Showing posts with label DeKolta. Show all posts
Showing posts with label DeKolta. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Buatier DeKolta The Master of Illusion

He was born Joseph Buatier on November 18,1847 in Lyon France. And before I get too far, I know I am probably pronouncing the name wrong. Please forgive me as I am not certain as to the actual pronunciation. You’ll have to go with my version for now. One thing you’ll notice is his last name is not DeKolta. More on that later.

We start with his Origin Story. How did get get interested in magic? Well, at the early age of 6 years old he was chosen to be a helper in a magic show of a traveling magician. And that was all she wrote. From that point on, he was hooked. A short time later he received his first magic book as a birthday present. And he set out to learn everything in the book, all the sleights, all the tricks, how all the effects worked. Now there is but one small problem with the story and that is his wife. She wrote a manuscript which gives the same story but she claimed he was 18 at the time, not 6. 

But his parents desire was for him to go into the priesthood. In fact, they wished this for all three of their boys. But in the end, only the youngest, Auguste, would become a priest. Buatier, upon graduation had his sights on something else, and it wasn’t magic. He actually became interested in art and painting by meeting painter, Elie Laurent. According to the book, Buatier DeKolta Genuis of Illusion by Peter Warlock, Buatier spent two years away from magic and just painted. 

He had gotten himself a simple job as a waiter when one night along came a Hungarian impresario by the name of Julius De Kolta. Buatier was not just waiting tables, he was doing strolling magic, as he went from table to table and Julius saw this and was captivated. He suggested to Buatier, that he could make a fortune if he did this very same thing in Europe, and with Julius De Kolta acting as his manager. So now you get a glimmer of where that name came from. I should mention this now, De Kolta was his manager, and also a bit of a con name, more on that later.

It’s been suggested that Buatier was possibly bi-lingual, so his abilitiy to connect with english, spanish, and french speaking audiences was heightened. The year was 1870, and he first played in Geneva Switzerland and upon finishing there, went to Rome.  IT was not all sunshine and roses however. Because his act was primarily card tricks, he was playing Inns and cafes, and the occasional private engagement. 

Once again, according to his Buatier’s wife’s manuscript, while in Rome, Buatier ran into a priest friend from his old Seminary. The two spoke and Buatier revealed that his time on the road had been anything but successful. He was on the verge of giving up. But it seemed providence was now shining upon him as the Priest arranged for Buatier to give a performance before very important representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. This event, as Buatier would later admit, was the turning point. Everything changed now. This led him to give some performances all around Rome at the finest theatres. 

In 1873, he would add a piece of apparatus, something of his own invention. A new routine called La Cage Eclipse. It was an early version of what We would come to know it as The Vanishing Birdcage. To begin with a small rectangular bird and cage was held with one hand. Then he would grab the cage with the other hand holding it by the two sides. With no covering at all, he would give an upward toss and the cage simply vanished. He then walked off stage and a second later came back with the cage and bird, safe and sound. Later in 1875, the routine would be called The Flying Cage. In the 1880s, Buatier created a new version of his Flying Cage and this time it used a large oblong cage as opposed to the square one. The effect was essentially the same!

I should mention it now, DeKolta never sold his Vanishing Birdcage to anyone. Yet it became a sensation all over the Globe. In Ep 8 of the podcast, I share with you how the Vanishing Birdcage made it’s way to the United States in 1875 via Harry Kellar. A short time later, Robert Heller wrote to french magic dealer Charles DeVere and ordered a cage. Eventually, it would become a staple in the acts of many magicians like Kellar, Servais Le Roy, Fred Keating, FuManchu, John Booth, Frakson, Tommy Wonder, The Blackstone’s Sr and Jr, Billy McComb, Walter Blaney, Jonathan Pendragon and a host of other performers. A trick invented in in the 19th Century is still popular today in the 21st. Buatier did sell the secret of the cage to a magic dealer in Holland, as times where bad and money was not coming in with just performing, but he did not sell an actual cage with it.

In 1875, Buatier made his debut at Egyptian Hall in London. He was brought in by Dr. Lynn. His engagement was for one night. And this was basically so Dr. Lynn could see how Buatier performed before an audience. Dr. Lynn was duly impressed, as were the London audiences, so they worked out a schedule where the two would alternate perofrmances.  And if I might stop for just a moment to explain something that I previously was not aware of. Apparently, Egyptian Hall, was divided between Dr. Lynn and Maskelyne and Cooke. Lynn having exclusive use of the large hall, while Maskelyne & Cooke had a drawing room and small hall. But in July of 1875, Dr. Lynn left and the establishment was open to lease again. So this time Maskeylne and Cooke jumped at it, and the entire Egyptian Hall was theres. I had no idea of this bit of drama. Buatier, began working for M&C at Egyptian Hall in August. His act appears to be mainly parlor sized magic, along with the Vanishing Birdcage. 

