Those who enjoyed the first issue of Ron Chavis’s mentalism publication, Mystic Descendant will be pleased to know that Issue #2 is now hot off the press. You can read a list of the contents here, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Ron interviewed your humble correspondent concerning mentalism and performance, and the results are contained therein. But the real treats are contributions from Mereaux Dantes, Neal Scryer, Todd Landman, Anthony Heads, Connor Jacobs, and Ron himself. You can order here.
Well worth the new lower price of $19.95 per issue, it continues the entertainingly eclectic mix of mentalism-related articles, interviews, essays, effects, and presentations found in the first issue. Kudos to Ron for making it to the second issue, and here’s hoping there are many more.
Mystic Descendant is the name of a shiny new periodical for the mentalism community, published by mentalist Ron Chavis. Ron, among other hats that he wears, is the genial web host of a deliberately not-so-well-known mentalism website. He has taken on the formidable job of producing a mentalism quarterly of 50+ pages, no small task, and his first issue is a low-key, but enjoyable read.
You can tell right away that Mystic Descendant is going to be different from other mentalism periodicals, because unlike The Jinx, Magick, or Syzygy, MD is not a newsletter or stapled mimeographed affair, but a perfect bound, glossy color-covered magazine (some of the publicity material likes to call it a book, but I think that’s stretching it), printed on decent quality paper.
Mystic Descendant casts its net wide, covering traditional mentalism, but it’s also not afraid to cover such topics as psychic readings and bizarre magic presentations as well. The one thing it is not interested in is mental magic, so if that’s what you’re looking for, look elsewhere. While there is discussion of methods, the focus so far is really on compelling presentations for casual and close-up performance. The periodical describes itself as aimed at “a beginner, a part or full-time performer, or a hobbyist,” and I think that’s a fair description. I think all of the above can find something to appreciate and enjoy here.
The contents are an eclectic mix of interviews, effects, presentations, stories, and random thoughts and that is part of the charm of the magazine. It’s the kind of thing you sit in the lounge chair with, and chuckle to yourself as you’re reading it. It’s imaginative in its diversity, and firm in its conviction about the importance of storytelling.
You can get an idea of the full contents by clicking here, but I’ll just mention that the highlight of the issue for me was the interview with Swedish mentalist Anthony Heads. He is primarily a stage performer, and it was fascinating to read about how he overcomes the reticence of his Swedish audiences to express emotion. Here’s hoping to the continued success of Mystic Descendant.
The first regularly published magic magazine in the United States was Mahatma, which started in 1895 and continued for the next decade. It was a delightful magazine full of history, profiles, advertisements, and wonderful platform/stage effects. I’m not going to do a run-through, as I did previously with The Sphinx, because I’m really only here to tell you the good news that for a very limited time, you can get the full run of Mahatma for free from the Conjuring Arts Research Center. It’s a download of ten pdfs, one volume per file, and also included is an index that allows searches across all the volumes.
Be quick—it was there early this morning, I don’t know if it will still be there tomorrow.
As a small guide, here are some of the effects I enjoyed reading about in the first three volumes:
Knight’s Tour p. 25
The False finger p. 26
Coffee cup Balanced on the Point of a Knife p. 35
The Mysterious Trunk p. 77
Hand Shadows of Famous People p. 92
Spirit Cabinet p. 15
Light heavy chest p. 37
Magic Archery p. 111
The Electric Chair p. 122
The Modern William Tell p. 129
The Magic Water Bowl p. 11
The Spider Coin Catcher p. 14
Teaching a Dog Magic p.33
The Spelling Bee p.52, p.67
And of course, wonderful bios, ads, news, publicity shots and so on, a real treasure trove for the magic history buff. Thanks, CARC!
As our mad ride through the pages of The Sphinx comes to an end, we arrive, out of breath, at the door of 1952. John Mulholland still holds the reins as editor, as he did back in 1937, and as he will a year later, when The Sphinx finally goes mute.
The Sphinx has some competition now, what with The Phoenix, Hugard’s Magic Monthly, and Genii, among other American magic magazines, all publishing simultaneously in this period. The most notable fact about The Sphinx‘s publication is that it has ceased to be a monthly. It has become a somewhat irregularly published quarterly, with only three issues published in 1952: March, June, and December, and the final one in March 1953.
