Take Two #38: Earl Nelson
The 1970s and ‘80s was a vibrant period for the world of close-up magic in general and card magic in particular, especially in the U.S. and Great Britain. Of several creative cores of that era, none was hotter than Los Angeles, where Dai Vernon, the most important and influential sleight-of-hand artist of the 20th century, held court nightly at the Magic Castle. Card Magic Central had essentially moved from New York to Los Angeles when Vernon relocated to L.A. in 1963 to become the resident guru at the Castle, but by then he had left in his wake the next generation of leading practitioners, in New York and to some extent England as well, thank to his impact there through lecturing.
In L.A., Vernon began a new phase of his life. In his 70s, when many men find themselves slowing down, Vernon excelled as a mentor, helping to make the Magic Castle the international center of the art of magic, and magicians came from all over the world to meet him and try to glean a bit of the “Vernon Touch.” I will write at greater length about Vernon in the future of this series, but for the moment I am interested in one of a small handful of Americans who picked up their lives and moved to Los Angeles in order to study with the man who had transformed sleight-of-hand and influenced countless magicians around the world. That list of acolytes would include Larry Jennings, Bruce Cervon, Michael Skinner, and, among others, Earl Nelson.
Each of these men became close Vernon acolytes, deeply influenced by “The Professor” (as Vernon was and remains commonly known), and each reflected somewhat different aspects of his work and genius. Earl Nelson was not in particular a magical innovator, but rather an interpreter, who exemplified Vernon’s theories and tastes in material and approach. Nelson was an old-school gentleman with a voice as soft as his sleight-of-hand technique, noted among magicians not only for the gentle, unadorned manner of his performance, but also for the deliberate and distinctively unhurried pace of his work.
While most of the Vernon cabal of that era has unfortunately died relatively young, Nelson left Los Angeles and the public magic world about 20 years, to return to his Arizona with his family where he still resides. He left behind a small but significant legacy of his presence. He wrote one book, humbly entitled Variations, which became—somewhat to his surprise—an instant classic of the era, and when it went out of print, copies continued for many years to command high prices, until the book, along with several accompanying instructional videos, were republished about a decade ago. All continue to remain invaluable resources to serious students of close-up sleight-of-hand magic with cards and other ordinary objects.
This week I am performing at the Magic Castle, where a few days ago I met a young man named Ed Kwon. Ed is 21 years old, grew up in Seoul, Korea, and taught himself his excellent, virtually unaccented English by watching instructional magic videos. Moving to the United States two years ago to pursue his passion for magic, he corresponded briefly and quite respectfully with me prior to our first encounter earlier this week, where I first happened upon him sitting in the Dai Vernon corner of the Castle, performing a classic routine of Vernon’s, and relating to his audience a story about The Professor as accompaniment. I was impressed with his classical approach to magic, and the next night, we went out for a very late meal to Mel’s Diner, the common post-Castle hangout. I was struck by Ed’s astonishingly deep knowledge of the literature of magic, and by his skilled and precise performances of classics of magic in the Vernon oeuvre. When I expressed some dismay at the struggles that Ed is facing in his passionate pursuit of his art, he simply looked at me and said, “Well, isn’t that what Vernon did? If he could do it …”
Sitting and talking magic into the wee hours with Ed brought me back to the days when I was able to sit in Vernon’s corner with the Professor himself, and the nights I performed and conversed at the Magic Castle alongside those same men who had, as young men, traveled to be close to the master. And now it was young Ed Kwon who mentioned to me that there he wished there was more video available of performances by Earl Nelson—above and beyond the handful available here at the Magicana video archive, drawn from the Magic Palace performances of the early 1980s, which Ed said he has watched and studied over and over again.
Ed’s comment led me straight to those videos, and I got to enjoy watching my old friend Earl perform, and think back to the sessions we had, and magic talk and techniques we exchanged, in those golden Magic Castle days, and hanging out at Hollywood Magic where Earl sometimes worked as a demonstrator, or working together at Caesars Magical Empire in Las Vegas in the 1990s.
I also consulted a cover feature story about Earl from the August 2001 issue of Genii magazine, in which Earl recounts his personal magic story, starting out professionally as an on-stage assistant to an illusion show, before moving to Los Angeles in his early 20s. I loved this commentary he offers, and I can hear it spoken in his gentle but earnest tones. “I give the audience credit for being very smart, whether they are or not. I play to a smart audience. I assume the audience has a high sophistication in magic, usually they don’t, but that’s okay because I will delivery a better show if I make that assumption. I think my performance level goes a little higher.”
Ed Kwon is on the path, pursuing a dream of magic, a dream of performing one day at the Magic Castle, among other things. One of his many predecessors in that path was Earl Nelson. I learned from Earl, and always appreciated his work, both on and off the stage. And so it goes.
In Take Two #28B, the second installment about Al Goshman, I showcased Goshman’s performance of the “Benson Bowl Routine,” invented by Roy Benson, who was featured in Take Two #7. The routine—a version of the cups and balls performed with a brass bowl and sponge balls—was also a feature piece of Don Alan’s repertoire, featured in Take Two #3. Here is Earl Nelson’s version of the routine, and the cleanliness and clarity of it is a lovely thing to see.
Certain routines were emblematic of that era, and one of those card tricks, performed and varied by countless magicians of the time, was a creation of Larry Jennings, one of the best known names among Vernon’s closest acolytes, who remained an inventive, masterly, and essentially amateur magician his entire life after moving to Los Angeles. The trick is a neo-classic, and Ed Kwon and I sessioned over it during our late night at Mel’s Diner. This is Earl Nelson’s version.
I’ve featured the Linking Rings in Take Two #23, which includes performances by eight different performers of their personalize routines, three of which feature the use of only three rings. Here is another three-ring version, which Earl often performed under close-up conditions, as he does here. It’s lovely.
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