Monday, July 1, 2024

Newmann The Pioneer Mentalist (transcript)

Newmann was born Christian Andrew George Naeseth on November 28th, 1880 in or near Kenyon Minnesota. He had two brothers, Marius and Chester, as well as a sister named Gunda. The one brother Marius, actually worked in the Newmann show for a period of time.

Where does a young Minnesotan discover magic? In the case of George, it came about from seeing a man named Harry Heller the Man of Mystery. Here was a showman who stole the name of the two most popular magicians of the time, Harry Keller and Robert Heller. According to the book, The Great Newmann Show by James Alfredson, the man’s real name was Bruno Warneke. He was one of many of the tall grass showmen of his day. But he must have been good enough to inspire a young George Naeseth, who would soon go on to find a magic book or two and begin his journey into the strange world of magic.

It would seem George was exposed to a large group of hypnotists and mentalists, including, John Randall Brown, Herbert Flint, Professor William Bennet, and Paul Alexander  Johnstone. It was Johnstone who would display his signature routine, The Blindfold Drive. Imagine the number of performers who have done this feat since, yet it was Johnstone who was the originator. And it would leave a lasting impression on Geoge.

John Randall Brown was also a Minnesotan. Originally from St. Louis, he retired to Minnesota and is buried there. Brown developed a unique form of Mind Reading that many of the early mentalists adopted including: Washington Irving Bishop. Stuart Cumberland, Paul Alexander Johnstone and more. And this unusual technique, developed by Brown would become the cornerstone of the young George Naeseth’s future act.

But before we get there, as a teen-ager, George would visit his aunts in St Paul Minnesota. While he was on vacation with them, Alexander Herrmann came to town with his show.  In attendance at those performances was George, who even took it upon himself to go backstage and meet Herrmann. The Great Newmann Show biography says that, according to his brother Chester, it was after seeing Alexander Herrmann, that George decided to change his last name from Naeseth to Newmann, a name with a similar sound as Herrmann.

In 1895, He would embark on his first shows as Newmann the Boy Wonder. He added a stunt he used for publicity that featured the technique developed by John Randall Brown. But it should be noted that Newmann’s version came about from a child’s game called ‘will it”. He also took his version further than anyone had before or since. His technique became non-contact mind reading and the secrets of his technique went to the grave with Newmann. 

In his days as Newmann the Boy Wonder, his shows consisted of three parts, magic, hypnosis and Mentalism/MindReading. His career began at the tender age of 15 performing in the North West region of the United States. According to David Price’s book, MAGIC, A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theater, we have this quote from Newmann, “Magic was a staple part of my program when I was a boy wonder, but on discovering that mental demonstrations were my forte, I discarded magic completely and for over  thirty years I made an enviable reputation as a stage hypnosis and mind reader”

But he also found that on this particular circuit, he would often have repeat dates, places he’d already been, places that had seen his show, so he needed to offer them something different. His friend, Claude Conlin, Alexander the Man Who Knows, told him to bring back some of the magic. This time, he revamped some of the the effects so it would tie in with either mental demonstrations or hypnotic demonstrations. 

To drum up publicity he would include a feat that he has seen both Paul Alexander Johnstone and John Randall Brown perform, the Blindfold Drive. In his version, he would be blindfolded and placed in a horse drawn carriage. He would then take the reins and drive the horses and carriage along a designated route. The stunt did wonders for publicity and usually helped to fill all the seats. There are even posters that remain today of Newmann’s Blindfold Drive. Of course, any demonstration of Blindfold driving is strange for a spectator, for here is the driver, either blindfolded, or has their head covered with a hood, yet they are perfectly able to steer the vehicle wherever needed. 

George Newmann also shifted away from the more flamboyant approach to mentalism that was popular with Samri Baldwin and Alexander. No turbans, no elaborate costumes, instead it was fine evening clothes and an almost scientific approach to his performances. And though, he took a somewhat serious approach, his stage shows still were filled with laughter and comedy.

