Rock On – Jon Racherbaumer – April 2010

ROCK ON – 3

April 2010 – Jon Racherbaumer

TONY SLYDINI (September 1, 1900 – January 15th, 1991)

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Slydini was a rarity.

One of the downsides of being one of a kind is that when a rarity passes from the scene, he or she is extinct. What remains for a while are fragments and shadows. Slydini was a private person. He would have been comfortable being a shadow cast against a distant wall, defined in outline, personal details blurred or unrevealed. His natural impulse was to turn away from close scrutiny. Smaller in person than imagined in print, he was seldom ostentatious except when goaded or onstage. Otherwise he preferred to watch and listen, the model of obedient children commanded to be seen, not heard; and this old-world reticence was charmingly disarming. He seemed sly…yet gentle and his mischievous grin and sly-eyes set him apart-making him, to me, an Italian-Argentine elf.

That famous, steadfast grin signaled that Slydini knew much more than you did about what he did with coins, cigarettes, silks, and other commonplace objects; however, he never lorded this superior knowledge over anyone. In fact, his self-knowledge and self-confidence fell short of gloating. You believed that he could sneak in a room without being sneaky about it. You also assumed that he could pick your pocket and return what was stolen without anyone being the wiser. However, Slydini never stole anything…except, maybe, hearts and minds. And when he sat down to “play,” invading your personal space like a Ninja Dutch-Uncle, he did so with a poke and a nudge, a grin and a wink. He in this regard was a passive-aggressive tease who effortlessly fooled the be-jabbers out of you while simultaneously sympathizing with your state of mind. He seemed to meet you halfway to help you figure what is really happening.

I can hear him now, speaking in broken English: “Do you know why-ah you don’t-ah see?”

The answer was devilishly simple: “You don’t-ah see because you don’t-ah…watch!”

Slydini in his inimitable way was telling the truth. WE did not see because he was forcing us to look elsewhere. Being a master of misdirection, we seldom saw what we were not supposed to see. We looked where he wanted us to look and we were tethered to his dominating will. Slydini was a virtuoso puppet-master and we were his happy puppets.

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Born Quintino Marucci in Foggia, Italy, Slydini was the son of an amateur magician who encouraged him to pursue sleight of hand at an early age. Early on he focused on the psychological aspects of conjuring. Stripping everything down to simple, direct theatrics, he discovered how to create astonishment with commonplace objects. While still a young man, his family left Italy to live in Argentina. There he began to seriously experiment with magic and worked awhile in South America’s version of vaudeville. But once the Great Depression hit, work became scarce. He then moved to New York City in 1930, landing a job in a museum on 42nd Street. From there, he worked in carnivals and sideshows. On a visit with his sister in Boston, he attracted the attention of an agent and landed a job for $15 a day for a three-day show. His skill was apparent to those who saw him on those three days and he ended up performing in Boston for seven years.

Slydini showed his special brand of close-up magic at the 1948 I.B.M Convention in New Orleans. At the time, using the lap (as a servante) was relatively unknown. Conventioneers were stunned by what they saw and completely baffled by what they did not see.

Dick Cavett, writing in the New York Times, recently had this to say about Slydini:

“Years later, when I had a show on PBS, I went to see the late Doug Henning’s evening of magic on Broadway. Backstage in his dressing room after the show, I barely I noticed a smallish man standing to one side. Suddenly he said what sounded like, ‘You D. Cava?’ I horripilated. Before me stood the god I haven’t mentioned yet. There, in the flesh, stood Slydini. Instant gooseflesh. He’d been one of the giants in the Pantheon of magic for decades; I would sooner have dreamed of meeting Beethoven. Slydini. Just typing those three syllables even now gives me a frisson…What had sounded like ‘D. Cava’ was, of course, my name, and I loved that Slydini knew it. I knew that he refused to do television. A bad experience in Europe, with cameras in wrong places and lousy editing, had soured him on that and, a perfectionist, he wouldn’t risk again having his work tainted.

I was thrilled when, having heard I knew magic, he said that maybe I would ‘be the man to give me what I need’ and asked if he should consider doing my show, ‘If-a you are interested.’ (Guess.)

“Suddenly Doug Henning said, ‘Tony’s doing a special demonstration for some magicians tomorrow night at Vesuvio restaurant. Come.’ Tomorrow night finally came. For the magicians, sitting for nearly two hours at that table, sudden gasps and intakes of breath abounded. It was like seeing a man walk up a wall. Nothing prepared you for it. Right at the start, a solid, heavy silver dollar, held before my eyes, vanished into thinnest air. And by no method I knew of. Certainly no sleeves. The two hours flew too quickly.”

