Stevens Magic is excited to feature a contribution from Mark Levenson. Mark is an accomplished writer and aficionado of the magical arts with a focus on close-up, history, Punch and Judy, and the intersection of magic and puppetry. He got his start in magic at age four, as a production prop in the employ of his grandmother, “Lightfingers Ida.” Mark resides in New York and has been a friend and associate of ours for many years. His interest in variations on cups and balls eventually led him to RenéLavand’s The Three Breadcrumbs and to this appreciation. Joe and Mark Stevens thank him for lending his talents to our site.
The most remarkable thing about René Lavand–the Argentinian magician who died four years ago February 7 at age 86–was not the most important. Lavand was one-handed, having lost his right hand in a car accident at age nine. Of course, being a one-handed magician isn’t necessarily remarkable. A stage illusionist can rely on his assistants and apparatus. A mentalist can perform hands-free.
But Lavand was a close-up magician, a sleight-of-hand artist. Before him, one-handed close-up magic was as unthinkable as one-handed surgery–a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Except Lavand did surmount it, so spectacularly that the last thing audiences remembered about him was his disability. The first was that he did with one hand what most magicians can’t do with two. And more than make it look easy, he made it look like pure magic. That’s the important part.
Arturo de Ascanio, the late, great Spanish magician, said Lavand’s distinctive style “add[ed] beauty to amazement.” Indeed it did.
“René was unique among magicians in that his act carried the dramatic force of the accomplished actor, of a Fonda or a Burton,” says Richard Kaufman, editor and publisher of Genii, who collaborated with Lavand on the 1998 book “The Mysteries of My Life,” a combination of autobiography, philosophy, and description of Lavand’s act. “When he recited a poem or told a story, you felt it, you were swept up as much as if you were watching live drama.”
By combining virtuoso technical skill with superb acting chops, Lavand transformed his effects from mere puzzles or challenges into stories that carried an emotional punch. With his words, his silences, his deep, resonant voice and his penetrating gaze, Lavand conjured not just cards but picaresque worlds of gamblers and gangsters, of love lost and found, and of his own romantic life and travels. Not that what he told audiences about himself was necessarily true. Lavand liked to quote Picasso that “an artist must know how to convince others of the truth of his lies.”
Lavand had a successful career that spanned more than half a century. After achieving fame in his native Argentina in the early 1960s, he debuted in the US with performances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. He went on to perform around the world and returned to television for World’s Greatest Magic, the UK’s The Paul Daniels Magic Show, and others.
Fortunately, many of his television performances remain available online, including the routine often considered his masterpiece: The Three Breadcrumbs. Perhaps his most touching performance of this effect is the one recorded at the Ajuda National Palace in Lisbon in 2011, four years before his death. It appears on the four-DVD set Rene Lavand: Maestro (Essential Magic Collection).
Here’s the routine: Lavand, seated at a table, shows a small, white espresso cup and three ball-shaped breadcrumbs, each the size of a chickpea. He drops two crumbs into the cup and puts the third in his pocket. When he turns the cup over, three crumbs roll out. That’s it.
Making this an even more unlikely coup de théâtre: Lavand performs the effect 16 times over the course of a few minutes. It looks a bit like a child’s game of jacks, but the effect on the audience is mesmerizing, evoking growing chuckles of astonishment and, at its conclusion, a standing ovation.
The effect was a sensation in large measure because Lavand poured a lifetime of thinking and experience into it. In interviews and his writing, he emphasized the importance of simplicity in his effects and, with The Three Breadcrumbs, things couldn’t be simpler–apparently. In reality, the routine was as simple as a perfect calligraphic brush stroke or–to cite an example that Lavand often shared with his audiences–a Beethoven symphony based on just four notes.
Although Lavand repeats the effect over and over, he seldom does it the same way twice. He varies the speed of his words and actions, first slow, then fast, then slow again, seducing the audience into paying attention. He puts the third crumb in his pocket, or flicks it off the table, or throws it over his shoulder. He affects delighted surprise when the crumb first reappears, then acts matter-of-factly, then shows increasing irritation as though he can’t get rid of the thing. And, secretly, he varies the method by which he accomplishes the effect, minimizing his risk of discovery while maximizing his audience’s sense of wonder.
Over the last set of repetitions, Lavand recites a poem by eighth-century Chinese poet Li Po in which the narrator enjoys a bottle of wine in the company of the moon and his shadow. In the Ajuda National Palace performance, unlike his earlier recorded performances, he describes Li Po’s ignoble death and acknowledges that his own passing cannot be far off. On that melancholy note, he again turns the cup over–and the breadcrumbs have vanished, gone like the spirit of Li Po.
But not like the spirit of René Lavand, whose performance remains an indelible memory.
Credits and Appreciations: Luis de Matos – who provided us permission to use the still image from his DVD Maestro.