Showing posts with label Blackstone. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Blackstone. Show all posts

Monday, March 2, 2020

Chase-ing Houdini's Radio

The photo above is Houdini's Radio Illusion. An unusual production effect that was used in his 3-In-1 Show/The Final Houdini Tour. The woman is Dorothy Young, one of Houdini's assistants. She lived longer than anyone in the Houdini show and was featured in several documentaries about Houdini where she always spoke about the Radio Illusion.

Episode 46 of my podcast I talk all about this illusion. But then I mention ANOTHER Radio Illusion. You'll need to hear the podcast in order to find out more. But below is a photo of THAT Radio Illusion. You may note, the front of Blackstone's Radio, it has the same size dials that Houdini's cabinet had. The inner workings are likely being held by the assistant on the far right, somewhat different than those that Houdini had. But awfully ODD that that both Blackstone and Houdini had a Radio Illusion at the SAME TIME?!?

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Other Blackstone Book Review

Back in 1999 Daniel Waldron wrote a book called Blackstone A Magician's Life. It was a fantastic biography of one of the true greats in our business. If you've never read it. find it and read it! You'll be glad you did. One of the great things about the book are the first hand accounts by George Johnstone and Nick Ruggiero, both who worked on the Blackstone Sr. Show.

In 2016, a new book was written by Daniel Waldron called The Other Blackstone. Though not as extensive as the first book, it's still an enjoyable recollection of the the other Blackstone. This book is about Alfred Peter Boughton, who was born March 1st 1887. He was the younger brother of Harry. Yes, the name was originally spelled Boughton.  The book has 6 chapters and a epilogue, plus a lot of photos. It's only 40 pages long, so it's a quick read, but it's a fun one. There are some great stories in the book, and as I mentioned, great photos to match.

And the great thing about the book is the co-author, Adele Friel Rhindress, who also worked on the Blackstone Show.  She has her own great book on her adventures with Blackstone called 'Memoirs of An Elusive Moth'. The recollections of her time with Pete really help the reader to see him as a living breathing human being, and give a rare glimpse behind the scenes of a famous touring show.

I remember the first time I saw a photo of Pete. I was confused as to what I was seeing. I thought it might be some double exposure photo that Harry had produced. But then I found out that Harry had a brother. According to Adele, it was Pete who really RAN the Blackstone Show. Harry was the star, but Pete handled everything backstage.

I purchased this book at the Yankee Gathering from David Haversat. I'll be honest, I don't know how many were produced. But I would check with him to see if there any left. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Spirit Handkerchief and It's History

There is a wonderful effect in magic that has found it's way into the acts of many performers called The Dancing Handkerchief. Probably the most iconic performer to present the effect was Harry Blackstone Sr., and then later his son Blackstone Jr.. Even David Copperfield made a hit out of this little wonder.  But you might be surprised just how many well known performers and hundreds of lesser knowns performed this effect.

I tried to track down the origins of the mystery, originally known as The Spirit Handkerchief. Magicpedia lists Nevil Maskelyene as the creator. I can find no reference in magic literature to Nevil Maskelyne having been the creator of the trick.
Anna Eva Fay
thought I had the answer but then a second source listed a different name. Originally, I thought that Anna Eva Fay created this mystery. She began her career as a fake spirit medium and this type of effect would have been ideal for her 'Light Seance' segment.

However, here is what I do know. In the 1870s, Anna Eva Fay was in England presenting her seances. She had encountered John Nevil Maskelyne, who was busy exposing all spirit mediums. There is a brief account of their altercation in White Magic by Jasper Maskelyne. Shortly after this Anna Eva Fay returned to America and for a time was thought to be English, though she was actually from Ohio.

So who created the Spirit Dancing Hank? Looks like the winner is Anna Eva Fay*. But I think I know why Maskelyne's name is connected to it. The Dancing Hank was often presented in conjunction with another effect which was sort of a mini-Spirit Cabinet. Two chairs were placed on stage. A sheet of glass was balanced upon the two chairs and then a small cabinet was placed upon the glass. Inside was a bell and a slate. This effect was the creation of Maskelyne.  And it may have been Frederick Eugene Powell who first presented these two together in the United States. This information comes from Magic: A Pictorial History of Conjurers In The Theatre by David Price.