I had the privilege of performing a few tricks for Slydini, who graciously and patiently paid attention to my amateurish tomfoolery. Normally, Slydini did not like watching others perform magic. This was not due to elitism on his part. He simply avoided what artists call “the tyranny of influences.” He, like Jerry Andrus, refused to do “magic” created by others and preferred to do his own “stuff.” That being said, if Tony found himself watching a trick or presentation, he took the opportunity to discover underlying principles that might be applicable to his own work. In this regard he had the instantaneous knack of taking a trick and transforming it into a mini-masterpiece. His three-syllable name then makes perfect sense.

SLY= He was cunning, wily and sneaky.
DEAN = He was a senior member of an inner circle of innovators.
EENY = The “eeny” part was like a witchdoctors rattle. It was a taunt that tickled your fancy.

One of the tricks I performed for Slydini I learned from Eddie Fields in 1969. It is a bold trick with an elusive and utterly simple secret. This is what Eddie did:

He borrowed a deck and situated himself next to a table that was level with his waist. Next, he asked a spectator, “Did you shuffle the cards? By the way, they’re not marked, are they?” The spectator responded accordingly and shuffled his deck. Eddie continued: “A performer should never turn his back on the audience, but in this case it’s necessary. Please hand me the deck.”

With his back turned to the spectator, Eddie held his hands behind his back and gestured for the deck. He then spread out the cards for a selection. Once a card was selected, he squared the deck and asked, “Can I see your card?” This of course was a rhetorical question. When the spectator said “no,” Eddie reached for the selection with his right hand and added: “‘Please hand me your card face down so that I can feel it with my fingertips.”

At this stage he was facing a waist-high table. He then turned around to face the spectator with his eyes tightly closed and added, “Can I see your card now?”Since the cards were still behind Eddie’s back, the spectator correctly assumed that Eddie was being factitious. This bit of by-play gave him an opportunity to turn the selection face up behind his back and drop it face up on the table. As soon as the selection was dropped on the table,

Eddie took the top card of the deck into his right hand. Next, he turned his back to the spectator again, bringing the deck and face-down card in his right hand into view. The spectator assumed that the right-hand card was still the selection. Eddie repeated the question: “Can I see your card now?” As he asked this rhetorical question, Eddie was staring at the face-up selection on the table. How bold is that?

He then added, “I’ll put your selection into the center of the deck!” Here, without flashing the face of the right-hand card, he actually inserted the indifferent card into the middle of the deck. Then he finally turned to face the spectator with his eyes closed. Again, he asked, “Can I see your card now?” Needless to say, the spectator was convinced that it was impossible for Eddie to know the name of his card. When he named it, the spectator nearly fainted.

Eddie liked to repeat the trick. When he did, he used a different method. First, however, he managed to furtively replace the tabled card back into the deck.

Here then is what he did next. While the spectators were still reacting to the initial trick, he thumbed through the face-up spread and noted the top card of the deck. For the purpose of this explanation suppose that the glimpsed card is the 10H. He then riffle shuffled the cards and retained the 10H on top. Next, he placed the deck behind his back and said, “When the cards are behind my back, it’s impossible to see them. What I’m really using is remote viewing.”

When the cards were behind his back, Eddie palmed the top card (10H) in his right hand and, with the card palmed, his right hand grabbed his left wrist. His palm-up left hand held the balance of the deck. In this relaxed, natural-looking position, the palmed card was completely hidden.

Eddie next turned his back, exposing the deck to the spectator. He then asked the spectator to take and shuffle the cards and return them to his left hand. As soon as the spectator did as instructed, Eddie turned around and faced the spectator again, saying, “There’s no way to see any cards or know their positions. Oh… (As if it had slipped his mind)… did you note the top card?”

As Eddie uttered this patter, he replaced the palmed 10H on top of the deck. Once it was replaced, he moved his right hand back into position so that it was grabbing his left wrist again.
Eddie turned around again and let the spectator note the top card, adding: “This time I want you place your card face down in the center of the deck!” When the spectator complied, he added, “Can I see your card now?”

Finally, he turned around to face the spectator with his eyes tightly closed, keeping the deck behind his back. By this time Eddie was grinning like a cat that had just swallowed the canary. He would ask (without laughing): “Can I see your card now?”

When he named the selection for a second time, he immediately handed out the deck for inspection. Then he giggled. It was a beautiful thing to watch.

After I showed this routine to Slydini, he grinned and said, “May I show you a version?” Needless to say, I nodded, wondering what Slydini would do to improve this effect. Here is what Slydini did:

He took the deck and placed it behind his back. Next he turned his back and asked me to select a card and then hand it to him face down. He faced me and said that he was going to insert the selection into the center and leave it out-jogged for half its length. After he did this, he turned around again tilted the deck so that I could see the face of the out-jogged selection. Slydini then said, “I’m going to leave your selection sticking out of the deck!”

