Michael Lauck is a columnist for iTricks. His work appears Mondays. All opinions expressed in this review are his own and not necessarily those of iTricks.
The Skinner Tapes, Kaufman and Company, $125 (purchased at the special price of $100 at the IBM/SAM Convention), 10 CDs, 2 DVDs, 1 CD Rom and booklet. Available through magic dealers and directly from Kaufman and Company.
The lowdown: Despite being saddled with some serious production issues and a hefty price tag, there will be real value in The Skinner Tapes for many magicians.
When I was in high school, more years ago than I actually care to remember, I worked at the local public library. I was always surprised by how many people would flip to the back of mystery novels and read the end before they checked out. One day I caught a regular patron in the act. I laughed and told him I never figured him for the type. He explained that he had never done it before but he had already read several books by the same author. Every time he was surprised at how the murderer had been there all along but the reader never suspected them. This time he was not reading for the story, he wanted to read knowing who the murderer was so he could appreciate the author’s handling of the character as the story progressed.
The Skinner Tapes reminded of this anecdote because after finishing the last disc (DVD 2) of the massive CD and DVD set, I wished I had watched it first. DVD 2 is edited from a video tape of a private session dated as 1988 or 1989. There are some stories told and explanations, but mainly it is just Michael Skinner performing magic. In fact, there is an option just to watch his tricks and I can easily imagine myself choosing this option many times in the future. This DVD lets you catch a glimpse of Michael Skinner, the performer, at his best. He is sitting at a conference table with a group of magicians and my guess is that this was not the best venue for Michael Skinner’s brand of magic, but it is enough to see that he was something special. Never having seen him live, I can only imagine how incredible a real performance in front of an appreciative table at Lillee Langtry’s would have been to see.
Richard Kaufman has given the magic world a chance to see beyond the few articles and existing video releases and really learn from Michael Skinner, the student of Dai Vernon and a man who dissected magic. There is a real chance that many younger magicians will not be familiar with Skinner. He passed away over 15 years ago and was not a regular performer on television shows or even magic videotapes. Although there is a series of videos he created for A-1, in the booklet included with this set Kaufman maintains that these were not even good examples of Skinner’s work due to some personal issues. The fact is, though, that Michael Skinner was a very influential magician. He not only studied with Vernon, he was well known for his incredible portfolio of effects. Michael Skinner was employed for years as the resident magician at Lillee Langtry’s in The Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. He did not have to worry about bookings or touring. He simply performed tableside week in and week out for years, giving him even more opportunity to hone and perfect his presentations.
Michael Skinner was part of a group of magicians who were in the habit of sending each other cassette tapes instead writing letters. Many were lost or taped over, but luckily Allen Okawa kept the tapes he received from Skinner. These recordings form the lion’s share of the material in this set, although some was originally sent to Larry Jennings and one is a little different (more about that below). Ten audio CDs are included, with all of the personal topics of conversation and (according to the booklet) dirty jokes removed. What is left is Michael Skinner explaining his presentations, tips and techniques to Okawa, with a couple of guest appearances along the way. Although audio is not the best format for magic, Skinner is well aware of its limitations and does his best to get his points across. The material is mainly card magic, but not exclusively and there are lessons to be learned from Skinner’s thought process and motivations that can be applied to other types of magic. These are CDs that I will revisit periodically, like a good book, except that these have the advantage of being available to study while I drive!
The tenth CD actually features Allen Okawa more or less interviewing Skinner. It seems to have been simply for Okawa’s personal use. This CD is light on magic effects (and only really has one card trick) and instead focuses on the business of magic. The conversation is undated, but it is probably three decades old so some of the advice is outdated. The pricing discussed should be adjusted and Skinner’s marketing techniques are obviously all pre-Internet. Still, there is great information on the CD, including a discussion on organizing magic lessons. It is also interesting, after nine CDs of one-way conversation, to finally hear Allen Okawa’s voice.
There are two DVDs included in The Skinner Tapes. The second, already discussed above, is a private session that is listed as being from the late 1980s, although Kaufman mentions in the booklet that he believes it may actually have taken place earlier. The first is an almost complete recording of Skinner’s 1971 lecture in Tokyo. As much as I enjoyed DVD 2, I disliked DVD 1 (which I expected to be a highlight of the package) for reasons I will get to in a moment.
Also included is a CD-Rom, listed as a bonus disc that contains two different sets of lecture notes, Michael Skinner’s personal notebooks, a hand written explanation of Malini’s Chink-a-Chink and sections from the issue of Genii dedicated to Skinner. Although some magicians may find value in the PDFs included on the CD-Rom, I personally found the notebook and lecture notes a bit disappointing. For example, many of the effects in the lecture notes are simply references to the magazines which originally published them. Although I have not checked the actual numbers, I wonder if the CD-Rom could not have simply been included as a data section on one of the DVDs.
As exciting and interesting as the set is for the most part, it has a few serious drawbacks. First, and most obvious, is the $125 list price. Personally, I do not find that an unreasonable amount to ask for the material being provided, but you must judge that according to your own budget. Some may question why there needs to be ten CDs when the material could have converted to MP3 and placed on a single disc. That was an editorial decision by Kaufman and Company which frankly helps to guarantee that the audio is of the highest quality. There are some different volume levels between tracks and the odd hum, but nothing extreme and that is to be expected when culling material from a collection of cassettes recorded three decades ago on home equipment! What I personally found annoying about the CDs was the fact that the number of tracks on each does not match up with the number of topics listed in the booklet. For example, there are 22 topics listed for CD and only 15 unnamed tracks!
This is a minor annoyance compared to DVD 1. I had such high hopes for this DVD as it features Michael Skinner lecturing in Tokyo well over 40 years ago. It was not a session with pals like DVD 2 but an organized mix of performance and explanation, which should have proven to be incredibly valuable. Unfortunately, the video (which the booklet describes as “mediocre video quality”) is almost unwatchable. I am not sure if the original black and white print was film or video, but the DVD was obviously mastered from a second generation video tape (at best). There are massive tracking problems that cause the image to roll continuously. It reminded me of trying to watched scrambled pay-per-view back in the early days of cable television. Shortly after the one hour mark, the scene suddenly switches to a snippet (in color) from some Japanese television show before returning for the second half of the lecture! Why was this left in the final version? If this most basic of edits was not performed, I question if any efforts were taken to improve the tracking issues. The lecture seems enormously interesting and much of the material is not the card magic so heavily covered in the CDs. I may try to return to it in the future, but it was so frustrating to view during the first attempt it is honestly hard to say whether I will play the DVD again.
All things considered, I have found The Skinner Tapes both fascinating and useful. Listening to Michael Skinner explain effects, even card effects that I will probably never even attempt, allows you to examine his processes and philosophies. There are few opportunities to obtain this type of insight into the work of a genius in any field, especially magic. Even if the Tenyo lecture DVD is set aside and some of the information is outdated, the overall package is well worth the price for anyone willing to invest the time to study the material. I recommend it.