Take Two #52: Dai Vernon

December 21, 2017

Take Two, The Lyons Den, And The Future

The title above says that this is my 52nd installment of Take Two, the first of which appeared on October 28, 2016. A few delays here and there, along with the publishing of other essays and book reviews, have stretched the 52 entries to a tad longer than one year, but… here we are!

Although the initial establishment of my Lyons Den section of the Magicana site was intended to focus on reviews and essays, dreaming up Take Two quickly took over my workload, and also brought a great deal of positive support from readers among both the magic community and the general public of appreciators and fans of magic. Take Two is intended for such a wide audience, as it avoids any discussion of methods except perhaps in occasionally broad terms as it relates to insights of art appreciation.

With the completion of #52, I am pleased to announce some news. I’m happy to say that Magicana has asked that I continue writing here, and the Take Two series will be a part of that. Going forward, in order to make the schedule more manageable, I will be posting a new piece every two weeks, be it Take Two, book reviews, or other essays, thereby avoiding weeks with multiple postings. In other words, no matter what the nature of the content, in general there will be two postings a month.

Thanks for reading.

Dai Vernon

Photo courtesy of the David Ben Collection.

As I approach this installment of Take Two, I think about the couple of times I have already bemoaned the challenge of writing succinctly about legendary icons of the stature of men like Jay Marshall and Billy McComb. There are even more challenging tasks ahead, but probably none more so than the subject I have chosen to complete my year’s worth of entries.

His name is Dai Vernon.

Born David Frederick Wingfield Verner, June 11, 1894 in Ottawa, Canada, he later came to be known as Dai Vernon. But Vernon eventually most commonly came to be addressed by most magicians simply by the respectful moniker, “Professor.”  If you say “The Professor” to a magician, we know who you mean.

Dai Vernon was without doubt the most influential sleight-of-hand artist of the 20th century. Indeed, his life spanned virtually the entirety of the century, as he died in 1992 at the age of 98. Magicians often declare Vernon to be the Picasso of magic, but one might get a tad closer to the truth if one considers him magic’s Duchamp. While Vernon may not have been the trickster that Duchamp was, and was not an aficionado of much that might be called “ready-made” magic, Vernon transformed magicians’ idea of what magic is and could be, re-examining its artistic assumptions and bringing the form out of 19th century conventions and into 20th century modernity. He also contributed to a more self-referential direction in magic’s presentation and repertoire, not unlike the changes wrought in early 20th century static arts. And, like Duchamp, he was revered within the world of magic without being widely known to the public, while countless of the century’s greatest magicians would cite him as their greatest influence.

What Vernon did share with Picasso was that both believed in beauty, and made beautiful art. But Picasso was in some ways the Houdini of magic—an overpowering giant, dominating the public sphere—while Vernon never showed the slightest respect for Houdini, and indeed, derided him for his bullying tendencies as a personality, and his ham-fisted limitations as a magician.

Yet the names of Harry Houdini and Dai Vernon would forever be intertwined. When Houdini declared that no magician could fool him three times with the same trick, Vernon did so, thoroughly and absolutely, with an apparently simple effect of card magic that he had innovated. Typical of Vernon’s genius and lifelong approach, he had created an uncanny and impenetrable trick by ingeniously combining two different principles. And as a result, for much of his life he would be known—at times through his own promotional materials—as “The Man Who Fooled Houdini.”

While this meant something to the public and perhaps to some magicians, it actually meant little to Vernon, whose passion for artistic exploration trumped all other foci of his life, including his own family. An itinerant to the core, Vernon spent much of the prime years of his life traveling in pursuit of the best magic ideas, as well as of his complementary interest in learning secret cheating techniques. Indeed, an entire book is devoted to one such adventure in his life—the pursuit of a single card sleight that most practitioners thought to be a chimera. Vernon eventually chased the sleight and its creator to their lair, learning to master the technique and then preserving it for future generations. It was known as the Perfect Center Deal, and the engaging book about it is The Magician and the Card Sharp by Karl Johnson (Henry Holt and Co., 2006).

