Showing posts with label T Nelson Downs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label T Nelson Downs. Show all posts

Sunday, January 26, 2020

T. Nelson Downs - Master Coin Manipulator

T. Nelson Downs is surely a name everyone in magic has heard of. Even if youre new to magic, you might have heard of the Downs Palm. Or at least the Misers Dream effect. And yet with his popularity, do we really know much about T. Nelson Downs? Probably not, and so, decided to put on the old Detective hat and find out more…

He was born Thomas Nelson Downs, March 16, 1867 in Garwin Iowa, though most references just say Marshalltown where he grew up. According to David Prices fine historical book Thomas was actually a twin, but his fellow twin did not survive, and word was that few believed Thomas would survive being only 2 lbs at birth. He did survive and was the youngest of three children. His father died when he was only 6 months old and the family moved around, eventually ending up in Marshalltown Iowa. 

How did Downs become interested in magic? Here is it is his own words, “"I was first inspired by a 'Town Hall' magician when I was about 12 years old, after seeing him turn ink to water and make cards rise magically from the pack, etc. It was all easy and simple to me s o I went home and duplicated t h e perform- ance and immediately commenced to study the art by pur- chasing all the books on the subject I could find." 

At least one of the books was likely Professor Hoffmann’s Modern Magic which came out in 1876. Downs himself also said, “Ed Reno got me started in the business”, but I think this refers to being a professional, NOT how he got started initially. Faucet Ross, in the Feb 1939 issue of The Linking Ring reveals that in Marshalltown Iowa, there lived a man named Frank Taylor. Mr. Taylor was the manager of a business called The Old Bowler which was right next to and actually part of The Chicago & Northern Railroad Station. Mr. Taylor was known to be an above excellent sleight of hand man and manipulator and is even mentioned in the book Leaves of Conjurers Scrap Books by Burlingame. 

It turns out that T. Nelson Downs worked as a telegrapher  or telephraph operator at the Railroad station, the same time Frank Taylor was working at The Old Bowler.  It’s certainly possible that Thomas Downs learned some magic from Taylor, though Downs never revealed this to anyone during his life. If nothing else, Taylor could have served as an inspiration to Downs who was just learning. OR Taylor might have been the magician that Downs saw as a kid? Hard to say. 

Young T. Nelson Downs, as I just mentioned took a job as a telegraph operator at the Chicago and Northern Railroad Station when he was 16 years old. He would continue working there until 1895. And numerous sources say that it was during his 12 years at the railroad station that he perfected his skills in manipulation. He was constantly seen with coins or cards while working. He worked the night shift when things were slower so that gave more time to concentrate on manipulation.  By the way, I’ll be referring to T. Nelson Downs as Tommy Downs from here on out. That was the name his friends called him.

In 1890, Tommy Downs married Nellie Stone. In October 1894, his son Raymond was born. But only a few months later, on April 8th 1895, his wife Nellie died. Raymond was sent to live with his grandparents and Tommy would go out on his own as a performer.

Now to back track just slightly. When Tommy was 16 he gave his first public performance. The program was a variety show with a number of performers, only one was singled out as probably being professional and that was Tommy. This event was recorded in his local paper, so we know that Tommy was doing shows even while working for the Railroad Station.  

Now if we fast forward to 1891, Tommy Downs did not start out as The King of Koins. He worked with a partner who was a mandolinist, Sam Siegal. Tommy presented manipulation, as well as escapes, hypnotism, and even mind reading ala John Randall Brown (which it says in the David Price MAGIC A Pictorial History of Conjurors In The Theatre). BTW, I covered John Randall Brown in Ep 15 of the podcast. I would imagine that either Tommy took gigs on his days off, or during the day, so his shows had to be close enough that he could make it back to the Railroad Station at night.  The partnership with Siegal didnt last long.

Now, we are up to 1895, Tommy’s wife Nellie passed away and he decides to go out on his own. Despite consulting with other magicians about the possibility to doing an ALL COIN ACT….he was discouraged to do so by everyone)…..he did it anyway. He took an engagement at the Hopkins Theatre in chicago with his Misers Dream act and it was a huge hit. In a letter to Faucett Ross, Tommy shares a story from that show. “Show business is a funny thing. The first vaudeville house I ever worked was the Hopkins Theatre, in Chicago. While there the manager told me, ‘DOWNS, you have a great act, but you will never be a real success in this country until you first make a success in Europe.’ He was 100% right. After a year in England, France and Germany, I was besieged with offers and contracts in America. And it is a poor rule that won’t work both ways. I have met a lot of European acts that got nowhere in their own country until they first made a hit in America.”

No one had ever seen an act like Tommy’s.  He was the first of the speciality acts and likely the first of the all manipulation acts. His success in the midwest caused his salary to rise and he went to New York City and then off to England.

Tommy claimed to have invented the Misers Dream…though the trick itself goes back many years having been presented by 19th Century conjurers as The Shower of Money, Aerial Treasury and other names. Rather it would be better served to say that Downs created THE ACT Known as The Misers Dream, as he did greatly expand upon the trick, adding unique sleights and clever moments and bits of business to the routine. A point not often mentioned, Tommy spoke throughout the act, it was not presented silent to music. So he had witty patter to go along with his amazing sleight of hand. 

His book, Modern Coin Manipulation does a great job capturing the various parts of the act. Though the book contains sleights that I can’t help but wonder are not things he used in his act, but put in to create the illusion of great difficulty to anyone reading it.

