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The Secret’s Out: Authors’ Deception Undoes New Magic History Book

!!! A Vaudevisuals Magic Exclusive Expose !!!

 Exclusive Expose By Frank Joglar, Jr.

When does the history of sleight-of-hand begin? “If you read a standard history of magic you learn that it began in ancient Egypt with the resurrection of a goose in front of the Pharaoh… the history of magic is full of such stories which turn out not to be true,” state authors Peter Lamont and Jim Steinmeyer in their recently published The Secret History of Magic: The True Story of the Deceptive Art.

This, the above, is the active claim of this book. However, to quote Gertrude Stein’s bon mot: there’s no there there! Indeed, the authors’ present another textbook-like example of a strawman argument – one devoid of fulfilling its proposition. Poof!

By turns this book, which purports to represent “the true story” of stage magic’s origins, stunningly misleads, obfuscates, omits, mischaracterizes matters, as well as in essence defames past historians of prestidigitation.

For example, they call the late Milbourne Christopher an “amateur” at history writing, never mind his enduring vast output and his insightful and illuminative professionally rendered historiography in the field of magic scholarship.

What’s more, Lamont and Steinmeyer are themselves not professionally credentialed magic scholars..While Lamont’s PhD is authentic, his legitimacy is in that of the domain of psychology, not in that of theater history or magic academia.

And, if one were unnecessarily to concede the silly pinprick of Christopher, then, in the event, we’d say he is a “great amateur”, with Lamont and Steinmeyer being but “middling professionals”!

Their strawman argument is that “the standard magic history” starts with the false origin story account of Cheops-era Egyptian wonder-worker Dedi and his fabled, dexterous decapitation feats.

To the contrary, this is a gross misrepresentation of what Christopher and others have presented to their readers in connection with Dedi.

#1 Half of such “standard” magic histories omit this Dedi tale entirely.

#2 Those authors who do cite the obviously outsized legend of Dedi, do in fact go out of their way, as does Christopher, to cast the issue in the light of incredulity and disbelief – a matter omitted in bad faith towards readers by Lamont and Steinmeyer.

Here below are the actual words of some authors of the “standard histories”:

Milbourne Christopher in his works states the Dedi account is ‘farfetched’, ‘myth’, ‘fiction’, and to be taken ‘with a proverbial grain of salt’.

James Randi called the Dedi account “hyperbolic” in his “Conjuring”..

These are the actual representative sentiments written by two out of many other magic scholars one could similarly quote on this subject.

Other “standard” histories also routinely omit any reference to this Dedi origin story as in Paul Daniel’s “Story of Magic” and in John Mulholland’s “Story of Magic” and in similar titles of magic history for magicians and general readers alike.

Interestingly, Steinmeyer himself omits Dedi in his previously published chapter The Origins of Wonder in the Taschen edition of Magic edited by Noel Daniel.

Unless the reader of Lamont and Steinmeyer has access, as does this reviewer, to at least 95% of the sources cited in their book, the average lay reader – or even the generally knowledgeable magician – will be at sea, without much ability to interrogate the authors’ wantonly bogus assertions.

They question Robert-Houdin for his famous apothegm “the magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” About this they unkindly make much ado, noting Houdin was never an actor. They neglect to acknowledge that his observation is aspirational, an ideal artistic goalpost.

John Mulholland, a more gracious quoter of Houdin’s insight, offered his own modification: “Playing the part of a magician who happens to be himself.”

They blast as fictional the belief that sleight of hand performers had been persecuted. Despite the caviling of the authors, the historical record affirms this belief, and, sadly, in recent times Middle Eastern Jihadists killed a street magician in Syria for yes! practicing alleged witchcraft.

In the 19th century the celebrated traveling magician Señor Antonio Blitz recalled in his popular memoir “50 Years in the Magic Circle”, how full of trepidation he was when visiting Salem, Massachusetts – full of fear for his life given lingering superstitions vis-à-vis the magician’s plying of his craft.

Given the authors’ self-touted claims that their project is that of correcting and upending falsehoods and fictions in others’ histories of magic, it is, to say the least, very curious indeed that in a reference to all the various biographies of Harry Houdini, they single out for being especially noteworthy, a recent one by Kalush and Sloman., the very one constructed with hundreds of pages of the techniques of… FICTION! (and criticized for this by a prominent critic in the New York Sun)

In a little side excursus, the authors even question belief in democracy, as, you guessed it!, but another illusion. Experientially, not just notionally, one knows how different it is to be living in an open society with democratic practices, from how it is and feels in a closed authoritarian society (perhaps they believe otherwise).

