Conjuring Credits

The Origins of Wonder

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Split Fan Production

This method of producing fan after fan of cards from a visibly empty hand, palm toward the audience, has a tangled history that may never be entirely unraveled. At least five candidates for the invention of this sleight have been proposed. Of those, three seem credible, and one an inspiration to them.

Candidate 1: Arthur Bieber — Bi-Ber-Ti

The man who provided the inspiration for others to create the sleight is a German comedy magician and manipulator, Arthur Bieber, stage name, Bi-Ber-Ti. In the October 1960 Linking Ring, Vol. 40 No. 8, p. 36, a letter from J. R. Oliver was published, in which the author recalls that Jean Hugard mentioned a review of Bi-Ber-Ti in the Australian magic magazine, The Magic Mirror. Hugard (or Oliver) remembered that the German had performed in Australia in 1911, but the review in The Magic Mirror reports a June 8, 1912, engagement (Vol. 4, No. 6, p. 47). Oliver wrote: “In 1916 Hugard and Arthur Buckley both told me about his [Bi-Ber-Ti's] act. In his card work it is now apparent that he was the first performer Australia saw do what we now know as Split Fan Productions of cards. I remember Hugard telling me that Bi-Ber-Ti produced a number of card fans at the fingertips, but neither Hugard nor Arthur Buckley knew how the sleight was performed at the time.” In the press and trade magazines, Bi-Ber-Ti's act was consistently praised as novel, unique and funny. Judging from these notices, Bi-Ber-Ti was original, skilled and entertaining. His billiard-ball work was particularly remarked on. Bi-Ber-Ti's act, as done in England the year before Hugard saw him, is clearly described in The Magic Wand, Vol. 1 No. 7, Mar. 1911, p. 107. Two years later, at age thirty-three, Bieber ended the act and his life on a boat train preparing to depart Charing Cross Station.

However, contrary to Oliver's (or Hugard's) belief, Bi-Ber-Ti was not doing Split Fan Productions. Bi-Ber-Ti's production of fans of cards from back palm, without having to reload after each fan, was new and was the thing that puzzled Hugard and Buckley. But, as Les “The Great” Levante explained in a letter written to the “About Magicians” pages in The World's Fair, Dec. 24, 1938, p. 13, Bi-Ber-Ti threaded six to eight cards loosely together, so that when he pulled one card into view from back palm, the others in the group followed along to form a fan. In trying to duplicate the effect, without knowledge of Bi-Ber-Ti's clever gimmick, at least one or two Australian magicians discovered the Split Fan Production with ungimmicked cards.

Candidate 2: Arthur Buckley

The second contender for the invention of the Split Fan Production is Arthur Buckley, a very accomplished professional manipulator who moved from Australia to the U.S. in 1919. In his book Card Control, 1946, p. 148, he published a description of the Split Fan Production, stating that it “was the basis for my act called 'A Gambler’s Dream.'” Mentions of Buckley performing a manipulative card routine of that name appear in the Feb. and Mar. 1923 issues of The Sphinx, Vol. 21 No. 12, p. 430; Vol. 22, No. 1, p. 5. These mentions imply that the routine was by then an established part of Buckley's repertoire. Faucett Ross, in a letter to Ross Bertram, c. 1953, was able to provide a list of Buckley's repertoire as he had witnessed it performed in Chicago in 1919. This included: “The Gambler's Dream—an intricate, difficult and flashy back palming routine and made an excellent finish to his card work.” Buckley was firm in claiming the sleight as his, as can be seen in a letter he wrote to Paul Fleming, in preparation for Fleming's receipt of galleys of Buckley's Card Control: “The split fan productions I claim in 'Card Control' to be original with me, having used them exclusively for many years in my interpretation of 'A Gambler's Dream'. This is the first opportunity and the first time I believed it necessary to bring to the attention of the magic fraternity that the sleight of producing fans of cards successively originated with me.” Despite Buckley's reputation and public proclamation, his claim has been curiously ignored. It has been neither repeated nor refuted in print. Having witnessed Bi-Ber-Ti's card fan productions in 1912 lends some credence to Buckley's claim.

