This Red-tailed Hawk was a surprise to the dozens of New York City commuters who spotted it at the crossroads of a busy traffic intersection near the 72nd Street subway entrance. The City had put the owl statue up in the tree to discourage pigeons from pooping on commuters below, but the Red-tailed Hawk thought he had found a companion predator. Notice the diagnostic streaked band across the Hawk’s chest.
Lots of magicians do the trick I’m doing in this video, but I really enjoy the presentation that I’ve worked out here with my colleague Jacob Lefco. I think it makes it a lot more fun and logical when you have a reason for tearing the newspaper up and making the magic happen.
This was performed yesterday at a high school talent show. The acoustics in the auditorium are less than stellar, but I think you can still get the idea fine, anyway. The students were a very enthusiastic crowd, as you can tell, and they are all new immigrants to the United States, so their English vocabulary for the most part is limited; that’s another reason why I tried to play it with a minimum of words on my part.
Sometimes you’re in a restaurant, and there’s something on the menu that you know you just have to have, because it includes not only one, but two things you love, like Surf and Turf, or Strawberry Shortcake with Chocolate Ice Cream. Well, I felt that same kind of pleasure on stumbling across the above video. Two of my favorite things in the world, Shakespeare and Who’s on First are mashed up and beautifully scripted and acted by NJ actors David Foubert and Jay Leibowitz. Enjoy! And save me a slice of that Key Lime Pecan Pie with Whipped Cream . . .
Jackie Mason rarely fails to make me laugh, and that’s been true for over fifty years. Enormously quick-witted and fast on his feet, he’s the Muhammed Ali of comedy, dancing and ducking until he delivers a knockout punch of humor. Here he is on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, on what used to be a favorite show, back in the day, of political liberals. In retrospect, his appearance on that show was somewhat ironic, given how Mason’s politics turned so right-wing as he got older. But there is no denying that no matter what his politics, Jackie Mason is a brilliant comedian. Watch as he takes a premise and follows through with relentless logic, wringing every drop of comedy from it.
In the first part of this series, I talked about the quality and usability of the excellent Ultimate Sphinx CD collection—all fifty years of a landmark magic periodical. I also dipped into the contents of the first volume published in 1902. In this new installment, I’m going to jump fifteen years later, to 1917, and take a look at what the magazine looked like then.
On perusing the later volume, two things immediately jump out: the first thing to notice is the new editor, A. M. Wilson, replacing William Hilliar. Wilson replaced Hilliar early on in the run and went on to steward The Sphinx for decades afterwards. The second is how the magazine has entrenched itself as the official organ of the Society of American Magicians. There are many reports from around the SAM locals around the country, many filled with descriptions of famous magicians of the era.
The ads as always, are entertaining and instructive. Who would have thought to find this fellow at such an early juncture:
And here’s a large ad for a new book which illustrates some of the contemporary wonders inside:
But lest these wonders and announcements make you think the life of a magician is an easy one, take a look at this plea from the famous Theo Bamberg, better known as Okito:
For all the prior notices about his successes, Bamberg still needed to rustle up the capital to take his act on tour. Perhaps he was frustrated with his role at the time making shadows in the Thurston show.
Bamberg was a frequent contributor to The Sphinx during this period with some excellent tricks. In The Bewitched Blocks, a series of eight alphabet blocks are placed in cabinet in random order; with the firing of a gun at the blocks, the blocks are revealed to have re-arranged themselves magically to spell a spectator’s randomly chosen word. In Bamberg’s Envelope Mystery, another effect inspired by the Spiritualist craze of the day, a signed envelope, visibly suspended onstage by two narrow ribbons, is opened to reveal both the answer to a spectator’s previously asked question—and a handkerchief of a previously chosen color.
The prolific Walter Gibson writes about Dye Tubes, a Bow Tie that magically changes into a Four in Hand Tie, and a very efficient Card to Pocket. Ovette contributes a Wine and Water change, a Disappearing Egg, and a Silks to Flag stunt. And again, in line with the growing fascination of the time with all things to do with Spiritualism, David P. Abbott writes about the The Mystic Oracle of the Swinging Pendulum or Mind Over Matter.
But if there is anything that holds a magic organization robust, it’s the anti-exposure stance, and the SAM was certainly that. Here’s a limerick printed in The Sphinx that expressed that view:
There was an exposer named Rue
Who exposed the tricks that he knew;
He’s not here to blame
For he’s out of the game,
And the tricks that he knew were so few.
