Take Two #29: Del Ray
Take Two #28 about Al Goshman received a fair amount of positive attention the past two weeks, particularly from magicians who share my view that Goshman was one of the greatest of the greats of close-up magic. A few friends and colleagues offered some other names as favorites, generally from among the short list of contenders I had mentioned. I need to point out before going any further in this direction that I don’t really believe in the inherent hyperbole of ever naming anyone or anything “the best,” and I’m not even a fan of Top Ten lists along similar lines. What I implied in the original Goshman piece but perhaps was insufficiently clear about is that it’s one thing to identify a personal favorite or favorites, but it’s quite another to declare “the best” as if it has some reality, other than perhaps where there are objective measures like in the Olympics. But such objective measures do not exist for art, and indeed, the quality of art is invariably a subjective judgment.
The example I always draw, when someone asks me to name such a “best” of whatever it happens to be, is from baseball. Who’s the greatest baseball player of all time? Or of the present day? Well, first of all, by what measure? Baseball is about hitting, fielding, running, throwing. If someone is somehow “the best” in one of those categories, he’s not going to be the best in all of them. So do we take an aggregate? Do we mean all around best? Best hitter? What?
It’s not that I don’t enjoy engaging in such a conversation, in naming candidates and discussing the merits. I love those conversations. But the discussion is what makes it interesting. Not any insistence on some imaginary actual “best.”
So, when I named Albert Goshman as “the greatest close-up magic entertainer I’ve ever seen or known,” I confess to having slightly overstated my case. I can honestly say he was and remains my favorite. I could, and did, watch Goshman over and over again, and I literally never tired of the experience. I knew the lines, the beats, the moments, the repertoire—but it was thrilling every time I saw it.
And the fact is that I can certainly say the same about some of the other contending examples I cited, like Derek Dingle, Tommy Wonder, and Juan Tamariz. I can’t, and really shouldn’t, ever try to make any sort of case that any one of these performers was any better than another. They all were and are extraordinary, and I never tired of watching those who have left us, nor the examples still among us, such as Tamariz. I have been privileged to watch that maestro, up close, countless times and hours, and truly, I never tire of the experience. Nor of the simple fact of being in his presence.
So if I may be forgiven my slight excess, I’ll just say for the record that Goshman remains, in my memory and experience, a personal favorite. And it is frustrating that it is impossible to grasp the entirety of his impact merely from watching video, and at that, the limited and flawed video resources we have in his case.
But having said all that, I also said in that essay that, “And I will also add that if I had to pick an immeasurably close second, it would be Del Ray—a subject perhaps for another day.” And given the amount of discussion that arose as a result, and the fact that Del Ray’s name came up a number of times in comment as the personal favorite of some others, I’m returning immediately to the scene of the hyperbolic crime to discuss a performer who is unarguably one of the greatest close-up magic entertainers of all time: Del Ray.
I first saw Del Ray perform at the 4F convention, at the Forks Hotel in Buffalo, probably in the late 1980s. He did a lengthy close-up show of perhaps ninety minutes’ duration, and it was one of the greatest magic performances I had ever witnessed. Not only was I repeatedly fooled—up, down and sideways—but also, much that I had heard about his work seemed to have missed the essence of what constituted his greatness. I had for some years heard about the little animals in the act, and the amazing and responsive feats that were accomplished by a tiny ceramic bunny, a little stuffed mouse, a mechanical bird. And truly, those little trained beasts were wondrous to behold. I had heard that he was a great sleight-of-hand technician, and indeed he blew my mind with card work that was out of this world, and that badly fooled most of the veteran attendees and organizers alike at the convention.
But I distinctly remember thinking to myself as the act unfolded: Nobody had ever told me what a spectacular performance character this guy was!
With his slightly western drawl, string tie, and ever-present fifty-dollar bill—“It’s a very old bill!”—Del Ray was a magnetic and unforgettable character, who drew viewers instantly into his magical space and never let them escape until he was done, leaving them flabbergasted and thoroughly delighted. He began as a nightclub performer, and would eventually develop a distinctive stage act that fooled magicians as much or in some ways even more than non-magicians, because both the magic and the methods were significantly unprecedented.
But what I want to show you is his close-up magic, which eventually became his specialty. Del Ray ended up as one of the most successful working close-up magicians of his time, working at trade shows, hospitality suites, private parties and upscale events. He was constantly in demand and at substantial fees, because there was simply no one like him. The impact and lasting memory of experiencing his performances up close and in person were invariably a foregone guaranteed conclusion.
One of the best records we have of Del Ray is a 100-minute formal close-up magic show—albeit performed for a sizable audience, beyond the effective range of most close-up entertainers—recorded at the Tannen’s Jubilee convention in upstate New York in October of 1983. This recording exists on YouTube in five parts. It’s taken my quite a bit of watching and thinking in order to decide how and what to show you in Del’s work. This is the introductory guided tour I’ve arrived at.
This is the opening of the show, following a brief introduction by the late Larry Weeks. (You’ll also notice famed talk-show host Dick Cavett sitting at the table watching the show; Dick is a lifelong avid amateur magician and a serious student and fan of the art.) You’ll meet one of Del’s little helpers right off the bat, and then you will see a fabulous routine with dice and a dice cup, the likes of which I’ve never seen matched. Del’s commentary is rapid fire and hilariously dry, so you will need to pay attention to try to soak it all up—in fact, I recommend you put on headphones or earbuds to help catch all the lines. Put the phone aside, expand the browser a bit, turn up the sound, and jump into the magic that was Del Ray.
Much like Albert Goshman, Del Ray kept them laughing and charmed while knocking them flat on the floor with his magic. The combination is so utterly winsome, the pace and energy is so fabulously perfect, the result is breathtaking. And we see many of his trademark riffs here, the running gag of the $50 bill giveaway that never gets given away, the splashy fan shuffles, the card that repeatedly returns to his pocket, only to be casually, effortlessly, tossed into the tabled pack every time. It’s all simply terrific! But also in this second segment you get to see some of his superb card work, executed with a fluidity and technical perfection that is astonishing in and of itself. And make no mistake—some of Del's secrets effectively died with him. He was a lifelong stickler for secrecy, and there is only a very close circle of experts who have deciphered what he was doing in some of these routines, and none of it has ever seen print. Also of noteworthy interest about Del's stylistic choices is the fact that although there is an element of Del’s work that uses flourishes and open displays of skill, it’s never random, never simply showing off; rather, it all becomes part of a piece, a distinctively select set of handlings that help to define the character. Above all, the choices are decidedly aesthetic, and deliberate. After all these years I still shake my head in wonder, as I laugh aloud at the jokes. “You could not win if I gave you the entire deck.” Please enjoy the maestro—don’t pause, don’t look away, or you’ll miss something good!
I’ve selected these segments from what is actually five parts of this performance that can be found on YouTube. If you elect to track the rest of them down, please give the master and his magic the respect and attention they deserve. Don’t rush it, but do watch when you can give it all your fullest attention. What you invest will be paid back in spades.
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