A historical event indeed.
History does repeat itself once every two years in Los Angeles. For the uninitiated, I'll explain: The Conference on Magic History convenes biennially in North Hollywood. Organized and hosted by Mike Caveney, John Gaughan, Joan Lawton and Jim Steinmeyer, the purpose of the conference is to, "blow the dust off of historical magic, allowing it to stand on its own, be discussed, analyzed andbest of allperformed." Amidst the wide gathering of scholars, historians and dilettanti in attendance, I think they succeeded rather admirably.
Seeing antique books, weathered posters and resurrected props from some famous magician's show (this year, many items from the Great Virgil Show were on display, as well as numerous other piecesincluding the burned-out remains of the Houdini Water Torture Cell) brought a serene sense of respect to the proceedings.
Things started off on Thursday night at 7:30pm. After a brief welcome by Jim Steinmeyer, Joan Lawton started things off with a short overview of the John Nevil Maskelyne theatrical play, entitled "Will, the Witch and the Watch." A recreation of this play was to be one of the final events at this year's conference, and Joan's words enticed everyone's anticipation of it.
The next event was presented by Rick Davis, who is not a magician by tradehe writes, directs and produces for television for his living. In fact, before his involvement in producing a magic television special (The Hidden Secrets of Magic), he didn't know much of anything about magic. Luckily, he has become quite enamoured of it through that special, and the forthcoming special, The Story of Magic. The new, four hour special will air in two parts on December Seventh and Ninth on the Arts & Entertainment Network.
We were treated to a few glimpses of the new special, and I have to say that it appears to have been done with extreme care and thought to detail. It looks to be comprehensive, and is filled with an intense respect for magic. From the host, Ricky Jay (could you imagine anyone better suited for this job of master storyteller?), to the elegant editing, it should be the best televised program on magic during this year.
One of the clips that Rick showed displayed an antique film of a magician's hands doing coin manipulations. When he inquired whom the audience thought it might be, one knowledgeable voice called out "Downs." In fact, the hands belonged to Jim Steinmeyer! The newly filmed sequence was digitally altered to appear old. It certainly did set the appropriate atmosphere. This little transition sequence could have been left in its normal state, without causing any fuss. However, Rick improved it, and the final product felt just right.
Needless to say, everyone was left with an extreme desire to view the entire program.
After a short intermission, John Carney took the stage. After ruthlessly destroying one of the attendee's programs (which are a work of art), John progressively restored it to its original, pristine condition. He then perform a rising card routine that had enough phases in it to rival the Hooker Card Rise. Both pieces were unpolished and "works-in-progress." However, even with minor flaws, I always enjoy John's performances.
To close the evening, the mechanical genius known as John Gaughan presented his restoration of the Mechanical Peacock. This automaton found two selected playing cards at John's request. The restoration was quite impressive, as apparently the item was in great disrepair when John found it in some little antique shop in France. [Note to editorlets plan an antiquing trip to Paris sometime soon!] John brought the machinery back to life and re-feathered the bird. If you have never seen the care and love that goes into one of these Gaughan restorations, then I hasten to tell you that they are genuine works of art. The only thing more marvellous than the restorations themselves is the restorer.
The night finished with browsing through the Dealer Exhibits. Hmmm. It's not normal to review the Dealer Exhibits from a convention, so maybe I'll start a trend. The room was rather small, supporting little more than a dozen "stores." The proffered items consisted of rare old books, antique props and ancient posters. There were, of course, a few tables with the newest books that had just come to market. If you've never been to a dealers' room at a collector's convention, then you really have no idea of what the genuine meaning of "sticker shock" is. This micro-sub-cottage industry knows its customers all too well. The potential buyers would sooner acquire a rarity than eat for the next week. The items are priced with this in mind. Now, mind you, there are bargains to be found, if one looks hard enough (and one doesn't have overly particular tastes), but overall, I highly recommend that people who have heart conditions don't inquire about prices (I felt a slight tremor when I looked at Versatile Card Magic, and I'm in pretty good health!).
Friday commenced with Mike Caveney introducing John Cannon, who presented a slide show and talk on books and their dustjackets. I enjoyed John's presentation. It was informative and different. However, this is the type of subject that separates the connoisseurs from the tyros. Some of the attendees of the Conference are from the latter group, and the few that I spoke with afterward were uninterested in dustjackets as a subject, and even less so in the minutiae that connoisseurs relish. I think the tyros show up primarily because of anticipation in witnessing another revived, forgotten miracle, such as the Hooker Card Rise. They don't have the "collector gene" in their DNA. There is nothing wrong with thisI'm just noting it for the record. There are mindsets at the Conference that are as varied as those concerning the Kennedy assassination.
