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Are you having trouble finding new stand-up material suitable for stage or platform? Would you like someone to help you out? How about Robert Harbin. Yes, Robert Harbin, creator of the Zig-Zag and stages full of other classic effects. This book might just be the answer to your problems.
The friendship between Robert Harbin and Eric Lewis was a friendship made in heaven. Throughout his long life, Harbin bubbled over with new ideas and Eric had the workshop and the technical skills to build anything his friend might think up. Eric's own creativity often found its way into these creations as they slowly took shape in his Northampton workshop. For this book, Eric has selected sixty effects that range from mental magic, club and cabaret tricks, escapes, close-up and stage illusions. Some were first published in scarce magazines but most have never appeared in print. Told here is the true story of the creation of Harbin's legendary Zig-Zag Girl illusion. Because of Eric's close association with these routines, besides writing and illustrating them, he was able to include many important construction details and presentational points.
Eric wanted this to be more than just a book of tricks so he has woven throughout the text a very personalized biography of his dear friend. To assist in this, The American Museum of Magic kindly lent Eric Harbin's original scrapbooks from which we were able to reproduce numerous rare photographs that trace Harbin's career from his early days as Ned Williams in South Africa to his unprecedented fame in England and around the world. Complementing Eric's text is a Publisher's Note by Mike Caveney, a Foreword by Robert Lund, an Introduction by John Fisher and a final chapter by Alan Shaxon.
A PEEK INSIDE THE GENIUS OF ROBERT HARBIN
[Throughout Eric's preface, his great admiration and respect for Harbin comes shining through. Therefore, there is perhaps no better way to introduce you to this wonderful book than by reproducing Eric's heartfelt opening words.]
I call this a "personal biography" because it was not written from the detached viewpoint of a magical historian. These words have come from the heart of one who had been a close friend of the subject for most of a lifetime and who had been involved in the creation of many of his tricks and some of his illusions.
All the descriptions of his tricks have been written, or rewritten from my personal knowledge of them. In the case of published tricks, I have included details, background and later additions which have never appeared in print. Also, from the biographic viewpoint, I treat Bob Harbin as a human being: a person with failings as well as strengths, for which one of us is perfect?
In some way there was a curious affinity between Harbin and myself. We both started magic at about the age of eleven with no knowledge of magic, magicians or magical organizations, and we did not meet other magicians until we were about nineteen or twenty. This was a great impetus towards creativity because we had to think things out for ourselves. It seems that Harbin was not aware of the many magicians in South Africa, nor that there was a flourishing magic club in Durban, the South African Magical Society, whose president in those days was one Louis Val Ridley.
Harbin's first interest in magic was sparked by an unknown ex-serviceman who appeared at his school with a rather poor magic show. My own interest came from a wandering street magician who was more of an escapologist, but who also did some badly-performed magic. The first books Harbin read about magic were the inexpensive yellow- covered books published by Pearson in England (often referred to as "Yellow Perils"). These were also my first books.
Harbin had always been "tone deaf," a deficiency shared by myself. Although we appreciated music, neither of us could pitch our voice to musical notes, and attempts at singing were hopelessly out of tune. It is true that at times we could both appear to be singing away merrily with the rest of the company in a concert party or a similar show, but we were soundlessly miming the words and hoping no one would notice.
There was, however, one great difference between us. As a boy and a youth I was extremely diffident and retiring, whereas Harbin always had all the confidence in the world. To quote him, "I was a tremendous extrovert and, I think, somewhat objectionable as a youth - a terrible show-off." In this I believe he was exaggerating (a frequent whimsical tendency of his), because I saw no sign of it. It was, in fact, his easygoing, friendly manner, with no attempt to "lord over me" which overcame my early reluctance at meeting other magicians.
I have been unable to trace the exact date of our first meeting, but it was sometime during the 1931-1932 winter season when he was on his first music hall tour. The playbills of the local New Theatre had been advertising the appearance of "Ned Williams, the Boy Magician from South Africa," and early in the week I went to see him perform. My recollections of his act are vague, but I remember he opened with his cigarette production routine, did a book test (which was no doubt an earlier version of The Great Book Test in The Magic of Robert Harbin. He did a Torn and Restored Newspaper, Cut and Restored Rope and concluded with a small illusion in which he produced a girl from a small box - an illusion which I later knew as being based on the Mignon principle and was not an original illusion.
Previous to this time I had never been courageous enough to go backstage to meet a magician, but somehow I sensed his friendliness and made my tentative inquiries at the stage door. Immediately I was ushered along those dismal, but hallowed corridors and into a theatrical dressing room for the first time in my life. Ned Williams was all I had hoped for. He immediately made me at home and encouraged me to stay over to see his performance from the wings and during the second "house." What a wonder that was! The first of hundreds of times I was to stand in those same wings to see the acts of so many great and near-great magicians. Ned Williams had been my "open sesame" to all this.
Each night for the rest of the week I was with him at his invitation, and before parting we exchanged addresses. Our actual meetings were infrequent for several years, but we corresponded regularly and I quickly became adept at translating his handwriting. When, early in 1934, I sent him a copy of my book, Magical Mentality, he immediately wrote saying, "Eric, give up magic and take up journalism!"