The strains of the time are evident: the challenges facing the contemporary performing magician are many, but the biggest obstacles can be represented by just two factors—the death of the large touring illusion show, and the advent of the new-kid-on-the-block entertainment medium, television. Television, with its constant need to fill large blocks of time with visual entertainment turns to magic very early in its development. But the challenges of learning to perform for the camera eye are different from that of performing for a live audience, as magicians to their chagrin are quick to discover. Bruce Elliott, the publisher of The Phoenix, gets himself into hot water by producing a television magic special for the popular avuncular TV host Arthur Godfrey. Elliott was spared no mercy in the judgment of Eaton Hope, the author of the cynical Sphinx column, Out of My Profonde (BTW, you are awarded an invisible brass figleaf with bronze oakleaf palms, if you know what a profonde is without looking it up.):
But the real reason for Elliott’s failure, according to Hope was this:
And readers wrote in as well, incensed at the exposure caused by performers unaware of the problem of bad camera angles. You might recognize the name of the 17-year-old writer of this letter to the Sphinx editor:
So, the budding Kreskin understood that if magic were to survive, it would have to navigate the currents of television.
Certainly, the old way of magic life was nearly dead. Movie houses and television were turning vaudeville houses all around the world into dust. The venues for performing a big live illusion show were becoming extinct. No less an authority than David Bamberg (Fu Manchu) whose father, Okito, had written in the pages of The Sphinx almost half a century before, had this tale to tell to the new generation of magicians, about touring Latin America:
The cost of traveling with several tons of scenery and equipment, and setting up with an untutored local crew was becoming prohibitive. Bamberg counseled that “In order to lick this situation one is forced to have a light, compact, and easily set-up show.”
One gets the feeling of a general dispiritedness in the air amongst the old guard. In addition to Eaton Hope, Mulholland was also giving over column inches to the equally cynical illusion creator and builder Guy Jarrett, whose tough guy prose makes for some entertaining reading. Jarrett praises the legit stage producers, like Belasco, for whom he creates illusions, but Jarrett gives up on modern magicians as hopeless:
And even Mulholland seems to be tired out. He sends his regrets that he has not been in the office for a while, and thanks those who have inquired about his health, stopping by only to find the office door locked. But as we will see a little later on, this was just misdirection for Mulholland’s greatest feat of deception.
If the old-time illusionists were dying out, the content of the magic in The Sphinx in these years remained very high. Mulholland had a consistently excellent line-up of all kinds of magic written up in The Sphinx. Matt Schulien had a great Card in Sugar Lump (yes!) effect, and Carlo Colombi contributed a Bullet Catching method that David Bamberg proclaimed to be “theoretically” perfect. Jacob Daley tipped his “Chromo-spheres” effect, a three-ball routine with different colored balls, and Lou Tannen had an ESP card divination effect, utilizing an old principle, ingeniously disguised. The much-maligned Bruce Elliott contributed the entire text of a booklet of mentalist Theo Annemann’s, called Buried Treasure, which you can read here. And, of course, there were dozens of other great tricks published over the year, both for close-up and for stage.
What a time for learning magic! If so inclined, and with the requisite cash, one could respond to the following ad:
In publishing, the magic world was delighting to each new edition of the Stars of Magic pamphlets, with “Vernon on Leipzig,” and “Vernon on Malini,” being the hot new items. Lou Tannen published Bill Simon’s modern classic Effective Card Magic, and our friend Bruce Elliott was getting beat up again, for exposure, for writing Classic Secrets of Magic. There were fierce objections that the book had been published by a mainstream publisher with a money-back guarantee.
But then The Sphinx, with no warning, fell silent. The last issue, dated March 1953, had promised great things to come in its new quarterly format, however, nothing more was ever published. Mulholland, as is now known, was involved with another profession filled with deceit and deception, only this time for real. The illness and closed office were part of a cover story for something else entirely. As the Ever-Reliable Wikipedia tells us, Mulholland ended the publication:
“…to be consultant to the newly born CIA in 1953. His assignments included working with billionaires and inventors, cracking codes and delving into the clandestine world of ESP research, LSD use and the secret MK-ULTRA world headed by the notorious Dr. Sidney Gottlieb.”
Mulholland’s portfolio was essentially to teach the CIA spies how to use the technology of deception to fight the Cold War. The story is told in detail in Ben Robinson’s 2008 (later revised) book, MagiCIAn: John Mulholland’s Secret Life. I’m just beginning to read that book, and I hope to have a review of it in the future. By all accounts, Mulholland was a fascinating man: a Jimmy Stewart-like character with secrets he told no one.
