Showing posts with label Illusion. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Illusion. Show all posts

Monday, January 20, 2020

The Illusions of Chevalier Ernest Thorn

Episode 41 of The Magic Detective podcast was on the life of Chevalier Ernest Thorn. If you've listened to the podcast, you'll be aware that I was unfamiliar with Thorn, prior to working on the episode. Now that I've finished my research, it seems, well, my research has just begun. Let me explain...

Thorn was an incredible inventor of illusions as well as being a performer. I have not been able to track down everything he did. In truth, I only have a few of this illusions figured that I mean, I figured out what they are. The names of his illusions are listed in numerous biographical articles, but exactly what the illusions did, that's another story. I'm going to list the few that I know. Keep in mind, these are the same ones from the podcast episode, but here you'll be able to see pictures of them rather than just hear about them.

I'll begin with one of his first illusions. The poster for this came out in 1894, so it's assumed the illusion began around that time. It was called, The Dream of the Chalif. I believe Thorn altered the name of this illusion over time to the Chalif of Bagdad. As has been mentioned before, the illusion was pretty much stolen by Charles Morritt and put out as FLYTO. The main change being that Morritt's cabinets were 6 sides rather than 4 sides, otherwise it's essentially the same illusion. I've put the original Thorn poster next to a poster of Kellar's so you can compare the two.

Next we have an interesting illusion that he called The Fakir of Travancore, or The Mystery of Travancore. This illustration comes from the pages of Ottokar Fischer's Illustrated Magic. 
I knew I had seen it before, but try as I might I couldn't find the picture. Thankfully, I rediscovered the image in Illustrated Magic, and along with the picture came this explanation of the effect. By the way, Fischer says the effect was known as "1-2-3", but as we know, it was originally called The Fakir of Travancore by it's creator, Thorn.
“Among the transformation illusions is the one produced under the title of “One-Two-Three!” The proceeding is as follows: One of the performer’s assistants is laid on a sort of flat bench, and fastened to it with straps whose ends are secured by padlocks which the spectators themselves may lock. The bench with the man fastened to is is now lifted on to a platform about eighteen inches high, underneath which there is an unobstructed view. A curtain surrounding the platform is let down for a period of three seconds, while the conjurer counts, “one-two-three”. When the curtain goes up, the male assistant has disappeared from under the straps, and in his place is a girl. In order to release the girl, the padlocks must be opened and the straps unbuckled, which requires several minutes. The male assistant vanished without leaving a trace.”  And as I said on the podcast, it sounds very much like a horizontal version of Harbin's Assistant's Revenge, the big difference was the Harbin's illusion involved the exchange of two people, where as Travancore was the transformation of one person into another. I think it's possible that The Fakir of Travancore illusion was the inspiration for Harbin's Assistants Revenge.

The next illusion is called simply ATTAVAR and it looks similar to the Fakir of Travancore, but it is very different. What we have here is a large table, with a somewhat smaller table on top. Suspended underneath the smaller table is a hammock which has a girl reclining in it. According to the description: “The effect of which is the instantaneous disapparenace of a lady suspended in a hammock from a table. The table, hammock, and the lady vanish together in full view of the audience. The illusion does not depend upon the use of mirrors, cabinets, glass, traps in the stage, or back curtains."  What I can tell by the photo, is that Thorn fires a pistol to make the magic happen. It's possible there was a flash of smoke, or even a small fabric covering that happened just before the vanish, OR it's also possible that the sound of the gun fire was enough to allow the vanish to happen. This was apparently the joint creation of Thorn and Tommy Downs. T.Nelson Downs tried to include it in his show for a time, but audiences didn't take to him doing illusions as they did to Thorn.

Now we come to The Sarcophagus. This was one of the easiest illusions to identify because the design on the front of the illusion has been used by many modern performers. It is known as The Mummy Case, and is featured in the book, The Great Illusions of Magic by Byron Wells.

The basic effect is this: There is an upright Sarcophogus that is center stage. The front door is opened revealing a second door inside. This door is opened revealing the contents of the cabinet. There is a small mummy like figure which is clearly NOT a human being wrapped in cloth, but only meant to represent such. The mummy is removed and now the back door of the cabinet is opened so that the cabinet can be seen to be completely empty. Next the mummy is returned to the inner chamber, the doors closed and the traditional turning of the cabinet is done. When the doors are reopened, out walks an Egyptian princess. 

