Take Two #34: Slydini
In an essay entitled The Writing on The Wall in my first book, Shattering Illusions, I recount firsthand tales of my encounters with three of my greatest artistic heroes of magic: Dai Vernon, Tony Slydini, and Al Goshman. I’ve already written about Al Goshman in Take Two #28 and 28B (and if you missed 28B, go back and see about the best video I’ve come across of Albert), and I will eventually get to Vernon before the 52nd installment here. It’s daunting to try to address artists and heroes of this stature, not only because of the space limitations, but also because it can be difficult, and in some cases impossible, to find even passable performance recordings, much less examples that do any kind of justice to their work and legacy.
It’s simply not possible to write a series exploring art appreciation of magic and magicians without addressing the name of Slydini. And fortunately, we do in fact have some decent footage of him, at least late in his life, particularly thanks to Dick Cavett. (A somewhat legendary set of recordings was also made by Christian Fechner but sadly these have never been released.)
Born Quintino Marucci in Italy in 1900, the future Slydini moved to Argentina as a boy, where he spent the early portion of his life, and began his performing career, until moving to New York City in 1930. In the United States and the world he would become known as one of the most innovative and unique sleight-of-hand magicians of his time, and indeed all time. He was certainly one of the small handful of the greatest I’ve ever seen or known.
I first saw him perform in my early teens at my first Tannen’s Jubilee, and I remember the experience almost as freshly today as that morning almost half a century ago. I remember the exact repertoire he performed, consisting of magic with cigarettes, coins, and some paper napkins. And I remember, most of all, the sensation of feeling and thinking, as a silver dollar winked in and out of existence at his fingertips, that either I was seeing real magic, or if I wasn’t, I was seeing precisely what real magic would look like if it existed.
Since Slydini lived in New York City, over the years I would get to see him, and personally engage with him, countless times. Throughout my teens and twenties I continued to attend the Jubilee most years, and saw Slydini, and Albert Goshman too, perform more years than not. When as a young adolescent I purchased the original bound Stars of Magic from Lou Tannen, I encountered his seminal essay therein as my first instructional entrée into the techniques of his work. (My original copy of Stars of Magic, one of the most important twentieth-century works about sleight of hand, bears three signatures: Lou Tannen, Slydini, and Dai Vernon.)
In my late teens, a close magic buddy took lessons from Slydini for several months. After almost every lesson, we would get together the same day, and he would repeat the entirety for me, as a way of sharing it with me and also of refreshing and remembering what he had studied. It was unforgettably educational, and my many subsequent years of in-depth studies of the published record of Slydini’s work—The Magic of Slydini, Slydini Encores, and then the two big two-volume works by Karl Fulves—would forever be deeply informed by that experience. (And a note to students: There might well be no better Slydini book to study than Gene Matsuura’s annotated edition of The Magic of Slydini by Lewis Ganson.)
In the 1980s, Slydini would perform the early Friday night set most weeks at Imam’s Mostly Magic in Greenwich Village, where I continued seeing Slydini performing live, for a general public audience, many times. It was invariably a great lesson and inspiration. I adored watching Slydini perform; I never tired of the experience in the slightest. I knew his repertoire inside and out, yet I could often be fooled in the moment by his superb technique, his stellar command, his charismatic persona, and perhaps above all, his absolute mastery of the art and craft of misdirection.
“Misdirection” is a complex and misleading term, especially to non-magicians, who tend to think of it as a synonym for distraction, when in fact it is essentially the opposite. “Take Two” is intended for non-magicians as well as magicians and so I have eschewed discussion of methodology in any but the most general terms, but I will say here that the term “misdirection” is an extremely broad title that encompasses all the countless psychological techniques that magicians use in order to create effective and convincing illusions. Tommy Wonder proposed that we change the term to “Direction,” and in fact that is a more accurate general label, as misdirection has a great deal to do with controlling focus and attention.
Slydini’s approach to misdirection was revolutionary. He created numerous methodological elements, both technical and psychological, that his work was deeply dependent on, and in fact inseparable from, and yet which could also be applied to countless other magical applications. Although these days I perform very little of his actual repertoire, mostly limited to perhaps two routines, nevertheless my intimate study of his work informs my own widely beyond those particular pieces. Magicians who ignore Slydini’s lessons leave a gaping hole in their expertise along the path to mastery.