Next installment, I’ll jump ahead another fifteen years, and see what changes have been wrought.
Pop (Whit) Haydn is one of the true gentlemen of magic and a wonderful magician. He puts an amazing amount of thought into what he does. As excellent as his sleight of hand is, his attention to character, script and routining is equally meticulous. His character of a lovable blustering rogue and con man is fun to watch. Take a few minutes to enjoy a very engaging performer. Click on the video above to see one of the routines he performs at the bar of The Magic Castle.
The story goes, Richard Burbage, arguably the finest English-speaking actor ever,* Shakespeare’s leading man in the Lord Chamberlain’s company, attracted many female admirers. His most popular role was Richard III, one of the most performed of Shakespeare’s plays during his lifetime.
Burbage’s longtime friend, Will Shakespeare, liked to play pranks on him. When Will heard that Burbage had arranged an assignation with a young woman, Shakespeare hurried to her house and tumbled into bed with the lady first. A few minutes later, Burbage arrived, and knocked on the woman’s door, announcing that Richard III had come. But in reply, Burbage heard a male voice on the other side of the door say, “Tell him, William the Conqueror comes before Richard the Third!”
Here’s a wonderful bargain in magic history: the complete run of the fabled magic magazine, The Sphinx, on a DVD, all 50+ years of it, from 1902 to 1953, for $49.95. It’s published by The Conjuring Arts Research Center as The Ultimate Sphinx. You will greatly enjoy this periodical, once the official mouthpiece for the Society of American Magicians, if you are any kind of theater or magic history buff. Throughout its run, the magazine was edited by such magic luminaries as William Hilliar, A.M. Wilson, and John Mulholland, making it a vital record of the history of the magical arts in the United States for the first half of the twentieth century.
The DVD is very intelligently designed. Each volume of the periodical was scanned as a separate pdf file for easy transport and reading on a mobile device; however there is also a cumulative index that covers the entire fifty year run, so one can enter, for example, “T. Nelson Downs” as a search term and get references that span across the decades.
The scans are beautifully done: the print and photos of every issue (including many color covers) are clear, and as a bonus, even the texts of the advertisements are search-able. For example, here’s a fascinating little ad from the February 1903 issue, that should give you a little thrill of recognition:
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the first issue, where the first editor, William Hilliar, tips his method for the rising cards, and also gives the first installment of his hand shadow tutorial. There are little squibs of news from magicians around the country and the world with anecdotes such as this:
“Like all successful men, Marshall P. Wilder the eminent comedian
and lover of magic, has his imitators and rivals, though, in
the vaudeville field the latter are few and far between. The
merry little man was recently asked his opinion concerning a
certain variety monologuist and with characteristic generosity
he said everything complimentary about his rival’s cleverness
and hoped he was doing well. “Dear me,” exclaimed the inquirer,
but that isn’t at all the way he speaks about you. He has the
very opposite of a good opinion of you.” “‘Ah, returned Wilder;
well, perhaps we’re both mistaken.”
In the second issue we have an article on the invention, history, and explanation of the Great Gold Fishing Trick associated with Chung Ling Soo. The article, written by Hilliar, goes on to say admiringly (with some chutzpah, I think) how Hilliar, along with Horace Goldin, immediately copied the effect, and greatly improved upon it.
There are also more reports on magical doings around the world: shades of Harry Lorayne! Here we learn that:
“Adrian Plate, at a recent entertainment, did the ingenious memorizing feat of naming any of fifty objects written by the audience and indiscriminately asked for.”
And here’s an item that got me wondering:
“Reeder, the Entertainer, for the pleasure of his friends does the three card monte and turn over in a very puzzling way.”
While I had no doubt that the three-card monte was alive and well as a scam in 1902, it was very surprising to me to learn that it was being performed as entertainment that early on. I wonder if someone can tell me of any earlier references to monte as an entertainment.
In September of 1903, we have this momentous report:
MYSTIC MAGICIANS WORK WIERD CHARMS.
Just when the darkness hung the deepest over the city Saturday, Sept.
6th, shadowy forms might have been seen entering the little building at 493
Sixth Avenue, hidden away beneath the elevated railroad overhead.
It was 12 o’clock—the witching hour of midnight. Across the street an
old colored woman stood beside her lunch stand.
