Book of the Month: The Magic of Alan Wakeling

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Postby Dustin Stinett » 11/28/03 02:02 AM

This month's guest essayist is Pete Mills. When I learned more about Pete, his selection for the BoM became much less of a surprise. In fact, it makes all the sense in the world. During his formative years, spent studying under the wing of Howard Hale (while working at Jeffries Magicland in Dallas, Texas), Pete clearly learned to be quite discerning about his magic--especially sleight of hand magic. Hale steered him toward the work of Slydini, Fred Kaps and Ken Brooke, which led to his highly developed sense of awareness at a young age. Reading through his thoughts and observations on The Magic of Alan Wakeling, you will see that this sense of awareness has continued to develop and mature. And, while Pete performs semi-professionally, he remains a student of magic. So, without further interference on my part, I happily give you Pete Mills, Jim Steinmeyer and Alan Wakeling.


The Magic of Alan Wakeling was written by Jim Steinmeyer and published in 1993. The first printing was published in a limited edition of 1,000 copies. It contains 345 pages of magic that encompasses illusions, stage material, mentalism and close-up items. The first edition cover is maroon with gold titles and cover illustration of the books subject performing the multiplying billiard balls.

It looks and feels like an important book.

It is.

The overwhelming feeling one gets when reading this book is respect. Alan Wakeling has a deep and profound respect for his art and his audience. He proves that if you take your art seriously your audience will as well.

Because the scope of this book is so broad I will confine my remarks to a few items primarily those that I have had the pleasure of performing.

In the various introductions to the book by names no less than Mark Wilson, Mike Caveney, Norm Neilsen, Ricky Jay and Channing Pollock, we get a very solid sense of the seminal role Mr. Wakeling played in the construction of trademark routines in the acts of those listed above. I'm not talking about a few lines or bits of business, I mean trademark effects or a spin on an effect that is now solely associated with the artist in question. Mr. Wakeling is the progenitor of some heavy stuff.

My own epiphany came quite indirectly as they so often do.

Greg Wilson performed the Wakeling billiard ball routine on one his fathers "Magic Circus" specials. I immediately hated this kid. His dad was one of the most well known magicians in the world. He was a good looking kid and he was doing this killer routine with billiard balls. What's not to hate? Heck, my dad sold medical supplies.

During Mark Wilson's introduction to this segment I believe he mentioned Alan Wakeling's name. I thought to myself, "I don't know who this Alan Wakeling guy is but that's a cool routine." Cool indeed. Cool in ways I couldn't begin to know.


While Mr. Wakeling certainly was highly inventive he has a particular genius it seems for routining, not only his own magic but that of others as well.

The "Alan Wakeling Billiard Ball Routine" is an excellent example of this very economical yet elegant skill. This piece is framed by Alan's introduction and outstanding use of theatrical elements to lift this routine above the ordinary. Music, lighting, and the performers' carefully choreographed movements make this a showpiece that if rehearsed well will garner enthusiastic applause from an audience.

Technically this routine is interesting as it never uses the shell for open productions. And the shell itself is rung in only after the opening flourishes establish the magician's skill. The subtext being that no subterfuge is required if the performer's skill and two billiard balls can be entertaining.

This thoughtful and economical use of the shell gives this routine a decidedly different texture. The beats in the routine have a rhythm like no other ball routine I know of.

It is worthy of performance and more importantly-study by all. Not solely because it is a great billiard ball routine but because the shell, the modus operandi is rung in at precisely the right time and then maximum use is gained from its utilization. This is the Erdnase quote proving itself yet again. To paraphrase-The astute performer failing to improve upon the method, changes the moment.

"Aces Front" is an effect that has much to offer the close-up performer. In my own work I have used this in restaurant and intimate standup situation with success. Earl Nelson is mentioned as using this as a closing routine in his work at the Magic Castle, often closing his act with it.

This routine contains all the elements the discerning performer values in a close-up routine: Novelty, humor and, if performed well, a climax that looks like real magic. This routine also contains an innate charm. By referring to the cards as "young" and because they are small they take on an anthropomorphic quality. You can almost hear the audience break out in a spontaneous "Awww" when the playtime size cards are brought out. This routine also demonstrates proper timing. The introduction to the trick frames, creates anticipation, conflict (a favorite motivational element of Tommy Wonder's) and a bit of tension.

