GeniiOnline’s goal is simple: to be the online home for magic and deception for professional magicians, amateurs, and anyone who still enjoys being amazed. To that end, we will be writing about and reporting on the history of where magic has been as well as where the art is headed. Our aim is to blaze our own trail, to find new ways of covering this storied, secretive, and highly-entertaining practice.
We also hope to honor our print predecessor: Genii Magazine, the longest-running resource for magicians and magic fans in the world. September 2017 marks the 81st anniversary of Genii Magazine’s existence, and while we will be running select features from back issues of the magazine throughout the coming months, we wanted to do something special for our own September launch.
And so we have combed through our archives and uploaded the very first issue of Genii Magazine, circa September 1936. All 36 pages are available to read in their entirety, right here on GeniiOnline. We hope you enjoy this glimpse into the past, and join us as we look toward the future.
A recent study at Johns Hopkins revealed a fascinating paradox in mice. Scientists tested two sets of mice. One set watched another mouse perform a magic show. The second set of mice watched TV. Not surprisingly, the scientists had the mice watch Tom And Jerry, a cartoon where the mouse (Tom? Jerry?) outsmarts the cat (Jerry? Tom?).
The group of mice watching the magic show became bored and left the theater soon after it started while the TV watching mice stayed seated in their seats for more than three times the length of time.
This may come as a surprise to some magicians, but not to kid show magicians. We already know about this paradox. Children will watch movies on television like zombies for hours without losing interest. This, despite the fact that in many cases they have seen the same movie dozens of times. Yet, during a live magic show the children can lose interest easily and in some cases, even attack our props.
Isn’t that strange? You would think that a new experience, a magic show, performed by a live person, would hold their attention better than a movie on a two dimensional television.
Readers who follow me know that my philosophy of performing magic for children is to put as much interaction as possible into your routines. I call this Increasing Your Interactions Per Minute. By performing in this style for 20 years, I know that this technique is the best way to hold the attention of children watching a magic show.
In my routines there are approximately seven interactions per minute. This means that, on average, the children are reacting to the show either verbally or physically every nine seconds. This continuous interaction is like a magnet holding their attention. At this rate of interactions, there is no time for children to get distracted or bored.
Yet, even the best technique for holding the children’s attention is not perfect. May I introduce to you the family dog, the toddler who just learned to walk, and the mother who thinks the little darlings have to eat right now. Not to mention outdoor shows, which have even worse conditions with heat and sun.
And yet, these monsters sit, frozen in their places, as they watch Frozen for the hundredth time. What can magicians for children learn from animated movies about holding a child’s attention? First we have to concede that the conditions in which children watch TV are very different from the conditions in which children watch a live magic show. As we all know, it can be the distractions we suffer through during our show which are the main culprit stealing their attention. When children are distracted during a show you can see their eyes wander, they check their email, or get up and walk away entirely.
But there are few distractions when children watch TV. The television screen is mounted on or sitting against a wall. The television is the singular focus. There is no activity behind the television to distract the viewers, like a bouncy castle, a dance floor or a wall of tempting toys. Without distractions children become hypnotized by the television. We have all experienced the mom entering the room to ask a question several times before she can wrestle attention away from the TV.
Not only are there no visual distractions, there are no aural distractions, either. As we know, parents are perfectly happy to talk during a magic show. It’s as though they don’t even consider the option of not talking. Yet they respect the TV enough not to talk while children are watching. And any sounds in the room are instantly eliminated with a simple, “Mom, shut up! I can’t hear the TV.”
So TV already has innate advantages over us. Damn you, TV! You ruined radio and now you are all cocky about how well you hold kids’ attention.
What about the content of the movies children are drawn to? What is it about these films that holds their attention so well? And how can we apply those techniques to our shows?
There are several elements of animated children’s programming that I have isolated that we can incorporate into our shows. The first is the use of bright colors. Animated movies for children use lots of color in every frame. The colors are bright and lush, bold not nuanced. Arielle has red hair, Nemo is bright orange, and Belle’s ball gown is yellow. (And the skin tone of most of the princesses is Caucasian.) Using bright colors holds their attention and makes it easy for children to instantly recognize the different characters.
To apply this idea to your show be sure to use colorful props and colorful sets. Most magic created for children is colorful, in the Supreme Magic style, so that’s covered. But there is more. Put away the black and white tuxedo from the Robert-Houdin Collection and wear colors. Add color to your gray roll-on table by using Velcro to attach colorful panels to the front and sides. And people who use back- drops and banners should remember to keep them full of color as well. The only thing that should be black and white are your magic wands.
Because children need more time than adults to process new information, the plots in these movies are simple and are revealed slowly and clearly. (Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, boy buys tie-in merchandise.) Children get easily overloaded because unless the plot is going slowly, their mental processing simply can’t keep up.
This should remind us to keep the plots of our tricks simple. The magician cuts a rope then puts it back together. An unusual-looking metal pan is empty then there is a foam cake in it. A ball on a stick moves around while the magician overacts. You can lose the attention of your audience if you perform routines with complicated plots.
In these films the speed and style of the action from scene to scene varies. There are exciting segments, like action scenes or big musical numbers, followed by slower segments, for character development or to move the plot forward.
This would suggest that the tricks in our shows should alternate between fast and slow tricks, loud and quiet tricks, interactive and passive tricks, decent and lousy tricks. You can also vary consecutive segments by performing non-magic skills in your magic show. Break up the magic by singing a song, then juggling, then pitching Herbalife. I use this technique in my show. I do an hour show but the magic portion lasts about 40 minutes. During the rest of the hour I perform other variety arts.
How long should these differently paced segments last? Well, if you look at the old Warner Brothers cartoons, like Bugs Bunny and yes, Tom And Jerry, you will see that every one of these comes in at about seven minutes in length. Likewise the scenes in animated films are always seven minutes or less.
In popular animated films for children the characters are well-developed, with personality traits that are clear. There is the lovely princess, the wicked witch, the good fairy, and the wisecracking animal (who, if you ask me, should really be the one who gets poisoned by the witch). The use of clearly defined characters keeps the kids watching because they are interested in these characters and want to see what happens to them.
If the character you play is well-developed with an obvious and fun personality, then the children will care about you and pay more attention to your show. If you play a generic, interchangeable magician, with no distinguishing personality traits, the children won’t care as much about you and may lose interest in your show.
Children live in a world of fantasy. When children play “pretend,” anything is possible. These films tap into many different kinds of fantasies which children have. One fantasy is that their stuffed animals, dolls, and toys speak and have personalities. So movie makers use this fantasy to entertain children. Cars talk in Cars, bugs talk in A Bugs Life, and toys talk in Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3. (Those toys won’t shut up!) Is it any surprise that this technique is used constantly in these kinds of movies?
When children watch magic tricks such as “Peek-A-Boo Bunny” and “Run, Rabbit, Run,” it is this fantasy that allows them to accept that the pictures of animals are alive. Puppeteers and ventriloquists also use this fact of a child’s life.
Magicians also use this fantasy when they give personalities to their props, a technique called The Ornery Prop. A good example of this is the “Silver Scepter,” which is a magic wand that misbehaves to the frustration of the magician. It is as if the wand has a mind of its own. (“How many times is this idiot going to let me hit him in the head?”)
Children also fantasize that they have superpowers. Children can acquire these powers via their favorite superheroes. One superpower children fantasize about is the ability to fly. Levitating a child is a perfect way to give children the fantasy of flying. (That is, if Superman flew on a wooden board and a folding chair.)
Do children fantasize about having the ability to do magic? Does Harry Potter go in the woods? This may be the easiest fantasy for magicians to satisfy. We can fulfill a child’s fantasy of being able to do magic by having the audience say the magic words in order to make the magic happen as well as having an individual child assist us on stage and empower him to do magic.
When you watch these films yourself, search for other techniques to hold the attention of your own audiences.
Meanwhile, I am looking forward to seeing the results of a study starting soon at the Mayo Clinic. Though this is a study of mice, it should teach us something about performing magic for children. In this study scientists will be testing to see how many times mice can watch the “Banana/ Bandana” trick before they drown themselves.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Genii Magazine.
At mid-century, The Sphinx stood as America’s oldest and most prestigious magic magazine. Over its five-decade history, it had become part of the lifeblood of the conjuring world. Then, on June 29, 1953, editor John Mulholland wrote a letter to the journal’s subscribers. “This is to inform you that as ofJune 1, 1953, the publication of The Sphinx has been suspended. The immediate cause is that my health does not permit me to do the necessary work. My Doctor orders me to confine my efforts at this time to the shows by which I earn my living.”
It was true that Mulholland’s health was not good. An inveterate smoker, he suffered from ulcers, stomach disorders, and arthritis. Editing The Sphinx for 23 years had taken a physical and financial toll. But rather than limit ing his activities to his live performances, Mulholland had actually embarked on a new endeavor … an endeavor far more secretive than anything in the realm of conjuring. He had entered a world of covert operations, espionage, mind control, drugs, and even death. John Mulholland had gone to work for the CIA.
At the time, John Mulholland was one of America’s most highly regarded magicians. An outstanding stage as well as close-up per former, he had become a noted author, lecturer, historian, collector, editor, and world traveler. In many ways, he had helped make magic intellectually respectable.
Mulholland was born in Chicago, Illinois, on June 9, 1898. As a five-year old, he sat enthralled by a performance ofHarry Kellar’s. It would begin a lifelong love of conjuring. His family moved to New York when he was quite young and it was there that he began to learn the techniques of the craft. At age 13 Mulholland began taking magic lessons from John William Sargent at $5 an hour. Known as “The Merry Wizard,” the gray-haired, goatee’d Sargent had been president of the Society ofAmerican Magicians in 1905-6 and would later serve as Harry Houdini’s secretary from 1918 until 1920. He was a true mentor to young Mulholland and instilled in him not only an appreciation of the art of magic but o fits theory, history, and literature.
Mulholland learned his lessons well. He made his debut as a per former when he was 15. While he would be later regarded as one of magics great scholars, his academic achievements were somewhat limited. He took a number of courses at both Columbia University and at New York’s City College, but did not attain a degree. From 1918 to 1924 he taught industrial arts at the Horace Mann School in New York. He sold books for a while, then taught at Columbia University before embarking on a career as a full-time professional magician.
Over the years, Mulholland developed an enormous range of presentations. He was equally at home performing close-up magic, entertaining a society dinner, or working the mammoth stage at Radio City Music Hall. In 1927 Mulholland gave a lecture in Boston about the magicians of the world, illustrating each vignette with a trick from that nation. It added a new genre for him and for the profession: the magician as lecturer.
After the death of Dr. A.M. Wilson in April of 1930, he took over editorship of The Sphinx. For the next 23 years he would oversee magic’s most influential periodical. He was a prolific writer. Aside from the vast number of articles he penned, he authored such books as Magic in the Making (with Milton M. Smith in 1925), Quicker than the Eye (1932), The Magic and Magicians of the World (1932), The Story of Magic (1935), Beware Familiar Spirits (1938), The Art of Illusion, (1944) reprinted as Magic for Entertaining, The Early Magic Shows (1945), John Mulholland’s Book o f Magic (1963), Magic of the World (1965) and The Magical Mind—-Key to Successful Communication (with George Gordon in 1967). He also co-wrote a 1939 magic-detective novel, The Girl in the Cage, with Cortland Fitzsimmons.
Over the years he amassed one of the world’s finest collections of magic books and memorabilia. His library housed some 4,000 volumes related to conjuring.
His knowledge of tricks seemed inexhaustible, as was his familiarity with the performance, theory, psychology, history, and literature of magic. He served as the consultant on conjuring to the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Merriam-Webster dictionary and at one time was the only magician listed in Who’s Who in America.
As America entered the 1950s, the world around John Mulholland was changing. The Cold War was at its height. U.S. foreign policy had gone from trust to terror. In June of 1950, over 100,000 soldiers from Communist North Korea crossed the 38th parallel, invading the republic to the South. The previous year the Soviet Union had detonated its first atomic bomb. The stakes had become enormous. The consequences of military confrontation could well be global thermonuclear war.
American policy-makers decided that other means— covert means—would have to be instituted to stop the expansion of communism. As a secret study commissioned under former President Hoover put it:
“It is now clear we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable longstanding concepts of fair play must be reconsidered. We must develop effective espionage and counterespionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage, and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated, and more effective methods than those used against us. ”
The vehicle for this effort was the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Within the Agency there was a concern—almost a panic—that the Russians had developed a frightening new weapon: a drug or technology for controlling men’s minds. A new term had entered the lexicon: “brainwashing.” At show trials in Eastern Europe, dazed defendants admitted to crimes they hadn’t committed. American prisoners of war, paraded before the press by their North Korean captors “confessed” in zombie-like fashion that the U.S. was using chemical and biological warfare against them. When George Kennan, the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, made some inexplicably undiplomatic remarks at a press conference and was declared persona non grata by the Kremlin, American intelligence officials wondered if he had been hypnotized or drugged.
The CIA leadership feared a “mind control gap.”
In early April of 1953, Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles out lined to a Princeton audience the urgency of the situation. Describing “how sinister the battle for men’s minds has become in Soviet hands,” Dulles revealed that the Russians had developed “brain perversion techniques” which must be countered at any price.
The CIA had already begun crafting this counter. On April 3, 1953 Richard Helms, the Agency’s Acting Deputy Director, had proposed an “ultra-sensitive” program of research and development in clandestine chemical and biological warfare.
The goal, Helms wrote, was “to develop a capability in the covert use of biological and chemical materials. This area includes the production of various physiological conditions which could support present or future clandestine operations. Aside from the offensive potential, the development o fa comprehensive capability in this field of covert chemical and biological warfare gives us a thorough knowledge of the enemies’ theoretical potential, thus enabling us to defend ourselves against a foe who might not be as restrained in the use of these techniques as we are. For example: we intend to investigate the development o f a chemical material which causes a reversible non-toxic aberrant mental state, the specific nature of which can be reasonably well predicted for each individual. This material could potentially aid in dis crediting individuals, elicit ing information, implanting suggestion and other forms of mental control.”
