Showing posts with label Robert Houdin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Houdin. Show all posts

Monday, June 20, 2022

Robert Houdin's OTHER Theatre Still Exists!


Sandervalya, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Imagine my surprise while reading an article about Robert Houdin's performance in Algeria, that the theatre that he did his most famous performances in, was still standing today. Those most famous performances were on Oct 28 and 29, 1856. They were the legendary performances that Houdin would claim 'stopped a War'. 


The theatre at the time was called, Bab-Azoun Theatre. Today that very same theatre still stands and is known as Théâtre National Algérien Mahieddine Bachtarzi or, The Alegerian National Theatre. It was also formerly the Algiers Opera House.

As the story goes, Robert Houdin was contacted by the French Government to help suppress some uprisings and conflicts with the local tribal marabouts. The idea was to show that 'french magic was greater than the magic of the marabouts.' 

The show took place at the Bab-Azoun Theatre with about 60 chieftains taking up the first few rows and I'm assuming quite a few other locals as well. The show featured much of the standard Robert Houdin fare. The big moments were when he presented his Light and Heavy Chest (see below), followed by a rendition of the Bullet Catching feat. 

There is some controversy concerning this event, which Jim Steinmeyer explains in his new blog column:  This information is also covered in the book, The Secret History of Magic by Peter Lamont and Jim Steinmeyer. They tear apart the accounts of the Algeria event to discover what was true, what was false, how much was exaggeration. Suffice to say, it's clear now that a great deal of the event as recorded in Houdin's Memoirs, was untrue or at least exaggeration. 

But one thing is clear, the shows DID HAPPEN. And the theatre where these shows, which took Robert-Houdini out of retirement, is still standing today. Mr. Steinmeyer mentions on his blog that the theater would be a good place to hold a magic convention. Wow, can you imagine?!! How incredible that would be.  

An interesting side note, on the theatre Facebook Page, there are images of a kid-show magician doing a magic show on the stage. I wonder if this young man was aware of the historical event that took place on thiat very stage 166 years ago???

The Actual Light and Heavy Chest in the Klosterman Collection

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Rare Robert-Houdin Magic Token Help Needed

I was contacted by Paul Courville, a collector of magicians tokens,  concerning an item he has acquired of Robert-Houdin. Specifically, he is searching for any information or individual with information that could provide him with additional details about the item.

Paul found a reference for this coin dating it to France 1935, created by J Dhotel, however, the listing says the back of the coin is blank, but Paul's has writing on the back. The back of his coin reads "Association Francaise Des Artistes Pretidigitateurs". (see photo very bottom of page)

Additionally, he found an image of a plaque, which also has the 'Association....Prestigitateurs' on the bottom of the plaque and a bronze image of Robert Houdin in the center, with the exact same likeness as that of the coin. (see below)

If you happen to have any information regarding this coin and it's history, would you kindly contact Paul at

Saturday, November 29, 2014

What Came Before The Rabbit and Hat?

When lay people think of magicians, one of the first things that comes to mind is the Rabbit and Hat trick. Thanks to John Henry Anderson, the Great Wizard of the North, this effect has become the most iconic image of the magician. It dates to the Victorian era by the way. But there is another creature that has been the magical sidekick to many magicians, probably even before the Rabbit. That creature is the Goldfish.

I am not really certain who produced the first goldfish via magic, but I do know that it was in the act of Robert Houdin in the 1850s. If Houdin had it, then so did John Henry Anderson who got a great deal of his act from duplicating Robert-Houdin's act. Robert Houdin produced a bowl of goldfish. Magicians since that time have created many wonderful illusions with these little guys.

In Vienna Austria, probably slightly before Robert Houdin was Johann Hofzinser who presented a
Fountain of Love
very interesting effect called The Fountain of Love.  It begins with a glass goblet containing some sort of murky dark water apparently from the 'Fountain of Love'. A borrowed ring is tossed into the water to test whether the volunteer who lent the ring has true love, for if he/she does, the water will turn crystal clear. The performer covers the glass goblet with a scarf for a moment and then when it is removed the water can be seen to be clear and there are a a couple goldfish swimming inside the goblet. But the even more amazing part, one of the fish apparently has the ring in it's mouth! A net is used to retrieve the fish and the ring.

