Interpreting Magic, From Beyond

January 10, 2020


Book Reviews

Interpreting Magic

by David Regal

David Regal and I might seem to have a lot in common. We both grew up in New York City and migrated to Southern California. We are both magicians who do close-up magic and stage magic, among other sub-genres of the conjuring arts. We are both writers—Interpreting Magic is the fourth major collection of original work that Regal has himself written. We have both produced instructional magic videos. We’ve both lectured to magicians internationally, and appeared at magic conventions, both major and minor. We both have IMDB pages, and have written and produced for television. We’ve both consulted for other magicians. And we’ve both been regular performers at the Magic Castle for decades.

But before you think that paragraph is intended to be self-aggrandizing, take note: When I look at Regal’s work, I feel like we have next to nothing in common. And that’s why our apparent similarities are of interest to me, and, more importantly, so very relevant to the contents of his new book, Interpreting Magic.

Regal set out for show business pretty early in life, becoming a regular performer in the New York based comedy troupe, “Chicago City Limits.” He moved to Los Angeles to be a real honest-to-goodness television writer, and his writing credits include major series like “Dharma & Greg” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.” (My IMDB page is different and far less impressive.) Not only that, but he’s also a bona fide comedy writer; I get laughs in my act, but Regal writes actual jokes. He’s also been the magic producer for the uniquely conceived “Carbonaro Effect,” now in its fifth season, where Regal has helped to create magic for hundreds and hundreds of segments for the show—and, without a single card trick. Oh, and his guy on “Celebrecadabra” won (which, if you were lucky enough to miss it, is about all you need to know about that project).

But wait, there’s more. Regal is constantly creating entirely new acts for his performances in the Close-up Gallery at the Magic Castle; one of those acts was done entirely with Rainbow Decks, and three of those routines are described in his new book. Ninety-nine percent of the magic I’ve published, lectured about, or marketed is based on sleight-of-hand card magic. Regal, on the other hand, is a damn inventor—he dreams up cool stuff, and then makes it. He thrives at arts and crafts, an aspect of magic I avoid whenever possible. Not only that, he invents and manufactures incredibly clever stuff, and then singlehandedly gets it manufactured and professionally packaged. And these are items that don’t get washed away in the flood of crap that is distributed in magic shops, but rather Regal’s stuff become greatest hits… effects like Sudden Deck and the Disposable Deck. Or, in some cases, his items are both so damned clever and popular—like the Clarity Box—that they get ripped off instantly, and internationally. I feel for the guy every time that happens. (And I’m not kidding. It’s infuriating to watch.)

So when I look at all that—all those strengths, skills, and accomplishments—I realize, indeed, it becomes abundantly obvious—that Regal and I have virtually nothing in common. And quite honestly, that just fills me with wonder, and respect, and on occasion, envy. (Okay, the Rainbow Deck thing not so much.) Don’t we all want to be a little more like David? I know I do.

And that, in many ways, is what Interpreting Magic is about.

Admittedly, this took me awhile to realize. At first I thought it was another Regal book—filled to the brim with clever and original material, from close-up card magic with an ordinary deck, to standup material that packs small and plays big, and can do first-rate service for corporate workers.

And believe me, there’s plenty of all that between the covers of Interpreting Magic. More than sixty routines, in fact, that also include comedy magic, mental magic, magic with coins, bills, finger rings, and more. The first trick in the book is a multi-phase, multi-effect card routine that requires nothing more than a couple of Elmsley and Jordan counts—you’ll read it, do it immediately, and then quite possibly add it to you repertoire.

In the close-up section there’s an assembly done with geodes (yes, geodes) that requires… more. There’s an easily constructed prop with which a signed card eventually appears in a dual photo picture frame. In what may well amount to the most extraordinary claim amid this review, there’s a routine with sponge bunnies that is capable of closing a formal close-up act, as the author did at the Magic Castle. This same section includes a superbly practical close-up pad/servante combination. There’s also a finger ring routine that contains an extraordinarily magical vanish that you’ve never seen before. I wish I had seen it before reading it as it would probably have fried me.

