A Carter Elephant Vanish Poster

Carter’s Elephant illusion is a favorite of those who decorate restaurants with movie posters.

– Robinson, Ben. “Disappearing and Appearing Elephants” in Osborne, Paul. Illusions: The Evolution and the Revolution of the Magic Box. Illusion Systems Publishing: Dallas. 1995. Pp. 111-134. Cover | Full Title.

As if proving Ben Robinson’s proclamation, I nearly walked past this Carter the Great poster, as I was walking out of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Newark, NJ.

Carter the Great's Vanishing Elephant Poster

Carter the Great’s Vanishing Elephant Poster

This 8-sheet was printed by Otis Lithograph around 1926.

The Elephant eight-sheet you have made into a money-getter. I am sure as soon as my multitudinous friends around the world put their peepers on this sheet and the others, they will run posthaste to my box office with their golden elusive shekels, entreating me in suppliant cajolery to relieve them of their coin in exchange of feasting their senses on my many new mysteries which your painstaking efforts on my behalf have so graphically and seductively emblazoned forth in myriad greens and reds and purples royal.

– Charles Carter to Carl Moellmann of the Otis Lithograph Co.

As published in Caveney, Mike. Carter the Great. Pasadena: Mike Caveney’s Magic Words. 1995. P. 226. Limited edition of 1,000 copies. Cover | Full Title.

Of the trick itself, Milbourne Christopher describes the illusion thusly:

Remembering Houdini’s success with “The Vanishing Elephant.” Carter decided to build a similar illusion. Models were constructed for several ingenious cabinets, none of which met with his approval. He tried a different approach. As he visualized the feat, an elephant would stand on a platform; curtains would be lowered around it; then platform and elephant would be hauled into the air. The curtains would be raised just enough for the audience to see the pachyderm’s feet; then they would be dropped to the level of the platform. A pistol shot from the illusionist would cause the elephant to disappear. Carter built the apparatus, bought an elephant, and began to rehearse. There was an unexpected complication; the elephant would not cooperate. She bolted from the platform as it was being raised. The show opened at His Majesty’s Theatre in Brisbane in 1927 with four girls (“The Disappearing Flappers”) vanishing on the platform instead of the elephant.

– Christopher, Milbourne. The Illustrated History of Magic. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company. 1973. P. 324.  Cover | Full Title

According to Caveney’s Carter the Great book, Carter placed an initial order of 1,248 copies at a cost of 52¢ per poster. Today, you can by unmounted copies for $500 or $625, or with regularity at auction. The comparatively low price, presumably, because no one has the ceiling height to display it…


The Hippodrome Today

The Hippodrome as it appeared on a 1907 postcard.

The Hippodrome as it appeared on a 1907 postcard.

…Indeed the Hippodrome was more of an amusement park than a theatre. It covered an entire city block on 6th Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets. The enormous auditorium seated 5,200 people in two balconies and a dress circle. The stage, nearly the size of a football field, could hold 600 performers, or the stage flooring could be withdrawn hydraulically to show a gigantic tank of surging water suitable for diving displays, water ballets, or simulated storms at sea…The size of the Hippodrome made audiences gasp…

– Jim Steinmeyer in Hiding the Elelphant, pp. 261-262

 By 1939 the Hippodrome had succumbed to the wrecker’s ball and today a parking garage named “Hippodrome” occupies the site at 6th and 43rd.

– Jim Steinmeyer in The Complete Jarrett, p. 191

But the story doesn’t end there.

Steinmeyer introduced me into the Hippodrome.  It’s played a prominent role in both Jarrett books, in Art & Artifice, and in Hiding an Elephant.  I’ve always been intrigued by this notion of the megalithic theater – just about the size of today’s Radio City Music Hall – forgotten in the mix of today’s midtown skyscrapers.  So I thought I’d take a peek at what it’s become following The Complete Jarrett‘s 2001 publication.

From the building’s current website:

After its life as a theater, the site spent a decade as a parking lot. The base of the current Hippodrome, from the basement level thru the eighth floor, was built during the 1950s. The building housed a large parking garage catering to the theater crowd, as well as office floors and a watch factory. It was one of the first post-war buildings erected on this part of the Avenue of the Americas.

The Hippodrome’s tower, rising from the 9th thru 21st floors plus mechanical levels, was added in 1962, effectively creating a building on top of a building as the two structures used different mechanical systems. The building became home to a variety of office tenants, including May Department Stores, Allied Department Stores, New York Telephone and Scholastic Magazines.

In 2004 & 2005 The Gottesman family, which bought the Hippodrome in 1978, undertook a total overhaul of the building. The repositioning included a state-of-the-art, energy-efficient glass curtain wall, a gorgeous two-story lobby finished in Italian marble, limestone and silver leaf, and updated mechanical systems. The Class A Hippodrome now houses a number of well-known tenants, including American Express Publishing, Macy’s International, Huron Group, Inc., the Direct Marketing Association and 5W Public Relations.

