At the Magicians’ Convention
Jason England – gambling, cheating and cardshark demonstrations
A few days ago, I joined a discreet gathering in the basement of the St Bride’s Printing Library just off Fleet St. The exterior door was shut and there was no sign outside to advertise that several hundred people were crammed together in the hidden auditorium created from a former swimming pool beneath this lofty Victorian Institute. Even if you had seen the participants come and go, you would have no reason to suppose that anything special was going on. Even if the casual passerby were to consider the crowds teeming excitedly into the narrow streets behind Ludgate Circus, they might assume these were chartered surveyors or procurement managers, or representatives of some other familiar occupation. To the untrained eye, there was nothing to reveal that some of the world’s greatest magician were gathered there to swap tricks.
The occasion was the Fortieth International Magic Convention – an event started by magician Ron MacMillan (known as “The Man with the Golden Hands”) in 1972 and continued today by his children, Martin & Georgia MacMillan of the International Magic Shop in the Clerkenwell Rd. And, thanks to them, photographer Mike Tsang and I were granted the privilege to go behind the scenes and meet some living legends of prestidigitation.
“All the most brilliant minds in magic are here,” James Freedman, the pickpocket magician (known as “The Man of Steal”) promised me, as he led us through the throng, “If a bomb dropped today there wouldn’t be any conjuring in this country for the next fifty years.”
The first to loom out of the gloom in the darkened theatre was Max Maven, a mind reader from Hollywood. Dressed head to toe in black, he peered at me benignly through his pebble lenses while standing composed with arms crossed, explaining that he knew Ron MacMillan and had been attending annually since the nineteen seventies. “This is the place where the magicians you want to meet come,” he revealed delightedly, hinting at further mysteries enacted behind closed doors, “the social side is very important with all kinds of late night sessions at the hotel bar.”
At seven years old, Jason England saw a card trick on television at home in Knoxville and thirty years later he lives in Las Vegas, a practising magician who also operates as a gambling protection consultant, helping the casinos to spot card cheats. In spite of his open, easy-going personality Jason has a razor sharp mind. He specialises in gambling, cheating and cardshark demonstrations and, although appears to carry it off with alacrity, tossing cards here and there playfully, another conjurer whispered in my ear that he is - “one of the best in the world.”
John Archer and Alan Hudson were the first British magicians that I met and – in significant contrast to their American counterparts – they were also both comedians who pretended not to have clue what they were doing, concealing their expertise behind a facade of incompetence and confusion. Yet John, a gruff former policeman turned conjurer, admitted he was the first ever to fool Penn & Teller and has performed in more than forty-three countries.
New Yorker, Mark Setteducati, dressed head to foot in black satin and sporting a mop of curls, peered out from underneath his fringe with a sly smile. “Misdirection doesn’t change,” he confided to me, “Most good magic is as much about the presentation as it is about the secret – but you need a secret, because without the secret it’s not magic, it’s just theatre.” An inventor of toys as well as a magician, Mark was waving his pop-up magic book that plays tricks upon the reader and he opened his suitcase to show off his jigsaw puzzle that can be reassembled in an infinite number of ways to create any picture. But then – as if this were not sufficient wonder – he led me to meet the man he described in hushed tones as “Probably the greatest conjurer that ever lived.”
In a shabby dressing room, I was introduced to Lubor Fiedler, the mere mortal behind the Parabox, the Invisible Zone, the Krazy Keys, the Impossible Pen, the Antigravity Rock, the Phantom Clock, the Blue Crystal, the Gozinta Boxes, the Dental Dam trick, the Red Hot Wire and the Spooky Glasses. This is the one magicians worship for his invention of “principles,” not merely new presentations of old ideas – as most conceptions in the world of conjuring are – but creating an endless stream of new tricks that have filtered into the repertoire of every other practitioner in the world.
A mild, dignified gentleman in a sleeveless pullover, Lubor preferred the solace of an empty dressing room to the networking crowd outside. Maybe Lubor has nothing left to prove. Born in Brno in the Czech republic in 1933, as a child he picked up hot bullets from the pavement, fired by machine guns mounted on Nazi planes, before he saw Hitler arrive and speak in the town square. By the age of seventeen, Lubor achieved fame as a boy conjurer and then in 1962 he fled the Soviet Bloc – giving as many as eighteen hundred school magic shows a year to make a living at first, eventually establishing himself as a master on the international circuit and winning acclaim for his inventions.
It was touching to meet this quiet man who had experienced so much and found such an unlikely way to liberate himself through talent and imagination. Yet this was the common pattern amongst everyone I met at the magic convention, these were all people who had constructed out-of-the-ordinary lives for themselves through sheer inventiveness and nerve. Loners who travel the world and perform alone, they embody the true power of magic – transforming their own lives and elevating existence for everyone else in the process.
Max Maven, Mind Reader from Hollwood.
John Archer, Magic Circle Stage Magician of the Year.
Mark Setteducati, Magician and Toy Inventor from New York.
Alan Hudson, Comedy Magician from Hull.
Lubor Fiedler, Legendary Illusionist.
Lubor Fiedler, Boy Magician in 1949
New portraits © Mike Tsang
1949 portraits copyright © Lubor Fiedler
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