Monday, July 03, 2006

Cardini - the Suave Deceiver

Wales has produced some quality magicians over the years - Merlin for instance and Tommy Cooper - but my favourite Welsh conjuror is Cardini, the Suave Deceiver. His act - much imitated since - was to dress up as a monocled and slightly drunk toff who to his own bafflement starts producing out of nowhere cards, billiard balls and lighted cigarettes.

Despite the monocle, top hat and tails, Richard Valentine Pitchford came from very humble beginnings. He was born into a poor family in Mumbles and had to take menial jobs as a child to help make ends meet. When the Great War came along he enlisted and it was during the horror of the trenches that he perfected his card routines. Because of the bitter cold he wore gloves which increased his manual dexterity. When an enemy bomb nearly killed him in 1916 he spent 18 months recuperating in hospital where he further honed his magic skills.

After the war he became a full-time magician, emigrating to Australia for the benefit of his health. It was here that he came up with the name Cardini. He then moved to America where he met Swan Walker who was to become his wife and glamorous stage assistant.

By now the Cardini persona was fully formed. He had decided to drop speech from the act altogether which seemed to increase the comic power of his performance. Crowds loved him - they enjoyed watching this snooty, drunken toff become more and more exasperated as he produced items from thin air. It gave people a rare opportunity to laugh at the wealthy and in many ways his act can be read as a critique of the decadent and idle rich. After the complex stagings of the Houdini era it was also refreshing to see Cardini bringing magic back to a simpler, more humanistic level.

The high point of his career was probably his stint at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. He also performed for 10 months at the London Palladium.

The Suave Deceiver retired in 1966. He died in 1973 in New York State.