The “offensive potential” was unstated, but the aim was clear: to create what later would be known as a “Manchurian Candidate.” The term would come from the title of Richard Condon’s 1959 best seller about a plot to take an American soldier captured in Korea, condition him at a special brainwashing center in Manchuria, and create a remote-controlled assassin programmed to kill the President of the United States. Condon’s book was fiction; Helm’s plan was not.
In fact, the CIA had already begun exploring the use of chemicals to influence thought and action as well as to incapacitate and even kill. Of particular interest to the Agency was the potential the hallucinogen LSD had in this arena.
Discovered by Dr. Albert Hoffman on April 16, 1943, d-lysergic acid diethylamide—or LSD as it would become known—seemed to be a drug custom-made for the intelligence community. Its intense potency in even miniscule amounts would make it easy to administer covertly. The sense of euphoria and hallucinations that accompanied it might well lead those under interrogation to drop their guard and inhibitions, enabling a free flow of information. Some believed the chemical might even be used to alter the state of a person’s being—to convert an enemy agent, to dishearten idealistic adversaries, to reprogram a person’s memory or thoughts, to get an individual to do something he or she otherwise would never do.
The proposed CIA work on drugs and mind manipulation was to remain one of the Agency’s deepest secrets. “Even internally in the CIA, as few individuals as possible should be aware of our interest in these fields and of the identity of those who are working for us.”
On April 13, 1953 Allen Dulles approved the project. The pro gram was to be known as “Project MKULTRA.” The “ULTRA” hearkened back to the most closely guarded American-British secret of the Second World War: the breaking ofGermany’s military codes. The “M-K” identified the initiative as a CIA Technical Services Staff (TSS) project. This was the division within the Agency responsible for such things as weapons,forgeries, disguises, surveillance equipment, and the kindred tools of the espionage trade. Within the TSS, MKULTRA was assigned to the Chemical Division (TSS/CD), a component with functions few others—even within the Technical Services Staff—knew about.
This unit was headed by Sidney Gottlieb, then a 34-year-old Bronx native with a Ph.D. in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology. A brilliant biochemist, Gottlieb was a remarkable, albeit eccentric, man. A socialist in his youth and a Buddhist as an adult, he was on a constant search for meaning in his life. He found some of it in an unrelenting passion for his clandestine labors. He did not appear to be the least bit troubled by the moral ambiguities of intelligence work. He would do virtually anything if he believed it to be in the American interest. Overcoming a pronounced stutter and a clubfoot to rise through the ranks of the CIA, he would later describe himself as the Agency’s “Dr. Strangelove.” Others were less kind. Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair termed him Americas “official poisoner.”
The very same day that Allen Dulles approved Project MKULTRA, Sidney Gottlieb went to see John Mulholland. Gottlieb knew how to mix the potions. The question was how to deliver them secretly. Mulholland agreed to help.
Gottlieb wanted Mulholland to teach intelligence operatives how to use the tools of the magician’s trade— sleight-of-hand and misdirection—to covertly administer drugs, chemicals, and biological agents to unsuspecting victims.
Why Mulholland decided to do this is a matter of some conjecture. The world was a far different and more dangerous place in the early months of 1953 than it is today. The war raged in Korea. The bloody battles of Pork Chop Hill, Eerie, and Old Baldy were headline news. Some 50,000 American servicemen had already lost their lives in the conflict and more than 7,000 were prisoners of war. Stalin’s death in March raised tremendous concern about stability in the Kremlin. In the United States, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti- Communist crusade was raging. The prevailing mood was one of fear, perhaps even paranoia.
“John did not have a political agenda,” says George Gordon, a close friend with whom Mulholland would later write The Magical Mind. “He said ‘yes’ because his government asked him to.”
Mulholland had an enormous sense of public duty. He took great pride in his contributions, however small. That a special edition of his book The Art of Illusion had been printed in a format so that its 160 pages could fit into the shirtpockets of World War II servicemen gave him great satisfaction. He was very aware of the role other magicians had played in aiding their countries in times of trouble. He had written and lectured about Robert-Houdin’s 1856 mission on behalf of Napoleon III to help quell the marabout-led uprising in Algeria. And he was very familiar with the camouflage work Jasper Maskelyne had done for the British government during the Second World War.
Furthermore, the leaders of America’s intelligence community were the kind of men Mulholland could easily like and admire. General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the founder of the Office of Strategic Services, America’s World War II spy agency, liked to hire Wall Street lawyers and Ivy League academics to commit espionage. He filled the Secret Service with confident, intelligent, often daring young men from leading Eastern colleges. By the time the CIA was established in 1947, these were the people who ran America’s covert operations. Within the inner circles of American government, they were regarded as the best and the brightest. They planned and acted to keep the country out of war by their stealth and cunning—two qualities Mulholland long admired.
They were also America’s elite. Steward Alsop noted they were called “the Ivy Leaguers, the Socialites, the Establishmentarians.” He himself coined an alternative epithet: “the Bold Easterners.”The CIA, he said, was “positively riddled with Old Grotonians.”
The men heading the CLA effort that Mulholland had been asked to join certainly fit this picture. The Princeton-educated Allen Dulles had been associated with the prestigious Wall Street law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell. His grandfather John W. Foster had been Secretary ofState as had been his uncle-by-marriage Robert Lansing. A secret agent in both world wars, Dulles looked like an avuncular professor with his white brush moustache, his tweed suits, and his ever-present pipe. But behind the jovial exterior was a hard and determined leader. His brother John Foster Dulles became Secretary of State on January 31, 1953. Allen took up the CIA post 26 days later.
His deputy, Richard Helms, had a different personality but similar roots. His education had included a year at an exclusive Swiss boarding school and another year in Germany. A Williams graduate, he tried his hand at journalism before joining the OSS. He served with Dulles in Germany and stayed within the intelligence community after the war. This prudent, professional spy—the chief of operations of the clandestine services—could be seen playing tennis at the Chevy Chase Club on Sunday mornings clad in long white flannel trousers. It may not be surprising that John Mulholland, who spent much of his career among New York’s fashionable society, would find such men fascinating. As Jean Hugard wrote to Orville Meyer: “I believe in reality he (Mulholland) has an inferiority complex. He doesn’t mix with us poor mortals.”
If “The Very Best Men”who made up the CIA were to the magician’s liking, the converse was also true. John Mulholland was precisely the kind of person the Agency wanted and needed. Here was a man with a remarkable knowledge of the art of deception—its tools, its techniques, its psychology. And he knew how to keep a secret. Not only had Mulholland made a living from the execution of these skills, he had gained a reputation as conjuring’s most accomplished teacher. By look and demeanor, the magician fit the Agency mold. While his roots were not really Eastern establishment, the tall, slender Mulholland with his prominent nose and thatch of gray hair certainly looked the part. He had entree to a wide circle of business, governmental, social, academic, and entertainment leaders. A world traveler, he was equally at home on the New York City subway system or entertaining the Sultan of Sulu or the King of Romania.
How and when Mulholland first came in contact with the CIA remains unknown. Evidence suggests that it was in 1952, perhaps earlier. By March of 1953, he was certainly consulting for the Agency and being paid for these “professional services.”Inasmuch as he was billing the government on a biweekly basis, it seems apparent that this was ongoing work with at least some of it related to the development of Project MKULTRA.
During their April 13 conversation, Sidney Gottlieb asked Mulholland to put together a proposal for an operations manual applying the magician’s art to clandestine activities. Mulholland summed up his suggestions as to what this covert guide would have to contain in a letter that he sent to Gottlieb the following week.
“I have given the subjects we discussed considerable thought,” Mulholland wrote. “Below is outlined what I believe is necessary adequately to cover instructions for the workers.
“1. Supplying … background facts in order that a complete novice in the subject can appreciate the underlying reasons for the procedures suggested. Part of this background would clarify the erroneous opinions commonly held by those who are familiar with (magician’s techniques). In this section would be given alternative procedures, or modifications, needed by different types of operators (differences in fact or assumed), as well as changes in procedure needed as situations and circumstances vary. The material is necessary in order for the operator to be able to learn how to do those things which are required … “
2. Detailed descriptions of (covert techniques) in all those operations outlined to me. Also variations of techniques according to whether material is in a solid, liquid or gaseous form. Included would be explanations of (the skills) required and how quickly to master such skills. It is understood that no manipulation will be suggested which requires (actions) not normally used, nor any necessitating long practice. To state this positively: all (covert techniques) described would be adaptations of acts usually performed for other purposes. Descriptions also would be given of simple mechanical aids, how to make them, and how to carry them about. Where need ed, application of the data given in section 1 would be supplied. The time consuming part of writing this section will be in developing the adaptations and modifications of the best existing (methods) to fit new requirements.
“3. A variety of examples to show in detail how to make use of the (techniques) previously described. These examples would be given with varying situations and the ways to accommodate procedure to meet variations.
“If desired, I am prepared to start work on this project immediately. I believe I can complete the proposed writing in eighteen to twenty weeks. I understand, if I am given this assignment, that you, or your representative, would be willing to check my work at a conference approximately every two weeks.”
Mulholland estimated that the cost for him to write the manual would be $3,000.
Gottlieb was very enthusiastic about Mulholland’s approach and wanted to move ahead quickly. On May 4, he drafted a Memorandum for the Record spelling out what Mulholland was to do:
“1. The scope of this subproject is the collection, in the form of a concise manual, of as much pertinent information as possible in the fields of (magic as it relates to covert activities). The information collected will be pertinent to the problem of (surreptitiously administering) liquid, solid, or gaseous substances to (unknowing) subjects.
“2. The information will be collected principally from the previous studies made by Mr. Mulholland in connection with various problems he has considered. Mr. Mulholland seems well qualified to execute this study. He has been a successful (performer) of all forms of prestidigitation. He has made a careful and exhaustive study of the history of prestidigitation and is the possessor of an extensive library of old volumes in this field. He has further seriously studied the psychology of deception and has instructed graduate students …
“3. The period of time covered by this request covers six months from the date of commencement of work by Mr. Mulholland and the costs will not exceed $3,000.”
Mulholland’s proposal was approved that same day and $3,000 was set aside to cover its cost. It would become Project MKULTRA, Subproject 4.
MKULTRA—and its component parts—had already become one of the Agency’s most secret operations. Mulholland’s work, along with that of others working on the project, was considered “ultra sensitive.” Consequently, there would be no formal documents that would associate the CIA or Government with the work in question. Instead, the Technical Services Staff was to reach “an understanding with the individuals who will perform the work as to the conditions under which the work will be performed and reimbursement arranged. No standard contract will be signed. ”
On May 5, Gottlieb, in accordance with this procedure, wrote the magician that “The project outlined in your letter of April 20 has been approved by us, and you are hereby authorized to spend up to $3,000 in the next six months in the execution of this work. ”No con tract or formal agreement was enclosed or ever signed per CIA policy. However, the letter did include a check for $150 to cover Mulholland’s latest work for the agency (March 18 —April 13). In terms of when Gottlieb and Mulholland could next meet, the chemist noted “A very crowded schedule of travel makes it necessary for us to delay untilJune 8 our next visit with you. An effective alternative to this would before you to come …on May 13, 14, or 15 to discuss the current status of the work. Is this possible?”
Mulholland wrote Gottlieb back on May 11, 1953. “Thank you for the notification that my project has been approved. I understand the stipulations. I am resuming work today. ”Enclosed was a signed receipt for the check and a notation that Gottlieb’s missive had taken longer than expected to reach him. “Due to the fact that your letter was addressed to (a former address), it was delayed in reaching me. That was an apartment from which I moved … years ago. The fact that the letter did reach me shows the cordial relationship I have with my local Post Office. My present address is above.”13He made no comment on how such an error could occur on such a confidential issue.
Mulholland was keenly aware of the project’s sensitivity. Among the stipulations was a commitment to total secrecy. Even the manuscript itself would have to be written in a manner that protected the Agency should it fall into the wrong hands. There would be no references to “agents” or “operatives.” Instead, covert workers would be called “performers;” covert actions would simply be labeled “tricks.”
Mulholland immediately set about the task of researching and writing the manual. While he continued his performance schedule, he cleared his calendar of other commitments. He stopped giving magic lessons, put off work on other writing assignments, and suspended publication of The Sphinx.
Ending The Sphinx was a major step for Mulholland and for the magic community. Begun in Chicago in March of 1902 and subsequently housed in Kansas City and finally New York, this staid yet controversial periodical had become the most influential of magic journals. Mulholland had taken over the publication with Volume 29 Number 3 in May of 1930.14It was a source of great joy for him. It was also a tremendous burden.
“For 23 years, I have edited The Sphinx as a labor of love and without financial reward. Each of these years I have spent a great amount of time, and considerable money, to produce a magazine of service to the professional magician and to the serious student of magic. The magazine has been a professional publication and never has catered to those who look on magic as a sort of game. I realized I could not go on forever and for the past several years I have been searching for some individual, or group, qualified to take over the editing and publication of The Sphinx and maintain its standards. I found no such person, or persons, and until such is, or are, found the publication of the magazine will be suspended. I wish to express my appreciation to the many loyal readers, and above all to the contributors who made my editorship such a rewarding endeavor. It has been a source of deep personal gratification to know how well The Sphinx has been received during the years.”
The final issue, the 597th, was Volume 52, Number 1, dated March 1953. For the next several months, he worked continuously on the MKULTRA project.
He soon found, however, that if it were to meet expectations, his manual would have to be far more than a hypothetical extension of existing magic tricks, principles, and methods to covert activities. He was going to have to create real world solutions to real world problems. He and Gottlieb discussed the challenge.
