Goldfish, Part I

The recent outrage (Associated Press, BBC News, The Guardian, Daily Mail, BoingBoing, iTricks) around a goldfish act performed on China TV celebrating the lunar new year festival misses one important point: Fu Yandong’s full act is quite good.  His posture throughout, his hand motions (5:22 in particular) all confirm a formal theatrical training.  What I’m guessing is his magic phrase – “Ba Didda Ba Da Babba” (0:37, 3:45, 5:04, and 6:05) – is quite catchy, even though I have no idea what it means.  He seems to yell at the female host as she approaches the table (@1:00) and again as she gets a little “touchy”at the easel (5:22) – signs that he he’s been around the block performance-wise.  And of course – the simple fact he’s performing with water and live fish tells me he’s a professional, willing to suffer the hassle in order to differentiate himself with pet effects.  We’ll see more of Fu Yandong; the publicity from this stunt will ensure it.

Goldfish effects, of course, are nothing new.  The literature of magic is filled with fish related effects.  Here’s a sampling:

The Aerial Fishing or Angling Trick

The trick of catching live goldfish by means of swinging a fishing rod over the heads of the audience is, of course, best associated with Chung Ling Soo (William Ellsworth Robinson, 1861-1918).  The best, most poetic description of the illusion, as well as its working, lies in

  • GIBSON, Walter. The Master Magicians: Their lives and most famous tricks. Garden City: Doubleday. 1966. 220 pp. Cover | Full Title

Pages 118-119 are also reprinted in

  • KARR, Todd, ed. The Silence of Chung Ling Soo. Seattle: The Miracle Factory. 2001. 488 pp. Cover | Full Title

Instantly, a squirming goldfish appeared upon the hook, glittering in the spotlight, struggling to get away as Soo swings the end of the line towards himself.  The Chinese wizard deftly plucked the goldfish off the hook and dropped it into a glass bowl of water held by Suee Seen.  There, the fish swam about excitedly while the magician again baited his hook and made another cast above the heads of the audience.

  • ALBO, Robert J. The Ultimate Okito.  Piedmont: Doug Pearson. 2007. 162 pp.  Limited edition of 400 copies.  2 Volumes in slipcase: 1 Book and 1 foldout containing 8 DVD’s. Cover | Full Title
Albo performs The Aerial Fishing with Okito's Rod

Albo performs The Aerial Fishing with Okito's Rod, Disk #5 of The Ultimate Okito

Albo claims “The aerial fishing was invented by Professor Mingus and first performed in 1893,” though the addition of live fish from the rod is Okito’s.  Okito’s personal apparatus for performing is shown in on pages 83 and 139 and demonstrated by Albo on DVD #5.

On the topic of famous Aerial Fishing poles,

  • KLOSTERMAN, Ken, with FUJARI, Gabe. Salon de Magie. Loveland: Klosterman. 2006. 381 pp, with DVD. Cover | Full Title

Shows Thurston’s Aerial Fishing pole.  Klosterman also adds to Albo’s description of the invention of the effect: “Professor Mingus (Walter Mingus Hopler) conceived the trick circa 1902.  However, others, including Frank Ducrot, the well-known New York magician; William J. Hilliar, first editor of the Sphinx, and ‘Dr. Nix’ (John B. Nix), apparently unknown today, also laid claim to the creation of some version of the trick.”

However, for the definitive info on the lineage of this effect, one has to turn to the inaugural issued of The Sphinx, Vol. 1, No 1 for March 1902.  Writes John Hilliar:

No trick of recent years with the possible exception of Downs’ back hand palm has created such a furore as the fishing trick and in my humble opinion it is without doubt the most ingenious and novel trick ever conceived, Most of the magicians perform- ing the trick lay claim to its being their own invention and as there has been much discussion on the subject among the fraternity

I beleive [sic] it will be of interest to end all arguments by giving its history.

