Take Two #48: Fantasio
I was probably about 15 years old when I first saw Fantasio’s stage act, most likely at a live show that Tannen’s Magic produced for two nights, annually for three years (in place of the Jubilee convention), at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. And if it wasn’t there, it would have been just a year or so later when the Jubilee was revived, which I attended regularly throughout my late teens and twenties. It’s most likely I saw him in both venues.
Those were the days when the silent manipulative stage act was a standard at magic conventions as well as in night clubs throughout the U.S. and Europe, and also on revue shows in Las Vegas, albeit before Vegas became a magic-focused town. Fantasio was part of the show at the Desert Inn for two years in 1964 and 1965, while still in his late twenties. He performed in the Latin Quarter nightclub in New York City as well as on the stage of Radio City Music Hall. And he appeared during that same period on the top television variety shows, “Hollywood Palace” and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the latter being an appearance on one of the same broadcasts as that of the Beatles. (Their first appearance had included magician Fred Kaps.)
I’ve talked about these great silent manipulative acts before here in Take Two, including about #4: Lance Burton, #19: Jean Valton, #16: Lukas Lee And Yu Ho Jin, #36: Fred Kaps, and #41: Cardini. Fantasio is every bit a part of this pantheon of award winners, having won Second Prize in General Magic at the 1979 FISM competition in Brussels, and then taking Second Prize in—of all things!—Comedy Magic in the 1994 FISM competition in Yokohama (a feat that I suspect has never been duplicated, taking an award in Comedy Magic as well as in either General or Manipulative stage magic).
But that’s not all. In 1968, he took the top four prizes at the I.B.M. (International Brotherhood of Magicians) and S.A.M. (Society of American Conventions) contests, winning awards for Most Original Effect, Most Commercial Tricks, Best Stage Effect, and Senior Originality Award. No one had ever taken all four of these prizes together. What lies at the core of these accolades is that in addition to being a great performer, Fantasio was an extraordinary and innovative inventor. His original effects with canes and candles, that appeared, disappeared, changed places and changed colors, became among the very best selling items for silent and manipulative stage acts, and influenced countless magicians who strove to follow in the maestro’s steps. And while many would make these effects a part of their success, none became more famous with them than Lance Burton, in his iconic FISM Grand Prix act in 1982. (You can see Lance’s marvelous candle sequence in Take Two #4: Lance Burton, but watch Fantasio’s act below, first.)
Although many became enamored of these ingenious props—I owned and experimented with them myself, even though I was no kind of silent manipulative performer—they were put to best use in the hands of artists like Fantasio and Lance Burton who were hardcore sleight-of-hand masters, and understood that these were devices that demanded mixed methodologies in order to deliver a truly magical effect. They never made the common but crippling error of thinking the method is the trick (as I discuss at length in my essay of the same title in my book, Devious Standards).
Recently, Lance Burton commented, “I first learned the name Fantasio when I was 12 years old and received a Fantasio Vanishing Cane and Fantasio Vanishing Candle for Christmas.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
Fantasio was born Ricardo Roucau in Argentina in 1936. He was bitten early by the magic bug via the standard narrative of the gift of a Gilbert Magic Set. And was then inspired witnessing a live stage performance of David Bamberg, aka Fu Manchu. In 1959 he took home First Prize for a manipulative act featuring billiard balls at the Argentine Magic Congress, and also appeared on television in Uruguay that same year. And he was on his way. Eventually he would relocate to Miami, and would accept his 1994 FISM prize as a representative of the United States.
Fantasio passed away just a few days ago, which got me to thinking about when I would have first seen him in live performance. (I certainly would have seen him on the Sullivan show and “Hollywood Palace,” the listing for which I scanned obsessively every week in search of magic acts.) Lance Burton’s comment above was drawn from his Facebook comment, where he went on to continue his reminiscence and respects. “Later on I got to meet and become good friends with him and his wife Monica. In 2014 he received the Masters Fellowship from the Academy of Magical Arts. It was one of the great honors of my life to be there to present the award to him. I felt that life had come full circle at that moment.”
Regrettably, I never had the chance to get to know the man personally. But he was universally regarded with tremendous affection, as a warm and generous colleague and mentor, as well as a man possessed of a fine sense of humor—evidence of which you will see for yourself in a few moments. And he remained an engaged and treasured presence in the magic community until the end of his days.
His death led to my revisiting his act, and after not looking at this work for many years, I was reminded of the feelings I experienced when I first saw this act—I can viscerally call up my being captivated by the liquid in newspaper, and the multiplying candles—tricks I fell in love with and became fascinated by for countless years into my life in magic.
But above all I was taken again with its understated perfection. You don’t get this good, this smooth, this flawless, without tremendous focus and unimaginable work. And even then, even with such investments, not all reach this height of perfection. Fred Astaire said, “The hard part is making it look easy,” and Fantasio’s act is a sparkling example. Trust me—what he’s doing is damnably difficult. Yet part of Fantasio’s reputation was for not making mistakes. There seemed to never be a miss or a flub or an apology. Just … perfection.
Rest in piece, maestro. And let it be known that your work already outlives you, as I can almost hear the gasps, and laughs, it is about to elicit from your newest fans.
These performances are filled with rich, subtle, beautiful details. Please invest the attention the artist warrants—put aside the smartphone and watch uninterrupted. Expand the browser to the max. Turn up the sound. And … enjoy!
This is the act that made The Fantasios—Fantasio and his wife, Monica, whom he met and married in 1959, as they set out together on their shared lifelong magical voyage—internationally famous. I have nothing more to add beyond the foundation I’ve laid for you. So here I present to you: The Fantasios!
Magic has always had its share of what the Brits call “cod acts,” that make fun of the magic, and in which little if any of the magic is successful. There have been great acts along these lines—from Carl “The Great” Ballantine to Al Cohen’s “Pernell Zorch” to Kohl & Co. and more. But when a master like Fantasio decided turn his stylish work on its head and make fun of it, he created such a remarkable piece of work that he won his second FISM prize with it. His deep knowledge of, and insight into, the workings of magic, enabled him to create truly hilarious ideas, which he put across in silence with the same grace and clarity as he did in his classical work. I had not viewed this act in decades, but when I watched it this week, I laughed hard, out loud, several times. There are great moments and great cleverness in this, and every detail is attended to, from the music to his penetratingly deadpan expression. What an artist.
The two videos above represent the core of Fantasio’s work. There are other clips and acts on YouTube, including his silk act on the Sullivan show, and another clip in which Fantasio briefly interacts with Sullivan in the course of the performance. There are also additional clips of Fun-Tasio that are unarguably fun and clever. None do as much justice to the artist as the two performances above, but students are encouraged to seek them out.
For what it’s worth, however, I’ll add this. You don’t have to watch it: It’s the same act as the classic one above from 1981, but this is in 1970, performing at FISM (when he did not yet take a prize, but it’s unclear to me if this was a contest entry or simply a performance). And it’s only in black and white, so you miss the colors of the cards and the silk handkerchiefs. But there’s something truly beautiful about this to me, and Fantasio’s skills manage to penetrate the dense blockades of time and sepia. Perhaps you may find the same wonders in it as I.
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