The Thumb Tie

Anna and I had witnessed a performance by an American female magician and during the performance she had performed a trick called The Thumb Tie, it was a truly awful performance lasting about 15 minutes too long and boring because of its repetitiveness. However, I was convinced the basic concept would make a great street routine but Anna was not convinced.

The basic concept of the routine is very simple, the performer gets their thumbs tied together, two hoops are passed out to be examined then thrown back to the performer one at a time. The hoops are caught and flicked up the arm of the performer. At the end of this initial process the thumbs are still tied and the hoops are hanging from the performer's arm. After this the tied thumbs can be made to look as if they are passing through anything the performer wishes. I remember seeing some very old footage of an old magician (wish I could remember his name) doing the thumb tie on stage in a theatre and at one point he threw himself across the stage at the leg of a piano and was linked to the piano - it was one of the most bizarre thumb tie sequences I have seen and also one of the funniest.

I remembered reading a method for achieving the trick in a book I had, "Dai Vernon Magic" - one of the most practical magic books ever written. The method was very practical but I am the sort of person who likes to explore every avenue before deciding so off I went to Davenport's Magic Shop opposite The British Museum and I scoured their book catalogue looking for anything relevant. Luckily I found enough to start with and went home to study. There were thumb ties that used pipe cleaners, strips of fabric sewn together and even one that used a false thumb, none of these fitted the criteria and I went back to the Dai Vernon method.

The Vernon method called for twine covered in masking tape to make a semi-rigid string and I decided that it was possible to buy these items wherever In the world I would be performing (ultimately this thinking had to be changed and a new method had to be devised).

Anna refused to have anything to do with helping out, this was unlike her but she had been so bored when she saw her first thumb tie routine and she couldn't forget that feeling. I had to tie one end to a chair back and use my teeth on the other end of the string to tighten the knots on my thumbs then I would practise the "secret" move and with some carefully placed mirrors I checked the movements from all angles. Performing angles are so important on the street, if you can't find something to back up against you will be surrounded so it is best to think about this when deciding on a new routine.

I decided I would get two assistants out to help and for practising I had two chairs with the hoops taped upright at right angles to the top of the chair and I would walk towards the chairs talking and getting ready for the move, the hoops would wobble and I would push the chair over while Anna laughed. However, I was convinced there was potential and it just needed to be in front of a crowd.

When I felt I was proficient in the moves involved I took it onto the street to try it out. My timing was awful but it did get a gasp from the crowd when the first hoop appeared to go through the tied thumbs. It wasn't really a routine and I had told the crowd I had never tired this before, I found that honesty worked every time and crowds were more likely to not judge the whole performance on one dodgy routine. One thing that was a bit concerning about The Thumb Tie was the quietness of the audience for a few minutes after the initial hoop had appeared up my arm. They were trying to work out what had happened and by the time they caught up with me they were astonished and puzzled then after that the only release for them was laughter. Everything considered I was very excited by the reaction and I knew this would be a winner.

As it turned out the Thumb Tie was instrumental in getting me my first live TV appearance and countless other TV appearances around the world but it also brought me a lot of criticism from magicians around the world.

The Thumb Tie is very visual and the comedy comes from the facial expressions of the spectators. My routine was paced so that I was an incidental character just helping the routine along, the real stars were the spectators and it was structured so that attention was on them at critical points. This allowed me freedom to do the "secret stuff" on the off-beat when all heat was off me.

The one drawback with The Thumb Tie has always been that it has no ending; it is just a series of linkings under ever more ludicrous conditions. My own routine was long enough to be puzzling but short enough to be entertaining and the ending I eventually decided upon seemed to annoy magicians. I would get an assistant to check the thumbs were tied then ask "without untying my thumbs, what is the only way to release me?" this question confused them and in the confusion I would release myself from the tying then calmly take a pair of scissors from pocket, hand the scissors to the spectator and get my thumb back into the tied position. As I handed the scissors over I would say "with the scissors, of course" and invariably the assistant would start to cut through the tying before they realised what had happened but the reaction from the audience was as if they were in on a shared joke with me. You cannot imagine the laughter when it dawned on the assistant what had happened and his face with the mixture of confusion and laughter was a joy to behold.

Unfortunately magicians thought I was giving away the secret and they were very unforgiving. But I bet a lot of them now use it.

The Dai Vernon method worked well until I got my first TV appearance and I had to cut the tying time down, I was lucky and got away with it.