Here are some photos I snapped on a recent trip.  Note the giant photo-reproduction of the old Hippodrome hanging over the reception inside in the second photo – a not-so-gentle-nod to the previous tenant:


Hippodrome 1Hippodrome 2Hippodrome 3Hippodrome 4

You can poke also around the outside of the building in 3D using Google street view.  Also, a floorplan of the original Hippodrome stage is printed on P. 281 of Culliton’s Houdini-the Key.

  • Culliton, Patrick. Houdini–the Key. Keitan Press: np. 2010. 460 pp. Limited edition of 278. Cover | Full Title
  • Jarrett, Guy E. And Steinmeyer, Jim. The Complete Jarrett: The Classic 1936 Text on Magic and Illusions, Jarrett Magic In an Annotated Edition with Additional Material. Hahne:Burbank. 2001. 279 pp. Cover | Full Title
  • Steinmeyer, Jim. Art & Artifice and other Essays on Illusion: Concerning the Inventors, Traditions, Evolution & Rediscovery of Stage Magic. Hahne:Burbank. 1998. Limited edition of 700. Cover | Full Title
  • Steinmeyer, Jim. Hiding the Elephant: How magicians invented the impossible and learned to disappear. Carroll & Graf:New York. 2003. 362 pp. Cover | Full Title

A Visit to the NYC Houdini Museum

Last week, I visited Fantasma Magic Shop near Penn Station in New York City to see their new-ish Houdini “Museum”.  They’ve gotten a bit of press here in the city lately, following appearances on Fox & Friends and a write-up in the New York Daily News.  While Fantasma always had Houdini memorabilia on display, it was scattered throughout the store and not nearly as well-presented as in its current form.  Now it occupies two walls when you first enter of the store, along with a set of display cases in the middle.  The artifacts come from the collection of Houdini collector and Fantasma founder Roger Dreyer.

My personal favorites were:

  • A tiny photo tucked away in the back of the store of Charlie Chaplin & Houdini.  (I’m also a big Chaplin fan.)  The photo is also reprinted on p. 360 of The Secret Life of Houdini where it is attributed to Dreyer’s collection.

    Houdini & Chaplin

    Houdini & Chaplin

  • Next to Chaplin, photos of Bess in her younger years, looking quite attractive.  I’m accustomed to the photos of her later in life – and mostly after Houdini’s death.  I thought these  early photographs barely looked like he later her at all – which is to say she looked quite attractive, in my mind.  Not the usual too-much-lipstick toothy grin.  Of the 4 photo’s the prettiest of the lot can be found on p. 120 of Silverman’s Notes to Houdini!!!.
  • As a stage magician, I also appreciated the presence of Houdini’s “Birds of a Guilded Cage” and “Doves of Peace” props from his short-lived stage magic tour.  There is also one of his side tables on display.  It’s the second time, following last year’s Jewish museum exhibit curators have chosen to display tables with black art wells fully exposed – to see if anyone notices, I suppose.
    “Birds of a Guilded Cage" prop

    “Birds of a Guilded Cage” prop

    "Birds of Peace" prop

    “Birds of Peace” prop

  • There is also an animatronic display of Houdini coming from the ceiling over a substitution trunk which is “magically” levitating despite being chained down.  I mistook this display as a cheesy left-over from their kid birthday-party business…until I re-read Culliton and discovered that Dreyer also owned one of the last Metamorphosis trunks that Houdini used.  It must be the same one (!!).

    Richard Dreyer in the Metamorphosis Trunk on display, from p. 355 of Culliton's Houdini–the Key.

    Richard Dreyer in the Metamorphosis Trunk on display, from p. 355 of Culliton’s Houdini–the Key.

  •  New York shots.  After all, this museum is in NYC, so the items which featured it were much appreciated:
    • An upside-down straight jacket escape shot atop a subway excavation platform in Time Square (reproduced on P. 355 of the latest Culliton book, and attributed to Dreyer on p. 197 of The Secret Life of Houdini Laid Bare)
    • The 1976 S.A.M. replacement bust from his grave in Queens

      Houdini Grave bust

      Houdini Grave bust

    • broadside of a challenge being presented at the NYC Hippodrome. The straightjacket displayed in photograph underneath is also on display, which is a neat pairing.
      Straightjacket used in the challenge photograph

      Straightjacket used in the challenge photograph

      Houdini challenge at the Hippodrome

      Houdini challenge at the Hippodrome

More great photos of the exhibit are at the museum website.  The Penn Jilette video, in particular, gives you a good sense of the size and scale of the display.

It was definitely worth the trip.

  • Culliton, Patrick. Houdini–the Key. Keitan Press:np. 2010. 460 pp. Limited edition of 278. Cover | Full Title
  • Kalush, William and Sloman, Larry. The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero. Atria Books:New York. 2006. 592 pp. Cover | Full Title
  • Kalush, William and Sloman, Larry. With Cuiffo, Steve. The Secret Life of Houdini Laid Bare: Sources, Notes and Additional Material. Mike Caveney’s Magic Words:Pasadena and The Conjuring Arts Research Center:New York. 2007. 333 pp. Limited edition of 1,000. Cover | Full Title
  • Silverman, Kenneth. Notes to Houdini!!! Kaufman and Greenberg:Washington DC. 1996. 181 pp. Cover | Full Title