A Complete Silk Act

One of the perennial topics in these parts goes something like this: “I’ve signed up for a talent show. What should I do?”

Let me make a suggestion, under the rubric “everything old is new again.”

In Jean Hugard’s Silken Sorcery (1937), the last chapter describes the Stillwell Silk Act. Here’s what Hugard says:



The production of silks from a handkerchief ball after the manner adopted by George Stillwell, who was the first magician to present a complete silk act in vaudeville, is undoubtedly the most artistic method yet devised. Mr. Stillwell issued a pamphlet explaining his routine but this has long been out of print and is now almost unobtainable. I will devote my last chapter to an explanation of the act as I saw it presented by Mr. Stillwell himself. I am told that he joined the ranks of other great magicians in the Halls of Valhalla several years ago.

Thanks to the miracle of the Internet and on-line archives, that pamphlet that Hugard called “almost unobtainable” is easily obtained by anyone who cares to look for it. This is the link: Stillwell, George. Stillwell’s Handkerchief Manipulation Act (Illustrated) Hamley Brothers, Ltd. 1902

The instruction in Stillwell’s original pamphlet is far clearer and more complete than Hugard’s synopsis, and includes notes on how to manufacture the various gimmicks and fakes needed.

If you need a fully worked-out act, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, I can think of none finer (and it isn’t one that everyone else is doing). I doubt that anyone has performed Stillwell’s routine in a century.

Here are some links to places where you can purchase some of the needed props (I have no financial stake in any of these, BTW):

Stillwell hank balls.

Silks (from Abbott’s)

Production Flag Staff

Other stuff you’ll need to look around, or go all arts-and-crafts.

Here is how Hugard ended his chapter on the Stillwell Handkerchief Manipulation Act:

Stillwell’s act was successful, partly on account of its novelty, but mainly because he had woven the necessary moves for getting possession of the loads and disposing of the balls, etc., into a routine of natural movements.

That says it all.

Alternate History

In which I come up with an idea for a novel.

Here’s how to write an alternate history (or one way, anyway — no matter what you do, if it works for you, it’s right).

First, find one point of divergence. Then, follow logically from that point. Add characters, dialog, and a satisfying conclusion, and there you are. Easy!

Here’s what I’m proposing. Rather than Lincoln winning the Presidential Election in 1860, Stephen A. “The Little Giant” Douglas wins it (after all, Douglas had beaten Lincoln two years earlier in a race for the US Senate in Illinois). There’s our what-if point of departure.

So, the South doesn’t secede from the Union.

But, just as in our timeline, Douglas dies unexpectedly, at age 48, in 1861. He’s replaced by his vice president, Herschel Vespasian Johnson, former Governor of Georgia, slave owner and proponent of slavery. (Johnson had been on the ticket to provide balance with Douglas, a sorta-kinda anti-slavery northerner.) New-made President Johnson immediately moves to make slavery legal in all 33 states and the ten territories. This stirs up passion in the North with wild talk about seceding from the United States, with at last seventeen northern states forming a Confederacy, while eleven southern states, plus five border states, remain in the Union. Matters come to a head when the Confederacy shells Fort Winthrop in Boston Harbor and after that, the War Between the States is on.

There’s action, adventure, unexpected reverses, true love, brother fighting against brother … and around four hundred pages later a surprising and satisfying conclusion. The end.

Still to be worked out, whether the capitol of the Confederate States of America should be Boston, New York, or Philadelphia. Perhaps that’s a sub-plot. The capitol of the United States remains Washington, D.C. Whether the UK will side with the Union or the Confederacy might be another sub-plot, allowing me to set some scenes in London, England. If I were going to start the novel in media res (as is my wont) it might be with CSS Monitor getting underway from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in a desperate attempt to break the Union blockade. And that’s how I’d write this book. Around forty chapters. At a chapter a week, I could have it done by year’s end (if I didn’t have a couple of contracted novels ahead of it in the queue).


What shall I say about the SRA (Science Research Associates) reading program? They’re pretty darned proud of themselves. (Note: this post comes from the discussion here.)