His approach to the performance of close-up magic was often unique as were his methods and misdirection. He openly and repeatedly challenged the audience, a notion that has occasionally been criticized by theorists focused more on trees than forests. Like many brilliant artists, Slydini was sui generis, his approach to his work being virtually unduplicatable by others. Direct challenge is usually an approach that leads to poor outcomes in the performance of close-up magic. But in Slydini’s hands, it worked—it more than just worked, as in fact it consistently achieved stunning results. Audiences were charmed by his playful challenges, and their analytical faculties were lovingly beaten into submission and eventual abandonment thanks to the impenetrable perfection of his methods and execution.
As I often lament here, recorded media can never truly do justice to the live experience of magic performance. Never is this more true than in the work of Slydini, in which the staring monocular eye of the camera can sometimes diminish the experience on a fundamental level. But truly, this is the work of one of the greatest magical artists who ever lived. I hope that, even diluted by the glass screen in front of you, some of that magic penetrates your consciousness on a deep level. This is magic that is not merely deceptive and entertaining—it is, as Slydini often explicitly commented, truly beautiful.
It’s fair to say the routines I’ve selected here are all iconic examples of Slydini’s work, and yet there is still more of his repertoire for which he was equally renowned—it’s not about just one or two key pieces. When I witnessed his magic that first time, the closing segment of this first clip is what gave me the distinct sensation of experiencing real magic, and it’s one of the few Slydini pieces I still perform on rare occasion.
As I remind readers and viewers every week, please—give this the attention and focus it deserves. Devote your attention such that you may reap the awards of what the artist is offering to you, because the quality of your experience is limited, or expanded, by what you are willing to invest. Put the smart phone aside for the duration. Turn the sound up. Expand the browser to the maximum.
Dick Cavett is a serious lifelong student of magic, who took personal lessons with Slydini in New York. (He's previously shown up here in Take Two #29, as a presence in the Del Ray videos there.) I’ve had the chance to spend time with Cavett on a number of occasions, and we invariably end up talking mostly about magic. He hosted some of the first magic specials to be produced in the early days of HBO, and in the days of his PBS show, he devoted a couple of entire episodes to performance by his friend and beloved teacher, Slydini. Some years ago, in 2009, when Dick wrote about those shows in his New York Times blog, and posted clips (the entirety of those two shows can be found on YouTube but the versions in the Times blog are higher quality), he received more reader feedback than any other blog entry, which led him to post a second piece along with further clips.
I would be hard-pressed to name a single Slydini routine as my favorite. But if I really had to, it would be this one—and it was also his personal favorite. And it’s the one Slydini piece that I’ve used the most in my own work. My friend Michael Skinner (Take Two #26) had a pet version of this routine that was my favorite version by a performer other than Slydini himself. I love this routine. It is magical, unfathomable, and delightfully entertaining, without jokes or elaborate scripting. It is deeply Slydini, start to finish.
(This routine is also present in one of the Cavett shows, but I like this version because Slydini is very at ease and playful in this performance. Also: he is briefly introduced here by the legendary Fred Kaps, who has been mentioned elsewhere in Take Two.)
All of these routines are signature Slydini pieces. But it’s possible that this routine is his most famous of all. It is certainly the one you are most likely to have witnessed previously, especially if you’re not a magician, because it is the easiest of Slydini’s material to do … badly.
For all the many performers I’ve seen imitate this piece, I think it’s fair to say that none have ever matched the level of mystery, subtlety and skill that Slydini brought to it. Even though even a non-magician can approximate a crude version of this after seeing it, in Slydini's own hands it remains mystifying to watch and try to understand why the spectator does not see what we find so obvious—it seems almost impossible to conceal it from him at the fine threshold of perception at which Slydini executes it. The techniques he is using are far more subtle and complex than they appear at first blush. They are, in every sense of the word, masterful.
If you have an appetite for a little more, this is another signature Slydini piece that I witnessed the first time I saw him perform. It fooled me totally—I hadn’t the slightest clue what was happening, only that it was impossible. Not every magician appreciates this routine, but I have always loved it. (And magicians: Please pay no attention to anyone who claims to have “improved” this routine. I assure you he considered the available options, and chose his approach quite deliberately. Please don’t inflict your failure to understand the reasoning on the rest of us.) Unfortunately the resolution here is low, so you might want to reduce the browswer window size in order to achieve a better sense of clarity.
And finally, here are Dick Cavett’s two excellent blog pieces about Slydini, accompanied by the entirety of the two episodes of his PBS show that featured the great magician, posted in high definition:
Conjuring Slydini - Part 1, By Dick Cavett, March 27, 2009
Conjuring Slydini - Part 2, By Dick Cavett, April 10, 2009
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