Hofzinser continued to develop the trick and eventually developed a slightly different routine he called 'The Ink of the Enamored'. The effect was similar, but the method had been changed.  A very primitive version of the trick is sold as 'Ink to Goldfish' today.

Chung Ling Soo presented an effect called Aerial Fishing where he would take a fishing pole and cast it out over the heads of the audience and a fish would appear on the end of the line. The fish would be reeled in and removed from the line and dropped into a fish bowl. Then the effect was repeated several times. Today, Mac King presents a slightly streamlined and very funny version of this effect.

Jack Gwynne, the illusionist, was known to magically produce a stack of goldfish bowls. This was one of his signature tricks. In fact, this particular trick is so associated with Jack Gwynne, that the Stack of Goldfish Bowl Illusion is actually etched into his tombstone! Jack Gwynne also had a Goldfish bowl illusion where he would produce a woman from a large goldfish bowl.

Maybe the craziest and in some ways coolest fish trick of them all is the Educated Fish by David
Devant. In this particular trick, the Magician has a large bowl of water and fish. On the bottom of the bowl are cards with letters on them. Words are chosen by audience members and written down on a blackboard. The fish them proceed to spell the words! They apparently hit the cards as they swim around and then the proper letters gradually float up to the surface! I told, crazy, but oh so cool.

As mind boggling as the effect seems, the method to produce the illusion is even crazier. Unfortunately, I don't give away magic secrets on this blog, but you may want to check out OUR MAGIC by Maskelyne and Devant  just to discover how the illusion works. To top things off, I had heard someone recreated this trick for one of the magic conferences a few years ago! Wow.

Today, Teller from Penn & Teller, presents a version of Miser's Dream in which coins are produced from a large tank of water. At the end of the routine 100 goldfish are magically produced as well. Interestingly, on page 283 of OUR MAGIC a very similar effect is described in the same article about the Educated Fish. Given that Teller is well known for his knowledge of Magic History, I guess it's possible that this was the source of his inspiration. The routine described in the book is a Misers Dream where the magician produced handfulls of coins and they are dropped into a large glass bowl on stage. It doesn't say if the bowl contained water, nor does it mention anything about a goldfish ending. Those additions are Tellers.

I too have ridden the Magic Goldfish Train. In fact, some of my friends jokingly call me the Goldfish Magician because of the countless number of ways I've developed to magically produce fish. I even do a goldfish routine in my School Assembly Show, but it uses fish images rather than actual goldfish.

David Copperfield has a really interesting goldfish routine where water mysteriously vanishes and the reappears in a glass and then with his barehands he produces a quantity of fish. 

My favorite Goldfish trick by someone other than myself is by Luis DeMatos. The first time I saw his routine I was blown away. I had been working on a similar thing myself but ran into a problem. When I saw his routine he had something unique, a cloth with a large hole in it. This allowed him to reach into the tank while it was covered.  About ten years ago, I emailed Luis and asked for permission to use this same cloth with a hole and he kindly gave me permission. I honestly don't know if he uses that anymore. I know though I used it for a time, I eventually moved onto other ways of producing fish.  But still today, I think Luis's routine is fantastic. The amount of fish that appear is astonishing. It's a beautiful effect and I'm glad he still performs it

I'm currently working on a NEW Goldfish effect for my Steampunk Illusionist Show. I'll post a link to it once it's completed.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Houdini's UnMasking - Bonus

Now I know how John Cox over at feels. I received this wonderful image of Houdini promoting his book The UnMasking of Robert-Houdin from John Hinson. I split the image into two, so first you'll see the photo Houdini used to promote his book, The UnMasking of Robert-Houdin. The second image is a receipt and copy of the ad that was to appear in The New York Dramatic Mirror on May 2, 1908. Incidentally, the image of Houdini in the chair is signed by Houdini, midway through the photo, 'Harry Houdini 1908'.

