The Cheektowaga Employees Federal Credit Union will have a new building soon. While that may not mean anything to most readers, a few may get a little misty-eyed over the event. The reason is that the new credit union building will stand where the Forks Hotel stood, near Buffalo, New York, for more years than anyone is sure of (it's believed that its foundation dates back to the Civil War). What everyone familiar with the Forks Hotel is sure of is that it's the place where a humble barkeep became one of the most influential figures of 20th century magic.
Much is made about the pied piper qualities of Vernon and Marlo and their immeasurable contributions to close-up magic. But from 1957 to 1979 (the 70s being its heyday), Eddie Fechter attracted to his bar many magicians, several of whom are now highly touted masters or underground legends. And while perhaps overshadowed by the greatness heaped on Vernon and Marlo by the magic community, there is one thing that Fechter can boast that neither of these giants can: During their years of mentoring, only Fechter actually performed, night after night, in the belly of the beast known as "the real world," as did those under his tutelage. It was trial by fire on a nightly basis in one of the toughest venues for a close-up performer. A performer who came out of Forks unscathed came out "salty" and ready for anything. In many cases, as related by some of his closest friends, they weren't just prepared for what magic may throw their way, but for the vagaries of life as well.
Sometime during the first half of 1993, I walked into the Costa Mesa location of Hollywood Magic. The period between this and my previous visit could be measured in years as opposed to days (as they could be measured earlier in my life). But, as if the clock of life had stopped during my absence, Jack, who had not aged a day, greeted me from behind the counter as if it had been but a few days that had passed since our last meeting. Before I was halfway into the building, Jack instinctively knew to leave his perch on the side where most of the "tricks" were and head over to the book section--my usual destination when visiting.
Though located behind the counter, Jack had always allowed regulars to go back there and look at the books. I always asked permission before going back, but this time Jack said that that there was no reason for me to go back there: "This is what you're here for." He handed me a slightly larger than average size book (265 pages) with a cover that was striking in its simplicity: Glossy jet-black, framed in gold with simple gold lettering in an unimposing sized font. It read, Fechter: The Magic of Eddie Fechter. "Do you have Magician Nitley?" asked Jack. "No," I answered, noticing that the cover also noted that the book in my hands included the complete text of the book Jack just mentioned. "Well, it doesn't matter, it's all in there and more. This book is you. I won't let you leave without it. You don't like it, I'll buy it back." Jack never before guaranteed anything like that, ever. Of course, he had nothing to worry about because he knew he was right, and I would not be returning the book, ever.
Up to then, my only knowledge of Eddie Fechter was through the few effects included in Mentzer's Card Cavalcade series and, what was to me, a convention of mythic proportion--a convention that I held no hope of ever attending due to my glaring lack of qualifications--that was named after him: "Fechter's Finger Flinging Frolic" or, simply, "FFFF." I lived it vicariously, through friends who attended and via magazine reports, but that would be as close as I would ever get. Though Fechter: The Magic of Eddie Fechter by Jerry Mentzer (Magic Methods, 1993) would not get me any closer to the convention, it gave me an appreciation for the man honored by the event: A man who I would never have the opportunity to meet, but after reading about him in this book, would place high on my list of those I wish I had.
Among its 13 chapters are not only a wondrous collection of tricks, sleights, gags and bits of business, but also the recollections of some of the men who spent part of their lives watching and working with Fechter. Some of these are touching, almost heart wrenching, but all have a common theme: a vast respect and love for the man who changed and/or shaped their lives.
After the author's "Foreword," some "Background Information" and a reprint of Dai Vernon's introduction to Magician Nitely, Chapter 1 opens the book proper with a history of Forks (during the Fechter years) and a biography of Eddie Fechter. Made up of pieces written by Harrison J. Carroll, Ed Eckl, Rob Allen and with further remembrances of Michael Skinner, Bill Okal and Ron Frederick, the reader is taken on a journey that includes early childhood tragedy, middle-aged success and a late-in-life battle with leukemia that claimed his life in 1979 at the age of 63. A stout man with tattooed arms and huge hands, Fechter was, with the exception of a stint in the Army during WWII, a lifelong barkeep, the son of saloonkeepers who had to help run the family business at an early age after the murder of his father. Within this chapter is a photo section that includes a photo of a 16-year old Fechter at his post behind his mother's bar. Learning tricks and gags seemed to be a natural step to working behind a bar. He was performing tricks by his early teens and this natural playfulness stayed with him throughout his life. Several of his gags and bits of business (including those he would do outside the confines of his bar) are included in this chapter.
