Category Archives: Magic Writings

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.

MAGIC SEWING

As a magician one often has to learn various skills besides performing; such as woodworking, soldering and sometimes sewing. While I’m handy with the above for small projects, up until today, I had no idea how to fix a sewing machine. While sewing a prop today the machine kept jamming and wouldn’t catch the bobbin.

It turns out the hook timing needed adjusting and I had no idea how to do that. But by watching some YouTube videos and taking the whole thing apart, after a couple of hours I finally got it fixed. (This includes breaking another part inside and fixing that also). I’m quite proud to have learned yet another skill and put it into practice. Now I can get back to sewing the prop I had started 3 hours ago!

My Stars of Magic

I’ve always been sentimental to a fault.

After a great show tonight at Coney Island, I came home to find that a copy of my all time favorite magic book had arrived. I have been looking for this particular copy for so many years that I lost track. Just seeing it floods me with happy memories growing up and first learning sleight of hand.

During my journey, I’ve been fortunate to have have met three of these Stars of Magic. I met John Scarne at Flosso’s shop where, despite being close to 80 years old, floored with my own deck of cards. I shared the bill numerous times with Tony Slydini at Mostly Magic and later took private lessons with him. And twice performed for Dai Vernon; once at his roast at the NY Magic Symposium and once at the Magic Castle. This was where he sat in the front row and watched me perform my pet routine with the Cone & Ball.

In those days Castle members were asked to rate the performers on little cards which were later given back to the management to keep on file. After my performance, Vernon made a point of calling me over to show me what he had given me. I was stunned to see that he had given me a 9 out of 10 rating! Coming from one of the greatest magicians of our time, this was just incredible to me. Growing up reading the Stars of Magic, I never could have fathomed meeting any of them, let alone being highly praised for my work. Magic has certainly been a blessing my whole life.

A Magical Christmas Story

Ever since I was about seven years old and had fallen in love with magic, I told “Santa” that I no longer wanted any toys or games; just magic tricks (of which I always made out a long list). And every Christmas, the living room would be filled to overflowing with so many tricks that, even as a child I would think, “This is almost too much!” This would go on until I was 16 years old. That was when I wanted a particular magic book for Christmas.

Now, in those days magic books were not nearly as expensive as they are today. A expensive magic book back then might cost $10.00. But one day I saw an ad in a magic magazine for a new book on one of my favorite magicians, Okito Bamberg. It was to be a very limited, numbered edition. I immediately knew that I had to get it! That is, until I looked at the price. The price was to be the unheard of amount of $60.00!!

But I wanted it so much that, that year for Christmas, I told my parents that I didn’t want any other presents. I just wanted that book. They asked if I was really sure, and I said, yes I definitely was! So that Christmas, for the first time, the living room was not filled to overflowing, but with just a single present under the tree. Ever since then whenever I look at the book on my shelf, it reminds of that very special Christmas back in 1973.

The 20th Century Silks

One of my favorite magic tricks is called the “20th Century Silks.” This is where two handkerchiefs are tied together and placed in a glass. A third handkerchief is then made to disappear and is later found tied between the two knotted ones.

I can still vividly remember seeing it for the first time when I was eight years old during a performance by our local magician, Larry Shean, at my cub scout pack’s Blue & Gold dinner. Even realizing now what was not a particularly remarkable handling, it still impressed me more than anything else he did.

Soon afterwards I began learning magic myself and as soon as I was able, I added the “20th Century Silks” to my little act. Unfortunately the first time I tried it was in my Fifth Grade class and I muffed it up. But I kept at it and it became a staple of my act for many years. Eventually I improved my handling by adding a startling and visible vanish of the handkerchief from a glass. Eventually I found out that 50 years earlier the great magician, Nate Leipzig, had also performed it the exact same way.

Over the years magicians have made light of my doing what they thought was an old and hackneyed trick; that it was not “edgy” enough for today’s audiences. But my experience has been just the opposite. I recently re-introduced the trick back into my act after many years and it is going over better than ever.

Just tonight I was reading a review of Leipzig’s act by the magician, Ellis Stanyon from 1906. Stanyon subtly dismissed the trick saying that the techniques Leipzig employed were commonplace (even back in 1906) and readily available in books of the time. But the last line of his review indicated that Stanyon himself was surprised at how well the trick went over. He wrote, “This trick, which was well and smartly worked, secured for the performer unusual applause.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Here is a photo of the master, Nate Leipzig, around the time he would be performing it.