Is Wax Tacky?

Liner Notes for Jamy Ian Swiss Card on Ceiling DVD
February 12, 2019

In March of 2018, I released my first commercial instructional video, Jamy Ian Swiss: A Masterclass in the Cups & Balls, produced by Vanishing Inc. In my frustration over the limitations of video as a teaching medium, it occurred to me to write a companion essay—a sort of “liner notes” for the video—that is published here at Magicana: The Cups and Balls and Me.

That essay begins by discussing the limitations of video as an instructional medium, and my reservations about releasing the Cups-and-Balls project. However, within that piece I also commented that:

Some projects are, I think, particularly suited to video. My second release will contain three routines that thematically belong together, are suited to my credentials and background, and lend themselves to video because it would not make sense to produce this particular content in book form. All of that will become clearer at a later date.

Well, the time to clear that up is now with the release of my second instructional video Card on Ceiling. (You can buy the video from my site; or you can purchase the download and video combination here.) This essay about the Card on Ceiling will serve as a companion piece to the new video—again, as a kind of liner notes. In this case, this essay is adapted from a piece that accompanied the original publication of "Self-Contained Card on Ceiling," first published in my lecture manuscript Thoughts II in 2002.

Few magicians are aware of how ancient the venerable Card on Ceiling and Card on Wall is. The trick makes its first appearance in 1716—in The Merry Companion by Richard Neve, the same book that first described a version of the Double Lift. In Neve’s version, the selected card is eventually controlled to the top, and a bit of soap is secretly applied, which serves to adhere the card to the ceiling after the deck is tossed.

Then in 1789, Henri Decremps, in La Magie Blanche Devoilée, describes a version of the Card on Wall, which relies upon a small tack being secretly introduced under cover of the misdirection of directing a spectator to draw a chalk circle anyplace they wish, which ends up serving as a target for the tacked card.

The trick is three hundred years old and we haven’t worn it out yet. Although in some cases, we’ve tried.

To Tack, or Not to Tack?

In the theory and background segment of my Card on Ceiling video, I outline my thoughts examining the differences between two different approaches to the effect; namely, the “thrown thumbtack” effect versus, what I refer to as, the “mysterious adhesion” effect. (Note that Decremps secretly introduced the tack, which the audience did not become aware of until the tacked card was closely examined. He treated the addition of the tack as a further element of magical surprise.)

Around 1985, when I was Magic Bartender at Bob Sheets’ Inn of Magic in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, we had a 4’ x 8’ sheet of finished and framed plywood mounted on the ceiling. The Card on Ceiling was one of our featured “wide” tricks, generally performed at least once a night for the entire crowd, and usually more often on busy nights when the crowd turned over. In the earlier days of the Brook Farm Inn of Magic (in its previous location in Chevy Chase), Bob Sheets performed the trick regularly. Then Scotty York adopted it as the resident Brook Farm Magic Bartender. In the days of the expanded and relocated Inn (in Wheaton), I performed it most often as the fulltime Magic Bartender there. Scotty York worked tables in the dinner theater at the Inn, but later in the evening he would stop by the bar. Scotty and I had a two-man routine that we would do when we were at the bar together—a combination of our respective routines, plus a two-man comedy sight gag, which I will describe, for the first time, at the conclusion of this piece.

In this setting, we used the thumbtack approach. The deck was wrapped in a rubber band, the head of a thumbtack was introduced beneath the band, and then we added cash that was collected from the audience and wrapped around the deck, too, and the money ended up tacked to the ceiling directly above the signed card. (Scotty York’s method was slightly different in that the tack was apparently thrown from his other hand, or by one of the other bartenders.) The addition of money was the invention of J.C. Wagner, one of a number of Magic Bartenders, along with Doc Eason, Steve Spill, Scotty York and myself, who were trained by Bob Sheets—who was, in turn, trained by the late Heba Haba Al, the original Chicago Magic Bartender and creator of the Card Under Drink. We all had different ways of getting the money, but it all went up on the ceiling. On any given night there were several dozen cards, along with several hundred to as much as a thousand dollars in cash, all tacked to the board on the ceiling.

