Take Two #44: Jerry Andrus
Jerry Andrus was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known. And fortunately, I knew him well, and for a very long time—more than 35 years by the time of his death in 2007 at the age of 89. He was as brilliant as he was eccentric—which is saying something—in fact, saying quite a lot.
I can confidently say you’ve never met anyone quite like him. I certainly haven’t, and I’m quite confident I never will. He lived most of his life in Albany, Oregon, and his adult life in a house that he called, and came to be infamously known amid his many friends, colleagues, and fans, as the Castle of Chaos. It was indeed his castle, filled to the brim with a lifetime of gathering and making interesting things. Jerry had, for one notable example, created a contraption in which he had connected an electronic keyboard to his home treadmill, so that he could exercise and play music at the same time. Oh, did I mention that he was a musician?
Jerry was a magician, an inventor, a poet, a skeptic, a creator of original optical illusions, and in these multiple worlds in which he travelled, he was a living legend in all of them. Later in our lives and friendship we would become colleagues in the social activist world of scientific skepticism, as we shared a concern about the dangers of pseudoscience, and a commitment to the importance of educating the public in order to protect themselves against the likes of phony psychics and countless other kinds of cons and deceptions, some of which mask as science of a sort.
Jerry and I shared many interests, and had countless conversations about such things, through endless hours in the course of our lives as friends. But since Take Two is about magic and magicians, I will keep this version of the Jerry Andrus story focused on that subject.
Sometime in my late teens I purchased an interesting little one-trick manuscript called “Miser’s Miracle,” that described an unusual magic trick of making coins appear from between pairs of playing cards, and then from pairs of torn pieces of playing cards that were eventually even smaller than the coins. The routine was intriguing but difficult, and I’d never seen anything like some of the clever and elegant handling moments it contained. A few years later, in my early twenties, by which time I had been seriously interested in card magic for some years, a magic buddy and I got the chance to attend a Jerry Andrus lecture in Manhattan.
I had never seen anything like the magic of Jerry Andrus—and neither had the rest of the world. Although Jerry had become interested in magic at an early age, he was isolated from other magicians, and so was left to develop his own methods and effects on his own. He became one of the most inventive and original magicians I’ve ever known.
In the lecture, he performed an array of magical routines with astonishing and delightfully unusual effects, presented in a straightforward manner. He was a lifelong performer (albeit primarily an amateur who did not make his living as an entertainer per se), but eschewed most of the conventions of performance. No flash, no jokes, no posturing, no apparent ego—just crisp and clear demonstrations, over and over again, of up close brain boggling impossibilities.
And then came the best part.
Jerry announced that, with his final trick explanation, that concluded the actual lecture. He thanked everyone graciously for attending, and then went on to explain that at this point in the proceedings, people were free to leave, and that he would next be performing some original card magic that would not be accompanied by explanations. This was and remains a rare thing in the world of magic lectures; Eugene Burger once all but started a riot in a magic lecture by refusing to explain a trick he had done in his opening performance (a fabulous story that I really should record sometime for posterity). But Jerry had framed this smartly: the lecture was over, and now this was a bonus, only for those interested.
And what a bonus it was. I watched Jerry step to the very front edge of the low platform, and perform feat after feat of original card magic, for which I had no idea of the methods. Literally, no idea. I couldn’t see anything but the trick, and I had no idea how the trick worked. And it was all just done with an ordinary pack of cards. Cards changed. Cards travelled from the center of the deck to the top. All in slow, deliberate motion, without distraction. We were challenged to simply stare at his hands and the cards and watch the mysteries unfold. This was magic without misdirection, and magic relying on impenetrable workings.
He was selling a pair of self-produced manuscripts, entitled Andrus Card Control, which explained all of the mystifying card material. They were in two spiral-bound volumes because one was all type, and the other consisted entirely of illustrations—more than a thousand small line drawings, all of which he had done himself.
Relatively speaking, the pair of books was expensive for the time, and while I actually appreciated the fact that this was parly intended to keep them out of the hands of the careless and casually interested, the price served to keep them out of my hands for a while longer. But now I had seen Miser’s Miracle, and much more, and it would also stay with me indelibly. About four years later I would eventually purchase the books, which I studied obsessively, mastering many of his original techniques—and, too, Jerry and I would become friends.
We could talk for hours—sometimes about magic, sometimes about everything but. We spoke a lot in those early years of friendship about skepticism, and its many related aspects, from critical thinking to atheism, from psychic phenomena to brain science. I learned a lot from him, and he helped sharpen my thinking about many of these subjects, and influence my worldview.
Which is not to say we always agreed to the letter. Jerry was the most compulsively honest man I’ve ever known, committed to never telling a lie, or breaking a law or even a rule. When you crossed the streets with him in New York City, you had to wait for the light to change, because he would not cross against the red. Or you would forget and suddenly find yourself talking to empty space, and when you turned around, there he was at the street corner, offering a polite and gently smiling wave.
