Walter Gibson Teaches Us About Magic and its History, Along with Many Great Tricks


The Encyclopedia of Magic & Conjuring – Walter Gibson (1976)


            It was during a quick visit to the local used bookstore that this wonderful book jumped out at me.  I have always loved stage magic, although I am more of a fan and audience member that a practicing magician.  Magic, like all difficult endeavors, requires a patience I do not possess. 

I knew the author of this book, Mr. Walter Gibson, from my previous reading.  To me, he will always be the creator of the most-awesome pulp hero The Shadow, one of my favorite characters.  Under an assumed name, “Maxwell Grant,” he wrote over two hundred and eighty Shadow books.  It turns out that, apart from prolifically writing novels, Walter Gibson was an avid practitioner of the mystical stage arts!  Not only was he a lifelong member, Walter Gibson also served as Vice-President of the Magicians Guild of America.

Magic, stage magic, is an abode for the lonely, at least at first.  Many magicians spent much of their childhood and young adulthood alone, practicing and perfecting legerdemain, card tricks, stage patter, and the many other aspects of being a good stage magician.  Unlike other endeavors, such as sports, music, etc., there are no magic teachers.  There are no magic classes one can attend at the local community college.  Everything about magic must be learned by doing, by trial and error.

It is in this aspect that this book is a masterpiece.  The first half of this book collects articles and essays from various noted magical periodicals.  These were printed between 1920 and 1960.  They provide a great history of the stagecraft of magic.  Many working magicians wrote for these magazines, describing their travels, their shows, and various other magicians and magic shops they come across while performing around the country.  Nothing takes me back in time more than reading personal accounts and seeing the photographs of these talented magicians.  The start of the 20th century was a time when show business took place on stages, from bands, to showgirls, to comedians, to actors, to magicians, they all competed for stage time on the vaudeville and theater stages around the country.  Magic has always found a place among nighttime entertainers.  Consider Las Vegas and its many magic shows, many of which still draw full crowds.

While the first half of this book is a great resource for the history of magic in the early 20th century, it is the contents in the back half of this book that provide the true gold.  Divided up into sections, Walter Gibson includes precise instructions on how to perform countless magic tricks.  Proceeding from simple to complex, these chapters cover everything from card magic, coin magic, and sleight-of-hand magic to the biggest of illusions.  Each trick is first described as the “effect,” or what an audience member would see when the trick is performed.  The second section then describes the mechanics of the trick, and how to best achieve success in presenting it. 

For a young person seeking professional stage magic training, this is an invaluable resource.  This book alone can help a young magician move from simple coin tricks to large scale illusions, all the while offering great hints and suggestions about how to present each trick, what is important to remember, and what need not be considered.  These are normally things learned through long periods of trial and error, but Walter Gibson specifically aimed to provide young magicians with true knowledge.  What an interesting person he was.

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