We used this as a conversation piece and as a kind of sales device. People would ask about the cards and the money, and we’d tell them that they should stick around and find out—and to be ready to throw some money in the jar if they wanted to see the trick. And it worked. People stuck around and were primed to kick in cash. I always handled the questions initially as a joke. They would ask about the ceiling, and I would do a very slow take, turning upward toward the cards. Upon catching sight, I would jump as if startled, and exclaim, “What the hell is that?!” This always got a laugh. Or, I’d simply respond to the question with a beats the hell out of me” kind of puzzlement. I played with all sorts of answers.

We all used the thumbtack version at the bar (although different performers often used different methods), and I think for good reason. In creating this conversation piece, I think that seeing the tacks holding the cards and money in place was a useful thing. People were curious as to why the stuff was on the ceiling, but as yet, there was no mystery. On the face of it, it merely seemed like someone must have climbed up on a ladder and tacked the stuff to the ceiling. All the mystery was saved up for the actual performance of the magic trick. Also, since people would become aware of the final outcome of the trick—and many would often come back to see the trick again and again (and again!)—the tack provided an invaluable element of additional misdirection. Quite simply, it helped to fool people, and to keep them away from the method. Believe me, there were people who saw this trick over and over, for years, and could never figure it out. I don’t think this would have been true of the “mysterious adhesion” effect, had we used it.

Back in those days behind the bar, I used a then unpublished method of Scotty York’s, which he eventually described in his Scott York: Professional Tricky Bartender Series, Volume 3, The Silver Fox Strikes Again video originally produced by A-1 Multimedia. Bob Sheets used JC Wagner’s method, published in The Commercial Magic of JC Wagner. (Note that, for the record, Scotty also had an unpublished handling for putting the money up on the ceiling as per Wagner, but with the mysterious adhesion effect; in other words, without the thumbtack.)

Having said that, however, let me explain that these days—and even in those days, whenever I was away from the bar at a private gig—I only perform the Card on Ceiling one time per gig. It’s a “special” that I reserve for the end, or near the end, of the evening. I try and round up one or more of key players – the top executives, the people hosting the event or those who booked me—and get them together for this piece, while gathering as large an audience as possible. And in this case, I never use the thumbtack. Rather, I feature the mysterious adhesion effect, which adds a different sort of mystery to the trick. Instead of wondering how we manage to throw the tack into the card, they wonder what is holding the card up—two very different effects. And as Michael Ammar has pointed out, if the card stays behind—that is, if they leave it in place indefinitely—the mystery lives on, long after you’re gone. There was a bar in my Times Square neighborhood back in the Nineties that had one of my cards on the ceiling for more than a decade. Among other longstanding locations, to the best of my knowledge there is still one in a lecture hall at the Smithsonian Institution that’s been up there since 1994.

In this one-time approach, there’s no benefit to using the thumbtack, wherein prior to the performance the inherent question that arises is: Why did someone climb up and tack a card to the ceiling? Whereas in the case of the mysterious adhesion effect, the question the effect presents is: What is holding that card up and how did it get there? And so despite my approving description of the ceiling full of thumbtacked cards, in the case of the mysterious adhesion effect, I believe the effect is greatly diminished when I see a ceiling full of waxed cards (as was regularly seen, for example, in the early Eighties at Merlin McFly’s in Los Angeles, among countless other examples I have witnessed over the years).

In that case, dozens or even hundreds of “mysteriously adhering” cards on the ceiling serve the opposite purpose of the thumbtacked cards. While the latter provide an interesting tease to the unexpected effect, the multiple waxed cards serve to weaken the effect—for, among other reasons, demonstrating in advance that it is a common event. It also becomes obvious, when considered outside of a performance by any reasoning person, that some kind of glue or tape is holding the cards up, and the only question that remain is: why? And, when the performance begins, since the audience has already been tipped off to the climax, they are now given the opportunity to search for the moment the wax is perhaps not-so-secretly applied—and more often than not, they will succeed in identifying that moment.

At the Inn of Magic, despite the board full of tacked cash and cards, the routine was treated as something special—a feat that people would be lucky to see if they stayed around long enough for it. In fact, patrons often timed their weekend visits to be sure to see this trick—and to put in some money. Note that throughout his many years at the Tower Restaurant in Snomass, Colorado, Doc Eason always treated the trick in this manner, and that he offered a second layer of specialness—in that if the pot went over a hundred dollars (the swine!), he would throw the deck through the ceiling fan. I do not suggest the use of the ceiling fan—in general. If you doubt this recommendation, ask Doc to tell you some horror stories some time.