Speaking of inventions, De Kolta’s wife suggests in her short manuscript on her husband, that he never purchased a magic trick. But instead, invented and built everything he ever used. This is not exactly accurate. In regards to magic tricks, it’s likely everything was his invention. But he did purchase a copy of the automaton Psycho, who was called Altotas in De Kolta’s show, so here is an example of something he did not build or create. And it’s also something that irritated John Nevil Maskelyne greatly. 

Now back to the tour, at some point, Joseph Buatier, who had been performing as Dr. De Buatier, altered his name and became simply Buatier. Though, I think he did the name change after he fired his manager. The name fits him well, and along with his completely original repertoire made him one unforgettable artist.

If we take a look at some of his effects, I think you’ll be surprised. One of the earliest was his version of The Rising Cards. You can find this in Tarbell 2, for the curious. But in effect, three cards are chosen and shuffled in a deck. The deck then placed into a glass which is sat on a chair. At the command of the performer, all the cards start jumping from the glass creating a fountain like effect. At the end, the three chosen cards are found to remain in the glass, all others have flown out at the magicians command. It’s a very beautiful and offbeat effect. And it may have been an invention that was also invented by someone else years before. I doubt DeKolta had knowledge of this. In the Feb 1903 Mahatma, they mention the wonderful mystery that DeKoltas trick creates and that in 1887, a juvinelle magician by the name Sig Fritzini presented the same trick. A case of independent creation, or is that independent duplication?

There is an effect that is only briefly touched upon in the Genius of Illusion book. It is De Kolta’s Diminishing and then Expanding Cards. The way it is written, he takes a deck of cards and says he is going to make them the proper size for ladies. And then simply shuffling them over and over they begin to shrink in size as he is shuffling then he holds them up to show that the cards have shrunk in size! Next he says he is going to make them suitable for gentleman, and this time by shuffling the cards, they not only grow, but they continue to grow into a size that is astonishing to say the least. At least twice the size or more than regular playing cards size. 

His sleight of hand skills must have been impecable. One of his features was something he called “The Five Coins” Yes, there is a rousing title if ever there was one, lol. The five coins is the coin flourish known as The Coin Star. It appears to predate the T. Nelson Downs Coin Star.
Now lets skip to 1878. Buatier has returned to France, Paris to be exact. For whatever reason, he changes his name slightly, and takes the last name of his somewhat worthless manager, DeKolta. Now he is Buatier DeKolta.  And on this stay in Paris he creates another one of his masterpieces, The Flowers from Cone, or the most basic simplistic title, The Spring Flowers. I honestly think this was close to a miracle in his hands, and in the hands of the earliest practitioners. Rolling up a paper into an empty cone, the magician suddenly causes the cone to fill with flowers, over and over and they continue to appear and are dropped into an open umbrella held by an assistant. One of the secret techniques used would later be adopted by dove workers, so in a way, DeKotla gave birth to that genre. I’m also fairly confident that the early Spring Flowers were made in life-like flower colors, and not the neon colors that are often seen today.  Sadly, many  a magic prop was ruined by good intentioned but poorly thought out design choices (think of all the poorly painted apparatus magic of the 20th century). 

DeKolta now begins to set his sights on larger effects. One interesting illusion was called Le Cocoon, which I believe he debuted in December of 1885. Here is a very artistic piece, a departure from what anyone was doing in the world of magic at the time. It began simply enough, with a paper framework being hung in the air. The magician would draw the outline of a silkworm and suddenly the paper burst open and there was a large cocoon, not a picture of a cocoon, but a very large cocoon which would be picked up and placed upon a stool. As the cocoon is placed on the stool, the realistic cocoon, bursts open and out comes a woman dressed as a moth or butterfly. But tell me, am i the ONLY one who thought of the ALIEN bursting forth from a cocoon ala Ridley Scott’s famous movie???Seriously, though, this is a very complicated illusion in methodology. The patent for this illusion appears in the book, Buatier DeKolta Genius of Illusion by Peter Warlock. It love the poetic imagery with the silkworm, cocoon and moth/butterfly. 
I think it would make a wonderful illusion today, though with an altered method.