The performer states that among laymen the fallacy long-believed is that magicians must practice endlessly to be proficient as skillful performers. Not so the performer states. The playtime cards are introduced and the performer then delivers the tension release--"You just have to train them when they're very young." This line has never failed to get laughs. Even among what I would diplomatically refer to as "challenge" audiences (I'm referring to restaurant/bar patrons who are drunk, rowdy and ready to take on all comers, least of all the house magician).

This routine also plays well up and off the table so that the performers face is part of the audiences visual field. I chose this routine to perform on a local television appearance. It packs quite economically as well. The performer who makes this a part of his act would do well to stock up on the proper glasses when he finds them. This is one of those "pack rat items."

Working magicians will be familiar with the scenario in which an item required for a favorite routine is no longer available or worse, even manufactured any longer. When you find a good sized glass, buy several as they may not be available forever. (See the Don Alan book regarding the Allerton aspirin tin routine!)



Early in his career Alan Wakeling performed in a world that "flashlight-beneath-the-covers-looking-at-magic-catalogs" kids like me only dreamed of. He actually performed in those places that seemed to only exist in Nelson Hahne illustrations-nightclubs. Places where men with brilliantine hair and beautiful women drank martinis, danced the night away and elegant performers dazzled the audiences. These audiences were very discerning and were used to seeing only the best in entertainment. From the names of the places and more importantly, the length of his contracts it is evident that Mr. Wakeling did not disappoint.

A section of the book mentions a number effects that were not specifically mentioned as part of finished acts or act that Mr. Wakeling performed and could easily become a feature routine in a stage performers repertoire. Effects like the "Liquid Sands" and the "Wakeling Egg Bag" are eminently serviceable routines.

We also learn the origin of the original "Hip Steal," this item being closely associated with Marvyn & Carol Roy. The original routine for this method is an elegant production of silks from an artists' palette climaxing in the production of a glass of wine.

In writing about Numerology a psychic routine Jim Steinmeyer writes of," ...Alan's ability to keep things elegantly simple yet always theatrically intriguing."

This for me forms the new definition of the oft used phrase "commercial." If the effect isn't simple enough to be followed by the slowest of audience members it won't be watched and if not theatrically intriguing the performer will be labeled a bore. Mr. Wakeling was neither ignored nor boring.



My discussion of Mr. Wakeling's contributions to the area of stage illusion will be brief. It certainly isn't for lack of material to write about. I count in the contents section, well over twenty illusions that were either invented or improved significantly by Mr. Wakeling. That may seem an oversight since Mr. Wakeling is most closely associated with illusion design and staging but again, I feel poorly qualified to comment. As I understand the BoM, the purpose of the opening post is to invite discussion. The invitation has been extended.

In closing I would also like to mention that the book is richly produced and engagingly written by Jim Steinmeyer whose illustrations also serve to make the routines and concepts clear.

There are few people qualified it seems to both write and illustrate a book of this magnitude. Mr. Steinmeyer is the clear and natural choice. This was an obvious labor of love for the author and his respect for his subject is evident not only in his words but in the high production values of the finished publication.

When I first read this book it had the Jack Nicholson effect on me--It made me want to be a better magician.

It still makes me feel that way.

Pete Mills
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Postby Matthew Field » 11/28/03 10:06 AM

[Sounds of feet running to bookshelves . . . ]

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Postby troublewit » 11/28/03 01:42 PM

This book has been a constant companion for several months while learning the Benson/Wakeling Billiard balls routine.
I have never seen it performed by Alan although the "stills" in the book as well as Jim Steinmeyer's excellent silhouettes make me feel as though I have. Will we ever see the "It's Magic" broadcasts on DVD so we can relive this night? Frakson's cigarette act, Dai Vernon's Symphony, and Alan Wakelings billiards all in one episode. That must have been one for the ages!!

Alan's "take" on the "over the head" move is very elegantly routined with pastel colored cotton balls. He always used a lady spectator, and ended with a nice twist where the audience was fooled, and the helper got to be a hero.

One last item I would like to mention for now...Alan's egg bag routine (done with a ball, not an egg) has some very rewarding moments, and his bag, (a variation of the Malini bag) can be special ordered from Lynetta Welch..(The magic seamstress). It is gaffed in a way which offers some unique handling. Thanks for bringing this book up for discussion... :)
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Postby Matthew Field » 11/30/03 09:43 AM

Here are a couple of thoughts on the book.

First, as with all Jim Steinmeyer books, it is handsome and full of great magic and big ideas.

Although I am not a stage worker, I found the information in the book invaluable in many ways, not the least of which was the underscoring of the need to choreograph and rehearse everything you're going to do (read the Wakeling "Thin Sawing" description for a good example of this).

