“My grandfather thought Houdini was a cad,” remarks Accord resident Peter Pitchford, reminiscing about his famous relative, the magician Cardini. Recognized by magical greats such as Jeff McBride as the ultimate master of sleight-of-hand, Cardini invented many tricks that are staples of today’s art. He thoroughly disapproved of the attempts by magicians such as Houdini to convince their audience that spirits gave them magical powers.
Furthermore, recalls Pitchford, “Houdini would borrow his cards to do tricks and would return them crumpled.”
As a child, Pitchford visited Cardini often at his residence in Gardiner, near New Paltz, and he still has the scrapbook of clippings, programs, and photos that his grandmother gave him after Cardini died. He was deeply influenced by having a magician as a grandfather.
Cardini was born Richard Pitchford in the village of Mumbles in southern Wales in 1895. His parents owned a theater, and when he was eight, “his job was to boo and hiss the bad guys, be a lively audience,” says his grandson.
The future magician exercised his manual dexterity as a pool shark, studying under a famous billiards player. He was also learning watchmaking.
During World War I, he served in the army, practicing card tricks in the trenches. “Because it was cold, he had to wear gloves,” Pitchford explains. “He got really good at it and was one of the few magicians who could do card tricks with gloves on.”
Shellshocked in battle, Richard was sent to a hospital. “All he would do was card tricks,” says Pitchford. “I think he had Asperger’s — he was really into this.” Because of his obsessive nature, the next stop was a mental hospital, but once it was determined that the young man was harmless, he was released.
He traveled east, and worked up a vaudeville act in Australia, where someone suggested the stage name Cardini. He came to North America through Canada, and then he met his wife, Swan Walker, in Chicago. She joined his act as a page. In a Youtube clip of their only television appearance, she can be seen catching decks of cards, wearing a crisp uniform, as Cardini makes deck after fanned deck appear out of nowhere and then tosses them impatiently away.
“Theatricality was a big part of his act,” says Pitchford. Cardini had a vivid persona: the impeccably dressed dandy befuddled by the unexpected behavior of objects touched by his hands. He specialized in manipulating cards and billiard balls.
Cardini toured the U.S., hitting the vaudeville circuit and appearing numerous times at the White House, including four shows for FDR. He played Radio City Music Hall, the Copacabana, the London Palladium, The Palace. The King of England drafted him for a command performance in 1938. Al Capone saw one show and invited the magician to dinner. (“He said it was nerve-wracking,” according to Pitchford.)
While traveling, Cardini brought along camera equipment. “He was a camera nut back when hardly anyone had cameras, since you had to develop your own film,” says Pitchford. “He didn’t like hotels — he had a delicate disposition and didn’t like the food. So he had a trailer custom-made. He lived in it and had a darkroom. I still have a lot of his equipment.”
Cardini and Swan lived in Jamaica, Queens, for a while and then settled in Gardiner on land they found through New York City theater people. They parked the trailer and built a house around it. Their two children, Richard and Carol, grew up in Gardiner.
Richard absorbed a few magic tricks, but Cardini was unable to teach his grandson, who recalls a lesson on shuffling, where he was supposed to curve the deck halves into a little house and riffle them into a pile. “After I’d tried it a few times unsuccessfully, he shouted at me, ‘What is your finger pointing at?’ He would get so upset. He couldn’t teach tricks because he was such a perfectionist.”
Despite his impatience with humans, Cardini had a way with birds. He raised them and used birds in his act, training a parakeet to pull a card out of his deck. In Gardiner, Pitchford recalls seeing him walk up to wild birds and feed them from his hand.
“He’d get really upset watching TV, when a magician would make a bird disappear,” says Pitchford. “He’d say, ‘You know where that bird is? Squashed in a little compartment in the table!’”
Richard, Pitchford’s father, became an engineer and designed ophthalmological instruments used to look into people’s eyes. When he was fired by Bausch & Lomb, he redesigned some of the same tools for American Optics but had to make them slightly different because the previous company owned the patents. Later, he learned to program early computers.
This skill was passed on to Pitchford, who works as a programmer today, but the path to this career was rocky and overshadowed by his grandfather.
“I always felt, because he was a magician, that there was something special moving through me,” he recalls. “At first I thought I was the Messiah. Then I decided I was going to be President.”
He went to college on a scholarship, intending to study law as a way into politics. He became an activist in the anti-nuke movement, pushing for the closure of nuclear plants with a passion that landed him in jail on trumped-up drug charges. Having a gun pointed at his head was so traumatizing that he dropped out of the movement.
At one point, he decided, “I was going to be the next Beethoven.” He began to play piano almost as obsessively as Cardini had practiced card tricks, but “I was not that good a musician.” He still plays classical piano and the blues.
He says his impulse to be a musician came largely from Cardini, who loved music. Pitchford describes a walk in the woods with his grandfather, who was then in his 80s, his health declining. “He stopped in the middle of the path and started crying. I was uncomfortable — I was a teenager. He said, ‘If I had my life to live over, I wouldn’t be a magician. I would be a musician.’ Here he was, the master of his profession, but to him it was not good enough. That had a big effect on me.”++