For a mere ten smackers you can join legendary illusion designer and historian Jim Steinmeyer for a new lecture: Thurston the Great and How History Fools Us
The story of Howard Thurston, America’s greatest magician from 1908 to 1936, presents a number of intriguing puzzles. The people who knew him best seemed to have been completely deceived by his story. Jim Steinmeyer, Thurston’s biographer, explains what we “get wrong” with history, and why stories need to be told in different ways at different times.
Don’t miss this amazing opportunity!
The Time: March 2, 2022 at 7 PM EST.
The Place: Your favorite screen (on Zoom).
Presented by the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, MI
You’ve no doubt heard us talk of the famed Magic Castle here on Genii Online. The private club has played host to a veritable who’s who of magical talent over the last half a century and is pretty much the center of the North American magical community. You already know this. What you might not know is that some 80 miles east of Hollywood, in the small town of Redlands, there’s a house that looks eerily similar to the Castle.
The mansion was built in 1987 by rich widow, Cornelia Hill, who sold the house to a John Alfred Kimberly shortly after its completion. It was under the Kimberly’s care when it became Kimberly Crest and inspired the building that would become the magic castle.
Soon after the Kimberlys settled in Redlands, they became acquainted with Rollin Lane, another Wisconsin native who was an officer at the local bank. In addition to knowing each other through business (Lane was likely involved in the deal in which the Kimberlys bought the house), the Lanes knew the Kimberlys socially; an article from the time talked about Rollin and his wife Katherine winning a card tournament at a party held in the Kimberlys honor.
According to the architectural historian George Siegel, Lane liked Kimberly Crest so much that he used its blueprints when he built his own house in Los Angeles. The Lane Residence, which was commonly called the Holly Chateau, was completed in 1909 on a small notch of land carved out of a larger tract that encompassed the hill that rises abruptly behind the house. Given its smaller lot size, the building did not have gardens on the same scale as Kimberly Crest and was surrounded by commercial lots and residential plots for more modest homes.
At first, the only major difference between the two structures was that, for unknown reasons, the large tower and the turret on the south side of the buildings were swapped.
And that’s just the beginning of the piece. It goes into fascinating detail about the two structures that were nigh identical at birth, but went down profoundly divergent paths. The older sibling was eventually left to the people of Redlands, and is managed by the Kimberly-Shirk Association. It’s open for tours and events. The younger, well it became The Magic Castle.
The video is above is one of the first tales of magic history featured on Mahdi the Magician’s new website, Before Magic. The site isn’t just a promotional vehicle for the supremely hard-working magician, it’s an ongoing project looking to curate and display examples of top-tier magic both modern and antediluvian.
This first video in the Golden Age section of the website, featuring the impressive emotional range of David Blaine, is a retelling and reenactment of one of the many stunts pulled by Jewish illusionist and magician, Max Katz Breit, better known as Max Malini.
Malini wasn’t so much known for his cup and balls as he was his giant brass ones. He had a habit of approaching celebrities on the streets to perform tricks, and would often take people’s hats or bite buttons from their cuffs without asking. As Blaine explains above, Malini actually blagged his way into performing at the White House using that latter trick.
The site is still technically under construction, so you might run into a few hiccups here and there, but it seems like a really cool project. As well as the screening room, it also includes tutorials, Mahdi’s journal, and a shop where you’ll eventually be able to buy merch, including the amazing Hidden Leaves deck.
Back in March, I began an article by lamenting the relative obscurity of one of magic’s greatest female performers, Adelaide Herrmann. Once called “The Queen of Magic,” Herrmann’s rise to fame and fortune in an age that afford women little in the way of opportunity makes for a fascinating story. Fortunately, Allison C. Meier over at Narratively clearly agrees, and has penned a superb article covering Herrmann’s life and career. The read begins with her time performing with her husband, Herrmann the Great, to his untimely death and her rise to fame as a solo magician, then onto her 25-year-long run as one of the most successful magicians in the world, the great warehouse fire that effectively ended her career, and finally, her death.
