Bob Hummer's COLLECTED SECRETS
INTRODUCTION by Martin Gardner
I never knew Bob Hummer well, but I did have the privilege of discussing magic with him on many occasions when we both lived in Chicago during the depression years before World War II. Although Bob had no formal training in mathematics, or in any other branch of learning, it was obvious to anyone who kept up with his published tricks that he was a genius in applying curious mathematical principles (especially even-odd principles in combinatorial number theory) to magic. Among Chicago magicians the late "senator" Clarke Crandall knew Hummer best. Although the Senator stretched things a bit in his three articles on Hummer (in The New Tops, July, August and September, 1964), they remain the classic source of information about one of the strangest, most original personalities in modern magic. I will not here repeat any of Crandall's anecdotes, but instead draw on some of my own hazy memories.
I first met Bob at an S.A.M. convention in Chicago in 1940 when I was in my mid-twenties. I had invented a simple move with two large sponge balls that Ireland Magic Company had issued as a pamphlet titled "Passe Passe Sponge Trick". In the convention's dealers' hall I stood behind a small table on which I demonstrated the move a few thousand times, pitching the manuscript for a price I cannot now recall. A seedy-looking young man, who seemed near my own age, stood and watched for a long time. His features were ruggedly good looking, but his clothes and unkempt hair suggested that he had wandered into the hotel from a section of homeless men, west of the Loop, that was Chicago's equivalent of Manhattan's bowery.
I recall chatting with the fellow about card magic, then he took from his pocket a grimy deck, held it vertically in one hand, gripping it by the lower end, the deck facing me. When he gave the deck a quick shake, the bottom card instantly changed. I was staggered by the move. Later Hummer (for it was he) showed how the change was accomplished by quickly raising the thumb to a vertical position, at the side of the deck, carrying the bottom card with it. This card was then held against the deck's side where it couldn't be seen because it projected straight backward, its former bottom edge pressed against the deck's side by the upright thumb. The move is now well known, though not often done because it is difficult to master. I do not know if Hummer invented the change or had picked it up from someone else.
Hummer was not a card expert in the sense that he knew and could do everything, but what he did he did well. One of his most effective sleights was the production of cards one at a time from two hands, with the fingers interlocked and the hands rotating so that the palms were alternately toward and away from the viewer. Hummer did not originate the move (it was Cliff Green) but he had an excellent variation on how the fingers interlocked that Dai Vernon describes in Inner Secrets of Card Magic.
Hummer always lived on the edge of total poverty. When he needed money for food he would go on "buskin" tours of dreary Chicago bars, performing close-up magic for tips as described in Crandall's articles. For a short time he worked for Paul LePaul who was then making appearances around the country in vaudeville houses. Paul always asked someone in the audience to come on stage, and although his act did not require a stooge he liked to have someone assist him who could be counted on for comic reactions. Hummer traveled for a while as LePaul's stooge, though I never actually saw him in this role.
Crandall has given a brief description of Hummer's eccentric comedy act. I had the pleasure of seeing it once, from the wings, at some obscure theatre in Chicago. My magic friend Logan Wait, from Tulsa, was in town with his wife, Dorothee, and as I remember it we took Hummer to dinner, then to the theatre, and spent several hours with him after the show. It was a silent act, filled with surprises (such as Hummer's famous whirling card). At one point in the act Bob removed the stem of a corncob pipe and did crazy thimble moves with the bowl. Most Chicago magicians thought the act had a promising future if Hummer could only be persuaded to wear decent clothes when he saw a booking agent, and to keep from insulting agents when they made suggestions about his act.
I doubt if Hummer would have worn clean clothes even if some benefactor had given him ten thousand dollars. He enjoyed the role of a professional bum, or at least pretended to, though I never saw him drink anything stronger than beer. Frank Werner of Houston (Frank had earlier played drums at the Orpheum theatre in Tulsa) marketed a dozen or so Hummer tricks and booklets in the fifties. He once told me that when he sent cash to Hummer, Bob would often return part of it with a note saying it was too much.
I have a vivid memory of visiting Bob one winter afternoon at a sleazy Chicago hotel on North Clark Street. There was no table in the tiny room, so Hummer used the bed for card tricks. The room swarmed with cockroaches. Whenever one started to crawl toward a card, Hummer, without a comment, would casually flick it off the blanket with the side of his hand.
The hangout for Chicago magicians then was Joe Berg's shop on Randolph Street. I recall Hummer making an appearance one rainy day by taking off his jacket at the doorway, dropping it on the floor, then tramping across it with wet shoes as he entered. He had other bits of comedy based on his contempt for neatness. For example, he would start to light a cigarette, and "accidently" ignite a lock of hair hanging from his head. This would be followed by frantic slapping of his forehead to put out the fire.
Hummer had an effect in which he put a deck in his hat, then the selected card would crawl out — something like Al Baker's well known card from hat. The trick required a mechanism that Hummer had taken from a cheap clock. To start the thing going, a wooden match — used as a wedge to keep wheels from turning — had to be removed. Hummer's way of doing this was typical. He would pretend to notice a match stuck under the hatband, then he would take out the match and pick his teeth with it while the card emerged.
I lost track of Hummer during the war years, when I was in the Navy, but saw him once again after the war when he was working as a farmer near Perryman, Maryland. Bill Simon arranged for Vernon and me to pay Hummer a visit. We drove in Bill's car, with plans to meet Hummer at some local tavern. Bill, Dai and I sat in a booth drinking beer for about twenty minutes and wondering why Hummer was late. It turned out that Bob was sitting at the bar a few feet away, his back toward us, watching us in the mirror and listening with amusement to what we were saying about him. None of us recognized him because he had grown a shaggy beard.
It was later that afternoon, back in our motel rooms, that Hummer explained his mathematical shell game, but without telling us the method, so what you read about it in this book is a reconstruction of what he may have done. He also showed us his Think-A-Word trick which I described in a Scientific American column reprinted as Chapter 14 of my Sixth Book of Mathematical Games. I cannot now recall when he first told me about his idea for a fortune-telling book, an idea given here for the first time.
A few years after our visit, Hummer was stricken with a mental illness, the nature of which I never learned. I have saved some undated notes from him. Hummer's practice was to go to the post office, find in a wastebasket a sheet of paper with a blank side, then scribble on it with a post-office pen. One letter is scrawled on the back of a label for a one-pound box of Surefire White Sweet Corn. For a while Hummer lived with a sister. Later he was in a mental hospital. One note begins: "Dear Martin; I walked around the block Wednesday, a week ago, for the first time in three years!! A miracle!!"
I believe that if Hummer had obtained an education in mathematics he might have become a great mathematician or physicist. Let me tell a final story to indicate why I think this. One day Hummer asked me if I realized how impossible it was to explain to someone the difference between left and right unless you could refer to some object or structure you both knew had distinct left and right forms. It was many years before I realized how profound this observation was, and how it was involved in the famous "overthrow of parity" in modern physics. Indeed, Hummer's puzzlement, which I am sure he had arrived at all by himself, is a basic theme of my book The Ambidextrous Universe.
Hummer had a marvelous mind for mathematics and magic, remarkable creative ability, and a wild sense of humor. I have heard many rumors about his parents, his sad childhood, and his even sadder life, none of which I can verify. For that reason I repeat none of them here. Maybe some day someone will dig up the facts and give us a reliable account of Hummer's colorful, discombobulated career.