There are other clever do-it-yourself devices described, including a utility switching device utilizing a clipboard; a perfect quick bit of producing a wand from a card box immediately after removing an ordinary deck from the same box; a nice method for glimpsing a drawing or word written on one of a stack of business cards; and an apparently ordinary takeout coffee cup than can transform just about anything it will cover into something else entirely.

There’s an entire chapter describing four distinctly different monte-themed routines, all of which require double-stick tape. When you’ve ordered or picked up the book, buy a roll on your way home. These aren’t the only routines that require it. David Regal gets a lot of mileage out of double-stick tape.

In the standup and stage section there’s a comedy mental magic routine that is perfectly useable as is, but is also valuable if only for the way in which the prediction is revealed, and which could be readily adapted to other themes. There’s a new design for a card-in-wallet that you can make yourself (or purchase from the author) that provides a foolproof and speedy load into a zippered compartment by different means than the usual path of entry. There’s a utility switching device that is going to be worth the price of the book to someone, in which a folded card or bill is seen to be isolated in a clear wine bottle, and yet is switched out at the last moment with utter and absolute cleanliness (this would fool you if you saw it). There’s a signed-bill-in-impossible-location routine that fills the stage, is inherently comedic, utilizes an ordinary (if hilariously unlikely) assortment of nested props, beginning with a backyard trash barrel, and that will (and has) fooled well-posted magicians. And there’s a new take on the Tossed-Out Deck, in which the effect is (accurately) described by the author as follows:

A deck is examined and shuffled by a spectator. The performer places rubber bands around the deck, and it is sent into the audience where three people each peek at a card. The performer deduces the cards being thought of. The deck is never switched.

That version you’re doing kinda seems to suck now, doesn’t it?

This section also includes the complete details of the author’s device, routine and handling for the Linking Finger Rings. While he sells the device, the routine is among the better ones in the literature (and I say this as someone who has amassed more than twenty such routines in my research collection on the subject), and is worthy of careful study and consideration.

But here’s the thing: I haven’t gotten to the good part yet.

Interpreting Magic runs five hundred and fifty-three pages, describing “more than sixty routines for close-up, parlor and stage.” However, about two hundred of those pages contain no trick descriptions whatsoever. Rather, that third or so of the book’s contents is comprised of thirty-one “conversations” and interviews with professional magicians and magic creators, most or all of whom will already be known to readers.

Since my youth I’ve been a great fan of reading the introductions to magic books (as I’ve written about in the essay “Making Introductions” in Preserving Mystery). What often serves to render many introductions more timeless than the main content of the books they serve to introduce is that the introduction is the one place the author got to offer his opinions and thoughts about magic theory and performance. This has eventually changed, particularly since the early Eighties, thanks substantially to the writings of Eugene Burger. Burger freed up writers of magic books to range beyond mere trick descriptions, to explore theory, presentation, performance craft and more.

Along those lines, in Interpreting Magic the author scatters his own invaluable thoughts and opinions about theory, along with some funny anecdotes, into essays and other accompanying elements scattered throughout the book. This material includes commentaries about “Staging, Structure & Conditions,” “Plot,” an extremely important subject of finding and providing “Reasons” for every element and action present in your magic, and a distinctly confessional memoir piece. But in the thirty-one conversations with (mostly) professional magicians, each offers their own unique stories and perspectives, and their experiences and commentaries vary widely. Many of them, in response to the author’s questioning, provide accounts of the pathways they took in life and career, and what eventually rises to the surface is the realization—once you get past the origin tales of first tricks/shops/books/etc.—that the rest of the narratives are all so widely and wildly different. Gaudi said, “There are no straight lines in nature,” and clearly, neither are there any in the many paths to a career in magic.