“Yes-sum. Dar air no use talkin,” she said to a passerby. “I feel
mighty queer tonight. I dun know dat spooks is ‘roun yere. Yas-sum, I got
a feelin’ dat the debble is prowling aroun”.
As each form moved quickly and noiselessly up the street it stopped in front of the door. Over the entrance hung a sign reading:
“MARTINKA’S MAGICAL BAZAAR.”
As soon as each mysterious stranger saw the sign he stepped to the door and gave a mysterious rap. A bolt shot back and the stranger quickly stepped inside. Not a word was spoken. Not a light was visible. The door was shut as noiselessly as it was opened and—then as quickly closed—ah! The occasion was a meeting of the recently organized society known as “The Society of American Magicians.” Every man of prominence who had ever practiced the black art was present. There were adaps in ledgerdemain, slight of hand performers, experts in juggling, illusionists, magicians, conjurers, enchanters, magis and high priests of the league of evil spirits. Through the store the midnight visitors were conducted until they found themselves in a miniature theatre at the back. Black curtains were drawn to shut out any light, and the meeting was called to order. After formal balloting as prosaic as is indulged in by ordinary mortals, the following officers were elected: Dr. W. Golden Mortimer, president: P. H. Cannon, first vice-president; Elmer P. Ransom, second vice-president; J. W. Sargeant, treasurer; and Francis J, Werner, secretary.
The society was formed for the promotion of friendship and furtherance
of the art of magic. A motto was adopted as follows:
MAGIC, UNITY, MIGHT.
The insignia of the order will be a gold button with the initials “M-U-M,” which is peculiarly significant—even for these wise men who follow the art of the Medes and Persians. By laws were approved and 14 new members were initiated. The society now has a membership of 74. There are two classes of membership. “Fellows,” those who make their livelihood entirely by the practice of this art, and “members,” who practice for amusement and pleasure. Among the most prominent of the members are Harry Kellar, Leon Herrmann, a nephew of “Herrmann the Great,” Imro Fox and Horace Goldin, who, although the youngest is considered as clever as any.
In November 1902, another battle in the war against exposure continues:
BRENNON & MARTINI, the alleged magicians, who make a living by exposing tricks on the public stage, are playing the Orpheum circuit. They were in Kansas City week of Oct. 12 and Omaha week of Oct. 19. They expose during their act the egg and handkerchief trick, rose ii. button-hole, passe-passe, chair servante, torn umbrella and handkerchief changing globe. In spite of Mr. Martini’s promise not to expose the use of the servante in his act he continues to do so.
The Sphinx touts in that month that it is now the official Western organ of the SAM. Houdini starts becoming a regular contributor of gossip and self-promotion. Here’s one of his letters to the magazine:
Well, I’ve barely scratched the surface of even this first volume, but one last tidbit, this picture from the January 1903 issue:
Can you guess who this is? Why, naturally enough, it’s L’homme Masque. I have to admit that while I knew his name as the inventor of the famous coin load, I had no idea until now that he actually performed with a mask on! Not only that, but it would seem that he spawned a fad. T. Nelson Downs says in an accompanying article:
The Marquis is a born artist and his magical conceptions were born with him. He has had a wonderful career and did not take up magic until late in life; at the age of 43, after losing 800,000 francs at Monte Carlo, he decided to adopt magic as a profession. Making his debut in March 1894, he was an instant and decided success, creating sensation everywhere he appeared. His success was so pronounced that he had many imitators who donned the masque and took his name outright and traded on his reputation.
As I said, I have just scratched the surface of this first volume–and there are fifty more to go! My original intention was to do a survey of the magazine, picking out a volume from each decade, but I soon realized that that was a larger undertaking than just one post. If there’s enough interest, I’ll dive back in with another installment. But really, this is such an embarrassment of riches, with so much diverse material, that I can’t think of a better way to spend your magic dollar. The Conjuring Arts Research Center has done a tremendous job, and we are all in their debt for this magnificent contribution to magic history, made accessible to all.
…was the inscription on Pete Seeger’s banjo. I took this picture at one of Pete’s last performances during August 2013, at the Ashokan Folk Festival in Ashokan, NY. He was 94 years old. He died five months later.
Pete’s appearance at the festival was touching: his wife of many years, Toshi had recently died, and one of the outdoor stages was named after her. Pete was contemplative and sang a few songs that spoke of the circle of life. The most charming was the version of “Turn, Turn, Turn” to which Toshi had written words for her children.
