Mike Caveney Wonders & The Conference Illusions

Two-volume set by Mike Caveney
September 13, 2017


Book Review

In my first piece here for the Lyons Den, a review of the Handsome Jack book posted in December of last year, I offered a short list of six books that had appeared in the three years since I had stopped reviewing magic books for Genii magazine, and which I considered standout titles that I had come across but not reviewed during that interim. For this month’s book review here I’ve chosen one of those works, published in 2013, because I think it is an extremely important publication that is well worth the time for both me, and my readers, to consider in depth, even a few years after its initial release. 

This is in fact a set of two books, written by Mike Caveney, and issued together as a package. Volume I is entitled Mike Caveney Wonders, and Volume II is The Conference Illusions. Together they combine to fill more than 700 pages, accompanied by 900 illustrative photographs, packaged together in a matching slipcase. The work is, in a word: mammoth.

Mike Caveney needs no introduction to readers of the conjuring literature—as performer, author, publisher, historian, collector, and co-producer of the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History. One of our most prolific contemporary writers of magic history, he has written a lot of books, most of which I have read, and many of which I have reviewed, all favorably. And these books, this package, comprise the best work he’s ever written. They comprise a record of his entire body of work as a performer—his creative performing legacy—and deliver an invaluable and timeless collection for present and future generations of magic and magicians. And they are a joy to read.

Although I had paged completely through these books when they first appeared, I had previously read only a handful of complete pieces amid the two volumes. Once I intended to review these for the Lyons Den, I elected to set them aside until I could find sufficient time to devote a couple of days to reading them entirely and attentively. It took awhile to find that time, but it was worth the wait: Those days have been a pleasure. 

Volume I: Mike Caveney Wonders

Although there are two volumes, in some ways they strike me as comprising more like four books of sorts. The first volume, Wonders, is, on the face of it, an instructional book of magic tricks and routines. But more deeply and importantly, it is a text of theory and practice about the most important subjects to address in becoming a performing magician. Wonders is a great book about method, effect, and misdirection—the workings of magic—but it is also a rare guide to issues of style, character, and presentation. And it is also about the process of learning to be a magician, and evolving from amateur, to professional, to maintaining a lifelong successful career. 

That’s a helluva a lot of ground to cover, and that’s partly why it requires 455 pages.  Yet even so, I was sorry to reach the end, because I had so much fun reading it. Wonders is sub-titled, “the long, slow process of creating magic for the real world,” and that is a supremely accurate description, and captures precisely why this is the kind of magic book I truly love to read. The author begins with an epigram from Chaucer: “The lyfe so short, the craft so long to lerne.” Truer words were never written, and this book is nothing less than six pounds of testimony to that truth.

There are 34 tricks and routines described in Wonders. Many of them have been in Caveney’s repertoire for as much as thirty or even forty years. Some of them have fallen away from his repertoire—as he points out, he hasn’t used the Linking Coat Hangers for thirty years but somehow he’s “still the guy with the coat hangers,” which demonstrates how strongly that high concept idea captured the imaginations of magicians. 

Some of these signature pieces appeared back in 1981 in the author’s first book, Magicomedy, a volume that I studied intensively at the time. (Although he is better known as a platform and stage performer, that book included some useful close-up magic, and I used his Torn-and-Restored Match as part of a longer routine back in my Magic Bartending days.) Specifically, Caveney’s routines for The Benson Bowl and the Signed Bill in Cigar first appeared in that book, along with elements of his thimble routine, all of which are here revisited in Wonders. In the case of the bowl routine, done with a rubber plunger and using the handle as a wand (a funny Duke Stern idea), the routine is now described in greatly expanded detail and accompanied by extensive photographic illustrations. If the comical prop suits you—a big “if”—this is one of the routines in the book that is within reasonable reach of adaptation by other performers. And I may as well mention now that the photographs, by Bill Taylor, are marvelous—large, full color, high quality reproductions on heavy matte paper, that contribute significantly to the overall impact and impression of both books in the set.

In the example of the Signed Bill in Cigar, the version described in Magicomedy was an early approach. As this book repeatedly demonstrates, Caveney is meticulous about method and routining, and not easily satisfied with the first thing that comes to mind, or even the first thing that works. I recall studying the original version of this routine, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that what I was seeing him perform live at conventions soon after was something else—something better. Here in these pages is the real work on a routine that is among the longest residents of the author’s working repertoire, and happens to also be of the longest duration (about eleven or twelve minutes in the author’s hands). As he points out, this piece was developed before he had gained a thorough handle on his own performance character, and hence in some ways is more generically approachable by other performers. The mechanical elements are not readily constructed, but this is another routine that could be adapted by other performers, which is not to say that many others could get twelve strong and entertaining minutes out of it.

