Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Great Dunninger

Today, marks the 119th birthday of the man who is arguably America's Greatest Mentalist, Joseph Dunninger. After having researched and written blogs about Robert Heller, William Fay, The Davenport Brothers, Anna Eva Fay, The Great Alexander and others involved in the world of mentalism and magic, I thought it might be time to do some research on the man who became synonymous with mental feats and mind reading.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Lafayette's Other Fire

The article about Beauty & Lafayette turned out to be very popular. I thought my readers might enjoy a little more information about the man who was once Sigmund Neuberger. If you read the other blog you know that The Great Lafayette died tragically in a theatre fire. But it turns out that was not the first fire that Lafayette was involved in.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Thurston Book Review

I just finished reading "The Last Greatest Magician" by Jim Steinmeyer. This is the recent biography that Jim did on Howard Thurston. It's been sitting on my shelf for a while, wanting to be read but NOT being read. The main reason was that so many others were reading and giving reviews that I wanted to hold off until it all calmed down a bit.

My favorite books are biographies. I have a huge library of biographies of famous magicians. Naturally there are more Houdini titles that anything else, but the second largest group are books on Thurston. Not all are biographies, but there are a few Thurston titles which include: My Life of Magic by Howard Thurston, The Complete Life of Howard Franklin Thurston V 1-2 by Robert Olsen, The Howard Thurston Illusion Show Workbooks V. 1-2, My Magic Husband by Grace Thurston and there are a few other titles I don't have in front of me at the moment.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Beauty and Lafayette

This is a story about a man and his dog. But not just any man and not just any dog. The man was Sigmund Neuberger who was born in Munich Germany on Feb 25, 1871. In 1890 he immigrated to the United States at the age of nineteen.

He began in show business presenting a variety show along with a partner by the name of Mike Whelan. They went out west, following the gold rush that a lot of the nation was going after. I'm not sure how long they lasted but eventually Whelan got tired of the bad conditions in the camps and he ended the partnership. Neuberger went off on his own with his act called "The Crackshot with the Bow" which was basically a sharp shooting exhibition with a bow and arrows. He presented his act in Vaudeville houses in the U.S. and by 1892 was working the theatres in England.

In 1898 his life would would change dramatically upon seeing a brand new act, the Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo. Foo created quite a stir in the magic world and many copy cat acts followed. Foo may have been somewhat to blame however as he offered a challenge to anyone who could duplicate his famous appearing giant bowl of water feat. A number of performers took the challenge and Foo and his management had to explain it was a publicity stunt. The damage was done however and the 'Chinese style magic acts' began to grow.

By 1899 Neuberger added a few of the chinese magic feats to his act, and also began to add quick change costume routines as well as other original magic. The Great Lafayette was born!  On a tour through Tennessee, Lafayette ran into none other than Harry Houdini. They were both not quite famous and yet it would happen to them  very soon. They were playing the Grand Opera House on Cherry St. in Nashville. During their time in Nashville, Harry gave his friend Lafayette the gift of a dog. Not just any dog, this would become Lafayette's best friend and traveling companion. He named the dog Beauty and even created a fake pedigree for the dog. Where Houdini got the dog is anyone's guess.

On the front door of his home in London Lafayette  hung a plaque that read 'The more I see of man, the more I love my dog'. Beauty had her own room and bathroom in the house. She ate five course meals. And an image of Beauty appeared on Lafayette's checks. She also was a member of the cast of his show.

Lafayette it appears was the first to present the Mid-Air Bird Catching routine. Several magic history books credit Lafayette as the creator, but the actual creator of the Birds in the Net was Cyril Yettmah. It should be pointed out that Yettmah worked for Lafayette so this could be where the confusion comes from.  Lafayette did create many of his own effects and illusions however. Probably his most famous magic illusion was called 'The Lion's Bride'. Apparently, he was the first magician to add a lion to his act, and would be followed by many other magicians after him, including modern day performers like Doug Henning and Siegfried and Roy. Not unlike Roy Horn who was severely injured by a tiger during his act, Lafayette was attacked on more than one occasion by his lion. None of his injuries were ever as bad as Roy's.