Thank you John, for your generosity and allowing me to share this great photo with my readers!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Robert Heller's Magnifecent Peacock

Robert Heller and his Peacock Automaton

As fascinated as I am by Heller, I must now admit, I also have an odd fascination for the so-called Peacock Automaton. I had seen one in the collection of Ken Klosterman (Salon de Magie) and assumed it was Robert-Houdin's Peacock. In his book 'The Memoirs of Robet-Houdin', the author mentions seeing the 'magic peacock' in a show presented by Phillipe. Researching this unusual creature I found that according to Harry Houdini, Robert-Houdin claimed to have created it. But Houdini, in his book 'The UnMasking of Robert-Houdin' makes the claim that Houdin did not create it but rather ripped it off.

Actually, it appears that though there were Automaton Peacocks prior to the Houdin version, his was different in operation and mechanics, so Houdini got that one wrong. I actually assumed, like Houdini, that all these birds were the same. But their appearance is deceiving. They do share a few attributes, one being the realistic look of a peacock and the ability to take the tail feathers and raise them and spread the giant plumage for display. But that is where the similarities stop.

from 1815
There is a playbill from 'The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin' that belongs to Mr. Louis's Royal, Mechanical, and Optical Exhibition. The bird figures prominently on the playbill with the following description. "A Superb Mechanical Peacock-As Large as Life, In it's Natural Plumage! Which imitates, so closely, the Cries, Actions, and Attitudes of that stately and beautiful Bird, that it is not infrequently supposed to be an absolute Animal properly trained to act as an Amusing Deception."The playbill dates to 1815, certainly before Robert-Houdin was born, as Houdini points out.

An even earlier playbill from 1803, belonging to a performer named de Philipsthal, also from 'The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin' reads as follows, "The MECHANICAL PEACOCK, which exactly imitates the Actions of that flately Bird, that is has frequently been thought Alive. It eats, drinks & at command, unfold its Tail in a brilliant circle, and in every respect seems endowed with an intuitive Power of attending to the Thoughts of the Company." Frankly, that sounds pretty amazing to me.

I believe the Robert-Houdin bird was different from the above automatons and I base this on the illustration used by Heller and a similar illustration used by another Robert-Houdin imitator. Let me point out that Robert Heller began his career by doing an act which was essentially a duplication or imitation of Robert-Houdin.

Heller obtained his props from a mechanic named LeGrand who worked for Robert-Houdin. This is the same man who sold props to John Henry Anderson as well. This duplication of props was going on behind the back of Robert-Houdin, and when he found out he called the authorities and LeGrand faced prison time because of his theft. But the damage had already been done and untold props from the Houdin show were now out and being used by his competitors. These included: The Ethereal Suspension, The Fantastic Orange Tree, the Peacock, and numerous other automaton.

Other performers of the time had Automaton Peacocks in their shows which can be seen in their advertisements. I think some of these were like the automatons listed above, true actual automatons, clock-work mechanical devices that could imitate a few actions of the bird. But the Robert-Houdin automaton appears to not be a true automaton, but rather what is referred to as a false automaton. This means it was partly mechanical but also relied upon human aid to perform it's functions. If the Heller illustration is any indication, the bird sat upon a raised platform and was able to grab selected playing cards with it's beak. It probably also moved it's head and raised it's plumage, but the action of grabbing a selected card may have been the work of a hidden assistant. That doesn't lesson the impact of the effect and to my way of thinking, is just as much a mechanical marvel as the others. Houdin was known to use both true automaton and false automaton in his show, so it makes possible that the Peacock was a false automaton. And Heller, who had purchased duplicate props of Houdin, was using The Harlequin as well as the Peacock, and the Harlequin was also a false automaton.