Which serves to bring me to one of the most important observations I can make about this material, and reminds me of something I considered in the very first book review I ever wrote, in 1994, of Paul Gertner’s Steel and Silver. Therein I wrote, “…the material is so accessible, so tested, so refined and perfected, that the greatest danger to the student is that he or she may be far too tempted to use this material exactly as it is written, instead of as ore from which to mine and polish one’s own eventual gems.” This was true of Paul Gertner’s material—the result of thousands of performances in the real world by a full-time working pro—and it is equally true, for the same reasons, of Mr. Caveney’s material. The challenge for every student in facing a book like this is how—if it is even possible at all—to try to adapt the material and make it one’s own, when everything has already been honed and polished to a fine sheen by the originator. And now, as then, I offer this not in any way as a complaint, but rather as a caution. Much like the wonderful Handsome Jack book, Mr. Caveney has such a distinctly drawn character, with a fully fleshed point of view right down to a singular costume design, that most readers will be hard-pressed to lift this material and transplant it into their own repertoire.

But if the material is not readily useable, what’s left? Well, only everything.

In the author’s wise words, “The purpose of this book is not to provide you with forty minutes of new material but rather to increase your foundation of magical knowledge and to demonstrate the long, slow process that is required to create new magic routines.” And this the author accomplishes, and thoroughly—and entertainingly—so. 

Because along the way the book is filled with the real secrets of magic—not just the how, but the why. Along the way there are gems of insight and experience about sleight-of-hand technique, misdirection, an essay about comedy in magic, and some delightful personal and historical anecdotes. There’s a jumbo card force by José Frakson that is a utility technique for anyone in need of such a method. There’s a great story about how Albert Goshman would manage to travel internationally with his inventory of sponge balls for resale. And the author recounts a series of tales about smuggling a live chicken onto commercial planes that crosses into laugh-out-loud territory.

But again, some of the greatest value lies in observations like this: 

“And being original is a cinch. Anybody can do it. The challenge is being original and good at the same time. Magicians seem to have a thing about originality. As soon as they see anything original they fall all over each other trying to slap the guy on the back. They never stop to think if it was also a good idea. How many times have you seen somebody win a trophy for an original idea that was also a terrible idea?”

(My answer: I’ve lost count.)

There is much more to be found among those 34 routines, from instructive trade show material to a Sub Trunk effect with a barrel. But magicians familiar with the author’s repertoire may be surprised to learn that also included are complete details for more of his trademark routines, including the Linking Coat Hangars, complete with the real stage-filling finish that he eventually used when he was still performing this routine—a lesson, as the author observes, in “how to transform a final trick into a real closing number.” You will also find complete instructions for the Impromptu Linking Coat Hangers, the Powers of Darkness, the Ten Dollar Bill Trick, 3-Arm Juggling, Bow & Arrow, Magic Paper, and the Scissors, Coat, Silverware & Chicken. It’s almost shocking to be writing that list.

The study of these routines is consistently instructive and thought provoking, for the many reasons I’ve already identified, regardless of whether they can find use in anyone else’s repertoire. But I think the last two items are among the most interesting. Earlier this year I was working the Magi-Fest convention, where I attended an unusual lecture of Mr. Caveney’s. I’ve seen him lecture many times, and was happy to return to another, anticipating that I would likely see much that I had seen before and expected to enjoy again. Instead, I was engagingly surprised by an in-depth lecture about a single trick, “Magic Paper,” which is the author’s title for his torn-and-restored toilet tissue routine. In the lecture, as in the book, he began by explaining the method that fooled me in 1981 at the Tannen’s Jubilee. And then, in the lecture, as in the book, he went on to explore four additional methods, ending on the fifth and—at least at present—final version that he currently uses. The chapter, as did the lecture, provides a thorough tour through the painstaking pleasures and slogging sufferings of what it takes to chase the very best work one is capable of doing, and reminded me of the work of the late Tommy Wonder. In The Books of Wonder, Tommy (and Stephen Minch) described three complete methods for the Broken-and-Restored Watch, any one of which would be regarded as a crowning achievement by most magicians—and even then, Tommy made it clear he was still dissatisfied with what he considered the remaining flaws. And so there is much to be learned here for any serious student, and it is the principles and process that are most instructive, and might conceivably deliver immeasurable impact on your own work if you choose to put that value to use.