Chapter 2, "Peek Magic," focuses on effects and techniques using spectator peeks, clearly Fechter's choice for having cards selected. Chapter 3 has more effects and other technique including a versatile multiple shift and Fechter's handling for the invisible pass. (Sadly, for me, this is when I discovered that I simply reinvented the technique many years earlier.) While reading these effects, the reader should come to realize the underlying theme of virtually all of Eddie Fechter's magic: simple and direct, with very clear effects. This, of course, is the hallmark of all good bar magic. Another characteristic of good bar magic is the ability to improvise and "jazz." The use of outs was obviously one of Fechter's strengths and, or so it seems, he enjoyed the challenge of doing them more than "never miss" effects. "The Spectator Stops" is a lesson in this type of work, and proves the strategic importance of, and the distinct advantage enjoyed by the magician when, the spectators do not know what's supposed to happen. Fechter took advantage of this strategy to great effect.
In Chapter 4, "Bill Okal Remembers," more history of the "Gin Mill" (as Fechter called Forks) is offered, this time from Okal's memories. More detail of the Forks' heyday is given, including the first "regulars"--that is, the first regular performers other than Fechter. Up to then, other performers would work the tables, but on a casual basis, more in the terms of "hanging out." But as the popularity of the Forks grew, additional performers became a necessity to take some of the burden off of Fechter. The first regulars were Okal, Karl Norman and Joe LaMonica. These men had the singular honor of having one of the three small dining rooms named for each of them. Of this surprise from Eddie and his wife, Evelyn (d. 1992), Okal said that it was "certainly the most sincere and touching honor I have ever received." In the midst of his remembrances, Okal also gives the reader more insight to Fechter, his approach to teaching, bartending and magic, including his childlike personality. Of this particular trait, Okal goes so far as to call Fechter a "rascal."
Chapter 5 is a collection of six items prepared by William P. Miesel for one of Obie Obrien's companion books to the FFFF convention. Chapters 6 through 10 (respectively: "Magic From the Forks Hotel"; "Request Tricks"; "Peeks"; "Miscellaneous"; "Previous Offerings") make up the content of Magician Nitely also by Mentzer and published in 1974. Chapters 11, 12 and 13 revisit Fechter's magic that appeared in Card Cavalcade (Chapter 11), Card Cavalcade II (Chapter 12) and Card Cavalcade Finale (Chapter 13) all written and published by Jerry Mentzer (respectively, 1972, 1974 and 1979).
Again, all of the magic is direct and simple in effect, though not necessarily simple in regard to method (but certainly direct). However, most of Fechter's magic is well within the technical grasp of the intermediate magician. What is advanced, however, is the sheer boldness of some of his work. The word "brass" comes to mind when reading about some of the things Eddie Fechter would do.
For me, some of the standout items within these chapters--some of which I use regularly--include "Eddie Fechter's Homing Card"; the very nice "Impromptu Torn and Restored Cigarette"; "6 - 4 - 5 Coin Trick"; "Be Honest - What is It?"; "Fechter's Aces"; "Eight Selections" (Fechter's Fusillade routine); a very handy utility item called "Fan Glimpse" and the "Bar Towel Force" of which I can tell you also works well with most restaurant style linen napkins. "How Do You Want Me to Find Your Card" is another lesson in outs and the effectiveness of rapid-fire revelations of the same card, and "No Pile" is a fun little card trick with surprisingly good impact.
In his foreword, Mentzer calls the book the "comprehensive Eddie Fechter." The only thing I can find missing from this incredible book (and without explanation) is the text from Mentzer's own Eddie Fechter's Dice Holdout Methods for Magicians (1974). Other than that, this book may well be just that: the complete Eddie Fechter; and it is certainly complete enough. From his magic, his gags and bits of business (behind his bar as well as gags played on the unsuspecting outside the old hotel) to the history of the glory days through the twilight of the Forks Hotel, Fechter is a journey, a pleasurable journey, through the life and magic of one of the great icons of magic.