Now Newmann was also a hypnotist. And hypnotists of this time were know to use ‘horses’. In fact, all of them did, except Newmann. Horses was an insider term for paid stooge or accomplice. In other words, the so called volunteers on stage were actually paid to do what they did. Newmann figured out how to hypnotize people without needing to use stooges. Genuine members of the audience could be brought up and used in his act. This would change the industry drastically as everyone would eventually follow Newmann’s approach and dump the age old ‘horses’.  But this also assured that Newmann would be able to return year after year. Often in the fake hypnosis shows, people would find out later that some or all of the spectators on stage were stooges. In Newmann’s case, they were real town folk, who everyone in their respective audiences knew. 

Here is an article from the Mayville Tribune June 14, 1928 in North Dakota. “By reason of the fact that Mr. Newmann has been playing the better towns of this state for some thirty two years, he is so well known here that any comment regarding his attraction is superfluous. We merely take time to remark that Mr. Newmann’s remarkable  performance has never been equalled by any performer in this class we have yet seen. This fact is so well established here, that his advent among us is an event always looked forward to by all lovers of clean cut, mystifying and unusual entertainment. The majority of this community are glad to see him whenever he appears, and equally sorry to see him leave”

Newmann performed in this area of the country continuously for 46 years. Unlike some areas of the country where theaters would close during the summer months, Newmann thrived during the summer in this part of the country. It was the winter that saw him vacationing.

1933. From the Linking Ring we find this bit of information. It seems that Newmann was vacationing in Los Angeles during the winter months. He had the good fortune to be hired to perform at a function for Hollywood actress Marion Davies. She was the Mistress to William Randolf Hearst and also romantically connected to Charlie Chaplin for a time. The event was Davies father’s birthday. Several acts were hired, The Great Leon, Nellar and Hoffman, and George Newmann. 

According to the article, Newmann’s no contact mind reading was the hit of the evening. So much so that Davies took Newmann aside and offered him the deal of the century. She wanted him to appear professionally for future exclusive social affairs in Hollywood. And she added, he could name his fee, as the fee was no objection. Whatever he asked, they were willing to pay. 

As a side note to his time in Hollywood, during one of his visits an earthquake struck the area. Though shaken up, he was not injured.

Over time, the old Opry Houses in the North West were torn down or made into other businesses. So to accommodate the audiences Newmann travelled with his own tent. Though they could be problematic at times, Newmann’s Tent Shows thrived.

That is until 1940 when he began to have health issues and put his tent show up for sale. Despite no tent, Newmann eventually continued to perform and did so for another twelve years.

In 1941, after WW2 broke out, Newmann added a motion picture show to his touring production. This was essentially a newsreel that showed authentic footage from the War fronts. 

Newmann wrote an interesting article for Genii Magazine called “Spooks Go To Church” In his article he put forth an interesting and controversial point of view towards Spirit Mediums. He said, “I have always contended that publicity seeking magicians who challenge and attempt to expose mediums, debase magic and actually boost the medium’s game.” Then he went on to share an event that took place at the Wesely church in Minneapolis. A so-called Dean of Emerson College, Boston, put on the demonstration. He first began with the Spiritualist show, giving a history of Spiritualism and demonstrating a number of feats. As Newmann was quite the authority on the topic he instantly recognized all the conjuring feats dressed as spirit phenomenon. 

The show itself was great. But it was the exposure that fell apart. Much of the phenomenon in the show couldn’t be exposed because they were store bought magic. The ones that were exposed were sort of older methods of the mediums that everyone knew. It was a successful night in regards to a full house at 50 cents per person. But it didn’t do much to get the message across.

This manner of thinking would take on a  new form a few years later when mentalism began to grow ever popular. Among the mental performers there were some who could be called Clairvoyant hustlers. Many magicians, ignorant of the fact that mentalists were true brothers of the art, began to expose the mental magicians. I think likely they may have wanted to tamp down on the hustlers, but none the less it was aimed very broadly. Newmann took issue with this, but it never once harmed his business. After all,  he was essentially the epitome of an honest magician artist. He did not swindle his audiences in anyway, which allowed him to return again and again, year after year to his performing territory

August 1935, the Linking Ring put Newmann on the cover of their magazine. We learn that at one time Howard Thurston sat with Newmann for a 4 hour session. At the conclusion of which Thurston was said to proclaim that “Newmann was the greatest of all mentalists. Thurston regarded Newmann as the most remarkable man he has ever known in the field of magic.” No small praise there.