Regal writes, “By reading the interviews that I’ve included in this book, I hope one can’t help but be overwhelmed by some commonalities shared by these performers and contributors to our art... All of them took steps, and proceeded with movement.... Even when the eventual destination was not clear, and the rewards were not immediate.”

But this lesson is only one of many to be mined from those two hundred pages of conversation. Read Suzanne’s thoughts on why you have to think carefully about when to look your assisting spectator in the eye, and why “You need to look when you know they are safe…” To read Teller’s thoughts on “action, passion and perception” in theater, or his thinking behind the construction of his routine for the Needles, is priceless, considering he has yet to write his own book of magic for us (House of Mystery and Germain the Wizard notwithstanding). Mac King, Martin Lewis, Lance Burton, David Roth, and Max Maven provided some of my favorite pieces here—your mileage will surely vary—sometimes for evocative historical anecdotes, other times for sheer laughs. I am sure I will pull this sizable volume from the shelf more than once in the future, more likely than not to re-read some of these contributions; while a few of these pages give off the inescapable whiff of self-promotion by the interviewee, most are filled with authentic personal revelation.

All of this comes in a well-produced volume, printed on glossy paper, illustrated with more than a thousand crisp color photographs, accompanying technical descriptions that are reminiscent in the clarity and personal immediacy of one of Mr. Regal’s great influences, Harry Lorayne (complete with sandwich tricks and indeed multiple versions of card assemblies that we—okay, maybe you—so deeply crave). Regal is also nothing if not diplomatic, not only occasionally in his approach to crediting, but also in his arrangement of the thirty-one “conversations” in alphabetical order. I told you he was a smart guy.

In his concluding thoughts, David Regal observes of his interview subjects that “What all have managed to do is contribute in ways unique to themselves,” and that “If you are reading this book, you are part of magic’s life. You form its present and inform its future.”

By thoughtfully considering these conversations and revelations—along with the fine magic described in the remaining three-hundred-plus pages—a book like this reminds us that each of us brings something unique to magic, to our personal interpretation, and to our particular experience in the art. Replete with explicit tales and advice born of real-world experience, this is a book that, upon considered reading, might well help to shape your particular present and future, and help inform you as to how to create your own unique part in “magic’s life.” If you consider the panoply of ideas in this book carefully, it cannot help but assist you in that quest.

Interpreting Magic by David Regal (2019). 8½” x 11” clothbound hardcover with foil stamping and laminated dustjacket, 553 pages with over 1,000 color photographs. Published by Blue Bikes Productions. Available online for $75.


PreviewEugene Burger

Eugene Burger: From Beyond

By Lawrence Hass and Eugene Burger

Eugene Burger was a close friend and a powerful influence for more than thirty years, and I’ve written about him not only in my books, but also here in this Take Two column, and again in this subsequent remembrance shortly after his death in 2017. As both friend and acolyte of sorts, I cannot help but seek any newly released material associated with him. And after the disappointing (through no fault of Eugene’s) assemblage comprising the first posthumous work, Teaching Magic, I confess I approached this next release with not a little trepidation.

It turns out that From Beyond comes much closer to providing what I, and we all, hope for in a Eugene Burger work. Eugene had a lot to do with this book, and it shows. Much of it really sounds like him, and it feels like he is speaking directly to the reader. As a friend, it was a joyous experience to have what at times felt like a new conversation with Eugene.

