The performer and his/her assistant take their places — the assistant on the stage, blindfolded, and the performer in the audience. The performer borrows some article from an audience member and the assistant describes it down to the last detail. This is repeated until the thrill has worn off.
Properly done, this is an astounding performance because there is no evidence of signaling between the performer and the assistant, there seems to be no consistent set of cues that an alert audience member could detect, and there is certainly no possibility of the assistant seeing anything.
There is nothing difficult in the description of the performance — it consists wholly of the use of memorized words and phrases. The execution is very difficult, though, since the lists of words and phrases are extensive and varied, yet are deliberately very similar to each other so as to give the impression that only a few phrases are actually used. Extreme and intensive preparation is necessary, amounting to many days of memorization and practice. The level of memorization must be such that the performer and assistant can change places if necessary: the performer mustn't hesitate or make mistakes in his/her selection of words and phrases, and likewise the assistant must respond perfectly and without hesitation. Dramatic pauses are sometimes permissible, of course, but that's a matter of pacing and presentation.
FIRST: there is a list of code letters and words for the alphabet, thus:
The Performer's version:
A = H J = L S = N B = T K = Please T = P C = S L = C U = Look D = G M = O V = Y E = F N = D W = R F = E O = V X = See this G = A P = J Y = Q H = I Q = W z = Hurry I = B R = M
The assistant's version:
A = G I = H S = C B = I J = P T = B C = L L = J V = O D = N M = R W = Q E = F N = S Y = V F = E O = M Pray = K G = D P = T Look = U H = A Q = Y See this = X I = H R = W Hurry = Z
In both lists "Hurry Up!" means repeat the last letter.
(The need for a Performer's list and an Assistant's list will become obvious shortly. They are the reverse of each other. The words Pray, Look, See this, and Hurry are used for the four letters indicated, as it's hard to start a sentence with a word beginning with those letters. See below).
SECOND: there is likewise a list for the numbers.
1 = Say or Speak 7 = Please or Pray 2 = Be, Look, or Let 8 = Are, Are not, or Ain't 3 = Can or Can't or Cannot 9 = Now 4 = Do, Do not, Don't 10 = Tell 5 = Will, Will not, or Won't 0 = Hurry or Come 6 = What
Are, Are not, or Ain't = 8 Please or Pray = 7 Be = 2 Tell = 10 Can, Can't, Cannot = 3 Say or Speak = 1 Come = 0 What = 6 Do, Do not, Don't = 4 Will, Will not, or Won't = 5 Hurry = 0Now = 9
(Again, in both lists, "Hurry up" means "repeat the last number")
Now, the information is passed to the assistant by means of the questions or commands that the Performer gives.
A. The FIRST question tells what is the item in question, or what information is needed. There is a set of questions with predetermined meanings: such as:
- what article is this? - what is this? - what may this be? - what is here? - what have I here? - can you see this? - do you know what this is? - look at this - now, what is this? - tell me this - I want to know this - etc., etc.
Some of these questions invite an answer apart from the item desired; usually "Yes", of course, but "hmm" or "I think so" are all possible and add to the performance by breaking up the flow and making it less likely for the audience to catch on.
If any of these are used — and note again they must be the FIRST question asked — then they refer to a particular class of things for which predetermined answers are available.
B. If not, if the question includes a concrete noun (except for the word "name") then it also refers to one of the predetermined classes, plus some others.
C. Otherwise, the item or name is to be spelled out.
D. The predetermined sets of answers are up to the Performer, and relate to the things that people are likely to have about them. Here are some samples, taken from an old textbook: obviously things have changed greatly since then, both in what people might carry and what those things are: for instance, a BEET??? Would you take a beet to a stage performance? Neither would we!
Note that the list of questions given above relate directly to the particular lists.
FIRST SET. What article is this ?
1. Handkerchief. 6. Basket. 2. Neckerchief. 7. Beet. 3. Bag. 8. Comforter. 4. Glove. 9. Headdress. 5. Purse. 10. Fan.
SECOND SET. What is this ?