Here are Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell, who were also at that festival, singing “Toshi’s Turn”
My friend, Alan, has a monthly theater group at the local library which hosts an event he likes to call “Instant Theater.” One of the games he plays is this: given two phrases, you must write a play using the first phrase as the opening line, and the last phrase as the closing line of the play. You have until the next meeting to write it, and then the actors perform it with no rehearsal, instantly.
Here is the modest contribution to the genre I wrote some time ago. The opening phrase I was given was, “It’s very humid out,” and my closing phrase was, “The annual spring luncheon.”
(PAT and ED are sitting in separate chairs, side by side facing front.)
PAT: (Turning away from ED, peering at something) It’s very humid out.
PAT: Yes, humid.
ED: How can you tell?
PAT: I’m looking out the window.
ED: I know you’re looking out the window, but how can you tell?
PAT: Because it’s wet.
ED: You see water?
PAT: I think so.
ED: You don’t see water.
PAT: I think I see water.
ED: Believe me, you don’t see water.
PAT: It could be water.
ED: Believe me, you don’t see water.
PAT: I thought I saw a drop.
ED: That would be impossible. That would be physically impossible, Isaac Newton impossible.
PAT: So what is it?
ED: I don’t know. A reflection. An artifact. I don’t know.
PAT: Dark out there.
ED: What’s it like?
PAT: The dark?
PAT: It’s pretty chilling. It’s like a blanket covering you, but the dark goes on forever.
ED: No light?
PAT: You can’t see?
PAT: Very far away. Very far away. A pinpoint. You can’t see from there?
PAT: It’s strange how things work out. How are you holding up?
ED: Easier than I thought it would be. I guess that’s the point of the training. When the time comes, it’s relatively easy.
ED: Who was the fourth President?
PAT: Why do you care?
ED: I was arguing with Sharon and I couldn’t remember who it was. It was either Monroe or Madison.
PAT: Monroe, no, I think Madison. No Monroe. Could be Madison. Federalist Papers. Monroe was the short one. I think Madison.
ED: You sure it wasn’t Monroe?
PAT: I don’t know, I get them mixed up. That’s what you talk about with your wife?
ED: Yes. That’s what passes for foreplay.
PAT: Sounds exciting.
ED: You never know what’s going to turn on some women.
PAT: Something to look forward to.
ED: Harder for you when you’re busy or just like this?
PAT: What do you mean?
ED: Well two months is a long time. Do you like to be busy? Or better when we’re on these half hour breaks?
PAT: I don’t know. I suppose busy is good. Although I like the breaks too. I like having the time to just be still and contemplate, thinking about the universe, thinking about how amazing this all is, how lucky we are. I was wondering if there would be a shift in my model of the world being up here for so long. And I think there has been. I think my perspective has changed. Neil said that was the big thing for him, that was the amazing thing for him, more than even the walk, just seeing just how small the Earth really was, how much it was really just one more little infinitesimal speck of the vast overall structure.
ED: How has it changed for you?
PAT: After a month and a half? It’s not so much, for me, about what’s out there, it’s about what’s inside me. Inside my brain. Like Shakespeare. The whole world inside that globe of my head. Even in the vast emptiness of just the two of us, the worlds I imagine, the universes I create. In this strange sort of solitude, I am the god of empires, the ruler of landscapes green, rocky, ocean-lapped. Look there, there’s a shepherd, barefoot in the break of a jagged mountain range calling to his sheep. Now look, armies clashing in the jungle, snipers ducking as bullets try to end their lives. Look, a lover with a rose she no longer knows what to do with, and See! a railroad car heading to the unplanned funeral of the family in the third seat.
ED: They haven’t called.
ED: It’s six thirty eight. They haven’t called.
PAT: It’s not six thirty eight.
ED: It’s six thirty eight, look in front of your nose. It’s been thirty eight minutes. They’re eight minutes late. What is that supposed to mean?
PAT: Look at the clock by the left panel. What does it say, you should be able to read it.
ED: Six thirty nine.
PAT: That’s strange. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything.
ED: Call them. Call them. Call them.
PAT: Right. Ground control, Pat, come in please. Ground control, this is Pat, come in please, over.
PAT: Ground control, this is Pat, come in please, over. Ground control, this is Pat, come in please, over.
ED: Check the mike.
