Basic Magic School
Lesson #1 Some History of Magic
Some History of Magic
Performing magicians are presently enjoying the Second Golden Age of Magic, which started in the mid-1960s and has completed nearly forty years. The First Golden Age was during the heyday of vaudeville in the United States, from about 1890 until 1930, but music halls and variety theatres are still common in Europe as they didn’t let their theatrical arts die out.
There were a number of contributing factors to that exciting time of when vaudeville came into its own. Saloons and beer gardens with singing waiters, dance girls, and singers were popular, and every little town had a local hall available for rent by the Masons, the Odd Fellows, or the local volunteer fire department. Dime museums with live acts were opening in most of the large cities, and the local theatre was booking acts for variety bills of their own.
Then, two men in New York were responsible for presenting variety shows that were fit for the entire family, and started creating customers that went to the theatre every week as a family outing. Tony Pastor and B.F. Keith created clean theatres, fined the performers for improper words or actions during their acts, and raised the salaries of the better performers. Pastor had a total of three theatres in his time, but only one at a time. Keith started buying theatres as fast as he could, and thus created the first vaudeville circuit; a chain of theatres that could keep an act working for a solid period of time by moving to a different theatre every week.
In 1910 there were about 2,000 smalltime theatres across the country, and probably another 300 that handled the bigtime acts. By 1923 Keith’s circuit handled almost 400 theatres, the Orpheum circuit controlled another 300, and there were about 200 large independent houses. Besides the two big theatrical circuits, there were about twenty circuits of small-time vaudeville. So, at this time any good act, and a number of poor ones, could work for years without working the same theatre twice. In fact, most acts did the same act almost as long as they could work, about 35 to 40 years, without changing the basic act. Little bits of business and some jokes or songs would be changed, but not the basic routine.
In the cities the audiences kept growing, and theatres were built to accommodate the larger crowds. From 1891 to 1910 there were over twelve million immigrants, most of them locating in the cities, so that when coupled with the natural increase in the birth rate, the population from 1900 to 1910 soared by over sixteen million people, to over ninety-two million for our growing country. Considering that the average theatre probably seated between two and five hundred customers, and that the average act worked two to three shows a day, you can understand how David Copperfield works for more people in one television special than any vaudeville act in their entire lifetime.
Let’s take a company that owns, say, four theatres; there’s one in New York, the most important city in America for show business, and one each in Philadelphia, Boston, and Providence. There are four cities within easy travelling range for the acts, and each theatre is in a city with a different size of population. They would give work to about 350 employees, and would host about 3,500 actors in a year’s time. Since it’s the turn of the century, we’ll say that they don’t do any shows on Sunday, but they still manage to entertain 4,000 people every day, meaning a total of about five million customers a year. The four houses have different ticket prices, from ten cents to fifty cents a seat, but the costs are about the same. Around $10,000 pays for the acts each week and another $3,500 takes care of the full-time employees. Some theatres are never closed during the year, and some do an additional three matinees during the week, while others will open at about ten o’clock in the morning and run for twelve hours. This means that you could buy the first ticket going in and see all five shows in a row.
Most theatres work an act all week, but some will change the lesser acts so that two acts will work a split-week, each one working only three days. Each week’s program followed a similar plotting in the types of acts presented. The opening act was usually a silent one, like tumblers or jugglers; then a musical sketch; now there was a novelty act or dance number; if the house had a chorus line, they did a production number of some kind; another novelty act or comedy number came on; the star of the show appeared in the seventh spot; and, for a grand finish, there was either an animal act or the chorus line with another big musical number. The silent opening act let latecomers come into the audience without disturbing the act that’s onstage. The other numbers were juggled around to keep a variety of action and tempo.