In Oct 1895, Mahatma Magazine said of Downs, “All his work is absolutely new, original and puzzling, even to magicians. We are frank to say that we believe him to be the cleverest man living with coins, and justly entitled to the name, “King of Koins”.

In 1895, the inventor of the handcuff act. Mr. B.B. Keyes, sold his act through the magic dealer W. D. Leroy of Boston. It was sold as, “Escape From Sing Sing, OR The Great Handcuff Act”. The first person to purchase it was Tommy Downs. But it doesn’t appear that he ever used them. In the November 1930 issue of The Sphinx, T. Nelson Downs relates a story of meeting up with Houdini at their hotel while Houdini was working the London Alhambra. Downs took from his trunk a ring of 52 keys and said to Houdini, "Here are the tools you do your act with." Houdini replied, "Tom, I don't use keys. You know I did not have the money to buy the keys" etc. Then Downs said, "Well you can't open them with hot air!"   

From Leroy's Catalog, the price of the Great Handcuff Act was $75.00. I went through the catalog and most everything was under $10. A few items reached $20 and $30 and a Sub-trunk reached $50. But here was the act that put Houdini on the map, and it's price much much higher than everything else. Perhaps Houdini, didnt have the money, lol. Or maybe he did.

There is a great story that is related in numerous sources about Downs first visit to New York City. Downs stopped into Otto Maurer's Magic shop and told him that he was in town performing, not only that,  he was making $100 a week. Maurer said to Downs, "No magician has ever been paid that kind of money, GET OUT of my shop!" At least one source claims the amount was $150.

Otto Mauer was known to have taught the Front and Back Palm to a number of magicians. But Tommy claimed he first did the trick at the Opera House in Boone Iowa around 1891. By 1898 he had turned it into an act of it’s own, by making multiple cards vanish, showing his hands empty and then reproducing the cards one at a time. He would use this as an encore to his Misers Dream Act.

In April of 1899, Tommy Downs secured a booking to play England, specifically the Palace Theatre in London.  It’s safe to say he took London by storm as no one had seen an act like his. He was constantly being interviewed in the paper for his unique act. Soon, other American acts would find their way to London, folks like Thurston, Houdini, Lafayette, William Robinson and more. David Price’s book even says Robinson confided in Downs that he was going to challenge the Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo. So Downs suggested to Robinson to use the name ‘Chung Ling Soo’.

Will Golston wrote this of Tommy Downs “ T. Nelson Downs, the King of Koins—and truly he deserves the title, is "one of the best," both as Magician and Gentleman, and as talent is sure to come to the top, and he has an abundance of it, he has certainly got there.  His manipulation of coins is marvellous, his audiences are often to be seen open mouthed, and amazed at his wonderful dexterity. “

Downs tells this story about his days of working in the train station. Sometimes when things were slow he would go out into the waiting room and show tricks to the travelers, farmers, or whoever was there. There was one incident when he showed some coin magic to Fred Stone and his brother, they were working with the Taylor Circus at the time doing a high wire act. Well, fast forward 14 years and Fred Stone was in London performing. On this particular day he was visiting with some fellow performers. One of the entertainers was bragging about the incredible coin manipulations presented by T. Nelson Downs at the London Palace Theatre. Fred spoke up and said, “I’m sorry but the best coin man on the planet works at a little train station in Marshalltown Iowa.” Well it turned out they were both correct because that little telegraph operator was now headlining the Palace!

In another letter Tommy wrote, “One of the first magicians I met in London was Charles Bertram and he told me, ‘DOWNS, you are really not a magician but a manipulator and juggler. Why don’t you do tricks?’ I answered, The reason I don’t do tricks is because everyone else does tricks. If I did tricks I probably would not be playing the Palace!”

Another of Tommy Down’s first contacts in London was William Hilliar who saw Tommy at the Place Theatre. He soon became his agent. Tommy continued on at the Palace for 6 months. They actually wanted him to stay longer but he had other engagements to attend to. It was during this time that Tommy wrote the book, Modern Coin Manipulation, which would explain his entire act, plus many of the unique sleights he had developed over the years. William Hilliar edited the book.

Speaking of William Hillar, this incident involved him and takes place in the early 1900s. He says,  “I visited the Theatre de Robert Houdin in Paris. They had a replica of Houdin’s stage settings large center and two side tables with traps running through to the wings. The performance was given by a French conjurer named Carmenelli. One of his features was the Rapping Hand. A few years later,  I again visited Houdin’s theatre accompanied by Nelson Downs. Carmenilli did the aerial treasury, borrowing Down’s hat for the purpose. I wonder if he ever knew that he was using the masters hat!”

Here is more from Hilliar via Mahatma Magazine. “I have been in Paris the last month, but have not seen much conjuring. According to what I am told Magic does not seem to take on here at all. There is, however, one exception i.e. T. Nelson Downs (King of Coins) whose wonderfully clever coin act goes great here and he has, I understand, been re-engaged for the next three years at the Folies Marigny, the most fashionable theatre in Paris. This notwith- standing the fact that one ot his best imitators preceeded him in Paris, but when Downs appeared the public could tell at once that there was only one King of Coins. I wonder what Robert Houdin would say could he but witness Down's show ? If I remember rightly Robert 
Houdin said that with practice it was possible to palm 2 coins. Downs palms 45 ! But in addition to his digital cleverness, he has that gen- tlemanly appearance and pleasing manner which makes his show go. He is booked for three solid years in the finest theatres in the world at an enormous salary and he carries his apparatus in his waistcoat pocket ! Now I'll give you the secret of Downs' success—ORIGINALITY. He originated the "King" idea, and although he has been copied by hundreds, the others are not in it. There you are my mag- ical brothers, work out some new idea and you will suddenly become famous. “

Here is Down’s talking about an incident in Paris. “I have often wondered just how much an audience sees when a magician does a trick. In 1900 I was playing a long engagement at The Marigny Casino in Paris. One night I walked out on the stage, started to do the act and then suddenly discovered that I have forgotten to load up with coins. I had a top hat but no coins—-they were on a table in the wings. What could I do? Well, I started the act without the coins—just pantomiming catching them from the air for about 3 minutes. Then I took a bow and received terrific applause. During the applause, I stepped offstage, loaded up and continued the act but, honestly, I don’t think that audience ever knew the difference.”