The Lion's Bride, as well as most of Lafayette's routines was wrapped within a story or playlet. The Lion's Bride storyline changed over the years but the basic effect remained. A live lion in a cage roared and moved back and forth in it's cage. A woman was placed inside the cage with the ferocious beast. The lion would get up on it's hind legs as if to pounce on the woman and then suddenly, it would be revealed that it was Lafayette in a lion's costume! Frankly, that is an amazing routine. Today you see the production of a lion or tiger but this idea of having a live lion suddenly change into Lafayette wearing a lions costume is just brilliant.

In one of the many routines that Beauty would appear in, Lafayette donned an artists smock and beret, and began to paint on a small canvas. He would break the paper from the frame and his dog Beauty would burst forth!

Another spectacle of the Lafayette show, which was called "A Carnival of Conjuring", were his impressions of band leaders. This was part of his 'Travesty Band' sequence. He would conduct the orchestra and change costumes instantly to reflect whatever bandleader he was portraying.

It's been reported that during his career he was the highest paid entertainer in Vaudeville. It's clear that Lafayette knew he had a fabulous show and he held out for the right money. He was involved in all aspects of the show including costume design, set design and creation of illusions. Looking over one of his programs it's a show unlike any other performer before or since.

Life seemed to be going pretty well for Lafayette until May of 1911. On May 5, his most beloved friend in the entire world, Beauty, passed away. Lafayette had just opened a two week run at the Empire Theatre in Edinburgh Scotland. He was completely devastated. He made arrangements for Beauty to be buried in the Piershill Cemetery in Edinburgh. At first the cemetery officials would not allow the buried of the dog until Lafayette agreed that upon his death he too would be buried there.

The old showbiz saying is 'The Show Must Go On' and though in a state of deep depression Lafayette continued his run at the Empire Theatre. During his performance on May 9th, 1911, Lafayette was taking his bows after concluding The Lion's Bride routine. An oriental scenic lamp burst into flames on the set. The fire curtain was dropped but did not fall completely to the stage. Lafayette was very guarded with his secrets and he had the exits locked off so as the fire began to get out of control, backstage was a nightmare. Within 18 minutes of the fire starting the stage was ablaze with fire and smoke. The iron safety curtain broke free and fell to the stage. Thankfully everyone in the audience escaped safely and without injury. But on stage they were not so lucky. Ten people lost their lives due to the fire that night.
Among the dead was the body of Lafayette who was discovered near the Lion's Bride Cage. He was identified by the costume and sword he wore during one of his routines. The body was sent to be cremated.

However, Lafayette had one more piece of magic after his death. Several days after the fire another body was discovered. This one had the jeweled rings on it's fingers that Lafayette always wore. Lafayette's burnt body was found again, this time under the stage. Apparently when the Iron Fire Curtain collapsed it covered over the area where Lafayette had died.  The body that had been cremated previously was actually that of his body double, a man named Richards who was also the trumpeter in Lafayette's orchestra and was only 25 years old.

On May 14th, 1911 Lafayette's body was cremated and the urn containing the ashes of the dead illusionist was buried between the paws of his lifelong companion Beauty. They were now together for eternity.

The vaudeville and theatrical communities were devastated by the news. Houdini sent a floral display in the shape of Beauty to the funeral. He was unable to attend but made arrangements to have the funeral filmed. I discovered a site that apparently has film footage of the Lafayette Funeral. Whether or not the footage is that of Houdini's I cannot say. You can't view it at this location, but I'm assuming if you are in the UK you can make arrangements to view it.

Near the end of the book "The Life & Times of The Great Lafayette" by Arthur Setterington, he mentions a visit to the gravesite by Bess and Houdini. While there Houdini said about his friend Lafayette , "He fooled them in life and he fooled them in death, I envy him". 

The Empire Theatre was rebuilt three months after the tragic fire in 1911. It continued to operate as a theatre until 1963 when it was turned into a Bingo Hall.

