Today I get to talk about one of my favorite magicians of all time. I became fascinated with this gentlemen when I first saw one of his breathtaking posters (see above). It was hanging in the American Museum of Magic years ago and I was awe struck. The poster was tall, a 3 sheet poster, with an image of a witch and black cat leaning over a fire. The smoke from the fire revealed an image of Germain who himself, was conjuring a spirit. And across the top of the poster the words, GERMAIN The Wizard. I read what little I could find on Germain in books, and then learned there were two biographies written on Germain, but a the time they were long out of print. When I finally was able to get a copy of them, I read them cover to cover. Germain truly seemed like a real wizard. I think you too will become fascinated by Germain just as I did, after reading this article.
Our subject was born Charles Mattmueller on Feb 12, 1878 in Cleveland Ohio. Technically he should be Charles Mattmueller Jr. as his father was also Charles Mattmueller. David Price’s book, MAGIC A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theatre, explains The name Karl came about during his school years when several other boys in his class also had the name Charles. The teacher decided this Charles would be called Karl. It must have pleased young Karl Mattmueller because he kept the name.
He became interested in magic in his youth, but I’m not sure what the specific event was that peaked his curiosity. I have a feeling that his interest in magic came directly from his father, who had seen magicians in his native Germany and often told young Karl about the feats he had witnessed. Also, I know young Karl had a copy of Modern Magic by Professor Hoffmann which was given to him by his father when he was 14. At age 15, in 1893, he sketched out a design for a possible poster inside his copy of Modern Magic, on a blank page no doubt. His name in the design is listed as Chas. Mattmueller. The following year he would create another sketch for a potential advertising piece but this time his name was listed as Karl Mattmueller-Magician.
Young Karl’s early magic career, in fact, his entire magic career, would be a family affair. Census records from the time list his father as being a machinist and also working in the picture framing business. He was clearly a skilled craftsman. Karl’s father would make many of the props that Karl would use in his show. Another family member would be a regular part of Karl’s show and that was his sister Ida. She would act as assistant and would participate in his mind reading experiments. More on both of them later.
He would have several stage names before settling upon the best one. First he was Charles Mattmueller, then
Karl Mattmueller, then for a time he went by the stage name Alexander, but upon being selected to perform for the Central Lyceum Bureau in 1899, he chose the name Germaine. Actually the chose the name GERMAIN without the ‘e’, but due to an error by a printing company, he became Germain with an e at the end. They didn’t have spellcheck back then sadly.
Now before I can get into his magic, I must point out something that I read in several different articles and books on Germain. When describing his act, many people use the word ‘artistic.’ The first time I read it was in David Price’s book, and then I also saw it in The Annals of Conjuring book. In several magazine articles on Germain, they also use the word ‘artistic’ to describe him. On the surface it might seem that these various magic authors are simply being lazy and copying each other, which happens a lot in magic literature. But having looked over the material in Germain’s show, and seen photos of the incredible props, plus having seen a number of them in person, I can attest to the fact that ARTISTIC is probably the perfect word to describe Karl Germaine.
Beyond the look of his props, why do so many say Germain was artistic. I truly believe it was because he was highly creative, presented many of his own original creations. When he did regular magic routines, he always added something to the routine to make them unique to him. His patter was different from the standard performer of the time. Of course, he dressed immaculately, as did his on stage assistants. And this appears to be the case from the very start of his career right up to the end.
Germain’s bread and butter seems to be the Lyceum and Chautauqua circuits. As mentioned he began in 1899 and continued for several years. In the book, Germain the Wizard and His Legerdermain by Stuart Cramer, he shares the story of an event that took place in July of that year. The Germain company was onboard a train heading for their next destination. They were part of a larger troupe of performers. Germain was there with his sister Ida. Unknown to the passengers, a cargo train off in the distance was on the same track as the passenger train. No one knew, and the sudden realization did not prevent a disaster from happening. The two trains collided, sending various cars crashing, and some tipping off the tracks. The passenger car that Germain and his fellow performers were on, was further down the line but still suffered from the impact. The result was that their car came to an abrupt stop and tilted at an angle off the tracks. No one was hurt, though everyone was very shaken up.
After helping other passengers out of the wrecked cars, Germain realized it would be impossible for him to make his show unless he made other arrangements. I’m not even sure how they pulled this off but they were able to get a buggy to take them and their luggage and equipment to another train and booked passage just in time to make it to their destination. They also made it in time to do give their performance!
