Category: Magic History

How Broadway Works: Magic Author Steinmeyer Recalls “The Merlin Crusade”

We received the May edition of Genii today and were delighted to read Jim Steinmeyer’s incredible recollection of the logistics, politics and creative process that went to bring Doug Henning’s second Broadway show to life.

Mr. Steinmeyer’s “The Merlin Crusade” (subtitled, “Doug Henning’s Infamous Magical Musical Appeared 30 Years Ago.  Onstage It Was a Magic Show.  Offstage It Was a Holy War”) is a compelling read.  We could not stop reading once we began.

Yes, we had to apologize to those waiting to use the restroom, but to be fair, providing just two lavatories for a full coach section of a cross-country flight is hardly our fault.

We have two great loves: magic and logistics.  You give us an article about the logistical challenges of creating great illusions for a Broadway show and we give you our undivided attention.  It is an incredibly detailed account of a 24-year-old Mr. Steinmeyer as both participant and observer.  You should subscribe to Genii as a matter of principle but if you have not, get to your local magic shop or the  Genii website to get the May edition.

Mr. Steinmeyer was part of the “magic department” brought to Broadway to seamlessly integrate Mr. Henning’s magic into a complex and challenging musical.

Because the magic was integrated with everything in the show, there wasn’t a repair, a change, or a piece of scenery that didn’t have something to do with a trick.  Each of our changes on the work list was worded, “fix,” or “add,” or “align.”  Because no other department cared to understand the magic, it was the magic department that had to work with everyone else, watching what the painters were doing, seeing if the new pieces of scenery would foul on our illusions.  Each one of these jobs involved standing in front of the prop, scratching your head, experimenting, figuring out how the dancers were doing the routine, and then devising some solution.

You can read about the endless tuning of the show’s story, style and magic right up to its official opening.   The depiction of Mr. Henning is true to our memory of the great magician and truly gentle man.  Continue reading “How Broadway Works: Magic Author Steinmeyer Recalls “The Merlin Crusade””

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Houdini Mystery House Still Not Found

Houdini has been gone (some say) for a long time.

We have had two comings of Halley’s Comet since he shuffled from this mortal coil.  (See what we did there, “shuffled”?)  Yet stories about the magician continue to grab the attention of readers and, apparently, assignment editors.  Some of the stories clearly strain to make Houdini relevant but that is okay with us.  We just like reading about Houdini no matter how tangential to current events.

Today’s article in Connecticut’s The Southington Patch gives a nice biographical essay combined with two local ties.  According to the story, Houdini owned a retreat in the Nutmeg State — a seven-room home in Stamford.  (Interestingly, “the Nutmeg State” is also the third level of consciousness in a therapeutic hypnosis session properly administered).

The Patch says “despite all of Houdini’s notoriety, there is no known photo of his Connecticut home; furthermore, no one seems to be able to locate the actual address of his home there.”

Strange, no?  One wonders how one knows Houdini actually owned such a home if there is no known address other than “Webbs Hill Road.”

We did a check of Webbs Hill Road in Stamford and searched for seven bedroom homes.  We found none.  But, we did find two six bedroom versions and both were pricey (close to a million dollars) and neither were for sale.

Perhaps the person or persons who purchased Houdini’s retreat converted one of the bedrooms into a library, a den, a knick-knack room, an extra kitchen, a billiard parlor, a theater or theatre, an indoor pool with either an in-ground pool or an above ground pool stuffed into a former bedroom, a yoga and/or Pilates center, a very small ice rink, a home planetarium (to chart the comings and goings of a certain comet), a not-so-free-range poultry farm, a sublet apartment complex for down-on-their-luck magicians (it could easily accommodate seven in one room if properly constructed and fire codes were ignored), a holy shrine to a saint or a deity or several deities, a handball or squash court (assuming European rules dictated the size and not the unwieldy Asian dimensions), a séance room, or even a laundry.

We did a quick check of the construction permits pulled for each home on Webbs Hill Road in Stamford from 1926 forward to identify renovation or construction on any of the residences that would explain the apparent loss of at least one bedroom. Continue reading “Houdini Mystery House Still Not Found”

Bill Kalush and Conjuring Arts Research Center Featured on Wall Street Journal

Magician, writer, historian and keeper of rare magic secrets Bill Kalush are featured on the Wall Street Journal’s Page One website.

The video piece features Mr. Kalush explaining the mission of the Conjuring Arts Research Center.

He provides an excellent summary of the role of secrecy in magic’s history and its vitality.

Check out the video here.

Visit the Conjuring Arts Research Center here.