So for me, in the case of repeat performances of the same effect, I believe the thumbtack approach is preferable, because the effect itself is not weakened by the presence of previously tacked card, whereas the presence of multiple cards adhered to the ceiling sucks the power of out the effect. In the case of mysterious adhesion, a one-time performance is key to gleaning maximum power from the feat—and each repetition, combined with the presence of those obviously stuck cards defeats and dilutes the impact and mystery. John Nevil Maskelyne writes in Our Magic that strong effects are damaged by repetition; this is a good example. What can and should happen in a single performance of the mysterious adhesion feat is that the audience is swept up in the grandeur of the effect, and their own imagination rises up, with the card, to the ceiling. They fool themselves into adding a sense of mystery and wonder, because the notion that there is something sticking the card to the ceiling is actually difficult for them to hold onto satisfactorily—particularly if the trick is performed in a deceptive and dramatic fashion.

That said, I also think that most performances I see of this trick do a poor job of exploiting its beauty, power and impact. To have a card signed, returned to the deck, wrapped in a rubber band and promptly tossed at the ceiling—an approach that takes little more time than it did for me to type that description—leaves the trick bare, left to speak for itself—but no magic effect can really do that, bereft of some kind of presentation. I have seen very few “performances” of the Card On Ceiling, except by the traditional Magic Bartenders; most of the rest amount to little more than demonstrations. While the trick is initially surprising, what remains is merely a puzzle to be figured out, rather than an experience that seizes the imagination. When we performed it at the Brook Farm, and later at the Inn of Magic, depending on who was doing the routine, it could run anywhere from five to fifteen minutes! Granted you probably couldn’t or wouldn’t want to do this in a party setting, but at the bar, we turned down the general lighting, turned up the spotlights, we sometimes even added music. We had jokes with the bartenders, we had jokes for every step in the action—choosing the card, handing out the marker, having the card signed, having it returned, retrieving the marker (really!), introducing the tacks, introducing the rubber bands, selecting the rubber bands, selecting the tacks—you name it, every beat had one or two jokes. It was a production. And when I perform the piece away from the bar, I deliver an original accompanying narrative that takes a few minutes, keeps the action moving, and places the trick in a larger theatrical context. Like any trick, the Card on Ceiling needs a presentation.

And then there are the methods.

There was a time when I utilized the Sucrets tin gag—first published by Karl Norman and credited to the originator, Ed Eckl—in order to conceal and obtain the wax for the Card on Ceiling. During that period, I came up with a way to assure a quick reset for the effect. While I would not normally repeat the effect in the same performance, I disliked having to reset the trick after only one use. My solution for this was published in my first cover issue of Genii. Here is that description, followed by an update.

The Sucrets Repeat Set-up for the Card on Ceiling

oiringally published in Genii, September 1987

When you purchase a tin of Sucrets, the lozenges come in two layers with a small piece of card between them as a divider. I glue a layer of lozenges into the bottom of the tin, around the outer perimeter, leaving a small rectangular space in the center where two more lozenges would otherwise fit. I draw a small rectangle corresponding to this space in the center of the underside of the divider card. In this space I stick six small balls of wax. These balls are stuck to the underside of the divider card, which is then dropped into the tin, the space below the card’s center preventing any crushing or interference with the wax balls. Now a few loose lozenges are dropped on top, along with the necessary rubber bands, and the single ball of wax attached to the lid for use in the next performance. After doing the trick, one need only lift the card, grab another ball of wax, affix it to the lid, and you’re ready for a repeat. No hunting for the wax jar for another six performances!

By the way, sometimes if you are presented with an irregular or angled ceiling, you can still do the trick successfully if you apply two balls to the back of the card, each about a quarter of an inch from the exact center; thanks to the spin of the thrown pack, at least one should catch firmly. This repeat setup prepares you for this contingency.

An update… Eventually Sucrets packaging was redesigned such that the container is filled with three plastic self-contained layers, each one containing a set of six lozenges, each in its own transparent segment. I adapted my reset approach as follows. Discard one of the three sets. On the bottom set, there are six spaces that can be seen at the intersection of all the lozenges; set a wax ball in each one of these spaces. Drop a second complete set atop this bottom later; the lozenges in the bottom set protect the wax from being marred by this upper layer. Place rubber bands atop this upper (second) layer, in the space that would have been occupied by the original topmost set.

