Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Miraculous Coin Casket in action!
While I'm at it, there is another historical column that doesn't appear every month, but when it does show up it's always a treasure. That column is called Memoirs of a Magic Dealer by Al Cohen. Al's Magic Shop was the shop I grew up going to. And Al Cohen was the coolest guy ever to demo magic tricks. He was always so captivating and entertaining and mainly because he was just being himself! Check out his column, great stuff!
While I'm at it I also need to mention three other columns that are not magic history but always superb. Jim Steinmeyer's column called CONJURING, Tom Stone's column called Lodestones and finally a new column by Jonathan Pendragon called Panmagium. Conjuring has been missing of late, probably due to Mr. Steinmeyer's schedule. But Tom Stone's column is a bit Steinmeyer-esque this month and worth checking out. And Jonathan's column is nothing short of brilliant. So please, by all means go check them out. And I'll be doing a similar thing with MAGIC Magazine soon, pointing out the historical columns! In the mean time, enjoy.
UPDATE on Coin Casket: I cannot tell you how excited I am to have just purchased a Miraculous Coin Casket!!!!! What an ingenious piece of magical machinery and to think it came out of the 19th Century. It will become part of my new show very soon! 6/13/2014
Thursday, December 15, 2011
Once upon time...There were two wizards who captivated the world. Their magic spell astounded young and old alike. With magic that was ancient and new all at the same time they grew in fame and fortune. Then tragedy struck and it was all gone. They were the Pendragons.
Jonathan and Charlotte Pendragon ruled over Grand Illusion for thirty some odd years. Jonathan is even credited with reviving the term 'Grand Illusion'. When I was just learning my craft they were already established. They were the first couple of magic. There was no one out there like them. Everyone, and I mean everyone, from amateur to professionals wanted their magic. Teenagers would fight and argue over how to do the Pendragon Sub Trunk as fast as they did. David Copperfield, asked and eventually got permission to use Jonathan's handling of the cloth during the sub trunk exchange.
I learned a lot about illusion magic from Jonathan. His writings that appeared in Genii Magazine were some of the most brilliant things I had ever read. Every time a Pendragon issue would come out, I would devour it, and read it over and over. Jonathan was an illusion magic genius. His thoughts and philosophies on magic were so profound to me. Sadly, his act was fodder for lesser performers who would steal his creations, techniques and even complete routines without any acknowledgement of their creator.
The Pendragons idea for an act began with three tired old illusions: The Sub-Trunk, The Sword Basket, and the Broom Suspension. The sub-trunk dates back to Houdini and the trunk trick itself dates back to Maskelyne, though not with substitution effect that Houdini added. The suspension was the creation of Robert-Houdin and the sword basket, I'm not sure of it's origins. But by the time that Jonathan and Charlotte got hold of them, they were worn out old tricks. The idea of building an act on those three things was crazy.
They had plenty of historical moments. Probably the one that is brought up the most is the In Search of Houdini Special. This was hosted by William Shatner and featured a lot of guest performers. The Pendragons were on to do a recreation of Houdini's Subtrunk, using the original trunk I think, or at least one like Houdini's (steamer trunk). They went through the routine as Harry and Bess would have in around 4 seconds. Then, they repeated the trick, this time with their own trunk and their modern presentation. With lightning speed, Charlotte seemed to turn into Jonathan! Then Jonathan opened the trunk and as Charlotte began to stand up, she stopped and inched back down. On LIVE TV she had a costume malfunction, and was unable to get out of the box. It was funny for all watching and probably a little embarrassing for the Pendragons. It was certainly not something that stopped them or slowed them down. They handled the situation gracefully and professionally. I'm not sure anyone would have known had it not been for William Shatner pointing it out.
|Clearly Impossible by the Pendragons
All that is gone now. The Pendragons faced some personal issues, some of which were covered in the press and much of which was not. I've got no comment, it's their business and no one else's. They have gone their separate ways. The Pendragons are no more. Charlotte has created an act of her own, which I think is a mix of illusion magic and stage magic. I've not seen it so I don't know exactly what is in her act. But I wish the very best for her and hope she meets with huge success.
Jonathan is still doing magic, though not the physical kind anymore. His act is more cerebral and shows a different side of his character. But from what I hear, Jonathan is slowly getting pulled back into illusions. So perhaps, we'll yet see a new type of Pendragon Grand Illusion grace the stages of the world that we can be inspired by. And hopefully, the magic world will look at him and learn that even with the greatest obstacles in front of you, it's possible to overcome and come out better and brighter.
Finally, watch this video of the Pendragons at the height of their career. They were incredible!