Next, he turned to face me and added, “Can I see your card now?” I said no. He turned around again and showed me the protruding selection. Then he named my card!
I was stunned and clueless.

This is what Slydini did:

After I handed him my face-down selection behind his back and he turned around to face me, he actually inserted my selection into the center and left it out-jogged for half its length. Then he turned around again tilted the deck so that I could see the face of my out-jogged selection. So far everything was fair and above-board.

Slydini turned around again. Next, he secretly and quietly tore the index-corner off the out-jogged selection, making sure to tear away the outer right index-corner. (Photo 1).

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Photo 1

He then finger-palmed this torn corner in his right hand. (Photo 2)

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Photo 2

Once the torn corner was palmed, Slydini rotated the out-jogged card on a horizontal axis so that its opposite end came into view. The protruding selection then would look wholly normal with the torn end hidden.

Keeping the deck behind his back with his left hand, Slydini then brought his right hand forward and held it, palm exposed, to his forehead in a contemplative gesture. (Photo 3)

Photo 3

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Sly devil that he was he never directly looked at his hand. His curled third and fourth fingers hide the torn corner. And he naturally held it in position. Finally, he dropped his hand chest-level.

The next action clinched it. Again, he turned around to show me the protruding selection, saying: “Look at your selection again and continue to concentrate on it!” Everything looked copacetic. (Photo 4)

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Photo 4

I thought: How is he going to learn the identity of my selection? I knew he had not stolen the selection or placed it in his sleeve (Joe Berg’s method). It was still protruding from the deck.

While I stared at the protruding selection and was reassured, Slydini casually raised his right hand and looked at the palmed torn corner. Then he sneakily inserted it inside his shirt. When he blurted out the name of my card you could have knocked me over with a feather. Game over; I was baffled. To clean up, Slydini opportunely removed the damaged card, folded it in half, and tucked it into his shirt.

Slydini drove Harry Lorayne nuts after performing this trick. After initially performing it, Harry asked Slydini to do it again. Slydini at first begged off and then finally gave in. He performed it a second time. Harry was still perplexed.

“Do it again!” commanded Harry.

Slydini did it a third time. In fact, he did it ten more times. Each time, Harry was becoming more and more exasperated. Then he noticed something that was also puzzling. Because Slydini had performed it a dozen times, he necessarily tore the corners off of a dozen cards and eventually tucked the “evidence” into his shirt. The size of the deck, now minus 12 cards, was conspicuously smaller.

Harry pointed at the deck and exclaimed, “What the *#* happened to my deck?”

Slydini grinned and then pulled out his shirt, letting all of the torn corners and folded cards tumble to the floor! This was a Kodak moment.

Fortunately, Slydini’s legacy is preserved in books, articles, films, and videos. The French film producer, the late Christan Fechner, brought Slydini to France during the 70s and professionally filmed his entire repertoire. So far, the films have not been released. However, Ted Brainard (Kozmo) produced two DVDs (As I Recall) where Slydini’s students pay tribute to the man, the mentor, and the magic. They recall some of their most cherished moments with the master and perform their favorite effects, keeping his legacy alive. Here are the books:

Stars of Magic -Series 8 – Slydini (1951)
The Magic of Slydini (1960)
Slydini Encores (1966)
The Best of Slydini … and More (2 volumes: 1976)
The Magical World of Slydini (2 volumes: 1979)
The Annotated Magic of Slydini (2001)

Slydini deservedly was recognized with a Masters Fellowship by the Academy of Magical Arts in 1974.

The principles he taught and exemplified are an integral part of today’s prevailing theories of magic. Workers still use such things as lapping (less so these days), Revolve Vanish, Imp Pass, and the surviving routines frequently seen today are the Slydini Silks and Paper Balls Over the Head. The idiosyncratic coin and cigarette routines are seldom seen (except by surviving students).

Things change. Styles come and go. Some tricks are exchanged for others. Coin Matrix routines eclipsed Coins Through the Table just as Three Fly has eclipsed the Hanging Coins. Great routines like Slydini’s Helicopter Cards and Torn-and-Restored Tissues are rarely seen today. Like Al Goshman’s Salt Shaker routine, these routines are so tailored to their originator that few students are able to duplicate them. There are a few notable exceptions, but once Slydini and Goshman left us, so did these exquisite, inimitable presentations.

Slydini was inimitable. He left us in 1991. We will unlikely see anyone like him again.

Onward…