The Self-Contained Card On Ceiling 

After leaving Magic Bartending behind, I set upon devising a handling for accessing the wax that would not rely on the hoary Sucrets tin gag, which I had never been happy about using. While the Sucrets pun worked fine for Buffalo magician and 4F convention regular Ed Eckl, who first devised the joke, and for longtime Forks Hotel Magic Bartender Karl Norman, who made it a trademark and published it long before Michael Ammar popularized it among magicians, it is nevertheless a corny bit that never suited me and is barely funny. Indeed, if I were in the presence of any of my professional standup comic friends and tried to sell that as a joke, I would probably find myself smacked in the head. Worse still, I know at least one performer who tapes over the ‘u’ in “Sucrets” and draws an ‘e’ in its place, actually rendering the label such that it apparently reads “Secrets.” At this point, it’s no longer that the joke isn’t funny; now—to paraphrase physicist Wolfgang Pauli—“Your joke isn’t even bad.”

Also, the Sucrets tin required carrying an extra, bulky prop in my pocket, which only saw duty for a single trick. On occasion, if I had sufficient advance warning, I would simply dispense with the tin by attaching a ball of wax to the top of the indelible marker resting within the inside breast pocket of my jacket. I would obtain the wax when I went to retrieve the marker for the spectator to sign the selection. There are many similar and rather obvious solutions available; a ball of wax can be picked up from any prop on the table, from the rear edge of a bar or table, or from any hard surface on the performer’s person, including jewelry or other accessories. The problem with all of these approaches is that they are purely delivery systems, and not effective storage systems. The wax can quickly smear on clothing, and cannot be securely carried for great lengths of time.

When I returned from Washington D.C. to live in New York City in early 1992, I began to do a fair volume of private parties. I also did the trick on occasion at Mostly Magic, where I worked one night a week for about a year’s time, until its demise. Once again I found myself faced with the need for a better solution to the method for Card on Ceiling. I decided that it was time at long last that I finally create a new method, as well as a presentation, both more appropriate to the conditions in which I now most often performed it. Within a short time, I accomplished both goals. I devised a method that is self-contained, protects one’s clothing from the wax, takes no pocket space whatsoever, yet is easily carried and renders the trick always, and instantly, available to the performer. This is my “Self-Contained Card on Ceiling.”

Both the presentation and the handling have served me well ever since. The presentation required the usual pattern of writing, rewrites, performance, further rewrites, and more performance. Eventually a script was honed to my satisfaction, and I used that version to close my one-man show in the New York International Fringe Festival in the summer of 2000. But the new technical handling came largely as a flash of insight, and it filled me with delight. Although it is an extremely simple idea, it is, in effect, the result of approximately a decade of thought and experience—and for me, it is one of the most pleasing creations I have ever stumbled upon. There is something about the nature of this method that generates an inner smile for me every time I use it. It is fully explained on my instructional video, Card on Ceiling, published by Vanishing Inc., one of three methods described that also contains details of two other handlings: one by J.C. Wagner, and the other by Scotty York—both innovative friends and colleagues of mine who are no longer with us, but whose exceedingly useful work I hope to help keep alive with this video release.

Finally, while we’re thinking about method, we should also consider the rubber band. While there are many practical reasons to bind the deck in a rubber band—less of a mess, the ability to catch, and hence, retrieve the complete and intact deck—I think one would be hard-pressed to make a case that the rubber band is a theatrical improvement versus the spraying of the cards. Just a glance at the photo of Matt Schulien doing Card on Wall in The Magic of Matt Schulien by Phil Willmarth would be enough, I suspect, to convince anyone of the power of that effect. Even if you could, for example, stab the entire deck onto a card sword—would you want to? Granted there is a difference in the plot here, and the spray makes logical sense with a card sword, but still, I believe that the banded deck—the version I almost invariably use, for the pragmatic reasons already cited!—is an inferior dramatic climax. As to collecting the cards—well, if you have to collect the cards, then the loose toss is the wrong way for you to do the trick. If you spray the deck, then leave the mess. If conditions allow you to gather the cards, then perhaps. But if they don’t, then please don’t leave the audience with a view of you crawling around on your hands and knees; resort to the rubber band. For what it’s worth, one might note that the rubber band does hint toward additional mystery: How was the card extracted from the center of the sealed (banded) deck? But as Tommy Wonder discusses in his essay “Practical Thinking” in The Books of Wonder, practicality is, more often than not, the enemy of the best magic.

