Take Two #23: The Linking Rings
The Not So Ancient, Maybe Not So Chinese, Linking Rings
The “Ancient Chinese Linking Rings,” as so many magicians like to introduce this classic magic routine, is probably neither Chinese nor ancient—or at least not as ancient as some would have us believe. But the Linking Rings certainly qualify as a genuine classic in the annals of magic.
The debut installment of Take Two was devoted to a single magic trick, the Torn and Restored Cigarette Paper. My interest in the Linking Rings is intended to focus on a point addressed in that first essay: namely, that magic is largely an interpretive art, and that it is invariably the singer, not the song, that makes for beautiful and effective art.
I’ve always found it amusing that in the course of my life, each of my personal partners have invariably pronounced that there is some particular magic trick they’ve always disliked—most often either the Linking Rings, or the Cut-and-Restored Rope (they just say, “the rope trick”). This is always early in our relationship, before they’ve been exposed to a lot of magic.
I never debate these pronouncements, and I never actively try to convince them otherwise, for example by showing them a video, because magic is greatly diluted in recorded form, and will rarely overcome such preexisting judgments. Instead, I simply wait, patiently, until the opportunity presents itself to expose them to a great live performance. Usually, a firsthand experience of the likes of Mac King or Michael Finney performing their outstanding rope routines, or Chris Capehart or Peter Samelson performing the Linking Rings, is enough to elicit an exclamation along the lines of, “Y’know, I never liked that trick before, but that was amazing!”
I am sympathetic to the negative judgments, as people can certainly tire of being exposed to less than stellar examples of standard material. But I also don’t put much stock in such judgments, just as I wouldn’t put much stock in a survey that concludes that people generally don’t like the classics of magic. Without being tied to specific performances, experienced in real-life conditions, such generic survey questions mean about as much as my partners’ pronouncements about the Linking Rings: effectively, nothing. Show me surveys of audiences watching real performances by capable performers, and then we can talk. Oh, except that we don’t really need a survey, do we? Because the answer comes in the cheers and applause one immediately hears from the audience.
People are tired of classics in magic? Meh.
Yeah, and nobody should ever cover the “great American songbook” either. Who the hell wants to hear those songs again, right?
So, back to those awful, boring, Linking Rings. Well, we’ll get to that part in just a moment. As to the “ancient Chinese” thing, we’re not exactly certain about the origins of the trick. There is an oft-repeated story that the trick was introduced to western magicians by a traveling Chinese performance troupe, but the specifics of this claim have never been nailed down. We do have a couple of performers doing the Rings in the early and mid-19th century, however (which is old, but surely not ancient). According to Robert-Houdin (who himself performed a version), the French magician known as Philippe did the trick in the early 1800s. Ching Ling Foo, a very successful Chinese magician who toured in the west in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, performed a version, as did his competitor, Chung Ling Soo (who was actually an American, William Robinson).
But until recently, evidence for the trick prior to the 19th century has been weak. There are those who would believe, for example, that the so-called Borromean Rings (an image of three topological circles impossibly linked), an image that dates back to the 7th century, offers evidence of early versions of the Linking Rings. I am not one of those believers.
However, in the May 2016 issue of Genii magazine, Max Maven presented a lengthy and fascinating feature about a rare Japanese book, entitled Hokasen ("Street Performing Collection"), written in 1764 by Hirase Hose. Following Maven's substantive historical introduction, the piece presents an English translation (by Dan Sherer) of the book accompanied by commentary from Max. In short: following a remarkable entry that describes the Cups and Balls, there is a clear description, accompanied by illustrations, of "The Iron Rings," which is none other than the Linking Rings, as we know it. With this revelation, the origins of the Linking Rings are now firmly estabalished to date at least back to the 18th century (and as Max points out, there is a tantalizing mention by Cardano, 1550, of street performance circa 1530 that may or may not have been what we regard as the Linking Rings, as the description is sketchy). And while I will not detail the discussion here, Max also addresses the Japanese dubbing of the rings as Chinese, but goes on to explore why in fact we cannot be certain at present of the true origins, which could be Japanese, Chinese, or even Western. And Max concludes: "So, the origin of the Linking Rings remains in darkness. I'm quite happy to assign them Chinese parentage. But their first known explanation in print is here, in Hokasen."
The Hokasen entry describes a three-phase routine utilizing up to five rings. Chung Ling Soo used ten rings, and Ching Ling Foo even more, and as the 20th century progressed, magicians simplified and streamlined the routine. Today there are popular routines with six rings, five, four, three, and even two—and few magicians use more than six these days (although Levent teaches his eleven-ring routine on his comprehensive instructional video). These various quantities lend different opportunities and different textures to the routine, along with the performer’s original style and personality.
No video can do justice to magic in general, and the Linking Rings in particular. The screen is a barrier to the genuine experience and impact of magic. As I often remind readers, your ability to appreciate the work will depend on what effort you invest in having the best experience. So: put the smart phone aside, please. Expand the browser. Turn up the sound. And most importantly—particularly because I’m providing several routines here—please extend each artist the courtesy of watching each routine in full, from start to finish (I think I mentioned setting the phone aside for a few minutes, please.). If you want to take a break after a couple of these, I have no objection—I realize that six routines are definitely too many to watch in one sitting (and there are several other fine routines available online as well!). Watch two, or maybe three, then take a pause. But when you come back: please, watch each in complete form.
I have mentioned, but not yet written about at length, Dai Vernon. Better known as “The Professor,” Vernon is the single most influential conjuring artist of the 20th century. Among many other achievements and impacts, he created the most influential Cup and Balls routine of the century, and as well, the most influential Linking Rings routine, entitled “The Symphony of the Rings.” The first complete description of the routine was published in 1958. It remains a standard today and many popular professional routines are based on Vernon’s, which is wide open to individual interpretation. Vernon did not create this routine out of whole cloth. Rather, like so much of his work, he served as orchestrator. He selected the best from a century or more of work that preceded him, then arranged it, and by adding his own original ideas and approach—what many refer to as “The Vernon Touch”—he made a habit of creating wholes that were significantly greater than the sum of their parts.
