Thursday, April 16, 2009

Chan Canasta's Book of Oopses

Which card? That was the question posed by Chan Canasta on the cover of the Radio Times (8th Jan, 1960). This novel interactive trick was used to promote his new series of psycho magic on BBC television.

Having thought of a card, readers were asked to turn to page 9 for the results. If you click on the photo you should get a better view of the cards. And having chosen one you can read Canasta's prediction in the very next paragraph of this article.

'Yes,' says Chan Canasta 'you probably chose the five of spades on the cover. If you didn’t, however, don’t worry. The eight of clubs and the ace of clubs - or even the seven of diamonds - were also likely choices.'

Note Canasta’s well chosen wording. He never actually said that he would guess the card you thought of. He merely asked you to think of one and then turn to page 9. You may or may not have thought of the five of spades. You’d be damned impressed if you did. But if you didn’t, Canasta brushes the error away as if it didn’t really matter. And leaves you with the feeling that any mistake was your own.

In 1966 George G Harrap & Co published Chan Canasta’s Book of Oopses, a small 48 page volume of interactive tricks. It was billed as 'a collection of thrilling experiments in which the book itself plays the part of the mind-reader.'

Each double page spread was comprised of a set of instructions on the left-hand page and a diagram on the right-hand page. Following the instructions you chose one of the items on the opposite page; a playing card, a symbol, a number or word. When you'd made your decision you turned to the back of the book and looked at Canasta's predictions. Hopefully he would be right. But if he was wrong he offered a humorous and delightful apology and said 'Oops.'

Canasta was very clear about the nature of the tricks, saying in the introduction ‘Well, in many cases the working of the trick is certain, depending on logical or mathematical principles that are cleverly concealed. In other cases, the tricks are of a psychological character, so designed that they are successful only about 80 per cent of the time.’

‘Thus you see the Book presents a kind of challenge to you and to itself. When it fails - Oops! - it shrugs its page sadly and admits failure. But, when it scores a hit the effect is nothing short of miraculous, giving you an eerie feeling that it possesses some occult and incredible powers. This, in fact, is true in a sense. The psychological tricks are planned so that you are led unconsciously along certain mental paths without realising it.’

Original copies of the book are highly sought after and have been selling for around $200 on the internet. But now Martin Breese has reprinted the book and offered it at a much lower price. The original was printed on a sort of black cartridge paper, inadvertently making it difficult to copy, but the reprint is a good one and made on harder wearing glossy stock. You can find the reprint on Martin Breese’s website.

At least one of the Oopses seems to be based on something Canasta performed on television. I’m talking about Oops 10 which is entitled Making a sentence of nonsense. The reader is asked to choose four words from ten on offer to make a simple sentence.

On his show Canasta had tried a very similar trick in which a panel of celebrities did the choosing. In The Budget magazine for February 1960 Gus Southall wrote:

‘Then on to a mass experiment with four sets of large cards each bearing four words. These were shown quickly to the panel and the studio audience who were invited to compose a sentence from them which should agree with one previously written down by Canasta. Unfortunately it was a total failure.’

Obviously not the most successful of routines but Canasta had tried it on an earlier show, where it had also failed, so he seemed keen on it. When I met Canasta in 1996, I asked him about the trick and he told me a story that had been told to him by film actor Michael Rennie.

It appears that Rennie had arranged to take his mother out to dinner but she was reluctant to go. The reason was that she was a big fan of Canasta's and didn't want to go anywhere until she'd seen his television show that evening. Rennie, reluctantly, is forced to watch the show with his mother. He was not impressed, the show was the usual mixture of hits and misses. One routine in particular was a spectacular failure, the one that Gus Southall later reviewed. The celebrity panel were shown words on cards and asked to choose some and arrange them into a sentence. They did. But when Canasta's prediction was revealed it was utterly wrong.

For Rennie, who was perhaps watching Canasta for the first time, this was a total shock. He turned to his mother and said, 'You made me stay in for this? He was completely wrong.'

'No,' said his mother 'he wasn't wrong. They were!'

Which perhaps tells us a little about Canasta's enduring charm. I asked Canasta about the routine and how he had intended to make it work. It was clear he didn't have a specific method in mind, just hope that his persuasive powers might bring about the right result. 'It might have worked,' he said, 'but whether it worked or not, I knew it would fill seven and a half minutes.' Filling the time must have been a major consideration when you're the sole artiste on a weekly television series.

I hadn't known about the Book of Oopses when I met Canasta. T.A. Waters told me about it and, later, Peter Lane kindly loaned me his copy. It was years before I managed to get hold of an original copy of my own. I think Oops 10 in the Book of Oopses is a version of the routine he used on his television shows. It's a wonderful effect. Maybe one day it will work.