Another story from the Germain The Wizard and His Legerdermain book, tells of Germain’s appearance at the Opera House in Wheeling WV. The company was unaware that the entire area had flooded, but the organizers met Germain at station with a raft to bring them to the theatre to do the show! Unreal.
If you’re wondering what kind of magic Germain did, well, he was capable of doing most anything. He had primarily stage or platform style tricks, but he kept a number of very deceptive close-up tricks on him at all times. He also excelled at mentalism, which included his sister Ida. And one of the bigger surprises for me was to discover that Germain also presented illusion magic, as in Grand Illusion. At this time period, Grand Illusion was really in it’s infancy, but there were some truly marvelous creations that came out of this period. One early illusion was called The Mystery of Malabar. The thinking behind this routine was brilliant. The effect was a two sided platform which was set up in front of the audience. A top went onto this two sided platform and then a basket similar in style to that of the famed hindu basket effect was placed on top of this platform. You could see above, below, and to the sides of this platform. Next, Germain put on a robe and mask or beard and climbed into the basket. Only seconds later, walking down the aisle in the audience was Karl Germain. He vanished from the basket and in impossible time, appeared at the back of the theatre! He wouldn’t be the first or last to present this type of effect, but his method was quite clever.
Each year Germain added new an amazing mysteries to his show. Let’s take a moment to examine some of his other unique effects…
The Block. This is an incredible effect with a crazy method but completely original. From the perspective of the audience, this is what they see. There is a block of wood, probably about 12 inches long and maybe 2.5 inches square. This is handed out for examination. In addition is a wooden board, 16 inches long, twelve inches wide, and a quarter inch thick, which is also given out for inspection. Germain then took the block and held it against the board and mysteriously it passed right through. He then pulled it back out, and placed the block at another position on the board at a different angle and once again, the block passed through the board. He repeated it a third time. To the audience it appeared he could push the block through the examined board at any spot and it would pass through, like a knife going through butter. The image of Germain passing the block through the board is just crazy. In it’s most basic form, this is a penetration effect, and there are many of them in magic. What makes this one so diabolical is the fact that the items are handed out beforehand. Also their appearance is quite organic, meaning they don’t look like magic props but rather normal pieces of scrap wood. They also don’t appear to leave a hole in the board once the block is passed through. Keep in mind, I do not reveal methods on this podcast, but trust me the method is wild. In the book, CONJURING by Jim Steinmeyer, he has two effects of his own creation that are inspired by Germain’s Block trick, if you are interested.
Another incredible Germain effect is his Butterfly. Again, this was one of the early Germain photos that totally had me intrigued. Keep in mind, this is totally original. Here is the effect: Germain would tell the audience he was about to produce a somethingness out of nothingness. And then he reached up and produced a 14 inch silk. He continued to do this again, and again until he had a dozen or so of varying colors. All of this was done to patter. The dozen silk scarves were then rolled into a sort of ‘cocoon’ and suddenly the bundle of fabric sprung open to reveal a very large butterfly with fluttering wings. I don’t know the actual size of the butterfly but in images it looks to be approximately 3 feet wide. Very large. Once it was produced it was handed off to an assistant who carried it away. Sadly, it almost seems that the better approach would have been to have it float or fly away on it’s own!
Flowers have figured prominently in the acts of many magicians. The Kellar Flower Growth is a wonderful routine where two planters of dirt, eventually sprout two large bushes of flowers. Kellars routine used several tables and two large metal cones which were first showed empty. I have mentioned this in previous podcasts, there is a video of Nickolas Night presenting the Kellar Flower Growth on Youtube, it’s a must see! Oh, and the technique that is used in this video is an improvement suggested by none other than Karl Germain!
Germain’s personal favorite routine was his own Flower Growth. This was the creation of Karl and his father. You see, according to the book Germain the Wizard by Stuart Cramer, Karl’s father had seen a magician in Germany do a similar trick and it always stuck in his brain. So now father and son went about creating a version of their own. In fact, Germain would create several different flower productions before working on the actual Flower Growth idea. It went through various renditions until the final version, the ultimate one was finally realized. This is how it appeared to the audience. On stage sits a gold Louis the 14th Style side table. It is away from the curtain, and has a clear view above and below the table. On a second table sits an empty flower pot. Germain shows the empty flower pot and proceeds to fill it with dirt. He carries the now full flower pot to the other table and picks up a fan that was resting on the table. Without any covering, no tubes, no curtains, Germain simply waves the fan in the direction of the flower pot. Almost immediately a small tiny green sprout is seen. Germain then continues to wave the fan and move or dance around the table. Gradually, the tiny sprout blooms and gets larger. As Germain continues his fan dance, the plant grows higher and higher until the audience sees large roses on the table. The plant grows to a height of several feet. Germain then takes a pair of shears and cuts off some roses at their stems and passes them out the members of the audience, thus proving he has just made a LIVE rosebush grow right before their very eyes.
