TakeTwo #41: Cardini
In several prior installments of Take Two, I have discussed “manipulation” and “manipulative magic,” the branch of stage magic that is featured in silent, overtly skill-based acts, commonly performed with playing cards, but also with billiard balls, thimbles, lit cigarettes, and at times more unusual items (such as CD discs). I offered samples of this kind of performance in the following essays:
And In Take Two #24: Street Magic, Part 1, I Mentioned that Jeff Sheridan is “considered by many to be one of the most skilled card manipulators of his time…” and you can see a sample of that in the first accompanying magic video there.
All of those acts I’ve discussed are outstanding examples of manipulative magic, among the best that have ever lived, past or present. But this week I would like to present to you the one silent manipulative magic act that is considered by many in the world of magic to be the single greatest such act of all time: Cardini, the Suave Deceiver.
Born Richard Valentine Pitchford in Wales in 1895, Pitchford developed an early interest in billiards, which would return to play a role in his later life as a magician. Fighting for the British Army in World War I, he passed endless time in the trenches practicing sleight of hand. However, because of the frigid weather, he adopted the unusual habit of practicing while wearing gloves, which would lead to one of the defining technical elements of his famed future.
Injured in the war and spending a lengthy period in recovery, he again returned to practicing his sleight-of-hand as a form of therapy. On returning to the civilian world, he began to perform magic professionally, with limited initial success. For a time he worked as a magic demonstrator in Gamages department store in London (where he learned the Linking Rings, which late in his working life he would use to lengthen his act on cruise ships), and he worked as a crew member of a cargo ship, and later as a steward on a cruise ship, which eventually landed him in Australia (which he had briefly visited from the cargo ship and to which he wished to return).
In the early years he did a talking act, and went through several professional name changes along the varied path of his career. Landing a booking on the Tivoli theater circuit in Australia, he was advised to change his stage name from his then working choice of Val Raymond, due to the unfortunate coincidence of an act of the same name being wanted by police at the time. Faced with a manager’s shameless suggestion that he adopt the name of Houdini, on a whim, Pitchford came up with “Cardini.”
Also while in Australia, Pitchford became interested in magic with lit cigarettes, a feature at the time in the act of the legendary Frakson. Eventually he would leave Australia and, after a brief stay in Vancouver, BC, would land in New York City. The Cardini act was now coming together, featuring cards, billiard balls, and lit cigarettes.
But those technical essentials, profoundly skilled as they were, comprised only partial aspects of the act that would make him famous. Cardini began working with—and soon after, married—an American woman from Chicago. Swan Cardini, as she became forever known, would play a key part in the act, serving as his onstage assistant, collecting the endless appearing cards and cigarettes, while sometimes secretly aiding in the methodology behind some of the magic, and on the face of it all, dressed in the role of hotel bellhop.
Because over and above all these profoundly effective elements lay the onstage character of Cardini, and the unfolding narrative that the act told. Indeed, the Cardini act was clearly a story, and in this way stood apart from virtually all other manipulative magic acts before and since—with the notable exception of Johnny Thompson and Pamela Hayes as The Great Tomsoni & Co. (which we will consider another day).
And the story was this: We hear a voice: “Paging Mr. Cardini. Paging Mr. Cardini.” And these are the only and last words we will hear spoken at all, as we come upon a posh, sophisticated British gentleman entering his hotel after an evening out, dressed in top hat, tails coat and cape, and appointed with a cane and white gloves. The bellhop is looking for him in order to deliver something … a note, a card perhaps left for him.
But something is slightly amiss. For it seems that the gentleman is, well, just a bit … tipsy. Not drunk, not Foster Brooks staggering—just tipsy enough to start to see things that seem … impossible.
And that was the context in which the magic occurred. Cardini is stymied by the magic. He can’t quite understand what is happening, and whatever it is, it is happening to him. The cards are multiplying. Then so are the lit cigarettes. It’s all rather mystifying, to both Cardini and to us who are watching. And … it’s all so thoroughly funny at the same time.
This was the act that turned Cardini into one of the most successful acts in all of Vaudeville. He toured all over the United States and Europe, earning top dollar, and he couldn’t fulfill all the offers available to him—which resulted in his act also, much like his contemporary Houdini, being endlessly copied by other performers who happily booked their inferior imitations for whatever the market would bear. This would become an obsessive issue for Cardini, and perhaps particularly for his wife, Swan, who throughout their career kept bitter scrapbooks filled with advertisements and show billings of Cardini imitators.
Cardini’s success is hard to imagine today. He headlined Vaudeville circuits, performed for crowned heads of state and American Presidents (both Truman and FDR, no less than four times for the latter), did 11 runs at the famed Palace in New York City, and seven runs at Radio City Music Hall—performing there for 6000 seats with an act that consisted of playing cards, billiard balls, and cigarettes. Hard to imagine! And this is just a short list of the highlights.
The magic leaves magicians breathless still. The card manipulation is literal perfection. The fans of cards appear seamlessly, effortlessly, with wide, evenly spread fans, and no visual sign of where the cards are coming from or going to—no “flashes,” as magicians call it when something is slightly seen or spotted that is supposed to remain unseen. The level of his technical perfection would be astonishing were he performing with bare hands—but he is not. Rather, he performs virtually the entire card routine, almost four minutes’ worth, wearing those damned white gloves. It is all but unimaginable for magicians, other than that we have the evidence, thank goodness, of being able to witness it. And truly, it remains unduplicated and unmatched ever since.
