Friday, September 29, 2017

Montreal: Magic in Posters, Good and Bad

For my last post on Montreal, here's a look at the McCord Museum's exhibit called Illusions: The Art of Magic. It showcases part of the museum's collection of 19th and early 20th century magic show posters. Recently acquired, according to the museum's website, "the Allan Slaight Collection is the only one of its magnitude in Canada; it comprises 600 posters and more than 1,000 documents and rare books."

The exhibit rooms are all painted black, with dramatic lighting. Some of the posters are backlit enlargements, and often there are mirrored hall passages between the rooms, so over all, it's a dramatic presentation of the sometimes histrionic material.

The lithography is amazing, of course, given that it's from the peak period of that printing method. (Much of it was by Strobridge Litho of Cincinnati.) But I also learned some facts I never knew as I wandered through, and sometimes got lost in the halls of mirrors.

Adelaide Herrmann, 1853–1932, was born in London. First a dancer, she was later one of the first female magicians of the Golden Age. According to the museum's accompanying text,

Widowed at the age of 42, she continued her husband Alexander Hermann’s show, asking her nephew, Leon Herrmann, to work with her. They toured together for three years, but a conflict between them forced Adelaide to perform solo. She then became so successful that she was dubbed the “Queen of Magic.” She remained a presence on American vaudeville stages until the age of 75.
Harry Houdini, of course, featured pretty prominently in the exhibit, including several posters promoting his water escape act:

The legendary water torture cell
For this illusion, after asking the audience to literally hold its breath, Houdini would be hung by his feet and lowered into a glass tank of water that was then locked. As curtains surrounded the so-called water prison, a murmur would run through the audience. When all the spectators had gasped for air, Houdini would wait a little longer and then emerge from the tank at the last moment, sometimes risking his life the process.
The facts I learned about Houdini were these:
Houdini gave lectures denouncing the deceptive practices of Spiritualists. In the fall of 1926, one such talk was held in the McGill Union Ballroom, in the very same building that currently houses the McCord Museum! Several days later, as [he] prepared for his show at the Princess Theatre on St. Catherine Street [just a few blocks away from the museum], J.G. Whitehead, a McGill theology student, visited him in his dressing room to ask if it was true, as he had claimed that he could contract his abdominal muscles and take any punch. Houdini answered yes, but before he could prepare himself, Whitehead delivered four strong punches to his stomach. Although the magician managed to perform that evening, he succumbed to peritonitis and died nine days later, in Detroit.
I also learned of the existence of Carter the Great (1874–1936), whose full name was Charles Joseph Carter:

I particularly wanted to include this poster because it includes one of the few successful uses I've seen of the "shared initial letter" design scheme:

That almost never works, but the folks at Otis Lithograph managed it.

I also learned that Orientalism was big in the world of magic:
The Golden Age of Magic was also affected by the wave of Orientalism that swept the Western imagination in the late 19th century. The public was fascinated by travelogues, real or imagined, describing “exotic” countries like Egypt, India, Japan and China. Magicians took advantage of this interest and major improvements in methods of transportation to travel to these countries and include any number of Oriental clichés in their shows and posters.
Orientalist trappings ranged from magicians wearing turbans as Carter the Great did (above), to Thurston doing the Indian rope trick, to the use of pyramids and Sphinxes on posters, as in this case:

There were also several prominent magicians who worked in straight up yellow-face for decades:

Chung Ling Soo, 1861–1918
On March 23, 1918, Chung Ling Soo performed a legendary but very risky illusion: two armed assistants fired bullets at him. That evening, however, instead of “catching” the bullets, he was hit directly in the chest. Before falling to the ground, he cried out in English, “Oh my God. Something’s happened. Lower the curtain!” It was the first — and last — time the public ever heard this so-called Chinese magician speak in English, as he later died of his wounds. In fact, American-born William Ellsworth Robinson, né Campbell, had never so much as set foot in China.

Fu-Manchu, 1904–1974
The sixth and final member of the illustrious Bamberg Magical Dynasty, David Bamberg, alias Fu-Manchu, began learning his profession at a very young age from his magician father, Okito. He was very successful, especially in Spanish-speaking countries throughout the Americas. The description of Fu-Manchu by magician Judson Cole is a neat summary of the various cultural influences behind his particular version of Orientalism: “Here’s a Jewish boy, born in Holland, educated in England, living in South America, doing a Chinese act in Spanish.”
He lived through 1974, and continued the act as late as 1966 (according to the Wikipedia)!

The exoticization didn't end with people from the East, however. I forgot to record the description that accompanied this poster for Madame Linardini, a French escape artist:

But this is what has to say about her:
Wife of French escapeologist Linardini. Performed her own spectacular escapes, including "Torment at the Hands of the Indians," a very theatrical presentation (complete with costumed "Indians") where she was blindfolded, bound head-to-toe with rope, and hung from a support over a burning campfire, only to escape unharmed. After her husband died at the young age of 31, she continued to perform their show for a number of years by herself.
We can all guess how that played into the imaginations of the European-American and European-Canadian audience.

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