And here is a story from a letter to Faucett Ross from Tommy Downs, “As you know I played 26 consecutive weeks at the Palace Theatre in London. After my first show there Mr. Morton, the Manager, came backstage and complimented the act. He said, Mr. Downs, I am particularly impressed by the slow and deliberate manner in which you walk off and on the stage. It is very impressive.’ Well, I did not have the nerve to tell him the truth. You see, when I first arrived in London I did a lot of walking in order to see the sights. The result was I developed sore feet and there was no choice- I HAD to walk slowly. So I’ve been doing it ever since. Another interesting thing happened during my Palace engagement. After a few weeks I decided to build up the act a bit by using the coin wand which I always liked. Well, after the first show using the wand, Mr. Morton came to the dressing room and said, “Mr. Downs, my patrons are utterly intrigued with your great digital dexterity, but tonight you disillusioned them by using that mechanical stick which has no place in your fine act.’ Well, I saw that he was right and I never used it again from that day to this. It’s a good trick, but not for me."

In 1901, John Northern Hilliard was the dramatic critic and editorial writer for The Rochester Post Express. He wrote a glowing review of Downs act. Here is a little of what he said, “There is a real magician in Rochester. His name is T. Nelson Downs and he is working his wonders at the Cook Operah House this week.  Mr Downs is billed as The King of Koins and there is no magician on any stage in any country today who can compete with Mr.  Downs as a manipulator of either coins or cards. This is much conceded even by members of Mr. Downs own profession. He stands absolutely alone in his chosen field.” 

While in London, Downs became a sensation. He not only worked the Palace Theatre, but he appeared before The Prince of Wales who would go on to become King of England, at a private event. The Prince loved Tommy’s magic so much that after the performance was over, he was requested to stay and teach some magic to the Prince, which he gladly did. 

Shortly after his performance for the Prince of Wales, he was appearing before Queen Victoria. In fact, his standing with the Royals of Europe was quite high. He performed before Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, Abdul Hamid the Sultan of Turkey, and The Czar of Russia. 

As he toured throughout Europe he appeared in Paris at the Marigny Casino and the Follies Bergere, The Wintergarten in Berlin, and when he returned to London he appeared at the Empire Theatre for forty weeks at twice the money he made at the Palace Theatre. 

Now here is something that came as a big surprise. Tommy Downs was interested in illusions, as in Grand Illusion. As early as 1900 he had purchased an illusion, where a woman, is tossed into the air, away from any furniture or stage settings and vanishes in a flash of flame. He purchased this from William Hilliar. In 1905 he worked with illusionist Ernest Thorn (ep 41 of the podcast), and created and patented an effect for making a person or object vanish while suspended under table. He also worked with Will Golston and created and illusion where a person could appear inside a glass bottle which was also suspended in the air. The effect is in the book, LATEST CONJURING by Goldston, came out in 1905, the illusion is called, The Goldstone-Downs Bottle Illusion.”

In 1905 Tommy Married Harriet Rockey on June 3rd. She already had a son who was born in 1896. I don’t know if this son was his, or if he later adopted the boy. In 1908 John Northern Hilliard edited Downs book The Art of Magic. Years later John Northern Hilliard would go on to become Howard Thurston’s publicity agent.

In 1910, this illusion idea comes back up, this time he teams up with a fellow from California, who was fairly unknown at the time, his name was Guy Jarrett. 
Together they created a new act, which would start with Down’s Misers Dream Act, and then they would present 4 unique illusions. All of these were creations of Jarrett’s. The act was called ‘In Mid-Air Illusions’. He clearly has something for this concept. The first illusion was Guy’s Boy, Girl and Sack. It was a transformation effect where a rather large woman was placed inside a sack which was suspended in mid-air. She would vanish from there and appear in the audience, while a skinny man came out of the sack.  
Another effect was The Table Coat Dissappearance. A small undraped table that has been standing in plain view is now placed in center of stage. The assistant puts on a long coat and hat, climbs up on the table, the magician pulls the coat and hat up in mid-air by aid of a rope and pulley attached, when the coat collapses the man is GONE! 

The final illusion was called The Mystery of Mysteries. This was Jarrett’s Bangkok Bungalow Illusion, which was an incredible mystery, which later became a feature of Howard Thurston’s show. But Down’s was the first to get these illusions. The coin manipulator who always traveled light, was now hauling 2400 lbs of baggage and two additional assistants. For whatever reason, the act did not play well. Perhaps Downs was not cut out to be an illusionist. 

