The Magic Touch
An insider explains the history of stage illusions
From time to time, magic and its modern practitioners still steal into the spotlight—even without counting the wily tricks of Sly Saddam, Baffling Bin Laden, or Presto the President. Sometimes publicity represents the result of careful orchestration, as in David Blaine’s recent month-long feat of exhibitionism, fasting in a Plexiglass box suspended above the Thames. Other times it comes inadvertently, as in the tragic mauling of Roy Horn, the raven-haired half of Las Vegas’ iconic Siegfried and Roy. But these unexpected or coolly calculated forays into the popular media tend towards the exception rather than the rule. Of late, David Copperfield’s name has regained some of its original Dickensian connotation. The eponymous magician’s once annual TV magic specials faltered several years ago. Except for a minor blip of publicity during the breakup of his marriage to supermodel Claudia Schiffer, Mr. Copperfield has gone the way of Lance Burton, the Masked Magician, and Melinda, First Lady of Magic: shunned by television, the modern magician slinks home to the last refuge for their endangered kind: Las Vegas. Stage magic teeters on the brink of becoming a dying art, and as with stonemasonry or hand-drawn animation or ventriloquism, the general public seems more inclined to strike up the dirge than to attempt resuscitation.
In Hiding the Elephant, professional illusion designer and magic historian Jim Steinmeyer takes us back to the dawn of the glory days of stage illusions, one hundred and fifty years ago. In this age the very idea of making a woman disappear was brand new and the now-clichéd powers of “smoke and mirrors” lay as yet undiscovered. The authenticity of wardrobes called “spirit cabinets” that appeared to summon rowdy ghosts sparked heated debate and even riots. The French government deemed the magic of early magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin so inscrutable that they sent him as a special envoy to awe the colonized peoples of French Algeria. Master magicians attracted the attention now lavished on movie stars. In a flurry of creativity and determination that lasted roughly from 1850 through the Depression, the founders of modern magic created a new form of entertainment that spread across the globe. In elegant, captivating prose, Hiding the Elephant chronicles the ingenuity and passion that characterized the “Golden Age” of conjuring and, through this persuasive account of the intricacies and innovations at the heart of a great illusion, ultimately substantiates magic’s claim to “art” status.
“Audiences have seldom looked beyond the how of magic,” Steinmeyer laments in the introduction. But instead of purposely evading the audiences’ superficial hunger for “how,” Steinmeyer makes the controversial choice to incorporate the secrets and gimmicks behind a smattering of famous tricks into a historical narrative. As an inventor of illusions himself, Steinmeyer is consumed daily by the secrets of magic, and overlooking them given their centrality to the field would have produced an incomplete account of stage magic’s birth and development. He writes with the philosophy that, as expressed by the magician David Devant, “A conjuring performance cannot be properly appreciated by anyone who does not know something about the art.” And so, technically in violation of the notorious Magician’s Code, Steinmeyer reveals not just how magicians lived, but also how they thought, using the exposed secrets to enrich his description of the performers’ biographies and historical contexts by dissecting their great “aha!” discoveries. He answers the audience’s persistent “how,” and thickens the plot with who, what, when, where, and why.
Touching on the lives of no fewer than twenty-four individuals, (a useful chart in the front helps to keep everyone straight), Steinmeyer subtly paints his magicians as stirring visionaries, but not without the usual symptoms of human frailty. His accounts of the destitution or illness that many once-great magicians faced in old age are particularly moving. In one case, David Devant, an Englishman once considered the greatest living magician, carried himself with a gentle humor, frequently inviting children to assist him on the stage and boasting the motto, “All Done by Kindness.” As he aged, Devant became afflicted by terrible shakes that made the delicate sleight of hand his profession required impossible. Eventually, confined to a home for invalids, he taught a faithful nurse to be his hands, enabling him to share his art with visitors and other magicians despite his recalcitrant body.
