One sunny afternoon there was a knock at my door: Standing before me was my former female mailman conscientiously delivering a box far too big for my street-side mailbox (and who was never afraid of human interaction), who said, Your bricks are here.
At 912 large format pages, The Secret Ways of Al Baker (Edited by Todd Karr, The Miracle Factory, 2003) is daunting in size, weight and content. Physically, its a difficult book to read. At its weight (just a hair over six pounds), holding it up for any length of time is a challenge more worthy of Vasily Alekseyev. Resting it in your lap must be uncomfortable (assuming you have one, I, alas, can no longer relate, though I can recall) and Ive never been fond (more accurately, my neck has never been fond) of reading a book resting flat on a table. The only position I could find to read this thing was laying prone, my upper body supported by pillows and this mammoth volume laying flat before me. Boy am I glad I found a comfy way to read this book.
A moment ago I wrote that the content was daunting. I mean that only in the sense of the sheer amount of material collected, presented and, most importantly, worth reading. Listing all of the individual pieces that I find worthy of attention will not happen here (though perhaps it will later in the conversation that I pray will follow), but rest assured that I discovered and rediscovered dozens of ideas and had several of my personal beliefs reaffirmed, often through the humorous Letters to Harold pieces that originally appeared in the pages of The Sphinx. Bakers commentary found within these letters was always amusing and quite often biting. Virtually every issue raised and point made by Baker still holds true todayonly about sixty and seventy years later. Will we never learn?
And heres a reading tip: Do yourself a favor and keep a notebook handy as you read; youll need it.
An indication of Al Bakers geniusparticularly his creative genius in almost every aspect of magicis first related, albeit in different ways, in this book through essays written by those who our current generation would list among the giants: Eugene Burger, Teller, John Carney and Jay Marshall.
Eugene Burgers essay, A Teacher I Never Knew, is in itself a lesson that a conjuror can apprentice another through the printed word via a dedication to the lessons found within them. To think that 100% of what Eugene Burger learned under the wing of Al Baker, without ever meeting his mentor, can be found within these pages is impressive. And we are not just speaking in terms of tricks, but in philosophical terms: foundational thinking that was instrumental in shaping Mr. Burgers approach to his art.
John Carney waxes enthusiastic on the major influence Baker had on him in his magical thinking: directness of effect and methodologya hallmark of Bakers magic, the torch Carney now carries and shares with those willing to listen and learn.
In The Recipe, Teller searches out the mystery of Bakers Cake in the Hat. From reading Tellers words, it doesnt seem quite fair to call the Cake in the Hat a trick or effect; it was an event. Perhaps thats why, until now (with thanks to Jay Marshall), it never saw print.
And speaking of Jay Marshall, Bakers son-in-law and friend for the last 15 years of Bakers life, he pens a short but heartfelt obituary (The Cat Kept Walking) followed by an interview (combined from two different sources) where he shares insights into Bakers life as an entertainer, including his early years, that could only be the product of family ties. This is followed by a short recounting of some of the dialogue Baker shared on stage with his wooden partner, Dennis.
Throughout these introductory/biographic pieces (and indeed throughout the entire work), photos abound. From his youth, following the Chautauqua circuit, to the more familiar image of the white-haired elder statesman of magic, there is no shortage of photographic contributions in this volume. Just skimming through the multitude of photos is time well spent.
Before the book reprints begin, a short autobiography simply titled, Sketch of My Life appears. It reveals few details, primarily because one can sense this great mans modesty in the words. But one sentence in that brief piece speaks volumes about Bakers philosophy on magic: I love to find out the weak part of a trick and take the weakness out.
At the heart of Secret Ways are the five books authored by Baker: Al Bakers Book (Max Holden, 1933); Al Bakers Second Book (M. Holden, 1935); Magical Ways and Means (Carl W. Jones, 1941); Mental Magic (C.W. Jones, 1949); and Pet Secrets (George Starke & C.W. Jones, 1951). Each book has been re-typeset vs. the simpler alternative of scanning the originals. This not only maintains the artistic integrity of Secret Ways as a whole, but also allowed the individual books to be refined as needed, clarifying the original text with editorial insertions. The original artwork is used and has been restored or enhanced as needed as well. These classics can stand alone, but together, in their refined state, they constitute a goldmine of magical thought; from Bakers groundbreaking thread work (one can only wonder what Baker would have accomplished had thread reels been common in his day) to his billet work. And while these texts are foundation of the book, they comprise only about half of the content. In addition to the books are five manuscripts published between the 1920s and late 1940s: The Twenty-Five Dollar Manuscript; Al Bakers Pack; Cardially Yours; Effects 1,2 and 3; and Card Trio. However, the material doesnt end there.