On August 3, Gottlieb set up a new subproject (Subproject 15) in order “to expand the original provisions of subproject 4 to include an allowance for travel for Mr. Mulholland and for operational supplies used in the course of this project. ” Mulholland and the Agency, Gottlieb wrote, needed to meet more frequently in order to consult on the details of the manual and the travel allowance would facilitate Mulholland’s coming to Washington for some of these discus sions. Furthermore, he noted, “Certain portions of subproject 4 require experimental verification by Mr. Mulholland. The item for operational supplies is intended to provide for the purchase of supplies used to test or verify ideas. The cost estimate for subproject 15 is $ 700.00 for a period of six months. ”
Even with these additional resources, Mulholland found the project a greater challenge than he expected. Getting it right was imperative. The consequences of a magic trick going wrong might be embarrassment or a decline in bookings; a covert operation going bad could cost an agent his or her life. He met with Gottlieb in late summer to discuss the matter. Gottlieb agreed to consider extending the time to meet this need. On September 18, Gottlieb filed an amendment to the MKULTRA Project Records that noted “The time period for the original proposal by Mr. Mulholland was six months, which would expire about 11 October 1953. The unusual nature of this manual demands that it be a creative project… rather than a mere compilation of already existing knowledge. For this reason the time estimates are difficult to make in advance and it is apparent at this time that the estimate was too short for the adequate preparation of this manual. It is in the best interests of the Agency to extend this time limit and obtain the best possible manual rather than hold Mr. Mulholland to the six-month period. It is requested that the original six month time period be extended an additional six months. There is no change in the original cost estimate or the original agenda,”
That same day, Gottlieb wrote to Mulholland: “This is at least a partial answer to the questions you asked the last time I saw you. According to my records, your initial estimate was six months, which would expire about October 11, I am initiating a six-month extension of the original estimate, which should more than take care of the time factor. The original cost was $3,000.00, of which $1,500.00 is remaining as of now.
Mulholland devoted his energies to the project and by November 1953 his first draft was complete. But neither the magician nor the Agency were completely satisfied with the product. As Mulholland wrote Gottlieb on November 11: “The manual as it now stands consists of the following five sections: “1. Underlying bases for the successful performance of tricks and the background of the psychological principles by which they operate. 2. Tricks with pills. 3. Tricks with loose solids. 4. Tricks with liquids. 5. Tricks by which small objects may be obtained secretly. This section was not considered in my original outline and was suggested subsequently to me. I was, however, able to add it without necessitating extension of the number of weeks requested for the writing. Another completed task not noted in the outline was making mod els of such equipment as has been described in the manual.
“As sections 2, 3, 4, and 5 were written solely for use by men working alone the manual needs two further sections. One section would give modified, or different, tricks and techniques of performance so that the tricks could be performed by women. The other section would describe tricks suitable for two or more people work ing in collaboration. In both these proposed sections the tricks would differ considerably from those which have been described.
“I believe that properly to devise the required techniques and devices and to describe them in writing would require 12 working weeks to complete the two sections. However, I cannot now work on this project every week and would hesitate to promise completion prior to the first of May, 1954.” Mulholland estimated that it would cost $1,800 to finish the project.
Gottlieb, whose goal was an operational guide that would be of use to agents in the real world, shared Mulholland’s view that broadening its scope to include collaborative efforts by teams of operatives or by female agents was well worth the delay. On November 17, he authorized Mulholland to draft the two additional chapters and extended the timeline for completion of the book until May. This new work became MKULTRA Subproject 19.22 Impressed with Mulholland’s range of knowledge and analysis, the CIA was beginning to extend its relationship with the magician beyond just the preparation of the covert operations manual. By now, the Agency was utilizing more and more of his expert advice. His ongoing meetings with the TSS staff accelerated. In a December 9, 1953 letter, Gottlieb expanded MKULTRA’s Subproject 19 to increase the travel and operational supplies available to Mulholland and to provide for even more consultation between the conjuror and CD/TSS. At the same time, he was asked to take on yet another assignment: to work with the Agency “in connection with an investigation of claims in the general field of parapsychology … ”
The CIA was fascinated by the idea of mind reading and thought transmittal. If possible, such extrasensory abilities would be among the most potent weapons in their arsenal. It would revolutionize both the obtaining and the delivery of secret information. At one point, the Agency had been approached by a man claiming to be a “genuine mystic” who had developed a system for sending and receiving telepathic messages anywhere in the world. Mulholland’s task was to evaluate this and other claims of telepathy and clairvoyance.
Mulholland, a hard-nosed skeptic, was right at home investigating the paranormal. He had been lecturing on the topic since 1930 when he began exposing the means and methods of fortune tellers. He soon broadened this to debunk and denounce other forms of occultism. By 1938, he had written a book on the subject, Beware Familiar Spirits, which traced the history of modern spiritualism and described its techniques. He had no interest in letting the assertions of “mystics,” clairvoyants, and mind readers go unchallenged.
With increasing frequency, someone inside the Agency would want an explanation for something they had seen or heard and Mulholland was asked to explain it. In virtually every case it would turn out to have been accomplished through the stagecraft of magic. This would not stop the CIA—or other branches of the United States Government—from spending enormous resources over the next three decades to explore the possibilities of parapsychology and remote viewing.
With this additional work at hand, it was soon evident that Mulholland would not be able to have the manual finished as anticipated. “An extension of time is needed to give Mr. Mulholland more time to complete this task, ” Gottlieb wrote. “The original estimated completion date was May 1, 1954. It is noted that the completion date estimate is now extended to November 1, 1954.”
In the spring of 1954, Mulholland found himself facing an unforeseen problem. Much of his income for the previous year had come from the CIA for work that he knew was to be kept absolutely secret … even from other branches of the United States Government. But now it was time for him to prepare his taxes. Mulholland requested instructions from the Agency on how he was to report this income to the Internal Revenue Service and what he should do if he were audited or questioned by the IRS.
An internal CIA memo spelled out the problem: “Mr. Mulholland is a self-employed magician whose normal income is derived from payment by various individuals and organizations for individual performances. Although not applying to calendar year 1953, other characteristic sources of income are from publishers of books, etc., and from individuals to whom he has given instructions in magic. When preparing his Federal Income Tax form, income is customarily listed by individual performances, etc., with the person or organization paying for the performance, the location of the performance, the amount received, and the deductions itemized for each performance or each source of funds, rather than for a standard deduction to be taken. As may or may not be characteristic with professional performers, these deductions are often questioned by the Internal Revenue people, and Mr. Mulholland is frequently called on to justify some of his deductions For this reason, a detailed record book is kept of his income, with a separate page for each performance or source of income.”
While acknowledgement of the magician receiving payments from the Agency was not felt to be a breach of security in itself, the CIA believed that it was absolutely imperative that the nature of Mulholland’s work be kept from IRS scrutiny. “After several conferences with theAssistant General Counsel of theAgency, and the Security Officer for TSS, the following was recommended: Mr. Mulholland should report all funds received from CD/TSS except for funds for travel expenses, but no attempt should be made to itemize deductions based on these funds. Income tax should be paid on the entire amount report ed. Mr. Mulholland should determine a conservative value for the amount of tax paid in excess of what would have been paid if reasonable deductions were made. The reason for this was the feeling that any questions by the Internal Revenue people concerning funds paid by CD/TSS would be prompted by questions on deductions made. It was recommended that the excess tax paid by Mr. Mulholland be refunded by the CD/TSS.”15This recommendation was immediately accepted “to protect the security of the Agency.”
Mulholland followed the Agency’s instructions and was reimbursed by the CIA for the excess taxes that resulted from this approach. Subproject 15 was expanded to include this financial arrangement and similar agreements were instituted for subsequent years in which he received remuneration from the Agency.
Mulholland continued work on the operational guide throughout the spring and summer. The text was completed by early fall. But the magician had one more task to do—to help prepare drawings, diagrams, and photographs to illustrate the books proposed techniques. By the winter of 1954, the manuscript was finally complete. It was titled Some Operational Applications of the Art of Deception.
“The purpose of this paper,” Mulholland wrote in the introduction, “is to instruct the reader so he may learn to perform a variety of acts secretly and indetectably. In short, here are instructions in deception.”
The following eight chapters— illustrated with diagrams hand-drawn by Mulholland—ran over 100 pages and outlined how to apply the magician’s art to the needs of espionage and covert activity. It covered how to administer pills, liquids, gasses, and loose solids surreptitiously. It discussed means of obtaining small objects secretly. It proposed strategies and tactics to fit the needs of female agents. And it put forth techniques that could be used by teams of men work ing in tandem. All this was set forth in language that adhered to the original stipulations put to Mulholland in April of 1953. The language of the manual had to sound like a simple magic text without any words or examples that would connect it to its true clandestine use.
But this was not some primer for amateur magicians to learn a few tricks. No matter how gentle the language, this was to be a guide for agents in the field to perform dangerous, provocative, and even lethal acts. The solids, gases, and liquids were not harmless substances. What Mulholland was teaching CIA operatives to do was surreptitiously administer mind-altering chemicals, biological agents, dangerous drugs, and lethal poisons in order to disorient, discredit, injure, and even kill people. Today—five decades after it was written—the tricks and approaches set forth in this manual are still classified “top secret.” Mulholland’s name appears nowhere on the document, but—consciously or not—he did leave a subtle trace: the illustrations he sketched detailing facial expressions look very much like self-portraits. This notwithstanding, Some Operational Applications of the Art of Deception remains John Mulholland’s most secret book of secrets.
While the operational manual was now complete, John Mulholland’s work for the CIA was far from over. He had become part of the MKULTRA team and the Agency was already employing his knowledge and skills in a wide range of ways.
In October of 1954, Mulholland’s agreement with the CIA was extended to include his assistance in the “design o f devices for the covert delivery of materials” as well as provide for “such other travel and services as may be desired from Mr. Mulholland at various times.”
In the summer of 1955, the Agency asked the magician to undertake another assignment. The success of intelligence operations almost always rests on the ability to transmit information clandestinely. Theirs, after all, is a world of secrets. Mulholland’s manual had spelled out how to administer materials—notably pills, liquids, and loose solids—to unsuspecting victims through the tricks of the magician’s trade. He was also helping the Technical Services Staff design devices to carry this out. Now he was to show the intelligence community how to use the methods of magic to exchange information covertly with one another. Furthermore, he was to use his knowledge and creativity to fashion new methods that were unknown even to the conjuring community.
On August 25, 1955, Gottlieb outlined this new project “on the application of the magician’s art to the covert communication o f information” in a confidential CIA memo. According to Gottlieb, “this would involve the application o f techniques and principles employed by magicians, ‘mind readers,’etc., to communicate information, and the development of new techniques. It is contemplated the above would provide a contribution to the general efforts in the area of non-electrical means o f communication. Mr. Mulholland has agreed to undertake this task. ”Mulholland’s compensation for this was raised from $150.00 per week to $200.00 per week.
The Agency continued to enlarge the scope of John Mulholland’s work. On June 20, 1956, the magician’s arrangement was again expanded. “Objective: to make Mr. Mulholland available as a consultant on various problems, TSS and otherwise, as they evolve. These problems concern the application of the magician’s technique to clandestine operations, such techniques to include surreptitious delivery of materials, deceptive movements and actions to cover normal ly prohibited activities, influencing choices and perceptions o f other persons, various form s of disguise; covert signaling systems, etc.”
That August the Agency extended its financial arrangement with the magician for another year. And in November of 1957 Mulholland’s projects were authorized for yet another 12 months. CIA financial records show that he continued to submit vouchers and be paid through February 5, 1958.
It is not clear whether John Mulholland continued to consult for the CIA after that. By then, his health had deteriorated considerably. He still smoked constantly. His arthritis had become very severe, but ulcers and other stomach problems prevented him from taking even aspirin to relieve it. He severely limited many—if not most—of his projects and activities.
While Mulholland’s work for the CIA may have ended, the Agency continued its interest in the connection between the techniques of conjuring and espionage. Indeed, in the spring of 1959, the Agency extended another MKULTRA subproject (Subproject 83) to revise and adapt some of material that Mulholland had developed on “deception techniques (magic, sleight of hand, signals) and on psychic phenomena.”
Project MKULTRA was eventually brought to a close in 1964. MKULTRA was not merely some academic research experiment. Nor was Sidney Gottlieb, the man who oversaw Mulholland’s work, just an American version of “Q,” the scientific wizard who supplied James Bond with his dazzling gizmos and gadgets. Certainly Gottlieb’s Technical Services Staff came up with more than their share of wristwatch radios and disappearing inks. At his core, Gottlieb was a dedicated and determined “operations” leader. His chemical division laboratory stored a vast array of poisonous pills and potions. And Gottlieb knew how—and was willing— to use them.
While a clubfoot kept him from military service in World War II, it didn’t stop him from engaging in some of the CIA’s most covert and deadly missions. He traveled to Leopoldville (Kinshasa) with an Agency-developed bio-toxin in his diplomatic bag. Designed to mimic a disease endemic to the Congo, the virus was cultured specifically for its lethal effect. Its intended victim: Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. Once in the Congo, the scientist carefully instructed CIA operatives in how to apply the toxin to Lumumba’s toothbrush and food. Gottlieb mailed a monogrammed handkerchief—doctored with brucellosis—to Iraqi colonel Abd a-Karim Qasim and he developed poisoned cigarettes intended for Jamal abd an-Nasir of Egypt. Fidel Castro was an ongoing focus of Gottlieb’s chemists—from the LSD the Agency hoped to spray in the Cuban leader’s radio booth to the botulinum pill-laden pencil they crafted to assassinate him.
Foreign leaders were not the only objects of Gottlieb’s interest. Gottlieb was constantly experimenting to see the real world impact of his drugs. Such experimentation was at the heart of the MKUL TRA project. The Agency conducted 149 separate projects involving drug testing, behavior modification, and secret administration of mind-altering chemicals at 80 U.S. and Canadian universities, hospitals, research foundations, and prisons. Over the years, hundreds of individuals were guinea pigs in this research. Some were government employees, military personnel, and students who had varying degrees of knowledge about the tests. But many were unwitting subjects, particularly drug addicts, prostitutes, mental patients, and prisoners—people who were unlikely to complain and even less likely to be believed if they did. One group of men was kept on LSD for 77 days. A mental patient in Kentucky was dosed with LSD for 174 days. The CIA even set up its own broth el to monitor the effects of the hallucinogen on prostitutes and their unsuspecting clients.
Gottlieb’s MKULTRA projects weren’t limited to mind-altering chemicals. He explored a host of biological agents, toxins, and other drugs as well as such areas as crop and material sabotage, harassment techniques for offensive use, gas propelled spays and aerosols, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, and electroshock.”
But the darkest episode may well have been one in which John Mulholland found himself personally involved during the very first year of his MKULTRA work: the death of Dr. Frank Olson.
