Tuesday, September 04, 2018

The Gentleman With a 100 Tricks in his Pockets

The Jerx blog recently published an interesting idea, The Magic Bucket List. A spectator chooses one of a hundred tricks from a list of tricks ‘I want to do before I die.’ You can read about it on Andy’s blog here.

The idea of a magic list put me in mind of Jean Poisson. I’d read about Jean Poisson, also known as John Fish, in Abracadabra magazine. He was a friend of the editor, Goodliffe Neale, who described him as one of his ‘favourite close-up exponents.’ Of his first meeting with Jean in 1948 he said, ‘I enjoyed meeting Jean Poisson, French magician – and very expert too – with a typical Parisian appearance and a delightful accent which made his quite fluent English as incomprehensible as his French.’ His heavily accented English was much commented up and Jean used it to comedy effect, for instance, when performing a rope trick he’d refer to using four hands to perform it with. ‘These two hands and these two ends,’ holding up the ends of the rope.

You’ll find much written about Jean Poisson in the magic journals of the 50s, 60s and 70s. He was born in Angers, France, in 1915, though later made Brussels his home. Gave shows as a semi-professional magician. Served in the army during WWII where he continued his interest in magic by doing shows for the troops. After the war he became a director of Cointreau, the liqueur firm. His work gave him many opportunities to travel across Europe, the UK, and to America where he lived for eighteen months in Trenton, New Jersey. He attended conventions and magic meetings wherever he went. And sometimes, to the delight of conventioneers, samples of the Cointreau liqueur went with him.

At magic conventions Jean was famous for his cut and restored tie. Magicians knew the trick used a stooge but Jean’s presentation was very funny and the trick became something of a running gag. Goodliffe Neale once stooged for him and apparently was incredibly convincing. Alan Kennaugh, writing in The Magigram, described an occasion when Jean asked for a volunteer and twelve men all wearing identical ties rushed onto the stage. But mostly Jean was noted for his ‘pocket tricks’ especially his unusual method of presenting them. As a result he was known by various names, ‘The Man of a 100 Gags,’ ‘The Gentleman with a 100 Tricks in his Pockets,’ or even ‘The Man of a 1000 Tricks.’

And here is where the story of Jean Poisson intersects with The Jerx. David Berglas told me that Jean actually had an actual list of the hundred tricks he could perform. It was a kind of menu of magic which could be handed to the spectator so that he can choose his entertainment. It would be fascinating if someone out there had a copy of the list.

That the magic in Jean’s pockets consisted of more than a deck of cards and a few coins is perhaps shown by what he once told Goodliffe Neale, ‘I only give an impromptu show – it takes me half-an-hour to prepare.’ To discover what those tricks might be I scoured the archives (courtesy of Ask Alexander). Here’s what I’ve found.

Chief among them is certainly The Devil Cigarette. This was the continuous production of smoke from an unlit cigarette. An interesting idea that seems to predate the usual smoking thumb trick. It was said that he vanished a birdcage every minute. ‘It is his idea of a pocket trick.’ He performed Premonition, rope routines and had a ‘a delightful trick with two coins and a pretty girl.’

Billy McComb built a Close-up Card Sword routine for him and described it in Abracadabra. Jean Poisson marketed a device called Cigimmick through Harry Stanley. I think this was like a double-barrelled cigarette pull. You could push a cigarette into one barrel of the gimmick as it was held in the fist and pull out a feather flower from the other barrel to affect a transformation, the gimmick flying away up the sleeve. It had many different uses. Another marketed effect was Timothy the Trained Tortoise in which a toy tortoise found a selected card. Earlier he had what was considered a ‘very unusual effect where a mechanical bird located a chosen card which indicates that it might have been an early version of an effect that became more common post Don Alan.

At the 1949 British Ring convention he performed a trick with a robot swan. A toy swan dived to the bottom of a tank of water and came back up with a selected card. The trick was credited to Minar the Magician of Algeria and you can find it described in The Magic Wand (March 1950) and very interesting it is too. The basic method would work just as well today.

Flying Ring and Do As I Do Imp Bottles (See Ganson’s Close-Up Magic Volume 1) were also favourites. He told Francis Haxton he did not like card tricks but he did publish a couple including a nice self-worker called I Love Suzy in Abracadabra (January 4th 1975).

I wonder what ‘the amazing close-up trick with a miniature pagoda’ was that he performed at the IBM convention in Brighton in 1954.

Another intriguing item was his version of the inexhaustible bottle trick. Jean used a tiny kettle ‘about two inches high’ to pour an unlimited amount of drinks. It was used as a gag at a convention, rather than a major mystery, and was said to be a version of the Miraculous Wine Bottle described in William Robinson’s Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena and the method was presumably the same. I do like the idea of a tiny kettle producing a huge amount a liquid. Possibly shots of Cointreau. It feels very magical.

In the 1970s Jean’s interest turned to mentalism and he worked under the name of Jean Sonus. The 100 tricks list was dispensed with but an insight into Jean’s repertoire can still be found in the Triad he published in Abracadabra (June 26th, 1976). These included a gaffed ace assembly, a handling of the Martin Sunshine Color Vision and a paddle routine with paper matches.

In that article Jean talked about magicians ‘not having anything on them’ when asked to do a trick and listed the items he carried with him so that he would be ready at all times. They included, among other things:

  • Out to Lunch
  • T & R Cigarette Paper
  • Kaps Paper to Dollar Bills
  • Sheet of rubber for Coin Through Rubber into Glass
  • T & R Tissue Paper
  • Nail Writer
  • Milbourne Christopher’s Paper Money
  • Find the Lady
  • Gypsy Thread

In the right sleeve of every suit he had the elastic and nylon gimmick to perform the magnetic pencil or knife trick. The left sleeve was fitted with a pull for the Vanishing Key. He said he followed the Boy Scout motto of  ‘Be prepared!’

It would be fascinating to find the list that Jean Poisson used. The Devil Cigarette, the name of his smoke from nowhere routine, gives us an idea of how he titled the tricks so that the surprise was not revealed but I’d be very interested in hearing from anyone who has more details to share.

NOTES: I asked if anyone had anything to share and Chris Woodward sent along a photograph of Jean Poisson's Cigimmick which I mentioned earlier in the article. If you're curious as to what this double-chambered gimmick looked like. Here it is. Thanks Chris:

From the Nadine and Chris Woodward Collection