The article goes beyond the mere facts and dates of Herrmann’s career, and tells her story in a much more emotive fashion than you might expect. For example, I knew Herrmann often performed as a man during her early days in the craft, but I didn’t know the story behind her first real trick:
From the beginning of their collaboration, Adelaide starred in many of Alexander’s illusions. In the early days, she dressed in men’s clothing and went by Mr. Alexander. Mainly she handed props to her husband, but one night, as he accepted a strand of six handkerchiefs that she had gathered from the crowd, he winked and said, “Mr. Alexander is now going to perform this trick.” Adelaide ran from the stage in a panic. After a bit of coaxing she came back and performed the trick, blowing on the knots to make them disappear. Her take on the illusion became a fixture in their program.
This is one of many events in Herrmann’s life that is funnier than Wikipedia makes it sound. The piece, like the life of its subject, is full of funny and heartbreaking moments. I strongly suggest you read it.
Last Thursday, the Cache Valley Historical Society was entertained with tricks and stories from local professional magician and amateur magic historian, Richard Hatch.
The presentation, Pioneers of Prestidigitation: Magicians in Early Utah, only included the highlights of Hatch’s research into the area’s recently digitized local papers, but still included a few interesting finds.
One such find was a series of ads for magical performances that informed audiences that while grain was an acceptable form of payment, anyone with a baby would have to pay a whopping (for the time) $10 to see the show. The sign was a joke – at least part of it was, anyway. As Hatch explained, it was quite common for magicians of the time to be paid in goods rather than cold hard cash. And, surprise, people hated babies back in the 1800’s too.
“They didn’t want crying babies there, but they weren’t really going to charge them $10,” Hatch explained.
Other records made mention of a performance by a magician Hatch described as “the most hated magician of his time,” Herbert Albini.
Not only was the polish-born magician rude to audiences and his fellow magicians, he was also somewhat prone to using other magicians to promote himself. Born Abraham Laski and originally performing under the name “Rossini,” he eventually took on the stage name of “Albini” in order to capitalize on the population of a British magician by the name of Lieutenant Albini. The original Albini complained, and Laski agreed to change his name to “Alvene.” Then he didn’t, and instead of enjoyed a long, fruitful career that outstripped his namesake’s. He was also known for using a new deck of cards for each trick, scattering them to the floor when he was finished. The stage would be filled with cards by the end of the show.
“He was the most hated man in magic at that time,” added Hatch.
As I said before, these are just the highlights of Hatch’s research. We’ll let you know if he finds anything juicy.
Many creative thinkers believe that giving yourself restrictions can spark some of your best ideas. Jim McDonald has many difficult limitations placed on his magic act. He hosts a family show. His venue is only lit by candles. He blends history lessons in with his tricks. And he does it all in the character of a man from the late 1700s.
The end result sounds pretty stellar.
McDonald hosts the Magic Parlor at the historic courthouse in Colonial Williamsburg. Shows take place at 7:00 pm and 8:30 pm on Wednesday evenings through the mid-summer, and it is likely that the Magic Parlor will become a standard fixture in the area’s programming.
His act isn’t just a history lecture interspersed with magic tricks. It’s a more immersive storytelling experience that relies on lots of interaction with the youngest audience members.
“It involves people mentally and physically, but it’s a much easier show when I have children here and I can get them to play,” McDonald told the Daily Press. “If I can get them involved, then almost everybody will be in the mood to play, and it turns into something that could be very moving and enjoyable to everyone.”
Because of his audience and persona, McDonald doesn’t do either large technical pieces or intimate, close-up sleights. Every trick is meant to engage the entire audience, and ideally to spark reactions and comments from the children.
“The trick itself is important — but not as important as the story developed around it,” McDonald said. “If you get the kids to buy into the story, you never know what they are going to do with it. With this show, we know all the parts — the beginning, the middle, the end — and you just let them take it where it’s going to go.”
Read the Daily Press’ full interview with McDonald here.
