In November of 1976, Ricky Jay was flown to London to appear on the Michael Parkinson Christmas Special for BBC-TV. At that time Mr. Norris McWhirter, Editor of the Guinness Book of World Records and representatives of three London newspapers were invited to watch Mr. Jay demonstrate his unique skills with playing cards. That visit resulted in a new world record and subsequent entry in the Guiness Book of World Records.
Jay hurls cards through London dailies at speeds estimated over 90 m.p.h. Holding the "Mail" is Norris McWhirter.
Michael Parkinson and Norris McWhirter prepare for the brutal card onslaught.
Jay in front of BBC Studios ... all in a day's work.
Jay demonstrates accuracy by throwing card into small window at BBC Studios.
Jay in front of BBC Studios ... all in a day's work.
Jay demonstrates accuracy by throwing card into small window at BBC Studios.
Historical accounts of the scaling of cards into the far reaches of small theaters. A feat of skill included in the stage shows of famous magicians, with particular emphasis on Herrmann the Great and the Amazing Thurston.
Magicians And Card Scaling
The act of throwing cards as a demonstration of skill must be included in any serious history of stage magic in this country. Yet, with the exception of this author's interest, and his demonstration of such, it is a skill rarely if ever seen today.
Two of America's greatest magicians, Alexander Herrmann and Howard Thurston, made the scaling of cards into the audience a feature of their performances.
Alexander Herrmann, fondly remembered by old-timers (he died in 1896) as Herrmann the Great, was the most famous of a dynasty of wonderful performers.
His father was Dr. Samuel Herrmann who, in addition to his work as a surgeon, was performing magic on the Continent for such notables as the Sultan of Turkey and even Napoleon. He also found time to sire sixteen children. The eldest, Carl, born in 1816, left medical school for the life of a wandering wizard, and by all accounts was one of the most skilled to join the profession. It is interesting to note that Carl's first successes were in the field of bird imitations.
Alexander, who was twenty-seven years younger than Carl, first joined the elder's show for a command performance for the Czar of Russia in 1853. It seems that Alexander's departure was not announced to the Doctor, who could not bear the thought of his youngest son also passing up medicine for the sordid life of a sorcerer. He supposedly threatened to bring kidnapping charges against Carl unless Alexander was returned.
The threat—in fact the use of police intervention to dampen the enthusiasm of would-be conjurers—is an attempted deterrent which is still prevalent. This author's personal experiences, as well as those of the Seldom-Seen Kid and other magic notables, will in due course be revealed; but this is hardly the place for such pulpy gems.
At any rate, Alexander's skill supposedly softened the Doctor's calloused exterior and he allowed the child to continue under Carl's tutelage.
Alexander eventually presented his own show, playing mostly in the United States, while Carl remained on the Continent. It is not known exactly when Alexander introduced the scaling of cards into his show, but there is no doubt that it became one of the features of his act. At the height of his career, when Alexander was both the wealthiest and best-known performer in America, he threw thousands and thousands of thin cardboard cards, decorated with his picture and signature, into theater galleries around the country.
A considerable portion of Alexander's great reputation came from his impromptu performances. While walking down a street or dining in a restaurant he would take advantage of any situation that would evoke laughter or garner free publicity. He would apparently find gold pieces in fruit just purchased from a street vendor or he would extract the watch from a bystander's pocket while being observed by a policeman. When Alexander was dragged to the police station the watch would be found in the policeman's pocket rather than his own. Once, at the famous Whitechapel Club in Chicago, Alexander attempted to throw a card into a small opening at the juncture of the woodwork lining and the ceiling. He took two entire packs of cards and threw them unsuccessfully until a single card remained in his hand. Then, glancing
20 slyly about, he took the card and with a faultless throw lodged it perfectly in the crack. There it remained until the Club ceased to exist.
Although Alexander was unquestionably a great showman and skilled performer, he was not noted for his creativity as a magician, and many of his effects were copied from DeKolta, Maskelyne, and other notable performers of his day. So it was with his card-throwing; though not original, it became his trademark. His skill and accuracy made it a spectacular event; he started an American magical tradition.
Howard Thurston was born in 1869. His first significant job was as a newspaper boy on Howard Thurston the trains that passed through Columbus, Ohio, on their way to Akron and Pittsburgh.
