Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Hugo and the Real George Melies

The real George Melies
This week a wonderful new movie comes out called "HUGO" based on the book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznik. I first learned of the book from a fellow performer who raved about it. I decided to pick it up and read it and I too found the book to be fantastic. There were many elements about the book that fascinated me. For one, I was struck with how well the author had weaved a true story together with a fictional story. If you've not read the book, nor watched the movie, let me tell you about the true part of the book.

One of the main characters is a man named George Melies. He was quite real. He was born on December 8th, 1861 in Paris France. His father was a shoe maker and together with his two brothers he was trained in that business. He learned the craft of shoemaking while in London. It was also in London that young George Melies visited Maskelyne and Cooke's famous magic theatre. His desire to stay in the shoe business changed and magic became his new obsession.

He studied with the Parisian magic dealer Voison and eventually even started building his own apparatus and automaton. Then in 1888, the opportunity of a life time came. A little theatre went up for sale and George Melies left the shoe business for good to become a professional magician. Years before, Robert-Houdin made magic a popular form of sophisticated theatrical entertainment in Paris and this was followed by other great French magicians, like DeKolta and Felician Trewey.  The theatre that Melies bought was none other than the famous Robert-Houdin Theatre! He began to present magic shows in this historic location.

In 1895, Melies witnessed a demonstration of a new invention by the Lumiere Brothers called the Cinematographe. This was an early movie projector and Melies saw moving pictures for the first time. Though it must be pointed out that the very earliest movies were very short and were merely quick shots of a train pulling into a station, or people walking on a street. The early movies had no plot, no story, not what we think of today as movies. Melies saw the potential of this new invention and tried to purchase it from the Lumiere Brothers but they turned him down. Luckily for Melies, other people in Europe and abroad were working on similar inventions and after seeing another version of a projector in London, Melies created his own.

By 1896, he was making movies and not the boring kind. His movies were interesting. In fact, his early movies were recreations of his magic routines. 'The Vanishing Lady' was one such movie. This was based on DeKolta's famous illusion by the same name but Melies discovered that he could use the camera and the film to create the illusion rather than special props. This would become Melies great contribution. He created and discovered many special visual techniques and uses of animation that we would call today 'Special Effects'. Today he is known and revered in the Motion Picture community as The Father of Special Effects.

His most famous movie was called Le voyage dans la Lune or A Trip to the Moon which he made in 1902. This movie figures prominently in the HUGO movie by the way. A Trip to the Moon still exists today. Based on two stories by author Jules Verne, A Trip to the Moon was the first science fiction movie ever. Before the people who made Star Wars and Star Trek were ever born, Melies put out A Trip to the Moon. It was hugely successful. Unfortunately, it made money for just about everyone other than Melies. The movie was copied and shown without Melies permission. In America, Thomas Edison's film company was showing the film all across the country and making money off of it.

Melies made over 500 films in his lifetime. But despite his innovations and contributions to the industry, his film company went out of business in 1913. In the later years of his life, Melies worked at a booth in a train station selling toy trinkets and was bitter about his involvement in movies. It wasn't until the 1930's that people in the film community started to recognize Melies for his achievements and he was awarded the Legion of Honor award by none other than Louis Lumiere, one of the original Lumiere Brothers who first sparked Melies interest in movies.

George Melies was indeed a real person and many of the things mentioned above are in the movie. The fictional part of the movie of course is Hugo Cabret. Interestingly though, Hugo's one dream in life was to become a magician, but this point is not really mentioned in the movie. The biggest part of the movie is the mechanical man, the hand writing automaton. These actually did exist and are quite fascinating to see and if you'd like to see an authentic one, click here http://www.fi.edu/learn/sci-tech/automaton/automaton.php?cts=instrumentation

George Melies died in Paris in 1938, and is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery along with other such notables as Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, and Marcel Marceau.

UPDATE: I just heard that HUGO the movie received 11 Oscar Nominations! I'll be pulling for HUGO this year!!!!Nominations include: Best Picture, Best Director, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing, Music (Best Original Score), Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay).  Just sorry none of the actors received nominations.

NEW UPDATE: I hadn't made this connection before, but here is another interesting bit of fact that connects to the movie. In the movie, Hugo's father dies in a museum fire along with the automaton. Well, in real life, Robert-Houdin's Hand Writing and Drawing Automaton was in Barnum's American Museum in NYC. That museum burnt to the ground and along with it, the Hand-Writing Automaton that was created by Robert-Houdin. This may have likely been another source of inspiration for the author.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Last Days of Robert Heller

Approximately 133 years ago this week, Robert Heller, the Victorian era magician, just finished up his final two week run at the Old National Theatre in Washington D.C which began on November 4th.. The newspapers announced this would be Robert Heller's final appearance in the Nations Capital. Earlier in the year, Heller had met up with his family in Paris and decided it was time to reunite the family once and for all. Once his tour of America was over, he would return to Europe for good and be the father to his children that he had not been for some time. This was the reason it was his final appearance in D.C..  The last thing he did before leaving D.C. was catch a cold. In fact, his performing partner Haidee Heller also came down with a cold.