Close-up magic is my personal favorite genre of illusion; while I enjoy the huge set-pieces of stage magic and the mind-bending qualities of mentalism, there’s something about seeing something small but incredible happen only a few feet in front of you. In this episode of the BBC documentary miniseries History of Magic, great magicians like Channing Pollock, Fay Presto, and the late Paul Daniels give their insights into the why’s and how’s of great close-up magic. Spend your lazy Sunday learning about the wonders that can be conjured through simple human dexterity, and if you want more, check out their episode on disappearing magic, too.
“The oldest trick in the book” might be just a familiar turn of phrase to laypeople, but to a magician, the words most likely brings to mind the cups and balls. This old chestnut really is old, and magic teacher and historian Jamy Ian Swiss has delved into the beloved routine in his latest blog post for Magicana.
Swiss knows a little something about this routine. He co-wrote the The Magic of Johnny Thompson with the man himself (also known as The Great Tomsoni), which has several sections on the routine’s variants. He recently released his own instructional video on the bit. And by his own accounting, six of his past Take Two essays have included video of the cups and balls. If you want expertise on the cups and balls, he’s your guy.
The essay includes some of the history and legend surrounding the cups and balls. He’s also dug up several videos of the greats from Paul Daniels to Johnny Thompson putting their spin on the classic. If you have any interest in magic history, or just in finessing your own presentation of the act, this is a must-read.
A seemingly ordinary block passes effortlessly through glass. Billiard balls change colors and multiply with a flick of the wrist. An assistant climbs into a box where steel rods are forced through each side, yet somehow miraculously survives. These are all well-known illusions today, but during the 20th century these magic tricks stunned audiences and became hallmarks of the performative art.
But what many magicians today don’t realize is these illusions – and many more – were either created or perfected by a single man. His name was Floyd Thayer, and not only was he an expert magician, but a craftsman without peer. In the early 20th Century, Thayer’s workshops crafted stunning props, tools, and apparatus that helped usher in a new renaissance for California’s magical communities.
Floyd Thayer was born in Jacksonville, Vermont on July 18, 1877. His love of magic began at age eight, when he obtained a magic cabinet through a subscription to The Youth’s Companion, a Boston-based magazine of the time. This device opened his eyes to the world of magical illusions and the physical mechanics that made them possible, which quickly became his most beloved interest. By the time he was ten, he was performing magic shows for friends and family in his attic, using bed sheets for curtains and recruiting his brother to act as a magical assistant.
Thayer’s father was connected to both a mill and a chair stock manufacturing company, and Thayer learned about each trade during the summer months away from school. In 1891, his family moved to Southern California, where Thayer found work constructing orangewood novelties that were immensely popular with visiting tourists. He ultimately apprenticed under an immigrant wood-turner from Germany, and quickly became an expert in the craft.
During this time, Thayer never forgot about magic. Instead, he found ways to apply his woodworking skills to the illusions he’d loved as a child. Among his props and apparatus were the first versions on his high-quality, orangewood billiard balls he would later be renowned for. Thayer would even use these items in live performances, leading magic shows for various private clubs and local charities.
Magic would occasionally take a back seat in Thayer’s life, albeit briefly. In 1898, following the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana, American declared war on Spain. Thayer was one of 220,000 men to join the army, where he served as a lieutenant in Company I of the 7th California Volunteer Infantry. The war lasted ten weeks, and after ending his service Thayer quickly moved into the next chapter of his life – reorienting his entire career around magical illusions.
In the December 1905 issue of Mahatma, Floyd Thayer published an advertisement for his first store: “The Wand of the West.” This store was where Thayer would design, craft, and sell devices for professional and amateur magicians alike. Thayer also began publishing catalogues – initially no more than a few pages – to generate interest among the magical community, and his company’s slogan, “Quality Magic”, embodied the philosophy behind his work. Needless to say, Thayer achieved that goal.
Take the Silk Cabby, which had appeared to be a simple box with two holes on either side. A performer would show the interior of the box to an audience before closing it, stuffing silk fabric into one side, and then removing different colored fabric through the other side. This magical effect is possible thanks to a hidden extra chamber, one that Thayer’s design kept invisible to almost any observer.