PAT: Ground control, Houston, this is Pat and Ed. Ground Control. Money makes money and the money that money makes, makes more money. Ground control. (Pause) The mike is fine.
ED: We’re off the flight path.
ED: We’re off the flight path.
PAT: Well correct it for heaven’s sake.
ED: There are no position parameters.
PAT: How can there be no—
ED: I don’t know! There are no position parameters!
PAT: What are you nuts, read the freakin’ parameters.
ED: Do you see anything, do you see anything? If I could read the freakin–
PAT: There’s got to be—
ED: There isn’t!
(Pause. They stare at the empty screen)
ED: It’s completely blank.
PAT: It’s completely blank.
ED: Try the mike again.
PAT: Ground control this is Pat, Pat and Ed. Ground control this is Pat and Ed, come in please.
What time is it?
ED: Six forty-four.
PAT: Fourteen minutes.
ED: They should have contacted us.
PAT: Maybe they’re trying to and can’t get through. Maybe that’s what happened. We have–
ED: Nothing happened, nothing happened! It’s six forty-four and they’re supposed to have contacted us. We have epic equipment failure, that’s what we have.
PAT: What do we do? There’s a procedure. There’s a procedure for everything.
ED: There’s no procedure—
PAT: There’s a procedure for everything. The next–
ED: You just did the procedure, I just did the procedure, there’s no more procedure–
PAT: I remember when I was a kid I used to spend the whole car ride to the country with my face against the window, watching the scenery change, trees, telephone poles, cars, farmland, motorcycle with a girl on the back–red hair, holding on to the leather jacket of the guy in front. I used to pretend that we weren’t going anywhere. We were at the drive-in movies and everything outside the window was a movie where I had to guess the story.
ED: We only had two more weeks.
ED: It would’ve been Joanie’s birthday. Three years. (Pause) I think I need to go to the bathroom.
PAT: I love: My mother. I love: My sisters. My brother. Camille, God help me. God.
The composer Richard Rodgers was lucky enough to work with two of the greatest Broadway lyricists who ever lived: Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II. Likewise, those two lyricists were lucky enough to work with Rodgers.
But to my mind, the most beautiful piece of music that Rodgers ever wrote was not the product of a collaboration with either of those two men. It was the glorious “Carousel Waltz,” written as the prologue for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. More than an overture, it set the tone for the entire play. In my favorite incarnation of the play, the 1994 revival, directed by Nick Hytner and designed by Bob Crowley, it was the backdrop for a pantomime showing the tough lives of the New England mill factory girls. As the final work bell sounded, they were set free from their enforced factory drudgery to explore the wonders of the Carousel, even as it was being built piece by piece onstage by actors playing carny roustabouts. Truly a stunning theatrical moment.
The recording above is the New York Philharmonic conducted by Richard Rodgers himself. It’s thrilling to hear with a full orchestra. So get out of bed this Monday morning and catch a ride on the carousel. Click on the grey triangle above to hear.
On a cold evening in London, 1871, Henry Irving, not yet a Sir, and his wife were riding in a horse-carriage. Irving was the first actor ever to be knighted, but on this evening, he was still relatively unknown. He had just opened in a new play, The Bells, which would make him a star. Later, along with his acting partner Ellen Terry, he would score in dozens of plays. Hamlet, Much Ado, Merchant of Venice, provided him with some of his greatest roles. His portrayals were acclaimed for their realism; his Shylock was unique for the time—his Jew was an actual person with feelings (see the photo above). But right now, he was just a journeyman actor from the working class who had struggled hard to make a name for himself.
In The Bells, he played Matthias, a guilt-stricken murderer. At the end of the play, Irving’s character dreams of a noose put around his neck; upon awakening, he struggles to take the imaginary noose from his throat, but then dies of a heart attack.
“The play left the first-nighters a little dazed. Old fashioned playgoers did not know what to make of it as a form of entertainment. But when the final curtain fell, the audience, after a gasp or two, realised that they had witnessed the most masterly form of tragic acting that the British stage had seen for many a long day, and there was a storm of cheers,” said a writer for the Evening News.
But Irving was only a star that night to the few people in the stalls who had come out to see him.
As he got into the horse-carriage to go home, his wife, Florence, pregnant with their second child, turned to him and said, “Tell me Henry, are you going to go on making a fool of yourself like this all your life?”
Without a word to her, Irving stopped the carriage, got out at Hyde Park Corner, and never saw his wife again.