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Famous Magicians Launched Huge Magic Shows

Chung Ling Soo, The World's Greatest Conjurer

Many famous magicians launched huge magic shows, which were either traveling or attached to permanent theaters. These large-scale productions incorporated stage illusions (levitations, decapitations, appearances and disappearances of persons, etc.) or classic tricks from the magicians' repertoire in Oriental packaging (the gypsy thread, bullet-catching, etc.). These shows competed to come up with original formulas, as can be seen in the posters from the period, designed to drum up public interest. Performers of the era showed few scruples about copying the most successful tricks of other magicians.

So that technicians had time to prepare between each large illusion, magicians performed manipulation routines with the accessories that would later become central to close-up: cards, coins, ropes, scarves, etc. In time, some artists gained celebrity by transforming these interludes into specialized acts.

Magic holds a prominent place in the history of popular entertainment. The great conjurers of the past had a unique power to mesmerize an audience, to draw them out of their own lives into a world where anything is possible. Early magicians were either blatant con-men - the ancient cups-and-balls routine can entertain as well as swindle - or genuine entertainers, mixing tricks with juggling and contortions. Only in the 18th century did individual conjurers become widely known. Previously, magicians were thought to communicate with demons, and a charge of witchcraft could cost a practitioner his life. But even as "conjurer" and "magic" lost their supernatural connotations, magicians were still commonly considered "the lowest class of itinerants".

Perhaps the earliest conjurer of note, Isaac Fawkes, was immensely popular in England in the early 1700s, his audiences including princes and noblemen. Depending on the season, he appeared in halls around London or at local fairs, demonstrating his "surprising and incomparable dexterity of hand" for six hours daily. The media for Fawkes' sleight-of-hand magic were cards, eggs, mice, money and "curious India birds". His tricks, which were ancient even then, included producing objects from an apparently empty bag, transforming cards into birds and changing the spots on cards. He continued performing until his death in 1731, leaving a considerable estate.

Few magicians of this period performed only magic. Gustavus Katerfelto, son of a Prussian colonel, toured Europe during the last decades of the 18th century performing scientific demonstrations - chiefly a projecting microscope powered by reflected sunlight - and sleight-of-hand tricks with cards and dice. He also performed "The Art of Gunnery" in which, according to his program, "Any gentleman may load his gun with powder and ball, and he will fire at a glass bottle and will cause the balls to drop in the bottle, or before it, without breaking the glass." Katerfelto was also a quack doctor, selling medical nostrums against influenza and other ailments.

Often called the father of modern magic, Jean Eugene Robert was born in Blois, France, in 1805, son of a watchmaker. As a young boy, he became interested in magic after reading a book of tricks. In 1830, he married, adding his wife's name to his own to become Robert-Houdin. The budding illusionist set himself up as a clock-maker and, for his own amusement, began making automatons including the Mysterious Clock which, in spite of having a transparent casing and apparently no works, kept perfect time.

In 1845, Robert-Houdin opened a theater show, Soirees Fantastiques, in Paris, featuring magic and automatons, which soon became the talk of the city. He introduced a mentalist act in which his blindfolded, 12-year-old son named a series of objects presented by the audience. He gradually added more tricks, like the levitation of a woman and the production of large objects from a thin portfolio.

In 1848, Robert-Houdin performed before Queen Victoria, and then toured the British Isles. He returned to France the following year and, in 1852, established the Theatre Robert-Houdin. It was France's home of magic for more than 60 years. Robert-Houdin later retired from performing and returned to Blois to experiment with electrical devices until his death in 1873. Throughout his life he wrote prolifically, leaving a legacy of magical literature including a colorful biography and volumes about magic. He broke the tradition of magicians wearing flowing, star-spangled robes and pointed wizard's hats, preferring to perform in conventional evening dress. Most importantly, he legitimized the profession as an art in itself, erasing the stigma of the charlatan and low performer that had dogged his predecessors.

John Henry Anderson would reinforce the conjurer's respectability. Born in 1814 near Aberdeen, Scotland, he left home as a boy to join a troop of traveling players. A magician named Signor Blitz inspired him, at the age of 17, to become a magician. Through the 1830s, Anderson toured Scotland and northern England, and by 1840, was appearing in London as The Great Wizard of the North, a title that he would use for the rest of his career.

Like Robert-Houdin, he performed a mentalist act, Second Sight, in which his blindfolded daughter, Louise, named objects from the audience. His shows also featured standard magical fare, including appearances of animals and birds, restorations of shredded handkerchiefs and the "Gun Trick", in which loaded guns were fired, not just at bottles, but at the performer himself. In 1846, Anderson toured Europe and played for Csar Nicholas in Russia. He also performed widely in the US, Canada and Australia. Returning to England, he appeared before Queen Victoria in 1849. A series of theatre fires triggered the gradual decline of his fortunes. In February 1874, he died during one of his tours and was buried in Aberdeen.

Anderson was perhaps as famous for the elaborateness of his advertising as for his performances. Houdini called him "the greatest advertizer that the world of magic has ever known". His handbills are monuments of hyperbole and creative vocabulary, announcing "Hundred Wonders of Necromancy", "Splendour Unprecedented" and "Incomprehensible Feats of the Cabilistic Art". He titled himself "Professor" and wrote numerous books on magic.