Most impressive was the way Wakeling combined stage, mindreading and close-up careers, his innovation themes in his Fan and Bar acts, and his ability to make Numerology into an entertainment. His illusion concepts are a joy to behold, even for a guy like me who's luke-warm about illusions in general.

Over and behind all of this is Wakeling's story -- his relationships with Mark Wilson, Marvyn Roy and Dante, and with making a living with magic.

I'd like to thank Dustin and Pete Mills for inspiring me to take this volume down from my shelves. In it, I found, once again, Wakeling's Egg Bag routine, which I am about to study in greater depth.

"The Magic of Alan Wakeling" is an informative, inspirational, beautiful volume of inestimable value to magicians -- no matter what their area of focus.

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Postby Guest » 11/30/03 12:38 PM

It's interesting reading the posts about this book, and it actually made me get it off the shelf again and take a look at the contents; I haven't looked at it for a few years.

As you might imagine, it was a real pleasure writing this book as it was a chance to get to know Alan better through his material. Early on I decided that the illustrations needed to include "full frame" images of Alan's poses, as so much of his presentation was about the theatricality of the routine, emphasizing the magic through very distinct, carefully-planned poses. I remember Jay Marshall talking about Neil's The Modern Conjurer in similar terms, that it was one of the few books that showed you the whole picture of Bertram or Valadon, and you could get a sense of what it was like to really see them perform, not just the hand moves.

I agree that the material is incredible, and during the course of working on the book, I was continually bowled over by the consistency of the inspirations and routines. I've also been surprised that there are some routines that seem to sneak under the wire with magicians. To me they are the sleepers in the book, just waiting to be discovered.

So, okay, here's my list of surprises in Alan's book:

The Numerology Routine. I guess it sounds dull to magicians. But here is a complete, perfect, no-skill close up routine which is so commercial that it might actually get you into trouble. If you want a treat, read through the effects and you'll see just what an amazing, "borderline" entertainment Alan's achieved. (The Name Matrix routine I just adapted, with Alan's permission, to an effect which was described in my lecture notes and will be marketed by Fun Inc. To me, the Name Matrix is still the perfect effect to have in your pocket if you're about to walk into an office and need, badly, to impress someone.)

The Cotton Ball Routine. Alan's approach for this is so different from the usual Slydini handling. He has a neat, simple philosophy about performing it (avoiding the sightline of the spectator) which, for me, makes all the difference in the handling..

The Handcuff Routine. This has been used by a number of professiionals. Again, Alan is at his best getting a lot from very little, and doing it in a theatrical way. I think the handcuffs are a brilliant example of this.

The Electric Maiden is an illusion taken from Alan's notes, using various philosophies of his in illusion. A great effect which, to the best of my knowledge, hasn't been built.

His Sawing and Billiard Balls (after Benson) have been used by a number of pros since the book was published, and it's really been inspiring to see these effects performed in the hands of some very good magicians. (Rick Thomas currently does the Sawing at every show in his Las Vegas show, and Kalin and Jinger have been doing this for years. Kalin also uses Alan's Billiard Ball routine.) Also, Alan's Liquid Sands is a very nice surprise if you haven't already read it. A great, flashy, commercial routine.

Anyway, I'm grateful to Dustin for thinking of this book and reminding me of the material, and what a pleasure it was to go through it all with Alan. He's one of the great gentlemen in the art and a real inspiration to me in terms of an approach to creativity. It's really a delight that his material continues to be appreciated and used.
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 11/30/03 03:22 PM

As much as I would love to take the credit for the selection of this book, 100% goes to Pete Mills. The only thing I get credit for, in this instance, is begging.

Dustin
(And, if I may be so bold; a masterful job it was.)
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Postby Jerry Harrell » 12/01/03 04:26 AM

Dustin, a masterful job indeed. I don't care how you did it, I am just glad you did. The Wakeling book has been a favorite of mine since its publication, and this section of the Forum is always facinating reading. When you even manage to get the esteemed author to comment, you are doing a masterful job indeed. Many thanks.
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Postby Bill Mullins » 12/01/03 12:17 PM

Mr. Steinmeyer -- thanks for stepping in. I wish more authors would participate in the discussions of their books (although I'm not holding my breath on Erdnase or some of the others.)
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 12/01/03 03:13 PM

Folks, the Alan Wakeling book is available at Jim Steinmeyer's website: it'll be one of the best seventy-five bucks you've ever spent (and your spouse can get it for you for the holidays). It's always nice to give your business directly to the author/publisher--that encourages him to make the gargantuan effort to write, illustrate, and publish more books like it!
Buy Wakeling at:
http://www.jimsteinmeyer.com/catalog/books/
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Postby Guest » 12/11/03 07:07 PM

Three quick comments--

As Jim Steinmeyer mentioned, the Numerology Routine plays well, especially the Name Matrix.

