My Grandmother and Charlie Miller. Two of a kind?

I wasn’t one of those kids that started doing magic tricks as soon as I could hold a deck of cards.  I had a rather strange introduction to the art of sleight of hand.  My Grandmother was my first teacher in handling a deck of cards. However she didn’t teach me magic, she taught me but how to cheat at cards.

In her little ground floor apartment in a suburb of London, we would play the simple card games all children enjoy. She showed me how to look at the bottom card and deal it when it was most useful.  She taught me how to ‘lose’ an ace during a shuffle and ‘find’ it during the next game.  To me these were simple maneuvers that were easy and fun, I was a good student, and it gave her enormous pleasure to watch me as I progressed in this dubious art.

She was quite a piece of work, my Granny, unusual by any standards, and stranger than I realized as a child.  She had walked a fine line all her life, if the expression ‘pushing the envelope’ had existed during her lifetime then that is what her more generous contemporaries would have used to describe her.

By the time I knew her, she was no longer a wild red-haired young spitfire, she had developed chronic arthritis and was partially bedridden.  Her confinement to bed seemed to end in the late afternoon, when after several pints of cider and a drop or two of scotch she faced the day. Or to be more accurate started the night.  After she finished dressing she summoned a taxicab to take her to “The Angel” her local pub.

Granny remained at the pub until ‘last order’ was called at 10:30PM.  The taxi was then re-summoned to transport her to her Bridge Club in the West End of London.  This was when her day began in earnest, and she played bridge until three in the morning. This was high pressure, high stakes bridge with some of the best gamblers in the city.

For many years whenever the movie actor Omah Sharif was in London filming she was his only bridge partner.  Sharif is more famous for his acting but is considered by those ‘in the know’ to be one of the most astute gamblers in the world.

Looking back, I think that eating chestnuts smothered in butter and cheating at cards with Grandma were the roots of my magical life.  I don’t believe she was a cardsharp herself, however, she certainly knew how and what to do and she seemed to feel a need to share it with someone.

‘When you have knowledge then you must share it’ is a rule of the Universe.   Maybe that is really what life is all about and your little piece of the hologram contains the entire big picture for someone else.

The only person I’ve really met who might have been card sharp, I think, was an elderly gentleman named Charlie. We met in the ’70s at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. I always have regretted how little I really knew him.

In his later years, Charlie was known as ‘Twinketoes Miller’ due to his light-footed prowess on the dance floors of the cruise ships he performed on. Charlie was a superb comedy magician who could produce a brimming mug of beer under your nose and entertain royally with his unique renditions of the great old classics of magic.

Charlie performed some tricks that were so old they were practically new again, many youngsters in magic including myself had never even seen the “Rice Bowls” or the “Mutilated Parasol” let alone performed them.  Charlie did them with grace and twinkle in his eye that made them irresistible. I could have watched him for hours, and I did, as he graced the stage of the “Magic Castle” with the charm of slightly rogue uncle.

A magical legend in his own time, Charlie was a big man, larger than life, with a waistline to match. After Charlie suffered a heart attack his doctor gave him an ultimatum, lose weight or suffer the consequences!  I think it was probably a tough decision for Charlie, who loved his food almost as much as he loved magic.  This is where I got to know him a little better.

As a callow young magician in his early twenties, I realized how close I was to allowing another of Magic’s greats disappear while I was only on a nod and smile basis with them.  Heck, I wasn’t totally sure Charlie actually knew my name!  So I plucked up my courage during Charlie’s recuperation and asked him if I could assist him in any way.  Charlie asked me if I had a car, when I said I did, we were off and running.

Charlie said he wanted to go to a favorite restaurant about five miles from his home and have lunch.  He wanted me there not so much for the transportation or the company but to help keep him on his diet.  I was ecstatic a luncheon date with Charlie was a serious step up in the magic world for me.  I arrived at the appointed time and there he was waiting on the curbside, dressed up in clothing that would have been suitable for weather that was twenty or thirty degrees colder.