The next phase of magic's story pitted stage magic against what many believed to be the real thing. In 1865, 25-year-old John Nevil Maskelyne attended a spiritualist séance in Cheltenham, England, that was to change his life and the face of magic itself. The mediums were Americans, the Davenport Brothers, who created a variety of strange phenomena while apparently tied up inside a wardrobe- like box. Maskelyne spotted their trickery and announced that he could duplicate the Davenports' effects by natural means. Three months later, he and his partner, George Alfred Cooke, presented their show. Maskelyne was locked into a wooden box, which was placed into a large cabinet. The cabinet was then opened to reveal him sitting on the still-locked box.

As they took their show on the road, the fame of Maskelyne and Cook spread throughout the provinces and finally to London, where they opened at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, in 1873. Their run there continued for 31 years and their names became synonymous with magic in England. They expanded the box escape into the kind of magical playlet fashionable at the time. Called Will, the Witch and the Watch, the plot involved romance, drama, conflict, disappearances, reappearances, transformations and a "comical gorilla". Their evening program also included human levitation, plate-spinning and their Davenport routine.

In 1875, they introduced automatons into their act. Psycho was a Hindu figure seated atop a clear glass cylinder that played cards with members of the audience, turning on its pedestal to pick up individual cards from a row laid out in front of it. The glass appeared to make remote manipulation impossible and the phenomenon became a local sensation. Maskelyne later added three more automatons: Zoe, a mechanical woman that drew pencil portraits: Fanfare, a boy cornet player: and Labial, which played the euphonium. Maskelyne died in 1917 and his sons and grandsons continued his dynasty into the 1970s.

It was the second show of the evening on 23 March 1918. The Marvelous Chinese Conjurer, Chung Ling Soo, was wrapping up his show with the venerable "Gun Trick". He loaded two rifles, then crossed the stage to face the barrage. Two of his assistants took aim. The audience held its collective breath. Two shots rang out. In previous performances, Soo had stepped forward to display the bullets he had caught to an ecstatic audience. On this occasion, he dropped to the stage, a crimson stain growing on the front of his costume. Soo was taken to a hospital where he died from gunshot wounds the following morning.

The inquest revealed that Soo's own carelessness in cleaning the guns had resulted in the bullets being fired at him, rather than dropping into a hidden chamber. It also revealed that Chung Ling Soo's heritage was a long way from China. He had been born William Robinson in New York in 1861. Inspired by the challenge of a genuine Chinese magician, Ching Ling Foo, he and his wife, Dot, who had been touring with their own show, assumed the personas of Chung Ling Soo and his wife, Suee Seen. Moving to London, they performed for 17 years, changing out of their makeup at the end of each performance and emerging to blend into the London crowds. Soo's act contained some traditional Chinese magic, such as producing a large bowl of water from under his robes and catching fish with a fishing pole cast into the air over the audience. But he was also a master of design and construction and, like the "Gun Trick", many of his illusions were his own creations. Robinson's death highlighted the perils of many major illusions and ensured that danger would continue to feature in magic.

Munich-born Sigmund Neuberger was one of the most flamboyant of the late 19th century conjurers. In 1890, at 19, he moved to the US with his father and soon young Sigmund's marksman act in vaudeville evolved into a magic show. His presentations featured elaborate playlets in which the Great Lafayette (as he renamed himself), in appropriate costume, starred in magical dramas enlivened by stirring music played by a full orchestra. Bowls of water, animals and birds appeared from under a cloth, clay sculptures and mechanical toy bears came to life. The stage was draped with lavish sets and crowded with assistants in colorful costumes. At its center, the charismatic Lafayette created an atmosphere of mystery and excitement. The grand finale of his show was "The Lion's Bride", a 25- minute drama in which a princess about to be fed to a lion by an Arabian Pasha was rescued, of course, by Lafayette , dressed as a Persian Army officer, who fought the Pasha's guards before being thrown to the lion which, in an astonishing transformation, became Lafayette himself.

In August 1890, he arrived in England to great acclaim and three years later, moved permanently to London. At his height in 1910, the Great Lafayette earned £1,000 a week and employed 45 people. On 4 May 1911, during a show in Edinburgh, a lamp was knocked over, igniting the back of the stage at the climax of "The Lion's Bride". The fire was confined to the backstage area and the audience safely evacuated, but 10 people had died in the fire, including the great conjurer himself.

In the late 1890s, America's leading magician was 47-year-old Harry Kellar. As a boy, Kellar had toured small American towns as a magician's assistant. In 1869, he joined the Davenport Brothers and soon became their business manager, eventually learning their act. Striking out on his own in 1884, he performed a seance act enlivened with magic, visiting Canada, Cuba and Mexico. A new trick, "The Vanishing Birdcage" (containing a live canary) was a sensation throughout South America,

Europe, Australia and the Far East. His performance polished by years on the road, Kellar was embraced by American audiences on his return and he never lost his popularity there. In one of his standard tricks, two rose bushes seemed to grow and flower before the audience's eyes. He was a truly great performer who often adapted the tricks of others, including Maskelyne's Psycho and levitation. Kellar retired in 1908 and died in 1922.

Doug Elliott. That Old Black Magic: The Great Illusionists. History Magazine. June/July 2008.


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