Voitko inspired by Arrested Development?

Could Viktor Voitko have been “inspired” by GOB’s $100 bill trick in the TV Show Arrested Development?

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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…

“I think you will admit that my fish are intelligent.”

In one of this blogs’ inaugural posts (“Goldfish, Part IV”),  I excerpted a line drawing from Fleming Book Company reprint of Devant’s “The Educated Fish” in Our Magic.   I regret that I don’t have an original edition of Our Magic, which contains photographs instead of the line drawing here. From Paul Fleming’s introduction to this edition:

“The illustrations,

The Educated Fish - MASKELYNE, Nevil and DEVANT, David. Our Magic: The Art in Magic / The Theory of Magic / The Practice of Magic. - P. 284

The Educated Fish – Maskelyne, Nevil and Devant, David. Our Magic: The Art in Magic / The Theory of Magic / The Practice of Magic. – P. 284

however, are very different from those in the original edition, which consisted of photographic halftones. The line drawings which have been substituted for the original illustrations were made, with infinite patience by Jeanne McLavy, from halftone prints which often failed to reveal details mentioned in the text. They seem to me to be a welcome gain in clarity over the original halftones.”

– Paul Fleming in his introduction to Maskelyne, Nevil and Devant, David. Our Magic: The Art in Magic / The Theory of Magic / The Practice of Magic. Berkeley Heights: Fleming Book Company. 1946. Second Edition. p. xii. Cover | Full Title

Regardless, the picture of the stage setup had always caught my eye as intriguing.  Devant’s setup to the illusion is similarly inviting:

…”Fish spell words”Sharpe_Devant_180 is our plot for the illusion we are about to describe, and the title we give it is “The Educated Fish.”

The appliances visible to the audience are a bell-shaped glass aquarium, set in a slender three-legged stand in the center of the stage. The bowl is nearly filled with water, and in the water are four gold-fish. On the top of the glass aquarium is laid a sheet of glass, upon which are placed, in little piles, twenty-six small wooden tablets, Upon each of these is painted a letter of the alphabet. A current copy of the daily newspaper, a small landing net, and a black-board upon which are printed the words: “Paper, Page, Column, Line, Word,” complete the equipment.

– Maskelyne, Nevil and Devant, David. Our Magic: The Art in Magic / The Theory of Magic / The Practice of Magic. Berkeley Heights: Fleming Book Company. 1946. Second Edition. pp 283-284. Cover | Full Title

Of that blackboard and newspaper, Jim Steinmeyer added an important insight into the in the opening words of one of his book tests:

 Ironically, “The Educated Fish” isn’t a book test at all. The word is freely selected. As modern performers, we’ve been trained to turn up our noses at this sort of production value. Why bother carrying newspapers or a blackboard? Why not just have a word called out? It’s a much more miraculous effect! But, of course, Devant understood the important beats of the routine, and sought to bolster the effect through these steps. He knew that the trick was better with additional apparatus; it is the actual pages of the newspaper and the chalk on the board that visualize the selection process, making it real (instead of intellectual) for the audience.

– Steinmeyer, Jim. “The Three Book Experiment” in Genii. Vol 74, No. 2 / Feb 2011. P. 26.

Devant introduced “The Educated Goldfish” at St. Georges Hall in December of 1908.  By September of 1909, Gustave Fasola was advertising for sale the necessary knock-off apparatus in The Wizard:

Gustave Fasola Magic ad

Selbit, P.T. [Pseud. Percy Tibbles]. The Wizard. Vol. 5, No. 49 / Sep 1909. p 786. AskAlexander (Login required)

A year later, Will Goldston published an unauthorized explanation of the trick without even crediting Devant as the performer as “A New Fish Trick” in the 1909/1910 Magician Annual

Goldston, Will. “A New Fish Trick.” in The Magician Annual 1909/10. A. W. Gamage, Ltd: London. 1910. P. 66. Cover | Full Title

