In The Beginning

I debated for some time as to whether or not I should publish the secret of this potentially lethal effect. It has served me well and astounded audiences the world over. To the best of my knowledge, few have ever successfully uncovered the diabolical secret that enabled me to baffle both magicians and laymen alike. In fact, to date, I have revealed the secret to only three people. However, I cannot emphasize strongly enough that this is an extremely dangerous effect. Please, if you must attempt it, be extremely careful!

I first became interested in the Russian Roulette effect in l979 while working on a "psychic gambling" act that had hit a dead end. For the life of me I couldn't create a closing effect with the impact, suspense and drama I was looking for. After trying and discarding many effects I began to seek outside help.

I phoned Bob Lynn, aka, Tony Raven, one of the founding fathers of the Psychic Entertainers Association and the originator and publisher of "Invocation," who sent me the January, l978 issue of that publication. He suggested that I read the "Russian Roulette" routine by Robert E. Cassidy. I did and immediately phoned Bob Cassidy to obtain his permission to perform the effect publicly. Bob graciously gave me his consent. In time, I made several minor revisions to the original routine, notably, demonstrating the destructive force of the blank ammunition used in the effect by placing a styrofoam cup over the barrel of the gun and blowing it to smithereens.

In addition, I felt that the inherent danger could be greatly magnified in the minds of the audience by having the final pistol placed in the performer's ear instead of against the base of the skull. I also noted that everyone performing the effect, Bob included, was using inexpensive starter pistols that lacked the deadly appearance of a genuine firearm and used only small caliber crimped blanks that sounded like a tiny firecrackers.

To solve this problem, I canvassed local sporting goods stores and finally located three .32 caliber starter pistols manufactured in every way like the real thing. They cost me over $60 each at that time, but they were worth every penny; I have no idea what they cost today. It was the acquisition of the finer quality pistols and my expert knowledge of firearms (thanks to a two year hitch as a military policeman) that eventually led to the development of my own version of Russian Roulette. The step up from .22 caliber to .32 caliber not only provided a more menacing weapon but also added to the dramatic impact of the effect due to the tremendous noise. During a one-week engagement at the Magic Castle, I found it necessary to warn the audiences to cover their ears. In close quarters, the sound was deafening. I'm currently using 9mm high powered ammunition and three realistic and deadly looking pistols purchased in Berlin, Germany during my European lecture tour.

In Cassidy's version, which I performed for two years, four pistols are used, displayed on a board resting upon an easel. A volunteer from the audience is handed four cards numbered 1 through 4. Each card has a hole in the top edge so it can be placed on the nail supporting each of the guns. After informing the audience that three of the pistols are loaded with high-powered blank ammunition (for their safety) and one is empty, the performer is blindfolded and turns his back to the easel. The volunteer is now instructed to place the number cards on the guns in any sequence he desires.

The mentalist proceeds to discern which of the guns is loaded. At the direction of the performer, the spectator removes and successfully fires two of the four pistols in the air. Now, there are only two pistols left. One is loaded, the other is empty. The spectator is instructed to remove one of the two remaining pistols and to place the barrel at the base of the performer's skull. On the count of three, the spectator is told to pull the trigger. To the relief of the audience, only the click of an obviously empty pistol is heard. The performer removes the blindfold and demonstrates that the final pistol was in fact, loaded, by firing it in the air.

Cassidy's method which was also published in Bascom Jones' excellent publication, "Magick," involved the use of a gimmicked blindfold and a sneak peek over the shoulder (as in Annemann's "Mystery of the Blackboard," which was Cassidy's inspiration). The performer, of course, knows from the very beginning which of the four pistols on display is the empty one. The spectator never moves the guns, only the number cards. To quote Bob's own description of the modus operandi, "After the volunteer has placed the numbers on the guns, the performer tells him to stand alongside the easel so that everyone can see the numbers and concentrate on them. "You are not standing in front of it are you?" asks the mentalist. At this point, he turns his head and looks directly at the easel, noting which number has been placed on the empty gun through his gimmicked blindfold. The turning of the head is a completely natural thing to do when talking to someone and must not be done furtively. After noting the number, turn your head back once again."

Once the performer knows which number to call, the effect is concluded as previously described. I suggest that if you're at all interested in performing Cassidy's version of russian roulette, you should obtain a copy of the original in the reprinted "Compleat Invocation," page 275, or on page l509 of "Magick," issue number 302 as described by Sandy Kraus, aka Ford Kross. Please note that Bob's version is also extremely dangerous and my previous warnings apply just as stringently. How dangerous? Before proceeding, let me describe several mishaps that have occurred during the years I've performed this intriguing effect, both Cassidy's version and my own.

During a show at a shopping mall I discovered that the afternoon audience was made up of senior citizens and young mothers with children. Not having much choice, I called upon a gentlemen in the front row to assist in the demonstration. He appeared to be in his sixties. Unfortunately his hearing was in the nineties. At that point in the routine (I was using Cassidy's version) following the glimpse, I proceeded to call the number of what I had determined was the empty pistol. Actually I called the correct number, but my hard of hearing volunteer mistakenly removed the loaded pistol from the easel and was moving like a freight train across the stage to do me in. Fortunately, April, who assisted me at that time, grabbed the old fellow before he had a chance to do any damage. When April told me after the show what had happened, I began to picture what must have gone through Chung Ling Soo's mind as he passed through the pearly gates following his misadventure, March 23, l9l8 on the stage of the Wood Green Empire theatre in London.