Then there was John Northern Hilliard who was equally blown away by Newmann’s artistry and abilities.

In the Bagdad column of Genii Magazine May 1937, there is a brief mention of Newmann sending an advertising piece to Genii. They mention the advertising piece is written all in Norwegian, which they cannot read. But this is actually brilliant. You see, the upper part of the United States, Minnesota, North and South Dakota and beyond were filled with folks of Norwegian descent or who had just immigrated from Norway. What a smart way to cater to these folks by printing ads in their native language. Also, George’s ancestors came from Norway and likely there were older members of the family who still could speak and spell the language.

Speaking of advertising. Newmann was clever, and sometimes even ruthless in his use of advertising pieces. Maybe ruthless is too strong a word, maybe stingy would better be suited. Sometimes he copied other performers pieces. Sometimes he even used their pieces and simply added his name to the top. Here is an example of one piece. At the top in bold letters it read, “European Novelties”  Under that it had his name, NEWMANN, The Great Hypnotist and Mind Reader within a decorative border. Then underneath that it had the words Sensational Features. The piece could be trimmed, cutting out European Novelties for example, and you’d still have a unique piece. Or he could cut off Sensation Features, or cut off both and still have a piece that had just his name on it. He’s not the first to use this strategy, I recently came across someone else doing this very same thing.

I know he was friends with Claude Conlin, known as Alexander the Man Who Knows. But it appears Newmann, even borrowed, we’ll use that word, borrowed copy from him. On one poster he calls himself a Crystal Seer and uses a question mark wrapped around his head, in a similar way that Alexander used the Turban shaped as a question mark in some of his advertising. In Newmann’s case the Question mark is made up of the following words, “Ask Him! He Know”. And in later advertisements, he is even shown with his profile and the Alexander Question Mark Turban over his head.

One thing that set Newmann apart from his contemporaries, he was a collector of books. By the 1930s he had acquired some 7000 volumes on magic and the related arts. He was a true student of his craft. In 1939 he notified the magic community he would be selling off his books. Whether or not he sold them is in question because in 1943 the Linking Ring did a several page spread of his book collection. Newmann had rented a commercial store in order to display all his books. They were broken into several categories. Along the walls and any spare space in the shop were smaller posters and window cards from other performers.

As exciting as this sounds there were some in the magic community that  questioned Newmann’s collection. Did he really have 7000 volumes. Were they truly on just magic or what? There were other collectors in the country who had themselves huge volumes of books on magic. And these various collectors let a feud break out in the pages of The Tops Magazine as well as other places. Newmann would often become enraged about the whole thing. His collection was sort of a badge of honor, yet to see someone else, with a smaller collection be called The Authority of Mentalism, really got under his skin. Over time, Newmann would list parts of his collection, and he would list some amazing volumes. When some of the better known collectors would call to inquire about purchasing them. Newmann would say, “that book has sold and the new owner asked that I keep his identity a secret.”  Did he really sell said books, or was this just a clever way to getting even with some of his adversaries? In addition, during this period of feuding, a darker side of Newmann emerged. It seems he kept it away from his audiences, but in private letters he would throw out many anti-semetic insults. This sort of behavior infuriates me and casts a dark cloud over what was otherwise an amazing career.

Newmann continued to perform up until 1952. In August of that year, he was diagnosed with cancer of the gall bladder. Surgery was planned but it was discovered that the cancer had spread to the organs as well. His final days were spent in a hospital where he remained in a lot of pain and most the time doped up to help with the struggle. George Newmann died Dec 30th 1952.

And you might think that’s the end of the story.  According to David Prices book, MAGIC A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theater, “In accordance with his wishes, Newmann’s body was cremated but it wasn’t until Sept 15th, 1953, that his brother and two friends completed his request by taking the box that contained his ashes and consigning them to the mighty Mississippi River”. However, I discovered the family plot for the Naeseth Family which is located in Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis MN. George is listed among those buried there. However, where I can find photos of all the graves, including a sibling who died at 2 years of age, there is no photo of George Newmann. So maybe he had a reserved grave there, but was not buried, because as I just mentioned, his ashes were scattered elsewhere. Or maybe the ashes story is false and he is truly buried in Lakewood Cemetery. 

(This is the transcript from Episode 102 of the Magic Detective Podcast)

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