In 1954 the Magic Circle presented the Hoffmann Memorial Lecture by Charles Harrison on “The Qualities of a Classical Feat of Magic.” In it he suggests eight common features of a trick which make it a “classic.”
Not everyone is on the same page. In his introduction to Magic By Misdirection Dariel Fitzkee makes the opposite argument; that no trick is, in itself, “great.”
In this episode Ryan Pilling takes a look at both sides, and asks why any particular trick does or does not become immortalized as a classic of magic, including one curious trick which was once a regular feature, now lost to history.
Don’t worry, this is not a commercial for some luxury product, this is a podcast about magic tricks.
Alright, let’s have a look at the set list for the show today;
Opening with a torn and restored newspaper, accompanied with a few jokes taken from current headlines.
A quick billiard ball manipulation routine, with some lively music, then the final ball becomes an egg, which then transitions into an Egg Bag routine.
Eight solid steel rings are counted out then linked and unlinked in surprising ways, and made into a number of curiously recognizable figures, such as a blooming flower, before ending in a long chain to triumphant applause.
Sounds like a good workable act. It will surely win over the sophisticated tastes of today’s modern audiences.
Or was it presented for audiences fifty years ago?
Or… a century ago?
Or D – All of the above.
If you throw a tomato at any magic show in the past 100 years, you’re likely to knock over a table set for this act.
If not for the newspaper trick, the most modern of these miracles - created in the 1920s, I’d say it could go back 150 years.
And yet, I would have no shame in walking on stage in front of my magical peers tomorrow and doing this very same act.
It’s timeless. It’s classic. But… why?
I’m Ryan Pilling. This is Theory & Thoughts for Magicians.
Today I take a closer look into why the classics of magic have stuck around, and how magic’s wealth of tradition may be a gilded cage.
The Magic Circle presents the annual Hoffmann Memorial Lecture award for research into the history and theory of magic. In 1954 they honoured Charles Harrison who presented his lecture; “The Qualities of a Classical Feat of Magic.”
We’re talking the top tier classics. Things like the Linking Rings, Cups and Balls, and the Substitution Trunk. According to Harrison; " Those feats which, whilst being recognised as of the highest order by the experts, have also the widest and most lasting appeal to the layman."
His goal was to analyze these classics of magic to identify what they had in common, to discover the tangible elements which made them deserving of their classical status.
In the end, he declared 8 qualities of tricks which earn this designation.
Classical feats of magic have a lasting appeal which make them popular through the ages.
The plot is plain and straightforward, not complicated, and is easily understood.
Little advance preparation is necessary and no special apparatus is used visibly.
Classical feats of magic suit the style of many types of performer.
The classics can be routined in many original ways.
The classics can be performed by numerous methods.
The preliminary introduction to a classical feat can be brief and interesting.
The effect of a classical feat is cumulative and with a delayed
In my opinion, speaking strictly as a non-Hoffmann award winner, these are admirable traits for any effect, but I’m not entirely convinced they are make or break elements to become a classic of magic.
Charles Harrison concludes his lecture by putting his theory to the test with a prediction. In his words:
We have now arrived at the final, and in some ways most difficult, stage of our lecture. We have to select a contemporary feat of magic which seems to have all the qualities we have enumerated and defined, and which, therefore, we consider " will in later years be ranked as a classic.
He singled out the Six-Card Repeat. At the time, in 1954, this effect had already survived and thrived for twenty years since it’s invention by Tommy Windsor, so it did have a certain degree of survivor bias already. However, he did back a winning horse. Here we are seven decades further down the line and magicians are still counting off six cards. It has, indeed, become a hallowed classic feat of magic.
So, there we have it, eight qualities which will guarantee an all-time greatest hit magic effect and preserve the inventor’s legacy for future generations, right?
That’s all it takes, right?
A most curious part of Mr. Harrison’s lecture is where he quotes from the introduction of “Magic By Misdirection” where the author, Dariel Fitzkee, dismisses the idea that a trick, in and of itself, deserves to be a classic.
Here is the section from Fitzkee’s book:
I take the position that no trick in itself has any spark of life. It doesn't get life until the essential spark is supplied by the performer during the actual performance.
I quarrel with the idea that any trick is in itself great. I feel that these tricks we term ' classics' have become so through the life breathed into them by those who have performed them.
Let us look at these classics and see what life they possess: —
A number of rings, apparently solid, become linked and unlinked. That is the trick plot of ' The Linking Rings.'
A small wooden ball appears. Then there are two, three, and finally four. They disappear one by one. Such is the plot of ' The Multiplying Billiards Balls.'
An egg, placed in a small cloth bag, disappears. Finally it is found to be in the bag again. You of course recognise the plot of ' The Egg Bag.'
Be frank with yourself. Can you find the essential spark of life in any of those trick plots? Can you find the ingredient which caused them to become classics? I think not.
Those tricks which are most generally adaptable to the styles and abilities of the average practitioners are done so often by so many magicians that they become common.
And so a classic is born.
And where is the spark of life? In the classic? No.
However, Charles Harrison dismisses this idea outright.
Here we must disagree entirely with Fitzkee and say: " I think we can find life in the classic, otherwise there will be no point in proceeding with the lecture."
Well gosh, Charles, you disagree because if you don’t, your entire thesis might be wrong. Got it.
Now that your lecture has run its course, I’d like to dig a little deeper into Fitzkee’s opinion; that a trick reaches classic status not by the quality of the trick, but the quantity of performance.
I’m very curious about all the tricks which have not been inducted to the magic hall of fame, and why they’ve been excluded. From a practical perspective, they might fit the requirements, so it seems to only be a matter of popularity. It seems they are only forgotten because… they were forgotten!
