Modern Magic


(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

When I was a teenager, a magic shop opened up in downtown St. Paul. At the time, I got around on bicycle, and the shop was 3 miles from my parents’ house, so I’d visit on the weekends, when I didn’t have school. (Also, I had a part-time job in my senior year working as a janitor at the Civic Center, the events arena a few blocks away next to the Mississippi river. If I had to work there on the weekend, I’d go to the magic shop during my break.) The place was co-owned by two younger professional stage magicians who weren’t all wrapped up in the personae of “great magicians,” meaning they were easy to talk to and very approachable. To increase their customer base and promote the goods they were selling, they offered classes on stage and closeup magic in the evenings and on Sundays. I signed up for everything I could afford, and was one of their only students. This worked out in my favor because I got offered a job as a salesclerk working in exchange for shop credit. I worked there for one full summer, and had amassed over $200 worth of props and magic supplies by the time I was done (that represented a large box of stuff back in those days), plus the classes. The only reason I didn’t grow up to be a magician is that I have hyperhidrosis – my hands sweat – and that got in the way of doing close-up work. Instead, I went on to become an electronics engineer.

Magic isn’t so much of a hobby as it is a peripheral interest. I don’t practice any of the illusions, but I’ve gotten pretty good at understanding how most of them work just by watching them one time. I like Penn and Teller, but I’m not really interested in following most of the more recent magicians because they’re more about the flash than the illusion. That is, it’s the difference between watching Lady Gaga versus Cheap Trick. I prefer Cheap Trick.

Anyway, one of the stories in the Q.E.D. manga had the main character carrying around a volume of Professor Hoffmann’s book, “Modern Magic,” and getting into a bet with a stage magician over whether the magician could develop a trick that even the hero couldn’t figure out. I’d had a book on coin magic by J. B. Bobo (1910-1996) and the first volume of the Tarbell Course (Harlan Tarbell, 1890-1960), and at that time it was really hard to find good books on magic, and most of them were pretty expensive – $80-$100 in 1970’s dollars. I’d hadn’t known about Modern Magic until reading the Q.E.D. story, so I decided to ask for it as a Christmas present last year.

Modern Magic, by Professor (Lewis) Hoffmann
According to the Genie Magazine wiki article, Louis Hoffmann was a British lawyer who worked under the pen name “Professor Hoffmann” because he didn’t want his professional prospects as a lawyer to be affected by the perception that he practiced deception as a hobby. There’s little information on him as a magician, but Louis is credited as being the first author to really document stage magic in English. He also wrote three sequels – More Magic (1890), Later Magic (1903), and Latest Magic (1918) – a novel for kids entitled Conjurer Dick (1886), and The Haunted Hat: A magical short story, first published in Chambers’s Journal, 1905. Modern Magic first came out as a series of articles in the magazine Every Boy’s Annual before being collected in book form. The copy I have is from CreateSpace Independent Publishers, and seems to simply be a scanned version of an original edition copy (print flaws and all). I’m annoyed that there’s no publisher information on or in the book, except for the ISBN, and the Amazon entry for this edition has the author name spelled as “Hoffman”. It’s like someone grabbed something in the public domain and just threw it between cheaper covers to make a fast profit.

Up until about the 1800’s, most stage magicians wore flowing robes reminiscent of an Egyptian mystic or medieval alchemist primarily to carry around all their apparatus and to hide what they were doing with their hands. Hoffmann writes that “professors” (as he called illusionists) had long switched to top hats and tuxedos and that the last guy in robes he was aware of was the one hired to work at the Crystal Palace (built in 1851, destroyed by fire in 1936). Hoffmann’s goal was to finally record on paper the methods and techniques of magicians in English, and his focus is on what you can do with the proper tux. The first chapter talks about what you’ll need (the clothes, a table and a wand) and why. The second chapter explains cuts and passes for a light-weight deck of cards, then goes into tricks you can do with a prepared deck while you’re still practicing hand movements. This is expanded to sleights with a deck, coin tricks, stage illusions, and so on. Most of the cuts and passes for the cards are accompanied by illustrations where needed, as are the sections on box tricks. Otherwise, a lot of the illusions are just text-only.

One thing that’s interesting about magic is that it really hadn’t changed all that much up until the 1970’s. How the trick works and what you need to do to prevent people from seeing that was still the same. What did change was the patter (how you set up the audience and explain what you’re doing) and how stiff the magicians looked in front of the audience. More recently, there has been the addition of a LOT of technology (servos, motors, latches) and the need to make bigger and bigger things (i.e. – New York City) to disappear. But still, if you know how to make a coin pass through a table, restore a torn-up card, and how to do the cups and balls routines, you’ll still make a living at magic, and most of those bits are in Modern Magic. Brian Anderson, creator of the Dog Eat Doug and The Conjurers comics is also a magician. He once commented that even though they’re dated, he still refers to the older books on magic for ideas and information on how to do a trick. I see that as a recommendation for Modern Magic, Bobo and the Tarbell Collection.

Summary: Professor Hoffmann’s Modern Magic (1876, 512 pages) was the first attempt at documenting stage magic illusions in English, and is still useful now, as long as you ignore the patter, the assumption that both the “professor” and the audience will be male, and the older writing style. And, if you just happen to find a first edition printing of the original hardback, I may be persuaded to take it off your hands if you ask nicely.

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