And then comes the cigarettes. Many magicians viewing the footage of the act today fail to realize how badly they are being fooled. I was always mystified by certain elements of the cigarettes until at long last the work was detailed in Cardini: The Suave Deceiver, the 2007 biography by John Fisher—and it was a joy to discover how I had been so long fooled by this masterpiece of magic. Cardini is inundated with the appearance of lit cigarettes, and it is simply impossible to track where they are coming from. The only reasonable explanation is magic!
In the complete act, Cardini also performed a routine in which he made extremely large billiard balls magically appear, disappear, and change color, and without any gimmickry other than sleight of hand. We do not have a recording of that routine, although it has been pieced together through fanatical research by the magician, Levent, and detailed in his instructional video on billiard ball magic.
Despite the beauty and mystery and skill of so many award-winning manipulative acts since Cardini’s time, none presented their acts so effectively as a skit, a story, a magical narrative. The unparalleled skill of Cardini was never a source of resentment for the audience, thanks to the disarming charm and self-effacing nature of the character, and of that story that was being told, one filled with amusement and charm, and the accessible recognition of human foibles we all share.
And in addition to all this, Cardini was essentially the first manipulative act performed to music. Manipulation as magical performance existed before Cardini, but was often simply part of a spoken act, and presented as an explicit display of skill, as with the coin act of T. Nelson Downs. Although the young Richard Pitchford first began learning card manipulation from Downs’ classic 1909 book, The Art of Magic, he would eventually present those skills in a very different manner, in an act that was scrupulously routined to elegantly constructed musical accompaniment. And thereafter, silent manipulative magic would forever be associated with such musical background.
One of my favorite sequences in the Cardini act is an interlude with a handkerchief. He ties the hank in a knot, but the knot dissolves. He ties it again, and to his frustration, the knot dissolves again. Finally, in his inebriated determination, he slowly and ever so deliberately ties the handkerchief in an unarguably genuine knot … only to watch the handkerchief come to life and visibly untie itself!
I adore this sequence and think it a kind of genius of comedy, acting, and magic. The dissolving knot is a standard piece of magic, as is the visibly untying knot at the finish, a beautiful piece of magic that I have loved since seeing it performed in acts featuring “silk magic” in my youth. But Cardini turns the entire plot upside-down, because the magic is happening to him, and is apparently not under his control. Instead of tying a knot and demonstrating his cleverness at making it vanish, the knot dissolves despite his intentions. And the slow and deliberate tying action that is required for the final animation of the handkerchief is turned into a plot device, in which Cardini is deliberately focusing on tying the knot correctly—and then yet again his wishes are thwarted …whereupon he actually slaps the handkerchief several times in frustrated punishment before putting it away, a beat that makes me laugh every time I see it. (And note to magicians that the method is not the usual one for this, and how seamlessly Cardini gets into this trick, using a method that I reconstructed and used for a time many years ago just for the pleasure of sharing the trick with the spirit of Cardini.)
Cardini transformed magic in many ways with his unprecedented and still timeless act. As one of my mentors, the marvelous sleight-of-hand magician Howard Schwartzman (who knew Cardini) explained it to me in my youth (and these were his exact and insightful words): “Cardini changed the effect. Cardini didn’t make cards appear—he threw them away.”
Cardini, like most vaudeville acts, made his living performing a perfected act of ten to fifteen minutes’ duration, over and over again in countless venues around the world. When television arrived, like many performers he feared that once a mass audience saw his act, it would disastrously impact his bookings. (The issue remains a concern to many performers today.) Thus Cardini declined most such invitations with one exception: the 1957 “Festival of Magic,” festival of magic, for which magician Milbourne Christopher, a friend of Cardini’s, took part in arranging for some of the acts.
The entire special can be found online and features host Ernie Kovacs along with the illusionist Robert Harbin (see: Take Two #2: Grand Illusions), Milbourne Christopher, and others. Cardini reportedly eliminated the billiard ball routine because the color changes would not register on the black-and-white television broadcast, but he does include a brief series of incomparable flourishes with a single large ball.
Having this performance recorded for posterity is a magnificent treasure, and I truly hate to think about the possibility that if not for this sole event, we would have been left with mere written descriptions of Cardini’s stupendous skills and scintillating performing art. Keep in mind that this is an act that was performed at the greatest and grandest theaters in the world, a man who was as well paid as Houdini and headlined the same circuits. Please, to try to capture every nuance, every mystery, every laugh—please put aside the smart phone and watch this uninterrupted, on a full-screen image, with the best sound reproduction you have access to. Watch, and be amazed and captivated by Cardini: The Suave Deceiver!
The sleight-of-hand master, Harry Riser, who only recently passed away at age 88 last November, was a friend to countless great magicians of the generation before his own—notably Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller—and a tremendous influence on countless magicians, from John Thompson to yours truly. Harry was a fabulous storyteller, and in 2006, Caleb Wiles recorded a series of interviews with Harry that he has kindly edited and posted on YouTube. They amount to a treasure trove of magical history, mixed in with occasional priceless tidbits of technical advice about sleight of hand. In this short clip, Harry recounts a story about Cardini’s appearance on the 1957 Festival of Magic special, that will doubtless come as something of a surprise to anyone who has just watched the video of Cardini’s exquisite performance.
And finally, here is a rare minute-and-a-half fragment of homemade film footage of Cardini practicing. It is the only footage of a younger Cardini that we know of, posted by his family. (You can see Cardini press clippings and other family artifacts at www.cardini.tv.)
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