I began last week’s Take Two by talking about mysterious magicians, and one of the examples I cited was a name that will doubtless be entirely unknown to non-magicians these days, and indeed to countless contemporary magicians as well. That name is Chan Canasta.
Born Chananel Mifelew in Poland in 1920, he studied psychology in Jerusalem for a time until joining the RAF to fight in World War II, after which he settled in the United Kingdom in 1947 and became a citizen. There he became a professional magician, initially focused on card magic, which inspired him to take the name of “Canasta” from that of the popular card game. He found success as a stage performer, incorporating feats of memory along with mental magic.
Appearing on British television as early as 1951, Canasta quickly rose to become a celebrated personality in the eyes of the British public, where several British performers would also soon achieve stardom as mentalists, including Al Koran and David Berglas. Derren Brown has served as the current generation’s exemplar in the realm of mentalism (other British celebrity magicians, rather than mentalists, included Tommy Cooper and Paul Daniels).
Derren Brown (whose recent Off-Broadway show I wrote about), cites Canasta as an influence, and the connection will become an obvious one, upon watching Canasta, to any attentive viewer familiar with Brown’s work.
Canasta’s approach was startlingly original and so ahead of its time as to render him the subject of widespread criticism within the magic world by those who didn’t get it—and it would take another half century before they would. This didn’t have much of an impact on Canasta’s success, however, who became a frequent presence on British television, and would eventually appear on a handful of American shows as well, including The Ed Sullivan Show. He also performed on stage at the London Palladium, in Las Vegas at the Desert Inn, and toured the Playboy Club circuit.
Rather than adopt the common mentalist stance of the time by claiming some kind of mysterious psychic abilities, Canasta explicitly denied the suggestion of such powers, and rather claimed to use skills of memory and psychology. He referred to his routines as “experiments” rather than tricks or illusions. He never even billed himself as a magician or mentalist; at times he used the original term, “psycho-magician,” but most often he was simply, “A Remarkable Man.” He was also willing to make mistakes, often on national television, a habit that magicians decried.
The results as far as the public was concerned, however, were often staggering. I have colleagues today who like to refer to themselves as “mystery performers” rather than as magicians or illusionists, and there is something to be said for adopting such a label, pointing as it does to the notion that magic, at its core, is (or at least should be) about mystery. As Max Maven (another ground-breaking mentalist) has said, all arts incorporate elements of mystery, but only magic is entirely about mystery. Whereas magicians are expected to succeed every time out, and a single flaw can undo a spectator’s entire experience of a magic show, and traditionally mentalists had always similarly strived for perfection in achieving their supernormal feats, Canasta was doing something different. In his hands, failure served to enhance his impact.
While Canasta denied any supernatural abilities, the power of failure has long been exploited by phony psychics. In The Magic of Uri Geller (later re-titled as The Truth About Uri Geller), author, arch skeptic and veteran psychic buster James Randi observed that for Geller and other professional psychic frauds, “when they win, they win, and when they lose, they win.” Failure, in the eyes of believers, simply served to add to their credibility, separating them from professional magicians who essentially never fail.
It was the uncertainty of it all that added depth to Canastas impact with the public, while it drove magicians to distraction. And because a few of his methods were sometimes clear to magicians, other aspects of his work were so completely diabolically inspired that they often missed the fact of how badly they were being fooled.
These days, performing mentalism while claiming outright to be psychic will only past muster with the most enthusiastic of credulous believers. But take a classic mentalism trick and frame it in the context of reading body language, exercising psychological influence, or the power of suggestion, and over-educated science-deprived anti-vax hipsters will bite down harder than a trout on a hook baited with a fat and juicy worm. It is already a tired trope, with fewer than twenty years on the mentalism-as-fad clock.
But, I digress. Half a century before Derren Brown, who now has 400,000 YouTube subscribers and almost 400 videos with views in the tens and hundreds of thousands and cumulative millions, Chan Canasta was blowing the public’s minds with little more than a couple of packs of cards, the occasional borrowed book, a slightly exotic accent and an understated but sophisticated charisma that rendered him a household name in Britain.
Canasta was an original, though, on and off the stage. And in keeping with the fact, he eventually chose to walk away from his success and celebrity, retiring early from the stage and choosing to pursue an artistic career as a painter. By the time he made his final television “return” appearance in 1971, he had already quit performing on TV several years before. According to his 1999 obituary in The Guardian, “He took up painting, and within a few years was commanding high prices for his colourful landscapes in crayon and chalk,” including shows in London and New York City. He signed his paintings, “Mifelew,” his family name by birth.
My own first exposure to Canasta came long before there was YouTube, when rare vintage performance recordings were circulated in the magic underground. I was mystified at the time, and eventually, as I began to grasp some of the methods, I was mystified all the more. Today Canasta is much better known to magicians today than in the first few decades in the aftermath of his retirement, as mentalism in general, and Canasta’s themes and methods in particular, have reached above ground within the community. And a major book eventually collected most of what we know about this genuine man of mystery, in which even still, some of the methodology must invariably be marked as speculation rather than authoritative fact. Thus the mystery remains, and there is no greater tribute.
Chan Canasta first appeared on television in 1951, in what became a low-budget television series hosted by John Freeman, editor of the New Statesman, whose journalistic tone brought a sense of gravitas to the talk show-like series. The series made Canasta famous, albeit none of it has been preserved. A single, final episode, circa 1960, does remain, and it can be found on YouTube in three parts, totaling about 30 minutes, from which these selections are drawn.
Before you go further, please do put aside the smart-phone, expand the browser, turn up the sound, and only then, step firmly into the mysterious experience that is Chan Canasta. I think you will be mystified, as well as entertained.
Chan Canasta: BBC (1960)
Here is the entirety of a performance of Canasta’s truly legendary book experiment. There is no pre-arrangement of any sort—he could do this anywhere, anytime, with anyone’s book.
Chan Canasta: An Experiment With Books
Several years after Canasta’s retirement from television, since pursuing a new career as a fine painter, he returned to the small screen one last time as a personal favor to the popular talk show host, Michael Parkinson. The entire episode, totaling less than 25 minutes, can be found on YouTube in three parts. Here is one amazing routine that is pure Canasta from start to finish.