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R.D. Merrill Article

R.D. Merrill and His Color Changing Knives R.D. Merrill

Last updated May 2007
A short history of the R.D. Merrill and his Color Changing Knives, compiled from information provided by Mr. Gary Frank, of the Fantastic Magic Company, Inc., in California, and from the book, Merrill's Knife Book, by R.D. Merrill.

The Beginning:

R.D. Merrill (Dale) has been described by Tommy Windsor as "the absolute tops in knife manipulation."1 Dr. Merrill was the original owner of the Fanstastic Magic Company, and in the 1960's, developed the idea for a set of color changing knives that would be ideal for manipulation. Some of the other products in the company included Merrill's Million to One Card Set, Merrill's Million to One Paddles, and during magic conventions, he would sell a jumbo version of the knife in Black and White. After two years of research, he began making the knives in the late 1960's.

The original Merrill Knife sets were 2 7/8" long, and came in either Red/ White or Black/White combinations. They also offered imitation Bone/White. On special occasions, other knives were sold with additional colors. These special colors were all hand tooled by Dale. The original Merrill's have silver bolsters and are illustrated in the Merrill Knife Book by Dr. R. D. Merrill. Dale also made a Visible Color Changing Knife to match these sets of knives.

 The Merrill Knives combined the following features to provide a knife ideal for the Color Changing Knives effect:

1. Length under 3" to fit most hands.
2. Narrow width to aid the in the color changing move. Wide knives are harder to manipulate.
3. A slightly "squarish" and tapered shape also aids in the move.
4. Designed not to "flash" when viewed normally.
5. Stark colors (black and white or red and white) for a highly visual change.
6. Normal colors that a pen-knife would usually have.
7. Quality construction so the knife can be opened and closed and shown to operate normally.
8. Silver bolsters with a quality constuction so it looks just like a nice pocket knife should.
9. Selection of a base knife in which the modifications to the knife would not destroy the structural integrity. That is, the rivets holding the knife together did not have to be destroyed to change the handles.

Knives were not Dale's only passion. He was a Baptist pastor for over 25 years. He taught Federal Tax Law and was highly involved in Church business planning.

The Fantastic Magic Company started in King of Prussia, PA, and then moved to Santa Cruz, CA. Dr. Merrill manufactured the knives for many years, and by the mid-70's had sold over 25,000 Merrill Color Changing Knives. He also began to write Merrill's Knife Book. It took Tommy Windsor over four years to convince Dale to put his secrets in print. Due to personal reasons in Mr. Merrill's life he wanted to sell the Fantastic Magic Company.

Sale of the Fantasic Magic Company

In 1975, Mr. Gary Frank purchased the company and products from R.D. Merrill and took over production of the Color Changing Knives (along with his other products) for several years. Mr. Frank continued to make the knives until the original knife manufacturer closed their shop down in 1977.

After this closing, an attempt was made to have the knives produced in Pakistan. Rather than silver bolsters, the Pakistan manufactured knives had brass bolsters. The first sample Gary received from the manufacturer was a black and white knife combination and it was well made, so Gary ordered the minimum amount. Sadly, when the production order came in, the quality was just not there. The knives were poorly made. They fell apart, the springs broke, the plastic was scratched, the blades were backwards, they were filled with oil and the list goes on.

So, Gary tried again, and the next quantity came into the shop in perfect condition. However, right after that initial order, they went back to being less than perfect. These knives eventually were no longer made other than for paring knives in Pakistan. In the view of Mr. Gary Frank, the Pakistan versions should never be placed in name as "Merrill Knives".

More Changes

In 1977, Dr. Merrill wanted to make knives again. He contacted Gary, and Dale purchased the knife portion of the business and attempted to keep making the current version of knives available for dealers. It was too much work and since Gary was on tour, they agreed someone else could continue making the knives. Al Cohen agreed to purchase the knives from Dale. Al Cohen owned the famous Al's Magic Shop in Washington, D.C., which only recently changed hands and has been well known for its great service and expertise. Al stopped making the Pakistan Merrill-type knife in the 1980's because of the poor quality of knives he was receiving. They were made in all sorts of colors. There is an advertisement for the knives as sold by Mr. Cohen in the 1981 edition of Merrill's Knife Book.

On the Pakistan knives, Gary Frank wrote me that there are two generations of Merrill styled knives. He states that the first style is not as squared. The last style made was the very squared style of knife, which tended to flash more.

Merrill's Knife Book

Merrill's Knife Book took some time to publish. Tommy Windsor had planned to publish the book around the mid 1970's. However, his own health problems set in, and Robert Lee Jacobs purchased the rights from Tommy Windsor Studio, and planned to publish the book in 1977. Then, Tommy's death, a few tragedies in Mr. Jacobs' life, some misunderstandings about the editing of the book, and the sale of the Fantastic Magic Co., all interfered with the publishing.2 The book wasn't published until 1981.

Merrill's Knife Book is an excellent treatise on the subject of the color changing knives. It is the first book (in English) totally devoted to the color changing knives effect. It includes numerous, clear, B&W photographs showing R.D. Merrill's hands in front of a mirror so you can see both the magician's and the audience's view of the presentation. A full table of contents listing of the book can be viewed on the Table of Contents pages on this website. (here)

Current Events

Sadly, the Merrill knives are no longer available today, except in the used market. There have been several attempts to create copies of the original Merrill Color Changing Knives design, with varying success. None have exactly matched the combination of utility and design of the originals. In one example, the blade handles have been replaced by sparkling plastic, producing a knife that few would normally carry with them.

The best color changing knives will appear as a basic pocket knife and nothing more. Simplicity and a careful presentation are the keys to an effective performance.
 
Gary Frank reports that he had returned from a recent magic convention where most of his time was spent demonstrating the basic color changing move. The majority of the magicians use the ice cream stick style of move to perform the knife effect. Gary demonstrates to them how doing the move this way will flash the other color each time. As Dr. Merrill describes in his book, it is important to hold the knife in the middle and then perform the move in a horizontal manner. 

Today, Gary Frank is still providing color changing knives to the magic community, though of a different design than the Merrill knife. This version of the color changing knife was the second selection which Dr. Merrill attempted to originally locate many years ago. This knife is made with plastic sides in Stag-like Black/White. Gary is making a Visible Color Changing Knife for these sets of knives, too. He also now owns the publication of Merrill's Knife Book in both hardbound or softbound editions (transferred from Mr. Lee Jacobs). Mr. Frank also produces a shorter version of the Merrill book that is provided with his knife sets, though the full book is preferred for its additional chapters and inclusion of photographs. The website and contact information for the Fantastic Magic Company, Inc., can be found at:

http://home.earthlink.net/fantastikm/fantastic_news.htm/magic_products.htm
Fantastic Magic Company, Inc.
Gary Frank
P.O. Box 33156
Granada Hills, CA 91394-3156

Notes:
1. Merrill, R.D., The Merrill Knife Book, (c)1981, page 4, in Introduction by Tommy Windsor
2. Merrill, R.D., The Merrill Knife Book, (c)1981, page 6, in Publisher's Apology by Lee Jabobs
Al's Magic Ad knife book


 
Ad as found in the 1981 printing of  Merrill's Knife Book



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