We drove along Highland Avenue to a restaurant, which looked as if it had been frozen in time since Hollywood’s long gone golden era.  The staff greeted Charlie with the excitement and respect that Jerry Lewis must receive when he walks into a cinema in Paris.  We were ushered into a dark booth at the rear of the restaurant and menus were brought to the table.

Charlie peered at the menu and ordered a very healthy meal.  He ordered something from every part of the menu: soup, salad, pasta, and steak with a baked potato.  He then looked at me and asked if I thought he could add a desert to the list.  I said that I thought that would be just fine.  I realized that was what he wanted to hear, so I went right ahead and said it!  I figured that this was the reason I was there in the first place.

After washing down the meal with a couple of cups of coffee, Charlie leaned back in his chair and said; “This dieting thing isn’t too bad at all.  That was a good meal!”  He called over the waiter and I assumed he was going to ask for the check.  However, this was far from being his intention.  “That was good,” he said.  “Bring me the same again.”

That was exactly what happened.  The waiter brought the exact same meal from soup to coffee and Charlie ate it again with obvious relish!  Having found a healthy meal to his liking he was going to stick with it.  While more than a little surprised, I was along for the ride, and the second time around I took the opportunity to ask him a question or two about our mutual craft.

I can’t say Charlie said anything that I found too earth-shattering at the time, but in years to come, I realized just how profound his thoughts were in spite of their simplicity.  The secret to magic according to Charlie was to choose strong tricks.  Do not be afraid to perform the classics. Know everything you are going to do and do it well.  Most important of all was to make sure people knew you were having fun doing it.

We repeated our luncheon ritual once more a few weeks later.  It was identical, not only the double meal ritual but he also ordered and ate the exact same food.  I would have happily repeated the proceedings on a regular basis, but before I knew it Charlie Miller’s recuperation was complete and “Twinkleltoes Miller” was back on a cruise tripping the light fantastic.

It was a pleasure to have spent some hours with this very special gentleman and I treasured our all too few hours together. I was delighted to realize I must have made some impact on him because in the future when we met at the “Castle” he always greeted me with a cheery;  “Hi, Nick.”  That was the kind of thing that made you feel like a million bucks when it happened.

There was just one thing that I couldn’t quite fully understand about Charlie. When observing him in his daily activities he had the slightly nervous and bumbling manner that suggested someone who, if not past his prime, at the very least must be having a bad day or possibly wearing the wrong spectacles.

In all honesty for a man his age, this should not have been any great surprise.  What didn’t quite jibe with this was the fact that amongst the upper echelon of sleight of hand magicians, Charlie was considered to be one of the very finest card manipulators living.  He was reputed to perform the smoothest second, middle and bottom deals in the business.  In spite of the fact that when you saw him handle playing cards he usually looked more likely to drop the deck than perform miracles with it.

After he had passed on, I gradually pieced together a different picture of Charlie.  It didn’t arrive all at once but bit by bit from people who just might know. The word was that Charlie knew a lot about gambling and gamblers. Different people said different things. A month ago I read Karl Johnson’s fabulous book ‘The Magician and the Cardsharp.’ While not the focus of the story Charlie Miller was a fascinating part of the storyline and a lot of my questions were nearly answered. If you haven’t read Johnson’s book you should, as it is great reading and a real page-turner.

It was an honor meeting Charlie Miller and I was just proud he knew my name.  However as I had sat with him, watching him eat his marathon meals, I knew that he reminded me of someone.  Only later on did I place the resemblance, it was my grandmother.  They had the same slightly abstracted manner and bumbling quality that seemed out of place with their obviously razor-sharp minds.

Now as I told you before, I don’t think my grandma was a card cheat.  And only once or twice a year does it run through my mind that Charlie was anything more than he appeared, but I sure would have loved to watch them playing as bridge partners.  Maybe I would have known for sure.  Maybe.

~ by Nick Lewin on December 12, 2009.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: