Ross Bertram: Master Magician


When Ross would make the occasional appearance at a gathering of magicians such as the IBIDEM EVENT or a club meeting, he would present the films. Magicians, however, were always disappointed because they wanted to see Ross perform live. As stated earlier, Ross knew that his technical work and performing ability were past his prime. His hands were dry, slightly arthritic and did not have the facility that they once had in his youth. He did not want to be remembered for fumbling through a performance. Ross knew that he did not have to prove himself. He was aware of his own accomplishments. 

Ross was quite current with the magic literature. Friends would send him their latest manuscripts and some dealers such as Jeff Busby were kind enough to send him books or manuscripts that they thought would be of interest to him. When the publication of magic books exploded as magicians rushed their routines into print, Ross was disappointed in the derivative nature of most of the work. He was also surprised that the most basic of maneuvers suddenly had a name.   

He was also annoyed his good friend, Dai Vernon, who would bestow heaps of praise indiscriminately. Suddenly everyone was “a genius.” When pestered by someone to autograph a promotional photograph Vernon would sometimes write a glowing remark—“To one of the great magicians” or something to that effect to appease the individual. Ross thought it was unfortunate that the grand old man of magic was both pressured into these actions and that he acquiesced to do so in order to remove himself from an uncomfortable situation. It diluted the power of his genuine praise. 

Ross was often surprised by the brash nature of the younger performers. Once a young man approached him and said, “Hi, Mr. Bertram, I am working on the pass. I can do it eighty-five times in a minute. How fast can you do it?”  I remember his response. “I can do it once, but I suppose after eighty-five times the card should really be lost.”

In a similar vein, Ross once received a letter from an up and coming north west coast magician advising Ross that he would be coming to Toronto. The letter said, “I hear you are really good with coins. Perhaps I can come over and see how good you are.” This, to a man in his mid-seventies. Ross would throw up his hands and sigh. 

PreviewRoss Bertram

Ross could be extraordinarily generous, however, and not just to me. If the person was sincere and asked a specific question other than “How did you do that?” Ross tried to help the individual. His approach was interesting. Ross would usually ask the person to perform something first. Ross could immediately gauge the person’s expertise or level of development in order to provide him with guidance or information that he could actually use or benefit from. If Ross thought that the person was not at an appropriate level to receive expert information, he would endeavor to provide some information so that person moved forward, ever closer to his goal. Perhaps this resulted from Ross’ experience assessing the occupational skills of others in his own post-nervous breakdown recovery period.

He would also often invite magicians visiting Toronto to his home. Usually I would be the chauffeur, picking up the performer, driving him to Ross’ home and facilitating the discussion so that both the visiting performer and Ross had a great time. I will never forget, for example, the impact Ross had on Gary Kurtz the one time I brought Gary to visit Ross.

At that time Gary had the habit of over-proving that his hands were empty. Ross would never make a deliberate motion to show his hands empty. He casually showed his hands, often rolling them palm up in a gesture throughout the course of the routine to convey openness and emptiness during the performance. When Gary performed the coins through the table, he took great pains to turn his receding right hand palm up to the audience before he placed it under the table to catch the coins. Ross advised him not to do so.  Just move the hand directly and naturally beneath the table. You don’t have to prove that it is empty. Ross said to Gary, “When they do the East Indian Needles, they don’t initial the thread.” 

PreviewRoss Bertram

As is evident from his films, which were distributed by L & L Publishing, Ross had a great deal of unpublished material in his repertoire. In the mid-1980s, Ross started working on a third book. I would meet with him most Saturdays and he would demonstrate the material, dictating technique in the manner he had worked with Msgr. Foy, and I would write up the tricks. Most of the material is locked away on a 5 ½” floppy disk used in an old Apple IIC computer. Ross was also still interested in making films. His last film—he died before completing it—set out to document all of the moves in Erdnase. He had completed shooting footage up to and including the bottom deal. Our own projects together took a hiatus when I moved to London, England to study law at the London School of Economics. We would correspond on a regular basis and I would see him and Helen when I returned to Canada for holidays. 

After returning home to Canada to practice law, I soon became engaged. When my wife and I started a family, we named our first-born, Courtney Bertram Howlett-Ben, the Bertram obviously inserted as a tribute to Ross. Neither Ross nor Helen had any children. The birth announcement took them by surprise. As soon as the baby was born, Ross and Helen dropped off their gift. It was a two-year supply of baby clothes—two years in the sense that Ross and Helen anticipated growth spurts and purchased a range of sizes to outfit the child for two years. This is yet another example of Ross’ fastidious attention to detail.