He brought this commitment to his magic, and tried to never make an explicitly dishonest statement in his work. He would never make a claim that wasn’t so: if he had pretended to shuffle the cards but they remained somewhat in his control, he would not say, “Now they are thoroughly mixed,” instead he would say something along the lines of, “Now doesn’t that just seem fair.” Eccentric? Yes. But it was more than that. It was a worldview, a moral center, a deeply philosophically considered approach to how a man chose to lead his life. It was fascinating and thought provoking—eccentric, yes, but not merely so, and never for its own sake. And always, excruciatingly polite, and endlessly kind.
And at other times, we might just discuss and trade magic, as magicians do. I remember being at a late night hotel room gathering at a Tannen’s Jubilee convention in the very late 70s, and standing in a corner while Jerry demonstrated countless card techniques for me, up close, where I could study closely—and still be amazed. I recall nights that turned into mornings at a New York diner, along with my friend Geoff Latta, where this guy who was 35 years my senior simply wore us out, until we had to beg off and go home to bed.
Late in his life, partly thanks to the support and encouragement of his dear (and our mutual) friend, the psychologist and skeptic Ray Hyman, Jerry’s work as an innovator of remarkable optical illusions was increasingly recognized, and featured in science museums and other popular science and education settings around the country and the world. After his death, with the support and advocacy of his many friends and admirers, the Castle of Chaos was eventually recognized as a national historic site. Jerry was fascinated by the mysteries of the human mind, and strongly believed that you didn’t have to imagine the human mind to possess paranormal abilities in order to genuinely wonder at its profound workings and abilities. He spoke about this subject constantly, and his work—his magic, optical illusions, and more—often reflected that singular fascination.
I spoke with Jerry on the phone a few weeks before his death. He knew it was coming, and was calm and—typically Jerry—utterly rational in the face of it. “They tell me nobody gets out alive,” he quipped—ironically, thoughtfully … compellingly. He certainly didn’t believe in an afterlife, but he was serene at the end of an incredibly adventurous and fulfilling life, a life driven by a powerful drive of curiosity, and creativity. I was incredibly fortunate to know him, and I believe that most who met him, or saw him perform or present, felt similarly lucky and privileged. Jerry Andrus was, truly, unforgettable.
I’m thrilled that these videos are available at the Magicana archive, and thanks to the kindness of Meir Yedid Magic (which owns the rights to the instructional videos), these crisply shot performances are a pleasure to watch. But please—and you know the drill!—put the smart phone aside and watch these as they deserve to be watched, with all the focus and attention you can offer to this wonderful magician and his entirely original magic. Expand the browser to the max, turn up the sound, and meet my friend, Jerry Andrus—truly, a worker of wonders.
Since this was the first Jerry Andrus routine I ever came across, without knowing anything about the man behind it, I’ll begin with the Miser’s Miracle, a wonderful piece of close-up magic.
These are two of Jerry’s signature routines, reflecting original methods and effects. I saw these at that first lecture, and never tired of seeing him perform them. “Doesn’t that just look solid?”
After I watched Jerry perform Mylar Mystery and Zone Zero, among other routines, at that first lecture some 40 years ago or more, he ended the lecture as I’ve described, and performed original card magic, sans explanations. Here is an original item of Jerry’s that I distinctly recall watching him perform several times that evening, leaving me absolutely and completely at a loss for any explanation of its workings. In later years I would study and master this, and it remains a part of my work today. This is simply beautiful.
I remember the first time I witnessed this; the impact was literally jaw dropping, and left me clueless. The sensation of magic can never be fully delivered or experienced via recorded media, and perhaps this is a good example of that limitation. But then again—perhaps not. “Now doesn’t that look eminently fair?”
I love this next little trick, which Jerry called, “Acupressure.” It’s not only a perfect and surprising illusion, but it’s also a piece of art—a piece of authentic self-expression, that reflects, in a few short seconds, something of the artist’s worldview. Jerry taught this to me decades ago, many years before he published it, because it was a pet piece he was loathe to release, and did not do so until late in his life. And it has been in my repertoire ever since, and remains a staple of my bar repertoire in particular, a trick I still perform at the Magic Castle behind the W.C. Fields Bar.
There is more magic of Jerry Andrus that you can find here in the Magicana video archive if you are so inclined, but I believe I have given you a fair representation of his work, and of his own and my own favorites as well. But I would like to leave you with one of Jerry’s many optical illusions, perhaps his most widely circulated, albeit not always with credit. The Tri-Zonal Space Warper is a surprising and entertaining experience, that has been ripped off and marketed by others, and is a staple of many current magic acts. Here is the original narrated by the originator—prepare to be surprised. Make sure to expand the browser, follow the instructions, and if you’re doing this alone, the instant he tells you to look away, look directly at the back of your hand!
Finally, if I have whetted your appetite about the extraordinary Jerry Andrus, here is a marvelous documentary that was made in 2008 to honor the man and his life. I’m one of a number of talking heads, and I’m pleased to have been a part of this tribute. It’s frankly amazing to me that there are less than 2000 views since this was posted for free in 2015. If you watch and enjoy it, spread the word.
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