It therefore makes a great deal of sense to begin with Vernon’s routine—which is performed with six rings. He sometimes performed this routine accompanied by spoken word scripting; in his legendary Harlequin Act, he performed it silently, emphasizing its grace and visuality. This recording is not the highest quality or resolution, but it is a beautiful performance, when Vernon was in his 70s. We are fortunate that this recording exists, and I hope you can appreciate it even in this form. Please give it the attention it warrants. It is, truly, a grand work of art.
Jay Marshall was the Dean of the Society of American Magicians, and one of the greatest comic stage magicians of the 20th century. Jasper, as his friends called him, appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show more times than any other magician, headlined more than once at the London Palladium, and opened for Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas—among countless other credits. He also owned and operated (along with his wife, Frances Ireland Marshall) one of America’s greatest magic stores, Magic, Inc., (which still stands today in Chicago with his son, Sandy, now supervising). In his later years, Jay was a constant adviser to the best magicians in the world, being one of several walking, talking encyclopedias of the art, along with Billy McComb and John Thompson in the United States, and Pat Page and Ali Bongo in Great Britain.
Here is a recording of Jay Marshall performing his five-ring routine at Magic, Inc. in 1996. I hadn’t watched a version of this routine in quite some years, and in watching it now, Jay got me laughing out loud, yet again, as he often did, time and time before.
Pop Haydn is a veteran performer who has written a number of excellent books about street cons used in performance by magicians (i.e., the Shell Game and the Three-Card Monte). He is also an award-winning regular at the famed Magic Castle in Hollywood. His ring routine uses four rings, and was honed decades ago during his years as a street busker. Note that as we look at different approaches to the performance of this classic, Pop’s focus is on the interaction with his audience volunteer. The magic is excellent; the interaction goes above and beyond that.
The Dutch magician, Richard Ross, won the FISM Grand Prix, the international competition’s highest award, in 1970 and then again in 1973 (which means back-to-back wins, as the convention is held every three years). Known by and large as a “manipulator,” in ’73 Ross featured an astonishing, game-changing Linking Ring routine that was performed primarily with three rings. (Almost oddly, a fourth ring was briefly introduced for one sequence, then removed and placed aside.) Ross’s routine was not the first three-ring routine; British performers Al Koran and Ken Brooke had preceded him. But Ross’s style was something very different: Slow, graceful, performed silently to music, and featuring several new techniques. It remains beautiful and distinctive.
Paul Daniels was, for many years, the best-known magician in England, thanks to having starred in several of his own weekly television series. A product of the rough-and-tumble world of the post-war British “men’s clubs,” Paul was a terrifically strong performer who could handle situations and conditions that would defeat most practitioners.
Paul’s routine features three rings, and could not be more different than the Richard Ross routine. As with Pop Haydn, the emphasis is on the interaction. Paul designed this routine to be performed with a child, typically a little girl. There is a marvelous video of Paul performing with a little girl named Blue, which unfortunately seems to have disappeared from the online world for the present. Hence I am posting this version instead, which is not as good, because the woman is an adult. Also she is so oddly comfortable on the stage that while she’s a lot of fun and fodder for Paul, she is also very challenging to manage, and Paul’s experience shows, because he goes with it rather than panicking or fighting her, and makes a unique performance out it all—before a huge audience of thousands at a FISM stage show which for which he is serving as M.C.
Chris Capehart is not only one of America’s greatest street performers, a veteran magic “busker,” who came up working the streets, but is also an award-winning stage performer who performs in all kinds of settings, from theaters to private and corporate events, to the Magic Castle, and is a longtime headliner at Monday Night Magic (which I co-produce), New York’s longest-running Off-Broadway show.
Chris has a number of classic routines for which he is particularly known, but none is more so than his stellar version of the Linking Rings. It is a great favorite of mine, of which I genuinely never tire watching live.
Okay, with six versions of one particular magical classic, nobody needs bonus routines. But, just in case, here are two more of which I am fond.
Tom Frank is another veteran street performer, a great sleight-of-hand artist who has mastered several versions of the Linking Rings. This is not the routine he does most of the time, but it is a rarely seen five-ring routine created by the great Jack Miller. I’m particularly fond of the Miller routine, which was done to perfection and used for many years by the Canadian sleight-of-hand artist, David Ben (and the director of Magicana). The original Miller routine featured three additional phases based on two extremely eccentric and original effects that Tom has choawn to eliminate in this performance. But it’s a fine piece of work and well worth watching.
The ex-pat Brit, Martin Lewis, is a beloved magician who is not only a marvelous comedic performer, but also one of our greatest contemporary inventors, and a number of his marketed routines have become modern standards. Here he is performing his five-ring routine on stage in a large venue. It is straightforward, superbly executed, and uses the somewhat out-of-fashion forms and shapes that the performer can create with the rings. But the thing I love about this is that it flies in the face of critics, as you can hear the laughs, applause, and literally cheers that spontaneously erupt from the audience at various times throughout the routine. Indeed, here are Martin’s own comments that accompany the routine’s YouTube posting:
Those magicians who consider the Linking Rings to be a "hack" trick are very much mistaken. It has withstood the test of time, it's simple to understand, yet is layered in complexity.
For me The Rings has been the work of a lifetime, present in my show for over forty years. Other tricks have come and gone but this is among those that have stayed.
So, for the first time, here is my complete performance of this classic in a beautiful theater for a real live audience. I hope you like it
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