In the first of our Legends of Magic Interview Series, Forum Director Adam Wilber sat down with the eponymous Jon Racherbaumer to discuss just how many words he has contributed to the study of magic, why he’s so approachable and what we should be striving for as magicians in an ever-changing world. As the writer of such classic tomes and periodicals as The Hierophant, The Kabbala, Marlo without Tears, Card Finesse and Magie Duvivier among countless others, as a magician its hard to avoid having a library without a Racherbaumer book – and any library without at least 5 could never be classed as sufficient – especially where cards are concerned. Jon has contributed both an incredible amount of content – in both quality and quantity – to the world of magic over the years, and we were delighted that he could take some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few of our more pressing questions…
Adam Wilber: Jon, you created my favorite DVD on card work… the one with Marlo in the kitchen demonstrating moves to you while the gorgeous music played and you narrated. What inspired the style of that DVD, the music, the narration…. can you talk about the DVD a bit? (This question is from Brad Christian.)
Jon Racherbaumer: The Prime-Time Marlo DVD is an example of pure serendipity meeting dumb luck. My original impulse in recording anything was to create a visual record of Marlo performing various things while he was in his prime. Otherwise I had no intention of making a marketable video in the future. The mundane goal instead was to make a film for my personal files. At the time, there was no significant footage of Marlo doing anything. I only knew of Art Weygandt’s short film. Therefore, I figured a cinematic record of Marlovian moves and effects was long overdue. If anything, it would show how his execution actually looked in real time. Also keep in mind that in 1971 the available technology to do this in a relatively cost effective way was limited compared to what’s available today. In those days, movie cameras were either 16mm or regular 8mm. I bought Canon’s compact Super-8 camera that used cartridges that provided 3 minutes of running time. The beauty of the Canon camera back was its capacity to shoot in lowlight situations and still get acuity and decent resolution. Fortunately I had brought a number of cartridges to shoot at least an hour of Marlo performing in his kitchen in Chicago. I had no planned agenda regarding exactly what to shoot. The entire session was done in about 90 minutes and was wholly impromptu. As things came to mind, I blurted out requests and Marlo immediately complied. I had the films developed after I got home and then spliced together the footage. Again, there wasn’t any rhyme, reason or calculation as to how things were to be organized. I simply spooled everything onto a large roll and stored it in a cool, dry place. Much later I contacted a friend who had a video production company and asked him if it was possible to convert the super-8 film to videotape. Video Specialties agreed to do this. During our initial meeting I assumed that he would simply run the reel and convert it to a VHS video. However, he told me it was possible to script something and add a voice-over narration. Again, my first impulse was to avoid anything calculated, planned or rehearsed. My videographer suggested adding background music and had the necessary technology to do this. This made sense. One of the things I realized while looking the footage in total silence was its dream-like quality. It felt like watching a dream unfold. You could not discern the specific geography of its origin. It could have taken place in an alternate universe and it somehow seemed timeless. What you saw might have happened in your imagination, which made it partially ghostly and surreal. This is why I purposely chose music that wasn’t intrusive or conspicuous. I wanted something haunting and mildly spooky…like the ambient music by Brian Eno. When we did the taping-conversion I sat in a room, watching a monitor. Once the music started playing and I simply voiced my reactions to what I saw Marlo do. As I watched, I also remembered how it originally felt watching Marlo live. This is likely why Prime-Time Marlo has an unrehearsed, spontaneous vibe…an awkward, human quality. There is nothing slick. All of the flubs, redundancies, and mispronunciations are there. In the end, I was pleased with the “spirit” of the presentation. It captured aspects seldom obtained from just reading Marlo’s books. Reading is a solitary enterprise. We seldom read a book in the theater with other people. Instead we read alone, isolated in a room, looking at photographs and illustrations. Words enter our consciousness at our own pace, in our own ways. It’s highly personal and idiosyncratic. Merely watching images makes us cognitively lazy. A visual flood of images overwhelms our brain and we clumsily process. Watching is a passive activity; we permit images to merely wash over and through us and few things adhere. We quickly forget. My guess is that magicians who liked Prime-Time Marlo probably watched many times. If this is true, Marlo would be pleased.
AW: In a generation where new magicians prefer instant downloads, DVD’s, and other types of on-demand learning, where do you feel classics like The Tarbell Course in Magic fit in? (Question from Jason Michael.)
JR: I’m a book person and have mixed feelings about instant one-trick downloads and DVDs. Metaphorically we constantly bandy about the term “eye candy,” which suggests sugar-coated and sweetly pleasurable things. You get a sugar high and buzz. Then you plummet and immediately need another dose or jolt of sugar to keep going. Nothing seems to stick. I primarily watch videos to ascertain timing aspects of performance. One is able to see rhythms, pacing and duration. This is important.