Candidate 3: Bobby Thornton

In his letter in The World's Fair cited above, Les Levante clearly credits another Australian manipulator with the invention of the Split Fan Production: Bobby Thornton. Mentions of this performer in conjuring literature are rare, but in those few brief reports, Thornton was held as a superb card manipulator. Levante, in a letter published in The World's Fair on Jan. 23, 1937, p. 25, praises Thornton's skill highly. The crediting of the Split Fan Production to Thornton was later seconded by Harry Latour, in the Jan. 21, 1939 issue of The Worlds Fair, p. 11; and in a letter from Lewis Davenport to Max Holden on June 20, 1939 (see The Davenport Story, Vol. 1, by Fergus Roy, 2009, p. 370). Thornton performed in Australia for a time, before touring England in 1914. Levante, Latour and Davenport were all very knowledgeable and on the scene, giving their combined opinion considerable weight.

Candidate 4: Richard Pitchford — Cardini

Cardini became the most famous exponent of Split Fan Productions. John Fisher, in Cardini: the Suave Deceiver, 2007, p. 343, wrote: “He [Cardini] was passionate that he had discovered the split fan production for himself in the trenches and there is no reason to doubt him.” However, Fisher spends several further pages in citing other credible magicians who may have preceded Cardini in his discovery. There is evidence that makes it clear that the young Cardini was doing some advanced card manipulation shortly after his war experiences, such as Paul Freeman's "Opening Card Act for Experts", sold by Ellis Stanyon. The specifics of these known sources do not include Split Fans. Fisher also mentions that Cardini may have visited Australia in 1919-1920 (p. 85). He didn't tour the country professionally until 1924; see The Sphinx, Vol. 23 No. 10, Dec. 1924, p. 322). No evidence has arisen to pinpoint when Split Fans entered Cardini's act, prior to his first coming to the United States in 1926, after two years of touring in Australia and New Zealand. As can be seen, Australia seems to be a nexus from which the sleight spread, and Cardini might have learned Split Fans in the two years he toured there, since Thornton and probably Buckley had performed the sleight at least ten years earlier.

Independent Invention?

It is conceivable Thornton, Buckley and Cardini all invented the sleight independently. Its time seems to have been ripe, and, in hindsight, stumbling onto the idea of the Split Fan during the height of back palming and the stage card-manipulation vogue seems inevitable. Bi-Ber-Ti's productions pushed other magicians onto the path of invention. It is also conceivable that young Richard Pitchford saw Bi-Ber-Ti perform during one of his tours in England from 1910-1913. Given the wide reportage by the national and magical press of Bi-Ber-Ti's tragic suicide on a British train, Pitchford was likely to have have heard of him and his act.

William Frederick Cash — Ardo the Frog Man

Ironically, the name most often cited, after Cardini, as the inventor of the Split Fan Production has become known through a misunderstanding. In the Nov. 1969 issue of Genii, Vol. 39 No. 3, p. 128, Dai Vernon wrote: “The first time I ever saw split fans, which was before I ever met Cardini and probably before Channing Pollock was even born, was shown to me by a fellow named Ardo the Frog Man. He was an Australian contortionist who dressed like a frog and acted like a frog all through the act, but his hobby was magic. He did split fans and I had never seen them before. This was in Chicago in 1919. It's possible that the move originated in Australia, because I knew quite a few very fine card men in New York and none of them had ever seen or even heard about this move.” Note the coincidence of year and location between Vernon's recollection and that of Faucett Ross: two Australian performers who exhibited Split Fans in Chicago in 1919. Also note that Vernon states that “The first time I ever saw split fans…” He does not claim that Ardo invented the sleight. Vernon makes a connection to Australian performers (of which Buckley was one, while Vernon believed Ardo was another). Michael A. Perovich has written an excellently researched study of Ardo (William Frederick Cash) and the Split Fan misunderstanding; see “Ardo, the Human Frog” in Ye Olde Magick Mag, Vol. 5 No. 2, p. 99. Cash was born and began performing in New Zealand. He eventually appeared in Australia as well, starting in 1908, and made it to the U.S. by 1916.

When the Split Fan Production Became Widely Known

One might also question if Split Fans were the “basis” of Buckley's “Gambler's Dream” routine from the beginning, or were incorporated into it at a date later than 1919. Despite Ross's witnessing of Buckley's act that year, and Vernon's brush with Ardo, Split Fans seem almost unknown in the U.S. as late as 1927, judging from a letter dated March 29 of that year, written to T. Nelson Downs by Edward McGuire, after seeing the freshly arrived Cardini perform the sleight. McGuire described Cardini's Split Fan Productions as “a new idea”. It is peculiar that such a sleight could have remained sub rosa for eight years among the network of avid and well-connected secret-miners of which McGuire was a member.


Nothing mentioned above can identify with any certainty the inventor or inventors of the Split Fan Production. Without further information, we can only speculate.