Now, we come to 1886. DeKolta was in St. Petersburg Russia and would debut a game changing illusion. To begin with, he would take a sheet of newspaper and place it upon the stage. The purpose of this was to discount any thought of a trapdoor. Then a chair was placed on top of the newspaper. DeKolta’s assistant then came and sat down on the chair and a thin sheet was placed over her entire body. You could make out the outline of her head, shoulders and knees. No sooner was the sheet placed over her, it was suddenly whisked away. In the process, the lady vanished. Her outline was seen right up until the moment the cloth was taken away. OH, and to add another element to the mystery, the cloth that covered her body ALSO vanished!!!

The illusion known as The Vanishing Lady would become an instant hit. John Nevil Maskelyne wanted it for Egyptian Hall, but DeKolta couldn’t get there soon enough. So they made arrangements for Charles Bertram to present the illusion. Interestingly, Bertram and DeKotla actually resemble each other. 

I was excited to find a newspaper ad for DeKolta in America presenting the Vanishing Lady in 1886, however, before I could contemplate the timing, I found in the Genius of Illusion book, a write up on the very same article. Apparently, this person was not DeKolta, in fact, the performers name is not given. What it says is “The first authorized performance in this city of M. Buatier DeKolta’s trick entitled The Vanishing Lady”. Also mentioned in the book, was that Alexander Herrmann was the first famous magician in America to present the effect.

Soon the Vanishing lady would be in a lot of acts. Did DeKolta get any compensation for this?? Other than the Charles Bertram appearance at Egyptian Hall, and his work with Maskelyne, he got nothing as far as I know. The Vanishing Lady was so popular at one point that the method became common knowledge having been exposed numerous times, both in books and in magazines. Probably only Richardi Jr. kept presenting the illusion right up until his death in the 1980s. His version was nothing short of a miracle. After the girl had been covered, a steamer trunk on a tall platform was rolled out. The trunk was tilted down to show it empty, then it was closed and put upright. Richard walked over to the lady, pulled the cloth away and she vanished! And then a second later the same cloth was whisked by the empty trunk and the vanished lady was now found inside the trunk!!!!!!

David Copperfield would produce one of the most stunning examples of the Vanishing Lady. ( Watch it below) His routine was a vignette, a scene from an attic. The magician reminiced over a picture of an old girlfriend and suddenly she appears. They interact and at the end, she climbs up on a table, where a chair is sitting. She sits in the chair and covers herself with a cloth, almost in a type of hide and seek game. When Copperfield spots her, he steps up onto the table pulls away the cloth and the woman is gone. It’s a powerful presentation, filled with emotion and romance. 

Now, I must bring up a device that DeKolta invented and as is my rule not to reveal secrets, I shall be rather stealthy in my description. The device is called The Cache, it is used along with another device called a pull. I always thought DeKolta invented the Pull, but actually I believe his contribution was The Cache which allowed for the barehanded vanish of scarves and handkerchiefs. Another tool of the 19th Century conjurer, that over time as fallen out of favor. 
Just as a side note, my best friend, Bobby Dymond, who passed away a couple years ago was a master of this device. He was fairly new to magic and had seen magicians at magic shops make small silk scarves vanish and then reappear. He asked me if it was possible to make something vanish that was larger than the tiny 6 inch square scarf. I pointed him towards the modernized version of DeKolta’s device. I had used one so I knew the impact. I taught my friend Bobby who learned it so well, he was fooling everyone with it. Now, here is the ultimate.
He would use this while doing walk around magic. He’d borrow a dollar bill. Show his hands empty. Take the bill and push it into his fist. Sometimes, he’d even let them push it into his fist. Then without any unusual movements, he’d open his hands and the bill was gone. People were often so amazed, they’d let him keep the money because it was such a good trick. He told me one day he made over $100 in the afternoon, just doing that trick over and over. I honestly, thought he was exaggerating, but later I saw him do that very thing, again, and again and again. People were so surprised, that he’d make dollar after dollar after dollar vanish. 

Ok, let’s get back to DeKolta. One of his lesser known illusions was called The Magic Carpet. This was a large rug, an assistant would stand in the center of the rug, and then he and another assistant would pick up the corners of the carpet and raise it up so as to obscure the view of the person inside the folds. They would shake the carpet a bit and then drop it and the person was gone! Them vanished person would reappear in the audience. 