They credit the late Dai Vernon with a special procedure for doing the iconic effect, The Cups and Balls; yet here, too, they are in error given that his climax ball production methodology which they extoll was actually appropriated by Vernon’s observing the amazingly bold and subtle gambits of old ‘Pop’ Louis Krieger who goes uncredited (but our authors are setting the record straight!).

In the authors’ tour de’ horizon of the contemporary scene in magic, they alight on stuntster David Blaine without informing readers that Blaine’s television Street Magic with its attendent focus on the reaction shot is coolly derived from (lifted from?) Jeff Sheridan, whose consequential 1977 Doubleday book Street Magic provided title and the book’s prolixity of photographs by William Biggart established the template for the reaction shots – see that book’s multi-page portfolio of street-audience-reactions to Jeff Sheridan in-situ street magic set in the out of doors Manhattan, New York. Here as well, the authors Lamont and Steinmeyer are remiss in truly setting the record with exactitude.

 

 

The authors aver that as opposed to the “standard” accounts, they propose to set forth a counter narrative more like “the true story” their subtitle promises.

To this end, they tell their readers about practices and significations in sleight of hand during Greek antiquity. Yet as before in this book, they basically do little more than reiterate what is known about magic in this period that had already been highlighted in the writings of past scholars such as Christopher, Mulholland, Evans, Watson, Victor Farelli, et al.

As for their alternative corrected narrative about magic history, they settle on “wonder” – which had long been identified by among many such as Charles Reynolds and Doug Henning, S. H. Sharp, and others.

Apropos of the above, in a highly regarded vanguard essay in the Journal of Magic History Volume 2 Number 3, Robert Reiss sets forth the multivalent, metapoic resonances operating in the magician’s art, alongside wonder. (No less than Ricky Jay has culled a great line from this study, placed as the epigraph to his text on Matthias Buchinger.)

The previous “Standard” magic histories were in fact more ambitious in scope than in this book. Here, the authors omit whole swaths of centuries of western magic, as well as no acknowledgement whatsoever of indigenous magic practices worldwide, areas attended to more or less rewardingly by the earlier authors like Mulholland and Christopher.

To be sure, the truest scope of conceptualizing magic history is by its very nature elusive and beyond capturing fully. This is because we enter upon the saga of magic in medias res, as magic evolves out of periods of pre-history and after the loss of the library of Alexandria; the fullest relevant documentation unavailable to contemporary scholarship.

Thus there is no “origin story” to pin down. Magic’s core constitutive elements of plot structures and techniques, spin out in pinwheel fashion, willow wisp-like and may not be fully captured or even located with any certainty, for these are as of quicksilver.

The authors herein under consideration are no more successful at isolating magic’s origins than have been those others whom Lamont and Steinmeyer deride as being “amateur”. Teasing out a more or less coherent outline of early magic origins remains murky and messy. The subject matter of magic is famously a continuum of both coterminous and contradictory streams of origin.

Returning to the fabulous legend of Dedi, it would in fact never be really inapposite to, arguendo, commence the history of magic performance by way of focusing on Dedi’s archetypal plot structures – such as decapitation and restoration – for this is indeed a capital way to chart the trajectory from magic myth-making to much later magic performance activity, and this approach is not a false start or erroneous magic history.

While much of this infelicitously styled book is an ungainly effort at in part synthesizing the magic historical research of others, the authors overactive and preening hubris causes their pursuit to implode on the page without pause throughout the 357 leaves of this volume.

With blithe abandon, they posit their vain failed attempts at revisionism which are not much of any meaningful substance, and a reader will lament that here magic history is poorly served.

The authors, unsurprisingly, fail at qualified revisionist scholarship, for, to repeat, grasping at magic’s origins is inherently quixotic: vast unknowns, and historiographic hypotheses occupy the very misty territory of conjurational conjecture.

In all, this is a very silly book. It’s arguments for the most part unfounded, with pages mired in trivialities and much nitpicking over strawman arguments hatched seemingly solely at the whim of it’s authors.

By the way, if you want to read a truly splendid “origin story” for magic read the opening section of William Lindsey Gresham’s Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls, for his evocative summoning of the Siberian Shamanic corpus of animation illusion. Here with a few paragraphs, Gresham sketches in a most plausible genesis, superbly.

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Montague Chadbourne on Jack Adams

Montague Chadbourne on Jack Adams

The late founder of the American Museum of Magic, Robert Lund of Marshall Michigan, sagely declared: “the small-time journeyman-magicians” were perhaps, the truer heroes within the ongoing saga of stage magic performance practice.