Steinmeyer even extends as much of this grace and understanding as possible to Houdini, who, although he was the greatest escape artist in history, was a terrible magician with a difficult demeanor. Houdini had a knack for publicity that has stood the test of time, but his short, thick build and grandstanding personality suited macho escape challenges far better than artful illusions. “It was awful stuff” Orson Welles, himself a magician, remarked after seeing one of Houdini’s magic shows. Houdini further infuriated his detractors in the magic world when he published a book denouncing Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, generally considered the first stage magician and the inspiration for Houdini’s own name, as a fraud and exaggerator. In vitriolic tones, Houdini earnestly attempted to discredit the portions of Robert-Houdin’s biography that other magicians had long and happily accepted as more legend than truth, and decried the “father of magic’s” exaggeration and self-promotion. Houdini himself stood guilty of many of the sins of which he unfoundedly accused Robert-Houdin, and magicians and readers of The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, Steinmeyer included, remain puzzled about what motivated Houdini to lash out against the figure who had inspired him to become a magician.
The motivation behind The Unmasking is not the only secret Houdini took to the grave. In their later years, either as an endeavor to impress or out of financial necessity, many magicians wrote books revealing the secrets behind their tricks that can now be found in any public library, but Houdini jealously guarded his mysteries until his unexpected death in 1926. It is one of Houdini’s unexposed tricks that provides the title, Hiding the Elephant. In 1918, a Variety headline touted the magician’s latest wonder, being performed at the New York City Hippodrome: “Houdini Hides an Elephant.” Neither Houdini nor Charles Morritt, the magician who designed Houdini’s elephant illusion, ever divulged the secret, though Steinmeyer offers the generally accepted guess for a solution.
The keeping and disclosure of secrets inspires many subplots within Hiding the Elephant. From backstage spies to patent suits, secrets have stirred magicians’ deepest fears since the beginning. Steinmeyer acknowledges that, “Magicians have an uneasy, debilitating relationship with secrets, which they know to be priceless and worthless at the same time.” He likens magicians in this respect to Leonardo da Vinci, who stubbornly guarded his paint recipes, though we now realize that simply having his formula for pigment would not have enabled anyone else to achieve the same caliber of masterpiece. On the one hand, magicians truly believe this philosophy of inimitable talent, but on the other hand, they don’t want to take any chances.
Modern magicians can’t afford to take any chances. Steinmeyer notably doesn’t reveal the secrets of any of his own illusions, and though the principles he describes undoubtedly apply to many modern tricks, he doesn’t pass on the specifics. Modern magicians have to scramble for any edge or angle that will keep them in business in an age of television and movies. Egyptian Hall, London’s famous home for daily magic shows, was one of the first places in England to show early moving pictures. Magic tricks were frequently the subjects of these early films, and from this inspiration a new type of illusion emerged, possible only on film, made with photographic effects and careful editing. In an age where digital effects have taken movie magic to new extremes and make the impossible seamlessly real on a daily basis, a magician’s live audience could simply forget to be amazed when a man levitates or a woman walks through a wall. Stage magic and movie magic are not the same, nor do they try to be the same. Audiences and magicians make a grave error by “confusing special effects with illusion, and deception with magic.” Without stooping to bleary-eyed nostalgia, Steinmeyer evokes a time before CGI, when wonder outweighed suspicion and illusions were magical.
Having read Hiding the Elephant, I will continue to quietly mourn the passing of each new year without a televised prime time magic spectacular. I do not find myself rallying a search party to comb Vegas for David Copperfield, drag him to the nearest television studio, and celebrate his return to glory as he makes the Mall of America disappear. Copperfield, David Blaine, Sigfried and Roy, and many other prominent modern magicians are gifted entertainers, but their tricks are closer in effect to the brusque, graceless gesturing of Houdini’s attempts at magic than the gentle subtlety of Devant. They often fall short of the delicate effect Steinmeyer calls “an art of synchronized intangibles,” which only a select few—Ricky Jay is one—still consistently achieve. It’s hard to divine exactly what it would take for a modern magician to conjure up the same amazement felt by the first audience to see a levitation, but Steinmeyer rekindles the hope that somewhere there’s a small time magician who’s never had a television special, but who can do with a card trick what Leonardo da Vinci could do with a portrait.