In regards to his personal life, Buatier DeKolta married Alice Mumford, likely some time in the mid 1880s. She had previously been a musician, so they likely met in the theatre where they both were performing.  In the book, The Old and New Magic by Henry Ridgely Evans, he says that DeKolta married Alice Allen in London, on Dec 8th, 1887. But this is not correct. Alice Allen was an assistant in the show, but DeKolta had already married Ms. Mumford and remained married to her his entire life. Now, it is an understandable mistake. As it would appear that DeKolta was having a secret affair with Alice Allen, who would go by Lizzie. More on that later.

Buatier DeKolta claimed to have invented Modern Black Magic. This same principle was also claimed by Max Auzinger (likely the originator), and others. I think it’s likely another independent creation, though DeKolta’s does differ slightly from Auzinger’s principle. And I’m not going to say anymore on this one. If you’re a magician, you know the principle involved in this.

In The Old and New Magic by Henry Ridgely Evans, he says, “At the Eden Musee, in NYC, Dekolta introduced the large vanishing cage, which he intended as a satire on the flying cage because of the repeated suppositions that a bird was killed at each performance.” This was an illusion he called The Captive’s Flight. It clearly has some similarities to the Vanishing Lady. It began innocently enough with a large serving tray that was held out for inspection. This was then laid upon the stage. Next, Dekolta’s wife, dressed in a costume to look somewhat like a bird came out and knelt upon the small tray. DeKolta then covered her with a parrot’s cage and then in the original version, he covered the entire affair with a cloth and in a moment, whisked away the cloth and the bird woman and cage had vanished. Over time he would eliminate the cloth covering and add large playing cards which were connected by pieces of fabric. These would be placed all around the cage hiding it from view. Then DeKolta would attempt to lift the cage with the bird woman inside, and he would accidentally drop it where the cards would collapse and thus the bird woman and cage were gone!

The final illusion I want to share is an iconic effect known as the Expanding Die. In effect, the magician walked out on stage with a die (single dice) which was approx 6 inches square. He placed this upon a table where it suddenly grew to 50 inches square. Then the die was lifted to reveal a woman inside. It reads like a miracle. Was it? Not having seen it in action, I really don’t know. I expect the appearance of a woman inside was quite stunning. The actually expanding of the die, I don’t know. I do know how it worked. Without revealing anything, this thing was a beast! You’d have to be a genius just to figure out how to construct such a thing. 

If we take a look at the entire routine, it actually begins when he walks out. DeKolta is carrying a satchel, he claims the satchel contains his wife and that this form of travel cuts down on traveling expenses. He sets it down on a chair and then removes his hat and overcoat and proceeds to work his act. He presents a number of smaller effects before returning to the satchel. He reaches into the satchel and removes the small dice which he places upon a low table. He introduces a large japanese style fan and opens and attaches it to the back of the table. Then by waving his hand over the die, it instantly goes from it’s small size to the much large cube! Then, DeKolta and his assistant, pick up the die together revealing his wife underneath. Given a bit more context, it sure sounds amazing. The fact that it instantly increases in size is also revealing. This would be DeKolta’s final creation.

In 1902-03, Dekolta was back in America. He had appeared here in 1891, but now he had returned and brought with him his Expanding Die.  He began appearing in NYC at the Eden Musee in September 1902. He finished there 7 months later in April 1903. At this point he began a tour throughout the United States. In September of 1903 he was in New Orleans appearing at Orpheum Theatre. By all reports he was not feeling well during this week. The following week, he was extremely ill and still in New Orleans. Joseph Buatier died on October 7th, 1903. He had Bright’s disease, or what we know today as Kidney disease. He was only 55 years old but he was a heavy smoker and likely had a unhealthy diet. His body was taken back to England and buried.

Revealed in Genius Of Illusion, Lizzie Allen was 5 months pregnant when DeKolta died. He had been having romantic relations with her unknown to his wife Alice. But, at 5 months, she could no longer hide the fact.  On March 9, 1904, DeKolta’s daughter, whom he would never meet, was born. She was named Violet, but went by the name Vicky during her life.

Charles Morritt pointed out the fact that it was Dekolta who coined the term Illusionist, and was the first to use it. 

If you’re wondering how so many of DeKolta’s tricks were ripped off? Well it turns out he patented most of them. So unscrupulous magicians needed only to get copies of the patent papers, though, many had more devious techniques than that. 

That my friends is the story of Joseph Buatier DeKolta. 


