonderful book, you will also discover that in every case, Mr. Potassy has made these tricks distinctly his own as much in presentation as in method. Although of course both elements are steeped in the foundations of tradition, nevertheless Mr. Potassy has clearly brought an insistent perfectionism to these effects: he is uncompromising in making certain that everyone is completely and unfailingly deceptive. It is a joy to read of the profound eye for detail he brings to bear on all this work. This is not the work of a hack who has thrown together some standards, added some stock lines, and gone out to work the corporate banquet circuit while thinking he's in show business. This is, rather, the story of a true show business veteran, the kind they don't make anymore because they don't do the business of show that way anymore, who earned every break he every got, and left unforgettable wonder in his wake.

But there is one more element that, as I alluded to earlier, is not caught in these pages, because it cannot be caged in the limitations of print and that is the distinct personality of Paul Potassy. The authors mention it, the various contributors of accolades and introductions talk about it, but you have to experience it to understand it. The instant Paul Potassy walked out on stage at the Centenary late in a long show on the last night of a long convention and with a rapidly tiring audience in their seats he lit up the room. He owned it! More than 80 years old, he exuded confidence, charm, and command. And he also fooled the hell out of people.

Compared to the literature of close-up magic, there are far fewer books devoted to standup material. This is a book of working material from one of the workingest magicians who ever lived. Edward Victor's "Sympathetic Silks"—"The Scarves" is a rarity these days; the only professional I know of who currently features them strongly is the wonderful comedy magician, Levent. The Razor Blades is a trick that in the hands of most performers is utterly unconvincing; the only version which I've ever thought mattered to an audience was that of the late Aldo Richiardi, until I saw Mr. Potassy do his. In this version, the routine is performed with genuinely sharp blades every last one of them can be proven to be sharp, because they all are!—and the end of the thread that he swallows never leaves the audience's sight, until it is eventually withdrawn, blades mysteriously attached. This is a masterpiece. And while the description of the pickpocket act dispenses with explanations of method and technique, which are readily available elsewhere in the literature, the structure of the act is described in detail; it is smartly conceived and worthy of close study.

These three routines demonstrate the breadth of Mr. Potassy's distinctive approach to magic, including the showman-ship, the subtle verbal asides, the stylish touches in prop management, the relentless perfectionism and cleanliness in method, and the convincing mystery of the effects. There is more of the same to be found in the remaining 15 routines, along with excellent crediting and a remarkably extensive bibliography, both elements (along with additional new material) having been significantly expanded from the German edition by editor/translator Richard Hatch.

At the Centenary gathering, the array of talent was among the most stellar I have ever seen assembled for a single convention, not unlike what one would expect to see at FISM. Interestingly, there were no lectures; the emphasis was on performance, and also on history; the historical element explored in various panel discussions and historical interviews, the performances featuring not only full evening stage shows and afternoon close-up shows, but also longer shows featuring a single intimate performer, a wonderful way of showcasing the talents of magicians like John Thompson, Juan Tamariz, and Tomo Maeda. All that having been said, there is no hyperbole in my claim that the most memorable performance I personally saw was that of Paul Potassy. Study this book and find out why.

The Magic of Paul Potassy • Uwe Schenk and Michael Sondermeyer • 6" x 9" hardbound with dust jacket; 220 pages; illustrated; 2005 • H&R Magic Books