While doing research online for this article I came across a photo for an item listed as The
Magnificent Peacock. I found this same image on several sites, including Pinterest. The first place I found it was All of the pages are unsure of it's origins and they only speculate as to the date of manufacture. One website in particular has a different photo but it's very blurry. It shows that the red base in the photo is actually on an ornate raised wooden or medal pedestal. What is amazing to me is, this looks exactly like an image I saw on one of the Robert-Houdin imitator's posters. So this image to the right could actually be a piece out of a magic show.

For those who might be curious, in the late 1800s, a company called Roulette & Decamps out of Paris France was producing the Peacock Automaton for the general public. They made three versions of the Peacock, a small, a medium and a larger version with a music box inside. All three of their Peacocks had the ability to walk, moves its head and raise it's plumage. One of the Roulette & Decamps Automatons can be seen in the video below. By the way, the Peacock in the Klosterman collection is one of these Roulette & Decamps Automatons. It is identical to the bird in the video, so my initial assumption that it was Robert-Houdin's was incorrect.

*I don't have access to all of the Robert-Houdin books on magic, so I'm unsure if his Peacock and it's workings were listed in a book I missed. If anyone knows and can enlighten me, please do. I make an assumption that Houdin's automaton was a false one, which I also found similar statements online. But with Houdin's knowledge of clockworks, it's just as possible the bird was 100% mechanical. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Golden Age of Magic - In Bronze

I have posted many statues, sculptures, carvings, figurines and busts of magicians. But now it's time for the finest renditions of them all. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you 'The Masters of Magic's Golden Age!

This series of museum quality, limited edition bronze busts are the creation of Mike and Mary Elizalde. This whole project came about because Mike wanted some museum quality busts for his own magic collection. Mike funded the entire project and they were produced through Spectral Motion, the company that he and his wife own and operate. Spectral Motion is among the world's leading creature and makeup effects studios with over 50 films to its credit. Headed up by Academy Award Nominee Mike Elizalde and his wife Mary, Spectral Motion is known for its astounding cinematic effects and an unblemished record of reliability, believability and superb quality. Let's take a closer look at these incredible bronze busts. I'll post them in historical order. 

Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (b.Dec 7,1805 d. June 13, 1871) Known to all of us as the Father of Modern Magic. He was the great French Conjurer who we still revere today. Inventor of many incredible automaton like Antonio Diavolo and the Fantastic Blooming Orange Bush.  Also, creator of incredible magic like the Ethereal Suspension, which in updated forms is still presented today. 

Another of his iconic creations was the Light & Heavy Chest, which was used not only to amaze and impress but also to stop a tribal uprising in French Algeria.  

A full size statue of Robert Houdin resides in front of the Maison de la Magie in Blois France.

Alexander Herrmann (b. Feb 10,1844 d. Dec 17, 1896)
The GREAT Herrmann is considered by many to be the first in the line of the famed Mantle of Magic. He was also a Frenchman, like Houdin, but made his fame here in America. Originally, he worked with his brother Compars, until he went out on his own. Compars Herrmann was equally as famous in Europe as his younger brother was in America. The Herrmann's had a Mephistopholean appearance that added to their mystery and intrigue.

Though he had a very mysterious appearance, his magic and performance was filled with comedy. He was also known to do magic off-stage in public places. Perhaps we should credit Alexander Herrmann with being the creator of 'Street Magic'!

Herrmann died suddenly on a train in 1896. His wife Adelaide took over the show and was joined by her nephew Leon, who also bore a striking resemblance to Alexander.

Harry Kellar (b. July 11, 1849 d. March 10,1922) Here we have the Dean of Magicians. So called, because he was the first 'Dean' of the Society of American Magicians. Harry Kellar was the first nationally famous American born magician. The second in line for the Mantle of Magic, though technically, it really started with him, though some do put Herrmann first.

Kellar began his career as an apprentice to the Fakir of Ava. He went out on his own for a short time and eventually went to work for the Davenport Brothers. When he had a falling out with one of the brothers, he left them and took another employee, William Fay, with him. They toured North and South America and were heading to Europe when a ship wreck ended their tour.

