“Joe Karson – Beyond Zombie” by Michael E. Rose (a sampling)

Karson's World's Fastest Card Trick
Karson’s World’s Fastest Card Trick

This is a photo of Joe Karson performing his second most famous trick, The World’s Fastest Card Trick.  This trick, honed to perfection by Karson, was published as a booklet and sold to the magic community.  The performance of this trick was the epitome of Karson’s comedic talent.  Other than “Zombie,” this booklet, or a performance of the trick, is often the only other thing remembered about Joe Karson.  When this book was published in 1948, Karson was riding the crest of his wave of popularity.  The World’s Fastest Card Trick was often a show stopper when Karson performed it at various magic conventions and shows.

Karson released the entire work on this trick.  He gave the reader the presentation, the method (what little there was), the patter, and most importantly, the timing.  This was truly designed as a personality piece.  Not much magic happened at all, just a simple card change.  However, in Karson’s hands, this trick literally got screams of laughter when he performed it in his act.

The book was only ten pages, and with the exception of the cover art, had no illustrations.  Karson printed and sold a lot of these little books, primarily because so many magicians had seen him perform the trick so effectively.  Although over fifty years old, copies of the book are not that difficult to find (often autographed).  This book should be studied by every magician with comedic aspirations.

Karson's First Retail Location
Karson’s First Retail Magic Shop Location

In addition to having his mail order magic business, “Karson Xclusives,” Joe Karson also had a retail magic shop in Springfield, Massachusetts.  Over the years, Karson had two locations for his magic shop.  Here is a photo of his first location, which he occupied from 1940 to 1943.  The shop is located on the extreme left end of the photo, under the “Coca-Cola” sign.  This is the location where Massachusetts native (and magic legend), Jay Marshall, worked for Karson.  This photo was taken circa 1940, and, unfortunately, the building is no longer standing (it is now just a landscaped hill).  What appears to be a tower sticking up out of the left end of the building is actually part of the railroad bridge that the building was butting up against.  The railroad bridge still stands and is in use today.

Karson's Second Retail Magic Shop Location
Karson’s Second Retail Magic Shop Location

Here’s a modern day photo of the building where Karson had his second retail magic shop.  His shop took up the fifth (top) floor of the building.  This was a much more spacious location, and Karson had several rooms.  In the rooms, Karson had his wood shop, storage, office, sales counter, and even a spraying booth.  Karson was at this location from 1944 to 1955.  This was also the last location that Karson had a magic shop.  After 1955, Karson closed his retail location, and only sold magic through mail order and wholesale to other magic dealers.

In 1949, master magic craftsman, Nick Ruggiero worked for Karson at this location.  One of Ruggiero’s duties was to complete the final assembly work on the “Zombies.”  This included, polishing the “Zombie” balls and assembling the gimmicks.  Ruggiero only worked for Karson for about a year, leaving to go to work as an assistant for Blackstone Sr. (Ruggiero got his job with Blackstone the magician through a referral from Karson).

Karson Performing His Chinese Magic Act
Karson Performing His Chinese Magic Act

Joe Karson started out his performing career often doing a Chinese theme act.  Although by the early 1940’s he was primarily performing a modern comedy magic act, sans the Chinese costume and make-up, he would occasionally resurrect his old Chinese magic act. This photo is an action shot (snapped by an audience member) of Joe and his second wife, Anne, presenting the Chinese magic act at the Abbott’s Magic Get-Together in 1948 (In their Chinese magic act, Joe used the stage name “Chan Lin” and Anne went by “Ahn Nee” [Annie]).

Mr. & Mrs. Karson
Mr. & Mrs. Karson

A professional studio publicity photograph of Mr. & Mrs. Karson shot by Bruno of Hollywood.  Quite a difference from the Chinese costumed act!

Karson's Voodoo Cabinet
Karson’s Voodoo Cabinet

One of Karson’s more unique and rare magic inventions was his “Voodoo.”  It was a self-contained (that’s right, no assistants of any kind!) Dancing Handkerchief routine.  The effect sold in 1949 for $150 (which would be the equivalent of about $1400 by today’s inflationary standards) and was a masterpiece of ingenuity.  The cabinet was beautifully made of mahogany and this modern day photo shows one of the cabinets, still in perfect condition.  The other photo shows magician, Frank Clinton (a full time professional magician and a personal friend of Karson), performing “Voodoo.”  The cabinet shown here was the one owned by Clinton.

Frank Clinton Performing Karson's Voodoo
Frank Clinton Performing Karson’s Voodoo

In effect, a handkerchief would be borrowed and a knot tied in one corner (see photo).  The handkerchief would be stood on the stage, and when the magician let go, it would remain standing.  Then, at the magician’s command, the handkerchief would dance around, jump into the cabinet, dance about inside the cabinet, and jump back out.  The magician could even leave the stage while the handkerchief continued to dance on its own.  A classic effect, but never before had it been one that could be performed by the magician alone.

Candid Photo of Karson and Friends
Candid Photo of Karson and Friends

Here is a great candid photo.  This photo was taken circa 1945 possibly at a magic convention.  The man on the far right is magician Bill Neff.  Next to Neff is Anne Karson.  Next to Anne is famed lady magician, Dell O’Dell and next to her is Joe.  I don’t know who the four people on the left side of the photo are, but if anyone out there in cyberspace knows, please e-mail me and solve this mystery.   This is a great photo!  Notice how everyone is smiling at the camera except for Karson and Neff.  Karson is probably making a witty comment to Neff catching him off guard as the photo was snapped.  Karson seems apparently unconcerned about the photographer trying to get his picture.

 Copyright Michael E. Rose