In another letter to Faucett Ross, Tommy writes, “I have never claimed to have invented all the tricks in magic. I did take the old coin catching trick, elaborated it, added a few new sleights, a new manner of presentation and made an act out of it. I do claim to be the originator of the famous Dime and Penny trick. I got the idea in 1909 and in 1910 a jeweler friend of mine made up the first outfit for me. After a few months, I showed it to a friend of mine who was a traveling man. He showed it, without my permission, to Carl Brema, the Philadelphia Magic dealer, who, not knowning it was mine, put it on the market. During the past 20 years, thousands of them have been sold, but as for me, I’ve never received any cash or credit. The moral of this is—if you have something really good, either keep it to yourself or make sure you will be reimbursed if it is placed on the market.”

Tommy’s mother passed away on February 19th 1910 in Marshalltown. But along with that a rather strange occurrence. The very same day Mrs. Down’s died, her sister who lived quite a distance away in New York City, also died. Both of them were 78 years old. Another strange connection that twins have I guess. 

In March of 1911, another tragedy struck, this time Tommy’s house caught fire. The odd thing was he had just sold the house but had not yet moved out. He lost all of his belongings, all his furniture, clothing, and his magic equipment. The loss was reported to be around $2500 worth of items, but his insurance policy only covered $500. What did Tommy Downs do about it? He quickly got back on the road and started working.

Tommy Downs was a man with a plan. And that plan was to make $50,000. The equivalent of a little over a million dollars today. He reached that goal in 1912 and set out to retire. I apparently purchased some rental property in Marshalltown and moved back to his hometown. He was 42 when he left the stage. He would occasionally come out of retirement for private gigs and charity events. In fact, he created  a full evening show, which is quite fascinating. Here again, in Tommy’s own words…”My full evening show runs about like this. I usually open with the torn and restored paper ribbon (his own version). Then a simple cigarette routine concluding with vanish of lighted cigarette at fingertips. I follow this with about 5 minutes of billiard ball manipulations. next the Misers Dream, my speciality. I then go into card work—-Ladies Looking Glass, General Card, Mental Spelling, Two Card Stabbing, a few fancy shuffles, and conclude with my BackPalm routine. Next a borrowed bill in lemon which amazes them. I think vanish a handkerchief and reproduce it from a spectators coat collar, followed by a showing of about thirty more handkerchiefs. I always finish with a patriotic  number. I produce a red, white and blue handkerchief and blend the into a 36 inch silk American Flag and then when the spectators think it is all over, BINGO, I produce two big six foot flags on staffs. Thats about all there is to it. Just a small three ring circus in one suitcase and no fuss or bother.”

T. Nelson Downs remained close to magic world, attending conferences, corresponding with and meeting with magicians when he could. He and Houdini were good friends spending many hours together talking magic. They originally met many years before at The Chicagos Worlds Fair. 
In the July 1901 Mahatma, this appears, “Travelers returning from Europe report the existence of a powerful mutual admirations society composed entirely of magicians, whose acts are features. The passwords are, “HOUDINI, I’ve seen all kinds of magical acts, but without exception, your is really the acme of perfection.” OR “DOWNS, I don’t often praise a man, but whenever I see your act I can’t help thinking that there can never be another act conceived that will be so really marvelous” It is rumored that there are only two members of this society. 
In Houdini's Backyard, Downs on far Right. (CarnegieCollection)

One year later both Houdini and Downs would be early members of the newly formed Society of American Magicians. There are many pictures of Downs and Houdini together. One taken very early in both their careers, probably in London. One of the last was taken in Houdini’s backyard. 

In 1935, Downs started suffering from an illness that lasted 3 years. He died on September 11th, 1938 and is buried in Riverside Cemetery in Marshalltown Iowa.

I thought I’d end this podcast slightly differently than usual. Faucett Ross had exchanged many letters with Downs during his life. The GEN Magazine in Jan 1958 featured an issue with many of those letters. I’ve included several of them in the podcast, but Id like to leave you with some advice from T. Nelson Downs himself.

“If I had an constructive advice to offer a young person starting out in magic, it would be this—At the outset he should  do as many different tricks and routines as possible before the public. By so doing he will soon discover the things he can do the best and the ones that register most strongly.”

“I turned down a lot of chances to do my act for fifteen or twenty dollars. I could use the money but I can’t afford to lower my reputation by working cheap. The more they pay you the more they will respect and enjoy you. A fellow called me the other night and said, “Mr. Downs, we would like to book your act but we do not have much money right now.” I answered, “Well, I’m a patient guy, so I’ll be willing to wait until you get enough.”

“Magicians nowadays are always complaining that there is nothing new but the trouble is that they can’t see the forest on account of the trees. There are dozens of good tricks described in books that most magicians have never bothered to read and that one of them have ever tried out in public. Take my own book, The Art of Magic for example. Turn to page 107 and read the description of my own version of The Flying Cards. For nearly 30 years I have been doing the trick on stage and off exactly as described. The turn to page 71 and read details of The General Card. This is my favorite card trick and almost an act in itself. Let me have this one and you can keep all the rest of them.”