You asked about classic books such as the Tarbell Course. My loose definition of a classic is any book that endures over time and continually informs and nourishes its readers. Every time you reread a classic you are likely to discover something you missed, something seemingly new and unexpected. Because you know more than you did when you first read it, you are a different, more informer person reading the same book. I cut my teeth on the Tarbell Course. Luckily, the entire course was in my hometown library because Dr. Tarbell lived in Elmhurst, Illinois. I discovered his books in 1950 and practically lived with them for 4 years. My other bible at the time was Greater Magic, particularly its large section devoted to card magic. Because there were fewer books 60 years ago, you spent more time studying them. Today there are thousands of books and videos. I always advise new students to find a book that “speaks” to them and live with for a year. Read it over and over.
AW: What are your thoughts on the direction of magic these days compared to 20 years ago?
JR: Whenever I hear people talk, using figurative language, I pay close attention to the kind of metaphors they use. Take, for example, the word “direction.”
“What direction is magic taking?” This suggests that “magic” is some kind of concrete thing that can move forward, backwards or sideways in a given direction. Physicists say that Time’s Arrow moves in one direction: from the present to the future. Throw in our notions regarding the nature of progress and matters (at least in the abstract) get complicated. In our insular sub-culture of magic, the most obvious things moving are magicians. They are the ones choosing where to go and how fast they want to go. They are also influenced by other moving magicians and by dominant cultural forces and trends. The most noticeable change to me is the reduction of viable performing venues. Magicians of every stripe require willing spectators and there are more competing attractions “out there” that are more fantastic, interesting, and entertaining. Performance of magic in the 21st century takes place in a world of super-fantastic phenomena. Remember Arthur C. Clarkes famous quote? “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Smart phones, streaming video, Skype, holograms, and other technological marvels do not amaze my grandchildren. If I had been shown this stuff when I was ten, I’d consider them to be fantastic. My grandchildren are not impressed. If I show them the Ambitious Card or Floating cork, they grin, shrug, and walk away. They raptly watch Marco Tempest in action. The old-style magic show pales next to spectacular shows like—say, Cirque du Soleil. Take a long, nostalgic look at the kinds of tricks sold by dealers in the 40s 50s 60s 70s–the evergreen apparatus and classic tricks that were peddled every year to every aspiring magician. They look quaint, old-fashioned, and obsolete. I think “magic” (as a performance art) will always exist in some form…but for it to thrive, that form must adapt and change. The other “wild card” in the mix is the reduction in the number of participants involved in our world. Fewer and fewer youngsters are attracted to magic and become life-long enthusiasts.
AW: I remember when I first met you in New Orleans at the Knights of Sleights table. I felt incredibly nervous, but you were extremely welcoming and friendly. I think that in today’s world of magic there are a lot of great magicians who over time develop an ego that make them hard to approach and or work with. How have you been so successful in magic and accomplished so much but still maintain an open minded and welcoming mentality?
JR: Ego is an obstacle to creativity. Sessions at the Knights focus on “magic,” not individual magicians. We focus on ideas and processes, not personalities. We are interested in What and Why, not Who. In the cosmic scheme of things, what is a so-called magician’s status? I treat visitors to the Knights of Sleights as potential kindred spirits. We gather to equally share in the wonders of our art. Therefore, attitude means a great deal. If your attitude is to truly learn, sincerely share, and diligently respect our precursors and teachers, you are welcome to join our table. After being involved in a wild-and-crazy world for over 60 years, I still consider myself to be a serious dilettante, an obsessive student, and slightly goofy hobbyist. In short, I’m a fan of the art. Who among us ever attains absolute knowledge or mastery of anything? When you came to our table, it didn’t take me long to see that you were a kindred spirit. Furthermore, if I detect somebody being nervous anything, I try to eliminate or mollify that inhibiting feeling. I want everyone to be comfortable so that they will be receptive to anything we share and discover.
AW: Are you still running the Knights of Sleights meetings? Can you touch on what these meetings are and why you feel they are important to the magic community?
JR: Yes, we still meet every Monday, rain or shine. Our sodality is small. 5 to 25 participants usually show up, depending…The Knights of Sleights (named after the original club started by Norm Osborn in Chicago) was started about 20 years ago. It was set up as an alternative gathering to give members of the fraternal organizations (IBM and SAM) a place to meet weekly. We don’t have a charter nor do we conduct business meetings. Also, most clubs do not delves into the subject of magic as deeply as we do. Meeting on a weekly basis also alerts participants to new products and books, which somewhat fills the void created when our local magic shops closed. Lastly, our meetings provide opportunities for constructive and very candid criticism. Everyone is free to speak praise and criticism. This leads to lots of lively argumentation and discourse, which is a very good thing.
