Take Two #36: Fred Kaps
In several installments of Take Two, I’ve mentioned the international magic competition held every three years, since the 1940s, by FISM, the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques, and in particular the category of magic known as “manipulative magic” or “manipulation.” I outlined the history of FISM in my portrait of the remarkable Jean Valton, who won First Prize three times (including at an early gathering before FISM was so named). I examine several stellar examples of cutting-edge contemporary manipulative magic in the work of Lukas Lee and Yu Ho Jin. And my profile of Lance Burton includes an example of the act that won this living legend the Grand Prix in 1982, one of several Americans who would in that period wrest the top awards in multiple categories from longstanding European rivals. I encourage you to visit those entries in order to gain additional insight and context for this week’s instalment.
When I think of FISM, and manipulative magic, and the Grand Prix award, the name that invariably comes to mind first and foremost, even before any of the names cited above, is that of the Dutch maestro, Fred Kaps. Kaps was technically speaking the first to win the FISM Grand Prix three times (the first convention at which Valton had initially won First Prize preceded the official organizing of FISM, and so his three wins precede Kaps, but one of them is not officially the FISM Grand Prix). Kaps won the prize first in 1950 working under the stage name “Mystica,” but because the name was similar to other working acts of the day, his manager and mentor Hank Vermeyden gave him the new stage name of "Fred Kaps," by which he would forever after be known.
Vermeyden was the president of the first Congrès Magique International in 1947, and then became the first president of FISM. The influence on FISM of this Dutch magic dealer, publisher and teacher cannot be over-emphasized. Not only were the Dutch consistent contest winners at FISM throughout its first few decades, but Vermeyden was also a personal mentor to legendary prizewinners including Kaps, Richard Ross, Peter Pit, and Marconick.
My first awareness of Fred Kaps came in my youth, seeing him perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. One of those appearances—February 9, 1964—is of particular historical note, if only due to the lack of attention the unfortunate magician received, thanks to the fact that he had to follow the first appearance of The Beatles on the show. (Thankfully for Kaps’ sake, his spot had been pre-recorded to allow for a complicated set change.)
In my twenties I had the chance to see several underground films of Kaps, in the days when such resources were extremely precious commodities. (There are still examplease of such closely guarded materials that circulate in this magic video underground, but back in the days before YouTube, access to such treasures was truly rare, perpetually sought after, and often provided for profound learning experiences.) One was a silent film of Kaps sitting at a table with a copy of Expert Card Technique by Hugard & Braue. Every great magician experiences a personal and artistic attachment to a particular book or two or three that play a critical seminal role in his evolution, and each generation draws from a similar wellspring of such influences within their own time period. Houdini was influenced and inspired by Robert-Houdin’s Secrets of Conjuring and Magic (and drew his stage name from that of the author), and we can readily tick off a handful of such standout titles, each of which profoundly informed young magicians of their respective eras, from Hoffman’s Modern Magic in the late 19th century, to key works of the mid-20th century including Hilliard’s Greater Magic, The Tarbell Course in Magic, The Royal Road to Card Magic by Hugard and Braue, The Dai Vernon Book of Magic, the original Stars of Magic, and Harry Lorayne’s Close-up Card Magic.
Another influential book of that mid-20th century era was Hugard & Braue’s Expert Card Technique, a masterful treatise of state-of-the-art card technique that reflected the most sophisticated technical card work known at the time of its initial publication in 1940. (Serious students are encouraged to seek out the rarer third edition that includes additional material from Dai Vernon and other contributors.) My initial studies of this book led me to wryly refer to it at the time as “Erdnase Volume 2” (a reference to The Expert at the Card Table by S.W. Erdnase, a subject to be addressed some other day here) because of the thoroughness and advanced nature of its content. Michael Ammar once told me that Expert Card Technique had in fact been his very first magic book, and that the first time he read it, “I thought it was a work of fiction.”
Undertanding the power of seminal books in general, and Expert Card Technique in particular, helped to inform my own impression of that silent film that Fred Kaps made and that I first saw in my twenties. The film simply portrayed Kaps demonstrating a series of sleights from several seminal card books of the era, including ECT, Arthur Buckley's Card Control, and The Card Magic of LePaul by Paul LePaul. The presentation—which was silent—was as understated as this bare description, but the impact on me was utterly profound. It was clear that these were the books that he had spent countless hundreds of hours with, reading and re-reading the detailed descriptions, and experimenting in front of the practice mirror in the struggle for mastery. Sleight after sleight, move after move, Kaps executed the demanding techniques flawlessly, providing a perfect model of what such artistry was supposed to look like. It was informative, instructional, and utterly inspirational.
