Tricks by David Ben
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii November, 2003)
Canadian magician David Ben may not be a household name in the world of magic as yet, but he's getting there. Genii readers have certainly taken notice of him in recent years, what with the in-depth profile I wrote for the June 2000 issue, and his recent superlative issue on his mentor, Ross Bertram. Perhaps less visible to magicians but even more notably, he has been the creator and star of a number of impressive and artistic magic shows in Canada, including several iterations of she stage show, The Conjuror, and the smaller pro-gram, The Conjuror's Suite. (In the interests of full disclosure, David has also just collaborated with your humble critic in the first "Close-up Clinic," which took place October 3-5 in Philadelphia.)
Although Mr. Ben interrupted his magically-driven life for a brief stint as a tax attorney, he has been doing magic professionally for a long time. With numerous projects underway for the fissure, including an authorized biography of Dai Vernon, he has decided to take a brief pause to release a substantial portion of his material to the magic community, most of which he has been using for the past 20 years or more. A few decades ago, we would never have seen works like this from performers still in the midst of a vibrant career, with much of the material still in active use. But of late we seem to be in receipt of more of such bequests—by magicians of the caliber of Tommy Wonder, John Carney, and (via video) Bill Malone. We should value these gifts and not take them lightly.
The book is divided into five sections: Miscellaneous Tricks; Card Tricks; Twisted Tricks; Platform Tricks; and Tricks by the Conjuror. These simple titles reflect a consistent underlying style and point of view; the book, its tone, its titles and even the descriptions, are consistently direct, plainspoken, and unpretentious. That the author is disinclined toward overselling his material to the reader is refreshing in this time of hype and triple exclamation points, but do not be misled by the tendency toward understatement. There is plenty here worth exclaiming about!
"Miscellaneous Tricks" begins with "Postage Prediction," a prediction effect based on Marcello Truzzi's popular "Heads Up" prediction, adapted to postage stamps. A transposition of stamps is also described in the accompanying "commentary." If you long to vary your props from the standard cards and coins, this first item in the book might go directly into your repertoire. "Just Another Packet Trick" is anything but that, being in fact the trans-position of a borrowed bill to a sugar packet, based upon Ross Bertram's "Bill to Cigarette." There is priceless advice given at the close of this item concerning how to best reveal the final match of the torn corner when performing on the stage. This is the kind of gold that working professionals can't get enough of, and there is plenty of it in the cracks and crevices of this mine.
"Extension of Credit" is a stretching credit card, yet another good way to avoid the standard props and gain an even stronger effect in the process. "Worse Habits" is an impromptu miniature cup-and-ball routine done with a bottle cap and a paper pellet, concluding with the final load of an orange. (Okay, I made up the part about the orange.) "Spirit Writing" is a terrific item, based on Karl Germain's effect of the same title, in which the name of a freely requested spirit appears on a piece of cigarette paper. "Ringing in the Gaff" is an assembly effect done with sugar cubes; readers may be surprised to discover that the idea of doing this kind of routine with objects with such significant three-dimensional height goes back to an early publication by Mr. Ben. "Wine and Roses," the tenth item in this segment, is an elegant close-up suspension inspired by Robert-Houdin's stage suspension (which Mr. Ben revived in his most recent production of The Conjuror). This section of the book closes with an entertaining collection of brief anecdotes about the strange things that can happen in the course of a professional magician's experience.
"Card Tricks" consists of II close-up card routines, with the author's personalized and invariably thoughtful takes on classic plots including "Remember and Forget," "Dunbury Delusion," "Open Travelers," "Oil and Water," "Card on Ceiling," and a few more. Throughout this section there are worthy touches, takes, and turns on the classics. "Dunbury Drop" softens the sting of the standard approach. "Windows to the Soul" is a version of "5 I Faces North" that is commercially Feasible. "Stop! The Lucky Prediction" is a strong, clean, close-up prediction. "Turnover Travelers" is a technically challenging approach to the "Open Travelers" and an interesting new look at this contemporary classic. "Card on Ceiling" provides an extremely practical and interesting handling using a cased deck. My favorite item in this segment is "Lost Aces For Experts," providing a combination of methods and ideas for Jack Merlin's "Lost Aces" plot that results in one of the best Ace assemblies of which I am aware. This section closes on a meditation about "Career Management" and advice to those considering magic as a career.