Vernon’s mutual love affair with both magic and gambling sleights flourished when he acquired a book that has since come to be known as The Expert at the Card Table by S.W. Erdnase. Vernon purchased the book as a young boy and had memorized it by his early adolescence. Published in 1902, it was significantly devoted to sleight-of-hand cheating at card games, but also included a substantial portion about card magic. Vernon’s obsessive and passionate devotion to and exploration of The Expert would substantially contribute to its eventual status as among the most important volumes ever written about sleight-of-hand with playing cards. It is no small irony that, with the name “S.W. Erdnase” apparently being a pseudonym, this most legendary of books, that has never been out of print, was written by a still anonymous author, the identity of which continues to be avidly pursued today. (But that is a story for another day.)

Vernon supported himself professionally through much of his adult life as both a magician and as a silhouette cutter. The latter pursuit (at which he was equally adept) was highly portable and suited to a vagabond lifestyle. Vernon worked in his younger days in Coney Island cutting silhouettes, a trade perfectly suited to such a setting, but he could spontaneously pick up his display stand and tools—little more than paper and a small pair of scissors—and travel widely to pursue magicians and gamblers, paying his way by setting out his wares and cutting silhouettes for a few hours a day at a suitable location.

Such habits rendered him less than the ideal family man, and it’s perhaps too bad for all concerned that the conventional expectations of the era led him to such conventional obligations, at which he was likely doomed to fail, as he was anything but a conventional man. Thus he parted ways with his wife and family by the 1950s. Years later, one of his two sons, Derek, would say, “As a father, he was a good magician.”

Vernon knew every big name in magic through the century, and countless lesser names as well. Max Maven has said that, “There is not a magician in the world today who has not been influenced by Dai Vernon—whether they know it or not.” And it is fair to say that this is no exaggeration. While Vernon’s focus was on sleight-of-hand magic with playing cards and other small objects, his vision was such that it would eventually impact the entirety of performance magic, from its largest stage illusions down the smallest feat performed with a single coin.

At its core this vision was summed in the word “naturalness,” which became identified with Vernon as a virtual mantra. At the turn of the century magic was characterized by a posturing, posing, and pointing manner of presentation that was highly performative and unnatural, consistent with the style of acting, singing, and comedy that can be seen in silent film and early talkies, when live performers can be seen in early film performing much in the same manner as they did on stage. The gestures, movements and indeed the sleights themselves utilized in magic were contrived and unnatural, but this was accepted as the style of the day, just as it was in acting and other performance.

In the pages of The Expert at the Card Table, Vernon spotted a glimmer of another way. Erdnase—either a practicing cheat who was interested in magic, or an enthusiastic amateur magician who was interested in cheating—presented some of his original sleights with the observation that they could and should be executed “in such a manner that the most critical observer would not even suspect, let alone detect, the action.”

Of course, in cheating, this was an expectation if not a requirement, at which if one failed, one risked grave or even mortal consequences. The magician could risk being suspected of sleight of hand, because the consequence was an unhappy audience and the failure to earn applause. And the unnatural gestures and actions of magic, which readily served to warn the audience that something secret was going on, was forgiven for magicians—but not so for card cheats.

And Vernon thought: What if magic could be performed this way? What if the technical sleights of conjuring could be utilized so transparently, so invisibly, so—naturally!—that the viewer “would not even suspect, let alone detect, the action”? And if indeed such a thing was possible, would not the appearance and impact of magic be radically heightened?

And so, with Erdnase as his lamp, Dai Vernon set out to light the way to a new approach to magic for the 20th century, and the impact of the art form would not merely be heightened, but rather, transformed. He was thus to magic what Stanislavski would be to acting.