I do know that Harry Kellar began presenting these two effects together in 1894. He called it The
Cassadaga Propaganda. And from several different accounts, his Dancing Hank routine was a big hit. It's hard to say where he got it from, though he may have seen Maskelyne present it as he was known for stealing material from the Maskelyne show.

I found an interesting article in The Linking Ring Vol 40 #8, on a lesser known magician, John Grdina. In the article it says that Grdina taught none other than Harry Blackstone Sr. the Dancing Hank and whenever Blackstone was in Cleveland, he would mention it to his audiences. Grdina, as a youth apparently saw Harry Kellar first present the effect. He later would create some kind of version of his own.

Blackstone Sr. presented the Dancing Hank so well, that he is associated with the effect. His son, Harry Jr. also made a showpiece out of the routine. Others have presented the original version including Harry Willard, John Calvert and Howard Thurston. But no one made as big a mark with it as did Harry Blackstone Sr.. Below is the video of Harry Jr. presenting the hank, exactly as his father before him had presented it. (The person who uploaded the video fast-forwards through a bit of the early section, so just ignore that.)

In the 1950s, along came Ralph Adams. He created a more elaborate version of the Dancing Hank that was different from the Blackstone version. Doug Henning later used the Ralph Adam's version in his shows for many years. Though it was still a piece of cloth becoming animated, it was a different routine from the earlier versions. Below is a shorter version of the Henning routine. Usually, Doug presented it onstage with one of his dancers.

Then in the late 1970s David Copperfield debuted a new take on this classic effect. His version was the creation of Don Wayne and it combined aspects of the original with a sort of animated 'zombie' like effect. The Don Wayne version became all the rage for a number of years. Incidentally, the Don Wayne version may have been an updated version of the Joe Karson version known as Voodoo. One reason I think the Copperfield routine became so iconic was that he created a story based routine or a vignette. The magic was an important aspect of telling the overall story.

And speaking of updating versions, the latest and most advanced version of the effect started with the Don Wayne method and flew out to the stratosphere thanks to magic creator Sean Bogunia. Sean has taken the basic effect, added multiple methods and truly brought the animated handkerchief to life in ways that no one ever thought possible. Because of his innovations, many performers present the Dancing Hank in their shows today.

I'm not certain that anyone has really gotten the notoriety with the effect that the Blackstone's did. Though Sean is sure known as Mr. Hanky these days. This is by far a complete history of the effect but it does give you a good overview of the dancing hank through the years. Others have had innovations along the way as well, like Karrel Fox and Steve Dusheck. And a multitude of performers have presented this great effect. One thing is for certain,  over 100 years later the effect of causing a bit of cloth or handkerchief to come to life and animate and dance is still an amazing and popular illusion.

*Barry Wiley, author of The Indescribable Phenomenon, a biography of Anna Eva Fay, believes that in fact it was Maskelyne who created the Dancing Hank effect. His book is extremely well researched so now I'm leaning towards Maskelyne over Anna Eva Fay.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Flags of All Nations

The Magic Detective is up to his old tricks, actually NEW old tricks. Over these past several months you may have noticed my absence from the blog. This is mainly due to my performing schedule. It's great to be busy! But along the way I luckily and happily stumbled upon a great opportunity. I'm currently working to recreate part of the act of a magician from the past and I'll be presenting it in the Fall.

The act I'm working on is a silk/flag/ribbon act. The key feature of the act is something known as The Flags of All Nations. This was apparently the creation of Johann Hofzinser. Yes, he created more than just card tricks. From what I've found his version was called 'The Patriot'.

It's been a lot of fun digging up information on this old gem. I have also found it in the book, The Modern Conjurer by C. Lang Neil, simply called The Flag Trick, but this book also mentions it was known by other names such as 'The Congress of Nations' and 'The Multiplying Flags'. It was a popular routine in the Victorian era and early 20th Century. And it evolved over time into a very elaborate series of productions.

In it's simplest form it began as several small flags that vanished or transformed into colored ribbons. From the ribbons larger flags would be produced and eventually a giant flag and flagpole! It seems that each performer added his own touches to the routine.

Who performed this trick?  Hofzinser, Eugene Laurant. Edward Maro, David Devant, Karl Germain, LeRoy, Talma and Bosco, J.B. Bobo, and even Harry Blackstone Sr. had a unique twist on the concept. It must have been an extremely popular effect because the trick is featured on a number of stock magic posters.