Vaudeville was made up, basically, of higher paid specialists. Its acts came from the dime museums and beer gardens, and had proved themselves as people who were entertainers and audience-pleasers. Around the turn of the century the least of the acts were getting sixty to hundred dollars a week, with many stars getting a thousand a week, and a few rarities getting as much as $2,500 each and every week. Right off the top of that salary, the agent handling the act got his ten percent, and sometimes the theatre circuit took an additional five percent for being nice enough to hire the act. Out of the remainder the act has to pay all of its expenses, the biggest of which is transportation. Only the Orpheum, the circuit covering the western states, paid for train travel because of the longer distances covered than in the eastern states. Most big cities had theatrical boarding houses that not only included meals as part of the price, but the price was slightly lower than a hotel. When working the smaller cities and towns, then the act had to pay hotel rates, and they never got the discounted commercial rate available to salesmen because of the prejudice against show folk. Working, packing, unpacking, and working again and again, also created wear and tear on wardrobe, props, and scenery, if they carried their own. All of the repairs, upkeep, and replacement of these items were also out of pocket expenses for the act, and could be quite costly for custom-made equipment. Animal acts had the additional expense of food for their charges, and in the case of seals and cats, it may or may not be available in this week’s town.
There were all kinds of acts in vaudeville, including some people who weren’t actors but had done something newsworthy. Champion prizefighters, tree choppers, and elocution contest winners shared programs with the dog acts, jugglers, singers, and hoofers. Even people who had been acquitted of murder, or were about to go to trial, were sometimes booked at the local theatre to tell their story and be ogled by the ticket holders. There were single acts where only one person travelled from town to town to work, or as many as ten people in a repertory company that presented small plays or musical presentations.
Magic acts were also sold in a variety of numbers and styles. The smaller acts would have up to three people, and an illusionist who presented the larger tricks could carry as many as six or eight assistants. Many of the single acts would appear in front of the house curtain (“in one”, in stage parlance) to give the stagehands time to set up the next act that had a lot of scenery or a large number of props. Magicians who worked in one were usually card manipulators, or comedy acts that depended on just a few props and a lot of funny remarks. Many of these wizards were good enough that today’s magicians still honor their names and skills. Jack Merlin, Si Stebbins, Nate Leipzig, and Paul Valadon depended mostly on card tricks; Gus Fowler vanished, produced, and changed watches and clocks; Frank Van Hoven started with a serious act, but after developing a routine with two kid volunteers and a block of ice he became one of the funniest acts in the theatre. There were probably an additional 200 or more magicians who have been mostly forgotten by now.
There were many oriental acts working vaude, with the Chinese coming to Europe and America long before the Japanese because of Japan denying emigration to its citizens until the late 1860s. The greatest of the Chinese troupes were headed by Ching Ling Foo and Han Ping-Chien, with individual performers like Long Tack Sam and Kuma. Famous Japanese acts worked under the leadership of Ten Ichi and as the Asahi Troupe, and with a few singles like Tenkai.
Oriental magicians became such a bookable novelty that many occidental magicians put on yellow grease paint, silk robes, and worked under fictitious oriental names. The most successful of these was William Ellsworth Robinson (1861-1918), a Scottish American who was a very clever magic inventor and performer, as well as an excellent actor. Ching Ling Foo, during his first American tour, published a thousand-dollar challenge to other magicians for a magic contest, claiming, naturally, that he would emerge as the better magician. Robinson adopted a Chinese disguise, devised some oriental-looking tricks, and showed up to do magic battle. After seeing Robinson perform, Ching immediately backpedaled and claimed that the challenge was for American magicians only and not the better Chinese ones. The event garnered a lot of newspaper publicity for Robinson, especially after he showed the newsmen that he really was an American. In later years he went on to become world famous as Chung Ling Soo, and even after his death many people still thought he was oriental.
Some illusionists worked only vaudeville as a large act, but limited to thirty or forty minutes for their turn. The Great Leon (1876-1951) not only worked with four or five assistants, but was good enough that he could change his show every other year or so. Probably his most famous illusion was “Fire and Water”, where a girl vanished from a blazing cone of paper and appeared inside a glass tank of water.
Horace Goldin (1873-1939) was known as The Whirlwind Illusionist, and he claimed that he worked so fast that if you turned to speak to the person next to you that you’d miss a trick. He had been born in Poland and didn’t emigrate to America until his teens, and he had also fallen into a well when he was very young. The combination of these two circumstances meant that he spoke English with a very strong accent and also with a stammer because of his fall.