When I was young I went to St. Patrick’s Parochial School in Bedford, New York, where our teachers belonged to the Sisters of Charity. I’m sure they did something right; three different science fiction authors came out of St. Paddy’s: James Patrick Kelly (two years ahead of me, in my sister’s class), Elizabeth Hand (two years behind me, in my brother’s class), and me. But I’m not going to talk right now about things they did right: I’m going to talk about the SRA Reading Laboratory.

The SRA Reading Laboratory consists of boxes containing smaller boxes, each of those smaller boxes containing little four-fold cardboard things with stories on them, and study questions at the end. They’re in a rainbow selection of color-coded cards, one box of boxes of these cards per year. And here’s how the nuns used ’em:

Every year, the boys would be started in the bottom box, while the girls would be started half-way up the spectrum. The stories in the bottom box were as stupid as drool (not that the selections in the top color box were much better — I cheated and looked at them) but they took time to read, and it took time to answer the “study questions” and you couldn’t move to the next color ’til you’d done every friggin’ card in the color box you were in. So you fought your way through the colors, box by box, until… the end of the school year. And the next year, no matter how high you’d gotten in their rainbow of boxes, the boys were started in that grade’s bottom box, while the girls were started half-way up.

Among the study questions at the end of each card they always asked, “What new words did you learn?” I eventually started writing, for that question, every time, “When I learn a new word I’ll be certain to let you know.”

All of this took time. Working through stupid to boring to dull. It was like marching through quicksand. Soul quenching.

Mind you, I liked reading. I loved reading. Reading was what I did. Reading is still what I do every day. But, because I was a boy, every year, right to the bottom and try to work my way out.

So that was me and SRA. I came to dread Reading Time and hate answering the Study Questions.  Perhaps this all helped when it came time to do the SAT and GRE (double 800s, thank you very much) but at the time it was soul-deadening.

As long as I’m complaining about elementary-level reading… in one of the grades we had this chart where we entered the books we’d read.  So one day I put in “Poltergeists” (which I’d gotten from the adult floor of the White Plains Public Library (even though I was still in elementary school I’d gotten reading and borrowing privileges in the adult section)).  This was a serious work, with footnotes and bibliography, several hundred pages long, discussing the history of poltergeists (known in every culture around the world, from antiquity to the present day) their possible causes, sources and analogs, correlations, quotes from noted authorities, graphs, all that good stuff.  Even a chapter titled “Spurious Poltergeists.”  I’d classify it as anthropology/psychology.

So anyway, I marked this down on the chart and identified it as Nonfiction.  Sister asked, “What are ‘poltergeists’?” and I replied, “Noisy ghosts.” 

“Ghosts,” she said, “are fiction,” and changed my designation from non-fiction to fiction.

That was the last time I put anything on that chart.  I continued reading, of course, but I didn’t mark anything down.  Meanwhile J**** T****** was putting down dozens of books; I doubt if any of hers were over ninety pages, and most of them around forty-five.  But she got the gold star.

And that was me and reading in elementary school.


Newberry Consort Happy Hour

Join the Newberry Consort for a Zoom Happy Hour this Friday, February 5th, at 5:00 pm CST and hoist your favorite libation in celebration of their Juan de Lienas Vespers CD release! They will visit with artists from the album, have fun quizzes, and give away free CDs.

Feeling festive? Make their Sister Mary Margarita (Makes four servings). Mix 8 ounces tequila (preferably reposado), 3 cups ruby red grapefruit juice, and 4 teaspoons fresh lime, and serve in a salted rim glass Pair it up with quesadillas of your choice!

They would love to see you all there – let’s have some fun!

Click on the Margarita to register!

Sister Mary Margarita

Maine RenFaire

Maine Renaissance Faire

Looking for something to do this summer?  By July we should be well into the After Times, so — look for the Before Times with the Maine Renaissance Faire. Four days:  July 17, 18, 24, and 25.

This is a lot of fun, great performances, interesting food, and a wonderful site.  One of the performers will be me, doing magic both on stage and wandering.  The location is 550 ME-109, Acton, ME 04001.

  • (207) 850-1162
  • info@themainerenfaire.com
  • 10:00 am – 5:00 pm (parking opens at 9:00 am)


Also (and you read it here first), there is a special this month. When you order tickets in advance use code – LOVEMERF21 at the checkout and receive $5.00 off any two Adult single day tickets, Adult Weekend Passes or Adult VIP Passes. This sale is good through Feb 28, 2021.

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