So many of these adamantine idealists who trod the boards in the American theater and show business, themselves, heralded or otherwise, represent and uphold a continuing tradition of “enormous human significance”  in the estimation of high culture critic Lionel Trilling in his perhaps unexpected affirmation of the skill sets distinguishing the practice of much of the popular arts including that of the art of magic.

Jack Adams, (1937-1994), the son of a bookshop owner and of Huguenot descent, was just such a journeyman magician of illimitable merit and imagination. Well-liked among his professional peers, and wherever he exhibited his magicianship in at least 30 countries, he was foremost of all the object of various measures of thankful public acclaim.

Adams did forge links between theatrical mastery and the ardent strictures defining his own advanced execution of prestidigitation.

Jack said he’d studied the observation of Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, (the 19th century “Father of modern magic”), that “the magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” To this end our subject entered upon the task of mastering so many of the aspects of the magician-actor’s craft – – mime, makeup expertise, storytelling, quick-change artistry and other important myriad facets of the art of acting, from Stanislavsky to Grotowski’s Polish Laboratory Theatre, along with Jack’s passion for dissecting the physical humor techniques gleaned from the silent screen era geniuses like Chaplin and the later work of W.C. Fields, and circus clowning of the level of Emmett Kelly.

Born in Oklahoma, Jack Adams invariably endowed most of his magic roles with the sunshine openness of styles of public address perhaps associated with those good-hearted people of that region, this informing his sparkling admixture of winning personality and captivating personae onstage. In aspect, Jack bore a bit of the look of Brad Pitt, though he was decidedly shorter.

Adams recalled that at the age of 9 he saw his first magician. He once told his friend and magic scholar Robert Reiss, that among Jack’s formative influences in boyhood, was having seen the mercurial King of the Western tent show extravaganzas, Harry Willard, of the dynastic Willard the Wizards. Jack related he’d “walked miles on dusty roads” to enter that tent-show and to marvel as Willard dazzled all with a show comprised of old-style large-scale illusions framed by the performance of a riveting cascade of medium-scaled magic sequences, all bound together by Willard’s compelling stage persona.

Jack later shared that “this was my inspiration” for his much later full-length Merlin, among his other formidable projects for the stage.

To make Jack’s dream show a reality, he sought out excellent tutelage from the theater department at college, Northwestern University. Trained by the experts at that place and time he was, he said on many occasions, mentored by Alvina Kraus, and, elsewhere in Chicago came into professional contact with Viola Spolin, the Improv doyenne, and story theater inspirer. Adams in his student period performed non-magic dramatic roles in Krauss productions at Eagles Mere Playhouse and at the school. Decades afterward Jack contemplated the wonder of it: “We did nine drama classics in all of ten weeks! – Ibsen to Chekhov.”

As a young man, Jack Adams appeared in over sixty roles on and Off-Broadway, in emergent television, and film. When he arrived from the Middle West to Manhattan, the post-war  Off-Broadway movement remained in its fertile efflorescent phase, and young Jack was cast in a raft of vehicles during this high tide.

Jack Adams’ magic, too, attracted the attention of casting directors and booker’s, significantly for children’s television programming on local stations in the Northeast as well as in the Middle West.

For at that time these TV stations still created weekend and after-school programs of original content for televisions’ moppet set. When this scribe first personally encountered Adams in the 1960’s at Al Flosso’s Magic Shop in New York City, that now, as then, legendary place of rendezvous for hocus-pocus people, Jack said he was then commuting to Philadelphia to do his original routines of magic as guest on one such local TV show for kids; he averred the following: the station manager and producers were so delighted by Jack’s many gifts, personal and magical, which had gained Jack a local following of kid home viewers, that they wanted Jack to say yes to the idea of Jack’s hosting his own weekly TV hour!

Jack Adams – beloved by trusting kids – said he’d demurred, as his on-air duties would include, as host, having to personally endorse and pitch products and foods of dubious value to his juvenile followers; he said he “could never betray innocent children,” his TV fan base, in such a déclassé fashion, just as his own vegetarianism bade him not to betray animals (which he also sometimes worked with so tenderly as a magician.) Indeed, if I may note the fact in this context, Adams’ favorite – non-magic – book of this general period was the idealistic Markings by Dag Hammarskjold, the perhaps martyred United Nations leader.

So, Jack Adams flourished as a television guest. In the metropolitan area of New York, he ubiquitously popped up on local shows, such as the Sunny Fox hosted era of the Sunday morning viewing marathon, Wonderama. Here he was booked with a favored group of the talented, such as the still youthful The Amazing Randi, and the mime Tony Montanaro.

