Every year, since I am able to recall, a magic festival takes place in the city where my grandmother lives. It starts on Christmas Eve and lasts until the 30th of December, and magicians from all over the world come and perform. This year I had the chance to see Yann Frisch, a French magician who was named Champion du Monde at the 2012 Beijing International Magic Convention, perform his signature magic cup-and-ball trick, called Baltass, for which he received the Grand Prix in close-up magic at FISM 2012. (Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2JI03MW3Oms). I was understandably impressed by his prowess at sleight-of-hand tricks, which got me thinking about magic. Not the kind of magic that is the stuff of myths and stories, but the kind done in public to amuse and entertain through the creation of illusions.
A Brief History of Magic Tricks & Illusions
The earliest reference to this kind of spectacle is, I believe, the story of Dedi the magician. This tale appears in the fourth story of the Westcar Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian text that tells of the miracles performed by priests and magicians at the royal court of Pharaoh Cheops. Dedi was believed to have the power to resurrect decapitated beings. He was brought before the pharaoh and proved this to be true by beheading and reviving a goose, a water bird and a bull. since then, the concept of magic has evolved and mutated, as the many books that exist on the subject prove.
Magic shows were a common source of entertainment at medieval fairs, where itinerant performers would entertain the public with magic tricks, as well as the more traditional spectacles of sword swallowing, juggling and fire breathing. However, the populace was scared into rejecting these performances by the church and its witch-trials.
Magic shows continued to exist, however, becoming increasingly respectable. In the late 18th century, shows would be put on for rich private patrons, and these performances morphed into modern magic shows. Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin was a clock-maker who had an important role in this evolution. He is considered the father of modern-day entertainment magic thanks to the magic theatre he opened in Paris in 1845. He transformed his art from one performed at fairs to a performance that the public paid to see at the theatre. His speciality was constructing mechanical automatons that appeared to move and act as if alive. As a form of entertainment, magic easily moved from theatrical venues to television specials, which opened up new opportunities for deceptions, and brought stage magic to huge audiences.
Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin paved the way for many. He became so renowned as an illusionist that Napoleon III sent him to Algiers in 1856 to outdo the “miracles” performed by religious leaders there. His magic tricks left the Arabs awestruck and thus kept France’s influence strong. He inspired many, but none more than Harry Houdini, who chose his stage name in his honor.
Houdini’s grand illusions and daring, spectacular escape acts made him one of the most famous magicians of all time. Born Erich Weisz on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary, he moved with his family to Appleton, Wisconsin, where he began performing and drew attention for his daring feats of escape. In 1893, he married Wilhelmina Rahner, who became his onstage partner as well. After his death in 1926, his props were kept in a museum until they were auctioned off in 2004. Most of them ended up in the hands of David Copperfield.
Copperfield (born 1955) got his start with magic at the age of 12, when he became the youngest person to gain admission into the Society of American Magicians. By age 16, he was teaching a course in magic at New York University as well as performing, and since then his fame has only risen, peaking with tricks such as making the Statue of Liberty disappear or walking through the Great Wall of China.
Houdini wasn’t the only magician whose props ended up in a museum. Harry Blackstone Sr. (1885-1965) designed some of the most famous and frequently performed illusions of all time. His classic tricks included ‘sawing a woman in half’, ‘the vanishing bird cage’ and ‘the floating light bulb’. All the props for these tricks were donated by his son, Harry Blackstone Jr., who would also become a world renown magician, to the Smithsonian.
The Great Lafayette (1871-1911), otherwise known as Sigmund Neuberger, also had a strong relationship with Harry Houdini. Lafayette loved and pampered his dog ‘Beauty,’ a terrier given to him as a pup by his fellow conjurer and admirer. Beauty had her own suite of brocaded rooms, ate five course meals, and wore a diamond studded collar. Aside from his somewhat eccentric relationship with the dog, Neuberger was known for his illusions and, among them, the one he liked to call ‘Lion’s Bride’, in which he transformed a lady into a lion.
Others also used big cats in their performances, such as Sigfried and Roy, a German-American duo of stage magicians and entertainers who became known for their appearances with white lions and white tigers. From 1990 until Roy’s severe onstage injury, which resulted in the end of their stage careers on October 3, 2003, the duo performed at the Mirage Resort and Casino, which was regarded as the most-visited show in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Finally, to end on a more modern note, I feel that Dynamo, also known as Steven Frayne, from Bradford, Is worth mentioning. Born in 1982, the young magician combines card tricks with hip hop and dance routines, and performs for people all across the globe, even members of royal families such as Prince Charles.
Magic in Modern Media
There are obviously many songs with the word ‘magic’ in the title, but where illusionism has made the biggest impact is in the film industry, with movies such as ‘the Illusionist’, ‘Now You See Me’, ‘Death Defying Acts’ …
Having satisfied my curiosity on the subject (for now), I think I’ll end the blog entry here. Feel free to add any other interesting facts in the comment section.
See you soon,