Recruited by the U.S. Army from graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in 1943, Frank Olson was one of the pioneering scientists in America’s biological warfare program. He served his active duty in the Army Chemical Corps at Camp Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, and later traded his Army job for a civilian position within the same branch. He was soon working in a new and highly secretive sub group: the Special Operations Division (SOD). The SOD had three primary functions: assessing the vulnerability of American installations to biological attack; developing techniques for offensive use of biological weapons; and biological research for the CIA. This CIA research included an MKULTRA subproject (code name MKNAO- MI) in which SOD was to produce and maintain vicious mutant germ strains capable of killing or incapacitating would-be victims. An expert in biochemistry and aerobiology, Olson’s specialty was delivering such deadly diseases in sprays and aerosol emulsions.
Twice each year, the MKNAOMI team from SOD held a working retreat where the Army scientists could plan and discuss future projects with their CIA counterparts. On Wednesday, November 18, 1953, Olson and five of his SOD colleagues traveled to a remote stone cabin located at Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland for such a meeting.
Sidney Gottlieb was always looking for ways to test the effects of his chemicals. This session presented just such an opportunity. His goal, he would later say, was to “ascertain the effect clandestine application (ofLSD) would have on a meeting or conference.”After dinner on the second night of the retreat, he had his assistant, Dr. Robert Lashbrook, place a “very small dose” of LSD in a bottle of Cointreau. All but two of the SOD team were served the LSD-laced liqueur. As part of this “experiment,” Olson unwittingly received some 70 micrograms of the hallucinogen.
Until then, Gottlieb saw nothing unusual in Olson’s behavior. However the introduction of the drug had a definite effect on the entire group. Increasingly boisterous, they soon could not engage in sensible conversation. The meeting continued until about 1 a.m., when the participants retired for the evening. Gottlieb later recalled that Olson, among others, complained of “wakefulness” during the night. But aside from some evidence of fatigue, Gottlieb observed nothing unusual in Olson’s actions, conversation, or general behavior the next morning.
By the time Olson returned home Friday evening, things had changed radically. The 43-year old biochemist was, as his wife Alice would later recount, “a totally different person”—severely depressed, anxious, highly agitated. Lapsing into silence, Olson wouldn’t tell his wife anything that had occurred. All he would say was “I ’m going to have to resign, I’ve made a terrible mistake. ”
The following Monday, November 23, Olson was already waiting for his boss, Lt. Col. Vincent Ruwet, when he arrived at work at 7:30 a.m. Olson told him that he wanted to quit or be fired. Ruwet reassured him that everything would be all right. Olson phoned his wife “I talked to Vin, he said I didn’t make a mistake,everything is fine and I’m not going to resign.”But Tuesday morning saw a return of his anxiety and depression. Olson again went to Ruwet and, after an hour-long conversation, the two decided that Olson would benefit from medical assistance.
Col. Ruwet—keenly aware of the sensitivity of Olson’s circumstances—immediately turned to the CIA for help. He telephoned Robert Lashbrook and advised him that “Dr. Olson was in serious trouble and needed immediate professional attention. “Agreeing to make the appropriate arrangements, Lashbrook then phoned Gottlieb.
Ruwet was instructed to bring Olson to Washington, D.C. to meet with Lashbrook. A few hours later all three men were on their way to New York to see the physician that Gottlieb and Lashbrook had agreed upon: Dr. Harold Abramson.
Abramson was an unlikely doctor from whom to seek psychiatric assistance. An allergist and immunologist practicing medicine in New York City, he had no formal training—let alone a degree— in psychiatry nor did he hold himself out to be an expert in the field. He was, however, closely associated with research projects supported indirectly by the CIA and had substantial experience with LSD. Fully vetted by the Agency, he had a “top secret” security clearance. And while the CIA’s Security and Medical offices maintained a long list of other doctors, including psychiatrists, with such “top secret” approval, Abramson’s work and interest placed him well inside the Technical Services Staff’s “family.” Gottlieb was determined that his secret activities remained secret—even within the wider reaches of the CIA.
Abramson saw Olson twice that day—first at his East 58th Street office and then later that night at Olson’s hotel. On the latter visit, the doctor gave the biochemist two bottles: one of bourbon and one of the sedative Nembutal—an unorthodox prescription for someone in Olson’s condition.
Frank Olson was slated to see Abramson again the following day. Before doing so, the three men made another stop. “We accompanied Dr. Lashbrook, at Dr. Lashbrook’s suggestion, on an official visit he had to make,” Ruwet would later disclose in a confidential CIA affidavit. That visit was to John Mulholland.
The three men arrived at Mulholland’s office around 3 p.m. on November 25. Things did not go well. “During this visit, Dr. Olson became highly suspicious and mixed up. When this became apparent we tactfully cut the visit short.”
Lashbrook then took Olson for another session with Abramson. The next morning, Thursday, November 26, Lashbrook, Olson and Ruwet returned to Washington so that Olson could spend Thanksgiving with his family. An SOD driver met Olson and Ruwet at National Airport. But as they were driving up Wisconsin Avenue, Olson had the car pull into a hotel parking lot. Olson told Ruwet that he was too ashamed to face his family and afraid that he might become violent with his children. After a lengthy discussion, it was decided that Olson and Lashbrook would return to New York, and that Ruwet would go to Olson’s home in Frederick, Maryland, to explain the situation to Olson’s wife.
Lashbrook and Olson flew back to New York that same day for further consultations with Abramson. They spent Thursday night at a Long Island hotel not far from Abramson’s Long Island clinic. The next morning the two men returned to Manhattan with Abramson. By now the biochemist was acting more and more “psychotic” with what Abramson would later say were “delusions o f persecution. ” Olson thought the CIA was out to get him. After further discussions with Abramson, it was agreed that Olson should be placed under regular psychiatric care at Chestnut Lodge, an institution closer to his home and which had CIA-cleared psychiatrists on its Rockville, Maryland, staff.
Arrangements were made for Frank Olson’s immediate admission to the hospital. In what was undoubtedly a remarkable coincidence, the doctor who served as the admitting physician was Dr. Robert W. Gibson—the 25-year old son ofWalter Gibson. Walter Gibson was one of magic’s most prolific writers and editors, though the general public would know him best as the author of “The Shadow.” He was also a close friend and colleague to John Mulholland.
Unable to obtain air transportation for a return trip to Washington on Friday night, Lashbrook and Olson made plane reservations for Saturday morning and checked into room 1018A in the Statler Hotel in New York City. Between the time they checked in and 10:00 p.m. they watched television, visited the cocktail lounge, and then had dinner. According to Lashbrook, Olson “was cheerful and appeared to enjoy the entertainment. ”He “appeared no longer particularly depressed, and almost the Dr. Olson I knew prior to the experiment. ”
After dinner Lashbrook and Olson watched television for about another hour, and at 11:00 p.m. Olson suggested that they go to bed, saying that “he felt more relaxed and contented than he had since [they] came to New York.”Olson then left a call with the hotel operator to wake them in the morning.
At approximately 2:30 a.m. Saturday, November 28, Frank Olson crashed through the closed window blinds and the closed window of his hotel room and fell to his death on the Seventh Avenue sidewalk 10 floors below.
Lashbrook would later claim that he was awakened by the crash of glass as Olson hurtled through the closed window. But his first reaction was not to run downstairs or call the police or the hotel operator. Instead, he telephoned Gottlieb at his home and informed him that Olson was now dead. It was only then that Lashbrook dialed the front desk and reported the incident to the operator.
By that time a cover-up had already begun. The question is a cover-up of what?
Within minutes, uniformed New York City police officers and hotel employees came to Lashbrook’s room. The CIA staffer was still in his underwear, on the telephone in the bathroom. He told the police that he worked for the Defense Department and he didn’t know why Olson had jumped from the window, but he did know that Olson “suffered from ulcers” and might have been suffering from job-related stress. The police suspected foul play.
Two officers of the 14th Detective Squad then interviewed Lashbrook at the local police station. Getting information out of him, they noted, “was like pulling teeth. ’’They asked to see what was in his pockets and billfold. Among the contents of his wallet was a scrap of paper with the initials “JM ” on it, an address, and a telephone number. When asked by the officers who this “JM ” was, “Lashbrook indicated he preferred not to identify him because of security reasons and the matter was pressed no further by the detectives.”
The police had little reason to see any connection between the paper and the incident. Their suspicions were in another direction. At one point, the two officers speculated to each other that the case might be a simple homicide with homosexual overtones and noted this in their written report.
In the meantime, Sidney Gottlieb had already reported up the chain of command. CIA Director Allen Dulles immediately dis patched agents of the Security Branch—what some have termed the “CIA’s fixit men”—to contain the situation. The Security Branch agents quickly closed the NYPD investigation. They took every necessary step to prevent Frank Olson’s death from being connected with the CIA in any way. They supplied complete cover for Lashbrook so that his association with the Agency would remain a total secret.
With the external front under control, the Agency then turned to its own internal investigation. Lashbrook was again interviewed, but this time by an experienced agent from the CIA. Now when asked who “JM ” was, Lashbrook identified him “as John Mulholland.” Interestingly he referred to him not as “John Mulholland, the magician” or “John Mulholland, a writer and lecturer.” He identified him solely as “John Mulholland, an Agency employee.” Moreover, among the papers in Lashbrook’s room was “a receipt on plain white paper for $115.00 dated November 25 1953 and signed by John Mulholland. The receipt indicated Advance for Travel to Chicago’.”
However forthcoming Lashbrook was, the Technical Services Staff still tried to keep the details of its operations from the scrutiny of others even within the Agency itself. It downplayed the connection between TSS and Olson’s death and minimized any link to LSD. Internal memoranda written after the biochemist’s passing questioned his emotional stability—a direct contradiction to statements evaluating his mental state prior to the Deep Creek incident. In the end, however, the full details of MKULTRA and the experiment involving Olson reached others within the CIA.
The CIA officially took the position that Olson’s death was indeed a suicide, triggered by the LSD given to him by Gottlieb and Lashbrook. But of course it hid even that from the public, including the Olsons. The family had only been told that the stress of his job had led to a nervous breakdown and that Frank Olson had killed himself. What little else they knew came from a small article in their local paper: “Army Bacteriologist Dies in Plunge from NY Hotel.” In order to assure his family of Civil Service benefits, the CIA had his death officially recorded as a “classified illness.”
And so it remained for 22 years. Then in June 1975 a special commission chaired by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller released the findings of its investigation into illegal CIA domestic operations. The Washington Post’s coverage of the Rockefeller Report noted that in the early 1950s an unnamed civilian employee of the Department of the Army had leaped to his death from a New York hotel window after the CIA had given him LSD without his knowledge. On read ing the article, Alice Olson instantly realized the man described in the morning paper was her husband.
Vincent Ruwet confirmed her suspicion that the individual was indeed Frank Olson, but because of the still top-secret status of the project was unable to divulge any further details. On July 11, 1975, the Olson family held a press conference expressing their outrage and anguish, called for a full accounting of the incident, and filed a wrongful death suit against the United States Government. The story made national headlines.
Official Washington moved quickly to end the furor. President Ford invited Alice Olson and her son, Eric, to the White House where he personally apologized on behalf of the government. Congress enacted legislation providing $750,000 in compensation to the Olson family. And CIA Director William Colby met the Olsons for lunch, where he gave them what he said was the complete CIA file on the Olson case.
While the CIA was now “admitting” that Frank Olson’s death was a suicide brought on by the after-effects of CIA-administered LSD, Eric Olson was never fully convinced. This was, he felt, a classic example of sophisticated misdirection, using a skill from the magician’s toolkit to protect a clandestine operation. “I believe the key to all this,”he would later write, “lies in the connection between the heart of covert operations, which consists in creating adequate cover stories, and the heart of the magician’s art, which consists in being able to direct attention precisely to the place where the thing is not happen ing … All curiosity was riveted on the startling disclosure that the CIA had unwittingly drugged a top scientist, but left no curiosity available for the question of, ‘Oh yes,what about his death; you haven’t told us how he could have gotten out the window,”
After his mother died in 1993, Eric and the family decided to move Frank Olson’s remains from another cemetery so that he could be reburied beside his wife. At the same time, the son got a court order to have an autopsy performed.
Frank Olson had been buried in a sealed casket. This was supposedly to spare his family from seeing how badly mutilated his face and body were from crashing through a plate glass window and falling 10 stories to the concrete below. But when the casket was opened, Olson had none of the cuts or abrasions on his face as had been expected. Instead, the forensic pathologist, Dr. James Starrs, a Professor of Law and Forensic Science at the National Law Center at The George Washington University, found a deep bruise on Olson’s forehead. The bruise was severe enough to have rendered Olson unconscious, Starrs thought, but probably did not result from the fall. His conclusion was that the evidence was starkly “suggestive of homicide.”
That was Eric Olson’s conclusion as well. He simply couldn’t imagine how his father could have run across the small, dark hotel room, gained enough velocity to vault over a radiator and crash with enough force to go through the closed blinds and the heavy glass pane of a closed hotel window … all with a CIA agent asleep in the next bed whose entire responsibility was to keep track of his father.
Despite this new evidence, federal prosecutors refused to pursue the inquiry. The terms of the $750,000 Congressional financial settlement precluded a civil suit. But Eric Olson was able to persuade New York public prosecutor Stephen Saracco to look into the case. Saracco decided there was indeed enough evidence to convene a grand jury for an investigation into the death. That investigation is continuing.
If Olson was murdered, the question is why? Did the Technical Services Staff find itself with a man who knew so much and yet was so ill that he was a threat the MKULTRA’s secrecy? Was the Olson case an experiment in mind and behavior control that went so terribly wrong it had to be terminated? Had Frank Olson said or done something that was—as he himself feared—a breach of security? Had he seen something so repugnant in the MKULTRA work that he couldn’t be part of it? Did the biochemist intend to resign from an agency that could then neither let him continue nor permit him to quit? These remain questions for the grand jury to ponder.
Another unanswered question is raised by the small scrap of paper that Robert Lashbrook had in his wallet the night Frank Olson died. That was the paper with the initials “JM” on it along with John Mulholland’s address and telephone number. Why was Olson in John Mulholland’s office on November 25? And what made him so upset that the meeting had to be abandoned?