The Flags of All Nations isn't really made anymore. There have been some small reproductions of parts of the routines in the past, but I've not found the whole thing anywhere. Thankfully, by combing through my large library of historical magic books, I've been able to figure out where to find 'some' of the items required. My most recent acquisition were two Silk Fans which are spring loaded. In the photo above I'm holding the silk fans. These aren't flags, but they will do for what I need. I may end up having larger versions of this item made for the routine.

If you're wondering why this was such a popular routine well there are multiple reasons. People were flocking to the United States in droves during the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. They came here to become Americans, but had their roots in other lands. So when a magician produced a flag from the country of their origin it was exciting for them to see. And then when it concluded with the Stars and Stripes, well who would not be proud of that? The wonderful thing about the routine was it was easily adapted to whatever country you were in. For example, if you were in England, the final flag would not be the US Flag but the Union Jack. All the other components of the routine could remain the same but the final flag production would change to the country you were in.

Some performers had to learn the hard way about this. One magician was performing in Canada and finished with the US Flag. It actually got boos from the audience because at the time Canada and the US were involved in a trade dispute. So this magician changed the final flag to that of the Canadian National Flag and had much better results.

I venture to say that once I've finished all the research and found or built all the items, I'll be the only 21st Century magician performing this classic from yesteryear. I'll have more news on my 'recreation' of the act later in the Summer as well as info on whose act I'm recreating. For now, enjoy this image below of a magician who featured The Flags of All Nations (his was called The Flags of The World) prominently in his show.
In addition, check out the incredible Friedlander Stock Image here, and a small image of an incredible LeRoy, Talma and Bosco poster here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Blackstone's Elusive Moth Strikes Again!

This past weekend was The 2014 Yankee Gathering in New England. I missed it unfortunately. But thankfully two of my friends who did attend did something rather special. Those two friends are Rory Feldman and Adele Friel Rhindress. Rory is the owner of the Thurston Show...well pretty much. If Thurston were alive and wanted to find some of his show items, chances are Rory has them in his fantastic collection. Adele is a living treasure. She worked on the Blackstone Sr. Show from 1947-1950.

Rory had some silent footage of the Blackstone Show and he video taped Adele watching the footage. She gave a play by play analysis of what was going on and who was in the footage. The one unfortunate part is that it's only 14 minutes long. Once you see it you'll wish it was an hour or more. Adele's recollection of the events is amazing and I love how she describes the various illusions.

Thank You Rory and Adele for this incredible video!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Gus Roterberg and Houdini

Houdini, Mrs. and Mr August Roterberg
Here is a name you hear every now and then in magic history circles, Roterberg. For those who collect apparatus, you probably hear it more. But I decided to spend some time and find out exactly who this Roterberg fellow was and as I dug I discovered he had a very close relationship with Houdini.

August Roterberg was born on April 5th 1867 in Hamburg Germany. He immigrated to the United States in 1882. He married Anna Miller in 1894 and became a father in 1895 to twins, Hattie(Harriet) and Frederick. He opened his own magic manufacturing business which was located in several spots along Ontario Street in Chicago over the years and some say even had a store in the old Palmer House Hotel lobby.

Houdini's first trip to Chicago was possibly during the 1893 World's Fair where he and Theo and Jacob Hyman performed. This is probably when Houdini first met August Roterberg, or Gus as he was often known. It's clear through the various letters sent between the two gentlemen that they were more than just acquaintances because one letter in particular mentions the death of Harry's brother William and also mentions his brother Leopold.

In another letter to Bess, Harry mentions that he is going to have lunch at Roterbergs, which again signals a friendship beyond that of the typical magic dealer/patron. The photo above is of Houdini and the Roterbergs outside of their shop on 151 Ontario Street in Chicago.

Gus Roterberg
According to a couple newspaper accounts from 1897, Gus also started teaching lessons in sleight of hand to 'drummers'. But in the context of the article it sounded odd to me and then I discovered that 'drummer' was a slang term for traveling salesman.

Gus Roterberg was known for making excellent magical apparatus and he clearly hired the best craftsman he could find. According to Milbourne Christopher's book The Illustrated History of Magic, Roterberg found out about a young man skilled in cabinet making and hired him to build wooden boxes. That young man was Henri Bouton, who would later change his name to Harry Blackstone. Also working in the shop, was Gus's son Frederick who would demonstrate items for customers and a young man named name George Wright.