Kellar found his way back to the U.S. and rebuilt his show and went on to  have a flourishing career. He and Herrmann, though not friends, shared a secret that I will reveal a bit later in this article.

HOUDINI (b March 24,1874 d. Oct 31, 1926) The most famous magician in the world, who wanted to be known as an 'escape artist' for much of his life, and then as an actor, producer and later as an author and scientific investigator. Eventually, he would return to magic in a grand way with his Three In One Show of Magic, Escapes and Spiritualist Exposures. Houdini is likely responsible for inspiring more people into magic than anyone alive. I know my own push into magic came from discovering Houdini. 

The creation of the Magic Detective Blog, really has a lot to do with Houdini. There are 172 articles on the blog that are either about or that refer to Harry. The next closest is Harry Kellar with 32. He is an icon, a legend and the bust of Houdini created by Spectral Motion captures Houdini in all his splendor. He looks confident, proud and defiant. It's a fantastic image of the Master Mystifier.

Howard Thurston (b. July 20, 1869 d. April 13, 1936) 
If we talk of the Mantle of Magic, Howard received the Mantle of Magic from Harry Kellar in a ceremony at Ford's Theatre in Baltimore on May 16th, 1908. In all truth, it had more to do with Kellar selling his show to Thurston, but it sure made a great publicity campaign and a tradition that has continued up until present time.

I always thought Thurston was a great performer. But I never quite knew the whole story until Jim Steinmeyer published an incredible biography on Thurston called, The Last Greatest Magician In The World. It is a must read for anyone interested in magic or magic history.

Thurston had been making plans to pass the Mantle of Magic onto one of his associates, Harry Jansen, known professionally as Dante. There was never an official ceremony however because Thurston died suddenly.

Chung Ling Soo (b. April 2, 1861 d. March 23, 1918) 
I must admit when I first looked over the list
of people who were selected for bronzes, the one odd one was Chung Ling Soo, at least to me. He was born William Ellsworth Robinson and in all truth, his inclusion in this list is well deserved. Robinson worked for Alexander Herrmann. Later, he worked for Harry Kellar. Robinson was the 'secret' that I referred to earlier. He worked for the rival magicians before his own rise to fame. He was known as the most knowledgeable man in magic during his time. He played an important part in the success of both. 

Robinson also has a connection to Thurston. He allowed Thurston to show Leon Herrmann his version of the Rising Cards, and when it amazed Herrmann, Thurston publicized himself as 'The Man Who Fooled Herrmann'. The meeting would never have happened without Robinson however.

When Robinson went out on his own, he failed miserably. It wasn't until he came up with the idea of doing an Chinese after seeing Ching Ling Foo, that things really took off for him. So convincing was he in his performance that the public was unaware that Soo was really an American. They truly bought into the idea that he was Chinese. He even used an interpreter when he gave interviews. He is the only real life magician who gets a spot in the movie 'The Prestige'. He also had one of the most tragic deaths in the history of magic having been killed while performing the dangerous Bullet Catching Feat.

All of these busts are a little over 12 inches tall. They are made of bronze and are available for purchase. They were produced in limited quantities of 40, so there isn't a huge supply, but there are some that remain. They are all on display at the Magic Castle if you are interested in seeing them in person. If you want to purchase one of these wonderful works of art, realize you are not buying a mass produced bust from Target or Walmart. These are museum quality and exceptional pieces. If you are interested in purchasing one, and I really encourage you to consider this investment because once they are gone, they will be gone for good. Below is the flyer which has all the information for purchasing. You can reach them at (818)956-6080 or by email at

Special thanks for Mike and Mary Elizalde for providing all the wonderful photographs and for your great contribution to magic.

Friday, November 15, 2013

A Few Magician Statues

These photos come from the Collection of Bill King. Bill passed away a while ago and his stuff has been auctioned off. I have no idea what happened to these statues sadly, as I would love to have added them to my collection.