Having cautioned against crawling around to clean up in view of the audience—a surefire way to undo the mystery of the previous experience—I will recount for you the habit of a professional performer who, deaf and blind to such aesthetic issues, uses the mysterious adhesion Card on Ceiling as a feature element of his repertoire, performing it over and over and over again at every close-up engagement. When the clock eventually strikes the end of the gig, that is time for him to happily turn his magical coach back into a pumpkin—willfully and deliberately so before the eyes of witnesses. And so, while as is often the case with close-up gigs, the party may continue for an hour or even hours more, our hero now brings out his trusty telescoping stick and marches around doing his duty to scrape every single card off the ceiling prior to his departure.

The effect of this on any potential lasting impact of his performance is assuredly akin to the Wicked Witch of the West melting away into snarling nothingness after having a bucket of water unceremoniously dumped on her head, as he soullessly and deliberately bats the magic out of the room under the death blows of his bludgeon. He might as well hang a sign around his neck that reads—that shouts!—“I am the MAGIC KILLER, and THIS IS MY STICK!”

Don’t be that guy.

Lift your audience to the ceiling and beyond with the experience of mystery. That’s the potential—and I believe, the mission—of your art. I encourage you to try to fulfill it—and the Card on Ceiling can certainly assist you in fulfilling that mission.



For The Record...

The Card on Ceiling Slow Motion Repeat

Since this has never been recorded in any form, I am going to provide a brief description of a bit of comedy that Scotty York and I often performed together at the Inn of Magic in Wheaton, Maryland. It’s a raucous and silly kicker, devised entirely for the party atmosphere of a crowded Magic Bar that, on a busy Friday or Saturday night, filled every one of its thirty-five bar stools and an additional one hundred and fifty in two-tier bleacher seating. I’ve never done this again since the club closed at the end of 1987, and I can’t ever imagine doing it anywhere else. But this is something Scotty and I put together and performed on those busy weekend nights. (The rest of the time I either did the routine solo, or if Scotty came behind the bar and it wasn’t that busy, we would perform the regular routine together—essentially using Scotty’s presentation for it, with the lines divided among us—without the slow motion repeat sketch.)

On those wild and crazy nights, after the card and the money hit the ceiling, Scotty would throw the deck and I would throw the thumbtack. When the cheers and applause died down, we’d ask, “Would you like to see a slow-motion replay?” Of course there would be a big response from the crowd, and thus we would head into the following bit of nonsense.

First I would turn on the music—at the time, circa 1986, a very obvious choice: the theme music, written and recorded by Vangelis, for the soundtrack of the 1981 film, Chariots of Fire. (I never said this was high art.)

Now Scotty and I would begin an elaborate pantomime, performing in slow motion. I would present a spectator with a jumbo deck from which they would select a card. Scotty would present them with a regular size deck, to which they would “return” the jumbo card. Scotty and I would apparently “search” for the card, and eventually Scotty would “find” the  (jumbo) card. Meanwhile I would drag a bar stool to the center of the bartenders’ area.

Slowly, Scotty would climb up on to the barstool, still moving in slow motion to the accompanying music. Scotty pulled out the jumbo card, as if asking me if that was the right one, and I would give him the high sign. I retrieved and handed to him a gigantic clown prop sledgehammer, with a huge foam rubber head. Taking a thumbtack in hand, I would then climb up the bar stool, as Scotty and I, mashing each other’s faces as we clawed and struggled to reach to the ceiling, got into position to apparently tack the card—all in the manner of a pseudo-explanation, that supposedly the audience had missed due to its blinding speed when performed in real time!

Finally, as I reached the summit, I would take the card from Scotty, along with a giant prop dollar bill, and hold it up to the ceiling board along with a thumbtack. We would pantomime counting to three, and then Scotty would take a huge, slow-motion swing with the sledgehammer. However he would, “accidentally” slam the clown hammer onto my thumb, trapping it between the hammer and the ceiling, and I would pantomime an agonized scream of pain. As Scotty drew the hammer away, I would hold out my hand for the crowd to see, now with a giant gag thumb, some six inches long and hugely swollen, that I had secretly added over my own digit. This was the final sight gag of the bit, at which point I’d yell, “The Card on Ceiling!” and the laughing crowd would give us another big hand.

As we used to say at the Magic Bar: “That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”


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