It turns out that young George Wright stumbled upon an ingenious method to make wooden balls appear and multiply. The story has it that Roterberg would often order wooden Ball Vases from Austria and on occasion the gimmicked piece would warp or become detached. Roterberg instructed George Wright on what to do to fix them and one day quite by accident one of the shells from the gimmick fell upon one of the solid wooden balls. George messed around with it and eventually created what we know as the standard billiard ball production move. In time, Roterberg would sell this new creation at his shop and apparently this is how Roterberg has received credit for the creation of the Multiplying Billiard Balls, however, it was actually the invention of one of his employees.

Roterberg is also credited with the invention of the Multiplying Thimble trick which could very well be true. One thing he deserves great credit for is the publishing of magic books specifically for magicians. Today we have many magic publishers, but in the 1890s, Gus Roterberg was the first one printing books in English specifically for magicians only. His books include: The Modern Wizard (1895), Latter Day Tricks (1896), New Era Card Tricks (1897), and Card Tricks and How to Do Them (1902).

In 1908, when Houdini decided to sell his Challenge Handcuff Act, he partnered with Gus Roterberg and Ralph Read to sell what would be called 'The Defiance Handcuff Act'. Roterberg would make all the special keys needed, and if I can read between the lines in their correspondence, may have also provided Houdini with keys that he needed on occasion. In Patrick Culliton's book, The KEY.

According to Magicpedia, Roterberg sold his mail order business to Ralph Read in 1908 and then later sold the entire magic business in 1916 to Arthur and Carl Felsman when he was only 49. Looking at the US Census records I discovered Gus Roterberg started another business, a stationary store. His son Fred eventually took over the stationary store and Gus and Anna retired to Pasadena California where Gus died on September 23rd, 1928 at the age of 61 from natural causes. Anna moved back to Chicago and lived with Fred and his wife and Harriet and her daughter, for the rest of her life.

 I have a feeling there is more to be said about the friendship between Gus and Harry and I hope as time passes we are able to uncover more.

This coming Sunday, Sept 23rd, marks the 84th Anniversary of the passing of August Roterberg. If anyone knows where Gus is buried, I'd appreciate it if you could pass that information on to me as I'd like to include his grave on my other site. I'm pretty certain he is buried in Chicago, but I've yet to find out where.

The location today of 151 W Ontario St, same place the photo at the top of the page was taken.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Adelaide Herrmann and the 1926 Fire

Warehouse on 46St NYC
This is a story I had read about in different books over the years, but always in snippets. I never quite knew the whole story and now thanks to the publication of Adelaide Herrmann's Memoirs, I've got more information. But I'm also going back to other sources to pull out the various discussions of the event because other historical figures get involved.

Adelaide Herrmann was the widow of Alexander Herrmann, known as Herrmann The Great. After Alexander died in their traincar in December of 1896, Adelaide decided to take a version of their show out. She chose Alexander's nephew Leon to fill the male role and she sent for him in Europe.
They toured together for three seasons until personality clashes caused them to part ways.

Adelaide had inherited all of the properties from the original Herrmann the Great show and these were stored in a warehouse near 37th St in New York City.  However, Mrs. Herrmann had been notified that the warehouse building that held all her equipment was due to be demolished and she would need to find a new location. The new warehouse was at 611 46th Street NYC.  Along with all the props, costumes, scenery, and illusions were also all of Adelaide's animals that she used during her 'Noah's Ark' routine.

On the morning of September 7th, 1926, an explosion occurred at the warehouse and the building was engulfed in flames. All 200 animals perished in the fire, along with an animal trainer and the majority of the Herrmann props. Apparently, one crate remained unharmed but was later broken into by thieves so nothing remained of the Herrmann legacy.

What caused the fire? The New York Times reported that an alcohol still, or several stills, hidden on the roof of the warehouse had exploded causing the fire.

It would seem that Adelaide Herrmann's show business career was over. However, a number of professional performers came to her aid. Among them was the President of the Society of American Magicians, Harry Houdini, who donated a Noah's Ark Illusion to replace the one that had been destroyed by fire. Harry Blackstone Sr. also helped Mrs. Herrmann by donating equipment. She quickly put together a new act and was up and running by October 1926.