In the photo above there are two statues and in the center is an original Robert Houdin Mystery Clock. The statue on the left is actually Robert-Houdin and I recently saw one in auction for over $1000. The statue on the right is a little more common, though it was been reproduced. Bill King told me how to spot an original versus the copy. The bottom of the top hat on the originals was rounded and it's flat on the copys. I think the copys were authorized, at least I hope so, cause I have one :)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Robert Houdin Mystery Clock for Sale

I just saw on eBay a Robert Houdini Mystery Clock. I've actually seen several of them in real life, but I can't recall ever seeing one up for sale. It has a price tag of $30,000 which is pocket change to my most of my readers (ok, maybe not most).

The link to the item is

It's being sold by MAGICINVESTMENTS which is Mario Carrandi's ebay store. By the way, he also has a beautiful three sheet Thurston poster for sale

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Happy Birthday Robert-Houdin

Today, December 6th 1805, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin was born in Blois France. He would go on to become a clockmaker, inventor, scientist and the Father of Modern Magic. Strange moniker today though as all of his magic was very Victorian in it's design and execution. However, for his time it was quite modern. Today he would be 207 years old. Happy Birthday Robert-Houdin!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Magician Statues

The recent article I did on Tommy Cooper got me wondering about what other magicians might have statues. So far what I have found is pretty bleak. My criteria for this is for outdoor life-size or larger than life statues. I am not including busts, as there are a number of these around and I plan to cover those in another upcoming article.

Siegfried & Roy
First up we have The Masters of the Impossible, Siegfried & Roy. Their massive bronze statue is outside the The Mirage Casino Hotel in Las Vegas. I believe it was erected in 1993 but I don't know who the artist was who created the work. I also am not sure it's actually a bronze statue or just a fiberglass statue with a bronze finish. I hope it's actually bronze.

Sadly, S&R have been off the strip so long and some only remember them for the accident. But at their peak they were wonderful performers and entertainment icons. I hope their statue remains for many many years to come.

In front of the Maison de la Magie in Blois France is this wonderful statue dedicated to The Father of Modern Magic, Jean Eugene Robert Houdin. He certainly deserves a statue and I'm glad to see that one was erected in his honor. However, I do not know the cost of the statue nor who sculpted it.

The museum behind the statue is said to be the 'house' of Robert Houdin, but I'm not sure that is the case. I don't recall the Houdin house being that large.

One thing is certain, the descendants of Robert-Houdin did donate the house to the town of Blois to be used as a museum to the great French Magician.
Tommy Cooper
Tommy Cooper, the fez wearing British comedy magician has a statue in his honor that stands in his home town of Caerphilly, Wales. Tommy Cooper died while doing a show LIVE on TV in 1984. Like all the performers in this article, he transcended the magic world and was considered an entertainer for the masses. His statue is made of bronze and stands 9ft tall. It was created by sculptor James Done at a cost of £45,000 which was raised by The Tommy Cooper Society in 2008.

Harry Collins
Harry Collins was a magician and spokesman for the Frito Lay Corp. He was also one of the first magicians to inspire Lance Burton and I believe he was also Lance's first magic mentor.

The statue stands over Harry Collins grave in the Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky. The statue appears to be a bronze casting and no idea who the artist was or the cost.

David Copperfield
The latest edition to the statues is one that was recently unveiled in August 2012 at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. This bronze statue is dedicated to the 'King of Magic' David Copperfield.

This is the most unusual statue of the group because at first glance it might appear to be a giant bust of the magician. However, the lower part of the statue features sculpted images from some of David's most popular illusions, including Flying, Walking Through The Great Wall of China, Making the Statue of Liberty Vanish, The Lear Jet Vanish and Tornado of Fire.

It sits in front of the the theater where David Copperfield regularly performs in Las Vegas.

The big question I have is, "Where is the Statue of Houdini?" The sad answer to that is, there is NO statue of Houdini. The closest thing we have is his grave with the bust, but by the criteria I set above, that isn't quite enough. Let's face it Houdini deserves a life size statue! I know at one time the SAM led a concerted effort to the get a Houdini Postage Stamp which eventually paid off. Perhaps it's time to work on the creation of a Houdini statue.