As a young man he had learned the Egg Bag from Albini, and started playing dime museums with his small repertoire. After a year or so of playing as many as twenty-five shows a day for ten dollars a week, he became very confident and smooth. He then played six shows at Tony Pastor’s theatre to show his skills to larger and better audiences, but because of his selection of corny jokes coupled with his speech problems, the newspaper reviewer suggested that future audiences “stuff their ears with cotton.” Because of this review Goldin immediately started working as a silent act. Fortunately this decision let him work at breakneck speed to do twice as much magic as the next magician.
He had his share of disasters on his way to success. For one, he had just finished a series of shows in Hawaii and his show was loaded on a small boat to be transferred to a ship four miles from shore. While loading a crate filled with over seven hundred pounds of glass, the deckhands let it slip, it fell, and capsized the small boat. Goldin lost not only all of his large illusions, but also the strongbox that held his money. When he landed in San Francisco, he worked a tour of the Orpheum theatres with the smallest act he had done since he left the dime museums.
As an established headliner in show business in later years, he tried a number of innovative ideas in his magic. For one, he was the first magician to change a girl into a roaring live lion. He was also the first magician to transfer a person from the stage onto the screen of a motion picture. He was also the magician who did the Sawing a Woman in Half for more audiences than any other, either in America or in Europe, even though the inventor of the original trick was an Englishman. Goldin, however, cut his girl in half with a buzzsaw rather than a simple cross-cut saw. Another of his startling effects was when he walked up to one of his male assistants, punched a hole through the man’s body and then proceeded to pass objects, liquids, and his hand through the hole.
The Great Lafayette (1872-1911) gave a thrilling show that combined magic with quick-change transformations. He would open the show as an artist and do a couple of illusions to produce girls, and then immediately change into a Chinese magician to produce animals and bowls of water, and then became an imitation John Philip Sousa (the famous composer and band leader of patriotic marches) to lead the band and do a few music-themed magic effects. He not only carried all of his own scenery and a number of assistants, but also his pet dog, a lion, and a horse. He and two assistants died in a theatre fire in Edinburgh, Scotland.
William Robinson, before he put on the disguise of a Chinese magician, was in demand as a mechanic and inventor for other magicians. One of his first successes was when he used the principle of Black Art that had been developed by Max Auzinger in Germany. This is an act that is done on a stage draped in black velvet, and using props that are painted all white or light yellow. Using the principle that you can’t see black objects when they’re against a black background, the magician (dressed in white wardrobe) works with one or more assistants invisibly dressed in black robes to accomplish some amazing illusions. Later he became a valued mechanic for Kellar and Herrmann. While with Kellar he invented and built two very successful illusions, one of which produced a girl from a giant oyster shell. Later, when working with Herrmann, he would sometimes perform an entire show as Herrmann by using makeup and adopting the stage manner of the magician, who wanted a night off from his busy schedule.
After he left the Herrmann troupe he wrote a book for magicians while running a magic shop in New York. The following year, 1900, he was requested by an agent to do an oriental act and the best part of his life began. As Chung Ling Soo, he eventually carried an immense show with as many as ten assistants and mechanics, with loads of scenery, and also established his own workshop in England with highly skilled wood and metal workers. He would take over a theatre for an entire week, not only as the complete program but with changes of of the show during the week. He was truly one of the most remarkable of illusionists, and died as the result of a mechanical failure in his feature trick, Catching a Bullet.
There were two other very famous American magicians who became household names, and with very similar lifetimes. Both Thurston and Blackstone started in small theatres and vaudeville, and then became the leading illusionist of America.
Howard Thurston (1869-1936) was on his way to become a theological student when he witnessed a show by Herrmann the Great. He skipped school, learned magic, and started travelling and playing small theatres with small magic, primarily card tricks. In 1898 both he and his idol, Herrmann, were playing theatres in Denver. He had recently invented a version of the Rising Cards, where cards selected by members of the audience were caused to rise into the air from the deck. Between shows he demonstrated the trick for Herrmann, who admitted he was fooled, and Thurston immediately jumped on the chance for publicity. The next day the Denver Post reported that Howard Thurston was “the man who fooled Herrmann”.