Though the majority of the props owned and used by the Herrmann's had been destroyed in the Sept 7th warehouse fire, some props still remain today in private collections. Among the props that still exist are a Pistol used by Alexander Herrmann to vanish rings and a pair of Rapping Hands, both in the collection of Ray Goulet. Also Ken Klosterman has a center table that belonged to Herrmann, and the magic wand that used by Alexander Herrmann, which once was owned by Houdini, is now in the Copperfield collection. There may be other props scattered among collectors but those are a few I'm aware of.

Below is a photo of the location of the 611 46th Street warehouse. You'll see today it still remains a shell of it's former self. However, at the top of the page is a photo of 609 46th Street,  a warehouse that has been there since 1879 and this is very likely exactly what Adelaide Herrmann's warehouse once looked like. One other note, this location is walking distance from the pier where the USS Intrepid is docked and also where one of the NASA Space Shuttles now sits on display.
Location of Adelaide Herrmann's Warehouse & Fire

Milbourne Christopher, The Illustrated History of Magic
M-U-M Magazine, March 1981, article 'Ladies of the Hall of Fame' by Colette Cozean
Genii Magazine August 2000, article 'Adelaide Herrmann' by James Hamilton
M-U-M Magazine, May 2011, article 'Adelaide Herrmann & The SAM' by Margaret Steele
Frank Dudgeon with Ann Goulet, RAY GOULET Recollections of a Renaissance Man
Adelaide Herrmann & Margaret Steele, Adelaide Herrmann Queen of Magic, Memoirs

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Game Changing Illusion

The one magician who changed the face of illusion magic more than anyone in the 20th Century was P.T. Selbit. Born Percy Thomas Tibbles on November 17th, 1881 in London. He found the name Tibbles had a less than magical sound to it, so he reversed the spelling of his name and became Selbit. He was a performer and a creator of incredible mysteries.

Illusion magic during Selbit's time contained vanishes, appearances, floatings in the air and similar effects. But no one had ever presented the illusion of mutilating a human being in the way Selbit came up with*. His creation would start a whole new brand of illusion magic.

The illusion that changed everything was Selbit's Sawing Thru A Woman. It was first presented to the public on January 17th 1921 at the Finsbury Park Empire Theatre. It had been presented several times previous to that date to magicians and agents. Notice, it was not Sawing in Half. His version was Sawing Thru a Woman, a penetration illusion. But it gave birth to all later sawing effects. The Selbit Sawing was unlike anything that had been presented in the world of stage magic. A long rectangular box made of rough cut wood sat upon two small wooden platforms. Ropes were tied on the woman's wrists and ankles. The ropes would be fed through holes in the box and then these would be tied with knots preventing her movement within the box. Next, three sheets of glass were shoved down into the box from the top, and then two sheets of metal were shoved into the box from the sides. The woman was unmistakably divided into numerous sections. But the best was yet to come. A large cross cut saw was used to saw the box in two. This was not the super clean way we think about it today. No, the long saw was real and truly cut the wooden crate in half. It took a while to cut through the thick wood of the box. Unlike, the more popular versions, the now divided boxes were not separated. Instead, the blade was left below the two cut boxes, the lid was opened, the ropes cut and the girl emerged perfectly safe and healthy!
P.T. Selbit presenting his masterpiece
The illusion of Sawing Through a Woman was an instant sensation. Word spread across the globe and magicians in America got wind of the new effect. The Great Leon and Horace Goldin set about creating their very own versions of the effect, but with a subtle change. They would be sawing a woman in halves and separating the halved boxes. Their effect would not be a penetration like Selbit's but instead a destruction and restoration effect. Goldin began work first on his method when Leon inquired about it. He told Leon he owned the rights to the trick, but that was a lie and Leon later discovered the truth and created his own.

The Goldin Sawing had an advantage over the Selbit version in that you could see the girls head, hands and feet the entire time. But Goldin's first version which he debuted in May 1921 used a boy not a woman. Thurston saw this and recognized the potential in the effect but also knew it was not a finished piece. He worked out a deal to have his chief mechanic and builder Harry Jansen rework the prop. Harry Jansen, who would later be known as Dante, at one time had his own magic manufacturing shop in Chicago. His company had the building rights to Servais LeRoy's illusions. Jansen took the Goldin Sawing and added the LeRoy Asrah table base. In Mike Caveney's book The Great Leon, he says that Leon also used the LeRoy Asrah table but the method was slightly different. Goldin took his new and improved illusion and had it patented under his name alone!