1. Watch. 6. Necklace. 2. Bracelet. 7. Ring. 3. Guard. 8. Rosary 4. Chain. 9. Cross. 5. Breastpin. 10. Charm.
THIRD SET. What may this be ?
1. Hat. 6. Muff. 2. Cap. 7. Cape. 3. Bonnet. 8. Boa. 4. Cuff. 9. Inkstand. 5. Collar. 10. Mucilage (glue).
FOURTH SET. What is here ?
1. Pipe. 6. Tobacco box. 2. Cigar. 7. Tobacco pouch. 3. Cigar-holder. 8. Match. 4. Cigarette. 9. Matchbox. 5. Tobacco. 10. Lighter.
The next question will point to a specific item within the selected list. The FIRST word in the question gives that information. Thus, the performer will ask, "What may this be? Will you tell me?" If you consult the Assistant's version of the number list given above, "Will" means 5. So it's a collar. (We think that if ever an inkstand or mucilage is presented, then the audience member should get a prize! In such a case, the question would begin with "Are" or "Tell", respectively).
Next the Performer can ask "Will you tell me the colour?" As there's a concrete noun -"colour" - in the question, it refers to the colour list; and the first word "will" means colour 5.
A colour list:
1 = white 5 = red 2 = black 6 = green 3 = blue 7 = yellow 4 = brown 8 = gray
The next question would logically be the fabric: "Tell me the fabric". What's the tenth fabric on your list?
It should be obvious now how this works! In our original text, there are key-question lists for 19 sets of things; the first four are given above, the rest are concerned with glasses or anything with a lens; grooming equipment; paper items (books, bills, tickets); paper money or coins; outerwear; buttons, pins, tableware(!); fruit or edibles; small tools; firearms and supplies; flowers or ladies' keepsakes; writing supplies; keys and business cards; religious books and smelling salts(!); playing cards, and membership pins (Rotarians, Masons, etc.). (For the playing cards, as there are thirteen possibilities, the performer says "Right", "That's right", "Good" or "Very good" to specify Ace, King, Queen, or Jack).
Lists of metals, or of gemstones, or of broad categories of pictures (portrait, landscape, family, truck, etc.) are useful. Again, it's up to the Performer to make this as comprehensive as s/he wants.
E. If the question asked isn't one of the key questions or doesn't specifically refer to one of the lists, then something is to be spelled out. In this case, the first LETTER of the first WORD in each of the following sentences gives the information needed.
Let's suppose a person's name is to be spelled out: say John.
The performer asks: "What's this gentleman's name? Let's see. Visualize this. Is it clear? Do you see?"
The first letters are L, V, I, and D. Referring to the assistant's list above, this translates to J, O, H, N.
Then: "Where does he live — the state first. Really easy. His home state!" R, H = W, A for Washington. Well-known abbreviations can be used where convenient, or necessary; it would strain the performer's imagination to spell out the whole word!
Then the city: just hope it isn't Chatanooga or Walla Walla! "Seattle" would be easy; phonetically it's S, E, A, T, L; but "Vancouver" would be difficult.
** Note that "Hurry" means "Z" but that "Hurry up" means repeat the last letter or number.
And so forth. By starting the questions off with the right one, by using as many predetermined lists as possible, and spelling out where necessary, truly impressive results can be produced.
It can't be emphasized enough how perfect the memorization must be. Any bobble or mistake may give the game away! It's a good idea to change the lists from time to time, both to add new words and to guard against the unlikely possibility that someone is following the show around to break the code. Finally, when spelling things out, it's a good idea to have a few dummy or null questions, which don't specify a letter but which mess up the sentence count. Thus, "John" in the example above takes four sentences, which just might tip somebody off if they are very acute and patient listeners; but one or two extra sentences will render the hypothesis incorrect!
If the assistant needs to recite the letters to himself/herself while decoding the sentences — make sure the audience can't see! It should go without saying that the letters must never be spoken audibly: only the final word.