There actually is/was a statue dedicated to the memory of Houdini, but it was of his Metamorphosis Trick which at one time was on display in Appleton Wisconsin. That statue is currently in storage while the city finds a new place to display it.

IF you happen to know of a magician statue that I missed, please let me know. I'm looking for more statues, NOT busts. I have a list of magic related busts that I'll be doing soon.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Politics, Magic and a Wooden Chest

Imagine for a moment that President Barack Obama decides the only way to solve the crisis in Afghanistan is to send David Copperfield there to put on a show and demonstrate that American Magic is stronger than anything the Taliban have to offer. Sounds ridiculous doesn't it? Especially given the political climate today with the NSA, IRS, and Secret Service prostitution scandal and all the other various scandals. Frivolous spending is being scrutinized by politicians and the public alike.

But in 1856, this is essentially what happened. Not with the US, but with France. The French Government called upon recently retired magician, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, to travel to the country of Algeria. The government of France was trying to prevent a conflict between themselves and a religious sect called the Marabouts. These Marabouts were thought of as wonder workers and were trying to influence the local Arab tribes to break from France. So the French Government thought, 'why not send Robert-Houdin down there and show them that our magic is far superior to anything the marabouts have to offer'.

Again, think about that. Imagine this conversation, "Hey Penn & Teller, would you mind going to Syria and doing your Bullet Catch to help calm the hostilities there?"  That is basically what Robert-Houdin was asked to do. Crazy, wild, wacky? Yes, but read on...

Don't think that Robert-Houdin only met with the Marabouts either. He went straight to the theatre and put on his show! All the typical magic that he was famous for, but with one unusual addition. He walked to the front of the stage and made the bold claim that he would remove the strength from any warrior present. He asked for a volunteer and he quickly got a male from the audience. Robert-Houdin requested the young man to lift a small wooden chest that was on the floor. With very little effort, the Algerian man raised the wooden box off the ground.

Now, Robert-Houdin proclaimed he would rob the man of his strength. He asked the man to once again lift the box. But this time, the man struggles, he even falls to his knees and screams out. Then he let go of the wooden box and runs off the stage and out the theatre. I can just imagine the pandemonium that must have broke out following this. Needless to say, 'Conflict Averted'.

A wonderful story. Somewhat hard to believe but apparently true. If it happened today, the media would be having a field day with this, and not in a good way. But in 1856, it was a huge victory for the French Govt. Robert-Houdin was a hero, but rather than bask in his celebrity, he returned to retirement to work on scientific inventions and experiments with electricity.

Amazingly, the wooden box, which Robert-Houdin called his "Light & Heavy Chest" still survives. Today it is in the collection of Ken Klosterman and his Salon De Magie. It is a remarkable piece of history and unbelievably it still works today. Though I believe that Ken had it refurbished and tweaked the method slightly. But the fact that it remains is incredible. The "Light & Heavy Chest" has made appearances on a number of TV Specials about Magic History and appeared at more than a couple magic conventions as well. It's basically one of those pieces that has become legendary. Below is a photo of the wonderfully preserved Robert-Houdin Light & Heavy Chest. I would imagine it's the crown jewel in Ken's collection and he knows all about the history of the chest and who owned it after Robert-Houdin and he loves to share the tale of how it arrived in the Salon De Magie!

As I mentioned in a previous blog, Ken Klosterman is writing a monthly column in M-U-M Magazine (which you get as a member of the Society of American Magicians). He'll be featuring different pieces from his extensive collection. Please check it out because it is sure to be great.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Hugo and the Real George Melies

The real George Melies
This week a wonderful new movie comes out called "HUGO" based on the book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznik. I first learned of the book from a fellow performer who raved about it. I decided to pick it up and read it and I too found the book to be fantastic. There were many elements about the book that fascinated me. For one, I was struck with how well the author had weaved a true story together with a fictional story. If you've not read the book, nor watched the movie, let me tell you about the true part of the book.

