The many people who enjoyed the movie The Prestige over the weekend, making it the most popular film in the country, might be interested to know that much of the film has a historical basis. Yes, it's adapted from the Christopher Priest 1995 novel. But the historical background can be found in Jim Steinmeyer's The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the "Marvelous Chinese Conjurer". A long, destructive rivalry between two magicians, the idea that a magician would go so far as to cultivate a false identity even in his private life, and maintain it for years, and some of the specific 'illusions' themselves, like the deadly "bullet catch," are all factually grounded and can be found detailed in Mr. Steinmeyer's entertaining book. In something of an acknowledgment of this history (and to plant some of the plot points I just listed), Chung Ling Soo himself, or at least his character, makes an appearance towards the beginning of The Prestige.
And for those who have been entranced by that other magic-based movie, The Illusionist -- obviously, it's an adaptation of Stephen Milhauser's short story, "Eisenheim the Illusionist." But it, too, is grounded in actual magician performances. My former Dallas Morning News colleague, Chris Vognar, has pointed out how Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin's famous
"orange tree" illusion is used, for example.
But that's really dropped in just for display purposes. The film's "ghostly" illusions are central to its mystery, and they are clearly based on Mr. Steinmeyer's other fascinating history, Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear.
For a more complete discussion of these books, and the recent trend in "magic histories," you can read my own DaMN story from last year. But you'll have to pay for it.
On the other hand, and typically enough, the DaMN archives do not contain the accompanying feature to that sidebar. You can read that after the jump:
THE WONDER OF MAGIC
Books: Now you see it ... a tricky world
By Jerome Weeks
In 1997, magicians Penn and Teller came to Dallas to show off a fun new trick. They shot each other in the face with revolvers.
Known as the "bullet catch," it's actually an old trick, more than 100 years old. Typically, Penn and Teller boosted the theatricality with .357 Colts, shooting at each other like duellists, "catching" the rounds in their teeth. Even so, the risks they took were real enough: Several magicians, in fact, have died performing the catch.
Most prominent among these was Chung Ling Soo in 1918. In a colorful new book, The Glorious Deception, Jim Steinmeyer tells us not only how the trick worked and how it failed disastrously, but also how Soo, once almost as famous as Harry Kellar, led a life of hidden identities and marriages -- secrets that unraveled with his death.
It's not true, as is commonly believed, that conjurers never tell their secrets. A little library research can quickly take anyone beyond the rabbit-in-a-hat guidebooks to such classic sources as Mulholland's Book of Magic
But in the past two years, books about magic have taken a smart new turn, splitting off from the biographies of Houdini or the how-to manuals that currently fill the shelves (not counting Ricky Jay's wonderfully quirky antiquarian volumes, such as Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women
The Glorious Deception and Hiding the Elephant, both by Mr. Steinmeyer, Petert Lamont's The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick and Karl Johnson's The Magician and the Cardsharp: Whatever else they do, these books track the development of a single piece of stagecraft. To varying degrees, they are about the meanings of magic.
And inevitably, the meanings of myth. With The Indian Rope Trick,British historian Peter Lamont traces the lineage of the famous illusion in this delightfully chatty, free-ranging book. You may know the rope trick from cartoons. A magician throws a rope into the air; it stands fast like a pole. The magician or his assistant climbs up -- and disappears.
The teensy problem here, Dr. Lamont notes, is that it's impossible. The rope trick never happened, not in full view. What his story follows is the confluence of several legends, the traditional tricks of Indian fakirs and -- the final spark -- an 1890 hoax during a Chicago newspaper war.
But like the nonexistent welfare queen driving her Cadillac, the nonexistent rope trick persisted as "real" for the public despite several debunkings. The appeal of Western fables about the "Mystic East" was too strong. To a degree, we want to believe there is a land where such magic exists.
Western delusions were also partly behind Chung Ling Soo's success. He was really a white American, William Robinson, and his stylish set melded "Oriental" stereotypes, borrowed tricks and gibberish (even his name, Chung Ling Soo, meant nothing). Yet it all made Robison (or rather, Soo) famous.
But what might seem like harmless if mildly racist entertainment had consequences. There was a real Chinese wizard named Ching Ling Foo, and in a would-be showdown in London, he was trumped by Robinson. Robinson didn't know a word of Chinese, but Foo was now the fake. He never toured England again.
While Deception concerns the conflicted interactions of East and West, of showmanship and secrecy, Mr, Steinmeyer's Hiding the Elephant follows an involved "arms race" between science and stagecraft. In the late 19th century, competing magicians slowly combined advances in optics with several mirror tricks that permitted "ghosts" to appear onstage -- to the awe of spiritualists. This ultimately led to the surprisingly simply mechanism that can "vanish" objects in front of an audience.
With these two books, particularly the fascinating Hiding the Elephant Mr. Steinmeyer has written what amount to rich, cultural histories of the Golden Age of magic. They both examine and evoke the feel of the period when the magic show as we know it grew out of vaudeville. But Mr. Steinmeyer, a professional designer of illusions, does use a wider frame as license to stuff in all sorts of anecdotes, tangents and profiles. Sometimes, as in Deception, to distraction.
It's Karl Johnson's The Magician and the Cardsharp,though, that suffers the most from such padding, perhaps because it began life as a magazine story. But it also has an appealingly hard-boiled locale for magic: Depression-era Kansas.
That's where Dai Vernon, an elegant card-trick artist hitting hard times, heard a jailhouse tail of a small-town gambler who could do the impossible. He dealt from the center of the deck. Perfectly.
If another player cuts the deck, the dealer can still pull a second or bottom card but he won't know what it is, after the deck has been cut. Dealing from the center means he can pluck just about any card he wants.
Much like the other three books, Cardsharp has a central narrative (Vernon's quest) that lets Mr. Johnson switch back and forth over a wider topic, in this case, the testy relations between sleight-of-hand artists and gamblers. Card conjurers are a bit of an elite in magic. Their tricks are, by nature, small-scale. They have to be done close-up, making them harder to pull off (Houdini's blunt fingers, for instance, made him notoriously bad with cards).
Yet clearly, these wizards share the same skills as the worst of low-life hustlers. Despite their mutual wariness, the two groups have influenced each other over the decades, and Mr. Johnson details many of the era's gritty cons and gambler's slang.
That's one reason, amid all of the wonders and trickery in these books, Cardsharp feels more down-to-earth. Not better, just different, almost noir-ish. Typically, the other three books sift through layer after historical layer of showbiz myth to find what truly happened (or never did).
Cardsharp tracks a legend -- and finds that it was true.
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