Over the years, I've used every possible safeguard I could think of to prevent an accident. So far, I've been lucky, but for how long? In May l986, I embarked on a three week performing and lecture tour of England and Europe. It was a very successful and gratifying experience. The audiences were great and I was having the time of my life, until Scotland. In the company of Roy and Irene Roth, we motored from Swansea, South Wales to a "holiday camp" on the Scottish border. I was booked to lecture and perform along with a notable group of British performers including Terry Seabrooke, Pat Page and Alan Shaxon. The stage show was going great as I began the introduction of the "Russian Roulette" routine (my version).

The lights were blinding as usual, but I designated a volunteer sufficiently far enough away so that I could study his movements as he approached the stage. If he seemed to bob and weave a little too much, I had sufficient time to turn him away and select another, more sober spectator. Unfortunately, my luck had run out. There was nothing about the way the gentleman walked that could have indicated impending trouble. However, as he stepped on stage, I began to feel a little uneasy. I sensed that there was definitely something wrong, but I couldn't put my finger on it. I proceeded with the routine until it was time for the spectator to hand me the first pistol. Without warning he grabbed the pistol from the revolving display stand and began wildly firing it in every direction but up. Through sheer instinct (terror had not yet set in) I grabbed the gun with one hand and the seat of the fellow's pants with the other. Unceremoniously, I escorted him off the stage, up the aisle, and out of the club, where security personnel took over, as a stunned audience stared in disbelief. My fellow magicians were rolling on the floor in hysterics. The lay audience was in a state of shock. As for myself, the spectre of my mortality flashed across my mind.

The next morning, I was scheduled to lecture to a group of magicians. They all wanted to know what had happened the night before. Rather than trying to explain what went wrong, it was easier to perform the effect for them from beginning to end. They were most appreciative and, fortunately for me, the madman who had assisted me the night before was nowhere to be seen.

Many years ago, April and I appeared at the first New York Magic Symposium. There were some dynamite flash acts on the bill including Jeff McBride and Vito Lupo. To keep the show fast moving, the new wave producers suggested that I cut my l5 minute routine in half. The suggestion was made just prior to showtime. To say that I was upset was the understatement of the year. I understood their reasoning, but for a mental act, even mine, 7 minutes hardly gives you time to greet the audience. At any rate, April and I hurriedly decided to use the Bear Minimum trick (one of my favorites) and the Russian Roulette routine. Despite my unhappiness with having to slash my act in half, I muddle through in record time.

A day later, as April and I were driving back to New Jersey, I suddenly broke out in a cold sweat. April probably thought I was having a heart attack. She wasn't far from wrong. I had been mentally reliving the events of the night before when the realization struck. I had legitimately performed Russian Roulette in front of an audience of 600 people. In other words, I was so upset, I completely forgot to do part of the routine. The omission could have resulted in a catastrophe (like having my head blown off!). Luckily, I randomly selected the proper pistol during the climax of the effect. Within a matter of minutes of realizing how close I had come to extensive injury or death, I modified the effect to eliminate that possibility from every happening again, but the gnawing question remained, what else had I overlooked? I'll keep you in suspense until after I've revealed the secret.

To sum it up, this is without a doubt one effect you should consider carefully before attempting. It requires an extremely strong stage presence and the ability to totally control your on stage volunteers. However, notwithstanding the danger, there is no stronger effect possible in the realm of mentalism. Russian Roulette, if properly performed, will bring an audience to the edge of their seats. It's suspense personified and generates all the drama and mystery you could possibly hope for. Also, it provides the most controversy.

While Bob Cassidy and I were not mentioned in Ben Robinson's book, "Twelve Have Died," Jay Marshall was. In fact, Jay's chapter entitled, "Marshall Law" is must reading for anyone attempting the bullet catch or Russian Roulette. It's a scathing critique of the presentational shortcomings of such performers as Milbourne Christopher who successfully attempted the "catch" on network television many years ago. More important, it details Jay's thoughts on how to present the bullet catching trick.

Frankly, I've been on the receiving end of some criticism from my peers concerning the stress that's put on the volunteer who has to pull the trigger. What if something goes wrong, they reason, and the poor fellow has to go through life carrying the burden of your death or serious injury? They have a point. However, to date, I've not been able to overcome this objectionable aspect without destroying the effectiveness of the presentation. Another ominous consideration is performing the effect for an audience containing impressionable children. In a darkened theater or club it's often impossible to see everyone in the audience. Imagine reading in the newspaper following your triumphant performance that some kid in the audience went home and duplicated your death defying feat with his father's loaded .45, and failed!

If you don't have the utmost respect and, more important, FEAR of this effect by now, I give up. But, I did agree to divulge the secret of my version of the deadly Russian Roulette, so here it is!

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