Jim Carrey on Starving for Magic Physique

It is a familiar story to magicians, the incessant physical training and weight maintenance to achieve the perfect body for magic. For actor Jim Carrey, however, the rigors of our art were daunting.

He told People (the magazine, not just a collection of individuals standing near him) his strict diet gave him a great body but “it’s not a happy place to be.”

“It’s not a natural place to live in that kind of shape,” he said. “It looks great. It’s fantastic and gets a lot of attention, but you have to eat, like, antimatter to stay in that kind of shape.”

Indeed, many magicians have found the diet and exercise required to maintain the perfect “magician’s body” just too demanding and have left the profession.  Michael Jordan once commented that he had hoped to be a magician but found the constant physical conditioning “just impossible.”  “It was like trying to hit a curve ball in triple-A; I just couldn’t do it.”

Magic historians credit Harry Houdini with setting the standard for the “magician’s body.”

“Before Houdini,” said one magic scholar, “magicians looked like the average audience member.  Some were in great shape, some were in terrible shape and some looked like they were in great shape but were really in terrible shape.  There were none who looked like they were in great shape but were really in terrible shape.”

Houdini’s emphasis on physical conditioning forced him to run several miles a day and perform calisthenics.  He ate right and did not smoke.    In his youth, he was a competitive runner and circus performer.  Those two avocations sculpted his body to near Adonis perfection and set his own personal standard for a lifetime of physically demanding discipline.

It was not commonly known that Harry Kellar could bench press in excess of 200 lbs or that Adelaide Herrmann could perform one-handed push-ups with either arm.

“In those days, most magicians kept their superb bodies under wraps, so to speak.  Audiences were not attracted to performers because of their physiques,” one commentator noted.   “Only freak show performers removed enough clothing to show anything.”

Today, most magic conventions look like a gathering of Olympic competitors.  “Compared with the other performing arts, amateur and professional magicians have far and away the best bodies and physical conditioning.” Continue reading “Jim Carrey on Starving for Magic Physique”

Magic Patents Don’t Help: Learn from Horace Goldin

We uploaded into the Inside Magic Library, the 1938 decision by the federal district trial court in the Southern District of New York dismissing Horace Goldin’s lawsuit against R.J. Reynold’s Tobacco for an injunction blocking their alleged exposure of Goldin’s trade secret for Sawing a Woman in Half.  You can see the decision here.

The Court’s decision was correct — Goldin was wrong and apparently didn’t even appear for the hearing.

The Court buys R.J. Reynold’s defense that it did not take Goldin’s secret.  The tobacco folks claimed they got their version of the secret by reading a book written by Inside Magic Favorite Author Walter B. Gibson.

We are publishing the decision to demonstrate an unfortunately frequent mistake of magicians.   A patent only keeps others from making the exact same illusion — it cannot protect the secret or even the idea behind the secret.

Mr. Goldin also failed to understand what is meant by “Trade Secret.”  This is still a common mistake made by magicians.   True, one can protect trade secrets under US intellectual property law but a trade secret must be secret first and foremost.

The method of performing a magic trick is not a trade secret if it is known by others — even if it is known only by magicians.  It may be a secret of the trade but that does not make it a trade secret.

A magician can protect a trade secret only if it is truly secret, he or she has taken the steps to protect the secret, and the person being sued had some agreement or contract with the magician to keep the secret.  Unless there was an agreement between the parties or there was some sort of special relationship between the parties where a court could conclude all agreed the secret was to be kept, there is no basis for a lawsuit.

Blaine Does Trademark Card Tricks

David Blaine played to a nearly empty theatre in Holland recently.

The dearth of audience members was intentional, however.

DNA India reports his sponsor, Madonna, rented out the entire movie theater “so that she could enjoy a night out at the movies with her boyfriend Brahim Zaibat.”

Described as Madonna’s “Toyboy” by the media source, Mr. Zaibat is a 24-year-old dancer on tour with the iconic performer.

Mr. Blaine was brought in to entertain the small party of Madonna, her companion, daughter and manager at The Tuschinski cinema in Amsterdam.

DNA India says Mr. Blaine performed his “trademark card tricks.”

We are told that Madonna was wearing “a cardigan, knee length skirt and glasses” and her ensemble could be considered “demure.”

We have attempted to learn more about Mr. Blaine’s “trademark card tricks” but to no avail. Initially, we assumed this was some new effect in which trademarks of various companies or services vanished or transformed visibly whilst in the able control of the magician. This left us without the satisfaction we crave when we encounter something new.

We immediately tore through our books and periodicals collected in the anteroom to the great Hardy Estate’s Southern Annex. We found nothing about “trademark card tricks” in the more recent journals and books.