The Old & New Magic by Henry Ridgely Evans
MAGIC A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theatre by David Price
Buatier DeKolta: Genius of Illusion by Peter Warlock
Mahatma Magazine Feb 1903 Edition
Tarbel Vol 2
and more

This article originally appeared as Episode 31 of The Magic Detective Podcast. This is the transcript of that podcast.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Imitation Is The Sincerest Form of Flattery-Magic Style

In today's magic world we have enormous amounts of imitation, which is often more akin to theft and copying than imitation. One recent example was the fellow who stole Piff The Magic Dragon's act and presented it on TV as if it were his own. I've also seen a video on Youtube of a fellow performing Lance Burton's Dove Act copying every detail down to the costume and music. This stuff sadly has been going on forever and happens in other areas of entertainment as well. It's one thing to be inspired by another performer, it's another to steal their act. If the originator has passed on then it's a different issue. Though unless one is presenting a tribute act, it's probably best to still change the act somewhat. I thought I'd share some examples from a bygone era to show how far back this goes.

The Pastry Chef of the Palais Royal
We'll start with Robert Houdin the great french magician. Many performers ripped off the routines of Robert-Houdin. But if you read Harry Houdini's book "The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin" you'd think that everything Robert-Houdin did was stolen also. I find this book to have some interesting historical facts, but I don't always agree with Houdini's conclusions. There is a wonderful routine called The Pastry Chef of the Palais Royal which Robert-Houdin presented. In his routine, a miniature model of a bakery sits upon a table. It appears to be mechanical in nature, as Robert-Houdin must wind it up in the manner of a music box. Out comes a pastry chef holding a tray to take the order. The magician tells the chef what an audience member has selected off a menu of pastries, and the chef turns and goes back inside. The audience can see other mechanical men rolling the pastries and working in the kitchen. A few moments later the mechanical chef figure comes back out with the exact item the person from the audience requested. A marvel of the time. But was it original?

Ernest Basch
If we are to believe Houdini, no way was it original. In fact, Houdini does a fine job of proving that a routine of this nature existed before Robert-Houdin. In his book he says "the trick appears first, not as a confectioners shop with small figures at work, but as a fruitery, then again as a Dutch Coffee house, then as a Russian Inn, from which ten sorts of liquor were served. Finally in 1823, it is featured under the name that made it famous, The Confectioners Shop." So the effect did seem to exist prior to Robert-Houdin. But I tend to think Robert-Houdin was presenting his version of an already existing routine.

The image on the right is that of french magician Ernest Basch, and he is standing near what he claimed was Robert-Houdin's original Pastry Chef automaton. However, if you look at the picture above, you'll see it is clearly not the same. This black and white image was from Houdini's book. It does show that there were other automaton's of this nature out there and it also shows that Robert-Houdin's actual automaton was different. So I think this was more a case of imitation not theft.

Now let's look at William Henry Palmer. He first saw Robert-Houdin perform in London and became interested in magic. When he decided to perform magic himself he changed his name to Robert Heller. It's said that he chose the name 'Robert' from Robert-Houdin, the name Heller from pianist Stephan Heller. Ok, he was inspired by Robert-Houdin, but read on.

Robert Heller took his imitation a step further and even performed with a french accent initially.  There is no denying he copied Robert-Houdin's act. In the book 'The Annals of Conjuring' by Sidney W. Clarke, there is a list of 15 routines presented by Heller and the exact same 15 in the same order presented by Robert-Houdin. Heller did give the routines 'slightly' different names, as if that made a difference. Worse yet, he claimed to have created the magic in his show. This bit of bragging was common among many magicians.  Eventually Heller dropped the accent and found his own style.  He met with real success  when he stopped trying to be Houdin and instead performed as HELLER.

John Henry Anderson, The Great Wizard of the North, claimed to have invented a trick that he called "Suspension Chloroforeene" which was amazingly similar to Robert-Houdin's invention called "The Ethereal Suspension".  In the Houdin version, his son was placed between upright walking sticks and a bottle of ether was held below his nose briefly. Backstage, an assistant with a hand held fan made sure the smell of ether made it's way into the audience as well so as to increase the theatricality of the effect. The boy passed out from the ether and apparently became as light as a feather. To prove this, Robert-Houdin removed one of the walking sticks and lifted his son up and showed that he could actually rest easily upon the other. In the John Henry Anderson routine, Chloroform was used instead of ether, other than that the routine was exactly the same.

Anderson, also presented the Magic Scrapbook, known as the Artist's Portfolio in Houdin's act and the Second Sight routine, which went by the same name in Robert-Houdin's show.