Later I would also come upon a second film that was made in the 1970s in the home of the French close-up magician, Philippe Fialho, of Kaps performing close-up magic for the innovative card magic creator, Brother John Hamman. A handful of brief, low-resolution clips from that session are available on YouTube today, but when I first saw them it was a wondrous glimpse into the extensive repertoire of a true master. In fact, Kaps is one of only three magicians in history to win awards at the same FISM gathering in multiple categories, in his case for both stage manipulation and close-up card magic, and Kaps was equally passionate about and accomplished in both arenas. And I would eventually get to hear many stories about Kaps from our mutual friend Scotty York, who built a number of close-up props for Kaps over the years of their friendship, and who marketed several original tricks through the legendary British magic dealer Ken Brooke, who also exclusively marketed several Fred Kaps items.
It’s been many years since I’ve watched this material, and as I reviewed the various clips of Kaps that can be seen on YouTube, I found myself irresistibly drawn once again into this true master’s work. I find it a joy to watch, and it is a pleasure and privilege to share with you the magic of the incomparable Fred Kaps.
As near as I can tell I don’t think Kaps did this precise act at any of his Grand Prix-winning performances. Some of those acts can be found on YouTube but I present this one here because the quality of the reproduction is the best I could find of any of Kaps’ stage performances, and the act consists of a mix of material that is generally reflective of his work, parts of which are taken from those award-winning acts.
Please give this performer the attention he deserves, and you will be rewarded in kind. The magic is beautiful, and frequently utterly mystifying. Also, Kaps’ persona and relationship to the magic is distinct. Far too often, manipulators stand with their head turned toward the audience, a stiff smile frozen on their otherwise expressionless faces, as the magic occurs in their seemingly all but disembodied hands, dehumanizing the already abstract material. Kaps was one of the rare few that truly solved the challenges of this type of performance, and he is a pleasure to watch. He was a superb actor, and his approach made the magic feel real, and his relationship to it feels genuine. He is good-natured, enjoying the experience himself, at times utterly in command, at other times occasionally flummoxed by the mysteries unfolding before his own eyes. I find the net result captivating and utterly delightful. Expand the browser—turn up the sound—put down the smart phone for a little while—and enjoy!
When Kaps stepped out on the stage of The Ed Sullivan Show the same night as the first appearance of the Beatles, this is the first of two pieces he performed. It’s not only a charming, funny, and surprising bit of magic, but it’s a performance that showcases Kaps’ use of humor and his prodigious acting skills. This trick is all about the performer’s personality, and Kaps’ unfailing charm indelibly comes through.
Two of Kaps’ signature close-up tricks were actually invented by and used with the permission of the German magician Bruno Hennig (who at an advanced age is still alive and enjoying his lifelong passion for magic in Germany). Here is Kaps performing the Floating and Dancing Cork, a genuine marvel of close-up magic, on a British television talk show in 1976. With the possible exception of Herr Hennig, I doubt that anyone has ever performed this effect better than Kaps. It’s a perfect miracle.
Here is one of Kaps’ early FISM acts in its entirety. The manipulative magic, with cards and cigarettes, is breathtaking. Fred Astaire said, “The hard part is making it look easy,” and this is a textbook example. The act concludes with the salt routine that you saw in the first video, Kaps’ version of a signature trick of the great American comic magician and manipulator, Roy Benson (who was, to say the least, a significant influence on Kaps’ repertoire, not only with this routine, but with Benson’s version of the classic Chinese Sticks, both of which were perhaps passed along to Kaps by Vermeyden, without Kaps' knowledge of their origins).
Here is the actual spot Kaps did on the Sullivan show, the night of that first Beatles appearance. Indeed, it begins with Sullivan trying to settle down the audience from the screams and hyperventilations of the Beatles appearance. Kaps performs two pieces you’ve already seen—the Homing Card, and then the Salt Pour. But since this exists and is available I offer it as an historical curiosity for those interested.
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