Take Two #68: John Carney
What does it mean to be a magician’s magician?
In some contexts, this kind of self-referential term for artists of any medium can imply a compliment by caveat—that is, indicating someone who is chiefly appreciated by his or her peers, but whose work is somehow too inaccessible, or too overly artsy to be appreciated by the public. In other contexts, it can be a compliment of the highest nature, acknowledging an artist whose work is unreservedly appreciated and admired by his peers; indeed, an artist who reflects the epitome of their chosen medium.
It is with this latter intent when I begin by stating that John Carney is often introduced at magic conventions and lectures as a “magician’s magician.” That label, at least in his case, means that John Carney is both a tremendously experienced and versatile professional performer, while at the same time being a celebrated artist within the magic community.
To the former point, Carney’s résumé includes the typical accomplishments of a veteran pro, including performing in Las Vegas casino showrooms and similar venues in Lake Tahoe and Atlantic City. He has numerous television appearances to his credit, including various comedy and magic specials, and a guest spot on The David Letterman Show. He’s even served as a corporate spokesman featured in television commercials for MasterCard.
That’s fine, that’s good, that’s professional. But to the later point, Carney is also laden with achievements awarded to him by his peers and colleagues. He has twice, in 1988 and 1991, earned top honors in Close-up Magic at the international FISM awards—and truth be told, many of his peers were appalled that he did not take the Grand Prix in ’88. He has also received a rich catalog of awards from the Academy of Magical Arts (Magic Castle)—in fact, more than any single magician in its history—including but not limited to: 1984 Close-up Magician of the Year, 1989 Parlour Magician of the Year, 1991 Lecturer of the Year, and in 2014, the prestigious Performing Fellowship.
I have often said that if you took ten of the top close-up magicians in the U.S. and asked them each to make a list of their top-ten favorite close-up magicians, there are some names that would only be on a single list, some on very few lists, some that would appear on more than that, but the one name you can bet on that would almost certainly appear on all ten lists would be that of John Carney.
In sum: When you watch John Carney perform, you are watching something that reflects the very best of what magic can be.
Carney was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, and his Midwest background is ever present in his soft-spoken demeanor, self-deprecating humor, and precise and unaccented speech. As a teenager interested in magic, he discovered that Faucett Ross, a professional magician and long-time friend and colleague of Dai Vernon’s, lived in nearby in St. Joseph, Missouri, where John’s parents were from and where they still had family. The anxious but curious teenager placed a phone call to Ross, and thus, one of the critical mentorships of Carney’s life began. He would visit Ross soon after that call, during a family visit to Saint Jo, and after obtaining his driver’s license, he made periodic visits to Ross for many years to come. Carney would also meet Vernon, who would become another important mentor, along with Charlie Miller, who he met after Carney’s eventual relocation to Los Angeles, where he still resides today.
The influence of these men, of their mentorship and personal teachings and public writings, can be seen throughout Carney’s own work. When Carney was featured (one of three times) on the cover of Genii magazine in the September 1993 issue, he contributed a wonderful tribute to Dai Vernon, whose death, at the age of 98, had occurred the previous year. In this essay, “My Teacher, Myself,” Carney considered Vernon not only as teacher, but also as a perpetual student. “Dai Vernon was always voraciously hungry. Well into his nineties he was still asking questions, curious and appreciative of the latest concept or talent. Here was a man who had admitted he didn’t have all the answers, expanding his search for buried treasure. He managed to see the forest for the ego.”
Without question, this aspect of forever questing was a key facet of Vernon’s nature and teachings, and it was also a feature of the personality of another shared mentor between Carney and myself, namely the late Johnny Thompson. To his very end, Johnny was always sessioning with young magicians, hungry to learn about the latest, and constantly working on something new.
These influences, and his own inventiveness can be seen throughout Carney’s work—not only in his performances, but also in his superb and widely acclaimed books for magicians. Invariably self-published and mostly self-designed (and beautifully so), Carney’s writings are reflected in a stunning collection of instructional works for magicians including: Carney Knowledge (1983), Carneycopia (1991), The Book of Secrets (2002), and Magic by Design (2009), along with a stack of instructional videos. Carney has provided magicians with profoundly insightful instruction into the workings of sophisticated sleight-of-hand magic, designed with the highest standards of both artistic and professional performance. The books are produced in limited print runs, and remain titles that are consistently out of print while constantly in demand. A professional close-up magician could make a living on the contents of Carneycopia alone; you could make a lifetime of study out of The Book of Secrets.
And yet, Carney’s eclectic skill set extends further. An accomplished actor, Carney has been seen in television roles on such shows as Spin City and Two and a Half Men, as well as in sketch comedy performances, plays, and theater productions. He also presented his own theatrical one-man show Carney Magic, which he tours periodically. In this show, and elsewhere, he creates and embodies complete characters, including bringing to life his mentor Faucett Ross, and his singular creation, Mr. Mysto—a hilarious send-up of an egotistical, bumbling magician. Mysto has long been a favorite on magic convention stages as well as theatrical platforms for the public; Mysto was even featured in an interview in Genii magazine.
As is so often the case in my writing of Take Two, what can be found in the way of public accessible video of Carney’s work barely scratches the surface of his scintillating oeuvre. Carney is possessive of his work in all its forms, and while I am often reticent to profile the work of my friends, a scarcity of quality samples is the only thing that has delayed my featuring of Carney, who is among one of my very favorite contemporary conjuring artists. Much like the late Daryl Easton, despite my deep and admiring familiarity with Carney’s repertoire, I never tire of watching him perform. When, some months ago, I had the privilege of sharing a stage with him at a gig in San Francisco, I watched his sets from the wings and laughed aloud, and shook my head in wonder—as always, as ever. I am now pleased to share in that experience.
As mentioned, these videos only scratch the surface of John Carney’s marvelous, mystifying, and eminently artistic repertoire. I hope you (and he) will accept the variances in production quality, and make your best effort to immerse yourself in this performer and his magic. So please: Expand the browser to the max, turn up the sound, and put aside the smart phone. Welcome to the magic of artist, creator, and teacher: John Carney.
Let’s begin with this deceptively simple, tasteful, and beautiful moment of close-up magic.
Here’s a close-up routine going back to one of Carney’s earlier books, that has always been a favorite of mine.
A quick example of one of Carney’s corporate spokesman television commercials.
Moving beyond close-up magic, here’s a more extended sequence of Carney in a platform setting.
And finally, a lovely coda to a Carney stage performance (featuring the magician and musician Tina Lenert playing the harp).
Meet Carney’s Alter Ego
I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride through my guided tour of John Carney magic. But for extra credit, here’s a sample of his alter ego, the amazing Mr. Mysto.
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