That article didn’t make Thurston famous, however, and he still had to struggle through smalltime show business. He slowly worked his way up the ladder until he was playing the better vaudeville houses, and then travelled with Harry Kellar for a year as a feature performer in that show. Then, on May 16, 1908, at the Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C., Kellar publicly turned his show over to Thurston as his magic successor. Over the next twenty years Thurston made the show into the leading magic show in America. He would have retired with a fortune, but he kept putting his money into the wrong investment schemes like Florida land for orange groves and the wrong inventions like an anti-snoring device. He collapsed from a paralytic stroke after a show in Charleston, West Virginia, and died a few months later.
Harry Blackstone (1885-1965) was the perfect example of having to adapt to a changing show business. He and his brother, Pete, did a comedy magic act in vaudeville, and gradually built larger and larger shows. When the illusionist Albini died in Chicago, Blackstone bought several of the illusions, and now considered himself an illusionist. Still being short of money, however, he bought some posters that a printer was holding because another magician never paid the bill. So, for a year or so, at least until the posters ran out, Blackstone worked as Fredrik the Great.
He started gaining a reputation as a performer who had a wonderful rapport with his audiences. With his bushy hair, the attitude of “let’s have fun,” and a voice made for use in theatres, he captivated audiences all over the United States. His magic was fascinating as he vanished a horse, produced a camel (but only for a few shows as the camel had ideas of his own), and produced and vanished a flock of ducks, as well as putting his female assistants through all sorts of torture that turned out to be harmless. He even toured his version of the famous Hindu Rope Trick, where a rope is levitated into the air, a boy climbs it, and then the boy vanishes and the rope falls to the stage in a puff of smoke.
When movies made vaudeville vanish, he shortened the show and played it between pictures in movie houses. He then built a full-evening show (about an hour and a half of all magic) and toured it through America’s legitimate theatres and auditoriums. During World War II he played hundreds of shows for the United Service Organizations in army, navy, and air force bases, and then went back to touring his magic and appearing on television. He retired in 1959 and moved to Hollywood where he lived only a block away from the Magic Castle, a private club where magicians entertain the other guests.
There were also a number of magicians who became famous magicians in the other countries of the world before they became headliners in the United States. Alexander Herrmann (1844-1896) grew up in a family with a number of magicians in it in France. He toured as a young man with his older brother, Carl, through Europe and played all of the capital cities. They worked in America three times before Alexander went his own way in 1874, with an agreement that Alexander would play only in North and South America and Carl would have Europe.
Working as Herrmann the Great, he and his wife, Adelaide, built a beautiful and mystifying show that played the best theatres for the next twenty years. He was a consummate magician, performing tricks all during the day as well as in his evening performances. He would mystify and delight shopkeepers, people on the street, and, especially, waiters in restaurants. Objects would be produced from the most unusual places, utensils would vanish, and money would do all sorts of strange things while in his presence.
Onstage his illusions brought him overwhelming publicity as they were not only startling in effect, but were dressed in splendor and taste. One of his most famous, and most dangerous, was doing the Bullet Catch. He had a squad of five riflemen who fired bullets at him, and he caught all of them on a china plate held in front of him. Fortunately, in the years that he did the trick, he never had an accident with it.
He not only purchased a great estate on Long Island in New York, his own yacht, and a private railroad car, but he also had his own theatre for a while in New York. He averaged $100,000 a year in his last years, and this was without any income taxes and at a time when the average working man was getting $250 a year.
After he died in his railroad car between shows, Adelaide brought in his nephew, Leon, to replace Alexander. It was now known as the Herrmann the Great Company, but it played for only three years. Adelaide and Leon split company, sued each other over the use of the name of Herrmann the Great, and Adelaide went out on her own. She became a very successful headliner until she retired in 1928 (just before the end of vaudeville), even through a disastrous fire that destroyed all of her props. She brought a fitting close to the great Herrmann name.