On November 24th, Heller and his company arrived by train in Philadelphia. They checked into the Continental Hotel which was down the street from the Concert Hall where he was to perform. While walking from the hall back to the hotel with his business manager, Heller noticed a strange feeling in his arm. He had to stop several times during the walk to regain his strength. He assumed he was suffering the effects of a worsening cold. In truth, Robert Heller had a bad case of pneumonia.

On November 26th, 1878, Robert and Haidee open at the Concert Hall in Philadelphia. The first part of the show was made up of the various magic effects. Though he was able to get through this part of the show, the audience could tell something was wrong. At the conclusion of part 1, Heller lets the audience know he and his partner are both 'suffering from colds'. He is exhausted and says he needs a bit of rest before he can continue with the next portion of the show. Heller lies down for 30 minutes before he is strong enough to return.

When Heller returns to the stage he begins the musical portion of his act. Heller is a concert pianist and plays the piano like few in this world were able. Apparently on this night, his playing was so passionate that he overwhelmed the audience with his skill. The show ended with Heller and Haidee presenting their signature Second Sight routine which was the forerunner of modern day mind reading acts. At the conclusion of the act, Heller and Haidee returned to the Continental Hotel.

Robert Heller had every intention of performing the following night, Nov 27th, however during the day he was so sick a doctor was called in. The doctor said he had a slight congestion of the lungs. As the day went on Heller grew worse and had to cancel that evenings performance. Sometime during the night, Heller called Haidee to his side and requested that there be a change in his will. He must have realized that this illness was far worse than a little congestion. He told her to be sure that all his magic props are given to Hartz the magic dealer to be sold*if he should die. Originally, his will had stipulated that his props be destroyed upon his death.

Just after midnight, Robert Heller broke out into a fit of vomiting. When this was over he rose up in bed, took a sudden gasp and fell back upon his pillow. Robert Heller had died. The final U.S. tour ended in Philadelphia. There would be no reuniting with his family in Europe. Robert Heller, who was born, William Henry Palmer had a small funeral at the hotel and his bodied was taken to the Machepelah Cemetery in Philadelphia. This cemetery was already over crowded and his body was placed in a vault awaiting a decision on the final resting place. That final place would be Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia.
Houdini by Heller's grave
* I'm unsure what happened to Heller's props. According to an article by Tom Ewing, the props were stored at the Concert Hall while lawyers fought over unpaid bills and such. I do know where one prop ended up following Heller's death, and I'll share that with you in another blog.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

New Houdini Book Debuts Nov 22

The book is called Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini and it's set for release from Palgrave Macmillan on Tuesday, November 22. This is the same book that was released in the UK in October. The book is written by Christopher Sanford, who in the past has penned biographies on Kurt Cobain, Steve McQueen, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen and Roman Polanski.

According to John Cox over at WildaboutHoudini.com Christopher Sandford will be signing copies of his new book, Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, at Books Inc. in Berkeley, California, on Monday, December 5, 2011 at 7:00pm. So if you are in the area, you'll want to go by and get your book signed by the author!

You can pre-order the book right now on Amazon.com. It's available in hardcover and a Kindle edition.  By the way, the UK version of the book has a slightly different title and cover. See below.

I wrote a very short blog on the hotel where Conan Doyle and Houdini had their final seance, you can see that here: http://deancarnegie.blogspot.com/2010/11/1922-atlantic-city.html 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Ken Klosterman Interview on MagicNewswire

Recently, Potter and Potter Auctions had an auction of some of the items from Ken Klosterman's Salon De Magie. I have visited the Salon De Magie, as well as his second less known location. It's one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had related to magic. I was there with friends, Mark Daniel and David Kaye and we spent the entire day and evening with Ken. Truly one great guy.

The Magic Newswire, another of my favorite online resources, did an interview with Ken as a prelude to the auction. Even though the auction has passed, the interview is well worth listening to. I was personally intrigued with his information regarding the Robert Houdin Crystal Casket and it's true authenticity.

Please take some time to listen to the interview. It's available in multiple formats and I typically listen on my iphone while I'm driving. Great stuff!

By the way, The Salon De Magie is still around, Ken only sold off a very small portion. According to the interview, he is STILL COLLECTING!