I have been very fortunate to see the Germain Flower Growth prop LIVE in person. It resides in the collection of Ken Klosterman. It is a thing of beauty. The elder Mattmueller hand made this table, with ornate carvings on angels on each leg of the table. The method is diabolical, there was nothing like it when it came out. Many have said it was superior to Kellar’s Flower Growth, at least, that is what I’ve read in a couple books. I swear I saw a video of it being presented online, but now I can’t seem to locate it anywhere. There are three Germain Flower Growths that exist, one , as I mentioned is in Ken Klosterman’s collection, another other is in the collection of David Copperfield, and a third earlier version is in the collection of TELLER.
There is another effect of Germain's that is purely his, and that is his Egyptian Water Bowl Mystery. I recently wrote about it on this blog, so here is a link to that article.
Earlier I mentioned Ida Mattmuellar. This was Karl’s younger sister. She was born in 1880 and thus was 2 years younger than Karl. She provided the music in the show by playing the piano, and served as an assistant to Karl since his earliest days as a magician. In his first tour in 1899, she is listed on the brochure, along with her photogragh, as Ida Germain. She is also singled out as helping him in his ‘Telepathy’ Act. She continued in this role until Karl was offered the chance to perform in England.
In June 1906, Germain set sail for England. He arrived 7 days later, after an awful sea voyage which left him sea-sick the entire time. But he recovered quick enough and was soon performing. He would tour all over England and Ireland. Eventually he ended up in London where he appeared at the New Bedford Palace Theatre. Germain was very popular in London, as was magic in general. Many of the greats of that era where in town the same time as Germain, folks like Chung Ling Too, Houdini, Lafayette and more.
In 1907, Houdini and Karl Germain were both in England. Germain, happened to run into Houdini at a banquet and decided he wanted to amaze his friend. He then proceeded to present his favorite pocket trick, the term that was used then for close-up magic. The trick was called The Spirit Writing On Cigarette Paper. The effect was a blank piece of paper was pinned to the end of a pencil. The spectator (HOUDINI) was asked to name someone, and the signature of that person appeared on the previously blank paper. Houdini watched like a hawk, but in the end was amazed by the presentation.
The highlight of his time abroad was working at St. George’s Hall for Maskeylne and Devant. He was there for a quite a long run. By December 1907, he was back home in Cleveland…..after another LONG sea-sick filled ocean voyage.
On Feb 26th, 1908, Germain’s friend Edward Maro passed away from Typhoid Fever. You can learn all about Maro by listening to podcast ep#11. Maro’s real name was Walter Truman Best, and his wife Allie was abruptly left a widow. Germain did not find out about the death until after Best had been buried.
Allie Best asked Germain for help in dispersing her husbands show props. Germain agreed and headed north to Maronook, on the shores of Lake Lelanau, in Michigan. While going through the various props. Germain naturally got first dibs on things he wanted. He came away with Maro’s Meteroic Ribbon effect, and he came away with a very famous piece that had once belonged to Charles Bertram. And he almost came away with Allie Best! Apparently, that relationship did not last. But let me backtrack to the Charles Bertram item. This was Bertram’s Spirit Lock, that no one knows how it ended up with Maro, but here it was in Maro’s collection. Germain apparently tried to purchase it while he was in England a few years before but was unable. And now it was his. And as he always did, he made it his by creating a unique routine. He told the story of Dr. Faust who was in prison, this lock held the prison door shut. He held up a picture of a lock and then held his fingers as if they were a key. A shadow was cast on the picture of his fingers and as the shadow entered the lock, he turned his hand and the real lock sprang open.
Thanks to an article in the Dec 2005 issue of MAGIC magazine by Tim Moore, he said no one knew what Bertrams routine was, nor did they know what Maro’s routine was. So here was Germain, making this clever trick his own by creating a mystical and memorable story.
Curiously at the conclusion of his tour in 1909, Germain gave what he called ‘His Farewell Performance’ at Marktinka’s theatre in NYC. FAREWELL PERFORMANCE???? It seems rather abrupt, and premature to say the least.