Harry Kellar (1849-1922) was a true success story in the world of magic. He was raised in Erie, Pennsylvania, but had run away from home and was living in Canandaigue, New York, when he saw a performance of magic by The Fakir of Ava, whose offstage name was Isaiah H. Hughes (1813-1891). A month or so later he saw a newspaper ad in which The Fakir needed a boy assistant. He immediately made his way to Buffalo to apply for the job. The Fakir’s little dog took an immediate liking to Kellar and the Fakir hired him on that recommendation. Five years later, at the age of 16, he left the act and started out to work as a magician himself. Years of hard work, many disappointments, and near starvation finally lead him to a job with the Davenport Brothers.
Ira (1839-1911) and William (1841-1877) Davenport had put together an act that espoused spiritualism by having themselves tied inside a cabinet and then having musical instruments play and various objects be tossed around. Kellar toured with them for five years, working his way up to manager and booking agent for the brothers, before he again went out on his own. This time, however, he began having great success in the Caribbean, Central and South America, and then began touring the other foreign countries.
In 1884 he brought his full-evening show before an American audience in New York, and he was on his way to total success as America’s leading magician. The cabinet trick, that he had learned from the Davenports and had even improved over the years, was in every show he did and probably garnered more publicity than any of his other tricks, until he introduced The Dream of Princess Karnac. In this illusion he caused a woman to levitate from a couch up about ten feet into the air without any covering and in bright stage lighting. It was a beautiful mystery, and even after he retired in 1908 he continued to improve it, and it is still a first-class miracle today.
Kellar and Houdini, in spite of being two very different personalities and showmen, became very close friends. Kellar, ever the dignified gentleman, and Houdini, the rumpled and belligerent escape artist, had the highest respect for each other. In two or three collections today there are most of the letters they wrote to each other about other magicians, fatherly advice from Kellar to Houdini about tricks and business, and the latest magic news and gossip from Houdini to Kellar. In 1907 Houdini gave a gigantic party for Kellar with about 200 magicians to give an appreciation for Kellar’s superb talent, and to vote him as the first Dean of American Magicians. Then, again in 1917, Houdini arranged a special show, apparently to benefit the Red Cross, with the leading magicians of the time as the performers, and with Kellar to do an act at the end. Instead, it had been arranged as a secret tribute to Kellar. It was highly successful and generated a glowing thank-you letter from Kellar to Houdini.
Harry Alvin Jansen (1883-1955) was another world-famous illusionist, but under the name of Dante. He was born in Denmark, and came to the U.S. at the age of six. He learned magic as a schoolboy hobby, and then started doing shows for local organizations in his teens. By the time he was 19 he had an hour show and was playing theatres farther and farther from home. After marrying a musician and having his first son born, he decided to create some roots and he opened a magic company in Chicago and again played only local engagements.
Then, in 1911, he got an offer he couldn’t refuse and they left to play Australia and the Far East, and he and his growing family didn’t return for four years. American dates were played for a few years and in 1922 he again went on a foreign tour. Changing his name to Dante, he continued to play countries around the world until he was in Berlin in August of 1939. Dante heard that Hitler was going to invade Poland, that meant total war in Europe because of all the alliances in force, and he had six hours to get the company out of Germany and to a neutral country. They made a mad dash to Sweden and just made it before the gates of Germany closed on everyone still inside.
The troupe disbanded and Dante, his family of five, and Moi-Yo Miller, his principal female assistant, got visas to the United States. Through the years of World War II he played all over North America, and then made another foreign tour to England after the war. Returning to America he retired in California and spent his remaining six years appearing in small parts in movies and on television.
Moving pictures, which hit the public in 1904, and radio, that debuted in 1920, quickly cut into the theatre-going public. In 1907, three years after the first successful showing of a motion picture, over 2,000,000 people a day were sitting in nickelodeon theatres watching the flickering images on white sheets. It didn’t take a theatre, only an empty store with a sheet at one end and rows of chairs to fill up the rest of the space, and an entrepeneur had a motion picture show. Radio didn’t even need that much room, just enough space for an engineer, some cabinets of wires and tubes, and a microphone for an announcer.