In the case of the “Scissors, Coat, Silverware & Chicken,” a routine that remains Mr. Caveney’s closer after more than thirty years, I think it’s fair to say that if you try to put this routine, including the exquisitely worked out lines and bits of business, into your own repertoire, you will no longer be pretending to be the self-described “idiot” that Mr. Caveney likes to portray himself as when onstage, but you will have genuinely become that idiot. The least of the problem is the extraordinary workmanship and detail that is required in order to build the hidden mechanisms behind the magic; the greatest problem is, yet again, the highly refined character that goes with the situation and generates the laughs behind the lines. But that said, the 44 pages the author devotes to this masterpiece make for riveting edification. The methods enabling the production of the live chicken alone amount to an expert course of study about such challenges, and there is a wealth of lessons contained that can readily be applied by creative and hard-working performers to other uses. After watching this routine for three decades, it was an enlightening and entertaining time spent studying the descriptions, and as I read it, it felt like a privilege.  And frankly, to me, that’s how the whole damn book feels in the final analysis. It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to read a book like this. 

If Wonders is a two-pronged book of magic trick manual combined with artistic instruction and inspiration, The Conference Illusions is a two-fold work as well. On the one hand this is a fabulous work of magic history, consistent with Mr. Caveney’s already well-established body of work in this arena, including books like those of his Magical Pro-files series about The Great Leon, Charles Carter, Servais LeRoy and more. On the other, and far more unusual hand, however, this is also a book about the methods and performance of stage illusions. The book’s sub-title is, “research, rethink, rebuild, and restage classic illusions from magic’s Golden Age,” but while few if any readers will be going out to recreate or perform these particular illusions, the book is rich with practical experience in the rarified literature about real-world performance of large-scale illusions. As the author explains, his recreation of these classic illusions served for him as “…a great way to learn principles, techniques and theories that can serve you throughout your magical life. … Reading about magic is great but there is no substitute for building a prop, rehearsing a routine, and then putting it on stage in front of an audience. Only then can you truly understand each nuance of a magical presentation.”

As a history book, the author’s approach is that “[e]ach chapter has been enhanced with an array of historical artifacts from the files of Egyptian Hall Museum. My hope is that seeing where these illusions come from and who developed them might inspire you to delve deeper into magic’s rich history.” Filled with full-page poster reproductions along with the vibrant live performance photographs, this entire volume is not only a guided tour given by an expert, but also aided by the richest show-and-tell accompaniment imaginable. Little more need be said on that score.

Volume II: The Conference Illusions

I’ve been a regular attendee of the biennially held Los Angeles Conference on Magic History since its fourth installment in 1995, coproduced by Mr. Caveney with Jim Steinmeyer, John Gaughan, Joan Lawton and Franki Glass (along with Ricky Jay in its earliest iteration). Until its recent and deeply mourned demise it was one of my favorite magic gatherings, and I had the chance to see most of the illusions Mr. Caveney describes in The Conference Illusions.  There are ten described in these pages, along with an opening chapter about “Magic’s Golden Age,” and a brief closing allusion to the Spirit Cabinet, intended at the time of writing as a feature for the 2013 conference.

The first illusion described, Dante’s Sawing a Lady in Half, was done at the 1993 conference, which I missed. However, I did have the chance to attend the author’s session at the 2001 MAGIC Live convention that was devoted entirely to the history of the Sawing illusion, including multiple versions performed by Kalin & Jinger, Kevin James, Greg Wilson, Jonathan Pendragon, and an unforgettable turn by David Charvet in the character of Harry Blackstone, Jr., and the result was one of the most enjoyable and memorable sessions I’ve ever attended at that conference. In the book, the author explains that in college he managed to talk a professor into allowing him to write a term paper on “The History of Sawing a Lady in Half,” a worthy educational maneuver from which he has doubtless profited in many ways since (and I don’t mean financially, although I suppose that’ may be possible in theory at least); further evidence of the truth in something my old friend Steve Spill once memorably told me, “Good work is never wasted.” But then again, this chapter also contains a piece of timeless wisdom courtesy of Mr. Caveney, to wit: “The trick isn’t technically over until your spouse has been freed from her hiding place.” Try to remember that.

This chapter includes the author’s recounting of performing Dante’s Sawing illusion not only with Dante’s original prop, but with his original assistant: the legendary Moi-Yo Miller. Reading the author’s description of advance preparations along with his firsthand experience literally gave me chills—to the degree that for a moment I felt I had witnessed it firsthand, but then realized that sadly I had not. This chapter utterly captures the reader’s imagination, and if it doesn’t make you fall in love with magic’s grand history, then I don’t know what will.

Another chapter records the recreation of Thurston’s “OH! Chair” illusion, an illusion with a history of stellar names attached, from de Kolta and Morritt to Maskelyne to Devant. This runs some 45 pages, and again, provides a fascinating historical tour de force, focused on a single illusion.