It’s impossible to inventory Vernon’s contributions in a brief tribute. It would be a challenging task to produce an accurate list of the conjuring luminaries for whom Vernon served as mentor and guide. There is a shelf’s worth of books devoted to Vernon’s content and creations (most of which were authored by Lewis Ganson or Stephen Minch). But amid all the material recorded in those books, as well as in countless other books (such as the original Stars of Magic and also Expert Card Technique, by Hugard & Braue, two of the most important works of sleight-of-hand magic of the mid-20th century), journals, and videos (notably the ten-volume set of Revelations videos filmed when Vernon was in his eighties, not to be confused with his own legendary manuscript, Revelation, annotating Erdnase’s Expert) … along with all that, and more, there is the iconic material bearing Vernon’s personal stamp that has become the core repertoire of modern close-up magic. Literally every cardician of any note or seriousness in the entire international community of magic is certain to include some version of one or two or three of Vernon’s most iconic card plots, and the invocation of their very titles comprise a portion of the lingua franca that magicians share the world over. No practitioner of any standing sets a deck of cards into his or her hands without executing some technique or other, and likely multiple examples, that was not either refined or outright invented by Vernon.

And along with these monumental classics of card magic, Vernon also created his personal routines for two true classics of sleight-of-hand magic: The Linking Rings, and the Cups and Balls. He created these routines for himself—but before he was through, he had in turn created what became, and indeed remain, the universal standards for these ancient examples of the conjuror’s art. If you see a magician performing a version of the Linking Rings today, chances are good it is Vernon’s routine—and if not, chances are certain that some element of Vernon’s routine is included in what you are watching. And if you see a version of the ancient Cups and Balls—considered among the very oldest tricks of magic going back centuries if not millennia—chances are equally likely that, if you are seeing a routine performed in the classical manner with three cups and three balls, then that routine has been closely based on Vernon’s own. The fact of the matter is that every important version of the Cups and Balls since the middle of the 20th century, save only one (that of the late Tommy Wonder), has been closely based on Vernon’s masterpiece.

It’s not the place of this essay to explain exactly why these truths became so. It must suffice here to say that Vernon, while he was an innovator and creator, was above all, an orchestrator and selector. He analyzed everything knowable about the entire course of magic of his time and the times that had preceded him, and then he made careful selections, and added his own perspective—what Lewis Ganson dubbed “The Vernon Touch”—and repeatedly created wholes that existed far beyond the sums of their collective artistic parts.

And it was this passion for improvement that drove and defined him. It was no less than this that he tried to inspire his student and acolytes to grasp and follow. Vernon knew—often better than his followers—that to strive for perfection was the requisite approach, but that at the same time, one must never be deluded into believing that one had achieved it. This deep-seated wisdom helped set him apart from most others among his acolytes and colleagues. It helped define him not only as an artist, but also as a person. And the tension and balance it reflects between ego and humility was a part of his power and grace—as both artist and person.

Vernon’s unwavering demand for artistic exploration and improvement outweighed his interest in fulltime performing. Because of this, many have misunderstood, misinterpreted, or outright distorted the facts of his career as a professional performer. In his years in New York, Vernon was a very successful performer. There exist stacks of contracts for Vernon’s bookings working for high society in New York and its environs, doing private parties—sometimes entirely with magic, sometimes with a mix of magic and silhouette cutting, occasionally merely doing the latter—getting fees that some performers work for today, and that when corrected for inflation, represent the highest fees a top contemporary performer might garner. He also created a staggeringly original stage act, portraying a Harlequin in an unprecedented artistic vision of magic. The act was a tremendous success at New York’s famed nightclub, the Rainbow Room, where it was held over for many weeks, and which in turn led to a booking at no less than Radio City Music Hall. But Vernon, in his inexperience, mistakenly accepted the gig, and the 6000-seat hall proved too big for an act that required a somewhat smaller stage and audience.

Photo courtesy of the David Ben Colleciton.

Unlike Cardini, however, Vernon’s friend and colleague who succeeded in Radio City and toured the world with his polished act of a few minutes’ duration, Vernon had no interest in such repetition. He continued to revise the Linking Ring routine but jettisoned the Harlequin act to history.