Goldston, Will. “A New Fish Trick.” in The Magician Annual 1909/10. A. W. Gamage, Ltd: London. 1910. P. 66. Cover | Full Title

Years later, in Secrets of Famous Illusionists, Goldston claimed to have received the secret thusly:

On one occasion [Houdini] was in my office when I was making up the pages for a number of The Magicians’ (sic) Annual. Press day was near and I found myself sadly lacking in material…Somehow or other our conversation turned to the new programme which Devant was presenting at St. George’s Hall. In it there were four extremely original illusions : a hand in a glass case which picked up a mysterious card ; a mysterious kettle which poured out any drink selected by the audience ; goldfish swimming in a bowl, and spelling out a chosen word ; and some glasses of stout which disappeared and reappeared on a tray held in Devant’s hand.

Houdini was greatly interested in my descriptions of these effects, but made no comment on them. Our thoughts turned to other subjects. As he turned to leave me, Houdini smiled and said reflectively : “You know, Will, every lock can be opened.” I have never been certain that I understood his meaning.

The next morning I received an anonymous package through the post. Inside were four beautifully drawn diagrams, and I saw at once they were the plans of Devant’s illusions. My editorial mind jumped at the opportunity of a “scoop”. I rushed the plans over to the printer, and within a week there appeared one of the most successful issues of The Magicians’ (sic) Annual ever published.

Devant was furious at the disclosure. One could hardly blame him. He sacked all his assistants on the spot, but, yielding to their protestations of innocence, reinstated them the following day. A little later, when our friendly relations were resumed, he asked me how I had come by my information, and in particular, how I had obtained the exact design of his wife’s buttonhook, which had an important part in the working of the “spelling Fish” illusion.

It was beyond me to give Devant an answer. The plans had been sent to me, why, and by whom ? Houdini protested that he had nothing to do with the business. And yet ? . . . When Houdini died, I felt the riddle would for ever remain unanswered.

– Goldston, Will. Secrets of Famous Illusionists. London : John Long. 1933. Pp. 158-159. Rebound Cover | Full Title

A storied history, indeed!  Certainly far more interesting than the dismissive line the trick written by S.H. Sharpe: “Really a novel form of “The Rising Cards””.

  •  Sharpe, S[amuel]. H. Devant’s Delightful Delusions. Pasadena : Magical Publications. 1990. P. 180. Limited edition of 1,000. Cover | Full Title

So it was still with great excitement that I read in this month’s Genii that Scott Penrose was taped for Steve Cohen’s recent “Lost Magic Decoded” special on the History Channel:

I engaged Scott Penrose to perform another “Lost Magic” trick, one that has truly not been seen in generations: the “Educated Fish” by David Devant. We filmed Penrose’s handling of this marvelous routine, and I was greatly disappointed that we couldn’t include it in the show due to time constraints. Penrose has rebuilt Devant’s apparatus exactly as shown in Our Magic (Maskelyne and Devant, 1911) but with some modern additions that make it more deceptive than ever. In performance, a school of goldfish swims inside a large tank of water and the fish pluck out letter tiles one at a time to spell a freely chosen word.

– Cohen, Steve. “The search for lost magic” in Genii: The Conjurors’ Magazine. Vol. 76, No. 1 / Jan 2013. Pp. 85-86.

Scott received a brief recognition in for this illusion in The Magic Circle anniversary booklet Circle Without End:

The Third Heritage Weekend was held from 30 May to 2 June 2003 and attracted an international attendance. The focus was David Devant and the integral Collectors’ Day incorporated a programme of Devant’s Delightful Delusions, of which Scott Penrose’s re-creation of The Educated Fish was the undoubted highlight.

– Dawes, Edwin and Bailey, Michael. Circle Without End: The Magic Circle 1905-2005.  London : The Magic Circle. 2005. p. 74 Cover | Full Title

A brief snippet of Scott’s Goldfish presentation can be found on his show reel –  jump to 0:18 – 0:21.

