There are mysteries in the world of magic, and it’s a shame when magicians forget the fact, or fail to appreciate it. There’s a secret or two of Harry Houdini’s that we will never know for certain. There are mysterious but highly influential performers of the 19th and 20th centuries that magicians still honor and speculate about today, from L’Homme Masque (The Man of the Mask) to Max Malini. While the work of the seminally influential mentalist, Chan Canasta, was eventually addressed at length in a feature book, some of the methods described therein must forever remain marked "speculative". And of course there is S.W. Erdnase, the ever-elusive anonymous author of the most famous book ever written about sleight-of-hand with playing cards, The Expert at the Card Table, whose identity has confounded investigators since 1904.
But we needn’t hark that far back in order to find ourselves perplexed by other such mysterious men. In Take Two #29 I wrote about the legendary performer, Del Ray. Although a book has been written about his life and work, most of the methods of his signature close-up performances remain secret. A handful of sophisticated experts may have puzzled out some of the solutions, but they are not recorded in print, and I suspect they will long remain contained within the boundaries of whispered late night conversations between appreciative colleagues.
The same can also be said about this installment’s subject, the great Jimmy Grippo. Grippo was as secretive about his work as Del Ray was, if not more so. Precious little of Grippo’s signature work has been published, and while a book has supposedly long been in the works, a significant part of me hopes we will never see it, because it is unlikely to justice to this unique performer.
Jimmy Grippo was born in 1898 (we think) in a small town in Italy, likely Maschito, near Venosa, which was more often given as his birthplace. He became interested in hypnosis and also magic, and established himself as a professional hypnotist more than as a magician in the early days of his career. He used his skills as a hypnotherapist in service to a time spent managing boxers, utilizing hypnosis to help the athletes succeed; the story is told that heavyweight champion Rocky Graziano once demanded that Grippo perform in the nude in order to prove that he had no secret devices concealed beyond the pack of cards in play. And Grippo also claimed to have helped train soldiers under General Patton, using hypnosis to help them conceal military secrets in case of capture.
Like many great magicians, from Robert-Houdin to Harry Houdini, it’s hard not to wonder when Grippo’s claims exceeded reality. But the fact is the established truths render his story larger than life. He performed in Cuba for Fidel Castro. He performed for Winston Churchill. He performed personally for five Presidents, and claimed to have given Franklin Roosevelt the idea for his famous “fireside chats.”
Grippo ran his own nightclub in Miami in the 1950s, where his performances of both hypnotism and magic were a resident feature. Then in 1965 he went to Las Vegas and became a resident perform at the small and upscale Desert Inn, one of the town’s most beautiful casinos of the day. The next year saw the opening of Caesars Palace, where Grippo became a house performer in the upscale Bacchanal Room, performing tableside for guests and countless celebrities, to whom he became a favorite choice for private bookings. He would continue to perform there for almost 25 years, until sidelined by a stroke in 1991. When he died in 1992 he was mere days shy of his 95th birthday. He had remained a successful full-time entertainer past the age of 90, and when Caesars threw him a 90th birthday party, the event drew testimonials from the likes of Johnny Carson, George Burns, and Shirley MacLaine.
But there was always, and still remains, an air of mystery about Grippo. When Bill Larsen wrote about him in a cover feature of Genii magazine in 1975, he began with this: “If my readers were asked to name the top ten close-up magicians in the world today, it is quite possible the at the name Jimmy Grippo would not be included. However, this same Jimmy Grippo probably comes close to heading the list (or possibly heads the list) but because he keeps a low profile, many magicians around the country do not know of him.”
Grippo was highly regarded in the world of magic, and was the recipient of a Performing Fellowship from the Academy of Magical Arts (Magic Castle) in 1980. There were several facets of Grippo’s work that can be seen in the recordings that remain, and that were consistently spoken of by his friends, colleagues, and admirers. His effects were direct and extremely powerful. His personality was confident but polite, and fearless. His methods were bold but often remained mysterious to magicians who got to see him work.
All of these aspects of his work can be seen in the clips that follow, which consist of two daytime television talk show appearances. Like many performers about whom I’ve written in Take Two, while there is film footage in private hands, the public resources are extremely slender. But there are a few examples that are worth drawing your attention to, despite limitations in the recording quality. The closer you pay attention, the more apparent it should become to you that you are being thoroughly fooled. When his friend, Tom Collito, penned an obituary in Genii about Jimmy, he wrote, “Jimmy often said he never did tricks, he did real magic.” There are miracles in these fuzzy clips.
These first two clips comprise a complete guest spot on The Merv Griffin Show, the host of which had seen Grippo many times at Caesars and was clearly a fan. The popular television actor and game show and talk show guest, Orson Bean, who began as a magician before becoming a standup comic (and who subtly demonstrates that background at the start of the second clip), joins them at the table.
I considered editing these down a bit but have elected to post them in their entirety because the spot is a fine representation of Grippo’s work. He clearly starts out in the same manner as he would at a table at Caesars Palace, with all the opening chatter and gradual approach to the performance. The visual quality is certainly lacking, so please, do your best to give this great performer the attention he deserves. Put the smart phone aside, and watch this when you have the time to do so uninterrupted. Expand the browser. Turn up the sound. Be entertained. And … be amazed.
Jimmy Grippo: Merv Griffin Show - Part 1
Jimmy Grippo: Merv Griffin Show - Part 2
Here Grippo returns to the Merv Griffin show, this time assisted at the table by another veteran magician, Orson Welles. The second piece is an impossibility. Also, while some material is repeated from the performance above, attentive students may discern that Grippo varies his methods, a feature of his work. Asked to repeat one of his legendary routines, he would gladly do so, but would change up the methods to prevent experienced viewers from catching up with him.
Jimmy Grippo Returns to the Merv Griffin Show