Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Magic of Paul LePaul


Paul LePaul (1900 – 1958)

“LePaul is one of the greatest manipulative magicians ever to practice the art of pleasant deception.” - John Mulholland

Paul LePaul was gifted with the rare combination of superb technique and master showmanship. Although he is widely known today as the author of the classic work The Card Magic of Paul LePaul, a work that showcased many of his innovations in advanced sleight-of-hand, LePaul was no stranger to the stage. He performed countless times on the vaudeville circuit and when that ended, he moved on to the hotel and nightclub scene.

His Life

On August 2nd, 1900, LePaul was born Paul Shields Braden. He grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and it was here that he developed an interest in manipulative card magic. By 1920, he was performing his card act professionally. This aspiring magician was largely influenced by, but never imitated, the work of Howard Thurston and Nate Leipzig. Looking to these magicians for inspiration, LePaul crafted a style all of his own that won audiences for the length of his career.

His Travels

Magic took Paul all over the globe. In 1923, after performing near his home town for a couple of years, he joined the Ackerman and Harris Vaudeville Circuit, which canvassed the West Coast. In 1927, he decided to tour the East Coast, and it was during this run he was first billed as “Paul LePaul.”

During the war, LePaul decided he could use his talents to perform for the troops. He became part of the USO’s Camp Show Unit and ended up performing on stages all over Europe, North Africa, The Caribbean Islands, South America, and Japan. Afterwards, he went back to performing for the hotel and nightclub scene and occasionally performed at veterans’ hospitals.

lepaulpic2Showmanship

Like Leipzig, LePaul had the utmost respect for his audiences. One way he displayed this respect was by dressing in his finest clothes. His smart appearance expressed to each audience that he held them in high regard and wanted to entertain them, they deserved it. In fact, when he first appeared on the East Coast, he was most praised for his sharp attire. Variety Magazine wrote that “LePaul, card manipulator, wears afternoon clothes with distinction and has the crispest linen in vaudeville.” His magic was graceful and his impeccable dress was a fine complement to his stylish performances.

Effects, LePaul believed, were most magical when executed with absolute precision. It is for this reason that he dedicated so much of his time to polishing his work. Stripped of superfluous chatter and cluttered displays, LePaul performances were always polished and clean. He performed only his tightest material gaining him a reputation for engaging, streamlined shows.

Noticing that LePaul was remarkably at ease on stage or close-up, Robert Parrish wrote:

“What gave his work its extra dimension, however, was the attitude he conveyed of delight in what he did. When you came right down to it, it is a little absurd for a grown man to stand in front of a crowd flourishing playing cards. When Paul LePaul performed you were persuaded that this was the most wonderful thing a person could possibly do.”

lepaulpic3Thoughts on Technique

His magnificent performances were the result of a rigorous discipline and elevated standard he placed on himself for the the development of his art. LePaul would often perform a sleight for years under a strenuous practice schedule before ever using it in front of a live audience. He likened mastery of a technique to the effortlessness of walking and breathing. If it did not feel that easy, that natural, it was not suitable for an audience.

Gathering a variety of perfected techniques guaranteed LePaul could be resourceful in all performance situations. Highly observant and equipped with this vast repertoire of material, LePaul had the unique ability to select the most engaging and appropriate sleight for a particular moment.

This dedication to not just the learning, but the mastery of new effects, led LePaul to become the exponent of what is now called the “split-fan production.” He discovered this move in a British manuscript published in 1916, and he is credited as being the first to use the sleight professionally. This is only one of several “Firsts” in LePaul’s career. He was also the first to produce cards in both hands simultaneously, using a different method for each hand. By doing such, LePaul surpassed Dr. Elliott’s record of performing the shift 120 times a minute.

lepaulpic4Writing the Book

At Schulien’s Tavern in 1946, a relationship began than led to the penning of one of the great magic classics. At this Chicago bar, the well known magician Dorny introduced Jerry McDermott, a photographer and sleight-of-hand hobbyist, to LePaul. At the time, McDermott was working on another classic, The Expert at the Card Table by Erdnase. McDermott’s conversations with LePaul furthered the photographer’s interest in magic.

After discussing challenging parts of the classic Erdnase book, the question presented itself: Why didn’t LePaul write a book explaining Manipulative Magic in a language that could be easily understood? McDermott volunteered to take the pictures. LePaul, having never authored a book, but always up for a new pursuit, agreed. He would now have to learn and master a new craft, writing.

Although there was 30 years of experience to pour onto the page, LePaul utilized his “one finger touch system” to type up the manuscript. The card moves were keenly described yet accessible to any reader. To assist comprehension, McDermott photographed accompanied every move LePaul described. Together, they created a delightful and thoughtful card master’s handbook which, to this day, is considered a classic in the magic canon.

His Personal Notebook

Since then, LePaul’s only other published work was a book about Brother John Hamman, another expert magician. The Card Magic of Brother John contains some of LePaul’s own preferences and variations on Hamman’s techniques. These two books give us some understanding of the legendary LePaul.

But apart from these two published works, there are not many publicly available documents about this famous performer. So who was Paul LePaul? Smooth and stylish magician? Yes. But what else?

The Conjuring Arts Research Center is proud to display LePaul’s Personal Notebook. It is with respect and wonder that we share, for the first time online, this interesting artifact from LePaul’s career. Written in his own delicate penmanship, between the classic cardboard covers of a school composition notebook, LePaul describes his own favorite effects as well as some of his original creations. Note his sketches; Note his stickers. Inside, you’ll find effects from other magicians, such as Joe Berg and Theo Annemann. Page by page, LePaul’s notebook is a delight to peruse. Enjoy!

View LePaul’s notebook.

The Conjuring Arts Research Center thanks the George and Sandy Daily Collection for providing us with these rare photographs of Paul LePaul.