In the 1990s the Empire went through another transformation, this one pretty major. The entire outer facade of the building was redone and the theatre changed it's name. Today it's called The Edinburgh Festival Theatre. (see photo below)

Doing the research for this particular blog I was amazed at the number of sites that covered the tragic fire. Clearly the folks in Edinburgh have not forgotten that frightful day in 1911 even after all these years. I discovered some interesting things in the course of the research. One of them is a song called "The Tragic Tale of the Great Lafayette and his Body Double" which can be heard by visiting the link.

The most amazing thing I discovered though is the upcoming celebration taking place in Edinburgh.
On May 9th, 2011, we mark the 100th Anniversary of The Great Lafayette's Death. Just so you know, there will be a real celebration! It's called 'The Great Lafayette Festival' and will take place of May 7th-9th in Edinburgh, Scotland. Among the activities in a special show put on by Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee celebrating the life and magic of Lafayette. There will also be a tour of the back stage area at the Empire Theatre(Festival Theatre now) and you can stand in the place where The Great Lafayette's life tragically ended. To find out more visit their official website at

Also, check out my other article with MORE information on Lafayette
The Old Empire Theatre is now The Edinburgh Festival Theatre

Friday, April 15, 2011

Chaplin and Houdini

If you’ve ever seen my live stage show then you’ve seen the Chaplin-Houdini Story routine. The story in my routine is fictional, though the two performers did meet in real life. Originally the story was going to be about Harry Kellar and Harry Houdini but I realized quickly that modern audiences would have never heard of Kellar and thus would have little connection. But Chaplin and Houdini are icons and most people are familiar with them regardless of whether or not they have ever seen them.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Upcoming articles

I often take for granted that not everyone is familiar with many of the classic stories from the annals of magic history. I study and read about this stuff all the time but not everyone does. With the a new generation of magicians quickly coming into the fold, I'd like to be able to contribute to the newcomers knowledge as well as those that have been into this for a long while.

So in the coming weeks and months, I'm going to try and share some of the more classic stories in the annals of magic history. So expect to see articles on Sigmund Neuberger, Helmut Schrieber, Max Katz Brietz, Billy Robinson, Matthias Buchinger and more. There will also be some new Houdini articles coming. There is one that I'm currently working on which should be out fairly soon. I'm a little behind, but I'll catch up soon enough. So keep watching for the new articles on our old art!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Man Who Knows

You've probably seen the posters before. The man with the unusual gaze wearing a turban. Who was he? Did he really know?

His real name was Claude Alexander Conlin (1880-1954) and he was one of the premier mind readers of all time. He was called a crystal gazer by some, a con artist by others and he admitted to killing at least four men in his lifetime.  He began his career in show business around 1902 by doing a magic act. Not just any magic act though. Part of his act was an escape act basically copied from Houdini. There were many performers ripping off Houdini at this time and work for no named escape artists was pretty thin.

Friday, April 8, 2011

WILD ABOUT HARRY: A look back at HOUDINI (1953)

My initial interest in magic happened with this HOUDINI movie by Tony Curtis. I love all the Houdini movies (with the exception of Death Defying Acts). John Cox who has the fantastic blog has written several pieces about the various Houdini movies. The first is the 1953 movie starring Houdini and John has got some great information on the making of the movie. At the very bottom of his blog are links to the other articles. He covers: The 1976 The Great Houdinis, The 1987 Young Harry Houdini, The 1998 HOUDINI by TNT, and the 1997 Fairy Tale: A True Story movie. There are two different blogs about the Paul Michael Glaser movie 'The Great Houdinis' so be sure to check them both out.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Houdini's Chosen Birthday

Today is the day in which Houdini actually celebrated as his birthday. It's possible that he never knew his real birthday and if you go over to, John Cox has a few more things to add to this.

