Take Two #26: Michael Skinner

April 28, 2017

My book, Preserving Mystery, was released a week ago today, published by Vanishing Inc., along with the reissue of my two previous volumes, Shattering Illusions and Devious Standards. The new book, like its predecessor, includes a section entitled “Yesterdays,” which in both books include reminiscences and memorials to magicians I have (in most cases) personally known, and who are no longer with us.

I’ve been waiting for the trilogy to be released before addressing some of those individuals in Take Two, because this series gives me a chance to provide video enhancement, if you will, for the written pieces, and for readers of my books. At the same time, these Take Two essays are perfectly readable and viewable as stand-alone essays, as the series is intended since its start. And so in the months ahead I will be writing a number of Take Two pieces about many of the magicians of the past who I have written about in the three books.

I can think of no better subject with which to begin that task than my friend and one of the finest sleight-of-hand artists I’ve ever known: Michael Skinner.

Michael hailed from Rochester, New York, and early in his life in magic he became an acolyte of the legendary magic bartender Eddie Fetcher, who owned the Forks Hotel in Buffalo. Michael subsequently moved west and came under the influence of Dai Vernon, becoming one of Vernon’s most important acolytes, along with Bruce Cervon and Larry Jennings; Larry would become one of Michael’s closest friend until the end of his life.

Mike was a regular performer at the Magic Castle in his Vernon years, and became renowned for, among other things, his remarkable repertoire, easily in the hundreds of routines. He once performed for a week at the Castle without ever repeating a trick; the story goes that by midweek the management came to him and insisted that he stop the experiment, because magicians were repeatedly lining up to cycle through the performances, and the non-magician patrons weren’t able to get into any of the shows.

Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas casino entrepreneur, saw Michael perform at the Castle and was so taken with him, he offered him a job as resident close-up magician at what was then Wynn’s flagship operation, the Golden Nugget. Michael moved to Las Vegas and continued to perform, tableside at the Lilly Langtry, an upscale Chinese restaurant in the Nugget, for more than twenty years.

In those days, Michael would venture East annually to perform in Atlantic City for a month, during which time, many magicians would venture from around the East Coast in order to session with Mike and friends. I first met Mike at one of these sessions, circa 1983, when Geoff Latta and I were invited by Roger Klause to visit. We shared an extraordinary time there, and long after Klause (and Scotty York, who was also present) went to bed, Mike, Geoff and I stayed up through the night, and Michael was still performing for us in the casino coffee shop at breakfast, until at last Geoff and I crawled onto a bus back to New York City.

Michael’s work profoundly affected me. While he was an accomplished cardician, he was a true generalist when it came to close-up sleight-of-hand magic, and performed many classics of small magic during our first visit. Some of these were partly mechanical tricks that I had long since discarded as unworthy of performance; others were ancient sleight-of-hand items I had learned from books in my childhood and tossed aside as no longer fit for adult use. I was wrong on both counts, and when I got off the bus at Port Authority, exhausted as I was, I walked to Tannen’s magic and bought props for two such tricks, before boarding the subway to home. Those pieces, and many of his theories and ideas, remain present in my repertoire today.

Michael’s sleight of hand was simply beautiful: soft, natural, seamless, lacking tells … it was truly beautiful to watch. But Michael was much more than his magic. He was a deeply warm, genuine person, who liked people, and in turn, people liked to be around him. I found him a magical presence, and while we would become friends, we swapped magic in phone calls and letters and postcards, and I even stayed in his home, I don’t think I ever completely got beyond being somewhat in awe of him whenever we were together. He was a great artist and a wondrous human being to be around. I count myself truly fortunate to have known him.

In Preserving Mystery I include a lengthy piece I wrote about Michael for Genii magazine after his death in 1998, and I also include several sleights and techniques of Michael’s that have otherwise never been published.

In the 1970s, Michael appeared twice on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Carson was an avid amateur magician and over the years invited many of the world’s best close-up magicians to perform on the show, and he always presented them in the best possible way. Although Michael made a series of instructional videotapes late in his life, his appearances on the Carson show provide us with a look at Michael in his prime.

An aside for magicians: I do highly recommend those instructional videos to magicians, however I offer this observation; you must study the material very closely, both in performance as well as in explanation, and try to understand, to figure out, why Michael makes each and every choice he makes. Although Michael could be very articulate about theory, he describes all the material in the videos with great thoroughness and precision, but excludes any discussion of theory or analysis, no doubt discouraged from doing so by the video producer. That is unfortunate, because while those videos are filled with marvelous routines, it is the thinking behind Michael’s choices that provide the greatest lessons—if the student is attentive enough, and knowledgeable enough, to be able to extract them. To breeze through the material without engaging with it on a deep level is a waste of the opportunity to learn from a true master.

And so here are four brief videos, drawn from Michael Skinner’s two appearances on The Tonight Show. The first two clips are from an appearance in which Carson sits at the table along with Alex Karris, one-time football star and later an actor who starred in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” as “Mongo” (hence the joke the actor makes in the video); and the actress, Phyllis George, a popular television actress of the era.

The first routine is a modern classic of close-up card magic, and despite the less-than-ideal quality of the video, it should be gasp inducing. Please do your part: Put the smart phone aside for an uninterrupted view, expand the browser, turn up the volume, and enjoy the magic of a true maestro: my friend, Michael Skinner.

This routine is one that for many years I have shown to students as a lesson in well constructed clarity of plot. Although this is a very direct approach to this classic plot, it is filled with subtleties and details that can provide revelatory lessons to an attentive student. For the rest of you: Just sit back and enjoy.

The next two clips are from a different appearance, this time with Tony Curtis (who was probably serving as guest host), Jack Lemmon, and the actor Joe Flynn. (Thanks to John Carney for this and the Phyllis George identifications. And look for his recently released “Caffeinated Cups & Balls,” inspired by Mike Skinner's routine.) Note the strong reactions Mike gets from these actors! The first routine is an impromptu version of the Cups and Balls done with ordinary props, i.e., teacups, cherries, and a butter knife as a wand. Here’s a note for serious students: this routine, while mostly based on Vernon’s classic routine, includes one additional phase: Michael’s original “disassembly” of the three balls. Watch for it.

This is Michael performing a routine of the infamous street scam, the Three-Card Monte. At tables, Michael had a kicker ending that resulted in the transformation of the three cards. But the routine as you see it here is based closely on Dai Vernon’s routine, including a subtle touch from Vernon as to how to reveal the final punch line without stinging the spectator too brutally. Tony Curtis helps out here, which reminds me to pose a trivia question I devised many years ago: In what TWO movies did Tony Curtis portray a magician? Yes, we all know one of them…



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