Second, the two person code also works well.

Third, for such a wonderfully made book, I wonder how I can get the potato chip stain inflicted by my three year old off the cover...(but I won't let that ever stop me from reading and enjoying these wonderful books rather than having them sit on the shelf).
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Postby Guest » 01/25/04 03:27 PM

This is a great book, but since the last post here was in the begining of December, where is the new book for discussion?
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 01/26/04 01:35 AM

My apologies for the delay: The new discussion is up!

But don't forget that you can continue discussing this book (as well as all the others we have covered)!

Thanks!
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Postby Guest » 01/29/04 12:15 PM

Thanks to Dustin and Pete Mills for the intriguing and well written essay. I too was someone who spent hours looking through catalogues during my early years; it's always nice to be reminded of those relentlessly enthusiastic times. Also, what a good way of descibing the nature of the word 'commercial' in the context of magic and performance. I look forward to obtaining the book as soon as my student funds allow!
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Postby NCMarsh » 02/28/04 04:58 PM

The Wakeling Book is phenomenal...
One practical comment:
to those interested in "Aces Front" who are having difficulty finding the proper glass...Williams Sonoma stocks a beautiful cordial of about the right size...unfortunately it is too small for playtime sized cards -- but perhaps it is easier to find smaller cards than it is to find the ideal...

http://ww1.williams-sonoma.com/cat/pip.cfm?gids=sku737502&pKey=cglsspti&root=shop&src=catcglsspti%7Cp1%7Crshop%2Fcatcglsi%7Cp1%7Crshop%2Fsrki1%7Cwcordial%5Cssmall%2Fsrki1%7Cw1%5Cso z%2Fpipcglsspti%7Cg%7Ck%7Cpsa0s10cordial%7Cs737502

(I'm not sure these are the same as the glass I bought at the WS in the local mall -- I believe it had a one ounce capacity as oppossed to the 2.5 advertised here -- perhaps the best bet is to check out a well stocked bar/kitchen store near you...ask for a cordial for serving aperitifs)


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Postby Guest » 07/20/06 07:44 PM

I see that Jim Steinmeyer's books on Alan Wakeling and Art and Artifice will soon be available in new editions (see Amazon). Does anyone know if these are complete reprints of the originals or modified or abridged for a lay audience?
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 07/20/06 08:00 PM

The new printings from Carroll & Graf are identical to the first printings, but new forewords have been added and they are now in softcover.
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Postby Guest » 07/20/06 08:09 PM

Thank you. An incredible bargain.
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Postby Guest » 07/21/06 03:01 AM

Can someone please tidy up Nathan Coe Marsh's http link? It makes it tough to read this thread...

Thanks
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Postby Guest » 10/10/06 06:13 PM

Hey chaps! --What's the latest book of the month? I could suggest a few good ones for discussion... Where are you Dustin? :confused: We miss you, man.
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 10/10/06 08:03 PM

I'm here, I'm here.

Yeah, I know, the section should be called the "Book of the When I Get Around to It Club."

The fact is, I'm just about ready to post a new one, so consider this your warning.

It will be two books and they are wonderful.
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Postby Guest » 10/10/06 08:23 PM

O.k.: are they two books that are a SET like "The Books of Wonder";
or are they two books, one of which is text, the other photos like "The Best of Slydini and More";
or are they two books that compliment and re-enforce each other such as Daryl's "Secrets of a Puerto Rican Gambler" and "For Your Entertainment Pleasure";
or are they two books that are seemingly disparate but which, on further study do in fact "overlap" such as "Our Magic" and "The Secret Art of Magic";
Or will they merely be two random b.s. titles you pull out of a hat, so to speak, which noone has ever heard of?

We look to you for answers, senor oracle! :confused:
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Postby Guest » 10/11/06 03:27 PM

I have performed the Liquid Sand routine and found it a nice "clean hands" version of the classic. It plays big and is an unusual effect. I have also performed the cotton ball over head routine and the final effect catches the audience off guard and will possibly fool magicians who aren't paying attention. Great book and worthy of reading over and over. Now I have to look at that numerology routine again!!
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 10/12/06 02:02 PM

Castawaydave: Trust your first instincts!
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