Next was Jacques Voignier who discussed "two hundred years of French magic books." The years in question were from 15841784. Using an overhead projector (and copious lists), he described various effects that have precedence in these tomes. For instance, the Gypsy or Hindu Thread dates back that far. Quite amazing when you pause to think about that, isn't it?
Next up, Stephen Minch gracefully received his award from the Academy of Magical Arts (Mike Caveney had accepted it in his absence, and took advantage of the Conference to present it with a little panache). I can think of no nicer person in magic (wellmaybe Meir Yedid), and Stephen's literary achievements certainly deserve such public accolade.
Martin Lewis was next, and he regaled us with stories about his father, Eric. He performed three classic Lewis pieces, and displayed his father's notebookswhich are beautiful to behold. Personally, Martin's presentation/performance was one of the most entertaining lectures of the entire weekend.
Afterward, Mike Caveney made a surprise announcement to the delight of all. Eric Lewis'last book, The Genius of Robert Harbin, had arrived direct from the print house. The book has been in preparation for quite some time, and Martin was apparently not aware of the completion of its publication. A very cool surprise indeed.
Christopher Woodward then spoke about the magicians at the Palladium. He presented a nice slide show of posters displaying the names of the numerous magical acts that graced this oh-so-famous theatre in London.
Later that evening, Peter Lane discussed the odds and ends of the life of Chung Ling Soo. Some very intimate stories and details were told. In someone else's hands, these would have been disgraceful. However, Peter handled everything tastefully.
Next was Brian McCullagh, who spoke about the mechanics of Chung Ling Soo. The informative slides and lighter tone were a nice complement to the previous lecture.
Then came Ian Keable, presenting a lively talk and slide show on David Devant and his writings. Easily one of the more entertaining of the Conference's lectures, Ian kept us amused as he shovelled numerous facts towards us about the publications by Devant. All in all, the best mix of fun and fact from the weekend.
To close the night, a treat to end all treats: Joseffy's Balsamo. It took no less than the combined talents of John Gaughan and Max Maven to bring the long inanimate skull back to "life."
Balsamo is a mechanical marvel that was developed at the beginning of this century, and was performed by his creator, Joseffy. The skull would answer questions posed by the performer with the aid of various audience members. It did this by clicking its jawonce for a positive response, and twice for negative ones. It is entirely self-containedno outside information is ever conveyed to Balsamo by the performer or anyone else (although I'm not sure that the entire audience was cognizant of this important detail). Balsamo is as impressive today as he must have been back in 1908.
Balsamo hasn't spoken for over fifty years. Thanks to the "vocal coaching" of John Gaughan, he has once again found his "voice." A new script was rendered from scratch by Max Maven, as the original has faded from the pages of history. All in all, the perfect preparation for a "historical event." Well, almost. You see, Balsamo was getting temperamental in his old age. He was missing his lines. He would turn away from the audience at the most inopportune moment. He even "stepped" on Max's lines. I've never seen Max so uneasy. He was visibly nervous. A rare situation. After all, he was at the mercy of a century old capricious skull that had just underwent some delicate brain surgery. Of the four dress rehearsals that I saw, Balsamo chose to ad-lib during three of them. There was quite a bit of tension in the air.
Luckily, since Balsamo was already technically dead, Max was unable to carry out his verbal threats.
When it came time for the final performance, I know that I was on the edge of my seat. What we were going to witness was either going to be a phenomenal theatrical triumph, or an embarrassing failure that Max would not live down. And it all depended on Balsamo's mood.
Well, Balsamo performed with a flair that would have made Joseffy proud. He beamedif he had lips, he would have been smiling. His performance went as smooth as well, as smooth as clockwork. It was a unique experience. And I'm afraid that might really be trueafter the ordeal that Max went through, I think that the team has officially retired. I'm very happy that I experienced their farewell performance.
