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Words about Wizards by Robert Parrish

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 1994)


The community and culture of magic suffered a great loss with the recent death of Robert Parrish. Mr. Parrish was the author or coauthor of some eleven magic-related volumes, including such classics as Bert Allerton's The Close-Up Magician, and he edited David Bamberg's Illusion Show, one of the very "best reads" ever produced in the literature of conjuring. Parrish knew everybody in magic who was anybody, and probably more than a few who weren't. This volume is the first of three planned releases which collect some of Mr. Parrish's first-hand knowledge of the greats of magic's history.

In the opening chapter Mr. Parrish relates delightful if all too brief anecdotes about Charlie Miller, Harlan Tarbell, John Mulholland, and Ricardo Richardine, Sr. In the next chapter, entitled "Some American Magicians of the 1930s," the author examines the actual performances of Jack Gwynne, Stowell's Oriental Oddities, Ed Reno, Joseffy, Paul Rosini, Mysterious Smith, Ade Duval, and Paul LePaul. The final chapter is entitled "Who was Rufus Steele?" and is devoted entirely to this enigmatic personage.

It seems to me that an ever shrinking percentage of conjurors seem inclined to study the older literature of our art—and often "older" seems to mean anything produced before the previous year—but fewer still seem inclined to study the history not only of effects and technology, but of notable personalities who helped to shape the course of the history of conjuring. No doubt this is merely a reflection of the larger culture in which we live, but this book is a perfect example of what those of such shallow and narrow perspectives are, tragically, missing. This book is a deeply charming work which will warm the heart of anyone in love with the tradition of magic. Mr. Parrish's anecdotes are vivid and endearing, and—thankfully—he was wise enough to know that to alter his recollections in an effort to "clean up" the images of his subjects is to do a terrible disservice not only to future generations, but the very subjects of his admiration. Unfortunately the historical record of conjuring is often littered with the ham-handed attempts of those who insist on whitewashing the record of their idols, and one can only trust that eventually the truth will out, no matter the efforts of those who would bleach the pages of the record. Consider these two brief samples of Mr. Parrish's insightful, and perhaps inciting, reminiscences:

"Charles Earle Miller (1909-1989) was born obsolete." "Harlan Tarbell (1890-1960) was an all-American nut."

Many of Mr. Parrish's subjects are widely known, both in their own time and still today. But as the author points out, "For every magician who has attained widespread recognition in the eyes of the public and of fellow conjurers, there have been may others of great ability and yet are virtually unknown." We all owe Mr. Parrish a debt of thanks for helping to preserve our collective memory of some of those lesser known but no less important lights.

The volume is superbly produced with the fine attention to detail that David Meyer is noted for. My one complaint is that the book is frustratingly brief and perhaps a bit over-priced for its size; I suspect that publishing all three parts in a single volume would have been far preferable. There are many tricks mentioned in this book, and there is a useful index which itemizes every one, but the real magic of this work lies in the magic of remembrance, and the enchantment of history. In his introduction, Mr. Parrish comments that "Anecdotes about magicians of the past and descriptions of their performances have always held great fascination for me." If you share in the author's fascination, as do I, you need this book. If you are not yet blessed with this affliction, perhaps this book will help you to catch the fever.

6" X 9" Clothbound hardcover; 72 pages plus index; 18 photographs; 1994. Published by David Meyer Magic Books.