Historical revisionists who doubted Vernon’s successes as a professional performer also today sometimes doubt the very nature of his life. When one leads such a life as Vernon did—traveling the world with a pack of cards, effortlessly rubbing shoulders with Presidents and high society one day, and criminals and hustlers the next—it’s hard for some to believe that such a life was ever real. The extraordinary facts of his life were further complicated, in a way, by his abilities as a raconteur—truly such stories could not be literally true, or so some at least would have it. But a book like that of Karl Johnson’s proves beyond question that every tale Vernon told about the search for the Center Deal was not simply well told, but told truly. And that’s an entire book devoted to a single chapter of little more than a year in his life.

The first volume of an intended two-volume biography, Dai Vernon: A Biography (Squash Publishing, 2006), written by David Ben (the co-founder of Magicana), covers Vernon’s life until age 47, ending at the point of Vernon’s life-threatening accident, the result of the one straight job he ever took. Taking a fall from a girder on a construction site, Vernon broke both arms, which his surgeons considered amputating. Vernon’s damaged appendages healed, and thus 20th century magic was saved. (The intended second volume remains a work in progress.)

When the Magic Castle opened in Los Angeles in 1963, Vernon was approaching 70 years of age, a time when most men, particularly of that era, were ready to settle into quiet retirement. The Larsen brothers, Milt and Bill, who built and opened the Magic Castle, prevailed upon Vernon to relocate from New York City to Los Angeles, to become its resident guru. Vernon went, and with him the center of American magic—indeed, the center of the world for sleight-of-hand close-up magic—shifted from New York to LA. Magicians like Bruce Cervon and Larry Jennings, future legends in their own right, packed up their lives and moved to Los Angeles to study at Vernon’s side. Vernon’s presence helped make the Magic Castle an international center for magic, and it was there that Vernon entered the third and utterly vital stage of his life, as a teacher and mentor. From his corner loveseat at the Castle, Vernon brought his experience and vision to bear, and from there his influence flowered and spread far beyond the Castle’s doors.

By the time I got to know Vernon personally, he had already significantly formed me, and my work, in the crucible of his body of instructional literature. I am a Vernon acolyte, and shall always be one. Although I had briefly met him previously, it was not until I first performed and lectured at the Magic Castle that Vernon and I came to know one another on a first name basis, spending time in his corner of the Castle, outside the Close-up Gallery, where he would see me perform and also, that same week, attend my lecture. I’ve recounted some of those anecdotes in my essay, “The Writing on the Wall,” in my first book, Shattering Illusions, and so I won’t repeat them here. But it’s frequently difficult to remind myself that Vernon was 91 years old at that time, because I don’t readily think of him being of such an age. Yes, he was aged, and it showed in his growing deafness. But other than that, by then, I didn’t need to fill our time solely with talk of magic. Rather, it was an opportunity and a gift to simply spend time with him, chatting, laughing, having a late-night breakfast at a nearby diner after the Castle closed up and there were no more drinks to be served. Vernon once asked me where in New York I had lived and was living at the time. In return, he ticked off a number of locations he had lived in and around New York City. There was a pause—timing was one of Vernon’s greatest assets—and then he said, “I had to stay ahead of the landlords.” We laughed.

Michael Skinner once said to me that for all the magic he had learned from Vernon, it was how to be a person that Michael had learned the most about. Those who might judge Vernon for his flaws might find this surprising, but I suspect that while this wasn’t all of what he meant, at least a portion of what Mike was referring to was Vernon’s lessons and example of how to be an artist. I was lucky to simply be around him for a while, and complete the lifelong impact he had had on me with a little knowledge of the man himself. There are many who knew him better. I knew him well enough.

Vernon had always hoped to last a century; he didn’t quite make it. In the absence of the best available care, perhaps for both better and worse he left Los Angeles and spent the last two years living with his son, Ted, in Ramona. Upon his death, his ashes were interred at the Magic Castle, where they resided, unmarked but known to and appreciated by many, until earlier this year, when they were returned to family, in many ways a dubious outcome from this writer’s vantage.

Above the loveseat where Vernon held court most nights, a brass plaque marked his spot for many years. It read: “This seat reserved for Dai Vernon—The Professor—when he is in the building.” The plaque is gone, and the building has not been the same since he vacated that seat.