AW: You have written so many books on so many subjects, Can you give us an exact number of books that you have authored? Is there one set of books or one individual book that you are most proud of? Is there any one in particular that you remember as being the most fun to write? How about one that was the most challenging.
JR: Believe it or not, I not sure exactly how many books I’ve written. Let’s say that I’ve written more than 60? Sometimes I shock myself when I consider the number of words I’ve scribbled over the years. Besides the 60 + books, I was the Parade Editor for The Linking Ring for 19 years and put together, compiled, typed, and arranged 228 Parades. Each Parade is the equivalent of a small booklet of 8-10 tricks, averaging about 12,000 words. That roughly translates into 1824 – 2280 tricks or over 2.7 million words. That’s a fairly large number. If you add the number of words, tricks, and content I contributed to M-U-M, MAGIC, andGENII magazines, plus the obituaries, feature stories, and profiles, you have another huge number. At worst, this makes me a tireless typist. Yes, I write, but I’m not a great writer in the sense that Nabokov and Updike are great writers. Most of my books are “unfinished.” I agree with the poet, Paul Valery, who said we never finished books. We abandon them. Everything I’ve written is a work-in-progress, filled with unrealized aspects. This is why I like the notion about e-books. They are like computer programs that can be progressively enhanced, upgraded, and corrected.
You ask if there is one book I’m particularly proud of? Off the top I’d say, The Artful Dodges of Eddie Fields, which was really a notebook of sorts. I was able to revisit and expand it, putting in historic photographs, additional explanations, and many marginal notes. I’m also happy with Card Finesse, Marlo Without Tears, and In a Class By Himself (Don Alan).
The most challenging book to write was the Don Alan book. It began as a collaboration of several people (“Too many cooks spoil the broth.”) and a key player dropped out. Don at some point became disillusioned and broke away. The book subsequently languished in limbo, Don moved to Las Vegas will eventually died. Nevertheless, a book was finally cobbled together to preserve at least a part of Don Alan’s significant legacy.
AW: What are you working on currently? What if any big projects do you have planed or would you like to take on?
JR: I’m usually working on 5 or 6 items simultaneously. Since I’m queer for compilations and anthologies, I’m working on 3 collections: JAZZ ACES, INTERCHANGE, and GRAND HOTEL. For the past two years I’ve been working on Richard Turner’s biography. Over 400 pages (without the drawings or illustrations) have been written. It not only covers other aspects of Richard’s unusual life, it also explores the nature of our senses and how we don’t fully exploit them. It is titled ALL IN – ALL OUT: Playing the Hands You’ve Been Dealt. It should be finished soon. I’m also working on a huge magnum opus about Riffle Shuffle Mastery. I’ve also been working on a book about Jimmy Grippo, as well as a metaphysical detective novel in the Noir tradition, which is set in New Orleans.
AW: Do you feel the magic scene changed drastically after Katrina in New Orleans? Could you describe a bit of what you went through because of Katrina? Do you feel New Orleans has rebuilt and moved on or is there still a lot of work to be done?
JR: You mentioned Katrina and how it may have changed the local magic scene and my life. It turned out that I was relatively unscathed from a physical and mental standpoint. I live on the West Bank, which is high ground. Besides a lot of broken branches, a couple of broken windows, and slight water damage, we were relatively unscathed. I evacuated before the storm hit landfall and spent time in Natchez, Mississippi where we now own a small getaway cottage. Thanks to the hospitality and generosity of Barry Richardson (who has a home in Shreveport) we spent time there, as well. We were displaced for close to a month. New Orleans is now economically booming. Things are much better than they were prior to the storm. The local magic clubs are decimated. This is partly due to feeble recruitment of young members. Membership went from 60 to 20. At one time there were several magic shops: Harry Anderson’s Sideshow, Magic Masters, Amazed & Amused, and Big-Easy Magic were operating. Now there are none. There are five working professionals and visiting street magicians come here at peak seasons.
AW: Where can people find access to some of or all of the amazing material you have put out?
My website is in the process of being re-configured. I’m starting an ongoing blog and will occasionally do podcasts. Some of my e-books are available atLybrary.com. I appreciate the invitation to palaver to your readers and listeners. My thanks, as well, to those who supported my efforts. They are the ones who ultimately promulgate, promote, and carry on the Work. They complete the circle.
If you have any questions for our future interviewees – at this stage being Richard Turner and Shawn Farquhar – be sure to add your question to our interview question forum post – located here.