Ross Bertram was a legendary figure in the world of magic, first coming to international prominence for his pure sleight-of-hand in the 1940s when he was invited to be part of the “Stars of Magic”, the magic equivalent of a art movement or group, whose techniques were offered by subscription to magicians around the world. Dai Vernon, his friend, and fellow Canadian, and the most influential magician of the 20th century, had invited him to participate. Ross disappeared from view in the 1960s, the stress and strain of a life in show business having taken its toll. He reappeared in the late 70s, just when my interest in sleight-of-hand began to percolate.
Ross had heard about me from three friends: Herb Morrissey (who owned a magic shop in Toronto where I worked part-time), P. Howard Lyons (who published Ibidem, an influential magic journal), and Msgr. Vincent Foy (a longtime magic enthusiast who also ghost wrote the text for Bertram’s books). BTW: On June 7, 2014 Msgr. Foy, now in his late 90s, will be celebrating his 75th anniversary as an ordained priest. Now that’s magic!
After rooming with Ross at a conference at the Oban Inn – orchestrated by Lyons – Ross invited me to call on him at his home. I spent the next four years – my early 20s – visiting him on a weekly basis, and continued those visits for a few more years, even though I was technically out-of-town in law school in London, ON.
Ross had no children and in me, he said, he found the vessel for keeping his magic alive. No consideration passed for the secrets he shared. He just wanted his knowledge to span another generation. As Erdnase was a cornerstone of his craft, we spent time moving through the book page-by-page – really paragraph-by-paragraph – discussing the philosophy and technique disclosed in this masterwork.
Three things came to light.
First, Erdnase was a system with each technique, as the author suggested, being more or less dependent on another one. Transitions were of particular importance. In gambler parlance, “How do you get into it and how do you get out of it?” became the perennial question.
Second, it became apparent to me that sleight-of-hand had more affinity with music than it did with acting. This last note flew in the face of conventional thinking. Since roughly the 1870s, magicians had adopted the mantra of Robert-Houdin, namely that “a magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” I had a different perspective, one heavily influenced by Ross, who had initially been a musician rather than a magician. I began to focus on the musicality of magic – playing with rhythm and flow, accents and pauses, builds and codas – rather than just the scripting and delivery of words.
The third? Well, that will remain a secret, for now.
– DAVID BEN