Young Howard saw playbills advertising Herrmann the Great and saved his pennies until he was able to buy the most inexpensive ticket, high in the balcony, for Herrmann's final show in Columbus. (Or so the legend goes, and magic legends being almost as simplistic as most magicians, who are we to argue?)
Needless to say, Howard was inspired. We can even conjecture that Howard caught one of the souvenir cards Herrmann threw into the gallery and that, since the wrist action in throwing both cards and folded newspapers is identical, Howard soon became proficient at throwing cards.
In any event, that inspiration soon gave way to another, no, to the other inspiration. Thurston soon enrolled in Mt. Hermon School as a medical missionary. After completing his studies he decided to enroll in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. It was in
the Albany, New York, train station, with Howard en route from Columbus to Philadelphia early in 1892, that the second legend-making incident took place. While waiting for the connecting train Thurston saw an advertisement for the Herrmann show. Remembering his earlier inspiration he stayed over to see it and was once again awestricken. It was Herrmann's last night in Albany and, when Howard appeared at the railway station in the morning, the master magician and his wife were at the ticket window inquiring about the next train to Syracuse. For the rest of this spine-tingling tale I must quote from Walter Gibson's The Master Magicians (Doubleday, New York, 1966):
"Howard heard the ticket agent say '8:20' and as Herrmann turned away, Howard pushed a twenty-dollar bill through the window, saying he wanted a ticket to Philadelphia. Back it came, with the change, but as Howard glanced at the ticket he saw that it read 'Syracuse.' It was already 8:15 and an announcer was calling 'All aboard for Syracuse!' Howard saw the Hermanns going through the train gate; on impulse he followed them and boarded it.
"That incident shaped the career of Howard Thurston. In Syracuse he attended Herrmann's opening performance and was even more fascinated than in Albany the night before. His mind was made up; he would become a magician, not a missionary."
As sad as this story may be to all devoted to spreading the Word, we may all take heart in the fact that while few men are as successful as those they try to emulate, Howard Thurston did become the most successful and best-known magician in America.
Though known in his later years for a huge illusion show (at one time ten railroad baggage cars were needed to transport his props) his reputation was originally made by his skill with cards; card-throwing was a major feature of his act. Like Herrmann, Thurston threw thousands of good luck cards into the outstretched hands of eager fans throughout the country.
Amazingly enough, many of magic's most famous old-time performers threw souvenir cards into theatre galleries.
More than a hundred years ago, Robert-Houdin, the incredible French conjurer, wrote about card-throwing and mentioned seeing a Hungarian performer named Well who threw a card and had it boomerang back to his hand. Robert-Houdin also mentioned that card-throwing was a useful skill because it allowed one to distribute small books or souvenirs to the audience via the same basic method. "Once," he says, "I threw one of the little sketchbooks from my horn of plenty, right across the chandelier to the spectators in the upper gallery, and gained tremendous applause for the boldness of the feat."
Early in his career Houdini, the famous escape artist, was billed as "The King of Cards," and he too was proficient at throwing and boomeranging cards. Occasionally, as a card returned to him, he would lunge forward and with a pair of scissors cut it neatly in half.
The great French performers Felicien Trewey and Jean Valton, both highly skilled at card flourishes and throwing tricks, used them to make their reputations. Mehay, mentioned in Sachs' Sleight of Hand (1875), would put a card on the back of his left hand and flick it into the audience with his right forefinger.
Frederick Eugene Powell, the late Dean of the Society of American Magicians, threw cards, as did Will Rock, one of Thurston's successors. More recently a performer named Benjamin Franklin IV did an entire vaudeville act based on card-throwing, and currently Flip and Richard Ross of Holland, Finn Jon of Norway, Christian of Vienna, and Whitey Roberts in the United States have all included clever card throwing techniques in their acts.
Most performers threw cards made of a cardboard stock heavier than the ordinary playing card and consequently easier to throw. These cards were generally emblazoned with the picture and autograph of the magician, and often bore some greeting such as "Luck to You." These were valuable advertising pieces for the performer and today are eagerly sought by collectors of antique mag-icana.
Sometime during the years of the Second World War card-throwing was withdrawn from popular view and its secrets covetously guarded and performed by only a chosen few. It may well be that the American cultural conscience found it too wily, too Oriental a means of expression to be comfortably countenanced. Perhaps it was rationing, and all that it entails, or the war effort itself which left Americans with no time to develop this specialty. Still another possibility was the lack of good instructional material by highly qualified teachers.