Another popular Thayer illusion was transferring seemingly solid objects through glass. One such item attributed to Thayer was the U-235, a prop designed to mimic newly developed reactors. After a performer explains that modern science allows for “atomic restructuring”, they can prove their point by dropping a steel ball through the reactors and past a quarter-inch glass sheet. This trick is so engaging that replicas directly based on Thayer’s work are being sold even today.
The appeal of Thayer’s illusions wasn’t just the quality of his craftsmanship, but also the practical nature of each design. Thayer ensured each item was built with the performer in mind. Every apparatus could be taken apart and easily fit into the smallest travel space, and quickly reassembled by a magician while behind a curtain. Visual appearance was also taken into account, with equipment decorated to maximize its atmospheric effect on the public. Building a prop table is one thing – but coloring it in black and gold paints strikes a different chord under the stage lights.
Thayer’s craftsmanship was noticed by Hollywood’s magical community, which quickly embraced his work. His clients included such luminaries as Houdini, Howard Thurston, and Harry Cooke. Dai Vernon even used billiard balls that had been crafted in Thayer’s workshop for his own performances.
Yet of all magicians, Thayer’s greatest personal influence was Harry Kellar, the legendary performer who directly inspired Harry Houdini. In his day, Kellar was renowned as a meticulous magician who emphasized not only a wide variety of tricks, but also the importance of magical presentation in his performances. Kellar had watched Thayer’s work early in the craftsman’s career, and advised him to invest all of his efforts into magic. One phrase of Kellar’s stayed with Thayer for his entire life: “Thayer, whatever you do, do it just a little better than any other fellow can do it.”
Thayer went on to call Kellar one of his first and closest acquaintances, even taking work from the magician before his retirement in 1908. He even worked on one of Kellar’s final illusions, “the Levitation of Princess Karmac”. For this trick, an assistant was placed in an apparent hypnotic sleep on a couch, before gracefully lifting into the air. A hoop was then passed through and spun around the assistant in each direction to show that she wasn’t being carried by any visible or obvious means of support.
On the business end, Thayer’s operations were expanding rapidly. He began by opening new shop locations, starting with a counter display of magic in Los Angeles. By his height in the 1930s, Thayer Magic Manufacturing Company controlled a property that acted as Thayer’s business and a social gathering place for the magical community. The second floor of this building included a factory, a finish room, metal department, stock rooms, and a fully equipped stage in its 10,000 square foot space.
In 1933, Thayer divided up portions of his operation into separate businesses. The manufacturing wing was purchased by two of his employees – Carl and Emmett Owen – who managed to spin it into the successful Owen Magic Supreme. Thayer meanwhile renamed his portion of the business “Thayer’s Studio of Magic”, locating everything in a three-story Spanish-style house which acted as his home, studio, and theater.
It’s likely that more magical performance history has been forgotten in Thayer’s properties than were ever fully written down. Thayer’s clients included magicians and conjurers from across the world, many of whom would socialize at his studios while stopping to sample their purchased illusions. Celebrities from across the world rubbed shoulders here, allowing for the most exciting and unexpected of meetings.
Personalities like Dante and Blackstone would have meals at Thayer’s home. During wartime, Oscar Welles would rehearse USO shows on Thayer’s stage with Marlene Dietrich, Joseph Cotton, and Rita Hayworth before leaving to perform for the troops. If a visiting guest expressed interest in Hollywood movie sets, Thayer could call up MGM director Clarence Brown and see if a personal escort could be arranged across the studio lot.
When the magician John Booth stopped by Thayer’s factory to pick up a prop table base, he met Oscar Teale – a fellow illusionist who happened to be a member of President Abraham Lincoln’s honor guard. “Look into my face, young man,” Teale solemnly told Booth. “Your face is now looking into a face that was the last one to look into the face of Abraham Lincoln.” It’s no wonder Booth later referred to Thayer’s home as a “mystic site”.
Thayer didn’t just serve professional magicians – his services were available to amateur illusionists as well. Perhaps the most remarkable of these clients was Asa Candler, an Atlanta multimillionaire and founder of Coca-Cola. Candler was no casual hobbyist – during social events at his mansion home, he would host grand magic shows and personally lead each performance. In fact, he was so dedicated to the craft that he mailed Thayer a $10,000 check asking for “some large illusion” to be designed.