Let me give you my take, and please know this is my opinion. For the past few months I've been delving into the world of genealogies. Digging up information on where my family originated has been exiting at times and frustrating at others. After having read through hundreds of different Census Records, I've noticed a very common trait. People prior to the 1900s didn't seem to either record or remember their dates of birth. Perhaps it wasn't important to them. It's very common to find a Census record for say 1880 that lists one birth date or birth year and then when you find one from say 1910 for the same person, the dates have changed. Birthdates and years are often recorded as 'about 1880' or 'abt 1900'.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Forgotten Houdini Protege

Leonard Hicks on the far left. Hardeen in the upper right
We all know that Hardeen succeeded Houdini in the show and received all his props when he died. But did you know that years before there was another person set up to take over for Houdini? It turns out there was a protege that Houdini not only hand picked but also trained and to whom he supplied the equipment*.

Bijou Theatre Richmond VA
His name was William Leonard Hicks and he was born in Owenton, KY on November 6th, 1887. His father, Thomas Hicks was in the hotel business and moved often when job opportunities came his way.

When the boy was 12 years old, he and his family were living in Richmond Virginia.  In April of 1900, Houdini performed for a week at the Bijou Theatre on East Broad Street in Richmond VA. Young Mr. Hicks was present during his week long engagement.  Houdini opened on April 23rd to a packed house. His act consisted of his Challenge Handcuff routine and the Metamorphosis.

During the first part of his act, police officers brought regulation handcuffs to secure Houdini. He stepped behind his 'Ghost House', which was small curtained cabinet that he would kneel in to work some of his escapes in private. Houdini arose from the cabinet free of the cuffs.

A second demonstration of handcuff release took place but this time Houdini presented the escape in full view of the audience. To complete his set, he and Bess presented his signature routine called The Metamorphosis, which was a lightning fast (three seconds) exchange between He and Bess. Houdini would be tied and secured into a cloth sack. The sack would go into a trunk and that was locked and roped. A curtain was pulled around the locked trunk and Bess would step into the curtained enclosure. She would count to three and Houdini would burst forth, free from the trunk! When the trunk was opened, the sack was removed and inside the sack was found Bess Houdini with her hands tied!

Whenever Houdini came to town, he didn't just do a show at the theatre, he often continued with daily exhibitions. His second day in town he went to City Hall to give another demonstration of handcuff release. This time however, to prove he kept no concealed keys, he had his mouth covered with plaster and the tied up with cloth. He was also stripped of his clothes. Captain Angle and Chief Howard of the Richmond Police Department placed shackles on Houdini's wrists and his ankles. Houdini stepped behind a chair that had a piece of carpet thrown over it to partially hide Houdini from view. The audience of some 40 people could see Houdini moving around but his method of escape was kept from prying eyes. Two minutes later Houdini the Handcuff King was free from his bonds.

One of his favorite impromptu bits of magic that he would perform both on stage and offstage was his famous East Indian Needle Trick. Following his naked cuff escape he presented the Needle trick for all of the invited guests and gathering crowd. A doctor who was present in the audience came up to examine Houdini's mouth before and after the effect. He left them completely bewildered and he received a nice write up in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

William Leonard Hicks
There is a good chance that William L. Hicks, who would later be referred to as Leonard Hicks in magic circles, read about Houdini's exploits in Richmond and we know he saw Houdini perform live while he was in town.

Houdini was such a big hit in Richmond, that the management of the Bijou Theatre, arranged to have Houdini return in May 1900. They had to buy out his contract at a NY theatre just to get Houdini back in Richmond! He played a week and headlined a festival in Richmond.

Remember, Leonard Hicks was only 12 at the time. But he was not the only person inspired by Houdini. A Mr. Lee Reinheimer and Mr. Moses May were two individuals also taken in by Houdini. So much so that by June of 1900 they declared that they could duplicate the feats of Houdini and for several months following did just that. They presented handcuff escapes as well as the Metamorphosis. It's probably lucky for them that Houdini didn't return to Richmond as he probably would have gone after them or had his crew attend a show and go after the copyists.