It's a great illusion and the method for which has been used in a couple other illusions that come to mind. I believe Paul Osbourne in his many illusion plans books, had a version with a GrandFather Clock instead of a sarcophagus. I've also seen some images online of versions that are just plain cabinets. Somehow I think the illusion looses it's appeal as a plain box. Though, in truth, even though Thorn's outer graphic has been used many times since, I think a better design is needed.

This next illusion was not part of the podcast because I just now stumbled upon it. The illusion was called "TOIZA WONNDA". This is apparently a Japanese phrase meaning 'Escape & Perish'. I believe this was mistakenly referred to as a 'Chinese Mystery' in Thorn's advertisements. But the effect, was a 'X' shaped torture device that an assistant would be tied or chained to. And next to them was an executioner cutting of the heads of victims. This is my sketchy guess on what this illusion is based on an image from one of his posters and now discovering what Toiza Wonnda actually means. I'm pretty sure I'm on the right track. I am wondering also if the X shaped torture device was some adaptation of the Strobieka illusion. There may have been another torture device where a person is suspended by their feet and there body is tied up. Eventually, I will find out more about this mystery, but I'm pleased to have figured out this much. 

The final Thorn illusion for this article will be his most famous perhaps and that is The Noah's Ark Illusion. This is another illusion that I believe he created in the 1890s. It begins with opening the big front door and back door of the cabinet to show it completely empty. Then after closing it, several buckets of water were poured into the 'ark' from the top. Then, by reaching into the small curtained windows, animals of all sorts were produced, chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, baby pigs, etc, all came out from the ark. Then finally, when one would think nothing else could come out, Noah's wife was produced from the ark. I love this!!!! What a fantastically themed illusion. Forget about the religious connotations and just embrace the theme, you've got an ark-like structure that you produce all these animals from, and then finally Noah's wife. It's a great mystery and one you don't see today. However, I do know of likely the last artists to feature this and that was the LeGrand David Company out of Beverly Mass. They hand built and hand painted what is likely the most beautiful Noah's Ark Illusion to ever exist. I so wanted this when it went to auction but I was holding out for other things and missed it. IF you know who has it, let me know as I may still be interested. Below is a picture of their Noah's Art Illusion.

That my friends will do it for Part 1 of the Illusions of Chevalier Ernest Thorn. I would encourage you to listen to the podcast on him. I shall continue to dig further into his life and his many forgotten illusions and hopefully bring them to light. I have a lead on several as I type this but they are not quite 'in focus' yet. Until next time...

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Another Forgotten Illusion-OH!

I am always astonished at the creativity of the old time magicians. Today when we think of illusions the first notion is some big box, which is usually correct. But the Victorian Magicians did not restrict themselves to mere boxes. In fact, the following is an example of very modern thinking, the props involved all look ordinary.

The illusion is called 'Mahatmas Outdone' and it was also known as 'OH!'. The basic effect is vanishing a person in a chair under challenge conditions. This was the co-creation of Charles Morrit and Nevil Maskelyne. According to two sources*, the effect first appeared at Egyptian Hall on September 29th, 1891. Oddly, the British Museum lists the date for the above poster as 1877. I think the date is incorrect on the part of the British Museum actually. Morrit would have been 17 years old in 1877 and as far as I can see, he didn't make his stage debut until 1878.

Interestingly, the Kellars Wonders book listed Harry Kellar as adding this trick to his act in three months after the Egyptian Hall debut. The book presumes that Kellar purchased the rights to the act as well as the rights to another routine he would add to his show.

Oh! is a remarkable illusion which requires the assistance of at least three people from the audience. The magicians assistant sits on a chair and places one wrist through a ring which is attached to a cord. The end of the cord is held by one of the audience helpers. The assistants other wrist is tied or buckled to the arm of the chair and then the curtain is lowered and the assistant can put their wrist through a hole in the curtain, thus allowing yet another audience helper to verify that the assistant within in still there. A sheet of metal was slid under the chair to prevent the person from going through some trapdoor.

When the magician gives the word, the volunteers raise the curtain, at the same time the hand that was being held is yanked inside the cabinet, but the second the curtain passes the height of the chair it's evident that the assistant is gone! Moments later the assistant reappears in the back of the audience! What an interesting trick. I love all these little convincers to prove that the person is still inside the curtained cabinet and then a second later, GONE!