That Lashbrook would be meeting with Mulholland should not be surprising. Part of the original agreement between Mulholland and the CIA was that Gottlieb—or his representative—would review the work the magician was doing for the Agency at a biweekly conference. As the project progressed, it was clear that “frequent consultations between Mr. Mulholland and CD/TSS” were indeed essential. In order to facilitate these conferences, Mulholland was provided an additional travel allowance. Even so, meetings were not always easy to schedule and Lashbrook’s being in New York on other business would certainly have made getting together simpler.
Moreover, Mulholland’s work on the manual was at a critical point. The first draft of his manuscript encompassing the original outline of the guide had just been completed. The magician was now turning his attention to the two new sections to be added: one on covert activities by women and the other on applications suitable for teams of two or more people working in collaboration with each other. In fact, it had only been a week since Gottlieb authorized Mulholland to proceed on these two additional chapters. Conferring with Lashbrook on the scope and substance of this material would be only natural.
At the same time, the Agency had begun to rely increasingly on Mulholland for his advice and expertise. Lashbrook carried with him a check for $115—a travel advance for an upcoming trip that Mulholland was making to Chicago on behalf of the CIA. Why Mulholland was going to Chicago for the Agency remains uncertain, although there is some evidence that he was going to take part in secretly assessing the claims of Andrija Puharich—claims that related to electronic systems and telepathy. His subsequent hand written travel voucher for the December 3 journey only lists meet ing with a “contact.” Perhaps the Lashbrook visit was scheduled for the two men to discuss this activity. In any event, Lashbrook did deliver the check during the November 25 session and received a handwritten receipt in return.
With only an hour between the time Lashbrook was slated to meet with Mulholland and Frank Olson’s next appointment with Dr. Abramson, it might have been simply out of convenience that Lashbrook suggested that Olson and Col. Ruwet accompany him on this visit. Mulholland was always a gracious host and an engaging conversationalist. It may well be, as John Marks suggests, that “Lashbrook thought that the magician might amuse Olson.” In fact, just the opposite occurred. Olson got so suspicious and upset that the meeting was quickly ended.
There are others who suggest that the motive behind the Mulholland visit was far less benign. “One of the things Mulholland maybe have been helping them do was to create a cover story for what… they were doing in New York in the first place, ” notes Eric Olson. Beyond that, he says, “it fits with what they were trying to do in New York: to assess, from any direction possible, how deep … they were in with my father, and to try, again by any means possible, to fix it and save their own butts.” Frank Olson’s son is not the only one to suggest that Mulholland’s conjuring-related knowledge and skills were being put to use to interrogate and influence the biochemist. This is clearly the implication of the film documentary Mind Control Murder produced by Principal Films and presented as part ofArts & Entertainment Network’s Investigative Reports series in September of 1999.
The documentary puts forward its “strong evidence” that Olson was eliminated by the CIA because he wanted to leave the government after witnessing the real world use of MKULTRA inter rogation techniques, including drugs and hypnosis … techniques that led to the death of subjects. The activities at Deep Creek, it suggests, were designed to find out what Olson knew, what he had done, and what he was likely to do. It cites independent writer and investigator Hank Albarelli: “I think there was an experiment of some sort at Deep Creek Lodge. I think that it might have involved hypnosis and that hypnosis experiment may have been continued in New York in John Mulholland’s office and possibly in Dr. Harold Abramsons office.”
“If Albarelli is right, ” the film’s narrator Bill Kurtis concludes, “the … method of special interrogation was both the secret Olson was worried about and the technique that two o fits leading practitioners— John Mulholland and Harold Abramson—then used on him.”
The problem with this theory is that there is no evidence that Mulholland was skilled as a hypnotist. To the contrary, he appears to have been extremely skeptical of its practicality, dismissing many exhibitions of hypnosis as merely “magic shows.” Moreover, the Agency had access to a wide range of individuals with true expertise in the area. There were at least eight separate MKULTRA subprojects devoted to hypnosis, including two involving hypnosis and drugs in combination. Five major CIA-sponsored hypnosis experiments had already been undertaken by that November. Indeed, Gottlieb had observed some of this work firsthand and was well acquainted with the hypnotists involved.
“Even if Mulholland were not a skilled hypnotist they still might have gone to see him, even if hypnosis were the purpose, ”counters Eric Olson. “He might have been the best they had available at the moment, and, also, the only guy with an adequate security clearance to handle what they wanted. But they might have found other ways of using Mulholland’s skills, in addition to or beyond hypnosis. I think the over all purpose is clear: they were exploring whether and to what extent they might distract my father (certainly the essence of the magicians art) for the purpose of taking his eye off the ball, making him forget, creating amnesia. In trying to distract my father … they were taking a risk: the same techniques that ultimately might quiet him could also, if he detected what was going on, increase his anxiety and fear.” Whatever happened in Mulholland’s office that November afternoon, did not curtail his work with the Central Intelligence Agency. He continued his relationship with the CIA for at least another five years. His ability to keep this part of his life secret for so long may well have been his greatest magic trick.
That any evidence ofJohn Mulholland’s involvement with the CIA still exists is remarkable in itself—although it would take decades for it to come to light. The CIA’s practice was to maintain no records relating to the planning and approval of MKULTRA programs. Few other files ever existed. Then, in January 1973, acting on Sidney Gottlieb’s verbal directions, the Agency’s Technical Services personnel sought out and destroyed every single MKULTRA record they could find. Gottlieb later testified—and Richard Helms con firmed—that in ordering the destruction of the papers, Gottlieb was carrying out then-CIA Director Helms’ verbal orders.
At some point, John Mulholland’s personal files were also apparently vetted to remove any connection between him and the Agency. While Mulholland was meticulous in his personal record keeping, not a single reference to his clandestine work remains in his personal archives. Noted writer and intelligence expert Jim Hougan combed through the magician’s files which are now housed in David Copperfield’s secret warehouse in Nevada. “I went through each and every document page by page. Not a single line related or referred to the Agency. They were spic-and-span. It was apparent that John Mulholland’s files had been gone through and sanitized by someone who knew the Agency and knew how to eradicate any hint of its presence!”
Despite these efforts and unknown to Gottlieb and his staff, some MKULTRA documents still remained. These files—presumably routine records from the TSS’s Budget and Fiscal Section—had been sent to the CIA’s Retired Records Center outside of Washington in 1970. They should not have contained any MKUL TRA material. The financial papers associated with sensitive projects such as this were normally kept by the branch itself under the project title, not in the files of the branch’s Budget and Fiscal Section. Why these records were stored in this manner is not known, but it accounts for why the material escaped retrieval and destruction in 1973. It also explains why the Agency was unable to find these MKUL TRA documents in response to a subsequent U.S. Senate Select Committee investigation of CIA abuses in 1975. The Agency examined both the active and the retired files of all the branches of the CIA considered likely to have had an association with the project, but never looked into the Budget and Fiscal Section retired records.
Then, in 1977, two exceptionally diligent Agency researchers processing a Freedom ofInformation Act request from former State Department officer John Marks decided to double-check the Budget and Fiscal Section’s historical archives. They uncovered seven cartons of MKULTRA material. In August, the Carter White House made the existence of these papers public, though it down played the significance of their contents. In accordance with the requirements of federal statute, some 16,000 pages of evidence had to be released to Marks.
All 16,000 pages were, in the CIA’s own words, “heavily sanitized.” Few documents had escaped redacting (that is, blacking out with a heavy pen or marker): hundreds of names, places, and dates were blacked out. Entire pages were blank. Working with four researchers, Marks painstakingly went through the papers, cross-referencing the material, finding clues wherever he could. In some instances, the blacked-out text could be deciphered simply by holding the page to the light; others were identified by their context. His result ing 1977 book, The Search for the Manchurian Candidate, did what two United States Senate Committees could not do: it assembled a detailed account of the CIA and its foray into drugs and mind control.
Marks’ book ran 264 pages. Only four sentences related to John Mulholland. Those four sentences stimulated my own Freedom of Information Act request calling for the Central Intelligence Agency to release of any information or records relating to Mulholland’s work with the CIA, including any written agreements between him and the Agency, copies of the documents he produced, or other related materials.
On June 26, 2000, the Agency responded with explicit written confirmation that John Mulholland indeed had a contractual arrangement with the CIA relating to the operational uses of the magician’s skills. It included over 200 pages of material directly linked to Mulholland and his involvement with the intelligence community. Like the documents released to John Marks in 1977, these files were heavily—though inconsistently—redacted. A request for a re-review of these files is still pending.
Despite the CIA’s editing of the material, the documents provided a remarkably comprehensive account of John Mulholland’s work for the CIA. At times, however, unveiling this information was like assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle. Each and every document had to be carefully scrutinized and then crosschecked against all of the other released papers. All of the material supplied to John Marks in 1977 as well as all of the material released to the Olson family by the CIA in 1975 was reviewed in light of this new evidence. Finally, all of this information was reassembled to form a chronological narrative. This article is a summary of those findings.
These files may be the last link we have to the clandestine world ofJohn Mulholland. Sidney Gottlieb retired from the CIA in 1973, receiving the Agency’s Distinguished Intelligence Medal for his 22 years of service. After retiring, Gottlieb and his wife worked in a leprosy hospital in India for 18 months, then moved to a farm in Rappahannock, Virginia. Gottlieb’s health, however, was not good and he suffered from a long history of heart ailments. After a month-long bout with pneumonia, Sidney Gottlieb died at his home on March 7, 1999. He was 80 years old. Allen Dulles, the man who approved MKULTRA, died three decades earlier. Vincent Ruwet passed on in 1996. John Mulholland died at age 71 on February 25, 1970 after a long illness in University Hospital, New York. His life had been dedicated to magic and the keeping of secrets. His clandestine work for the CIA was one secret he was able to maintain until the very end.
This article originally appeared in the April 2001 issue of Genii Magazine.
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There are all kinds of cool things on sale, from instructional books to back issues of Magic Magazine and Reel Magic Quarterly, and so much more. There’s no information on when the sale ends, so you’ll have to get in there and grab what you can before these prices disappear.
Through its 15-year history, one theater company has consistently brought magical themes and techniques to the stage to create inventive, engaging, highly regarded work: The House Theatre of Chicago. The company has earned 60 Joseph Jefferson Award Nominations (Chicago’s equivalent of the Tony Awards) including 19 wins, and recognition from the American Theatre Wing in the form of the National Theatre Grant. And from day one, magic has been part of its distinctive theatrical vocabulary.
While a senior in high school, magician Dennis Watkins visited Southern Methodist University to audition for the Theatre Department scholarship program. As was typical for the program, he stayed on campus in the room of a first-year scholarship student. They hit it off; and when Dennis was accepted into the program and admitted in the fall, that same student would become his sophomore mentor: Nathan Allen.
The two quickly realized they shared a similar artistic perspective. Where the curriculum at SMU was based on classic theater work, Nathan and Dennis were both interested in a less traditional approach: “We wanted to break the fourth wall and involve the audience, and Nate liked how magic accomplished that,” remembers Dennis. When Nathan graduated, he moved to Chicago with two other SMU theater grads and quickly filed paperwork to establish a place where he could make their artistic vision a reality: The House Theatre of Chicago.
Its mission: “to unite Chicago in the spirit of community through amazing feats of storytelling.” And from the start, it was clear that its “amazing feats” would include the element of magic. When Dennis graduated the following spring, the company was already working on its first production, penned by Nathan with Dennis in mind for the lead.
The story is a mythological one based on a biography every conjurer knows: the scrappy young man stricken by the loss of loved ones at the hands of that eternal magician, Death. Spurred on by that pain, he climbs to the topmost rung of the show-business ladder through a series of truly death-defying challenges. He sweats and struggles in the limelight, conquering ropes, shackles, straitjackets, submerged packing crates, and water-filled torture cells. But just when he appears his most larger-than-life to the public, he’s brought down to size by Death in the privacy of his own dressing room.
But is he really? 90 years later, we’re still talking about him (and making plays about him). And in that, there’s a message that resonates with all artists: aside from the compelling irony, it’s a story of hope. After all, if a superhuman like Houdini can die, so can any of us. But like him, we might also sidestep Death by achieving immortality through our art.
That’s an audacious message to come out of a little theater startup, straight out of the gate. But more than being The House’s first story, it’s the one that continues to define the company in production after production. Since its debut in 2001, the material has been revisited and remounted six times, more than any other play in the company’s history.
In every remount, the script has deepened—and the company has acquired richer magical knowledge, so that in the current production, Dennis was able to watch as other company members solved technical problems on their own: “We had a moment where I’m doing a nail roulette (Jon Allen’s “The Pain Game”), and one of the company members was having trouble setting the prop. Another company member immediately chimed in with, ‘We need some misdirection over here,’ and came up with a larger bit of business to pull attention to another part of the house, and it worked beautifully. They figured it out!”
Given the breadth and volume of effects in the show, it’s not surprising that company members have learned to think like magic pros. There are more than a dozen effects, ranging from a crowd-pleasing Cards to Pocket to a gasp-inducing walk on broken glass, all the way up to such large-scale dazzlers as the Wakeling Sawing Illusion, “Metamorphosis,” and the climactic “Water Torture Cell.”
Though filled with magic, the show is also bristling with bravura theatrical touches—including a prizefight-announcing narrator; a startling, dangling-by-his-heels Houdini entrance; and a gas mask-wearing, stilt-walking Death towering over everything—which strike exactly the right balance according to audiences and critics of the current production. Reviews call it “a thrilling ride” (TimeOut Chicago),“ingeniously written and directed”(Chicago Sun-Times), and “a highly polished and visually thrilling show … strikingly well-designed and well-executed … [containing] magic of the very highest order!” (Chicago Tribune).
In Season Four (2007), The House Theatre had another major hit with a new show centered on a magical figure. This time, it was the character of Emily Book, a small-town girl with telekinetic powers in The Sparrow, conceived by Nathan Allen and written by Chris Matthews and Jake Minton.