And finally a few words from Tommy Downs that should be eye opening to every magician.
This is from the Feb 1923 MUM Magazine
"Allow me to state that our late beloved Harry Kellar was not only my personal friend, but I was one of his most ar- dent admirers. However, Alexan- der Herrmann has always been to my mind the "Ideal Magician." Herrmann looked, lived and acted the part. He had three or four small tricks, brought to a state of, near, perfection. These tricks were a part of his personality, and he never lost an opportunity to exploit them. 
Now, I claim, the great trouble with most magicians is: They want to look and act like Herrmann, and what is more, and worse, they want to do the same tricks he did and in exactly the same style. "It can't be did.”"  By the way, you could take out the Name Herrmann here, and insert, Copperfield, Blaine, ShinLim, Darren Brown, I think you get my point.
He further goes on…

"The late Charles Bertram of, "Isn't it Wonderful" fame was  playing at the Grand Theatre in Chicago. The late William Robinson (Chung Ling Soo) took me down into Ber- tram's dressing room, where I did my full act for him. When I had finished 
Mr. Bertram said: "Very clever, young man, but—Why don't you do "tricks." I then replied, "the reason I don't do tricks is because other magicians do tricks." I believe neither Mr. Bertram nor I realized the full significance of the remark until several years later, when I was creating quite a sensation at the Pal- ace Theatre, London, where I re- mained a feature for twenty-six con- secutive weeks. Y our reference to the Winter Garden, Berlin, reminds me that I was warned by profession- al friends and theatrical agents not to sign a contract for that establish- ment, I was assured my act would be a complete failure there, and and would ruin me for Germany. The predictions, as you are aware, were all wrong, as I played there, eight weeks in 1900, and a month's return engagement about a year later. No doubt, the fact that I pos- sessed a very strong and penetrating voice, and knew how to use it to fairly good advantage, had consider- able to do with my success there and elsewhere. I have always con- tended that a magician, to meet with any marked degree of success, must be an actor—hundreds of people do tricks—but they cannot all CONVINCE, — yes, that's the word, CONVINCE an audience. My point is that it is not the particular trick that makes the magician, but it is the magician who makes the particular trick. I claim the public did not go to see Kellar's and Herrmann's tricks, but, on the contrary, they went to see the individuals, — great men's personalities in particu- lar. Their tricks were simply incidental. I will further elucidate: A few days ago I made a long voyage to see a celebrated mystifier—getting myself up at six A. M. with the thermometer at 20 below zero and traveling some seventy miles to see this miracle worker. Can anyone imagine me going seventy miles to see a mere magician do tricks! Not on your life!”" The man Downs was going to see was HOUDINI. I just found that line so incredible, “Hundreds of people do tricks but they can’t CONVINCE.” To do that takes a very special performer, part actor, part magician, a person who LIVES his or her material. That is incredible wisdom from Tommy Downs.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of the podcast. I do want to mention one other thing in regards to Down’s famous act The Misers Dream. Back in 2008 Levent, the great comedy magician and excellent manipulator, put out a DVD set on the Misers Dream. It has 5 hours worth of sleights and tricks, including the routines of Al Flosso, Charlie Miller, Roy Benson, Paul Potassy, Robert Houdin and of course, T. Nelson Downs. It’s well worth checking out. IT is extensive. And yes, it’s a teaching DVD. I honestly do not know if they’re available anymore, but you could contact Levent through his website to find out. 

All of the references are in Bold Letters within the article, so they are easy to find.
This was Episode 23 of the podcast and was one of the most popular of the entire run.

AFTER I put the podcast up, I wrote a companion article about Downs & Houdini which can be found here:

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The King of Koins & The King of Escape

My most recent podcast (#23) was on T. Nelson Downs. I had never heard much of his life story so I was amazed at what I uncovered. Did you know he was a twin? Sadly, his brother did not survive. Did you know he did other kinds of magic besides coin magic? Did you know he retired at a time when most performers were just making it really big?

His friends called him Tommy. He created a sensation in the entertainment world by doing an act
with only coin manipulation. After consulting with some of the great minds of magic and having them all tell him it was a terrible idea to do 'a coin only act' he decided to do it anyway. He was right and everyone else was wrong. His speciality act soon gave way to other specialty performers. He was known as the King of Koins and In 1899 he was making a huge splash in London with what would become one of the first specialty acts in the nation.

The story if often told that Martin Beck told Houdini to drop the magic, keep the escapes and the trunk trick and he would book him. Well, Houdini's career started to really gain steam after that.
Martin Beck made arrangements for Houdini to go to England in the fall of 1899. However, he didn't actually arrive until Spring 1900. Still, Houdini too was about to take England and all of Europe by storm. These American performers, Downs and Houdini, were about to be the toast of the town in London and beyond!

Here is an amazing fact about Houdini and Downs. They apparently met each other at the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1893. Houdini was working the Fair. I can only assume Downs was visiting as he was employed by the Chicago & Northern Railroad Station. In the July 1901 Mahatma Magazine, this appears, “Travelers returning from Europe report the existence of a powerful mutual admiration society composed entirely of magicians, whose acts are features. The passwords are, “HOUDINI, I’ve seen all kinds of magical acts, but without exception, your is really the acme of perfection.” OR DOWNS, I don’t often praise a man, but whenever I see your act I can’t help thinking that there can never be another act conceived that will be so really marvelous” It is rumored that there are only two members of this society. 

As I mentioned earlier, Downs was already in London when Houdini arrived. But they spent many hours together talking magic. As you've read above they became good friends during this time and socialized often. But as close as they were, when Downs finally left Europe it would be many years before he would see Houdini in person again. This is the unfortunate side of being a traveling performer.

One great story from the life of Tommy Downs takes place in London, while both he and Houdini were appearing. In the November 1930 issue of The Sphinx, T. Nelson Downs relates a story of meeting up with Houdini at their hotel. Downs took from his trunk a ring of 52 keys and said to Houdini, "Here are the tools you do your act with." Houdini replied, "Tom, I don't use keys. You know I did not have the money to buy the keys" etc. Then Downs said, "Well you can't open them with hot air!" (Hilarious!!!)