One of the main characters is a man named George Melies. He was quite real. He was born on December 8th, 1861 in Paris France. His father was a shoe maker and together with his two brothers he was trained in that business. He learned the craft of shoemaking while in London. It was also in London that young George Melies visited Maskelyne and Cooke's famous magic theatre. His desire to stay in the shoe business changed and magic became his new obsession.

He studied with the Parisian magic dealer Voison and eventually even started building his own apparatus and automaton. Then in 1888, the opportunity of a life time came. A little theatre went up for sale and George Melies left the shoe business for good to become a professional magician. Years before, Robert-Houdin made magic a popular form of sophisticated theatrical entertainment in Paris and this was followed by other great French magicians, like DeKolta and Felician Trewey.  The theatre that Melies bought was none other than the famous Robert-Houdin Theatre! He began to present magic shows in this historic location.

In 1895, Melies witnessed a demonstration of a new invention by the Lumiere Brothers called the Cinematographe. This was an early movie projector and Melies saw moving pictures for the first time. Though it must be pointed out that the very earliest movies were very short and were merely quick shots of a train pulling into a station, or people walking on a street. The early movies had no plot, no story, not what we think of today as movies. Melies saw the potential of this new invention and tried to purchase it from the Lumiere Brothers but they turned him down. Luckily for Melies, other people in Europe and abroad were working on similar inventions and after seeing another version of a projector in London, Melies created his own.

By 1896, he was making movies and not the boring kind. His movies were interesting. In fact, his early movies were recreations of his magic routines. 'The Vanishing Lady' was one such movie. This was based on DeKolta's famous illusion by the same name but Melies discovered that he could use the camera and the film to create the illusion rather than special props. This would become Melies great contribution. He created and discovered many special visual techniques and uses of animation that we would call today 'Special Effects'. Today he is known and revered in the Motion Picture community as The Father of Special Effects.

His most famous movie was called Le voyage dans la Lune or A Trip to the Moon which he made in 1902. This movie figures prominently in the HUGO movie by the way. A Trip to the Moon still exists today. Based on two stories by author Jules Verne, A Trip to the Moon was the first science fiction movie ever. Before the people who made Star Wars and Star Trek were ever born, Melies put out A Trip to the Moon. It was hugely successful. Unfortunately, it made money for just about everyone other than Melies. The movie was copied and shown without Melies permission. In America, Thomas Edison's film company was showing the film all across the country and making money off of it.

Melies made over 500 films in his lifetime. But despite his innovations and contributions to the industry, his film company went out of business in 1913. In the later years of his life, Melies worked at a booth in a train station selling toy trinkets and was bitter about his involvement in movies. It wasn't until the 1930's that people in the film community started to recognize Melies for his achievements and he was awarded the Legion of Honor award by none other than Louis Lumiere, one of the original Lumiere Brothers who first sparked Melies interest in movies.

George Melies was indeed a real person and many of the things mentioned above are in the movie. The fictional part of the movie of course is Hugo Cabret. Interestingly though, Hugo's one dream in life was to become a magician, but this point is not really mentioned in the movie. The biggest part of the movie is the mechanical man, the hand writing automaton. These actually did exist and are quite fascinating to see and if you'd like to see an authentic one, click here

George Melies died in Paris in 1938, and is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery along with other such notables as Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, and Marcel Marceau.

UPDATE: I just heard that HUGO the movie received 11 Oscar Nominations! I'll be pulling for HUGO this year!!!!Nominations include: Best Picture, Best Director, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing, Music (Best Original Score), Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay).  Just sorry none of the actors received nominations.

NEW UPDATE: I hadn't made this connection before, but here is another interesting bit of fact that connects to the movie. In the movie, Hugo's father dies in a museum fire along with the automaton. Well, in real life, Robert-Houdin's Hand Writing and Drawing Automaton was in Barnum's American Museum in NYC. That museum burnt to the ground and along with it, the Hand-Writing Automaton that was created by Robert-Houdin. This may have likely been another source of inspiration for the author.