But rather than fill the play with effects, The House took a different tack from its Houdini success, choosing instead to use choreographed movement as its primary storytelling engine. When people or objects are affected by the powers of the protagonist (played by Carolyn Defrin, Bess in the 2016 production of Houdini), they are visibly manipulated by the other performers on stage in a stylized and lyrical fashion. As praised by the Chicago Sun-Times, which included it in its annual round-up of top 10 dance performances, “Dance is the true medium and message in this coming-of-age tale, which homes in on American small-town life and infuses it with a spark of the supernatural, a grounding of grief and a streak of the transgressive.”
It’s only after the audience has accepted this theatrical convention that the company ventures beyond “a spark of the supernatural” to perform a single piece of magic. As magic consultant for the show, Dennis explains the reason for this restraint: “We wanted to set this one dramatic moment apart by making it feel real.”
Emily’s teacher lies on the ground, felled by a gunshot to the chest. She kneels over him, her hand held a foot above his wound. She focuses intensely. The tension increases. Finally, the bullet is wrenched free by an unseen force and slowly drawn upward through the air, into her grasp.
With its magic, both imagined and visible, the production caught fire. Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune called it, “Among the very best original theater pieces I’ve ever seen.” It sold out its run at the small Viaduct Theatre, then moved to the prestigious Steppenwolf Garage Theatre for an extension, where it again sold out.
The Sparrow earned The House Theatre a Jeff Award for Best Ensemble and a Jeff nomination for Best Actor (Carolyn Defrin). It also received the first Emerging Theater Award from Broadway In Chicago, the producing heavyweight responsible for operating five downtown theaters and hosting pre-Broadway and long-running engagements of blockbusters like Wicked and Jersey Boys.
Broadway In Chicago proceeded to take The Sparrow under its wing, bring it to the Apollo Theater, and launch The House into the sights of a wider commercial audience. Word even spread to Miami, where The House was invited to perform a limited run at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, beginning a relationship between the two that continues today.
Magic took center stage again at The House the next season (Season Five, 2008), with Watkins stretching into the role of playwright. His focus in The Magnificents was on an aging magician whose once dazzling troupe of performers has faded along with its audiences, and the legacy he leaves behind when he teaches a young boy about art and life.
It’s a show unabashedly about love, though not of the usual romantic kind portrayed on stage. Love in The Magnificents is the kind one feels when devoting oneself to an art. It’s also the love that flows from mentor to student, and from performer to audience. And the love that connects performers into families more tightly at times than the ones they’re born into.
Not surprisingly, the origin of the show was rooted in love: that of a grandson for his grandfather who was, in fact, a magician. “It’s kind of a tribute to my grandfather [Ed Watkins], who was head demonstrator at Douglas Magicland in Dallas,” Dennis explains. “He was part of that place for over 30 years, and even helped hire Mark Wilson as a demonstrator [who, as Jimmy Wilson, began working there at age 13, laying the foundation for his later success].”
Playing the role of the older magician himself, Dennis worked within the dramatic framework to incorporate a variety of classic effects that a man of his grandfather’s generation would have performed. They ranged from the “Dancing Handkerchief” to “The Magic Square” to a clever, two-person Cups and Balls sequence with The Boy (Tommy Rapley).
The storyline also provided opportunities for the rest of the circus troupe to mesmerize through their own arts. These included the aerialist (Lucy Carapetyan) who performed a graceful adagio suspended in silk, and the strongman (Jeff Trainor) who reclined on a bed of nails while receiving the full force of a sledgehammer to his cinder block-topped chest.
The quality of the magic justifiably attracted praise— TimeOut Chicago’s review announces, ”With mind-boggling, old-school magic tricks, The Magnificents earns its title.” But as in Houdini, it was Nathan Allen’s artistry at keeping the story central that earned top billing from many reviewers: “The story is heartwarming and engaging. The magic will blow you away!” (Chicago Critic); “I laughed, I cried, I wondered.” (The Fourth Walsh). Dennis expresses it more succinctly: “Nate’s a genius!” The show’s initial success was repeated in 2011 with remounts in Chicago and Miami.
Despite the success of The Magnificents, Dennis still had bills to pay. “It was 2008, and the economy dropped out.” Hoping to increase his private bookings as a magician, he asked Nathan if he could use their downstairs space at the Chopin Theatre to film a promo he could show potential clients. That gave Nathan an idea. “He asked if I could do the filming as a ticketed fundraiser. I said ‘sure,’ and we made a handful of cash. A little while later, Nate had another idea: he asked if we could run it weekly. We came up with something that worked financially and squeezed 60 people into the basement every Friday night.”
The plan worked. The Magic Parlour, which starred Dennis doing a straightforward evening of parlour magic (as advertised), became a reliable money-maker for the company. Two years later, the theater company’s board of directors reviewed the books and came back with a recommendation: make the show bigger, look at other venues, and raise the ticket prices.
Though a proven formula elsewhere, Dennis didn’t suggest using a hotel as a venue. “I was sensitive about being seen as copying what Steve Cohen was doing in New York. But when somebody else on the board said, ‘I think we could do it at the Palmer House,’ I couldn’t really fight it. I’m just glad it didn’t come from me.”
The Palmer House is one of the oldest and most gracious hotels in Chicago, with a grand lobby sparkling with fixtures designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The House Theatre was careful to reflect the locale’s elegance in every element, through tickets printed on metallic-gold card stock and programs trimmed into graceful petals closed with a custom wax seal, both from Delicious Design League, complemented by the look of Dennis himself, “resplendent in the requisite tuxedo” (Chicago Theatre Beat).
A polished evening of magic in these surroundings, accompanied by a glass of wine, could reasonably command premium prices. They soon did: tickets, which went for $10 to $25 for an hour’s show at the Chopin, became $75 for 80 minutes at the Palmer House, providing guests with what the would call, “old-fashioned trickery performed very well in an ideal setting … a sophisticated, thoughtful night-cap.”
Initially, the hotel didn’t quite know what to make of its theatrical partner, but its management gradually warmed up to the show. “It took a couple of years before the hotel asked, ‘Can you be here more?’” During the same time, Dennis grew more comfortable in the new space: he had first honed his craft on the street, where “louder, faster, funnier” is the rule; but at the Palmer House, he learned the power of being more deliberate. He cites the advice given to him by Eugene Burger: “Don’t be a trickster. Be magic.”
The show is organized around the categories allegedly contained in an old magic book of his grandfather’s which Dennis had purportedly read. While effects vary, they have included such favorites as the “Bill in Orange” (performed with the flourish of a butterfly knife), “Sam the Bellhop,” Razor Blade Swallowing, “Tossed Out Deck,” and Blindfolded Psychometry. But the closing number is a Dennis Watkins original.
Here’s how the effect came about: “I watched a friend’s kid climb into a big balloon in a variety-show sketch. I then ordered a bunch of balloons with the thought, ‘There’s gotta be a magic trick in here somewhere …’” The result is a Card Stab unlike anything seen before.
A card is selected from a deck of cards, which is signed, returned to the deck, shuffled, and retained by the participant. Next, Watkins produces a red balloon and inflates it with a leaf blower to its full seven-feet diameter. He climbs inside, encasing first his head, then his shoulders and torso, before finally pulling in his legs and feet. The red balloon rolls, and with its opening now at the top, his head emerges unexpectedly and instructs the participant to throw the deck at his chest. The cards are thrown, and the moment they hit the latex it explodes with a “boom”—revealing amidst the shower of cards and rubber scraps a triumphant Dennis, trusty butterfly knife extending from his hand, the selected card impaled on its blade.
Six years after its opening, The Magic Parlour is still running at the Palmer House to excellent response, five shows a week (except when the lead performer is appearing in a different House production; being two places at once is not yet in the Watkins repertoire).
Even with a show that doesn’t have magic as its central focus, The House Theatre has found places to integrate magical moments. The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz included a dance in which the Wizard danced a tango with the Witch of the West amid cane and feather flower productions; later, the Tin Woodsman threw his ax across the stage to lop off the witch’s hand.
Dave Divinci Saves the Universe, a play involving time travel, required a “time portal.” Here, a “Flash Appearance” enabled actors to apparently penetrate a solid wall.
And then there’s the annual fundraising party, The Secret Soiree. Every year, Dennis whips up a new, one-time-only magic performance specifically designed to entertain the company’s benefactors. Since attendees tend to have seen his other shows and prior Soirees, each year’s fundraiser comes with its own challenge to somehow top the ones that came before.
Through all these avenues, magic has become a trademark for The House Theatre, and an element its audience members have learned to expect and even seek out. This has created some helpful cross-promotional opportunities. As Dennis relates, “All the shows feed on each other. People who come to see The Magic Parlour often say, ‘Oh, I’m here because of The Magnificents or Harry Houdini, and vice versa.’” It also helps set The House apart from other companies. At latest count, League of Chicago Theatres memberships include more than 200 Equity and non-Equity houses and companies; on a recent weekend, 65 plays competed at once for a theater-going audience—and that’s in addition to the city’s many concerts, recitals, and other cultural attractions. But while other companies have staged the occasional magic-themed play (The Tempest co-directed by Teller at Chicago Shakespeare, The Magic Play at the Goodman) no other theater company in Chicago history has shown a more consistent commitment to magical performance.
Although working in the collaborative environment of a theater company might not suit the temperament of every magician, it seems to be a Watkins family trait: his uncle, Jeff Watkins, is also a magician—who went on to found the Atlanta Shakespeare Company. (Adds Dennis with awe, “He’s directed the entire Shakespeare canon two or three times by now.”) Dennis clearly feels The House Theatre has provided him with opportunities for creative growth he might not have found otherwise: “Everybody at House is so talented, with so many different skills, so they let me ‘collaborate up’ in a way. I can be a magician, enjoy the craft of it, and be pushed to be better.”
When asked about the single greatest impact the company has had on his work: “I’m so lucky to be with House because they approach magic with the ethos and art of storytelling, in a way that a lot of magicians don’t. There’s heart. Emotion. Long-form storytelling. We’ve seen magic used this way in vignettes before—by Copperfield especially—but House forces us to ask how magic can carry that for 90 minutes: to tell bigger stories, to see how it could become a more valuable storytelling tool.”
This creative freedom has come with a level of support unknown to most working acts (who spend a large part of their time occupied with the business side of show business), for which he is grateful: “I totally won the lottery. 90 percent of my work is artistic, while 90 percent of the administration is done by others.”
Through his association with The House Theatre and artistic director Nathan Allen, Dennis Watkins may indeed have won the proverbial lottery. But through the 15 years of work the company has done to build an audience for magical theater in Chicago and Miami, it may be our art that’s the big winner.
The Magic Parlour runs every weekend at the Palmer House in Chicago. Tickets: http://www.themagicparlourchicago.com/reservations
To stay up to date on all performances by The House Theatre of Chicago, visit http://www.thehousetheatre.com/
This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Genii Magazine.
Magicians are quite skillful at devising different methods for creating the same effect. Marlo, for example, was well known for figuring out 50 ways to make a Spectator Cut To the Aces. But methodologists tend to focus on the necessary action steps rather than developing different ways to tell a “story” more interesting and human than the illustrative action steps carried out to its end. There are, for example, lots of ways to perform “Wild Card.” But how many stories have been told that add meaning to its manipulative steps? Consider Peter Samelson’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
This is my roundabout way to recommend an unusual and off-beat book—Matt Madden’s 206-page, 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style. First of all, it is essentially a gigantic comic book based on Raymond Queneau’s formalist experiment, Exercises in Style (1947), which retells two humdrum encounters 99 times, using every possible tense and type of voice—ranging from free verse to sonnets to an exclamatory telegram. I thought this approach was radical when I read it in my 20s.
Madden’s book, as offbeat as it initially seems, is different. It shows the expansive range of possibilities available to all storytellers. Writers, artists, and, yes, magicians will find his collection especially useful, if not revelatory. You will see the full scope of opportunities available to storytellers, each applied to a single scenario, varying points of view, visual and verbal parodies, formal re-imaginings, and the shuffling of the basic components of the story. Substitute “Method” for “Story” and vice versa. I think that this odd book will also inspire you to think through and around obstacles that might otherwise prevent you from devising good story-driven presentations. If not, at least it might trigger lively conversations we can have with each other.
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Genii Magazine.
Alexander the Great claimed that his quartermasters were generally grumpy people because, as anyone who studies military history knows, you win by logistics rather than by strategy. They were possibly perturbed by the fact that Alex made sure they were the first ones executed if a campaign turned sour.
I know I mention Curtis Kam’s name often, but you have to understand how growing up with him as a mentor has really messed with my sense of the universe. Because of his influence, I developed a false set of assumptions about magic and magicians: all magicians at some point headlined a showroom and would occasionally build stage illusions in their living rooms. All magicians had an almost eidetic memory regarding publication history and could not only perform those obscure pieces well but were eager to do so. All magicians did coin magic, and all coin magic involved difficult sleight-of-hand that required near-constant practice.
It took me a few years (but only a few other magicians) to learn how spoiled I had been to have had such a generous mentor. And I know I’m not the only one; I’ve met a number of magicians for whom Curtis’s VHS (now DVD and/or Penguin download) Palms of Steel was their first introduction to coin magic. That messes with your brain; however, it also makes you unafraid to embrace sleight of hand.
In this month’s issue, I provide the first two sequences of Curtis’s routine “Quartermaster.” Yes, it is done mainly with quarters, which means you can perform it impromptu without any expensive coins or gaffs. Yes, it’s interactive, meaning it’s magic at its best. Yes, it involves some sleight of hand, but if you’re scared of sleights with coins, this routine is a great way to practice some of the basic ones. Yes, it’s Curtis’s reworking of Terry Lynn’s “The Lynn Pennies” from Arthur Buckley’s phenomenally frightening collection Principles and Deceptions. The routine also appears in Modern Coin Magic as “The Seven Penny Trick.” Yes, it does something that is often absent in most coin magic: rather than repeat the same move to generate the same effect, you change the method for each sequence in order to build the mystery.