There is a handwritten quote to Downs from Houdini which reads, "To: T. Nelson Downs, One of the old guards, and one of the Historical Lights of magic. Best Wishes from always the same, HOUDINI, April 1921"

In a Feb 1923 issue of MUM, Downs is sharing a story about what it takes to succeed in magic. He makes a point that a magician is an actor-hundreds of people can do tricks but they cannot all CONVINCE. And he stresses this word CONVINCE. It is the quality that makes one person a true magician/artist in the eyes of the public and another one just a mere trickster. He goes on to point out that people didnt go to see Kellar and Herrmann because of tricks, rather it was their personalities that audiences wanted to see, the tricks were incidental. 

Next he goes on to describe a trip he was making that he had to get up at 6 a.m. with 20 degree weather outside and then would have to travel 75 miles to get to the destination to see this mystifier. He says, "Can anyone imagine me going seventy five miles to see a mere magician do tricks??? NOT ON YOUR LIFE" he says. But he wasn't going to see a mere magician, and he knew that..
When he arrived at the theatre it was sold-out. Thankfully he had his seats down front reserved. Here is what Downs wrote, "After witnessing several interesting acts, the 'star' of the program THE ONE AND ONLY HOUDINI himself made his entrance. It was 21 years since I last saw him at Dusseldorf, Germany"

Now listen closely as Downs gives a very solid description of Houdini in action. "Houdini made a few introductory remarks relative to his performance and retired to prepare for the same. The screen was dropped, a movie shown of Houdini being bound and tied; then the curtain went back up and there was Houdini, bound and tied, as shown in the picture. He made a quick release. Then the screen was lowered again and showed Houdini  in action, actually jumping from one airplane to another, in mid-air (scene was from The Grim Game") then suddenly the machine fell 4500 feet, according to the film, and I nearly fainted it was so realistic. Besides, it was the truth, for you know the camera doesn't lie; remember that! Well, then came the crash; the plane fell to the ground, and our hero saved the girl. After that, I could be made to believe anything, and I am convinced that the balance of the audience  were in about the same mood. Next, Houdini called for a committee to come upon the stage and inspect everything. I was commanded to come up. There were doctors, scientists, and children. His first feat  completely mystified and baffled everyone, including the scientific gentlemen and myself. I was positive in my own mind at the time the manifestations took place ----that I was witnessing a purely spiritualistic phenomena, and that this man Houdini was a genuine spirit medium, but did not wish to acknowledge the fact, possibly for business reasons; for didnt I see him actually swallow several packages of needles, and then swallow several years of thread, drinking a glass of water to aid digestion, and then, didn't I see the thread actually pulled out of the medium's mouth by one of the gentlemen----all perfectly and beautifully threaded? I certainly did! And I wish to emphasize the fact that this was a miracle, if there ever was one. I repeat, that this particular miracle was accomplished on a full-lighted stage, under the strictest of test conditions. Surely, there is no chance for fraud or chicanery here! Here was a real medium, if there ever was one---of this I was thoroughly convinced. 

Then came the water tank escape, bordering on the supernatural; in fact, it was supernatural. Here Houdini was locked upside down in a tank of water, to all appearances it was a physical impossibility to escape or breath under the water. Yet, he did escape, after actually being submerged in water for nearly two minutes, by my watch. The suspense was something fierce! That two minutes seemed like two hours to me, and I almost lost control of myself and come very near to grabbing the ax that was to be used by Houdini's trusty assistants in case of some unforeseen accident. It was not until the next day, after I had returned safely to my native town and to my own domicile, that I awakened to the fact that I had been bulled, bunked, bamboozled, misdirected, and grossly deceived but HIGHLY ENTERTAINED by a clever necromancer---a mere magician." That later part, 'a mere magician' clearly said tongue in cheek. Downs had incredible respect for Houdini and vice versa.

love this description of Houdini's act and Down's reactions to same. This was not the handcuff king (who was great by the way) he remembered in Europe, but rather the very seasoned professional mystifier with thousands of performances under his belt. Downs was clearly impressed!

Frank Ducrot, F.E. Powell, HOUDINI, and Tommy Downs In Houdini's backyard
And a letter sent to Downs on Houdini's stationary from 1926 reads, "They are still talking about your wonderful coin work here. They all agree with me that you are the greatest manipulator of coins that ever lived. Your work with the ten dollar sized coins is simply marvelous and shows your incessant and tireless hours of practice. I am attaching the well known Binet "Pyschology of Prestidigitation" and am quoting your work in my article which is the highest compliment I can pay you. YOU have made The Misers Dream a reality, With Kindest regards and best wishes, Sincerely yours HOUDINI"

In the Ken Silverman book on Houdini it states "Downs like several other magicians had matured on the shady side of the law. According to Houdini, 'he ran a fake magic shop, worked for a fake spiritualist and had been wanted by the federal govt. for a swindle'."  Now, I must say, I have done some pretty extensive research on Downs, and I didn't see anything anywhere that suggested he was a dishonest person. Everyone who spoke of him, spoke very highly of his act and of him as a person. I think he had a mail order magic business, nothing wrong with that. As far as working for  fake spiritualist, I didn't find any info there. Nor did I see anything on a supposed 'swindle.' But its possible Downs was the one who got duped in some deal which was why he was involved. 

Finally there is this short piece which appeared in an old MUM, "Should I live to be a thousand years I'll never forget the wonderful time I had East. Everyone, everywhere, Houdini in particular, seemed to go out of their way to show me a big time and I don't think it will be my last trip. On reflection I can't imagine how I managed to stay away from little old New York for fourteen years." T. Nelson Downs. 