Finally, be sure to check out this most excellent article for The Magic Circle, in which Scott details his process of recreating the illusion for a modern-day audience:

  • Penrose, Scott. “Fish Spell Words” in The Magic Circular. Vol. 97, No. 1043 / June 2003. Pp. 190-195. AskAlexander (login required).

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

Teller & Robbins’ Play Dead

Playbill from Play DeadI attended a performance of Teller and Todd Robbins’ Play Dead recently. Lightbulb eating, a disappearing spectator, lights-out spook show displays, a full light seance with Oija board and table tilting (which I participated in on-stage), mentalism and thought reading – there is plenty in the way of magic in this fantastic show.  My recitation of these magical inclusions, however, misses the point of the show, as the tricks are carefully woven into the fabric of the play; No audience member would leave thinking they had attended a magic show.

Teller & Robbins have successfully resucitated the midnight spook show. The practitioners of which are fully covered in

  • WALKER, Mark. Ghostmasters.  N.p: Cool Hand Publications. 1991. 176 pp. Cover | Full Title
Illustrationss from Tarbell

Illustrations from pp 380-382 of TARBELL, Harlan. The Tarbell Course in Magic, Volume II

Instructions on many of the lights-out effect can be found in

  • TARBELL, Harlan. The Tarbell Course in Magic, Volume II.  Brooklyn: D. Robbins & Co., Inc. 1927, 1975. Seventh Printing. Cover | Full Title

That said – again – the show isn’t about the magic effects. But I want to single out a single trick: Germain’s Flower growth.  Ken Klosterman owns the original Germain Flower Growth apparatus.  It is reproduced on pages 210-213 of:

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

You won’t recognize it in it’s current form in Play Dead, however – but the Flower Growth is there.  Disguised as an innocent table  and moved carelessly into place by Robbins (just as Germain did 100 years ago), his haphazard actions bely the precise placement which undoubtedly must occur for the illusion to be a success. A brief blackout – in keeping with midnight spook show theme…Robbin’s draws focus on a bucket of ashes as the focal point in his retelling of a touching personal story…and then…you catch a brief, fleeting glimpse of…

Well, that would be spoiling it.

Klosterman writes, “[W]hen Teller saw the effect performed at the Salon, he was so emotionally moved that I just had to give him the parlor-size version.”

The definitive work on the Germain Flower Growth hides in

  • CRAMER, Stuart and KARR, Todd, ed. Germain the Wizard.  Seattle: The Miracle Factory. 2002. 624 pp. Cover | Full Title
Germain's Flower Growth

Germain's Flower Growth from p. 212 - KLOSTERMAN, Ken, with FUJARI, Gabe. Salon de Magie.

Chapter 5 shows us the development of Germain’s Flower Growth over time.   However the real gem is the final chapter “Looking-Glass Wizard”, by Teller.  It tells of his childhood “meeting” with Germain by way of his reading of The Secrets of Karl Germain and Germain the Wizard an his Legerdemain (both reprinted in the Karr book) in the public library:

I embraced Germain utterly.  I embraced his aggressive love of things poetic. I embraced his passion for visual magic and his disdain for box tricks. I modeled my sense of scale on his, and aspired to stage magic that would not dwarf the human performer.

Germain never wrote a textbook on theory. Then again, neither did Bach or Shakespeare. Great artists often leave us models rather than instructions. And I’d much rather study these models than formulas deduced by scholars and codified by textbooks. Models show us method and technique in the context of beauty they serve. Models do not oversimplify, nor do they give us the impression that creating art is merely filling in the spaces in a paint-by-numbers pattern.

Germain’s Flower Growth is a perfect model.

Indeed it is.

A Phoenix from the Ashes, both literally and figuratively, Germain lives on again as model in fresh clothing in Play Dead.  Thank you, Teller, for a wonderful lesson in magic.  I felt much of what you must have felt those many years ago in Klosterman’s museum.