Palisades Amusement Park, 1932


If you grew up listening to AM radio in the New York City area during the 60s, you probably can remember the Palisades Amusement Park jingle:

Palisades has the rides,
Palisades has the fun,
Come On Over [….]

Ride the coaster,
Get cool,
In the waves in the pool.
You’ll have fun, so,
Come On Over.

Palisades Amusement Park opened in 1910, and didn’t close until some sixty years later.  The 1932 footage here is actual park footage with real sound, and not from a movie.  I had to laugh at the woman’s “disappearance.” Perhaps the vanish took so long because it took time to move the gorilla aside to make room? I wonder if there was a reason for making the trick so obvious. The roller coaster was called The Cyclone but it wasn’t the same as the one in Coney Island. Click on the video above for a carefree time.

Thanks to YouTuber guy jones

A Trip Through New York City: 1911



An extraordinary video with corrected speed. The poster did a great job of adding ambient sound to enhance the overall effect of the video. I was surprised to see the Flatiron building and the intersection where it is located so recognizable over a hundred years later. How many locations do you recognize?

Thanks to YouTuber guy jones

What’s My Line?


The guest on the October 13, 1953 edition of What’s My Line (exactly 65 years ago) had just celebrated her 69th birthday. Unlike other more recent occupants of her job, she had never been a high-fashion model, served on the boards of exploitative corporations, nor killed her friend by running a stop sign at 50 mph. Nevertheless, she managed.

Thanks to YouTuber What’s My Line?

A Copperfield Virtual Tour




The New-York Historical Society recently opened a small exhibition on the history of magic in New York, drawn from the vast private David Copperfield Collection. An unannounced surprise at the opening was the presence of Copperfield himself, who gave us a short guided tour of the exhibit (as Homer Liwag toiled in the background, putting last minute touches on the exhibit).

You can listen to Copperfield’s commentary, as broadcast yesterday on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM, by clicking on the grey triangle above.

Magic, Wide and Deep


When I saw the UPS man stooped over as he was delivering the package to my mailbox, I knew that it had finally arrived. I’m talking about Taschen’s Magic 1400s-1950s, an amazing book of posters and essays that is hands down the most magnificent book of any kind that I own.

It seems impossible to believe, but what I ordered from Amazon is actually the abridged edition. Abridged in this case means 540 pages instead of 650 pages, 2 inches shorter in length, and 1 1/2 inches narrower; but the book is still massive, two inches thick, measuring 16″ x 11″, weighing twelve pounds.

You can open this tome at any point and you will be greeted by the most wonderful historical magic posters and photos in beautiful color. And every once in a while you will also be greeted by the most lovely of two-page spreads. The illustrations on the posters are truly delicious, and many of them have not been in print in book form before. In the centuries before social media, the variety arts were advertised through posters that promised the most extraordinary of delights, and the wonders of Kellar, Thurston, Houdini, and countless others were communicated in large part through this medium.

But, you say, you are one of those people that buys Playboy for the articles and doesn’t care about the pictures. In that case, you are still in luck. The book is also filled with fascinating essays by the great Jim Steinmeyer, Ricky Jay, and Mike Caveney, all Godfathers of magical knowledge, both historical and practical. The essays (and picture captions) are all in three languages: English, French, and German. But the nice thing about this is that though the text is repeated, there are different pictorial elements for each, so the 540 pages is really a full 540 pages of content, not just repetition. It seems incredible to me, that when you consider that the original edition cost $250, that Amazon can currently sell this for under $50. Oh, and did I mention that for that price, the book is also provided with a handsome slip cover as well?

As my wife says, this is the kind of book that makes you want to run out and buy a coffee table, it’s that good. I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who has the slightest interest in the magical or the illustrative arts. I guarantee you will spend many delightful times with this book.



The other book that I’ve been reading this week is also a magic history book, but at the other end of the spectrum. Where the Taschen book covers 500 years of history and spans multiple countries and genres of magic, Dick Oslund’s self-published Road Scholar is quite the opposite. It is highly specific, and covers a very narrow, but deep, slice of American magical history. To wit, the good-natured Oslund spent forty-plus years on the road as a performer touring the “knowledge boxes,” that is, the school Lyceum circuit. Oslund made a career of performing his 45-minute show in up to four different schools a day as he traveled an average 500 miles a week, through the tiniest towns of Michigan, South Dakota, Kansas and parts West. If the definition of success is to find a niche and to fill it, then Oslund was successful in spades. He tells literally hundreds of stories of his visits to schools around the country, and by the end, you are exhausted, but feel that he must have encountered every possible situation that could ever be encountered by a school performer.

The production values here are, as I said before, on the opposite spectrum of the Taschen book, but in its own way, it is no less comprehensive. There’s not a whole lot in the way of editing, and the photos are all in glorious black and white, but in the chatty conversation here, there’s a lot of wisdom born of hard experience. The casual magician will be most interested in the latter half of the book, what Oslund calls “The Book Within a Book.” In this section, which follows the anecdotal section (and 82-year-old Oslund must have kept the most amazing notes or have the most amazing memory!), Oslund talks about his trick set list and magic philosophy, while also including his road-tested scripts and precious bits of business. This section begins with Oslund’s nine sacred rules for choosing effects for a school audience, and it’s advice that can be followed by all who want to make sure that their platform show can be performed under any condition.

There will probably be some who feel that Oslund could have just published the latter half of the book, and I can’t say that I totally disagree; the opening material while interesting does start to get repetitious. There’s also lots of  biographical information about all the other school performers he met along the way; while this is important to document for historical reasons, for the casual reader it probably holds less interest.

But… but…

In a way there’s a method to Oslund’s madness. In his insistence to document just about every school in which he ever performed, and every performer that he ever met, he creates the context for the second part of his book. Because in a way, you can’t really understand the full value of the trick part of the book without understanding that, subliminally, Oslund has been telling you all along the real secret: all those folks he met along the way, all those home-cooked meals given to him by comrades, some newly met, all those “jackpots” and stories swapped convivially, were the real secret of his success. Without ever explicitly saying so, Oslund makes you understand that he was actually in the people business, and that he was a success in his field because he loved people and had a genius for friendship. He knew what people wanted, and could give it to them. I can’t say that this is a book for everyone, but Oslund paints a little seen portrait of the vast network and isolation of the rural school systems across America, hungry for outside input. I can truly say I learned a lot about both American magic history and American education from this Road Scholar.

This Land Is Mine


Nina Paley is a brilliant animator/cartoonist whose work is simultaneously smart, beautiful, and provocative. She is probably best known for her epic video called Sita Sings The Blues. There’s nothing quite like her animation videos. This short film above, This Land is Mine, about the violence in Israel/Palestine over the past centuries is a fine example of her oeuvre. Click on the video to play.

The Sphinx Speaks

alexanderHere’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:

erdnaseBut 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:

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:
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:
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:

houdini leter

Well, I’ve barely scratched the surface of even this first volume, but one last tidbit, this picture from the January 1903 issue:

l'homme masque

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.

(The next installment is here:  )