Let's take a look at Harry Kellar.  Notice the side by side photos below. Robert Heller is on the left and a young Harry Kellar is on the right. They look very much alike. Today we most often think of Kellar as the older, clean shaven, balding gentleman, but in his younger days he sported a rather large mustache. As best I can tell, he shaved it off around 1894 because the first Kellar posters without the mustache appeared that year. I wondered if he wore this mustache to look more like Heller. However, I think it was more the fashion of the time.
Robert Heller (left) Harry Kellar (right)
Though the two gentleman do look very much alike, Kellar actually tried to distance himself from Robert Heller. Harry's last name was actually spelled KELLER, but he altered the spelling because it looked too much like HELLER.  His act was fairly different from that of Robert Heller with the exception of the spirit manifestations that many performers of the day were doing. Harry Kellar had worked for the Davenport Brothers, the creator of the Spirit Cabinet act and he left their employment somewhat disgruntled. Upon his exit he took with him another Davenport employee, William Fay. Kellar and Fay teamed up and began to present their version of the Spirit Cabinet.

Harry Kellar did get something from Robert Heller though, but it was after Heller had died. When Robert Heller presented his Second Sight Act it was always with his 'so-called' sister Ms. Haidee Heller. Well, now that Robert Heller had passed on, Haidee, who was no relation, was off presenting the act with a new partner. In 1880, Kellar met her while he was working in Scotland and hired her and her partner to present their act in his show. A few years later, Kellar and his wife Eva began presenting a Second Sight Act. I wonder where he learned that from?

Kellar's most frequent target was John Nevil Maskylene of Egyptian Hall Fame. In fact, it was at Egyptian Hall that Kellar saw Dekolta present his Vanishing Bird Cage Trick. Kellar purchased a copy of the cage from a relative of DeKolta's, though apparently DeKolta himself was unaware of this transaction. A somewhat shady deal.

Maskelyne & PSYCHO
A short time later Kellar hired a mechanic to make a copy of John Nevil Maskelyene's popular  automaton PSYCHO. Kellar even called his version PSYCHO as well, though when he played England, he changed the name temporarily to Arno. Kellar continued to go back to the 'Maskelyne Magic Well' and steal not just automaton but illusions as well. At one point he tried to get permission to do Maskelyne's new Floating Lady illusion. When Maskelyne turned him down, Kellar figured out another way of getting the illusion. He offered a job to Paul Valadon, who had been working at Egyptian Hall. Paul moved to America to become part of Kellar's show.  Together, Valadon and Kellar would build a version of the Maskelyne levitation. Theirs was actually an improvement over the original levitation because it was portable. Maskelyne's original was not made to travel.

It just goes to show, if you've got a popular trick, act or persona, there are people out there who will copy it. I mentioned at the start that this sort of thing happens in other forms of entertainment as well. Comedians are a great example. There are some performers who have no problem with stealing jokes and routines from other comedians. Carlos Mencia and Dane Cook have both been accused of stealing jokes and routines. I've noticed in the movie industry sometimes very similar  projects  come out from competing studios. An example would be the movie Tombstone and then Wyatt Earp. Same story basically, same characters, two different studios. When the movie Capote came out, it was followed quickly by a movie called Infamous, which was the same story about author Truman Capote. Very recently, the movie Battleship came out at the box office and an oddly similar movie which at first had the title American Battleships appeared on the Syfy Channel. The producers of Battleship sued the producers of the other movie over the title so the second movies title was changed to American Warships. So call it what you will, copying, imitation or whatever, it existed 100 years ago and is still going strong today.

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!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Recreations of Historical Magic Routines

This is interesting. Apparently it was a TV show at one time, though I'm not sure when. The performers have recreated a number of 'historical magic routines'. I have to say it's not 100% historically accurate, but it is interesting to watch. The first is Houdini's Milk Can Escape.

Next we have Servais LeRoy's Levitation as presented by this troupe of performers on the TV show "Illusions". Again, not 100% accurate historically but it gives you an idea of the style and what it may have been like.

Next up is DeKolta's Vanishing Lady. Interestingly, the performer does lay down a sheet of newspaper beforehand, which Dekolta did. But DeKolta also did something that no other performer has done since and that is make the entire cloth that covers the girl vanish as well.

The final video is a recreation of Kalanag's Sub Trunk Vignette. I don't know quite enough about Kalanag's actual performance pieces to know how close this is. I'm guessing it's like the others, it's meant to give the viewer an idea of what it was like but probably not an exact recreation.