Through what must have been a painstaking search or just plain old good fortune (or a combination of both), virtually everything put into print by Baker, including items he contributed to books and periodicals, instructions to the items he marketed, and items found in private notebooks, including those of John N. Hilliard and particularly Eugene Bulson, have found their way into this amazing tome. Some of the most fascinating items, many of which were never before published, come from these notebooks. There also appears for the first time a manuscript on ventriloquism, originally written for Magical Ways and Means but which never saw print in that book, courtesy of Jay Marshall. All of this is organized in aptly titled sections: Contributions, Instructions, Magazines (by publication), Notebooks and The Art of Ventriloquism.
Of historical interest are the reprinted letters from Baker to other magicians of his time. Included here are letters to Tommy Downs, Eugene Laurant (a fellow Chautauqua legend), Stanly Collins and others. And speaking of Chautauqua, a section appropriately titled follows, within being a collection of ephemeral materials from Bakers days on that circuit in 1927. The next section, Annemann and Baker will be of particular interest to many as it is highlighted by a collection of letters from Theo Annemann (though in these early letters he spelled his name Anneman), mostly to Baker though there are a few to others that are pertinent to the subject(s) raised within the letters. Coming from his collection, Max Maven introduces these letters (in a piece titled The Accidental Mentor) by giving the reader a brief synopsis of the relationship shared by Baker and the much younger Annemann. The letters are fascinating not only because they are between two giants of the craft, but also perhaps because there is something voyeuristic about reading the personal correspondence between two men whose relationship began acrimoniously and ended in mutual respect (though the letters end prior to their coming to this mutual accord). Many are undated, but coupled with those that are dated and a fairly discernable timeline taking place, these undated letters can be dated between 1925 and 1927.
Some of these letters are long and rambling, though the reader can get an idea of what it must have been that Baker wrote to the precocious Annemannparticularly in regard to a certain word test that is a major point of contention. At one point, Baker had clearly questioned Annemanns early penchant for piracy. In reply, Annemann freely admits his predilection but justifies it by saying that he merely copied effects but came up with his own solutions to the problems. (Later, in a letter to P. Ten Eyck that Eyck forwarded to Baker, Annemann asks, Where, then, is the sameness?) Annemann also takes Baker to task for questioning, apparently, his abilities and motivations. Another thing (unrelated to the argument) that caught my eye is a passage where Annemann refers to Dai Vernon as Dave (remember that David was Vernons first name). Accompanying these reprinted letters are photos of Baker and Annemann working together and a copy of an ad for Annemanns The Book Without a Name (M. Holden, 1931) that features an introduction by Baker (which is reprinted at the beginning of this section). There is also a copy of a seemingly heartfelt inscription, dated 4-12-34, from the author to the master conjurer in a copy of Annemanns Sh-h-h-! Its a Secret (M. Holden, 1934), among other visual proof of the friendly circumstances that would manifest later in their relationship. This mentor/apprentice relationship is apparent in the many passages penned by Annemann in his publication The Jinx that are reprinted earlier in the section (perhaps my one and only quibble about this book: I feel the letters should have appeared first in the section in an attempt to keep to a historical timeline).
Not counting the appendices (with pieces by Burger, Maven and Marshall, as well as a copy of one of Bakers catalogs) and index, the book appropriately ends with Profiles, a collection of many biographic and feature articles that appeared in the major conjuring journals during this masters long life and career. Pieces from The Sphinx dominates this section, however Tops, Genii, The Linking Ring and M-U-M are represented as well. A lengthy piece written by Bruce Reynolds for the program for a testimonial dinner given in honor of Baker on March 22, 1948 is included as well. This program featured appearances by a whos who of magic including Roy Benson, Jack Chanin, Milbourne Christopher, Al Flosso, Cliff Green, Sam Horowitz, Jay Marshall, John Mulholland, and Dai Vernon. Fittingly, this section ends with reprints of the various obituaries that appeared after Bakers death on October 24, 1951, including a reproduction of the obituary that appeared in The New York Times.
When one considers Al Bakers monumental contributions to the art of magic, only a book of monumental proportions, produced with the care and devotion befitting the stature of this true master of magic, would be acceptable. Its quite clear from the final product that Todd Karr and all those who contributed to this marvelous work were aware of this responsibility and took it deeply to heart.