Goldin knew an opportunity when he saw it and by Summer of 1921 sent out other authorized performers to present his Sawing a Lady in Halves. Among the early group were; Thurston, Dante, and Servais LeRoy. He had a total of nine performers traveling the country with his sensation. Selbit came to America in September of 1921 hoping to reap the rewards of his creation and was shocked to find he had been ripped off. Selbit sued Goldin and lost. It didn't stop Selbit from sending out magicians with his version of the effect as well though. David Price's book, A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theatre mentions that Houdini stepped into the fray to show a playbill from a London theatre dated back to the 1880s which had the headline "Sawing a Lady in Two".

Eventually, Horace Goldin came up with a method for the illusion that removed the box completely and the need for the long wood saw. Instead, a girl would be placed upon a table in full view and a large circular saw would rip through her body. This became known as The Buzz Saw Illusion. Three of the most famous practitioners of this illusion were Harry Blackstone Sr and Jr, and Richiardi. This illusion was created in 1931.

The improved Goldin version using the box stayed around however. Milbourne Christopher in his Illustrated History of Magic credits a Turkish magician, Zati Sungar with shrinking down the size of the box and thus creating what we call today the 'thin model' sawing. Numerous variations have been developed since that time. Robert Harbin's contributions were probably the most unique. He created a simple to travel with Bow Saw version and then elaborated greatly on the theme and created The Zig Zag Lady!

Who can be credited with originally coming up with the sawing concept can be debated forever. One thing we know for sure, no illusion in the history of magic has ever created the sensation that the Sawing in Half Craze of 1921 did.

*There were other mutilation effects prior to Selbit's Sawing. The Sword Basket is one example as is the much older John the Baptist effect, where a head is severed from the body and set next to body on a table. But even those did not have the impact  that the Sawing Illusions first created.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Elusive Moth BOOK

I was quite excited when the mailman delivered a package to me yesterday containing a brand new book. The title, Memoirs of an Elusive Moth by Adele Friel Rhindress. I've mentioned Adele before in my blogs, but in case you don't know she worked with Harry Blackstone Sr. for several seasons. This book is about her adventures from that time period.

First thing I want to say, is it ok to give a book a standing ovation? I loved this book!!! For one, though it is about the Blackstone show, you really get the see the show through Adele's eyes. She has a number of her own adventures that she shares as well. I got a kick out of the 20 hour sleeping story. Actually, I enjoyed all the stories! I also had the honor of hearing a number of these stories in person last summer when I was in Pigeon Forge and Adele and I went to lunch one day.

She describes in the book, a letter that Harry Blackstone Sr. sent her about the new season and how he wanted her to come back to play the part of 'The Elusive Moth', a new routine they were creating specifically for Adele.  I actually got to see the letter during our lunch last year. Also, Adele was a featured speaker during my 'Magic Detective' Session at KIDabra and she shared a couple stories about Harry Blackstone JR. that also appear in the book. But there are many things I had not heard before and she captures them so well. She talks about Del Ray and Nick Ruggerio as well as a number of her fellow female assistants in the show. Adele also shares stories about the non performing cast members and helps the reader to see how important each and every person is/was in the production of the stage spectacular known as Blackstone And His Show of 1001 Wonders!

Besides giving the reader a sense of what it was like traveling with the Blackstone show,  she also gives a glimpse into her own life as well, which I was really happy to read. The book is about HER and her experiences and I'm so glad that she included some none magic history in there as well.

If you love history, get this book. If you know Adele, you must get this book. But if you just want to just read a book that will make you smile, then without a doubt get a copy of this wonderful book, The Memoirs of an Elusive Moth!

To order:

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Vanishing Bird Cage - History

La Cage Volente, La Cage Eclipse, The Flying Cage or as we know it today, The Vanishing Birdcage was the invention of one man Joseph Buatier. In 1873 French magician Buatier (who would later add deKolta to his name and become Buatier DeKolta) created the first hand held cage that could vanish. The first model, possibly a prototype was made of highly polished wood. The bars were possibly string or elastic. It appears the original shape of the cage was square or rectangular but at some point he created a longer cylindrical cage with a round top and bottom.