Rather than think about this as an impromptu effect, Curtis sees it as a strong example of “Social Magic,” which is another way to describe magic for performers who don’t work professionally but are occasionally called on by friends, family, or (barring those) coworkers to perform. While the professional is hired, the social performer knows his audiences or chooses them. Also, the social performer can cater his presentation to the odd ideas his specific audience will enjoy, be they physicists or parolees (not that either can’t participate in both categories). Curtis has been reconstructing his lectures to cater to the social performer. The magic material sold on the interweb usually described as “commercial,” “practical,” “angle-proof,” or “instant reset” was no longer as important as an effect that would only be performed once the entire evening. In other words, you’re hanging out with your friends and family for an extended time; hopefully, you only perform for them once because you actually listen to them talk on occasion. Also, the convivial atmosphere could cause them to examine your sleeves and/or your props by tackling you. So social performers are most concerned with strong effects and cleanliness of method.
I think it’s safe to say that, like the quartermasters of antiquity, people who perform magic want to retain something important to them by being successful. No matter how social or professional the space, they’re always one moment away from losing their heads—another victim to the vicissitudes of history or a bad Double Lift. Modular, interactive, and clean, “Quartermaster” is a routine that will work for both the social and professional performer, making it one of those rarer resources in this magical world.
Besides a spectator and six quarters, you do need one other thing: a contrasting coin (referred to below as the “copper coin”) that is the same size as a quarter. Any contrasting coin the same size will do. Curtis suggests the 10 Yen coin from Japan, which darkens nicely for contrast with quarters. The Icelandic 5 Aurar is another good choice; the 10 Yen is slightly smaller in diameter and thinner than an American Quarter while the 5 Aurar is virtually identical in size (both of these coins have smooth rather than milled edges). These coins can be found on eBay. Obviously non-American readers will have to work out their own coin-contrasting issues. You’re just looking for a coin that is distinguishable from but is about the same size as the main coins.
Start by displaying the six quarters and the copper coin on your left hand, copper coin lowermost in the pile. The spectator should be seated to your left if there is a group watching or directly in front of you if it is an intimate performance. Ask the spectator to hold out his or her right hand. You’re going to be counting the coins from your left hand into their right mainly with your right hand, though both will eventually be involved. Note that this blocking assists you in covering the palm of their right hand with your left at key moments.
Unlike “The Lynn Pennies,” you count the coins in pairs. Pick up two quarters with your right hand, show them, and place them in the spectator’s hand. Notice that this is a “place” rather than a “drop,” so make brief contact with the spectator’s flesh. Pick up two more quarters with the right, display them, and place them in the spectator’s hand. Be sure to allow them to land on the two already there. You’re conditioning the spectator to interpret the sound as presence as well as attempting to create a messy pile of coins so that the spectator cannot visually determine the amount of coins prior to closing his or her hand.
Pick up the last two quarters with the right hand, leaving the copper on your left hand. You now pretend to place both quarters into the spectator’s hand, only releasing one of them. Hold one back by simply putting your right thumb on one of the coins. This is where placing rather than dropping is important since with this brief touch and your fingers covering the coins the spectator has no reason to doubt your actions. As the right hand pulls away, two things happen: the right hand finger palms the concealed quarter and the left hand tips over dropping (yes, dropping) its copper coin onto the pile in the spectator’s hand. You notice that there’s a lot of things going on here. First of all, you have to manage your finger palm. Depending on the size of your hands in relationship to the coins you’re using, a high finger palm (closer to the upper phalanges of the second and third fingers rather than the bases) might be in order. Likewise, a low finger palm with the third finger and pinky might also make you feel better. You roll the way you do, stud muffin. Secondly, that left hand turning over to drop the copper coin is additional cover for you since it keeps them from seeing their palm. In any event, as soon as you drop the copper coin into the spectator’s hand, ask them to close the hand and turn it over.
Notice that this count can be performed slowly with the spectator counting along (again see the performance video), or it can be done as simply as “that’s two, that’s four, that’s six, and the copper makes seven.” The only pause you need between the phrases is how long it takes you to pick up two coins. It’s also quite helpful if you have them confirm the value of adding two more coins to the four in their hand. This not only makes sure you’re perform- ing for an audience member who can count, but it also helps with the rhythmic misdirection if the move makes you nervous. It’s probably also worth pointing out that performing the move should look exactly the same as not performing it, so see what your fingers look like when you perform the holdback and then mirror that action when genuinely putting the coins in.
The spectator has a closed hand that he or she believes contains seven coins; you have a coin concealed in right finger palm. You have a few options here; your goal is to load the concealed coin from your right hand into your left hand. You could perform the L’Homme Masqué Load, but homie don’t play that game. Curtis simply talks about reaching through the back of the spectator’s hand, removing a coin, and placing it into his. As he does this he takes advantage of the Ramsay Subtlety and mimes taking a coin with his right hand and placing it into his left, allowing the finger palmed coin to fall from the right into his closing left hand. After your load and some mumbo jumbo, open your left hand to reveal the coin, place it aside to your right (think of this as beginning the discard pile), and have the spectator count their six coins one at a time back into your left hand.
We’re going to repeat the effect using a slightly different counting procedure. This time pick up a quarter and the copper coin (copper coin uppermost) with the right hand and count these as two as you place them into the spectator’s right hand (copper now lowermost). Pick up two more quarters with the right hand and pretend to place them into their right hand, again holding back one of the coins in right finger palm. Your left and right hand then work together to perform a Pick-up Utility Switch: the right hand approaches the left hand’s displayed two coins. The right hand briefly plants its concealed coin on top of the two. Now both thumbs push the top two coins forward, bringing one to each hand’s fingertips (photos 1, 2, and 3), retaining one coin in left finger palm. The hands separate at the completion of the move, fairly (?) displaying the two coins. This is a very casual action that is over quickly but should not be rushed. It’s also a nice move to use with any sized coin instead of a Utility Pass because you (perhaps rightfully) feel silly tossing coins around. The “No-Shuttle Shuttle” in its most basic form (as a “take” rather than “put” switch, the Shuttle Pass being the latter) is described as a one-for-one transfer in the Nelson Hahne handling of “Winged Silver” in Bobo’s Modern Coin Magic.
Drop both of these coins into the spectator’s hand (again notice that this is a “drop” and not a “place”) as you count these last two out loud, and then instruct the spectator to close his or her hand and turn it over. The Pick Up Utility Switch is the sort of thing I believe a lot of magicians have come up with independently (I know I have—my version is in Coinapalooza, Volume 1), but perhaps the best published association is to think of it as a simplification of Roger Klause’s No-Shuttle Shuttle from the fifth volume of Apocalypse, but with more coins.
Again, you pretend to remove a coin from the spectator’s hand (taking advantage of the Ramsay Subtlety occurring now in your left hand as you close it and then open it to reveal the coin). Place this coin to your right, stacking it on top of the already discarded coin. The spectator then reveals that they have only five by counting their coins back onto yours. Now, you’re going to count the coins into the spectator’s hand one more time (remember, you officially only have five coins now in play), but this time individually. Again, note that the construction of the routine is designed to seem more and more fair yet becomes more and more devious. Count the copper coin first, then two silvers regularly, then perform the original “Lynn Pennies” steal with the third coin by simply tapping it on the three already in their hand but retaining it with your thumb. Immediately perform a Shuttle Pass (see CoinMagic, David Roth’s Expert Coin Magic, or any David Roth DVD), supposedly placing the coin in the left hand onto the right fingers, but retaining it in left finger palm as the right hand pretends to catch this coin. The visible coin in the right hand is then dropped cleanly on to the spectator’s pile. Have them close their hand again, do the magic, reveal your coin (adding it to the discard stack), and have them count the coins back to reveal they have four.
This discard pile will now allow you to perform a very simple “Copper/Silver Transposition.” One of the better examples of using a stack of coins to obfuscate how many coins are actually in play is Daryl’s “The Mysterious Cross of India” from Secrets of a “Puerto Rican Gambler,” and is worth examining. Here’s how you’ll use the idea: your right hand takes the three remaining quarters and apparently adds them on the pile, while the left hand continues to display the copper coin. In reality, you only place two of the quarters on the stack, retaining one in your right finger palm. The audience really can’t tell and you’re focused on the copper coin anyway. Pick up the copper coin with the right hand and perform David Roth’s version of Earl Johnson’s Palm-to-Palm Change as you then place the quarter into the spectator’s hand. If that frightens you, you can perform any vanish as a switch or even do a Bobo Switch to place the quarter surreptitiously into their hand. The nice thing about this moment is that you’ve been conditioning the spectator to close his or her hand this entire time. In most “Copper/Silver Transposition” pieces, the spectator is experiencing this interaction for the first time when you’re doing the switch, which can make it challenging.
Now for the fun part. The copper coin is in right classic palm. The right hand reaches over to the pile of coins and pretends to pick up one of the quarters. This just takes a little bit of a clinking and a whole lot of acting. Allow the copper coin to drop to your fingers so you can toss it to the left hand as it closes. See what’s happening here? You’re getting a very clean moment. Open both of your hands to reveal you only have the copper coin. Have the spectator reveal the quarter.
Yeehaw! If you made it through all that, you got yourself a little gem to perform. Also, as I mentioned above, this is a great routine for practicing basic coin sleights. And come on, you just stole coins from their hands and changed one, too. So put the coins away and go back to being an ordinary person. But as you do so, remember to give a small prayer of thanks for Curtis Kam.
• Do you have to do all of this routine? Nah, it’s modular. The transposition at the end is optional, so you can skip it. Heck, they might like it so much when you do it the first time you only have to perform it once.
• A nice subtlety here with using quarters is that you can have a great miscall moment just before the transposition. At the beginning, I mention that all the quarters I have are from different states I’ve visited, and I call them by name. When I hold back one quarter while placing the rest on the stack, I make sure I know which state it is. Now when I pretend to take a quarter off the top of the stack, I stare at the copper coin (hidden behind my fingers) and name that state. Muhahaha!
• But why the weird copper coin? Why can’t you coin magicians just do magic with borrowed objects everyone is familiar with? Well, the copper coin gives you a very clean ending, but you could do this routine with only quarters. I sometimes refer to the copper coin as being there to distract, which the ordering of the sequences somewhat explains as well as helps to set up the transposition in the end. However, even when starting with borrowed props, I think bringing something extra to a performance is never a bad thing. As I discuss in the new Inferential DVD, if I’m a magician, I think it’s okay to have something different in my pockets though I look fairly normal. I always giggle to myself when a performer with dramatic facial hair and a costume addiction shares his self-concocted concern that spectators only want him to perform with borrowed money. That’s a character issue worth figuring out, especially since that person should have cooler things in his pocket than anyone else.
• Could you do this with regular half dollars and an English penny? I guess, but that assumes the spectator’s hands are pretty big. The reason for using the pennies in Lynn’s routine was because audiences have a hard time determining the weight of a group of lighter coins. Also, a group of small coins held tightly do not reveal their exact number.
• Could you do this routine with pennies and a dime? Heck, yeah. Could you end with a bent penny instead of a copper/silver transposition? Um, I guess. Could you use this counting sequence as a prelude for any number of endings? Duh, but why mess with a good thing?
• The discard pile is a sneaky place. When I perform this routine I usually pull out more quarters than I need, so my discard pile is very very big at the end. But the bigger the pile, the more you can hide: I use that pile to conceal a quarter shell and something else that’s special, so at any time I can move into a very different routine if I am so inclined.
Words like “fake” and “fakery” are reactionary words to magicians. The former word, whether it’s used as a noun or a verb, is warming to deceptionists of every stripe. How alluring are decks of cards called Fako-o? Don’t we love to “fake out” spectators? Don’t we routinely simulate, pretend, and dissimulate? Don’t we conceal and improvise (as musicians do when they “fake it” by playing unscored music?
This is why Noah Charney’s 294-page book (The Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of the Master Forgers) caught my eye—not to mention the allurement of the starkly bold message on its back cover trumpeting: “The world wishes to be deceived—So let it be deceived.”
Although this book does not directly relate to the trickery most of us like to read about, it does show how principles of deception applied by master forgers from antiquity to today are used to deceive the art world. The author exposes the tricks of their trade and describes how they were eventually caught. The more fascinating aspect of the book is what it reveals regarding how the art world is and the way it is complicit by its willingness to believe what it assumes to see and know.
It is the most magical of sleights. A freely selected card is returned to the center of the deck which is then squared in the magician’s hands. A split-second later, the selection is invisibly brought to the top, allowing the magician to reveal it in the most magical of fashions. When properly executed, it is as baffling as any piece of legerdemain.
Like all good things, the ability to execute the Pass comes with a hefty price, namely several years of practice to master the basic mechanics, followed by daily practice sessions to retain speed and muscle memory. If that sounds like an awful lot of work to perfect one move, it is. And as my friend Jon Racherbaumer pointed out in the September 2016 issue of Genii, there are many superb substitutes for the Pass which are not nearly as difficult to learn.
So why should you learn the Pass?
As someone who’s performed the Pass for 45 years, I’m here to tell you that it’s worth the effort to learn this move for more reasons than you might think. Professor Hoffmann called the Pass “the backbone of card conjuring” for good reason. Inherent in its construction is one of the most important principles of magic which allows the performer to fool his audience in a manner which other methods of controlling cards do not. For that reason alone, every serious student of card magic needs to study and learn this move. Let me explain why.
In the late 1960s, Derek Dingle burst upon the New York magic scene performing a brand of eye-popping close-up magic that caught the world of magic by storm, and eventually landed him television appearances with Dick Cavett and Barbara Walters. Derek was the hottest close-up magician in the world and a true force of nature.
Derek’s sleight of hand was otherworldly, and blew magicians’ minds. Every sleight in his vast repertoire looked like real magic, and that included his handling of the Invisible Riffle Pass. Other magicians in New York did the Pass brilliantly, most notably Dr. Ken Krenzel and Howie Schwarzman, but Derek’s handling was a cut above. In his gifted hands, there was no pause or get ready, just a quick squaring of the deck, followed by a riffle of the back of the cards with the right thumb. The move was over in a flash, and absolutely invisible.
As a gift for my 15th birthday, my older brother arranged for me to have private lessons with Derek at the Lamb’s Club in New York City. At that point in my magical life, I had a fairly high opinion of myself, having fooled my high school chums with simple card tricks I’d learned from magic books borrowed from the local library. One of the moves I was particularly proud of was my handling of the Classic Pass.
Derek proved to be no easy taskmaster. During my first lesson in the basement of the Lamb’s Club, I performed my tricks for him, and for a finale, did my handling of the Pass. I can still remember the grimace on his face when I was done. Taking the deck from my hands, he said, “Let me show you what you’re doing wrong.”