The author, fortunate enough to have acquired these special skills and to have added a few ideas of his own, is honored in being able to continue this recondite tradition. He sincerely hopes his readers will succeed him in this formerly exclusive coterie.
The basics of card-throwing (illustrated): the Herrmann method, the Thurston method, and the Jay method. The hand, the wrist, the grip, and the all-important follow-through.
It may interest the reader or—if he is a strange fellow—excite him to learn that this is far from the first written discussion concerning the technique of throwing playing cards. In the author's files are more than fifty references to throwing, spinning, boomerang-ing and dealing cards and the different magical effects which may be done with these techniques.
The Dulk of these may be found in now-defunct magician's periodicals and out-of-print books. The author is well aware of the risk he is taking by tackling this subject; his publisher is nearly suicidal.
Magical literature, like the magical art, is overrun with misinformation and redundancies; there is little of practical value. In magic, as in most ancient arts, the oral tradition still provides the best method for learning. Characteristically, it is the unpublished material, merely spoken of or held covetously by a chosen few, that houses the truly great secrets of the noble art.
The trend toward the popularization of magic through the publication of previously select and guarded methods will do little or nothing to lift the art from the miasmic murk which has surrounded it for years. Nor will it be improved by the general availability of magical secrets and effects pitched by former used-car salesmen in their antiseptic glass-enclosed cages, surrounded by guillotines and arm-choppers and halves of ladies with fringe and teased blonde hair, combined with the public appearances of those persons too ill-equipped to perform for even the most boring family reunions.
This is merely the author's rationalization for writing the book. After twenty years of the pain inflicted on him by witnessing poor card tricks, a tome which explains how cards are used to inflict pain is not only fitting but spiritually justifiable.
Do you like card tricks? he asked.
I said no.
He did five.
—W. Somerset Maugham
Since Herrmann and Thurston were the most famous of the card-throwers we will commence with a discussion of their methods.
An article comparing these two gentlemen, with accompanying illustrations, was published in a 1936 edition of the Sphinx magic magazine. Quoted is the part which discusses their techniques.
"It is particularly interesting that Howard Thurston and Alexander Herrmann did not perform the feat in the same way. They both used cards of much heavier stock than the ordinary playing card. This gave the cards added weight which permitted them to be thrown much farther than the standard playing cards could be thrown. Howard Thurston gripped one end of the card between his first and second fingers and threw it by a snap of his wrist. Herrmann gripped the card about a half-inch from the end and midway between the sides with the tip of his second finger and the ball of his thumb. The first finger held the corner of the card so as to give it an added spin when it was thrown. The actual throwing, that is the little snapping flick of the wrist, Herrmann did in the same way as Thurston."
The author doubts that the explanation would have provided much new competition for Messrs. Herrmann and Thurston were they alive when it was written. To add a
The Thurston Grip
The Herrmann Grip
The Herrmann Grip (from underneath)
thought from the pellucid Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, known to conjurers the world over as the father of modern magic: "The performance of the sleight (to throw a card) depends on a certain knack by no means easy to explain in words."
The knack of which Robert-Houdin speaks is the wrist action as the card is released. The better accounts of card-throwing, those of Robert-Houdin in Les Secrets de la Prestidigitation et de la Magie (1868), Professor Hoffman in Modern Magic (1887), T. Nelson Downs in The Art Of Magic (1909), and Jean Hugard in Hugard's Magic Monthly (October, 1954) are all misleading on one salient point: the knack of releasing the card. Phrases like "jerk of the hand," "shot sharply forward," and "strong reverse twist" tend to make one think he is attacking an overall-clad clod rather than sailing a piece of paper.
The author has taken much time with the following explanation and has seen it work wonders. He believes his crowning achievement was in seeing a young woman, at that awkward age of fifteen, who in no way had exhibited expertise in physical or digital skills and who was not familiar with playing cards, upon reading the instructions once, sail a card with a perfect spiral some twenty feet to a wall and strike a picture of the author dead center, causing him pain and happiness simultaneously.
The keys to the incredible Jay method of card-throwing are two: the Jay grip, and the ability to relax.
The Jay Grip
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