"Twisted Tricks" provides some six offbeat items with coins, cards, and some useful ideas for mind-reading technology including computers and cell phones—trade-show and industrial performers take note.
The search for stand-up material is a never-ending one, and many—especially the pros—will turn to this section immediately. "Restoration Theater" is a different take on the borrowed/burned/restored bill plot. "Matchless Psychometry" is a terrific approach to the psychometry plot using paper matchbooks. "Abstract Thought" is another take on the increasingly ubiquitous Magic Square. "Tossed on Stage" is a handling of the "Tossed-Out Deck" that addresses some of the common staging problems of this now-standard routine. "Design Duplication" is a divination routine in which the blindfolded per-former duplicates the design drawings and other information from four spectators. The section concludes with five pages of advice on performing platform magic professionally. If you're even thinking about doing such a thing and you're new at it, you will find this information literally invaluable. And even experienced pros may learn a thing or two.
The fifth and final section of the book, "Tricks by the Conjuror," contains material used by Mc Ben in his aforementioned stage productions. "Alchemy Revisited" is a multi-phase routine for the "Ring on Stick" drawn from the best of classic sources and synthesized into a superb professional handling. This can be done close-up or on stage for several hundred people, and was a hit at Mr. Ben's lecture at the centenary S.A.M. convention in New York City. This is not the kind of magic you learn in a day or a week or even a month, but those who invest the requisite energies and commitment will be repaid for a lifetime.
"The Conjuror's Dream" is an impromptu "Miser's Dream" that readers may recognize from its previous appearance in Mr. Ben's feature issue of Genii. And "Cards to Pocket" is an elegant and nuanced handling of this classic plot, worthy of close study by serious students. Yet another item that will not be mastered readily, nevertheless, as with "Alchemy Revisited," this is another quintessential example of material that "packs small and plays big"—completed, in this case, with two children from the audience serving as charming on-stage assistants. The book concludes with the actual script from The Conjuror for this routine, a fascinating model of staging, and how to record such material, for any student.
Anyone who gives the contents of this book the attention and focus and thought it deserves will be amply rewarded for their efforts, and so the value of this book is unmistakable for purchasers. I would offer the mild caution that this is a book that assumes a certain amount of knowledge; the descriptions, while generally clear, are relatively free of embellishment and the kind of theoretical hand-holding we have grown increasingly accustomed to in the past couple of decades. Elements of its "nothing but the facts ma'am" approach are more consistent with the style of books of the 1950s and 60s. Whether this is a deliberate choice by the author, or the result of a certain haste in setting the material down on paper, remains unclear, although I suspect a combination of the two at work. If you don't know what a Double-Buckle is, you will have to look elsewhere to figure it out, but this is not in itself a serious flaw, and there are few such examples. But there is a kind of minimalist approach to fine detail that some will find unmistakably lacking.
Mr. Ben is a classicist who possesses a deep understanding and appreciation of what strengths and elements add up to making a classic. Then he doesn't just simply repeat these tricks as they came to him—and often the rest of us—but rather uses that depth of insight to build on those strengths, further enhancing and adapting them to his own performance. There are great lessons to be learned here, and great material to be put to use as well. You can't do a pro-gram of intimate magic that runs for an hour or more—as Mr. Ben (and myself) has done—based on 30-second wonders. But neither can you fill the time with convoluted, diluted plotting. Today I see a lot of magic at the extremes: either there are long, convoluted, multi-phase routines that lose the essence of the core effect (often in a mistaken attempt to add originality), or short, flash-in-the-pan special effect magic that's over in 30 seconds and modeled more on the idea of a television commercial than on the experience of mystery. Great magic lies somewhere in between—and can also be found in abundance between the covers of this fine book.