I recall the first time I saw Chan Canasta perform. It was where many of us discovered, or rediscovered him; on his 1951 BBC television show. From over 350 TV appearances, this was thought to be the only surviving program of a ten episode show. In the lost recording we saw the brilliance of what mentalism can and should look like. A star in the UK during the 1950s and into the 1960s, he again became the topic of mentalists around the globe.
The internet can be a brawny implement and soon another performance was being broadcast through the medium. Chan Canasta’s return can be seen on the BBC Parkinson’s Show. Mentalists began re-inventing their own versions of Chan’s infamous book test. Of course, no one can do what Canasta did, simply because he built the test around his personal skills. When magicians who love mentalism came to the party, conjectures about Canasta’s method began to take crazy, if not distorted, directions. It’s always fun to look back at past masters and try to work out their methods, but when we begin to pontificate on this newly discovered truth, we run the risk of damage to the master’s legacy.
I know this one, simple fact; it’s irrefutable. Watching Chan Canasta changed the way I personally perform mentalism! I always tried to pull the audience into the play disregarding the existence what actors call the fourth wall. But watching Chan work a stacked deck of cards and a room of guests enlightened me to a stronger approach.
Today, almost all of my performance pieces make the spectator a participant. Take my Nostrum Necromancy book test. When it was first published as 21st Century Svengali in the booklet, Nostrum Necromancy, the presentation was about fully controlling the desires of either a beautiful woman at a table of admirers or an important VIP. It was a magazine and billet test that demonstrated the mentalist’s supreme psychic influential power.
After studying Chan Canasta’s approach, I changed everything but the basic method. My DVD set, The Vault, shows this new presentation, but the idea should be equally applicable to any book test you may be performing now. Let’s jump in at the point where we know the chosen word, but the audience and the participant doesn’t know we know.
I ask the audience to call out single letters of the alphabet. These are written on a white board. Because I know the word, when we have the correct letters to spell it out, I quit taking letters. (In fact, there are two words in my particular trick and I must be certain all the letters are there.) The audience is pulled into a process, but not enough to be really interested. But next they’re asked to make words from the chosen letters they see on the board. It instantly becomes a party game. There is a sense of friendly competition. Three and four letter words are called. Then, like a Scrabble game, variations of those words are proclaimed. Finally, someone will call out a multi-lettered word. “Please hold your calls, we have a winner!” I announce. Everyone laughs and the game is over.
What just happened? A time filler? Oh no, my friends. We just created so much more than may be visible at the moment. The audience is actually emotionally vested in the process of guessing words. When the mentalist looks over the letters, thinks of his own word, and writes it on the back of the white board, it is an extension of the game. It isn’t a demonstration of individual strength.
When the chosen word, and in my case both words, are revealed and found to be made of the very letters given by the audience, they are the mentalists! If one of the chosen words was created before during the little game, even better. The person who thought of that word will feel rewarded in a way that a simple demonstration will never produce.
In almost all my mentalistic displays I try to make the audience the superior psychic power. It may not work for you and all your tricks, but you may want to investigate the theory. If you’re already doing this, try making it even more pronounced. The result on an audience is noticeable.
Here is a bizarre twist to my story. Last year, another episode from the 1951 Canasta show surfaced. It was from a Dutch collection and the audio was over-dubbed, but there was another full performance. And our heads began to spin again. In my case I almost passed out from shock. For in the program was Chan Canasta performing a book test where everyone in the audience called out letters! He wrote these on a chalk board and tried to make a word from the letters. When a chosen word matched the one he made, I thought that maybe Canasta was stealing my act from the grave!
Not really, but a wonderful feeling of camaraderie with a personal hero blended with a chilling fear of possible false accusation and took hold of me. My theory was suddenly proven correct; this IS what Canasta would do. But it may be seen by others, compared to The Vault DVD and thought that somehow I “borrowed” the presentation. Of course performers are constantly re-inventing lost presentations of the masters. It happens daily.
But that’s not the end of my strange dance with Chan Canasta’s ghost. Before I saw the Dutch recording I was working on a stand-up card piece with two participants and two decks where they would both choose the same three cards. They would also, however, choose to place them in the same three locations on their persons. I was, no doubt, influenced by the previously viewed performances of Canasta, even though he had nothing quite like it on the BBC program.
When I said earlier that I almost passed out when viewing the Dutch program, it wasn’t entirely because of the book test presentation. No, my friends, there was Chan doing almost the same two person, two deck, three card trick! Oh Hell no!
This time what made our approaches different was that I was using a combination of trick methods and Mr. Canasta was using psychology and raw nerve. So much in fact, that the experiment failed.
Soon after that I visited my friend Simon Lovell at his show in New York City with mentalist Rick Maue and psychologist Dr. Lisa Chin. After the show Simon thought he had really caught me with a trick where a woman picked three cards, placed them in three locations and Simon revealed them. “Sorry, Simon, but no. You see I’m working on a very similar routine and I recognized a common method,” was my answer.
The following night a strange yet wonderful round table of Simon Lovell, Rick Maue, myself and card wizard, John Born was held at John’s home. I explained my entire routine and watched a discussion turn into a passionate debate. It was, as I recall, over whether the mentalist should participate more or even less than I had scripted. We are, after all, passionate people!
Now because misters Lovell, Maue, Born, Canasta and Hilford are all unique, our viewpoints on presenting the routine vary widely. The final result is a wonderful routine respectfully entitled,
3 Card Canasta.
Here is what you would see if you watched the performance. Two women join the mentalist. A red deck and a blue deck are freely chosen by each woman. They’re shuffled. The woman with the blue deck stands aside and holds it behind her back. The woman with the red deck stands with the mentalist, checks to make certain the cards are mixed, then freely chooses any three. Each one is placed in a different pocket of the mentalist. The woman decides which card AND which pocket. However, no one knows what the cards are.
The red deck is set aside.
The woman with the blue deck mixes her deck again, then makes a free choice and places a card in her choice of locations on her person. This free choice is repeated twice more. The deck is set aside with the red deck.
The “blue” woman takes the card from her shirt. It’s the 3 of Hearts. The mentalist takes the card from his shirt. It’s also the 3 of Hearts! The woman removes the card from her front pocket. It’s the 9 of Spades. The mentalist shows the card placed in his front pocket is also the 9 of Spades! Finally, the mentalist announces he believes the chosen card in his back pocket is the Queen of Clubs. He grabs it and it is the Queen of Clubs. The woman now shows her last card. And, you guessed it, it’s the Queen of Clubs!
This trick is so beautiful to watch it fools magicians and mentalists alike. There are a host of subtleties, yet it almost works itself. There are no specially printed cards, no tailored jackets or pants. In fact, you can go with this one right out of the package.
What about the truckload of potential for comic relief here. Plus, the trick is adaptable to work with VIP couples, anniversary parties, weddings, corporate events and just fun party situations.
And no matter what you do in mentalism or magic, give your audience the fame they want and see how your own recognition builds.