The effect was presented by a number of different magicians at Egyptian Hall and later St. George's Hall. And of course, Harry Kellar used the effect to great success in the United States. There is a very cool poster of the Kellar OH! chair in the Kellars Wonders book. In addition, Howard Thurston also performed the OH! Chair Illusion.

I hate when I send these things out before I've done all the work! I forgot to check one source and now I'm kicking myself because this source was full of information. You see, I knew that one of the OH! Chairs was in the possession of Mike Caveney. I remember seeing a photo of it in MAGIC Magazine. It might even have been accompanied by an article, I don't recall completely. At any rate, Mike's newest book,Wonders and The Conference Illusions has an incredible amount of information.

I forgot to mention, and thankfully Mike does in his chapter on the OH! Chair, that the Morrit OH! Chair was likely an answer to the popular DeKolta Vanishing Lady. The DeKolta Chair had been exposed in the press and in magic circles by the time the OH! Chair came along. Though they both used a similar method of vanish, the OH! Chair's convicers made it seem more impossible.

In 2003, Mike Caveney recreated a presentation of the OH! Chair for the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History. He used Thurston's original chair. The chair by the way, had been restored by John Gaughan and the platform/curtain used in the recreation of the illusion was built by Craig Dickens.

There is a video of famed British Magician Paul Daniels recreating the OH! Illusion for his TV show
which can be seen here

*The two sources were Kellars Wonders by Mike Caveney and Bill Miesel, and St. Georges Hall by Anne Davenport and John Salisse

Monday, December 15, 2014

A True Forgotten Illusion

Back in 1998, I purchased an unusual little booklet called Chung Ling Soo's Mechanists -They
Stayed Behind, by Brian McCullagh and Dr. J. Ernest Aldred. It's only 38 pages long and has some interesting photos and information within. The booklet is about two 'mechanists' from the Soo show, Phil Davies and Ernest Aldred, who stayed in Australia after Chung and the rest of the company moved on.

Within the 38 pages is a page on an illusion called The Lantern Illusion. This was created by Soo in 1907 and was also known as the Glass Casket, and also known as The Slave of the Lamp. I still remember reading about this illusion back in 1998, it had left a large impression on me. The illusion seemed incredible. A large 'lantern' made of glass was brought on stage and was proven to be empty. Then a cable was connected to the top and it was lifted off the stage. It was then spun and as it spun in circles the light would catch it and it made an incredible sight to see. Then, suddenly the figure of a woman appears inside the lantern as the cage is spinning. Except, the woman faces forward and does not spin, only the lantern surrounding her spins. Sounds pretty amazing and I sure don't recall seeing anything like this in any show of modern times.

So that brings me to the illustration here of Thurston presenting 'The Whirling Crystal Cage and Mysterious Production'. I had come across this on the internet maybe a year ago and the moment I saw it I remembered the Chung Ling Soo booklet. This must be the spinning lantern trick I had read about years before. Much like a LOT of magic back then, more than one performer was presenting it, sometimes legally, sometimes not. There were two copies made in Australia by Phil Davies. Thurston had a copy, which I assume he got permission to build from Soo. Though, Harry Kellar was known to steal everything, Thurston, as far as I can tell, got permission.

There is one Soo Poster that depicts the illusion. It can be seen in the Gary Frank book Chung Ling Soo the Man Behind the Legend. AND it can be seen in the Todd Karr book, The Silence of Chung Ling Soo, it's poster #36 near the front of the book and there it is called 'The Spinning Cage'.

In the Silence of Chung Ling Soo, Jim Steinmeyer has a short chapter on the illusion. It appears on pages 16-20. Jim describes the method used for the illusion, which I must say is quite elaborate. And he mentions that the illusion must have weighed upwards of 750 lbs. If you add the weight of the assistant, you've got 850lbs. That wouldn't be such a big deal except this big behomoth is spinning in the air!

I so want to see this thing in action!!! But, I don't think that is ever going to happen. It must have been a thing of true beauty. In fact, Percy Abbott, in his biography, A Lifetime of Magic, says this about the illusion, "This was a beautiful and spectacular effect. I can safely say one of the most beautiful I have ever witnessed and, believe me, to make that statement after viewing magic for more than sixty years, is unusual."

Does anyone know if any of the 5 Spinning Cage/Lantern Illusions exist anymore?

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.