Obituary: Chan Canasta

Denis Gifford
Sunday 30 May 1999 23:02 BST

CALL HIM a mentalist, or a psycho- magician; call him a perceptionist if you prefer. He called himself all these things and more, but never a conjuror, a magician or just plain trickster. Butchers Film Service called him The Amazing Mr Canasta when they filmed him in a half-hour supporting short for the cinemas, back in 1952. And that title seems perfect, whether you believe what he did with playing cards and books, or simply raise an eyebrow, shrug and say that, after all, that was his act.

Chan Canasta was one of those few sensations of the Fifties whose fame was made by the single television channel of the time. There were other conjurors, of course, but that was a profession that rapidly became comical once Tommy Cooper, the king of clumsiness, crashed the small-screen scene. The specialised arm of mentalism, where everything is in the master's mind, was rarer and less easily burlesqued. Remember the thought-reading acts of Veloz and Yolanda, and better, perhaps, the Piddingtons, a married couple who sent each other mental messages from the studio below to an aeroplane flying overhead. Canasta was one of this ilk; the audience gasped, yes, but with amazement rather than amusement.

Chan Canasta (he took his stage name from the card game) was born Chananel Mifelew in 1920 in Krakow. His father was a Russian emigre, proud of his boy, who went to Krakow University at the age of 17. After studying philosophy and the natural sciences for a year, he left Poland for Jerusalem, where he started to study psychology. The next year brought the Second World War, and he volunteered for service in the Royal Air Force. He saw action in the Western Desert, North Africa, Greece and Italy, finally becoming a British subject.

Demobilised, he began seriously to study the occult and the science of extra-sensory perception. On the side he read up parlour magic and taught himself to entertain a few friends with simple but confusing card tricks. His serious side would not let him be satisfied with the sleight of hand employed by most cabaret conjurors, and soon he concentrated his mind on improving his memory.

Continual exercises gave him the rare power of immediate photographic recall, known in the trade as an 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.

Not every trick worked. Indeed, the occasional failure was actually encouraged by Canasta, who believed his audiences enjoyed the suspense and reacted to the odd error as if it proved his magic was no trick. "Failure makes the successes more exciting," he said.

BBC Television discovered Canasta in 1951. A pilot show, easily transmitted in those more loosely programmed days, was staged. With virtually no props, a few armchairs for three or four studio guests, and John Freeman as the half-hour's host, the budget was as low as viewer interest was high. Freeman was editor of the New Statesman and would become the hard-edged interviewer of Face To Face, the one-to-one head-on programme that almost destroyed Tony Hancock and Gilbert Harding.

Although none of these suspenseful programmes has been preserved, The Amazing Mr Canasta had a cast of personalities close to the sort of guests booked for the show. There was Hermione Baddeley, the character actress, Godfrey Evans, the Kent and English wicketkeeper, Jonah Barrington, the show-business correspondent of the Daily Express, Peter Haigh (the one personality of the team who had been "made" by television) and Miss Great Britain, whose real name seems not to have been recorded. The film's commentator was Ronald Waldman, on his way from being the "Puzzle Corner" king of radio's Monday Night at Eight to Head of Light Entertainment at the BBC.

Reviewers from the cinema trade press enjoyed the film. "Novelty short with the popular magician demonstrating a number of card tricks and baffling his guests. It ends with the Maestro explaining his system of mental training." So said the Daily Cinema, adding the commendation: "Good filler". The Kinematograph Weekly was more cautious about the photographed trickery: "Succeeds in making convincing a series of seemingly impossible acts of thought-reading and memory control." Note the careful use of the word "seemingly".

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. With the use of what he called his "tube- destroying machine", he said, he would use his power of thought to switch off every television set in the country which was tuned in to him. "Concentrate," he told his audience, "concentrate."

In homes across the country television screens went black with (the Fifties television trademark) the diminishing white spot that eventually popped off into nothing. Forty suspenseful seconds passed before the screen leaped back into life, showing a smiling but 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 audience applauded but not so the angry viewers, who rang the BBC under the impression that Canasta had ruined their sets.

Canasta became something of an international celebrity. American television welcomed him, and he appeared on such programmes as those hosted by Ed Sullivan and Jack Paar. He shot to the top of the bill at the London Palladium, and echoed this triumph far away at the famous Desert Inn in Las Vegas.

In 1962 he returned to London to star for the new commercial television station Associated-Rediffusion. Dan Farson hosted these late-night half- hours, which again featured guest personalities and a small but fascinated audience. Humphrey Lyttelton, the jazz man, remarked: "The man is a phenomenon." Farson said: "Canasta has a fantastic command of psychology." Canasta said: "No - all I have is discombobulations!" He was using Mark Twain's home-made word to describe pre-telly tension.

In his television career, Chan Canasta performed in some 350 programmes. He gave his last one in 1971 as a personal favour to Michael Parkinson. By this time he had taken up a new sideline as a painter, with successful selling shows in London and New York. He signed his pictures "Mifelew", his real name. But it is as a perfectionist performer that millions will remember him, rather than as the man who killed the conjuror's rabbit, as he once remarked. He was neither a conjuror nor a musician. "I want to prove that nothing I do is phoney. If I sawed a woman in half, I would be arrested for murder!"

Denis Gifford

Chananel Mifelew (Chan Canasta), mentalist: born Krakow, Poland 9 January 1920; twice married; died London 22 April 1999.

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