But back to The Sphinx. I can’t recommend this DVD more highly. In my four blog posts, I have not made even a scratch on the nail of the little pinky toe of the Sphinx’s paw in my descriptions of its contents. If I had only $60 left to spend on magic for the rest of my life, this is what I would buy. I would recommend this to anyone even remotely interested in magic. The Ultimate Sphinx is an enormous achievement by the Conjuring Arts Research Center. Magicians of today can give great thanks to CARC for getting The Sphinx to speak, at last, so accessibly and so eloquently.
Once more (see here and here for previous installments), we take a wild gallop through The Sphinx. We’re riding on twenty years further from last time, arriving at 1937. Paul LePaul is on the cover, and John Mulholland is now the editor. Though the Sphinx is still closely associated with the SAM, they declare themselves “An Independent Magazine for Magicians.” There are still reports from SAM assemblies across the country, but there are also reports from IBM as well; and the heads of the SAM Parent Assembly have a conspicuous notice that their listing in the Sphinx is a paid advertisement.
Mindreading is all the rage, and with the advent of somewhat portable electronics, ads like this from Nelson and others begin to show up:
The ad says that they are offering “the magical and mental profession the first ultra short wave sending and receiving set for mindreading purposes that can be completely and logically concealed under ordinary wearing apparel.” A later ad prices the unit at $150. The inflation calculator at http://www.westegg.com/inflation/ calculates that $150 then was worth about $2400 today.
The format of the magazine now includes a lead trick explained by a famous magician of the day, and there are some really excellent ones. There is a nice Copper-Silver routine from S. Leo Horowitz; a Disappearing Bird Cage (with live bird), complete with lightening flash, from Keith Clark; and an Invisible Inky Liquid Transportation effect from Al Baker. Baker’s contributions over the year are all highly ingenious—here’s an intriguing diagram illustrating the ink effect:
The Bambergs are still a force with which to be reckoned, with an article by son David (Fu Manchu) explaining his magic apprenticeship conducted at his mentor’s knee—i.e. his father, Theo Bamberg (Okito). The article is illustrated by a lovely photo of the two of them in costume:
Later, there is a truly wonderful explanation by David Bamberg of The Growth of Flowers. The effect is this: the magician briefly puts a cloth in front of an empty flower pot and a small green bush appears; he covers it again briefly and the bush grows larger; once more and still larger. Finally, the pot is covered one more time, and the bush is discovered to be filled with blooming roses. The magician takes one or two, cuts them from the plant, and tosses the fresh live roses into the audience. The method is perfectly practical, and it’s a wonder more magicians today don’t do this.
While Chinese conjurers both real and faux were fixtures on the American stage, African-American magicians were not as prevalent. The minstrel show, which dated back to pre-Civil War days, was still a popular form of entertainment in 1937, and it pretty much determined how African Americans would be depicted on the contemporary stage and in popular magazines. For example, this was how Ralph Hull’s “Goofy Dice” trick was pitched in an ad in The Sphinx:
Perusing the books and manuscripts that were advertised is instructive—lots of cigarette and nightclub material, and the big sensation was Keith Clark’s Encyclopedia of Cigarette Magic. Another blockbuster was Glenn Gravatt’s Encyclopedia of Card Tricks. Both of those books went for $5, which the inflation calculator estimates to be about $80 in today’s currency. There is no account of what the ebooks sold for…
One surprise to me was the listing of the following book:
While I was well aware of the Fitzkee trilogy, I had never come across the mention of the above book. Does anyone know if this is an easily available book presently? The contents look like it’s full of useful material.
And magic continues, in the late 30s to be, as in all ages, a tough, heart-beaking business. This ad from The Great Leon says it all:
The ad states that The Great Leon, who used to make from $1000 to $2000 a week in vaudeville, is forced, due to ill health, to sell his complete act—over $30,000 worth of illusions—for a mere $1000. How fickle fortune can be! “Three tons of beautiful show.”
Finally, wrapping up this week’s look at The Sphinx, we turn to the Halloween issue. Of course, Halloween is special to magicians for many reasons, but, famously, it was the day that Houdini died. And Bess, after 11 years, was now reconciled to his final vanish:
Next time, I’ll finish up this series by looking at the final year of The Sphinx‘s publication in 1952-1953. I hope you’ll join me.
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:
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.
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.