The trick in its original form was invented by Prof. Mingus and performed by him some four or five years ago at Tony Pastor’s Theatre, New York City, where he played one week. In that week he gave to the profession one of the greatest tricks since the days of Robert Houdin. I here reproduce a cut of Mingus’ letterhead, which he was using in 1895, showing the fishing trick. Among those who saw it were W. E. Robinson and Horace Goldin. The former at once fore- saw the possibilities the trick afforded and with the fishing trick, Ching Ling Foo’s bowl etc. etc., tripped across the Atlantic and under the “nom de theatre” of Chung Lung Soo made a great hit’ Although the remainder of his act was first class it was the fishing trick that made him. In the meantime Horace Goldin was working the trick in America with great success.

I saw Robinson’s first appearance at the Alhambra Theatre, London and was greatly struck with the trick. I immediately set to work on the trick and was the first one to per- form it in Europe after Robinson. I had adopted the bait method before I saw anyone else use it, but I believe Goldin invented it in this country.

Kellar’s Wonders –

  • CAVENEY, Mike and MEISEL, Bill. Kellar’s Wonders. Pasadena: Mike Caveney’s Magic Words. 2003. 584 pp. Cover | Full Title

– makes that claim that Kellar may also have received one of Prof. Mingus’ poles.

  • WALKER, Barbi and SEAVER, Robert. The P&L Book. San Leandro: Published by Byron Walker. 1992.  277 pp. Limited edition of 1000 copies. Cover | Full Title

STEINMEYER, Jim. The Magic of Alan Wakeling. P. 85

Page 43 describes the P&L”Aquarium Goldfish Production” and claims “it represents the final evolution of a long-time classic in magic”, describing the the move of the fish from the pole handle to the lid of the bowl.  (AKA a Stull Goldfish bowl)

Oddly, the P&L book contains no reference to the infamous – and quite cool, in my mind – P&L Goldfish dropper. For that, we have to turn to p. 84 of

  • STEINMEYER, Jim. The Magic of Alan Wakeling. Burbank: Hahne. 1993. Second Edition. 345 pp. Limited to 1,000 copies. Cover | Full Title

In the same trick comes with an hilarious suggestion (for me at least) by Al Wheatly of dispensing with the dropper and simply lining one’s pocket with rubber to more easily house a fish.

  • TAYLOR, Granville. John Martin: The Master Magical Mechanical / A Genius at Work. N.p.: Granville Taylor Publications.  2004. 105 pp.  Limited edition of 250 copies. Cover | Full Title

TAYLOR, Granville. John Martin: The Master Magical Mechanical / A Genius at Work. P. 63

P. 63 shows an Aerial Fishing apparatus made by master mechanic John Martin.

Curiously, the documented record shows quite a bit of apparatus, but very little in the way of care and handling instructions.  i.e. I suspect you can’t just “palm a goldfish”.  Two more references offer a bit, but not much more, in the way of fish-assistance:

  • KARR, Todd. The Secret Ways of Al Baker. Seattle: The Miracle Factory. 2003. 912 pp. Cover | Full Title

(First published in BAKER, Al. Pet Secrets.)

The first – on page 453, Al Baker reveals the production of two goldfish from a rolled up slip of paper in his “Goldifsh Production”.  “The fish have enough water that you do not need to use the trick as an opener but can spot it as second or third in your program.”

The second –

  • BOOTH, John. Marvels of Mystery: A Professional Magician’s Textbook of Conjuring Masterpieces. Kanter’s Magic Shop.  1946.  3rd Printing. 146 pp. (Not in collection)

Also reprinted in

  • Booth John. The John Booth Classics. Bideford: Supreme.  1941, 1953. 351 pp. (Not in collection)

contains Booth’s version of catching a goldfish called “Booth’s Miracle Production”.

David Copperfield performed something similar in to the barehand Baker effect in his “Tides” illusion.

And here is Mac King, performing a more classical Aerial Fishing (pole and all).  The ending makes the Fu Yandong’s performance look mild in comparison.


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