A Walk In Soho With Ken Brooke

Soho is a lively, seedy, fascinating little urban island in the center of London. Every street is awash in pubs, clubs, coffee houses, and striptease joints. In the late 60’s you would often see undesirable looking characters ‘tossing the lady’ on top of upturned orange crates: tossing the lady is just one of many names for this particular street hustle.

Last year on the streets of Stockholm, I watched it played with three matchboxes. No matter which variation is used the results are the same; the money passes into the hands of the operators and stays there.

When I took the fifteen-minute walk from Piccadilly Circus to ‘Ken Brooke’s Magic Place’, for my next magic lesson, I always enjoyed the intoxicating sights, smells and sounds of this exotic area. While cutting through the Berwick Street market, I would often stop and watch the three-card tricksters ply their trade, I was never tempted to gamble because any money I did have was earmarked for that special magic prop that was going to throw my act into overdrive. Forty years later, I am still looking for that prop!

One day while I was visiting Ken, we made a trip to the street market to buy the assorted fruit that would later that night find their way under the cups in the ‘cups and balls’ routine he would be performing.  Noticing my fascination with a three-card trickster at work, Ken took the time to teach me the real secrets of the hustle. We bought two cardboard cups filled with hot sweet tea and he said; “The first way to spot what’s going on is to not be so close to it that you can’t see anything.”  What wisdom lies in that concept!

We walked to the back of the crowd and Ken pointed out the two lookouts that were standing at a discrete distance from the action. They were watching for any policemen or other unwelcome additions to the scene. Then he enlightened me about the rest of the ‘crew’. There were the phony punters who seemed to be winning wads of money at the game and the friendly passerby who encouraged the mark to make his bet. He often pointed out helpful hints such as, “Look, the corner of the card is bent!” At first glance, it looked as though he mark was gambling against just one man however that was about six people short of the truth. This was a whole group of people all working together to separate just one rube from his cash.  It was like the Anneman theory of the acceptability of using an entire room full of stooges to astound one genuine spectator.

We stayed there a while and watched the Swiss watch precision of the set-up; you wouldn’t think it would work but it did, time after time. Never underestimate people’s greed and their desire to beat the odds. While walking back to Ken’s magic studio I asked him about what magic I was going to learn that day. “You should already have learned it, son.” Said Ken. “The reason those blokes make money and most magicians don’t is because they’re well-rehearsed, and they know exactly what to do to get the job done.”

I pretended to understand but didn’t really. It didn’t really sink in until a few years later when I was, as Ken would say, starting to make a little brass.

It was fun hanging out in the magic studio with Ken where you could enjoy the company of a steady stream of visiting magicians. One of the true joys was in watching the way Ken would sell his product to his clientele. When it came to relieving strangers of their cash he could give the three-card trick merchants a run for their money.

Ken would build up a crowd in the studio and then pitch magic just like the street vendors who sold ‘genuine’ brand name perfume from a suitcase on Oxford Street. The suitcase helped keep these hustlers one-step ahead of the law. While pitching their perfumes these street merchants would imply that the goods had ‘dropped off the back of a truck’. This was much better for business than letting the punter realize that they were nicely packaged counterfeits that smelt like exactly what they were: water mixed with alcohol and a little coloring.

Ken Brooke never had to worry about the quality of what he sold: the magic he sold was always of the finest quality. This didn’t stop him from pitching his goods as if he was ready to pack up his cash and props into a suitcase and disappear at the drop of a hat. This made the whole process all the more fun to watch and participate in.

One of the surefire ways that Ken would ensure a large sale was by refusing to sell a particular trick to someone.  “I’m not bloody well selling it to you!” He would say to a startled customer. “It’s too good a bloody trick to waste on you. You couldn’t do it properly you’d only bugger it up. I don’t care if you offer me a hundred quid. Buy this one it’s so simple even you can’t mess it up.”  Very often the customer would buy many other items waiting for Ken to relent. Meanwhile, every other customer would buy the ‘forbidden’ effect if for no other reason than they could.

Ken was a wonderful salesman and a true master at the art of sales. I sometimes wonder if he didn’t enjoy the act of selling magic more than just performing it. He was at his very best during a magic convention holding court at his dealers stand. It was always easy to find Ken’s stand in the dealer’s room; just look for the largest crowd. More than one dealer complained bitterly upon discovering that his stand was next to Ken’s.

Sometimes after a day in the magic studio, the inner group would get to join Ken for a ‘pint’ at his favorite pub ‘The Duke’ on Berwick Street. On rare occasions, this favored group might even be treated to a glimpse of the inner clown that lived within Ken’s everyday persona. Unsuspected by many was the fact that Ken was an avid practical joker. It was his seemingly serious demeanor that made him so hysterical when you watched him pull his various stunts.

The first time I was exposed to this side of Ken Brooke was when I was accompanying him on a short ride on a short tube ride on London’s underground train system. “You sit here Nicky and just watch, don’t say or do naught.” Said, Ken who then removed a hand full of loose change from his pocket and walked over to a vending machine that dispensed chocolate bars. He placed a six-penny piece into the machine and pulled open the drawer containing the candy bar. As he opened the drawer there was a clatter of cash that appeared to fly out of the drawer. With a look of surprise and a muttered, “Bloody Hell!” he bent over and picked up all the coins from the ground and put them into his pocket. He then came over and sat down next to me with a slightly guilty look on his face. “Now watch, Nicky.” He said. Sure enough, several people who had observed the incident came over to the machine and put their coins into the machine and then hopefully pulled out the drawer but were obviously disappointed when all they received was a bar of Cadbury’s milk chocolate. We sat on the bench doing our best not to erupt into giggles. Looking back maybe Ken was the real creator of ‘Street Magic.’

Ken had several other stunts he liked to perform for the amusement of himself and his companions.  One involved a roll of wallpaper that somehow managed to unroll from the top of the staircase on a red double-decker bus and created havoc with the passengers trying to avoid stepping on it and damaging it. All the while Ken would be bleating, “No, No, don’t step on it, it’s for my living room!” The sight of rush-hour passengers tip-toeing around the unraveling paper was made all the more hysterical by the look of panic on Ken’s face and his voice cracked into a near falsetto as he said, “My wife will kill me if it gets damaged!”

Yes, it was a lot of fun being entertained by Ken in his magic studio but it was even more fun sometimes when you got to go ‘Out and About’ with Mr. Brooke.

~ by Nick Lewin on February 23, 2010.

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