Jackie Flosso and his inadvertent gift to me

Jackie Flosso

In my solo show, “A Hanky and a Top Hat!” I’ve told the story about my interactions with the legendary magician Al Flosso (1895 – 1976). But today I’m thinking about his son, Jackie. Back in the 1990s, after Jackie had taken over his father’s magic shop, I would often go up to visit.

Now Jackie almost never did any magic in my presence and he jealously guarded his secrets (which I later learned were considerable). But in those days, I assumed that his skill was mainly in selling and not in performing magic.

But one day I must have caught him in a good mood. We were alone in the shop and he started showing me a few routines with cards which blew me away. I was quite surprised at the high level of his technique and thinking. I only wish now that I could remember the details of what he did!

But I do remember one thing. I had been working on an advanced card routine by the legendary magician, Johann Hofzinser (1806 – 1875). I lamented to Jackie my inability to perform a very difficult move three times during the routine. Frustrated with my seeming stupidity, he grabbed the deck from my hands. 

In his thick Brooklyn accent he admonished me saying, “That’s not how you do it – this is how you do it!” He then proceeded to demonstrate how the three moves could be done simultaneously! I was floored. With pride he told me that move was not in any magic book. I expressed my appreciation and asked if he could repeat it so I could see exactly what he was doing.

But my question suddenly snapped Jackie out of his magnanimous mood. He immediately seemed to catch himself. He gave my cards back muttering that he never should have shown that to me. I promised that I would never show it to anyone else if he would help me with it. But it was no use. And that was the one and only time he ever showed me “the real work.”

Well, that one move was also even more difficult but at least I would only have to do it once during the routine instead of three times. I played with it occasionally over the years but could never really come close to mastering it. 

However, desiring to work on that card routine again, I researched every magic book I had for the move but couldn’t find it. I then conferred with a world-renowned card expert to see if he had ever heard of it. When I described the technique to him, it gave him pause. He confessed he had never heard of it and that to his knowledge it has never been published.

So a few days ago, I studiously started practicing it in very slow motion; as if frame by frame in a video. I did this for a couple of hours each day. And today, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I got it down well enough to know that I someday I will master it.

In my solo show, I thank Jackie’s father for the help and inspiration he gave to me as a young boy. Perhaps in my next show I’ll tell this story and give Jackie my thanks as well. Of course, I will then have to perform the trick; assuming I have it mastered by then!

On the Waterfront (almost)

While watching one of the greatest films ever made, On the Waterfront, it reminded me of the time I was offered a job as a card cheat and longshoreman on the docks in Brooklyn.

It was back around 1978 and I had recently moved to Brooklyn.  While walking in Park Slope (which back then, was very funky and not particularly safe), I saw a flyer someone had put up on a light pole. It was by a magician who was forming a magic club in Brooklyn! Elated, I went to the meeting and met the guy who was organizing it. He was a big, burly but nice guy who worked on the docks and loved magic. During the meeting each the guys in turn, did some magic. After watching them I realized that I was by far the best in the room.

So when it was my turn, I took out a deck of cards and started doing some fancy stuff which blew them away. One of things I did was to shuffle the cards and secretly bring the four aces to the top of the deck. When I did that the organizer’s eyes nearly popped out of his head!

A few meetings later he took me aside. He said he wanted me to work for the Mob and cheat at cards at their various underground casinos in Brooklyn. I confessed to him that even if I was a dishonest person, that doing card tricks is completely different that cheating at cards – there’s a whole different set of skills required; not to mention balls. He didn’t believe me especially after what he saw me do.

And being an honest to a fault kind of guy, I politely declined. However he continued to press me over the weeks. He really liked me a lot and sincerely wanted to help as he knew how poor I was. When he saw that I wasn’t going to go for it, he instead offered me a job on the docks where he worked.  He would get me into the longshoreman’s union where I would make tons of money.

Frequently not knowing some months how I was going to pay my rent, that gave me pause.  I said I’d think about it but knowing deep down inside that it wasn’t for me. But I still pondered it. However, after mentioning it to my father (who was a cop) he firmly said not to do it; “Once you’re in with those guys, you’re in for life.”

So I took my father’s sage advice and at the next meeting, I told him that I was sorry but had decline that job also. He was disappointed and couldn’t understand why I didn’t leap at this great opportunity he was giving me. But now knowing this guy was mobbed up really spooked me. After that I never went back to any of his magic meetings nor returned his calls though I knew it hurt his feelings. I really hoped our paths would never cross again.

Then, years later I ran into him on the street in Manhattan. Seeing him again made me uneasy but he was friendly and we chatted for a few minutes. Then, as we were about to part, he stopped and looked at me. He paused and then said that I had been right not to have taken that job on the docks. He didn’t elaborate further but he didn’t need to; I understood. That was the last time I ever saw him.

So while watching the film tonight, it reminded me of all that and how different my life might have been. I’ve had many ups and downs as a performer since then but am grateful that I chose to follow my heart and stay with magic.

How Germain Spooked Me

Back in March 1988, I visited magician and author, Stuart Cramer who wrote two books on the master magician, Karl Germain (b.1878).  I traveled from New York to Ohio to interview Cramer for an article I was writing on Germain and spent a lovely weekend with him and his wife. One of my questions was about the year that Germain had died. In one of his books Cramer wrote that Germain died in 1959. In the other book, he gave the year as 1960. When I asked Stuart about it, he wasn’t aware of the discrepancy but was pretty sure it was 1959 as he was one of the pallbearers.

On the last day of my visit we decided to visit Germain’s grave to settle the question. Stuart confessed he hadn’t visited the gravesite since Germain died about 30 years earlier. On the way to the cemetery Stuart had to make a stop at the bank and parked on the street. As we did so I looked up at the rear of the car parked in front of us. I gestured to Stuart to look at its dealership nameplate – it said Germain! Spooked, we turned and gave each other an “Oh shit” look.

Now you have to understand that by the 1940s Germain had been retired from magic for decades. However, he was still extremely secretive about his magic and jealously guarded his secrets. This was true even for Stuart would regularly take care of the blind, elderly, recluse Germain in his later years. Cramer would beg Germain to reveal his secrets to him. He expressed to Germain he would never be performing again and that his brilliant creations should not be forever lost to posterity. Well, a few times a year Germain would relent and reveal some treasures to Stuart.

Stuart and I arrived at the cemetery walked up to Germain’s grave. Now we were to settle once and for all the date he had died. However, we were both shocked when we looked down on the dates inscribed on the stone; 1878-19__. The date of his death had never been put on the stone! Stuart exclaimed, “The old bastard has fooled us again!” However, later checking with the cemetery office, the date was confirmed to be 1959.

I have since heard that some do-gooder has had the date filled in totally ruining my story. No doubt Germain is turning over in his grave over it


Teller and Torkova

Twenty years ago this week, I was to perform my stage coin act at Monday Night Magic at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in NYC. It was challenging due to the close proximity of the audience being in a semi-circle around the small stage. I also happened to know that Penn & Teller were in town and about to open their show later that week at the Beacon Theater.

And wouldn’t you know it, just before I’m introduced (and already feeling nervous about the act), someone tells me that Teller is in the audience. No pressure! Well, the act ended up going fine except for part of the finale which didn’t work but the audience never knew it. I was pretty happy as it was the first time I had done the act on such a small stage. I received a big round of applause and walked backstage.

A few minutes later, one of the producers of the show came up to me and said that Teller wanted to speak to me (yes, he can talk) at intermission. I was surprised and flattered. When we met, he congratulated me on doing a great job. Then he gave me this long quizzical look and said, “You did some very subtle things there, some very subtle things!” Between that and the expression on his face I was pretty sure that this was his way of saying that I had fooled him – without him coming out and admitting it.

I thanked him and he was kind enough to autograph a postcard for their upcoming show. It’s hard to read here but it says, “To Torkova, from your new fan, Teller.” In recent years I’ve been rejected trying to get on their television show, “Fool Us.” While disappointing, I can still take some solace in that at least I fooled Teller once upon a time in a little theater in Greenwich Village

Dai Vernon

I am reminded today of one of the proudest times in my magic career. Back in 1987, the New York Magic Symposium had a roast for the legendary magician and one of my early inspirations, Dai Vernon. Some months earlier, Herb Zarrow, an extraordinary magician himself and one of Vernon’s close friends, had seen me perform my routine with the Cone and Ball. This I had based partly on Vernon’s routine. Herb told me, “Oh, I would love Dai to see that!” With Herb’s urging and influence, he arranged for me to perform it at the Vernon Roast. To say I was nervous would be an understatement especially since Vernon would be sitting right on stage as I performed it! Everything went smoothly and afterwards, Vernon, who was 93 at the time, congratulated me saying, Great, really really great!” I would get such a thrill seeing him later mention my performance in his column.
A couple of years later after continuing to refine the routine, I performed it at The Magic Castle in Hollywood. Once again, Vernon had a front row seat. After the show Vernon’s close friend, Bill Bowers, approached me saying that “The Professor” wanted to see me. We went over to the corner where Vernon held court and after congratulating me again for my performance, said he wanted to show me something.
It was the ratings card that Castle members would give to the various acts. This would help the bookers determine whether or not to have an act back. Showing me the card, Vernon had given me a 9 out of 10 rating! This pretty much left me speechless. I thanked him and said I how much that meant to me. That would be the last time I would see Vernon.
From what I understand, they no longer use rating cards at The Castle. At the time I didn’t think to ask for it and when I inquired the next time I was performing there, the card was long gone. But my memory of having one of my early idols in magic praising my work so highly is something I will never forget.

Childhood Magic Books

I’ve always been very sentimental; especially when it comes to my magic. I’ve collected all the magic books that used to be my local library (793.8). I glance at them every day on my shelf and occasionally still reference them. Today I wanted to check a routine in Paul Curry’s book, Magician’s Magic, which was published in 1965 and pulled it off the shelf.

For some reason today when I looked at the cover, I was flooded with memories of how I used to look at the book on the shelf in the library. As a young boy I was so intrigued with all those wonderful illustrations which had so transported me to another place. It’s funny how such strong feelings can sometimes be triggered after so many years for no apparent reason.

Origins of my silent magic act

It might be of interest how my Multiplying Candles routine relates to my new one-man show, “A Hanky and a T-T-T-Top Hat,” which is about my growing up and becoming a magician while dealing with my stuttering issues. Here is some background that didn’t make it into the show since it only covers my childhood into my 20s.

For most of my performing life I have done a “silent act” meaning it was a non-speaking act set to music. It never really occurred to me to perform magic that required speaking onstage. While never being a fully conscious choice, it was a natural one due to my stuttering and fear of speaking onstage. And it was also natural that when I first moved to NYC back in 1978, I began taking mime classes and becoming proficient enough to be asked to join the company’s troupe. Mime was a “perfect” medium for this stutterer.

Over the years I was able to work out and master some of the silent routines I am known for; particularly my Coin Act for which I had won many awards. I was successful working silently onstage for many years. However, I gradually developed a passion for mentalism. Previously I had had absolutely no interest in it; probably since it was ALL about speaking onstage – an anathema to me. Eventually my desire to develop a longer show and not just an “act” pushed me to add mentalism to it despite my stuttering. At the time (before getting more speech therapy) my stuttering was much more severe than it is now. And with the shame that is felt by every stutterer, it wasn’t easy. Indeed there were many times that I could barely get a sentence out which led to many awkward performances.

However, I stuck with it and eventually decided to go back to speech therapy which I hadn’t done since childhood. Within a six months my stuttering diminished to the point where it was less awkward onstage. I also received some very positive feedback from various friends in the performing community which boosted my confidence enough to eventually write my first solo show, “Thought Prints,” a whimsical mentalism play that I performed at the New York Fringe Festival. It was the first time in my life that I had ever spoken for that length of time onstage – 60 minutes! And while I stuttered a fair amount during those performances, I considered that, at the time, the greatest accomplishment of my career.

Since performing mentalism and having some very good responses with it over the past 10+ years, I’m still told by some that while they enjoy it, they still like my old silent magic the best. And I appreciate that; having performed those routines for most of my life, I am naturally smoother and more polished with those routines than I am at mentalism. It makes me think back to when Woody Allen first started making more serious films and being told by his fans that they wished he would go back to making those, “funny movies.”

It does take a fair amount of courage to set aside something that has worked for you so well for so long and take the risk of doing something completely different. And for a long while you will likely not be very good at it. And for a performer, that can be tough to take. However, I believe the rewards in the long run are worth it. Just as taking a huge risk going from a silent act to a speaking act, so now, with my new show, I have written the most personal story of my life (and now speaking for 75 minutes onstage). Judging by the responses I have received so far, the risk seems to be paying off.

At some point I may write a sequel about this journey which I hope would be just as compelling.

Feeling accomplished

Pulling myself up from my bootstraps, I dug in and got some good work done today. Since the cues for my solo show are more complex than I’ve ever used before, I decided to take it to the next level. I bit the bullet and ordered the state of the art Media Monkey remote control system and then spent today learning the basics of Qlab to run my show. After many frustrating hours, but with good tech support, am proud to say that I finally got a handle on it. Now to get back to figuring out the problem of setting up and striking the show more quickly! (Boy, I look so much like my Dad in this photo)