However, in only a few months an event would happen to make him want to leave the stage for good. On Jan 30th, 1910, Ida Mattmueller died from a tumor on her spine. She had been in declining health ever since he returned from England a few years before. But now, her death left a huge void in his life. He began to reassess his priorities. The lure of the road and stardom no longer appealed to him . The reality of the road was that it could be brutal and miserable more than it was good. And as far as stardom, despite the constant demand for his shows, he had not achieved the kind of celebrity status like Kellar, Herrmann, or Houdini.
It was time to look for a new profession, something that would keep him home, near his father, who was still alive and near friends and familiar surroundings. He was able to convince the president of Western Reserve Law School to allow him to attend classes, despite not having graduated high school nor ever attending college. What would happen to the show you might ask? Germain trained a new person to be Germain. Paul Fleming, who was an up and coming magician was chosen to take out the show and fill the many dates that were already booked. He would hit the road as Paul Germain. On the rare occasion Paul was unable to fill a date, Germain himself went out and presented it. He was not completely out of the magic world, but he was heading in that direction.
In 1914, Karl Germain became a lawyer and opened a practice in Cleveland. He dealt with probate law and had a partner in his practice. He intended to be out of magic at this point, and leave the performing to Paul Fleming. But for whatever reason, Germain couldn’t leave magic alone. By 1916, he accepted another Chautauqua Tour. This one however, would prove to be the final tour for Germain. During the 2 month tour he was having issues with headaches and blurriness in his vision. He went to see a specialist who recomenneded he go to Boston to see another specialist. The verdict was a tumor in his brain pressing against the optic nerve. An operation was nessesarry or else he could go blind and mad. But the operation could also cause him to go blind. Germain agreed to the operation and when it was completed, he had zero vision. It turned out to be temporary to a point. He never regained his full vision. This predicament also caused him to leave his law firm and also put an end to show business. His father, would assist Karl for the remainder of his life, at least until he died in the 1940s.
I’m not sure the date of this, but the story comes from Germain the Wizard by Stuart Cramer. In the story,
Houdini was in Cleveland performing and had contacted Germain about some curtains he had for sale. They worked out an agreeable price, but before settling on the deal, Houdini said he needed to see them hanging in the theatre to get a better idea of their condition and if they’d work for him. The curtains were hung and Houdini went on with his show. After the show, Germain was waiting in his dressed room and Houdini said he’d be happy to take the curtains but the offer was now half what had been agreed upon. Germain vanished for a bit and when Houdini went to look for him, he had departed, along with his curtains. The curtains eventually found their way in Paul Flemings show and today they hang in the mini-theatre in Ken Klosterman’s collection. And I’m assuming these are the plush green curtains that are there. Though for some reason I was thinking they were the black curtains that hung in Germain’s show.
In 1922, Germain decided to put together a talk/lecture on spiritualism. This was something he had been interested in his entire life. In fact, many of his shows featured a spirit cabinet, different versions, or other spirit effects. It was a perfect topic for Germain to talk on. But a tour never developed. It could be he didn’t have the name recognition that HOUDINI had and this made it near impossible for him to get hired to deliver the talk. Plus, his partial blindness was very apparent, so I can imagine that figured into people’s decisions not to go with his program.
This remarkable man, who created so much original magic had been dealt a terrible blow with this partial blindness. But things would get worse. In 1938, while crossing an intersection, a truck ran into him. He survived the accident, but was left completely blind.
There was one saving grace and that came in the form of a young amateur magician who befriended Karl Germain, his name was Stuart Cramer. If it had not been for Cramer, the final days of Germain would have been much worse. If it had not been for Cramer, we likely would know very little about Germain, other than what was little was written in magic magazines.
As it was, Stuart Cramer was with Germain in the hospital in his final days and his final moments on his planet. Karl Germain Mattmuellar died on August 9th, 1959. He is buried in Riverside Cemetery in Cleveland Ohio. He was 81 when he died, and he lived with his blindness for 43 years, more years than he was full time magician. A sad ending for such an incredible performer.
I was surprised by one thing, the Mattmueller family plot, has all 4 Mattmuellars buried there. On Germain’s grave it has this on the tombstone, “Karl Germain Mattmuellar”, but on the fathers grave it has “Karl Mattmueller” as well. However, in Census records he is always listed as Charles. I can’t help but wonder now if his name was actually Karl, as this is a German name, and it was changed when he immigrated to the United States. It also stands to reason why his son, Charles, continued to use KARL throughout his life. And it also makes me wonder about the ‘school house’ story.