But, these two inventions together soon spelled the end of vaudeville, the greatest presentation of live show business that the world had ever seen. It will probably never again be that popular, and it gave us some wonderful acts and people to savor through the stories of their successes and their fading photos. Fortunately, for the world of magic, we still have some of their props and, in some cases, film of some of the great names actually showing us their skills and styles. They discovered the psychology of audiences, established the basic rules for entertaining people, and invented the basic principles that we still use today. We owe an overwhelming debt of gratitude to those magic pioneers, and we can uphold our end by continuing to read about them, to study their methods, and to continue to build better magic based on their knowledge and talents.
Houdini’s Magic School
No one has taught more people magic than Houdini’s Magic Shop. We have taught the young, the old and from all walks of life. Our retail-entertainment business of magic realized very early on that we had to be able to teach out customers the magic we sell or they would not walk out of our stores happy customers. We have literally taught over ONE MILLION people how to perform and execute magic tricks. We think we got it down. So let us teach you all that we know so you can go out in the works and perform a few magic tricks for your friends, family or business associates.
“All tricks should be presented in as direct and simple a manner as possible. The average person desires and enjoys being entertained by magic. Complicate the process and your tricks become problems. . .the entertainment gets lost.”
To get the most out of a trick, simplify the method as well as the effect; it should be as easy as possible for you to perform it, and it has to be easy for your audience to follow. The rule of thumb is that if you’ve come up with three methods for making a trick work (an electric motor, a clockwork mechanism, or a thread), you use the simplest, a thread. There won’t be any batteries to replace or go dead when you least expect them to, you don’t have to wind anything or take a chance on someone hearing the mechanics, and you can control both the speed and tension.
It doesn’t apply just to the mechanics of magic, either, as the principle is just as easily applied to manipulations. If you do a card trick that has three sleights or secret moves in it, try to figure out how to eliminate one of the moves. Then, if you still like the trick, see if you can eliminate one more move to make it even more perfect. Remember, the more sleights you have in a trick, the more times there are for someone in your audience to catch you. They may only catch you in one of the three sleights that you have to do, but they only need one in order to destroy the mystery of the effect. Keep your movements as natural as possible and your sleights to a minimum.
Now many beginners interpret this to mean that all of their magic should be done with mechanical means. Not at all, it’s almost just the opposite. Your two hands, when properly trained and in perfect synchronization with your mind, can duplicate any mechanical means of doing a magic trick. Señor Mardo said, repeatedly, that his hands could duplicate any trick deck on the market, and he was right. What you have to do is strive to reach that same level of skill and knowledge.
- Many lectures and hours of content!
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- Learn magic tricks, presentation and performance basics from a professional trainer from your own desk.
- Information packed practical training starting from basics to advanced testing techniques.
- Best suitable for beginners to advanced level users and who learn faster when demonstrated.
- Course content designed by professionals who teach thousands each year.
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- Lectures 8
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- Duration 1 hour
- Skill level All level
- Language English
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- Assessments Yes
Basic Magic Class Cirriculum
Houdini’s School of Magic Vol. 1 teaches the reader the basic secrets of performing magic tricks. Houdini’s School of Magic is designed to assist both the layperson and the novice magician to delight and amaze an audience. After reading this book, the beginner will be able to instantly perform card tricks, ESPMental magic effects, coin tricks, paper money tricks, math tricks and many more effects with ordinary household items. The effects taught in this textbook have been specially chosen based on quality and cleverness. The student will also learn how to prepare, present and practice, the basic rules of magic, timing and how to develop a personality. This first of a two volume set is an anthology of magic tricks from the oldest tricks through history to the illusions shown on television today. Read about magic during the Renaissance, the Golden Age of Magic and magic as presented to the American public via the Vaudeville Circuits. Learn about Harry Houdini’s life and his career; his achievements, his adventures, his sorrows, and his many challenges. Both volumes were edited by noted magician and author, Leo Behnke. with additional material provided by Geno Munari, professional magician and proprietor of the Houdini’s Magic Shops.
test lesson to see if it will work