Chan Canasta (1920 – 1999)

Chan Canasta is one of the most influential mind readers we have seen. His relaxed personality and ability to strike a strong rapport with, and utterly amaze his audiences, led him to huge success. He called himself a psycho-magician, a perceptionist and a mentalist, but never a conjurer or magician. He has been referred to as The Amazing Canasta and A Remarkable Man – just two accolades for a performer whose brand of mind-reading has been described by magicians and lay people alike as intelligent, entertaining and baffling. Whilst he would use cards and books extensively, these were merely tools that led to what he called psychomagical experiments. Canasta had a great way of engaging and mesmerizing audiences who would simply gasp with astonishment at his feats. His popularity grew throughout the fifties by virtue of his extensive appearances on the only television channel of the time and we are fortunate to have some excellent footage of Canasta’s live performances. He was, at the time, simply sensational.

Chan Canasta was born Chananel Mifelew in Kraków, Poland on January 9, 1920. Whilst his early appearances went under the name of Chan Mifelew, he later took his name from a card game and started working as Chan Canasta. His father was a Polish-Jewish educator and most of his family perished in the Holocaust. As a 17 year old he attended Krakow University studying philosophy and the natural sciences for a year before leaving Poland for Jerusalem, where he studied psychology. When the Second World War started a year later Canasta volunteered for service in the Royal Air Force (he once said he was stage director at the RAF Repertoire Company in the Middle East). He saw action in the Western Desert, North Africa, Greece and Italy, finally becoming a British subject in 1947. Demobilised, he began seriously to study the occult, the science of extra-sensory perception and magic and would happily perform a few effects to entertain friends. Not content with simply doing sleight of hand magic, he began learning memory feats which enabled him to quickly memorise words on selected pages of books or the order of cards in shuffled decks and he incorporated these skills into his magic performances with huge success and his popularity started to grow. He had his own (some said limited) repertoire and he stuck to it and how well he did it too, astounding fellow magicians along the way. Surprisingly for a mentalist, Canasta had a disdain for all abnormal aids, dispensing of any form of deception such as sleight-of-hand, depending solely upon his uncanny power of anticipating the reactions of his audience, individually or en masse.

 

He would take incredible risks and not every effect worked. Indeed the occasional failure was actually encouraged by Canasta who believed his audiences enjoyed the suspense and reacted to the odd error as it ‘proved’ his skills were not down to magic trickery – “Failure makes the success more exciting” he would say; a fact that infuriated many magicians. This risk taking and a lack of fear of failure was to become one of Canasta’s strengths in his career. A well-educated man, Canasta also spoke several languages. His basic repertoire consisted of a variety of forces (normally classic forces), the use of a (3 Kings) stacked deck where he would force a single or stack of cards, and an incredible book test where he would ask one spectator to think of any page number (whilst he riffled through a book) and another spectator to think of a line number and a position of a word along that line, ensuing to reveal the precise word. It was a remarkable effect that work almost every time. So Canasta had ended up combining his childhood interest in magic with his study of psychology and memory feats to create what he called ‘Psychomagic’ or ‘sleight of mind’ whereby he presented what he referred to as experiments in anticipated reaction, which appeared to onlookers as pure mind reading & influence. This coined the term ‘psychological illusionist’. By calling his effects experiments, he both distanced himself from magic and also allowed for some degree of failure (“that is the nature of experiments” he would say) and most importantly he realized that the most interesting thing on stage were the people themselves and not the (method of the) effects he performed. He became a naturalized British subject and toured the world doing his act. Canasta possessed the uncanny ability of immediate photographic recall, known as eidetic memory. This enabled him instantly to state the number of vowels on a page selected at random from a book by a volunteer from the audience, or to forecast with perfect accuracy the sequence of playing cards in a suddenly shuffled deck. One of the biggest risks he took on an effect was to ask his celebrity panel to each think of a random word and with those make up a random sentence. He had already predicted what they would end up with but the effect failed completely. When asked about the high risk he simply replied “Well it might have worked!”

Around 1949, after being staggered by a performance in Amsterdam, Harry Stanley invited Canasta to work with him in London. Harry described him as an extraordinary man “he could force a card like nobody’s business, had a marvelous photographic mind and was a great psychologist”. Canasta had that performance personality that many mind readers simply fail to attain. He was able to develop a strong rapport with his audiences and people liked him; that, along side his undoubted talent and understanding of psychology made him the success he was. His brave, risky and psychological approach and his (apparent) non-concern with failing only added to his intrigue particularly as he would more often ‘hit’ when he needed to; most of his effects were very direct, clear and easily explained – three ingredients of any strong mentalism routines.

Strangely, following an expose in the People newspaper as to his methods (as they had done previously with Maurice Fogel and The Piddingtons), Canasta was invited to write articles for the same paper entitled “train your brain with Chan Canasta’ in which he described basic mnemonic systems and other stunts.