On camera Jack was especially effective in his live-televised renditions of his character-driven creations, such as Jack in the role of Yoko, an Asian rice farmer contending with the vicissitudes of rain and famine in the rice paddy: this, Jack’s virtuoso turn from his stage show invoking all of his earlier dramatic training as described above featuring Jack’s lapidary mastery of mime, StoryTheatre technique, makeup panache, and his fluency for all of the forms of classic magicianship. It was his outstanding theater piece and, alas, does not appear to have been preserved on tape or film.

Educators took note of these high-quality presentations of Jack Adams and he soon became a recurring guest attraction at that (1960s and on) era’s premier N.Y.C. venues for worthy Children’s Theater. Adams was annually at, variously, The 92nd Street Y, Kaufman Concert Hall, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, TheaterWorks U.S.A., Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and museums of all kinds, seemingly.

On these stages before huge 1000-plus audiences of children and parents, Jack immediately captivated all especially with his authentically warm vocal timbre and diction. He radiated his distinctive assurance and poise, engendering an actor/audience friendship and enchantment that many can still taste in the memory, these decades later.

I might further adumbrate the constitutive elements of the comic and dramatic sequences comprising this singular stage work, but, rather, I’d now prompt the reader to review the accompanying visuals on this website for further edification and all of the pleasing surprises orbed therein. Behold Jack Adams’ gracious art which he advanced with his rosette presence and verve.

Al Cohen, the proprietor of a storied, now-defunct, magic shop in Washington, D.C., where journeyman-magician Jack Adams once also plyed his thespic-magico trade, said “Jack Adams – now – he was an artist! and it’s why I referred important clients to him for shows.”

Milbourne Christopher, the late historian/magician and universally regarded as ”Americas’ foremost magician” said to Adams “Jack, Macy’s wanted me to prepare a magic float for their annual parade – I unreservedly told them to call you,” Reiss recalled the encounter between Christopher and Adams.

Al Flosso, (the late owner of Americas’ oldest magic shop and legend in his own right) in 1969 at his store, amidst a flow of colorful show-biz kibbitzing, wherein he paused to, as it were, soliloquize and expostulate with vehement admiration, said, “Talk about a ton of clever touches,” he spoke as he moved about his haywire showroom with resolute gesticulations.

“I count dozens of his own when I watch Jack on stage — Y’ see – as God as my witness! – and I’ll say this loud and clear – Jack’s show is – Y’hear what I’m telling you! – a masterpiece of originality! Jack’s in a class by himself…OOOh, is he ever! Brother, Y’ hear what I’m saying!”

“You guys should all of you, go study Jack’s show – It’s a master class – boys – Y’ hear! it is! and what you can learn from him…and let me now tell you something else: For my money – for an all-around magic show – with nothing left out – ooh! is Jack the best! I ought to know, brother! And if what I’m saying ain’t true Sonny Boy! – then just call me Mendel Beilis!, and I’ll bail out of here for good!”

These vivid and voluble Flosso utterances let loose on the subject of Jack Adams were exhumed by Reiss, and are, of course, characteristic of Al Flosso’s unforgettable and fervent, vinegar besotted badinage with fond sentiment at the core. Flosso was himself sui-generis among the figures in magic.

In conclusion, it would perhaps simplify matters to quote directly from the late Joseph Dunninger, (1892-1975), who was upon his death the last link in the chain of America’s unexampled Master Magicians, commencing from the mid-19th century, a continuum which did terminate with Dunninger’s death in 1975.

Before he died Dunninger compiled an exceedingly select list of those other magicians he most esteemed, and Jack Adams was among the top two he paid tribute.

Of Jack Adams and the elect others, Dunninger declared in his stentorian and powerful voice, “they are the names of the famous conjurers of the 20th century…they are the ones who have contributed their talents to building the ‘Monument to Magic,’ thereby adding their personalities to the foundation [of Magic’s] Hall of Fame.”

Thus Trilling is indeed correct, these journeyman-magicians are of “enormous human significance,” and indelibly among them is Jack Adams.

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Jack Adams Promo Tape transferred from VHS.


Interview with magician Peter Samelson


Interview with magician Bradley Fields


Interview with Pat and Jen Adams

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Printer Materials from Jack Adams Archives

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Bradley Fields assisting Jack Admas in Promo shot in Tompkins Square Park.

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Bradley Fields and Jack Adams doing Promo shoot with kids in Tompkins Square Park.

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Jack Adams performing as Aladin with doves.

Jack Adams as Merlin.

Jack Adams as Dantene.

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