It’s one thing to talk about Vernon to non-magicians, to make comparisons, to comment and observe. It’s another thing to try to compellingly make the case to outsiders, or even to young magicians, because we have precious little to show in the way of quality recordings of his work, and what we do have is almost entirely either late, or very late, in his life. We have a few small clips when he is a swaggering young hotshot, a gunslinger of sleight-of-hand, mowing down all who came in his path. We have some gorgeous still photos from which we can guess at the charisma that lay beyond the movie-star good looks. Then we have a few somewhat longer black-and-white bits of footage, when he is performing in his 60s and 70s, which for him was still very much his prime. And then we have a few television guest spots when he is in or close to his 80s. Remarkably, the sleight-of-hand is mostly superb, mostly flawless, with only an occasional flub here and there, and as I watch I try to imagine what he must have been like in his prime, because even in his 80s and 90s, the sleight of hand was stunning to watch, especially that which he did right before my eyes, up close. In his prime it must have hurt to watch something that good.

But for non-magicians, who lack the tools and background with which to do the post production that we magicians do in our heads, it’s difficult to put out a tiny handful of clips of an old man with a squeaky voice and a self-deprecating sense of humor, and say: This. This is it. This is the man who changed the world for us.

But that’s the task at hand, so I will do my best with what little I have to show you. 

Dai Vernon: Dick Cavett Show

In the early days of cable television, Dick Cavett, an enthusiastic magician in his own right, hosted several magic specials. This segment is taken from one of those shows, in which Vernon performs two of his signature routines. First is his version of the ancient street scam of Three Card Monte, which Vernon would have first learned from the pages of Erdnase’s Expert at the Card Table. Vernon then offers an expert demonstration of the cheater’s move known as the Second Deal. And finally he performs his Three Ball Routine, one of many examples of Vernon as orchestrator, drawing on the work of his influences and predecessors, and then making it all his own. This routine is still performed by many magicians today. 


Symphony of the Rings

This is one of the few lengthier clips we have of Vernon in performance, closer to his prime, here on stage performing his “Symphony of the Rings,” the most influential Linking Ring routine of the 20th century.


Later Vernon

Here is Vernon in a casual interview setting, probably in his 70s, riffing with original sleights and techniques using a large ball and wand, and then a coin. The final piece he does is Nate Leipzig’s Slow Motion Coin Vanish, a trick Vernon learned from Leipzig, a legendary Vaudeville performer, and which remained a pet favorite of Vernon’s throughout his life. He performed it for me, in fact, at our first magic “session,” after I had performed another magician’s modern variation of the plot for him.


The Oldest Trick in The Book

And here is Vernon, aged 78, performing his iconic version of the Cups and Balls. He is incredibly charming here, and there is so much in his thinking that is diabolical and brilliant. Magicians today assume the Cups and Balls is naturally a piece of close-up magic, but throughout its history it was a trick performed primarily in town squares by buskers and the like, for gathered crowds. Vernon set out to make the trick suitable for intimate close-up conditions, and he deliberately constructed the routine to make it appealing in those conditions, while taking advantage of the circumstances as well. Accomplishing the finale of this routine is no mean feat when he was doing this tableside at elite nightclubs in New York City, right in the audience’s face. Part of the solution enabling him to accomplish that was his explicitly discussing how the trick apparently works. This not only gets the audience on his side—much like Penn & Teller would echo decades later—but also, as it turns out, talking about the misdirection is the misdirection. “And if you don’t understand, I’ll explain it a little later.” Diabolical genius.

This is a high quality version at the Magicana site, preceded by an introduction from David Ben. Give it a few moments to load.  

The Oldest Trick in the Book - Exhibition
Dai Vernon: Cups & Balls


Dai Venron: The Spirit of Magic

Finally, if you wish to explore Vernon’s life and legacy a bit further, Magicana hosts a high quality copy of a superb 45-minute documentary made for Canadian television in 1999 by filmmaker Daniel Zuckerbrot, and narrated by an icon of Canadian public broadcasting, Patrick Watson.

Watch Dai Vernon: The Spirit of Magic

David Ben on The Spirit of Magic




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