Now is a good time to comment on the "overflow video room" experience. You see, the attendance to the conference is limited. Additional attendees (when they are even allowed) are able to view the proceedings over closed circuit video. This is done in the exhibit room, which serves quite nicely as a viewing area. Two large televisions are well positioned, and the cameramen caught everything in frame. There were about two dozen "overflowees" in attendance in the video room. Originally, I was one. Since I was reviewing the conference, our esteemed editor (who had a spot in the main room) graciously suggested that I trade places with her. The conference organizers courteously allowed us to do so. And I have to say that I'm grateful. After this switch, I decided that I would view part of the conference in the video room, and that would give me another perspective from which to review. I chose Friday evening to view the conference in the video room, and, in comparison, I have to be blunt in stating that it was a disappointing experience. Most of the atmosphere was missing (that I had felt in the main room), and I felt a little out-of-sorts.
Now, there were benefits to being out of the main room. Since the speakers couldn't hear us, there were quite a few amusing comments flowing from the overflowees. And if you needed to leave the room for any reason, it was completely non-disruptive. And the antiquities surrounding us were cool. But, overall, it felt like a lesser experience.
Now maybe this could have been made up for by charging a slightly lower admission fee for the overflow room. This is a common practice in the "real world." Better seats at the theater always cost a little more. Even if it was just a token amount, it would be a nice gesturea small, but nice touch. And the conference is certainly packed full of those. It's just an idea.
Now I realize that the above is probably going to push a button or two. After all, if there wasn't a overflow room, I wouldn't even have been at the conference. And my life would be a little less rich. So I guess I'll sum this part of the review up by stating that the overflow room is a good idea. It's just not a perfect one.
Saturday afternoon began with a slight switch in the schedule. Pat Culliton gave a lecture on "Did Houdini Invent?" With the exception of one effect, Pat didn't discuss Houdini's inventions at all. He digressed often, and mentioned his new boxed set of books on Houdini just a few too many times. However, Pat made up for these inconsistencies by giving a lively and animated talk about his experiences in studying Houdini's life. And his dramatic reading at the end of his "lecture" was, quite simply, excellent.
Next, Arnold Furst had arrived, and gave a superb talk packed with anecdotes and tidbits of trivia about his friendship with Bess Houdini. His recollections were priceless.
The afternoon session closed with a retrospective on Robert Harbin. This "free-for-all" panel featured Alan Shaxon, John Wade, Christopher Woodward, Elizabeth Warlock and John Gaughan (the only person missing from the illustrious panel was Billy McCombwho was in attendance, and could have added a lot to it, in my humble opinion). Boy, this was great. Tons of information, very entertaining and fast-paced to boot. And the highlight was three precious films of Harbin performing. It was a revelation to me that the Zig Zag was performed as a verbal piece. A spectator from the audience was invited to view the illusion up close, and I believe that it's perfect when presented in that manner. All in all, this panel was a great way end to the lectures of the Conference.
At various points in the evening, fractions of the gathering were invited to view the recreation of Will, the Witch and the Watch. This play, which is about one hundred and twenty-five years old, was created by Maskelyne. This revival was quite well done. From the music to the decorative poster, from the acting to the magical apparatus (a cabinet/jail, which the play takes place around), I'm sure that Maskelyne would be proud. I should make special note of the marvellous costumes by Frankie Glass, and of the absolutely hilarious turn by John Carney as the Watchman. Well done!
Saturday night brought the final show, which commenced with Martin Lewis. He entertained us with his handkerchief penetration, some gag predictions, a superb rising card routine, and closed with a story told with figures formed with a sushi mat.
Next was Arnold Furst, who performed his classic, Fresh Fish Sold Here Today. It's cool moments like this that make history conferences so much fun. Other conventions would have never even thought of this.
John and Cathy Daniel performed several routines by Virgil and Julie. They did quite well, except for the moments during the "release" of a canary from a sealed light bulb. When the glass was broken, there were quite a few worried comments from the audience. John assured us that the bird was unharmed, and in fact, "likes it."A situation that could have been handled better.
David Charvet and Wendy then presented some of Virgil's mindreading effects, and concluded with the vanishing head.
To close the show, Portugal's Luis de Matos recreated Dante's "Lazy Magician" with the expert help of Moi-Yo Miller (the original co-star from the Dante show) and Tina Lenert. Quite an elegant way in which to end the Conference.
In conclusion, I'll sum up by saying that this is what history conferences should be like. It was all first-rate. Well organized and carefully plannedit is obvious that the organizers love magic and its history. It shows. Even the program is a work of great care and thorough attention to detail. The Conference was entertaining, informative and created a real sense of respect for the art of magic and its roots.
And I, and the art of magic itself, could ask for nothing more!
click here to return to the main articles page