Six years from this time, Houdini is now in Chicago. He is performing in the Windy City and he and Bess are having trouble with the hotel in which they are staying, so they switch to different hotel. When Hicks saw Houdini he was living on a dairy farm with his family. But now in 1906, he and his father were both working in the hotel business. Hicks was the hotel clerk that checked in Mr. and Mrs. Houdini. To use modern day slang, Mr. Hicks gave Houdini the 'hook up', meaning he got him a VERY nice room. Houdini showed his appreciation by inviting Hicks to see his show at the Majestic Theatre.

The two must have developed a friendship which was partially based on Leonard's ability to figure out the act and even make suggestions about it. Houdini was impressed with the young man and by the end of his contract in Chicago Houdini made a suggestion of his own to Leonard Hicks. He told him that he should try out a career in show business. In fact, Houdini offered to train him. That very summer, Leonard Hicks was a temporary resident of 278 (Houdini's home in NYC) where Houdini was teaching the young man the finer points of his escape act.

He changed his performing name to 'Harry Leonard and/The Great Leonard'. According to the Kalush Biography, Hicks even printed up business cards which declared he was the only one authorized to perform Mr. Houdini's act. I wonder if Hicks told Houdini about Reinheimer and Mays in Richmond?
The act he presented was the Challenge Handcuff Escape Act along with the Metamorphosis. When Houdini went to Europe in 1908, Hicks also started presenting the escape from the Galvanized Iron Can Filled with Water better known as the Milk Can Escape. (Just for the record, this is an example of ANOTHER Milk Can known to exist)

For whatever reason, show business didn't keep it's hold on Leonard Hicks and he eventually returned to the hotel business. He would gradually work his way up from Desk Clerk to Assistant Hotel Manager in the 1920s of the Morrison Hotel in Chicago and then Hotel Manager. By 1930 he was the President of the Lorraine Hotel in Chicago and he was president of the American Hotel and Motel Association. He worked and managed a number of hotel properties in the Chicago area.

Later in life he moved to Florida and was the owner of the Casa Marina Hotel in Key West Florida. Below is a photograph signed by Mr. Hicks. As he became a success in the hotel business he used his real name William L. Hicks, but notice this photograph is signed Leonard Hicks. I wonder if the couple in the photograph might have seen him back in his escape days? Leonard Hicks is on the left in the white coat.

William Leonard Hicks died in Florida on April 2, 1966, the one time protege of the World's Greatest Escape Artist.
photo by Auburn University Libraries

*I don't know if Houdini GAVE the props to Hicks or if he sold them to him. But it is true Houdini trained Hicks at his home in NYC.

I have a feeling this is not the last word about Leonard Hicks. I'm going to continue hunting to see what other things I can dig up. If anyone has information on his career, please contact me at

Friday, April 1, 2011

Houdini and Groucho

Imagine these two entertainment icons on stage at the same time. Well it happened, and Groucho shared it with his audiences many times over the years. The first time I heard the story was when Merv Griffin shared it with Orsen Welles on his TV show. But there is nothing like hearing Groucho tell the story.

Here is the story in Groucho's words:

There were times when I used to wear a mustache, and there were times when I didn't. I got tired of wearing it, and I would take it off, because if I didn't have a mustache on, people didn't bother me in the street. Then one night I went to the Wintergarden, and Houdini was appearing there, and I was sans mustache. That means 'without'. Gotta watch yourself at the Wintergarden. Anyway, I'm sitting in the second row, and Houdini is now doing a trick. He would take some needles and put them in his mouth, and a spool of thread, and then he would thread the needles. So he asked for a volunteer out of the audience, and who do you think went up on the stage. And he opened his mouth wide. "I wanna prove that there is no trickery to this trick. What do you see in there?" And I said "Pyorrhea!" and left the stage. 

If you'd like to listen to Groucho tell it...

1911 Magic

I just discovered this on and I'm guessing it will only be up for a day. But on some videos they've added a button that says '1911'. Click the button and it converts the video into a silent movie version of the video complete with Sepia Tone footage and ragtime music.