Like his friend Edward Maro, Germain’s posters did not include the devilsh imps, which were standard for the time. Instead, much like Maro, he had mythical creatures like elves, fairies, witches and the like. It appears that Germain had one full color lithograph, it must have been printed sometime between 1899 and 1905, as the poster has the spelling of his name, G-E-R-M-A-I-N-E. His other posters all have a red/black color scheme, or red/black/white color scheme. And they are very striking posters. I am not sure, but the long poster with Germain conjuring the spirit, I have seen this poster in a reddish color, yellowish color, as well as orange. I’m not sure what the original color was, or if there were indeed several versions of different colors. Also, Stuart Cramer reveals in his book that a stash of posters was found in the attic of Germain’s home after he died and these included 1 sheet, 2 sheets, 3 sheets and 8 sheet posters. I have NEVER seen one of these 8 sheet posters, so I can only imagine what that was like.
A final point I would like to make about Germain. I believe Germain may have given the very first TED Talk. If you don’t know what a TED Talk is, I suggest you look it up on google. On May 9, 1949, Germain spoke before SAM Assembly #10. He was at the home of magician John Grdina and unknown to Germain, Grdina made an audio recording of the presentation. So Germain’s trust had been betrayed, and when he later found out, he was quite livid. But for posterity sake, that recording still exists, and thankfully so. I have not heard the recording, but in the May 2002 issue of Genii Magazine, a transcript of that speech is featured. It’s a bit heavy, and frankly for an audience, probably even boring. But if you read the content you really should be enriched. The point of the talk was to be a true artist, you must be original, and to be original you must be yourself. So to present a trick, word for word, move for move is not art, but copying. And please, I know there have been countless debates on this very subject. But I’m talking about Germain’s opinion here, and I think he has the moral high ground when it comes to talking about originality. His point was not to change everything in a given routine, but to include yourself, your personality, your thoughts, your opinions in the routines. A great example of Germain taking a standard trick and adding himself was his approach to The Misers Dream. IF you are not familiar with the Misers Dream, you should listen to Podcast Ep#23 about T. Nelson Downs the man who revolutionized that trick. But suffice to say, many people perform the Misers Dream in much the same way. Germain added something that I just love. At the conclusion of his routine, after having pulled countless coins from the air and from other places, he turns all the coins into candy. The method can be found in the Stuart Cramer books, and it’s genius, and rather simple.
Another example would be Germain’s approach to The Kellar Flower Growth. He never presented this, but he recognized it could be stronger with one simple change. In Harry Kellar’s hands, this routine was a thing of pure beauty. How it looked when other performers presented it I do not know. But Germain suggested changing the table drapes to a mesh-like fabric, in this way the audience could see through them. And proof of the brilliance of this one simple change can be seen in the Nicholas Night performance on Youtube of Kellar’s Flower Growth!
I wish I had the ability to include Germain’s recorded speech here on the podcast. Maybe in the future, I can track down a copy and then get permission from whoever the owner is. I would LOVE to hear Germain speak of originality in his own voice. Wow.
I wonder how many magicians in the past 100 years have had a similar approach? Off the top of my head, I’d say Slydini, Tommy Wonder, for pure originality. And as far as putting themselves into their magic, one only has to look as far as the top performers in the field, Henning, Copperfield, Siefried and Roy, Penn & Teller. Sure there are lots of others, but the point is, those performers were unique, and they were unique because they were themselves.
It may come as a surprise to many of you, that Karl Germain would not approve of this particular episode. He was very much against people writing or talking about him after his death. In fact, he was even against people writing about him after he retired but was still alive.
He told Stuart Cramer that he would come back and HAUNT him if he dared write about him after his death. And Stuart wrote two books, The Secrets of Karl Germain in 1962 and Germain the Wizard and his Legerdermain in 1966.
|Paper Mache Bust of Germain (Klosterman Collection)|
Research Materials for This Episode Included:
Stuart Cramer GERMAIN THE WIZARD by the Miracle Factory
David Price MAGIC A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theatre
Prof. Hoffmann MODERN MAGIC
Sidney Clarke The Annals of Conjuring
The Linking Ring Vol 40 #12
M-U-M Vol 104 #4
M-U-M Vol 204 #9
MAGIC Vol 15 #4
MAGIC Vol 24 #6
MAGIC Jan 1997 Conjuring Column