Sunday, December 11, 2011
|(library of congress photo)
In August 2011, John Cox wrote a great article on his blog WildAboutHarry, about an apparent dispute over that story being accurate. Harold Wright, a historian in New Brunswick claimed the story was a myth made up by Houdini. Interestingly, in the May 1918 issue of Ladies Home Journal, Houdini says that the asylum was actually in Europe. So perhaps, the story was indeed fictional. True or not, escaping from a straight jacket was a great idea and one Houdini profited from both financially and through publicity.
When he added it to the stage show Houdini would be strapped in the straightjacket and then placed inside a curtained cabinet. My guess is he used the Metamorphosis cabinet to do the escape. Hidden from view, Houdini did his escape. I don't see any records that say Houdini's escape was boring or suspect. I would imagine like most things that Houdini did, the audience totally bought it. But his brother Dash was not so lucky. In 1904 at the Swansea Empire Theatre in Wales, Dash's attempt with the escape was met with skepticism. The audience challenged him to do it in the open, thinking that he had a hidden helper in the curtained cabinet who simply released him. Presenting it in the open would prevent any outside help. Dash repeated the escape and stunned the crowd. Somewhere there must be a letter or telegram from Dash alerting Houdini of the sensational discovery. One thing is for sure, Houdini too began doing the escape out in the open and left the curtained cabinet behind!
Another straight jacket perk that came out of England was the idea of hanging upside down while escaping. Except, the idea was not Harry's or Dash's, it was actually the idea of a young fellow by the name of Randolph Douglas, who chose the stage name Randini. Houdini and Randolph became friends and during a visit to Randolph's home in Sheffield, Houdini watched the young man demonstrate the hanging upside down escape from a framework in the attic of the house. Houdini's addition to the idea was doing it outdoors from a building, which you must admit was a pretty decent contribution. UPDATE: Turns out the previous paragraph might not be accurate. There was another performer who very well might have been doing the Upside Down Straight Jacket Escape prior to Houdini and Randolph Douglas. His name was Mysterio and was also known as The Great Alvin. You can read more about him here.
Houdini kept doing the straight jacket escape pretty much until the end of his career as far as I can tell. It's certainly an easy thing to travel with and the publicity he gained from hanging upside down from a building was priceless.
LATER STRAIGHT JACKET ESCAPES
After Houdini died, other magicians began to add the straight jacket escape to their acts. Some even copied his upside down publicity idea. One of the first twists to the upside down part was setting the rope on fire. It was Alan Alan in the 1950s who added this unique change to the hanging straightjacket escape, though Alan gives the credit to fellow magician Keith Clark for the idea. Alan Alan may have been the first to present the escape hanging upside down from a helicopter. James Randi, later presented the upside down straight jacket escape from a helicopter in Venezuela and also hung upside down over Niagara Falls in a straight jacket!
David Copperfield presented a hanging straight jacket escape on one of his specials also from a burning rope. His twist was to be suspended with three flaming ropes which would burn through one by one and to hang over flaming spikes! Lance Burton presented the hanging straight jacket escape a number of times on TV and in front of an audience during the dedication of the HOUDINI Postage Stamp and also escaped from a straight jacket while inside a very small water torture cell like device. Dean Gunnerson hung upside down by his feet with no ankle restraints over Hoover Dam and escaped from a straight jacket, yet another dangerous twist.
Then there are the comedy magicians who use the routine for laughs rather than as a genuine escape. The comedy for them is the driving force. I have seen comedy routines that are funny, even hysterically funny. But most use tired old lines and gags and seem more like a filler routine than anything. Once the person is inside, they are out in no time. Most of the comedy routines just miss, for me at least.
There are the lightning fast escapers. Again, not a fan of folks who get out lighting fast. Steve Baker got out in under 10 seconds and it kicked off his career as an escape artist. But honestly, though we are friends, I'm not on board with the speed aspect. I watched a video of Norman Bigelow getting out of a straight jacket recently. His approach was slow and steady and it genuinely appeared difficult. THAT is the way to do it. IF you can get out super fast, my first thought is, you weren't in it very well. And you can bet that lay people are probably thinking the same thing.
Penn & Teller. Theirs has comedy in it, but they also have a great deal of suspense.
Teller is hung in the jacket while Penn holds onto the rope reading 'Casey at the Bat'. Teller has to free himself before Penn finishes reading otherwise Penn will let go of the rope. Penn reads faster and faster as the routine progresses. It is funny, but it also has incredible tension. Penn and Teller have made the trick their own.
Watching their performance doesn't make you think about Houdini, it makes you think about this poor lil guy getting out of the jacket before his crazy buddy drops him onto a bunch of spikes! It's a great routine.