It appears that the two men were very close friends and stayed in touch by corresponding. Houdini as you know died in 1926. Downs, who was older, lived till 1938. Both of them, in their own way, changed the face of magic, forever. Long Live the Kings!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Otto Maurer And His Magic Shop

Who was Otto Maurer? I think I first heard the name in connection to the sleight known as the Back Palm. Later, I came upon the name Otto Maurer again, while researching the Coin Casket, or what Maurer called, "The Miraculous Golden Box." But who was this guy Otto Maurer?

He was born Otto Maurer in Gemeisheim Germany on October 28th 1846. He immigrated with his family to America at the age of 5 according to The Perennial Mystics by James Hagy.  MagicPedia says that Maurer was a graduate of a German University and came from Berlin. This information may come from an unidentified clipping in one of Houdini's scrapbooks. I have not yet been able to track down the most accurate information.

In 1872, Otto Maurer opened his magic shop on No 321 Bowery in NY. I believe it was simply a tinsmith shop at first, but because so many magicians came to him asking to have their props repaired, he shifted to a magic shop. In his catalog he makes claims to being a performer as well as builder and even offered lessons in magic. But T. Nelson Downs in a 1924 letter said that Maurer was definitely NOT a sleight of hand performer. That doesn't mean he wasn't a magician, he could have simply used apparatus magic. And speaking of T Nelson Downs, there is a great story that is related in numerous sources about Downs first visit to New York City. Downs stopped into Otto Maurer's shop and told him that he was in town performing, not only that,  he was making $100 a week. Maurer said to Downs, "No magician has ever been paid that kind of money, GET OUT of my shop!" At least one source claims the amount was $150.

Though he issued a catalog with an illustration of a grand storefront on the cover, the Otto Maurer Magic Shop was not a storefront at all, but rather it was a basement location where he built most everything.

An interesting story from W.W. Durbin which appeared in the Dec 1935 edition of The Linking Ring, tells how he (Durbin) ordered a number of things from Maurer and some of it arrived, some of it didn't, some took a while before they arrived. In addition, some of the items were clearly salvaged from (non magic) store bought purchases and then welded or attached in various ways and then gimmicked to produce the desired magic effect. From the description that Durbin gives, it sounds as if Maurer had his own methods on some items as well. And indeed, Otto Maurer did claim to use the very latest methods for his apparatus. For example, the Vanishing Birdcage that Maurer sold was unlike the DeKolta cage that was all the rage at the time. Instead it used a rather unconventional method and a very solid cage.

Otto Maurer covered the issue of potential delayed props on the first page of his catalog. Here is how it reads,  "It being almost impossible to keep a full supply of everything on hand, some articles selling more rapidly than others, all orders cannot be filled from stock. All goods not on hand must necessarily be manufactured after the order has been received, and consequently such orders require time to fill..." It goes on, but the point is, Maurer was letting potential customers know ahead of time, there might be a delay in ordering if it was an item that needed to be built.

In his book, Adventures in Magic, Henry Ridgely Evans shares the story of how when he was 19 years old me went from Baltimore to NY to find Otto Maurer's Magic Emporium. Despite much searching, he could find no store front, no palace of mystery. Finally, he asked someone who guided him to a set of stairs on the side of a building. Henry Ridgely Evans said, "Imagine my astonishment at finding the Aladdin's palace of enchantment in the cellar of a grimy old tumble-down house. My gorgeous dream was dispelled. His magnificent magical salon was a myth, but his heart was in the right place."

In another issue of the Linking Ring, W.W. Durbin describes what the inside of the shop looked like,
and it was not unlike near every magic shop I've ever seen. Photos adorned one wall. There were display cases with various types of apparatus that took up other areas. Sounds pretty standard magic shop with the exception of it's basement entrance. Despite the apparent lack of a fancy establishment, this did not deter magicians of all kinds from frequenting his shop. And clearly, it had a good reputation because folks like Trewy, T. Nelson Downs, Herrmann, Thurston and Houdini all visited the shop and purchased from the shop.

Otto Maurer's big claim to fame seems to be his learning the back palm from a Mexican gambler. This sleight he later showed to Houdini, Thurston and a host of others who used the underground technique to it's fullest. From what I can gather, Dr. James Elliott also learned the sleight from Maurer, and then developed the more impressive Front and Back Palm version. Though others would make claim to that as well. T. Nelson Downs attributes the effect to Elliott.

In 1890 he changed the name of the shop to The Columbia Magic Trick Manufacturing Company.

In 1899 Otto Maurer began to develop health problems. This issues soon made a turn for the worse when he was diagnosed with Cancer. All the money he had saved from his magic shop went into medical bills. He died nearly penniless at the age of 53 at Metropolitan Hospital in NYC on May 15th, 1900. He was survived by a wife, son and a daughter.

Due to his financial situation, he was buried in an unmarked grave in the public area of The Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery in Queens NY. Magic historian Tom Klem started a campaign last August (2016) to raise money for a gravestone for Otto Maurer. The money was successfully raised and a stone has been placed in the cemetery for magic dealer and magician, Otto Maurer.

For a time his son, Otto Jr. took over the shop and moved it's location. But a few years later sold it to Frank Ducrot. And Ducrot also purchased Hornmann's shop, as well as quite a few other magic shops. Otto Maurer Jr. eventually took a job in the music department at a department store.

