Take Two #19: Jean Valton
In several previous installments of Take Two, including those devoted to Lance Burton and to two young Korean prize-winning manipulators, Lukas Lee and Yu Ho Jin, I’ve mentioned the international conference and magic competition held every three years by the magic association known as FISM.
The vision of an international gathering of magicians (as opposed to national or regional conferences) was first proposed in 1937 by Dr. Jules Dhotel, professional physician and active amateur magician and magical author. But while the first such gathering was planned and intended to be held in October of 1939, that event, announced in March, was cancelled upon Hitler’s invasion of Poland in April and the onset of World War II. The idea, noble and ambitious as it may be, would have to wait another six years.
In 1946, the first International Congress of Magicians was held in Amsterdam. As part of the program of events, twenty contestants entered the contest, which at the time lacked any kind of categorizing of the competition entries. First prize went to a French amateur magician, for performing an act of remarkably skilled and technically demanding card manipulation. His name was Jean Valton.
In 1947, the Congrès Magique International was held, at which the attendance rose from 300 in 1946 to 500. The contest, this time extended over three days, now attracted 70 contestants, who competed within separate categories of magic, although more than half featured card manipulation. In the newly created category of Manipulation, the winner was declared: Jean Valton. By the conclusion of the gathering, it was announced that going forward, more magical organizations would be invited to take part in the conference, under the new heading of the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques. Thus: FISM!
At the 1948 Congress, of about fifty competitors, the First Prize for Manipulation went to: Jean Valton.
As it turns out, Jean Valton did not compete at the first FISM conference, which took place in 1949 in Brussels, Belgium, but he did perform on stage as part of a gala show.
And at the 1950 FISM gathering, rather than compete, Jean Valton performed yet again, and this time was given one of three special awards presented that year, in his case, the “Hors Concours” award, meaning “not allowed to compete.”
This astounding record of victories has rarely been matched. But more important for the story at hand, it is clear that Valton was a force to be reckoned with at the birth of international magic competitions. And manipulative magic would continue as the category that would dominate the Grand Prix prize for many years to come. Notably, the Dutchman, Fred Kaps, widely considered to be the greatest manipulative magician of his era, if not perhaps the greatest all-around magician of the time, would go on to win the FISM Grand Prix, its highest prize, no less than three times, each time for his work in the category of Manipulation. (And we will return to Kaps’ work another day.)
Recently, Max Maven brought to my attention that video was now available of two of Valton's stage acts. I did not know these existed, and had never seen recordings of Valton’s work. (The recounting above of this select portion of the history of FISM was based on Max Maven’s remarkable history, which appeared in the April, 1997 issue of Genii magazine. I highly recommend interested readers and researchers to track down this invaluable work.) I was fascinated by the opportunity to finally see these two performances by the legendary Valton.
The first, featuring card manipulation, is very much of the era. Card manipulation in particular and manipulative magic in general often suffers from an artistic sensibility characterized more by jugglery than by the appearance or sensation of magic. Here the act consists almost entirely of outright juggling, with only a few moments that could by any stretch be considered manipulative magic, and even then, that magic is not terribly magical. But Valton’s skills are formidable, to be sure. They are by any standard, then or now, breathtaking, and while the deliberate manner of presentation often seems more like a demonstration than a performance, the smoothness and calm consistency of his work is literally incredible, and it is all impeccably executed. Even today’s practitioners of “cardistry,” the contemporary movement of card juggling founded by Dan & Dave Buck, aka the Buck Twins (and yet another subject for another day), would have to pause at a few of Valton’s achievements, much less the fact that he was winning prizes for this work in the 1940s.
So put down that smart phone, expand the browser, turn up the sound a bit, and prepared to be amazed by the award-winning card manipulations of the legendary Jean Valton!
This second video features Valton’s act of manipulative magic performed with lit cigarettes. Yes, that’s possible! (And we will look at least one other famous example of this in a future Take Two.) This act is far more magical and certainly quite mystifying. How the heck does he manage to make quantities of lit cigarettes appear, eh?
You are also watching here a form of magic that, due to changing cultural tastes (thankfully driven of course by health issues), is now virtually extinct. But if you can put aside your possible distaste at all that smoke, you should certainly discern that the skills required in this performance are remarkable indeed. And don’t think he didn’t get burned time and time again in the course of the countless hours of practice this required! Above all, it is my pleasure to pay tribute to what had for too long been a name without a face, an award without an act, but now can be seen for all to appreciate, and wonder at: Jean Valton.
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