The Orson Welles Act was a conference recreation of a performance that a young Caveney himself assisted in when Orson Welles performed on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson in 1976. The chapter recounts some delightful history of the author’s fortuitous connection with Welles, while it also provides an excellent instruction manual of how to properly perform the oft-abused Tip-Over Trunk, and examines some of the inner secrets of how to properly apply the original mirror illusion—the Sphinx mirror—in a later application, The Sedan Chair. If you pay attention, you might really learn something about illusions from this chapter alone.

My personal favorite here however is the 32 pages devoted to Walter Jeans’ and Percy Selbit’s—and eventually, among others, Charles Carter’s—Million Dollar Mystery illusion, which the author proclaims as “my favorite magic trick of all time.” (Like many of the conference illusions, this piece saw multiple public performances at the Magic Castle after its conference debut.) There are several reasons for my own fondness and fascination. The technology of this illusion is remarkable, and I’m almost sorry to see it laid out so readily for the apprehension of any magician, because I guarantee that many—many—who witnessed it were quite thoroughly flummoxed by it. Indeed, I distinctly recall thinking, as I was watching that performance, that I would have given anything imaginable in return for the ability to get inside the head of one of the handful of laymen present in that room, and experience what they were actually feeling and thinking in that moment. To me, the magic was utterly impossible and seemingly beyond explanation for any non-magician, and even for magicians other than illusionists already familiar with the principles.

Too, I had been personally involved with putting the principle to work in 1999 when I proposed that we put it to use in a piece created for Penn & Teller’s television variety series, Penn & Teller’s Sin City Spectacular. With the assistance of Johnny Thomspon, we created a dance and production number that was one of the more technically demanding illusions of the series. Mr. Caveney in fact mentions Penn & Teller in his list of performers that have put the 1912 invention to use, including David Copperfield, Doug Henning, Luis de Matos, and Siegfried and Roy. Yet when I saw Caveney & Company present Charles Carter’s version at the History Conference, as much as I knew about it, I was entranced and enchanted by the unforgettable performance. It was literally breathtaking, and a genuinely perfect execution and exploitation of the device.

Throughout these rich and rewarding pages, there is a deeper lesson to be found, which Mr. Caveney does not explicitly address, but seems to me to be implicitly present throughout. Namely that these are illusions performed in the classical manner: They are, above all, talked. There is no blasting music, no bouffant hairdos, no wind machines, no posing, posturing, or pretense—seeming requirements, or at least standard equipment, in the majority of illusion acts for the past several decades. These illusions are deeply deceptive, and clearly potentially entertaining. It is a shame that in most real life venues, “grand illusion” has today become so far less … grand.

Have I talked you into the importance of having these books on your shelves—no matter what branch of magic most interests or compels you? Even if you are not a student of magic history or illusions, if you wish to gain some insight into these subjects, with a truly marvelous guide at hand, then these are the books you will enjoy. If you are a close-up worker thinking about putting together your first twenty- or thirty-minute banquet set so you can up your fee—then these are the books you will love. And if you just love magic books, well, these are books you will adore, because they are gorgeous. The pair are produced with beautiful two-piece clothbound covers with two-color foil stamping, and come in a matching slipcase. And the entire set comes in a custom manufactured and printed shipping box, that you will likely wish to keep as well, although removed from this outer enclosure, the slipcased set will look gorgeous on your shelf.

Early in this review I stated baldly that these books amount to the best of Mr. Caveney’s many written works. I think this is because the subject matter is so personal, and that the author set himself free of past constraints and, in the five years of work it took to create these books, allowed himself to reveal his passions and his joys, his personal voice, to the reader. Unlike a traditional historical biography or illusion study, here the author was not enslaved to the historical record, to the demands of academic requisites. Instead he is not merely recording history or technical information—although these elements are certainly present in the mix—but he is telling, first and last, his own personal story—his “legacy” as he has referred to it on the Magic Words website—and he exercises the literary freedom that allows his personal voice to come through. The writing is engaging, stylish, often humorous, and a pleasure to read. When I say this is his best writing, I do not say so lightly.

In the closing pages of his book, the author offers this conjecture: “My hope is that upon seeing this book, [Jim Steinmeyer and John Gaughan] will look back upon their own Conference illusions and someday put into to print the story of each effect’s journey back to the stage. That is a trilogy I would dearly love to have in my library.”

That is indeed a thought-provoking notion. So far, we only have volume one of that trilogy. It’s already been out for four years. It’s still available. What the hell are you waiting for?

Two-Volume Set: Mike Caveney Wonders: 9 by 11.5 inches; 456 pages; 570 photographs; The Conference Illusions: 9 by 11.5 inches; 256 pages; 330 photographs. Published in 2013 by Mike Caveney’s Magic Words $240 plus postage, available from the publisher

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