I did not need to look very far for a case study. The published booklet of Charles Harrison’s lecture is accompanied by a photo of the man holding an oddly decorated ball, covered in metallic panels, about the size of a football.
Had the lecture been presented at the Magic Castle, rather than the Magic Circle, I’d say it is about the size of a soccer ball.
The caption under the photo reads: Charles Harrison, M.I.M.C with the Golliwog Ball.
Which begs the question; what the fudge is a Golliwog ball?
There you are, relaxed into your seat, one of 444 members of the audience in the Ambassador Theatre in London, having just enjoyed an interlude song-and-dance act. Now, England’s premier conjurer, David Devant returns to the stage for the second half of his 1916 Christmas spectacle.
The performance is documented in the Magic Circular.
Stage fully lighted. Curtain fit-up of black velvet and white lace.
A long board, resting on a chair back, running down towards footlights from mid stage. An
attendant holds a large ball, say, about 15 inches in diameter. Devant enters, takes ball and places it on upper end of board.
It commences to run downwards until he commands it to stop, which it does, and then rolls up and down the inclined plane, according to command.
He holds a large ring across its path on the board, through which it passes and repasses several times.
The explanation offered by Devant as to the obedience of the ball's movements is that a clown or golliwog is concealed inside it. But one doubts its exactitude, because the ball is obviously very light.
This is the Golliwog Ball, a feature in Devant’s act which became one of his favourite openers and remained in his repertoire for over a decade.
It is clearly a linear development from the Obedient Ball, replacing the vertical cord with an inclined board. Devant saw it performed by Harry Kellar, using a suspiciously thick plank, and offered to create a better method in exchange for permission to perform it.
Devant developed his own method in 1903, which Kellar happily adopted. It also made its way into performances by Chung Ling Soo in the decade following. Our Hoffmann lecturer Charles Harrison was performing it in the 1950’s, having learned it directly through his personal friendship with David Devant.
A Golliwog, the implied driver of the ball’s movement, was a popular child’s toy in and around the UK for nearly a century. It was a rag doll with a racially exaggerated appearance similar to blackface minstrels. Over the course of many years, the word Golliwog developed into a racial slur. Fortunately, the character has since faded from popular culture.
This does not, however, explain why the magic trick might have faded. The presentational element of this little rag doll could just as easily be a goblin (as in Devant’s earlier script) or a tongue-in-cheek demonstration of physics, as it was presented by Charles Waller.
The effect seems to be checking many of the classic boxes here; We’ve got multiple performers, with unique presentations, spanning decades, incorporating a variety of practical methods to create a straightforward magical effect with a natural progression and climax.
This obedient ball was on a roll and then, suddenly, it stopped.
It seems to have vanished entirely from the stage by 1960, with the exception of Jim Steinmeyer presenting it once as an antique curiosity at the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History in 1992.
So why is this curious ball forgotten to all but magic historians? If it arguably shares all of Harrison’s qualities, why is it not immortalized as a classic of magic?
Humans seek the shortest path to success, and magicians, being mostly human, do the same.
Bringing a new routine on stage is a path full of hazards, and we don’t want to fall flat on our face in front of all those people. It’s natural to want to lower the risk of failure so we will feel safe.
Personally, I am a risky performer. I consider every show an experiment, and I’m willing to try new things just for the fun of it. Thankfully I don’t have much of a career to ruin.
I’ve had the experience, on more than one occasion, of digging up a long lost effect from an old book, putting it in my show, then other magicians in the area suddenly see the potential in that same old trick and add it to their repertoire. Purely a coincidence, I’m sure!
How many times have you gone back to a routine you’ve read before, in a book you already own, only after seeing it successfully performed by somebody else?
We’ve all done it. We saw it, we liked it, and we want a piece of their success!
The other magician got a great response with that trick, and you’re confident you can too.
It’s not wrong, per se, but it is lazy.
In my case I pulled a trick out of an old book because something about it appealed to me, but it was just one trick from hundreds of books and thousands of pages. Not so different from throwing a dart at my bookshelf and performing the trick it landed on.
When you do that same old trick simply because you saw me do it, you’re limiting yourself to my random pick when you could just as easily throw your own dart.
My theory is, if we trace back to the origins of the classics it would take us to an inspiring performance of a randomly chosen trick. It so inspired the second magician to perform it themselves, then the third.
It becomes this sort of relay race where each successive magician grabs the baton, whether passed to them or not, to carry the trick into their own performances. The long-lasting classics, it seems, are simply those relays which have managed not to drop the baton across the decades.
This survival of the most popular has given us hundreds of thousands of magicians who perform the same twelve tricks.
I encourage you to intentionally break the chain.
One trick, as Fitzkee suggests, is not inherently better than any other. They are recognized as “magic classics” only after they have been arbitrarily lifted above the rest.
It is the performance that makes the trick, not vice versa.
You can flip to your own random page in a random book and put your effort into performing the halibut out of that trick.
Enough with the magician see, magician do.
We’ll both benefit from having shows built from uniquely different material.
All of magic will benefit from an increased artistic diversity, and you will create a your own classic act, rather than an act of borrowed classics.
And with that we have reached the end of what will surely become known as a classic episode of Theory & Thoughts for Magicians. It’s got all the elements you could hope for; theory, thoughts, talking, and music.
I just need you to do your part, and tell everybody that this is a classic. If people hear it said often enough, it will become true. If it’s called a classic, new listeners will pay more attention, and imbue it with more value. My casual observations will be elevated to profound wisdom. It will become famous for being famous.
If you’d like to jump ahead of the crowd, you can subscribe to my temporarily un-famous weekly email newsletter at www.MagicTipsAndTricks.com