The Vanishing Birdcage was a sensation and was also quickly ripped off. In the Summer of 1875 Harry Kellar is said to have purchased a cage from DeKolta's cousin for $750. Of course this was unauthorized because Buatier never sold cages to anyone.  This cage was probably the very first one outside of DeKolta's act, but it wouldn't be the last. In fact, Harry Kellar can probably be credited for the deluge of Vanishing Birdcages in America because he sold the secret to a magic dealer in exchange for props. In Europe a letter from Robert Heller to Charles DeVere the french magic dealer shows that the cages were already for sale in December 1875.

Harry Kellar stirred up a bit of controversy while in Australia over his presentation of "The Flying Cage" as he called it. Harry Kellar's routine was simple and direct, he counted to three and the cage with a live canary inside would vanish! A rumor circulated that Kellar was killing a canary every time he presented the effect. An inquiry took place and Kellar proved that was not the case. He showed that he had one bird and one bird only that he had been using for a long while. But this same controversy would come to haunt other magicians across the globe. In fact, this controversy was used as a minor plot point in the movie "The Prestige" in which they give a rather fictitious explanation on how the cage works.

Magicians worldwide began using the Vanishing Birdcage. A few included; Carl Hertz, Harry Blackstone, FuManchu, Fred Keating, Arnold DeBiere, Servais LeRoy, John Booth, Frakson and many more. In recent times the Vanishing Birdcage could be found in the acts of Walter 'Zaney' Blaney, Harry Blackstone Jr, Lance Burton, Billy McComb, Jonathan Pendragon, Tommy Wonder and James Dimmare.

A description of the DeKolta's routine says that he made the cage vanish with a tossing motion. Then he would remove his jacket so that the audience could examine it. After putting the jacket back on DeKolta would make the cage reappear once again.

Harry Blackstone Sr and Jr. used the idea of repeating the effect successfully. After making the cage vanish once, Blackstone would walk offstage to get a second cage and this time invite children up to place their hands on the cage. While attempting to cover the cage with their hands the vanish would occur and their hands would all collapse together.

John Booth had an interesting twist. His cage is what we call a Blackstone cage, meaning it had red ribbon around the outer edges of the cage. He had a second cage with green ribbon so that when he would repeat the trick, it was clear that he wasn't using the same cage but instead a different one.

But my favorite routine comes from Servais LeRoy. He had been doing the cage vanish for years and according to the book "The Elusive Canary" by Mystic Craig,  Servais LeRoy was the first to do the 'repeat' of the vanish with a member of the audience putting their hands upon the cage.  After the cage vanished LeRoy would have the spectators check to see if the cage was on his body. So Blackstone's routine seems to have been inspired by Servais LeRoy.

In 1933 the Camel Cigarette Company 'exposed' the trick in a marketing campaign they called "It's Fun To Be Fooled". Not to be outdone, Servais LeRoy altered his routine. He would stand on a raised platform and had two spectators on stage with him. He would make the cage vanish and then immediately began to disrobe. He took of all of his clothes except for his under garments! He stood on stage in his underwear while the audience checked out his clothes for any sign of the cage. What a sight that must have been, amazing and hysterical.

It's still a wonderful effect today just as it was back in 1873 when Joseph Buatier invented it.
Now just as a treat, I have one more video, but you'll need to move up to 16:30 on the video to see the Vanishing Cage routine. This is the late Billy McComb who does a comedy version and does it in slow motion. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Magic Detectives

Before I became the Magic Detective (a name given to me by Mark Daniel), there were a number of others. One of the first was Harry Blackstone Sr.. His Magic Detective began as Radio Serial which ran from 1948 to 1950. These were 15 minute adventures in which actor Edward Jerome played the part of Blackstone the Magician and shared exciting stories from his life. These were written by the man who was also responsible for another popular radio serial called The Shadow. The author was none other than Walter Gibson.

Gibson was also a confident of Thurston and Houdini as well as many other magicians. His Blackstone radio series was complimented by a Blackstone the Magic Detective Comic Book series as well.

Here is an episode the Blackstone The Magic Detective for you to listen to. If you are interested in listening to more of the series please visit the website 
And if you like you can purchase all 55 known audio recordings of Blackstone The Magic Detective from The Miracle Factory

The next magic detective was David Bamberg, who performed under the stage name Fu-Manchu. David came from a long line of magicians, and his father Theo Bamberg performed under the stage name OKITO.