In 1951 BBC television offered Canasta his first television show that focused only on mental effects. His television series (later called) “Chan Canasta: A Remarkable Man” was presented not as magic but as a series of experiments attempting to understand unusual and mysterious powers and his low-cost, high-impact performances were ideal for television at the time – he needed virtually no props, a few armchairs and a small number of studio guests and Jon Freeman as the half-hour’s host, the budget was a low as the viewer interest was high. Although none of these suspenseful performances appear to have been preserved, the cast of celebrity guest personalities proved an ideal recipe for television magic and is used frequently today. His combination of panache, charm and intelligence made him an immediate television success. It seemed impossible that a man, even a professional mentalist, could transmit his thoughts through the television camera into the homes of a million or more viewers via their television screens – but this is what Canasta did or seemed to do. One of his most famous hoaxes included what he called his “tube-destroying machine”. He said he would use his powers of thought to switch off every television set in the country which was tuned into him. “Concentrate” he told his audience – “concentrate”. In homes across the country television screens went black with the (50’s television) trademark diminishing white light spot that eventually popped off to nothing. Forty suspenseful seconds passed before the screens leaped back to life showing a smiling, if apologetic Canasta admitting that his stunt was only a ‘leg-pull’. He then showed how one of his cameras was trained on a screen in the studio, which was suddenly switched off, then on again. The studio audience applauded but not so the angry home viewers who rang the BBC under the impression that Canasta had ruined their sets! Interestingly, according to Canasta, his first methodology for this effect (which was not allowed) was to use a masked team to invade a transmitting station, hold the staff hostage and just pull the right switch, claiming after all, the effect is everything.

In 1952, he made the transfer to the cinema screen with Butchers Film Service for a half-hour supporting short in which was billed “The Amazing Mr. Canasta”. Strangely Canasta did not speak on the film, which was narrated throughout by Donald Waldman. The film included a psychological riffle force as an interactive feature with the cinema audience. Some 50 years later the same effect opened David Blaine’s Street Magic series. He later went on to have a further TV series on BBC in 1959, with the now deroujer performing his miracles to celebrity guests the success of which lead to a report in the Daily Mail ‘The conjurers rabbit is dead – murdered by a Polish wizard with a name like a Chinese parloutr game. …He makes other conjurers look like alchemists in the presence of an atomic scientist’. Praise indeed

Canasta become an international celebrity. Throughout his career Canasta made over 350 television appearances. American television welcomed him and he appeared on such programmes as those hosted by Ed Sullivan and Jack Paar; and whilst television is notorious for its ferocious consumption of material, Canasta seemed to be able to perform the same effects over and over again and the audiences appeared prepared to watch them. As an author, Canasta produced “Chan Canasta’s Book of Oopses” in 1966, published by George G Harrap & Co. The book was an interactive book that read your mind. He shot to the top of the bill at the both London Palladium and in Las Vegas. His live performances never quite had the impact of his intimate television act. He received mixed reviews and never seemed able to replicate his success on the road.

In 1962 he retuned back to London to star in a new television series on a new station (Associated-Rediffusion). Dan Farson hosted these late night half-hour specials, which again featured celebrity guests and a small but fascinated audience. Jazz man Humph Lyttelton remarked, “This man is a phenomenon,” Farson said “Canasta has a fantastic command of psychology” Canasta would reply, “no – all I have is discombobulations!” (He was using Mark Twain’s homemade word to describe pre-telly tension). One of his favoured phrases, which demonstrated his high-risk manner when doing his psychological forces was “Whatever you decide will be”

The fact many magicians criticized Canasta for using simple methods and forces, and having a limited repertoire, clearly missed the point that performance is not about the method but the audience experience; the performer’s personality and his relationship and ability to entertain, amaze, engage and interest his audience are paramount, and Canasta knew this and was able to deliver.

He gave his last appearance on TV in 1971 as a personal favour to Michael Parkinson. By this time he was pursuing his passion as a painter, with successful selling shows in London and New York. He signed his paintings by his real name, Mifelow. But it is as a perfectionist performer that millions will remember him. He was neither a conjuror or a magician “I want to prove that nothing I do is phoney. If I sawed a woman in half I would be arrested for murder”.

He was a pioneer of mental magic, and has highly influenced many renowned mentalists of today, including Derren Brown (who writes about Canasta’s influence). Among magicians, Canasta is revered for the invention of a principle that eschewed perfection, believing that making an occasional error made his other effects stronger and more entertaining. He denied he used supernatural powers, saying that he had developed methods of psychological manipulation. It is said that Canasta enjoyed gambling whereby he could pit his knowledge and memory skills at the casino table, but his pleasure became a costly addiction. He once remarked ‘if I start to win everyone thinks I am using an unfair advantage. If I lose, everyone laughs”.

He retired from magic and continued painting. In the mid-nineties he accepted an invitation by David Berglas to visit the Magic Circle where he took part in a Q&A session with members. As David Britland quite eloquently puts it in his excellent book “[Chan] elevated magic to a higher level where it played as an intellectual game rather than the carnival entertainment it is often perceived as”

Canasta died at the age of 79, on April 22, 1999 in London.

A Remarkable Man Vol. 1 (2000): David Britland
A Remarkable Man Vol. 2 (2001): David Britland