As John Booth recounts in a serial autobiography published through The Linking Ring, Thayer was staggered by Candler’s request but quickly set about his task. Booth never detailed what the finished illusion was, but Candler was so impressed with the results that he mailed another $10,000 check to purchase more “big stuff”.
Beyond his personal contributions in the field, Thayer also did his part to encourage future generations of magical craftsman. Along with his part in the formation of Owen Magic Supreme, Thayer made a personal note of cultivating Kellar’s lessons of self-improvement among his employees and fellow magicians alike, Thayer made a note of publishing the following advice to his potential customers:
“Your continued success in magic depends upon just two things. First, upon your own ability to entertain with magic, and second, upon the beauty and efficient quality of the apparatus you employ. The price you pay for any piece of magic should not be considered in the nature of merely an expense, but rather as an investment – something that will add more class and distinction to your act and enable you to command greater remunerative value.
“Our theory is that no piece of magical equipment, even at its best, is yet as good as it should be. We never have, and never shall, cater to the usual cheaper line of novelty and toy shop magic.”
Thayer finally retired from the magic business in 1942. He sold his operation to fellow magical craftsman William Larsen, even agreeing to an amicable house swap, trading his famed studio for a new home in Pasadena. Alongside his wife Jennie, Thayer enjoyed a much quieter life in retirement, but never fully left magic behind. He continued honing his skills from a small in-house workshop, and maintained a personal library filled with rare books on magic. While taking part in interviews in this period of his life, he would muse on the importance of a “magical personality” even outside of stage work – for example, he noted that figures like Roosevelt and Churchill could have been great magicians if they had pursued the art.
Floyd Thayer passed away in July 29, 1959 at 80 years of age. Or rather, as his obituary at the time described, Thayer “is now among ethereal magicians for whom he created or manufactured mysteries.” His Broken Wand funeral ceremony was attended by many of the magicians and performers he had worked alongside and inspired – his own pallbearers included Carl Owen, William Larsen, Dr. Victor Trask, George Boston, Leo Irby, and Frederick Rickard.
While Thayer had no surviving children or family – save for a lone cousin mentioned in his obituary – his legacy is carried on by countless magicians and craftspeople seeking to bring wonder and joy to an audience. And for any magicians introduced to the world magic when a billiard ball appeared from thin air, it’s a legacy they too are a part of.
Potter & Potter’s magic auctions have covered some wide ground, including one-sheets from the golden age of magic and props and accessories once used by the late great Harry Blackstone, Sr. Their upcoming Spring Magic Auction promises to offer the same variety and quality of prestidigitation peculiarities, only this time, it’s all about Houdini.
The great conjuror and escape artist is the focal point for the upcoming auction, which takes place on April 28 at 10am Central. The highlight of this collection is easily a two-volume collection of spiritualism scrapbooks, written and compiled by Houdini and later bound into leather books by Joseph Dunninger. These volumes offer a glimpse into Houdini’s obsession with debunking spiritualists, with the second book almost entirely devoted to notes and newspaper clippings about author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own belief in the supernatural. If you’re interested in snagging this stunning set for your own library, get ready to pay a pretty penny: the listing starts at $30,000, and is expected to sell for at least $40,000, if not more.
Another highlight includes a trove of unpublished Houdini history, including a manuscript for a Houdini biography written by his assistant and secretary, Elliot Sanford. Sanford followed Houdini around for years, and kept over 100 pages of records and notes on the magician’s exploits, including details about Houdini’s home and never-before-revealed info on the final year of his life. This one will run you at least $10,000.
There are, of course, loads of other, non-Houdini-related items up for auction, including an assortment of issues of The Sphinx (including the first volume!) starting at $250, a variety of vintage comedy “Bang” guns each starting at $150, as well as an assortment of old-timey posters for Carter the Great and Chung Ling Soo.
Like previous Potter & Potter auctions, you can check out a full PDF catalog of the available items here, or you can visit the Potter and Potter gallery in Chicago on April 26 and 27 to view items from the collection in person. For more info on the auction schedule and how to bid online or via phone, check out their website here.