It was about 1935 or 1936 that we met again by chance. I was waiting for a train at Euston Station when I saw a familiar figure pacing up and down, head bowed in thought. He looked up as I walked over and exclaimed, "My god, Eric Lewis," then pulled me over to a table of a platform restaurant to describe a new trick he had been thinking about. But this meeting, and a "close encounter" with a waitress is described later in this book. However, the outcome was that I was chastised for frequently visiting London without calling on him. So our personal meetings began, either at his home or mine.
Later, when I had my own well-equipped workshops, his visits became more frequent, lasting days or weeks at a time, making apparatus, swapping ideas, and talking, talking, talking. These meetings came to an end in 1968 when I left England for California - then it was back to correspondence until he eventually visited Hollywood - a story which will be told in due course.
Now it must be said that Harbin was never a good writer because he was impatient to get his ideas on paper and move onto something else. He never read anything he wrote before sending it off, and would never even consider revising or rewriting. The result was that many of his descriptions of tricks were lacking in certain details, often because he thought they were obvious. For this reason some of his published articles were much too brief, and frequently obscure or puzzling.
Also, his descriptions were not entirely correct because he had not made the apparatus he was describing or later made modifications which never got into print. Several times I made apparatus from his descriptions. When he saw them, he confessed that he had never built them for himself. However, he had such a clear-thinking and p ractical mind that such "pipe dreams" invariably worked out the way he had planned.
The late Goodliffe told me of the haste in which Harbin wrote his articles for publication. Goodliffe had been pressing him to write some articles for his magazine, Abracadabra, and when Harbin was in Birmingham with the "Wizard of Oz" show at the Alexandra Music Hall (week commencing April 19, 1948), Goodliffe asked again. Harbin was staying at the home of Goodliffe that week, and both there and in the theatre dressing room he set to work. By the end of the week he had completed no less than fifty-two weekly contributions. The series was published under the title of "This Magic Stuff" beginning the following August, and was reprinted in full in the book Harbincadabra.
It may be pointed out by some readers that some of the Harbin books were well written and showed no sign of haste. This was particularly true of his books for popular publication. The reason for this is that they were "ghost written" for him by competent writers, as for example his early Origami books and How to Be a Wizard, which were written by the late Will Dexter, author of The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo.
In this present book, therefore, tricks which have been previously published have been entirely rewritten from my own personal knowledge of them. Also, everything has been re-illustrated because many of his drawings were confusing, some lacking important details and some adding too much detail which suffered when reduced for reproduction. I am not alone in doing this, for it should be noted that everything was redrawn by a staff artist for Abracadabra, and Peter Warlock did the illustrations for Harbin's effects in the Pentagram. His best work was in The Magic of Robert Harbin, with which he took particular care, but even here there were some obscurities.
Very helpful in the writing of this book were the early scrapbooks of Harbin, which had been generously loaned by Robert Lund of the American Museum of Magic for an indefinite period; but in these the carelessness of Harbin in such matters frequently proved frustrating. He had pasted in various cuttings, programs, articles and other items completely at random and out of sequence. He rarely entered the name of the source nor the date. They were put in for his own pleasure, and he did not consider that one day they might be valuable to magical historians. But we must remember he was a true genius and could not bother with such details. It is the plodders, like myself, who want every detail recorded correctly.
The idea of this book was first broached during February of 1976 when Harbin was in Hollywood. I told him I would like to compile a book of all his published tricks. He was enthusiastic about the idea and gave me the "go ahead." Gradually I began compiling material with the initial idea of it being just a book of his tricks. It was after his death that I decided to make it largely biographic and eliminate many of the less important tricks, or those of which I had no firsthand knowledge.
When Goodliffe attended the P.C.A.M. convention in Los Angeles, I mentioned the project with the intention of seeking permission to use material from Abracadabra, but he gave me his impish grin and told me that all that material was already in the hands of the printer for the forthcoming Harbincadabra. So I postponed my own work for a year or two in order to let the Goodliffe book run its course.
When I recommenced, the news came that Martin Breese of England was doing a book on Harbin, so again I waited. This turned out to be a well-produced book with some fine reproductions, but it was simply a transcription of a taped interview with Harbin.
Now, an off-the-cuff interview of this nature can rarely be relied upon as a source of biographic or historical data because it lacks precision of detail and discursive logic. Instead it has the qualities and defects of the speaker's peculiarities and vagueness of expression, his judgments (sound or false), his prejudices (perhaps unknown to him), his romanticizing (often for humor), Freudian slips and actual lapses of memory. I speak of taped interviews in general, not the one by Martin Breese in particular. Some of these did occur, such as the naming of Brian Godfrey when he actually meant Peter Godfrey. But make no mistake, the Breese book should be in the library of every admirer of Harbin. It was so typical of the way he talked.
Finally, let me make one more point clear before we progress with the real story of Robert Harbin. I have always called him Ned as did many of his personal friends. I only use that name in the first section of this book. Thereafter he will be Robert Harbin or just plain Harbin. This latter means no more disrespect than speaking of Devant, Blackstone, Thurston or such. Harbin was up there among them.