Knowing Mr. Blaine’s penchant for reviving the classics of the great masters – such as Buried Alive in the spirit of Harry Houdini – we thought “trademark card tricks” maybe a knowing wink to the performance of his predecessors.

Interestingly, it is widely accepted that one of the very first trademark was created by and for the Dutch East Indies Company in Amsterdam around 1601. Perhaps that was why Mr. Blaine performed the “trademark card tricks” whilst in the city.

We were able to find one reference to a trick that sounds similar to the “trademark card trick” in an old Popular Science magazine advertisement from Johnson Smith & Co. The writing is difficult to make out and we have tried to highlight the portion that seems relevant. Our reading of the original (sorry for the poor quality scan) is:

“but none MORE entertaining then (sic) TRADEMARK Cards trick . . . VANISH and REAPPEAR with EASE . . . friends and even GIRLS!”

We will continue looking for additional references and supplement this article as we find them.

But for now, as the Sherlock Holmes commented to Dr. Watson upon learning his toilet seat was stolen – no doubt by Professor Moriarity – “I’m afraid there’s not much to go on.”

 

Houdini: Who’s Your Daddy?

Houdini’s father was a ________?

If you answered Rabbi, you may or may not be correct.

If you said, “lawyer,” you may be close.

If you asked, “who is ‘Houdini’?”  You are on the wrong site.

If you whined, “a person is much more than what he does for a living,” you are probably also on the wrong site but because your response evidences so much depth and sensitivity we assume you have lived life of considerable pain and disappointment and would hate to add to the long list of places and people who have rejected you.  You can stay but don’t touch anything.

The Houdini File is publishing a multi-part series on the question of Houdini’s daddy.  It is absolutely fascinating.

The series is a product of The Houdini Birth Research Committee of the Society of American Magicians.  Their task was to “ferret out hard facts about Mayer Samuel Weisz.”

As an aside, we love the phrase “ferret out hard facts” for inducing a wonderful melange of visual imagery.  In fact, our first World War II novel was titled “Ferret Out!” From the dust jacket “Captain Elmo Ferret was a young aviator trained as a crop duster in rural Key West, Florida drafted into Uncle Sam’s Air Corps to put a hurtin’ on a different kind of crop-destroying pest.”

Continue reading “Houdini: Who’s Your Daddy?”

Magic and Anesthesiology in the News

So we were perusing Anesthesiology: The Journal of the American Association of Anesthesiologists whilst waiting for our HOT POCKETS® brand Breakfast – Ham, Egg & Cheese sandwich to cook and came across two articles with magical applications.

The first is by Dr. Amr Abouleish titled “Try and hold your breath while reading this!

The second is “A Mixed (Long- and Medium-chain) Triglyceride Lipid Emulsion Extracts Local Anesthetic from Human Serum In Vitro More Effectively than a Long-chain Emulsion,” by Weiming Ruan and Deborah French.

The first piece gives an anesthesiologist’s take on magician David Blaine’s world record setting attempts at holding his breath (as opposed to holding someone elses?) for more than 17 minutes. You can watch the TED Talk in which Mr. Blaine instructs audience members in the special preparation needed to hold their breath for more than three minutes after breathing “normal” or upwards of 17 minutes after huffing pure oxygen.

Dr. Abouleish poses the following question to his new anesthesiologist residents when discussing the relationship of end-tidal CO2 and respiration. “If your oxygen saturation is 100% and you hold your breath, what would your oxygen saturation be when you have to breathe?”

Of course all magicians know the answer to this but non-magic oriented medical residents need to be reminded of the relatively slow decline in oxygen saturation experienced by pre-oxygenated patients under general anesthesia.

We agree with Dr. Abouleish’s praise of Blaine’s talk. Those in the audience were able to hold their breath for as long as three minutes or more. Check it out for yourself and abide the constant warnings that this is not a skill easily acquired and one should never try this under water. The chance of passing out is high and because the risk of drowning whilst underwater is directly proportional to being conscious, you could, in the medical parlance, “konk out and die.”

The comments to Dr. Abouleish’s article are also instructive. There is general agreement that Mr. Blaine should have sought advice from an anesthesiologist rather than neurologists.

Instructive is a comment from Dr. Gerald Zeitlin. His capitalization and grammar is taken verbatim from his post:

As you all know Dr. Abouleish is discussing apneic oxygenation.

Watching David Blaine do his 17 minutes was fantastic – but what an incredibly wasted opportunity for science.

As we all know, HE SHOULD HAVE CONSULTED AN ANESTHESIOLOGIST!

