Wednesday, June 30, 2021


Magicians interested in stacked deck work might have heard of Charles Carts. He was a contemporary of Chan Canasta, a successful performer who made a reputation with an act based around a deck of cards. Jeff Busby, in reviewing my book Chan Canasta: A Remarkable Man (2000), implied that Canasta might have been inspired by Charles Carts’ work. However, I’ve not found any evidence that the two met or knew of each other before they established their careers.

According to press reports, Carts was born in Brussels but spent most of his early life in Paris where he studied engineering. He claimed to have been part of the French Underground during WWII. Chan Canasta meanwhile served with the RAF in Greece and other countries before coming to England in 1947.

Carts had always been interested in magic but got a taste for performing when another magician had to drop out of a show at a Parisian cafĂ©. Carts took his place, and this led to hobby becoming a profession. In 1948 he was working at ‘Franco-American galas and fetes' (Variety, July 7, 1948) and a year later, possibly as a result of those shows, he travelled to America where he was to build a successful life as a club and cabaret performer. Early reviews were promising:

With the approach of summer, hostelry ops here are opening their purses, with improved shows the result. Charlie Carts, young, handsome Parisian conjurer, has great possibilities but needs some major renovation. Carts’ turn is a card manipulation and memory combination that should hit much better than it does. He allows diners to take various size stacks from a deck of cards and tells them every card they’re holding. His closer should be a show stopper. He splits a deck into seven parts, putting one part in each of seven pockets, from which diners take cards. He tells payees what they’re holding. Major handicap is his endless monotone of descriptive prattle. He needs to slow down and add laugh lines. His card manipulation encore, while appreciated by a fellow magician, is too subtle as a closing piece.

In 1950, Carts married American showgirl Carolyn Lockwood. We can track many of Carts’ bookings at clubs, hotels and casinos throughout America and Canada via the press archives. Most praised the novelty of a card-only act. It was a ‘new twist’ they said, citing Carts' ability to have lots of cards selected and to be able to name every one of them. They also noted his ‘comedy patter.’ ‘He has a charming manner, mixing up his not so fractured English and his native Gallic lingo for strong appeal. He’s well suited for a class room like the Cotillion,’ said one review of his 1954 appearance at the Pierre Hotel, New York. He also made some television appearances including one on February 14th, 1953, with former bootlegger Sherman Billingsley who had a television show fashioned after his own Stork Club in Manhattan.

Both Carts and Canasta had acts that depended on a stacked deck. Another thing they had in common was that their acts worked best in intimate venues, which is why television worked so well for Canasta. At the beginning of Carts’ American tour reviewers applauded his act but wondered if it had club appeal, saying:

Charles Carts, French card manipulator, is a very clever handsome lad. His work, however, isn’t geared for mass visual appeal. Basically he’s a close worker using the take-a-card-any-card system. People up close can be very interested. Those even a row away can’t see what he’s doing. As a table worker he should do quite good (Billboard, Feb 26, 1949).

Carts overcame that scepticism but it never disappeared entirely. Several years later, after a successful career, someone would venture an opinion that card tricks were too small for club work, one reviewer saying, ‘Much of the material is a total loss to others in the audience unless the management provides telescopes.’ 

Carts did travel to the UK in 1955 and made an appearance on the British television show It’s Magic. Abracadabra magazine (Dec 10, 1955) reviewed the show. This was the first time British magicians had seen Carts’ work:

Unquestioned star of last Friday’s It’s Magic show was French-American artist, Charles Carts. With a deck of cards, one Jumbo and one miniature, he did a high-speed revelation routine and packed it full with mystery and fun. His engaging personality emerged in the round from the little box in the corner.

Card man Gus Southall, reviewing the same show in The Budget (January 1956) said:

Charles Carts whose skilful card work has been highly praised in American journals, journied (sic) at great inconvenience from his native France, where he was on holiday, to make an appearance in the programme. Card artists can learn much from his brisk direct presentation of painless card magic. His flawless technique with a stacked deck was a joy to witness particularly his “any-card-named-found-at-any-position” and “everywhere and nowhere” with its slightly different climax.

