Sunday, October 22, 2017

Cards by Martin

Meandering through the “M’s” in my scaling card collection, I came upon two colorful examples produced by a master magic card maker identified as Neil Lester. I knew I had to find out more about this gentleman and so, I did. 

The front of one features “Martin the Magician” while the other promotes his “Cards By Martin” business. The reverse of these cards incorporate four different back designs – two U.S. Playing Card and two Tallyho. The upper left corner shows the Red Rider back while the upper right shows the New Fan. The lower left features the Tallyho Fan back while next to it is the Tallyho Circle back. 

Checking on the Internet revealed that Lester had died at the age of 79 on September 16, 2009 at his home in Lancaster, California. He was a retired U.S. Army/Air Force Korean War veteran who had been fascinated by magic since the age of nine or ten. He even performed magic and hypnotism in the service and he told one friend this interesting story. In the early 1960’s he was stationed in the Korean Demilitarized Zone and was performing magic inside the canteen. During the performance his C.O. busted into the place and ordered everyone to report immediately to the 38th Parallel. Everyone rushed out and later, he and two friends turned up at the checkpoint but were held there because they had arrived fully armed but still wearing their dress tuxedos. Eventually they were cleared to proceed and, we must assume, allowed to get back into uniform.

Neil Lester splitting cards

After he retired from the service he opened the Cactus Rabbit Magic shop at 509 West Avenue in Lancaster, which he ran until 1981. He opened another shop at 24261 San Fernando Rd. in Newhall, California where Jack Hurlbut (1928-1982) served as manager. Hurlbut billed himself as the “World’s Greatest Magic Fan.” He was totally devoted to magic and eventually served as the host, manager and performer at the Magic Castle. 

Lester’s forte was creating customized gaffed playing cards for professional magicians. According to his son Curtis Martin, his dad always said, “There are three parts of a playing card – the front, the back and the core and I can use each of them.” Lester took standard cards, split them apart, inserted shims and gimmicks, trimmed them, cut them and even printed up special orders.

One trick that he designed was called “Slippery Spots.” In this effect the magician forces the five of clubs on the spectator. Losing it in the deck and shuffling the cards, the magician slams the end of the deck on the table. Looking through the deck the five of clubs is found but all the pips have slipped to the bottom of the card. Shuffling the cards again, the magician now slams the side of the deck on the table. Looking through the pack the pips on the five of clubs are found to have all congregated on one side of the card. 

Lester was good friends with all the top card men including Dai Vernon. Lester frequented The Magic Castle and while there, hung out with Vernon and also sold gaffed cards and decks from his briefcase.

When Lester was first starting his custom crafted cards he was searching around for a name and Vernon suggested “Cards by Martin.” Lester liked it and that’s what the business was named.

In March 1978, Vernon wrote of Martin in his “The Vernon Touch” column in Genii:

Some of the cleverest tricks in card magic, as far as effect is concerned, are being brought to life by one of the Castle member s under the name of "Cards by MARTIN." He manufacturers absolutely beautiful trick cards including a Marlo effect (I think it's Marlo's) wherein a poker hand (say four aces and an odd card) visibly changes into a Royal Flush. I only wish my friend Arthur Finley were alive to see the beautiful cards that "Martin" manufacturers. He makes all the trick cards used in Bro. Hamman effects, or the Deland tricks, etc., out of ordinary cards. I understand that these are made to order and that you have to prove you bought the trick originally. "Martin" is an expert at ''splitting a card". It is quite remarkable to see him do this, especially if you have ever struggled over the task of splitting a card for a certain trick. 

Lester used to work at Phil Thomas’ Yogi Magic Mart in Baltimore many years ago. According to Lester’s son, Curtis Martin, his father was working on a book about his cards and card magic with a close friend. Apparently the book was done except for taking photographs. Lester never seemed to get around to doing it but perhaps it will happen in the future. Among the tributes on The Magic CafĂ© were these messages:

“Neil Lester was a class act and so very helpful to anyone who asked. In addition, a great loss to the magic community.”

“The magic world has lost an important and wonderful person.”

“…a wonderful person to deal with…thank you Neil…you will be missed.”

“He always got me what I needed and always so helpful. Another great one gone…he will be sorely missed.”

“We’ve lost an irreplaceable friend to magic.”

Lester was a member of the Magic Castle from its earliest days and recognized as a master craftsman by all of the insiders of magic as well as enthusiasts worldwide. I am pleased to have examples of his cards in my collection and pleased, as well, to share it with other enthusiasts.

Tom Ewing

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