Neurosurgeons “Don’t know nuffin’ ” about respiratory physiology. Why did Blaine not have an arterial line for his record attempt – then we’d have known what his arterial pCO2 was after 17 minutes.

Of course we all know that, at rest, during apnea the pCO2 rises between 3 and 5 mm. Hg per minute.

I failed math in Kindergarten but I think 17 times, let’s say 4 mm. Hg = 68. So, approximately he was at 108 mm.Hg pCO2.

As WE (anesthesiologists) know that level has mild to moderate anesthetic properties. I bet if you Emailed Dr. Eger he would know what the MAC of CO2 is.

We would love to meet Dr. Zeitlin. He is our kind of guy.

The second article of magic merit in the February 2012 edition of Anesthesiology, attempts to the answer the age old question, which extracts local anesthesia better, a “mixed” triglyceride lipid emulsion or a long-chain version?

Houdini’s correspondence with Kellar on this issue springs to mind.

Continue reading “Magic and Anesthesiology in the News”

Magicians Seek New Home for Old Tricks

Magicians and magic historians have thousands of magic props, costumes and tools of the trade but no place to show them.
The Los Angeles Times covered the Society of American Magicians’ on-going effort to select a home for the more than 5,000 piece collection years after an explosion in a nearby building coated the items in soot and carcinogenic PCBs.
The collection in exile is currently housed in de classe digs in Pico Rivera, California – not quite its former home at the corner of Hollywood and Vine in Hollywood. 
"We'd love to reopen the museum. The problem is money," said John Engman, president of the society's local assembly.
The magicians sued and settled with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for $57,000.00 after more than three years of battling over the cost of decontamination.  Chase purchased the bank building in which the museum was housed and restricted access to bankers’ hours thereby prohibiting any evening events.
"We're looking for around 3,000 square feet, preferably in Hollywood. We'd have a little theater, a display area and storage space," said Engman, a retired California attorney and magician.   Space is dear in California and if the society cannot find a benefactor to donate a suitable venue, the museum may be moved to Parker, Colorado where its national office is to be opened.
Members of the local assembly can still see the items by visiting the storage facility but that arrangement is not practical or befitting such an important trove. 
The Inside Magic Museum of Magic endured a similar episode when local Mystic Hollow, Michigan zoning ordinances were updated to prohibit the public display of “old things” or images of “old people” that may “scare vulnerable members of society” or “contribute to respiratory distress due to mold or accumulated dust.” 
Unlike the society’s collection, the IMMM was easily moved to its new location by towing the single-wide unit to the south side of Dante Avenue and thus out of the official village limits.  The sudden starts and stops during the trip did result in indelible snow-cone juice stains on the museum’s collection of used mouth coils. 
Curator Darla White estimated the damage to some of the more popular bunched up mouth coils could be “significant.”  The prize of the collection, The Thurston Wad – nearly 47 feet of multicolored crepe paper spewed by the great magician whilst suffering a severe cold in Chicago – remained pristine and still glistening within its protective glass case.
A thumb-tip attributed to 1950s Vegas magician Alopecia Jones was also found still permanently affixed to its wooden base along with a plaque explaining how Jones utilized the gimmick in unique and not all magic-related ways. Continue reading “Magicians Seek New Home for Old Tricks”

Houdini and Art in Madison Wisconsin

For a dead guy, he sure does get around.  Houdini packed 'em in at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art last Friday as "Houdini: Art and Magic" opened.

According to press reports, a talk by the show's curator was standing room only and the galleries were packed. 

The Jewish Museum in New York assembled the show and it is making its sole Midwest stop on the way home from a very successful run in Los Angeles. 

Critics noted that the show is "a bit of a departure for MMoCA, which tends to focus more straightforwardly on modern and contemporary art, but the show is already proving to have wide crossover appeal."

While visitors can enjoy watching rare video clips of the star's greatest escapes, they can check out  more conventional art  from the world of sculpture and painting.

One critic notes:

Heavy chains in Petah Coyne's sculpture, Untitled #698 (Trying to Fly, Houdini's Chandelier), recall those with which Houdini bound himself for feats of escape. The piece's suspension from the ceiling brings to mind the many stunts he performed while dangling over crowded city streets. Coyne's work compels the viewer with its brooding, mysterious presence, rather than a literal representation of Houdini.

Some of my other favorites included Jane Hammond's large-scale paintings, one of which shows Houdini on a tightrope, performing his needle trick (in which he swallowed sewing needles and then pulled them from his mouth on a string). In this case, the silhouettes of women in pre-Civil War dress hang strangely from the string. The simplified, graphic composition of Hammond's painting calls to mind posters for his appearances, some of which are on view here.

Read more at The Isthmus here.