David made a series of three Spanish language films in which he solved crimes using magic. The films were The Ghost of the Bride (El Espectro de la Novia), The Headless Woman (La Mujer sin Cabeza), The Black Ace (El As Negro) and all were made in the 1940s in Mexico. These are available through The Miracle Factory at

The next two magic detectives were Bill Bixby and Hal Linden and they both who had their own TV series. Bixby's was called "The Magician" and ran for one season on NBC back in 1973. I'm pretty sure that Mark Wilson was the consultant on this one as Bill Bixby dresses in the same costumes that Mark wore. I vaguely recall this show from childhood, but fortunately the SciFi/Syfy Channel ran the series a few years ago.

Bixby played a character named Anthony Blake and drove a White Corvette equipped with a PHONE! (this was long before cell phones). As I recall there were a number of scenes shot in the famous Hollywood Magic Castle. 

Bill Bixby continued to be a big supporter of magic even following the cancellation of this show. He was a member of the Magic Castle and appeared on a number of magic related TV specials.

Hal Linden played a magic detective along with Harry Morgan in Blacke's Magic. This ran for thirteen episodes on NBC in 1986.

Hal Linden has the classic look of the magician, like a Mandrake or a Cardini. Unfortunately, I can't help but wonder if the consistent use of this kind of dated imagary is what killed the show. Magic appears 'out of date' and frankly, sometimes magic is out of date or out of touch.

I'll bet money that the consultant on this show was Harry Blackstone Jr.. The show's logo looked just like that used by Blackstone Jr. the Magician. I remember seeing Hal Linden on TV promoting the show and doing some magic and he was pretty good. Here is a clip from opening of Blacke's Magic...

But as far as I can tell, the very first magic detective was none other than Harry Houdini. In his 1923 film Haldane of The Secret Service, Harry goes after the bad guys and in the process gets tied up, chained up and bound in every way imaginable.

Houdini is the star, the director and the producer of this movie. It's interesting that he used his old moniker of "World Famous Handcuff King" in the promotion of the movie. I think it's pretty clear who the star of the movie is by looking at the image to the left.
Haldane of the Secret Service is available on the Houdini DVD compilation by Kino, along with The Master Mystery, The Man From Beyond, Terror Island, and clips from The Grim Game along with some archival footage.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Mystery of the Houdini Hole

Lincoln Square Theatre Decatur IL Today

There is a hole cut in the stage of the Lincoln Square Theatre in Decatur Il that is referred to as "The Houdini Hole"by the theatre people and the locals in town.  Legend has it that this hole was cut into the stage to allow the water to drain out from his Water Torture Cell. Houdini did stipulate in his performance rider that he required a hole be cut in the stage no less than 8 inches by 8 inches. However, there is no newspaper record of Houdini ever being in Decatur. One local man said it was before Houdini was famous which was why it wasn't in the papers. But Houdini was more than well known by the time he was doing the Water Torture Cell.

This hole should probably be called "The Blackstone Hole" because Blackstone Sr. played this theatre a number of times over the years. I got the impression that the hole was larger than 8x8 and was probably large enough for a person to go through. That would be ideal for a magician of the time, but not for Houdini.

In fact, the Lincoln Square Theatre is the very theatre where in September of 1942, Blackstone was doing a matinee performance with an audience of 1000 + kids and parents and they received word that the building next to the theatre was on fire. Blackstone calmly told the audience that in order to show his greatest trick, he would need to do it outside. He was able to get everyone out of the theatre in a quick and orderly manner without anyone getting hurt. While that was going on, Blackstone's crew was busy taking their props off the stage and getting them outside into the alley.

Sadly one person did die that day. Ted Banks, who was a close friend of Blackstone and also the show's stage manager, He died of a heart attack that evening in his hotel room. The crew didn't find out until the next morning when Ted didn't show up at the theatre. He died at the St. Nicholas Hotel which was walking distance from the Lincoln Square Theatre.

St. Nicholas Hotel on the left

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Blackstone In D.C.

Here's a slight change of pace from all the Houdini stuff. Did you know that Harry Blackstone Sr. is in the Smithsonian Museum? Back in the 1985 Harry Blackstone Jr. donated two original pieces of his father's equipment to the museum. Apparently it was the first time they accepted a magic donation. I find that somewhat hard to believe because I'm sure there are Houdini items in the Smithsonian.

But it is still quite exciting for Blackstone to be in the museum. Now whether or not they are on display, that I cannot say. The two items in question are one of the original Dancing Handkerchief Casadega Cabinets and the original Floating Lightbulb apparently built by none other than Thomas Edision!