The concept of From Beyond came to life well before Eugene’s death, a book he had planned with Lawrence Hass, intended to release material that either had never been published, or to add significant new elements about material that had previously seen the light of day in print or video or lecture form. The entire conception is, in a way, a beautiful prank, played by Eugene on his adoring readers. As he explains quite directly in his “Letter to the Reader” composed in 2016, he intended for this book (which has transformed into two volumes, the second of which is currently planned for release in 2020) to “complete the record,” so that nothing in Eugene’s repertoire is left unrecorded. At the same time, it is being done in a way that leaves him—left him—entirely free of any criticism or complaint! To have known Eugene, and to read what he says both explicitly and implicitly in these pages, is to realize that this project is infected with Eugene’s sense of playfulness and mischief thoroughly intact. You can almost hear him laughing at us, and with us—and he knows that, as in some of his best performances, it’s a healthy laugh tinged with just enough creepiness to render it… interesting. Just as in his magic, as ever, Eugene was engaged in the work seriously, but not solemnly.

I loved the man, first and foremost, and the work as well, and both are satisfyingly present in these new pages. There are sixteen routines described—close-up, standup, and “spirit theater” pieces—along with essays, scripts, and conversations between Eugene and Larry Hass, as well as with Bob Neale (who co-authored with Eugene the book Magic and Meaning), and invaluable pertinent elements from Max Maven and Danny Orleans. In the latter case, while Eugene had previously published work on his iconic Burned and Restored Thread, here we get every last detail that might not have been included or covered in previous releases, along with Danny Orleans’s firsthand contributions based on having been personally taught the routine decades ago and regularly performing it ever since.

Knowing Eugene for as long and as well as I did, I had been privy to some of the secrets publicly revealed in these pages for the first time. In the case of the Shotglass Surprise, I possess a box of versions, accumulated as Eugene sent me every new iteration, every new glass, and every different cover device, until he eventually reached the final version he devised to his satisfaction. When I co-created (with D.W. “Chip” Denman) a theatrical séance for the National Capital Area Skeptics in 1986, following the release of Spirit Theater, Eugene tipped one part of the secret to his handling of the Spirit Slates to me, but only a part. And many years ago, Eugene tipped a signature card routine to me, which I believe will appear in the second volume, but with the instruction that “You can only do it once I’m dead!” And so, fortunately for all, I will not be the only one to have been gifted with that benediction.

All this, and more, because with the new book comes the release (and the passworded access) to thirteen videos and two audio recordings of Eugene performing much of the material described in these pages. There are even a couple of pieces here that I had never seen before, and it is not only immensely instructive, but positively thrilling, to witness this material now, and to gain access to these treasures that are, truly, despite the cliché, worth the price of the book.

Fortunately as well, From Beyond is produced consistently with the five large format books of Eugene’s that were published by Kaufman & Greenberg. It not only reads (mostly albeit not entirely) like a Eugene Burger book, it looks and feels like one, and for one who has pored over every word of those books countless times through more than thirty years, it adds to the satisfying experience of entering and exploring this new one.

In Take Two #39: Saying Goodbye, I recount an experience I had with Eugene years ago, in the one and only instance in which I included something negative in a review of one of his books. His response to that incident remains for me an object lesson in strength of character, to which some others have not always measured up. In the spirit of that knowledge of Eugene, and of our friendship, I will take issue here with one idea Eugene puts forward in From the Beyond that I would have happily discussed and even debated with him had I had the chance. But I do not, so I will leave this incomplete conversation here as tribute, because I know he would have appreciated my questioning of his position.

The core of Eugene’s writings, fabulously collected in those six big books, reflect a particular underlying aspect of its author that has, in my view, been gradually and increasingly overlooked in Eugene’s later years: namely, that he was, in every sense of the word, a worker. In his introduction to the Don Alan book (among the most valuable pages in that entire volume), he cites Alan as a “pivotal influence,” and goes on to explain why and how. In many ways, as I have often said, Eugene Burger was Don Alan in spirit drag. His effects were clear and powerful. His methods were clean and practical. He ruthlessly “eliminated non-moments,” avoiding dead spots like the plague, and providing transitions between tricks. And among the most important aspects of his approach to creating presentations and writing scripts was that he was a relentless editor. A chapter in From the Beyond provides invaluable evidence of Eugene’s rewriting habits. And his signature “Thread of Life and Death,” created by a man who could have spent hours lecturing on the subject matter off the top of his head, was above all a stellar example of this most important part of writing: it was a perfect piece of editing.