Images provided by Tom Klem and posted with his permission. A BIG THANK YOU to Tom Klem for working so hard on the project to get a gravestone for Otto Maurer!!!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Nate Leipzig - A Real Magician

Right now I'm asking myself, "how did I miss this guy?" There are some folks in magic history that I've heard about all my life but don't really know much about. Today I'd like to share with you a little about the life of Nathan Leipziger, known professionally as Nate Leipzig.

Nate was born in Stockholm Sweden in May 31, 1873. He came to America in 1883, so he missed the 1880 census and sadly the 1890 does not exist, it was destroyed years ago in a fire. But he shows up on the 1900 US Census. The reason I bring up the census records is because they add some interesting information that is different from what Nate wrote in his autobiography. Nate states his father was from Russia and his mother from Utica NY. However, the census records state his parents were both from Poland. And in 1900 he was 27, and still living at home and working as an 'optician'. It is possible his mother was born in Poland, moved to the US and that is where is father met his mother. Also, depending upon the area of Poland his father was from, it could have been considered Russia at some point. But then again, perhaps he was doing what many people did at that time and rewrote his own history.

He apparently felt that if he read about a trick in a book, it was his duty to recreate the effect using his own methods. It was this unusual philosophy that caused him to not only impress magicians but everyone who watched him perform. Magicians were taking notice of the youngster. The King of Koins, T. Nelson Downs was bragging about a coin flourish that Leipzig had created. Ten Ichi from Japan was so impressed with Nate that he asked to meet with him and offered to trade the method of his Thumb Tie Routine for Nate's Ring on Stick routine.

In 1901 Nate was asked to become a partner in an act by Berol and Berol which was a 'Rag Painting Act'. This alone is fascinating to me as I have never heard of rag painting. From what I gather, different colored rags were placed against a black velvet background to create recognizable works of art. Joining this act would mean Nate would have to leave home for the first time. His family did not have high hopes for his future with this venture. But as unique and novel as the act sounds, after two years the partnership split up and Nate was on his own.

Here is when a stroke of luck comes his way. J. Warren Keane was a vaudeville magician who needed to find a quick replacement for his act. He called Nate, who had never done magic in vaudeville before, but Nate agreed to give it a try and began to perform at Proctors in NY. It turns out he was a huge hit. The same reason that magicians were bowled over by Nate was the same reason audiences were. He did tricks that no one had ever seen before and if they had, he did them differently than everyone else. In other words he was highly original. After appearing at Proctors for only two days, he received word that none other that William Morris wanted to see him. Nate showed up at his office and Morris offered Nate a contract to tour the Keith Circuit. Consider this, you don't find a bigger agent than William Morris, and Nate was brand new in the Vaudeville world, yet he had the bravery to haggle over the pay. Nate requested more than Morris was offering. They argued over it and Morris agreed to increase his pay. He knew Nate was worth it.

His act consisted of manipulations with thimbles, billiard balls, cards and card tricks like the Rising Cards. He also presented Vest Turning, Ring of Stick and the Magnetized Knife. By 1904, Nate decided to change his name from Nate Leipziger to the shortened version that we all know, Lepizig. In 1906 offered a tour of Europe and he became as big a sensation over there with audiences as he had been in the U.S..  The one difference between Nate's work overseas is that he often had the opportunity to perform before royalty.

He returned to the states for a few months but in 1908 he was heading back to England for more work. It was on this tour that he met Leila, who would become his wife. Over the next few years he would continue to travel the globe and return to the U.S.. But when WW1 broke out Nate had an interesting predicament. Because of his German sounding name, he was forced on occasion to alter it. One of the alterations was 'Nat Lincoln'.

Over time, Nate began to slow his performing schedule down. He seemed to have a keen sense that Vaudeville was coming to an end and he switched gears to more private functions. He remained one of the most influential and original magicians of all time. He also picked up three students that he taught and shared his magic with. Those students were Roy Benson, Fred Keating and John Scarne. And of course his magic also greatly influenced Dai Vernon who wrote the book along with Lewis Ganson, 'Dai Vernon's Tribute to Nate Leipzig'. One of the lessons he imparted to his students was 'to never make a sucker out of a spectator'. In other words he was against embarrassing or humiliating a volunteer. Nate also believed in a natural approach to magic, he was against the fancy flourishes and finger flinging. He wanted things to be as simple and mystifying as possible.  His one exception to the rule was the flourish that he had developed, and that most everyone in magic eventually learns but probably doesn't know who created it, the coin roll.

Nate Leipzig died on October 13, 1939 from cancer. He had a long and influential career in magic and his insight and magic live on today in the acts of many performers.

When I started writing this I said "How did I miss this guy?". I don't have an answer. I knew who Nate Leipzig was, and have even read about him, but apparently it didn't sink it. When I was researching the life of Long Tack Sam I came upon a whole section in the wonderful Roy Benson book by Levent, about Nate Leipzig. As I read the words that Benson had to say about Nate, I sat spellbound. I began to recall moments in time when I heard others mention Leipzig, for example John Carney presents his version of a Leipzig Cigar Trick on one of his SECRETS DVDs. David Blaine actually has a Nate Leipzig trick that he apparently saves for special occasions to show clients because it's so strong. Well, as all this began sinking I decided to dig in and really look up this guy and it was like finding a whole new world! Thanks to, The Roy Benson by Starlight Book by Levent and Todd Karr, and other sources I learned a great deal about one of magic's greats and now can proudly say that I too have been influenced by the magic of Nate Leipzig.

In May 2020, I expanded this original article and made it a podcast. There is a lot more information on the podcast. You can hear that here.