Helping us understand the difference between Carts’ work and that of Canasta is a detailed account of Carts’ act written by Stewart James in a letter to Francis Haxton (Oct 18th, 1955). James saw Carts perform on television. Carts had replaced Paul Le Paul on the American It’s Magic show (September 3rd, 1955 as far as I can make out) and, as far as James was concerned, was the superior performer. James, who spelled Carts as Cartes, recalled the act as follows:

Worked in lounge suit. Stated during introductory remarks that he would use a complete deck of 52 cards. To prove that there were 52, without delaying his presentation by passing the cards around to be examined and counted, he would like to have anyone name any card. Next they were requested to choose either “top” or “bottom”. Suppose they said Seven of Diamonds and TOP. Cartes cut the deck and revealed the Seven of Diamonds on TOP of the deck. Repeated five or six times.

CC apparently shuffles cards. Three members of audience are asked to think of one card each. CC divides deck in SEVEN groups. They are distributed in various pockets. Right trouser pocket – inside left coat pocket, inside right coat pocket – handkerchief pocket – left trouser pocket – right coat pocket and left coat pocket. Thought of cards are named one at a time. CC produces them one at a time from the proper pocket.

Here again he departed from the usual presentation of the Cards From Pockets as he did with the Instanto Pack. When the first member of the audience thinks of a card, CC concentrates and appears to try and read his mind. At last, by his appearance, once feels that he is confident that he has been successful. This bit of business is repeated with the other two “thinkers” but it is worked briskly and does not slow down the act.

BEFORE placing each packet of cards in his pocket, CC glances at the faces briefly. His explanation is that he could not possible remember all the cards, their position in the packet and in which pocket they are placed. He is ONLY remembering the position of three cards which have been merely thought of and have not (as yet) been named aloud.

Two volunteers are requested to come forward. CC still has the cards distributed in his pockets. Including the three cards he produced as they were returned to the pocket whence they came after being displayed for verification.

One volunteer removes the cards from CC’s right coat pocket. Other volunteer takes the cards from left coat pocket. Volunteers arrange the cards in their hands according to suits. CC names all the cards in each hand.

There is a slight variation in the way he does this. Each card is named in the first group one at a time. For the second group, CC names a suit, the number of cards in that suit in the group and lastly the values of the cards of that suit.

Three spectators each select a card from the assembled deck. They are returned and deck shuffled by a member of the audience. CC places deck in his inside right coat pocket. First spectator thinks of his card. CC quickly produces one with back to audience. Spectator names his card. Card is reversed and revealed to be the one named.

CC apparently has difficulty locating second spectator’s card. CC says spectator has not been thinking very strongly of his card but it is the Ace of Spades. CC produces a half-size Ace of Spades.

CC says it is extremely easy to produce the card of which the third spectator is thinking. CC says it is the Queen of Hearts – which spectator verifies – and that the selector is thinking of it very strongly. He then produced a GIANT Queen of Hearts.

A walk on card act with a single basic theme. Except for the prop cards to supply the “light touch” climax, absolutely nothing is used except the deck and there appears to be only one.

Francis Haxton was very taken with Stewart James’ description of Carts’ act and even mused upon the possibility of constructing something like it himself, a walk on act based around a single magical theme. Ironically, when Carts’ appeared on British television just a month or so later, Haxton missed the show. He did, however, say to James that it reminded him of Chan Canasta’s work. James wrote back:

You will probably think I am quibbling but I consider a stacked deck a whole system of card magic and NOT a single effect. But it does bring to mind how different two acts can be although based on the same basic theme.. just compare Cartes routine with that of Arthur Lloyd. And I venture to say that I would enjoy Cartes turn much more than AL’s regardless of the much greater preparation and practice required for AL’s.

It is easy to see how comparisons can be made between Chan Canasta and Charles Carts, even the names are similar. But I agree with Stewart James and believe Carts and Canasta were very different performers. Their methods weren’t new. Both owed a huge debt to Si Stebbins, who performed similar effects for many years and half a century earlier. But Carts’ and Canasta’s interpretation of those effects, via their very different personalities and presentations is what made them stand out from their peers. To quote a famous song, it ain't what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

Special thank you to the Ask Alexander search engine at Conjuring Arts for access to the Stewart James & Francis Haxton archive. Also to Magicana who also host this fascinating archive of correspondence.