So Eugene, despite common perceptions, was only infrequently a storyteller in his work, and nor was he a big fan of that type of presentation. And on the few occasions when he did use a story presentation, he wrote and spoke often about using them to provide his performancess with “breadth and texture.” He did do an experimental performance once that I attended, in which he combined almost his entire handful of story presentations into a single performance; it was interesting, but it was far from his habit. And neither was Eugene much of a mystic, and his rational worldview had something to do with why he never performed pure mentalism—a subject we discussed at our very first meeting in 1984.

And so when Eugene burst on the scene with Secrets and Mysteries for the Close-up Entertainer, and began his impactful journey in the art and culture of close-up magic and upon our thinking about presentation and scripting, one of his most insistent messages was that, “Presentation is that point where you put yourself into your magic. [and] Imitation is the attempt to put someone else into your magic.” [Ref: “On Imitation” in Eugene Burger on Matt Schulien’s Fabulous Card Discoveries (1983)] In the same essay he also wrote: “When you look at the amount of presentational copying there is on the contemporary magic scene, don’t you think it’s a little outrageous?”

Eugene certainly did. And he wrote about it at great length, and with great substance and insight, throughout most of his life. He believed these ideas passionately, as both a worker, and as an artist.

I believe he was right. And, too, that those principles remain and do, and should, hold fast, as fundamental principles in any art, not only the art that is magic.

But, there’s a coda to this, and it’s found in the pages of From Beyond, in which Eugene offers a slight change of heart regarding this subject. He suggests that the ability to create original presentations is a “gift”of sorts, and that not everyone has it.

Well, that’s nonsense. Creativity is just plain hard work—work that you get better at with practice—and as Eugene pointed out in another one of his earlier books, many are simply unwilling to do the work. Like the young man who, Eugene recounted, once approached him and performed one of Eugene’s own routines for him—word for word—an act for which he found himself promptly chastised. 

Now for what it’s worth, I will offer a personal theory about Eugene’s change of position; one side of a conversation I am otherwise unable to complete.

In later years, while Eugene still performed of course, he performed in increasingly select settings and venues. Thanks to his role as Dean of Mystery School, he was able to leave the trenches of restaurant and corporate event strolling magic behind him. Good for him!

But I have little doubt that many of his students at the school reflected an exceptionally broad range of personal motivations and abilities. Many would come for companionship with like-minded people, and access to wonderful magicians whose work they regarded highly—regardless of whether they would really ever learn to perform, much less become original artists.

And so while this opinion may not be popular in some quarters (although I caution readers to consult and recall the lesson of Eugene’s response to my critical review of a book of his), I believe that Eugene increasingly saw himself as a teacher of more than magic. And as not only a teacher and mentor, but also as a life counselor, and even occasionally, as a therapist of sorts. I understand this, because this is often a part of what serious teaching entails—a subject that Eugene and I discussed many times, as we both took teaching extremely seriously as a part of our respective work in magic.

In that context, the message that originality is an inescapable requirement—when you are no longer dealing with a handful of private students, but rather a steady flow of class registrants and attendees—might well become an increasingly difficult one to impose, and may come to feel excluding, if not even cruel at times.

In David Regal’s conversation with Eugene in Interpreting Magic, David asks, “Is it important to always be honest?” Eugene replies: “These are tough questions. I mean, if you had to choose between honesty and kindness, now what?… My tendency is, when I have to choose between kindness and honesty, to go with kindness.”

I understand, Eugene. I do. Even if we occasionally disagree.

Eugene Burger: From Beyond by Lawrence Hass and Eugene Burger (2019). 8½” x 11” hardcover with laminated dustjacket, 240 pages, including a coated stock full-color section. Published by Art and Theory of Magic Press. Available online or from dealers for $79.95

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