iTricks writer Michael Lauck takes a journey through history in some of the forgotten magic magazines of yesteryear…
Click open a PDF of old magic magazine and you might find a serious warning that using live ammunition during a bullet catch could be hazardous to your health. Or that the man who invented your favorite handling on a rope trick also did his part to break Hitler’s grasp on Europe.
Look at them like a portal to the past.
For example, I just read Jenny Worth’s autobiographical “Call The Midwife.” Much to the amusement of my daughters, the book cover features a photograph a several small girls carrying baby dolls. Suddenly, though, the conversation took a turn I wasn’t expecting when she observed that I almost never read fiction. I was happy it went this way, even though the observation caught me off guard.
“Well, I read some fiction–”
“Comic books,” she interrupted.
I pointed out that I do read some fiction (besides comic books), but admitted that the majority of what I read is nonfiction. There are so many stories that are both amazing and true and so many things to learn, I argued. Take “Call The Midwife,” for example. I got to experience in some small way, through the lens of Mrs. Worth, life in another country two decades before I was even born.
I recently moved my office and noticed that magic books basically fall into two categories: instructional and histories. Sure, there are a few books on theory, but I think a strong case could be made that these are really instructional. There are also books that try to include both history and technique, but let’s be honest: most of these are meant for the beginner. The techniques taught are basic and the history is, generally, a broad brush approach. This is too bad because I think that knowing the historical context of an effect may help magicians understand its subtleties.
Luckily for us many magazines offer both instructional and historical pieces and do a better job than the beginner’s books.
A perfect example of this was the recent Genii 75th anniversary issue which interwove the history of Genii, a pillar of the modern magic community, and vintage effects from the corresponding decades (even if you don’t subscribe to Genii, you should grab this issue). Magic magazines can offer us an even more interesting glimpse at the past, though, because every issue is a snapshot of the state of magic, as a community, culture and technology the month it was issued. Think about the last issue of MAGIC or The Linking Ring you flipped through for a second. It filled you in on the current shows, new products, popular performers and more. From cover to cover, articles to ads, that issue was a time capsule… every issue is a time capsule. That is part of why periodicals (I’ll step beyond magazines to include newsletters and newspapers) are still sought after today in many fields and why old periodicals, original or reprints, should be part of any serious collection.
When I started buying magic, about 30 years ago when most home computers used TV sets as monitors and cassette tapes for data storage, there were only two ways to get old magazines. The first way was to track down the originals, which were usually not any more expensive than any other old magazine at the local used book store (only Playboys seemed to have any collectible value back then). Unfortunately, they could be extremely hard to find (I’ve been forced to dig through many a box of old Playboys). The second option was to buy comparatively expensive bound copies, usually only containing a year or two of magazines. Today, thankfully, those Apple IIC’s and TI-994a’s (the computer endorsed by Bill Cosby) have been replaced by full function digital wonderboxes and they have brought with them new forms of media, such as data disks full of PDF files and online archives, that make it easier than ever to find and amass readable copies of yesterday’s periodicals.
Irresponsible props! Patter about Axis-smashing! AFTER THE JUMP!
Right now I am working on a netbook the size of of a hardcover book. It has six volumes of Stanyon’s Magic Monthly, the complete runs of The Jinx, The Phoenix, The New Phoenix and about a dozen or so digital copies of modern magazines such as Magicseen on it. Connect it to the Internet and it has access, thanks to my hard copy subscription, to the entire run of Genii. Now that I think about it, there are about seven years worth of The Linking Ring PDFs available to me as an IBM member as well! Besides digital editions, the Internet makes it much easier to find old magazines. In fact, I just picked up the 1976 run of The Linking Ring thanks to eBay.
Flipping through the January issue, it is amazing to see what hasn’t really changed. Ads, ring reports and news of the upcoming convention in Evansville. Registration is $35 for IBM members or wives and a few pages later Frances Marshall mentions that FISM is in July. Registration for it is $54. It was to be held in Vienna and area hotel rooms range from $10 to $40 a night…. so some things have changed. At first glance, it seems that only the shops, the haircuts and fashions have changed (’cause there are a whole bunch of dudes with Rob Reiner’s All in the Family haircut rocking frilly shirts and wide lapel tuxedo jackets).
There are articles on magicians of yesteryear and plenty of tricks, just like today. There might not be anything I can use in the January issue, but you can bet that in the entire 1976 run there will be at least two or three forgotten gems and probably many more.
Things have changed, though and it becomes apparent when you start reading. On page 64 there is a write up of “Instant Bullet Catching” by Oscar Paulson that includes having a stooge firing a real round at you and deliberately missing! The only disclaimer is (and I quote): The Surgeon General and a good many others have determined that bullet-catching… including the one described above, can be dangerous to your health! Fooling around with live ammunition can backfire! Besides, can you REALLY trust your “stooge?” I really just cannot imagine seeing that in any publication today! Sure it is a disclaimer, but a tongue-in-cheek warning does not seem like the best legal protection. When you read something like that you can begin to appreciate that there have been real changes in the world over the last three or four decades. This is the type of thing that helps you put the patter and set ups of yesterday in perspective.
An even starker reminder of how times have changed is evident in the bound edition of Hugard’s Magic Monthly sitting on the shelf next to me. It covers the war years. By and large it ignores news of World War II, which is to be expected as its masthead declares it is “Devoted Solely To The Interests Of Magic And Magicians.” Still, the war touches the publication. Routines make reference to shortages and when there is a bit of spare space a declaration such as: “The magic of War Bonds will perform the greatest trick in history — the annihilation of the Axis.” The real impact of the war, though, is still evident when you read a letter on the Chinese appreciation of magic written by Corporal Harold B. Leith or a contribution about lighting flash paper with your cigarette from “Sgt. Joseph K. Schmidt, Overseas.” Even the familiar names of magic are seen in a different light when you notice that Rope to Cigarette is not written by Milbourne Christopher but by Sgt. Milbourne Christopher.
It is very easy to dismiss old magazines (and even some books) as collections of corny patter and tricks with hatpins, cigarette celluloids and other everyday pocket items that will no longer find in anyone’s pockets. This is a mistake! Once you start seeing these old effects with a bit of context, many are still useful today. A page or two before that little article I mentioned by Sgt. Christopher is the handling of cut and restored rope that I use today… I can’t even say for sure if that is where I found it, but it is a great handling from Leon Maguire.
Thanks to the convenience of Internet shopping and digital printing, yesterday’s periodicals are probably more accessible than they were when they were first printed. Do yourself a favor and take a step back in time with Walter Gibson’s Phoenix, Annenman’s Jinx, Genii or Hugard’s Magic Monthly. If you can, dig deeper and find Stanyon’s Magic Magazine, The Conjuror’s, The Bat or even something a little more obscure like The Corsair. You will be surprised at what you may find.