Have you ever personally been inside a straight jacket? I'd guess that at least a few readers of this blog probably have, not because you're crazy but because you are probably magicians. The first straight jacket I wore was not a real straight jacket at all, but instead a large jacket with long sleeves that had the sleeve ends tied off with rope rope and then used the rest of the rope to wrap numerous times around the jacket. It simulated a straight jacket quite well. I was an adventurous and creative youth.
When I finally did encounter an actual straight jacket, it was a Posey brand canvas jacket, the real thing. It was also too small for me. A friend put me in it and I could hardly breath, that is how tight it was. If you know anything about straight jacket escapes, you'll know I've already broken a couple cardinal rules of getting out easily, too small of a jacket and putting it on super tight. For the first minute I just relished the thought of actually being in a straight jacket, it was really cool. Then I decided to attempt the escape. I can't say that I got out in 6 seconds like many so-called record breakers claim. It took me a couple minutes to free myself from a jacket that was way too small and way too tight. I was thrilled to have gotten out and frankly a bit relieved.
Today, the straight jacket escape has been way overdone. It's like the Zig-Zag Lady in the 1980s. Many magicians use jackets that are way too large. If you look like you are swimming in the jacket you've lost an important element in the appearance of being secure. Do a Google search for 'straight jacket escape' and look at the number of images of people you've never heard of doing the escape. IF that many people can do it, is it really hard?
I've written about the Straight jacket on one of my older blogs quite a bit. I have a love hate relationship with it. In Houdini's day, it was a fantastic escape. After Houdini died, most of us have just been doing a cheap imitation of his escape. The majority of people using a straight jacket escape in their act don't have a clue how to deliver a striking escape with it. Watch Houdini, if he was presenting it onstage he was rolling on the floor, gyrating around, he knew how to sell it! On the flip side, watch Tony Curtis's escape from a straight jacket while portraying Houdini. His escape goes in the opposite direction, very little movement, complete concentration, his is also quite engaging. David Copperfield used this very same technique when he was strapped in a straight jacket during his Escape From Alcatraz Special. Some people do know how to deliver a good escape, but they are in the minority.
Sadly, many presentations today are more about the crotch strap jokes and then getting out as fast as possible. Even hanging upside down doesn't seem to be as big a deal anymore. The thing that scares me about the abundance of people trying the hanging straight jacket is that it is legitimately dangerous* and people can and do get hurt.
A GLIMPSE INTO THE FUTURE
A while ago I was thinking about the Pendragons, and how against all odds, when everyone was doing the Sub-trunk, Sword Basket and Broom Suspension, they took those three illusions and built a career on them by adding something unique to each routine. They were able to presentations that were so compelling that people associate those effects with them. I wondered, what was missing with the regulation straight jacket escape? What had not been done? It appeared that everything had been done: on the stage, in the air, upside down, underwater, over spikes, you name it, and it's been done. Or at least I thought.
A few months ago I had an idea for a new approach. A new angle that hadn't been tried. I spoke to Steve Baker about it. He thought it was brilliant. I shared it with Norman Bigelow, who said it was 'new, fresh and different'. There are a few obstacles yet to overcome so I can't divulge what it is. But trust me, I'm working hard on it, time will tell if it pans out.
In the meantime, my hats off to my fellow performers who are using the jacket the way it was meant to be used, to bring thrills to an audience. The most recent one was Wayne Houchin, who presented the straight jacket while hanging upside down. He has done the escape before, and has a safety crew there to assist him, he is smart and careful.
I'm not sure Houdini would be proud of us though, because he didn't really like anyone doing his stuff. But he might be amazed to know one of his creations is still be used over 80 years after he left this earth.
*WARNINGJust because a lot of people have presented a hanging upside down straight jacket escape, doesn't mean YOU should. If you do, DO NOT go into it lightly. I know of a fellow in Memphis TN who fell while hanging upside down in a straight jacket. The doctors told him the only thing that saved him was the jacket still being on, but otherwise he should have died. He was lucky.
Alan Alan, the escape artist from England, has fallen while hanging upside down and been injured. He once came up with a crazy idea of setting the jacket itself on fire. He got hurt with that too!
I know of a fellow who tried to do the straight jacket escape in the heat of the summer with a jacket that was too small. He did not get out. He struggled so much he actually caused a rip in the thick canvas. He also could have seriously injured himself.
The straight jacket escape, hanging or not hanging can be dangerous. To think otherwise is foolish. Take every precaution while learning. Always have safety people standing by. To put yourself in serious danger is just plain stupid. You'd be better off learning from a professional who knows the ins and outs of the escape.
The worst thing about escapes is 'magicians' think they are easy. I can't tell you the number of stories I've heard about magicians who went into some escape trick thinking it would be sensational and easy and they were hurt or even killed. Hmmm, maybe that's why so many people use the straight jacket as a comedy routine, it's safer and you live longer! Maybe they are on to something after all.