As it turned out, I was doing everything wrong. My fingers were in the wrong places and my handling of the break was exposed, not to mention the transposition of the two packets being blatantly visible from every possible angle. To put in bluntly, I sucked.
Instead of turning me away (which he had every right to do), Derek spent an hour breaking down the move while teaching me a number of practice tips that I use to this day.
For the next two years, Derek continued to work with me on my Pass, not only in formal lessons, but also while at magic conventions and at Bob Elliott’s home on Long Island. As my handling of the Pass grew more refined, Derek rewarded me by teaching me other variants, including his handling of the Cover Pass and several unpublished shifts at the gaming table.
One of Derek’s practice tips was to start each session by passing a small number of cards off the top, and gradually building up to half the deck. This tip led me to create a routine called “Vanishing Aces,” which uses the Riffle Pass a total of four times, and Derek was the first to see me perform it. I still can remember his nod of approval when the trick was over.
In the summer of 1974, the S.A.M. held its annual convention in Boston. This may have been one of the greatest magic conventions ever held and featured such performers as Norm Nielsen, Johnny Thompson, Del Ray, Fred Kaps, Dai Vernon, Derek Dingle, and David Roth.
The convention hotel featured a bar in the basement where the magicians could be found at all hours, trading tricks and talking shop. I worked up the courage to take a walk through the bar, hoping to spot one of my idols, when I heard my name called out. It was Derek, and he was sitting at a table with Fred Kaps who was doing triple duty at the convention (stage, close-up, and lecture). Derek told me to pull up a chair, then asked me to perform my “Vanishing Aces” routine.
I have never been more nervous in my life, yet managed to do the trick without dropping the cards on the floor. Kaps was gracious in his praise and seemed intrigued with my handling of the Riffle Pass, and asked if I would show it to him. I happily did, and was rewarded with Kaps teaching me his unpublished handling of the Torn and Restored Card and a superb Prediction routine, both of which I used for many years.
Meeting Kaps was an important lesson in my magical upbringing. A great magician was willing to share secrets because of my ability to perform a single move. I don’t believe that Kaps would have taken me into his confidence had I done a trick with the Glide or repetitive Double Lifts. My handling of the Pass said that I was a student of the art and worth talking to.
Upon graduating from NYU, I had a choice to make. Become a professional magician (I’d been offered a job as a house magician at an upscale resort in the Florida Keys) or go to work on Madison Avenue in the magazine business. I opted to go into publishing and never looked back. But I continued to hone my skills and taught myself every variation of the Pass I could find as well as every card trick that uses the Pass. This knowledge allowed me to befriend some of the world’s best magicians and share secrets with them. This group included Harry Lorayne, Ken Krenzel, Frank Garcia, Darwin Ortiz, Michael Skinner, Larry Jennings, Bernard Bilis, Paul Cummins, and Bill Malone. Back in the day before video downloads and DVDs, magicians shared their secrets in confidence, and rarely tipped their mitts to amateurs unless those amateurs had something to share in return. Because I could perform the Pass, these fantastic performers were willing to bring me into their confidence. As a result, my repertoire and abilities as a magician expanded beyond my wildest dreams.
Of all these friendships, one of the most profound was with Larry Jennings. Larry was a larger than life character who’d performed close-up magic at The Magic Castle and also beat the casinos in Nevada using sophisticated sleight of hand. There wasn’t anything Larry hadn’t done.
During our first meeting at The Magic Castle, I told Larry that I’d learned every routine he’d every published. Larry said, “I don’t want to see my own tricks. Show me your Pass.” I demonstrated my Riffle Pass, then performed a trick called “Anastasia” which uses the Pass Palm (a move that invisibly moves cards off the top of the deck into the palm). Larry had devised a Pass Palm of his own, which he used in several routines. We instantly became friends.
Larry’s obsession with the Pass was equal to my own. Larry had analyzed the move to death, and believed that its proper execution would turn an ordinary card trick into a miracle, something which was not true with other card controls. Larry was gracious enough to explain his thinking to me, which I will now share with you.
Laymen aren’t stupid when it comes to magic. There’s been enough exposure of magic on TV and the internet for a curious layman to have a basic grasp of our art’s inner workings. This is particularly true with card magic. The average layman understands the concept of the Bottom Deal, false shuffling, and the Double Lift. It doesn’t help that the very names of these sleights are exposures, but I suppose it’s too late to change this.
The Pass is different because a layman cannot grasp its mechanics. The notion that a magician can invisibly cut a deck of cards sounds preposterous, and as a result a layman can’t conceptualize the move. (A case in point was Derek Dingle’s exposure of the Riffle Pass during a TV special with Barbara Walters. Derek exposed the move with the cameras burning his hands, yet Walters couldn’t grasp what he was doing).
This is why the Pass is such a powerful weapon. The Pass puts the magician ahead of his audience, since the audience continues to believe the selection is buried in the deck. If the magician produces the card from his pocket, or his wallet, or makes the card stick to the ceiling, the layman is baffled since he still believes the card is lost.
Larry called this principle being ahead. Once you are ahead of your audience, it’s impossible for them to reconstruct what took place, turning an ordinary trick into a miracle.
Back in the day, the only way to learn the Pass was through private lessons and practice. While the practice still remains, it is no longer necessary to pay someone to teach you the move, as there are several fine descriptions in print and on video. I would strongly suggest that you purchase one of these books while also getting a DVD or download, allowing you to both read and see how the move is supposed to look.
The detailed description of Derek’s signature Riffle Pass is worth the price of this classic book. When the book came out, I pulled it open to the section on the Pass. The first Pass is simply called Riffle No.1 and is on pages 56-58 with 10 illustrations which break the move down. This is the pass that Derek taught me and Richard has rewritten the description and included it in this article. Be sure to study the illustrations and positions of each of the fingers—it will save you loads of time in learning the move. Also included are Derek’s handling of The Stroboscopic Riffle Pass, The Silent Pass, The Silent Half Jiggle Pass, and The Classic Pass False Cut.
Dr. Ken Krenzel was a true student of the Pass, and performed the move as well as anyone. Krenzel’s handling of The Classic Pass and all the information he shares is must reading.
Also included are Krenzel’s handling of The Riffle Pass, Cover Pass, the K-E (Krenzel-Elliott) Pass, several variations of the One-Card Middle Pass, the Block Cover Pass, and the Dribble Pass (one of the best Passes ever invented). All of these moves are worthy of your attention.
No one performed the Pass better than LePaul. His description of the Invisible Turnover Pass and Spread Pass should not be missed.
Dai Vernon spent his life devoted to magic, and our art is greater because of it. Vernon’s handling of the Pass along with his observations on the correct mechanics can be found in this wonderful book, along with The Black Pass, Location Pass, Sprong’s Pass, and the Fan Pass Transformation.
I have performed a handful of lectures for magicians. Interest from those attending seems to peak when the Pass is discussed. In a chapter entitled Secrets of The Pass, I share a number of tips that will hopefully make your practice sessions more productive.
Richard learned from the best and it shows on this amazing disc. There are 13 Passes taught in painstaking detail along with a number of amazing routines that you will want to try once you’re comfortable with the move. I don’t know of another DVD which has so much great material on the Pass.
Jason does a superlative job of explaining the Classic Pass on this download from Theory 11.
At the suggestion of Louis Falanga, a detailed explanation of the Riffle Pass was included in my routine, “Vanishing Aces.”
If you are going to practice the Pass, do so with a purpose in mind. Here are several terrific routines using the Pass that are worthy of your consideration.
• “The Ladies’ Looking Glass” (Expert at the Card Table)
• “Acrobatic Jacks” (Expert at the Card Table)
• “Cavorting Aces” (Dr. Daley, Stars of Magic)
• “Anastasia” (Miracles with Cards)
• “Vanishing Aces” (CardWorks, Richard Kaufman)
Learning the Pass isn’t easy, and will take several years to perfect. So why should you sacrifice the necessary time and effort to learn this most difficult of moves when there are alternative methods of controlling cards that will get the job done?
The answer to this question is simple. By learning the Pass, you will elevate your magic to heights you never dreamed were possible. No other move in card magic requires that all 10 fingers work together in perfect harmony. Practicing the Pass is the perfect exercise, just like playing the scales on the piano. Once you have perfected it, other card sleights will become easier to learn due to the time you’ve spent mastering this move. The Pass is the gateway to great card magic. Once mastered, infinite treasures will await you.
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Genii Magazine. If you want to learn how to perform this illusion, check out Derek Dingle’s Riffle Pass by Richard Kaufman, a companion piece featured in the same issue.
It all started with an email from David Britland. David and I had been corresponding about unusual optical illusions, and he asked if I had come across Robert Harbin’s “The Transparent Man.” I said that I hadn’t and minutes later an intriguing set of plans arrived in my inbox.
Robert Harbin was born in South Africa in 1908. When he was in his early 20’s he traveled to London and started to work as a magic demonstrator and performer (“Ned Williams, the Boy Magician from South Africa”). Nowadays, Harbin is well known for a series of impressive creations, including “The Zig-Zag Lady” and his deceptive version of “Sawing a Woman in Half.” However, most magicians aren’t aware of a curious little book that Harbin published when he was just 21 years old. Entitled Something New in Magic, this slim volume describes a series of unusual and creative items, including a silk that suddenly changes into a table and a pile of children’s bricks that assemble themselves into a castle. Oh, and a simple but extraordinary idea entitled “The Transparent Man.”
Harbin’s illusion involves five large (approximately two-foot-by-six-foot) sheets of clear glass and a backdrop of bright white light. Three of the glass sheets are formed into an upright triangular tube and the remaining two sheets are placed parallel to two sides of the tube. A person stands inside the tube and, when the lights are turned on, the person appears to vanish. The performer can even walk behind the tube and the audience can see him through the glass sheets, further strengthening the illusion.
The method is as elegant as it is amazing. According to Harbin, the glass sheets create a series of reflections that cause the image of the backlight to be broken up, moved around the tube, and re-constructed in front of it. Moreover, the clever arrangement means that the image of anything, or anyone, behind the tube is also moved around it, thus allowing the performer to walk behind the setup and apparently be visible through the transparent person in the tube. The audience believes that they are seeing through the tube, whereas in reality they are seeing whatever is behind the tube projected in front of it.
Harbin’s idea reminded me of an article about the physics of invisibility that I had read a few weeks before. According to the article, physicists are attempting to make objects invisible by surrounding them with materials that direct light around the object. It seemed to me that this is, in principle, identical to the idea behind “The Transparent Man.”
There is, however, one small problem. Building “The Transparent Man” is tricky because it involves several large sheets of glass and creating an entire wall of light. In Something New in Magic, a young Harbin admits that he never actually built a full-size version of the illusion, but instead constructed a model that proved that the principle worked extremely well. As a result, it wasn’t known whether the illusion would work on a larger scale.
Indeed, there is good reason to be skeptical. In the only other article about “The Transparent Man” (Genii, January 2008), Jim Steinmeyer pointed out that the illusion involves the glass sheets being simultaneously both transparent and reflective and so “almost, but never quite, works.” In addition, in The Genius of Robert Harbin, Eric Lewis claims that Harbin’s original plans were wrong and presents a slightly modified version.
Fast forward a few weeks and I receive an email from Google’s Making and Science Team. I run an optical illusion- and magic-based YouTube Channel called Quirkology, and the email said that the Google team wanted to sponsor a science-based video. I instantly thought of “The Transparent Man” and asked whether they were interested in a video that attempted to recreate a large-scale prototype of the illusion and explored the science of invisibility. The proposal received a green light, and David Britland kindly agreed to act as an advisor. The game was afoot.
I started off by trying to build a model of the illusion. I bought some nine-inch-by-six-inch sheets of glass (the size originally used by Harbin for his model), arranged them on a tabletop, and placed a doll inside the tube. I placed a table lamp behind the entire set-up, turned it on and was amazed to see … a doll fully illuminated inside a glass tube. It wasn’t looking good. Ever the optimist, I thought that we might have more luck on a larger scale, and so decided to put together a half-size prototype. I bought several four foot by four foot sheets of glass, carefully placed them into the correct positions, and placed a pile of books into the tube. I placed a strong photographic light box behind the tube, turned it on and saw … a pile of books fully illuminated inside a glass tube! It still wasn’t looking good.
The next few days were spent systematically changing each part of the setup. I altered the brightness of the backlight. I removed the sheet of glass forming the back of the tube (as Jim Steinmeyer had pointed out in correspondence, it serves no real purpose). I changed the angle and positioning, of the side sheets. I altered the position of the object inside the tube. I shone the backlight directly through the sides of the tube. Along the way I sent some test stills and video to Jim Steinmeyer, who kindly provided helpful advice and comments. And eventually … success! After much experimentation I was able to have someone sit in the tube and apparently see the light shining right through them. Not only that, but I could hold my hand in front of the light and apparently see the silhouette of the hand through the person too.
In many ways, people had been right to be skeptical about the illusion—the plans in Harbin’s original book aren’t quite right. And the revised plans presented in The Genius of Robert Harbin are slightly wrong, too. However, the general idea is conceptually sound, and with a few tweaks here and there the illusion works really well.
Encouraged by our success I sent the plans of “The Transparent Man” to one of the world’s leading experts in the science of invisibility—Professor Ulf Leonhardt from the Weizmann Institute of Science. He confirmed that Harbin’s illusion is indeed based on the same principle as much modern-day research into invisibility, adding that in many ways Harbin was years ahead of his time. Professor Leonhardt then kindly agreed to come to The Magic Circle in London and appear in our video alongside the Circle President, and huge Harbin fan, Scott Penrose.
And so it’s official—at the amazingly young age of 21, Harbin was something of an optical genius. The basic idea behind “The Transparent Man” is sound and the illusion does work on a large-scale. Are the viewing angles limited? Yes. Did Harbin get all of the details exactly right? I don’t think so. But is “The Transparent Man” an elegant idea that was years ahead of modern day invisibility research? Absolutely.
Our YouTube video received over 200,000 views in just a few days. Take a look and see what you think. We hope that you enjoy it.
This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of Genii Magazine.