The next problem arose when I was in a Vietnamese refugee camp in Hong Kong; this camp was in the New Territories area and a long drive from any major shops. I had accidentally left the carefully prepared "strings" behind at the Fringe Club on Hong Kong Island and if I wanted to do the routine I had to improvise. The method I came up with was an adaptation of a thing called The Kellar Wrist Tie (which I had used in the past) and was designed, as the title implies, for tying the performers wrists together. I played around with it and decided it was possible and I could do it with a length of soft rope, luckily I had a trick that used three lengths of rope that I would always carry but never seemed to perform. Armed with my new method I boldly stepped out to perform and I learnt a very valuable lesson. The humidity was high and as a consequence the rope was damp. This had the effect of making the rope solid and unresponsive; I had to work very hard to get my thumb out. Normally cotton rope can create a lot of slack but this time there was no slack, on the initial tying when the first knot was pulled tight it broke the skin in a ring around my left thumb and it bled for the rest of the routine.

I was, however, pleased with the method of tying and developed it over a period of time.

This new method would drive magicians crazy because they couldn't work out what I was doing or when it happened. One of my heroes was in a crowd I had one time in Covent Garden Market, it was Harry Blackstone Jnr who was in town for a TV show he was appearing on. Harry Blackstone Snr was a very famous magician and one of his signature routines involved The Kellar Wrist Tie, this routine was passed down to his son. One of the reasons I never pursued the wrist tie was because the Harry Blackstone Jnr routine was as near perfect as you can get and I was in danger of using part or all of it because I just couldn't improve on it. After my performance Mr Blackstone hung around to have a chat and he asked me what method I was using because he had no idea what I was up to, he said, and I quote, "it was the slickest method I have ever come across". He was genuinely shocked when I showed him and he realised it was a mini version of what he does every night after night.

Mr Blackstone told me the story of his father's first public performance of the Wrist Tie. He had bought the rights to use it from Kellar himself and was told to be careful as it could be dangerous but he obviously didn't think it through. The first knot is tied on top of your left wrist with your arms in front of you then you place your arms behind you back as you turn your back to the audience and the second knot is tied. During the turning process the first knot ends up being against your body and Blackstone Snr asked his assistants to check the knots. They could see the second one but the first knot was hidden and one of the assistants lifted the arms up and away from the body - it dislocated his shoulder and he never got to finish the performance. He learnt from this mistake and went on to make the routine his own. I felt very privileged to have heard that story from a magician I had always admired so much.

The Thumb Tie, as you can see, has a lot of advantages over the Wrist Tie because of the fact that the action takes place in front of you and to a large extent you are in control of the situation. The Harry Blackstone story should have taught me to be careful how I worded instructions but I got into trouble a few times. The first knot has to be very tight because it is an anchor for whole routine and if it moves will not be a very successful routine so I always asked for it be pulled tight. With my outstretched hands held at shoulder level I would tie a simple loose knot so everyone could see it then I would put my left thumb into the knot and instruct the two assistants to take an end each and pull very tight. I would stop them and look as it was hurting then I would say "when I say tight…(pause for laughter), I mean really tight - go on hurt me" on a couple of occasions the guy on my left turned in towards me and kneed me in a very delicate area. What could I say?, I had asked for it -my response was to sound choked (there wasn't much acting) as I "said every job has its perks".

Another time I made a mistake with one of the assistants I got out to help; when the guy came out it was obvious that he was very nervous but everything seemed to be OK until near the end. When I asked him to cut the rope his hands were trembling so much he couldn't get enough power into his hands to cut all the way through the rope, so to compensate he really pushed hard on his second attempt and the point of the scissors went into my left hand. It had punctured the mound of flesh beneath the thumb and the blood started to flow; I took one look at his face and decided to ignore it and carry on with the act. The next routine was my strait-jacket escape and when I got into the jacket I could feel the blood running up my arm. During the escape I could see the blood coming through the canvas and when I eventually escaped and pulled the jacket off my arm was covered in blood. Of course, I milked this as much as I could and made fun of situation but the poor assistant fled as soon as he could. I still have the scar.

I remember a performance in a Comedy Festival that was being held in the beautiful city of Den Haag in Holland. My performance area was in a small room in the theatre complex, there were large French Windows that open to cool the room down it being summer time and the room being packed for every performance I gave. With the heat from the building and the heat generated by the audience it was extremely humid and the rope became damp very quickly so I had to rely on some techniques I had developed over the years to combat conditions like this. In the audience one night there was a performer who went by the colourful name of Big Pig, he spoke to me afterwards about the Thumb Tie and asked lots of questions about the method I was using. But what impressed him most was the sound effects I used during the tying, at the point where I have asked the assistants to "hurt me" they were pulling very hard and because of the dampness in the rope it was creaking with the strain as the knot was pulled tighter. I, of course, answered that it was activated from my heels touching together.

I think The Thumb Tie is one the greatest ever street routines a magician can do.

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