By Hillel Aron
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By Jill Stewart
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In 1770, Wolfgang von Kempelen wheeled a wooden box into the Habsburg court in Vienna. On top was a chessboard. Seated to one side was an automaton, wearing a dramatic coat and turban. “The Turk,” it was called, and it played chess quite well. For years the Turk toured Europe and America, delighting audiences and besting Catherine the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. But the Turk was a trick: Somewhere inside the cabinet was a human, playing the pieces on the board. No one knew how it worked at the time. Then, in 1854, it was destroyed in a fire and the illusion was lost. Until, 130 years later, the Turk reappeared in Atwater.
“It took me years to recreate this thing,” says John Gaughan, the master magic builder who spent $120,000 of his own money researching and painstakingly rebuilding one of the greatest illusions of all time. “It was a fitting obsession,” says Gaughan, who is widely considered the greatest living designer of illusions. Over the past 35 years, Gaughan has built magic tricks for Ricky Jay, David Blaine, Harry Blackstone Jr. and, of course, our friends in spandex, Siegfried & Roy. Gaughan is the best designer of magic, but also best at keeping that magic secret, so all the greats can turn to him in confidence. His studio, tucked behind the storefronts on Glendale Boulevard, looks like the carpentry workshop of a wizard. Alongside band saws and piles of lumber are thousands of illusions, some reconstructed and others collected over the years. Because of his métier and research-driven collecting habits, Gaughan has also become a magic historian nonpareil. “That’s why I have all these astonishing old things,” he says.
Much of Gaughan’s collection is housed in a rarefied Wunderkammer that is one of the world’s best collections of magic from the past 200 years. There are wands, collapsing cages (that do, in fact, go up one’s sleeve), Houdini’s handcuffs, spirit bells, visages of the magician’s muse, Mephistopheles, a purse-sized blunderbuss, handbills from music-hall magic shows in London and Paris, spring-loaded devices of all sizes and shapes. In a glass case stands a 6-foot-tall android clarinetist built in 1838 by Cornelis Jacobus van Oeckelen and later owned by P.T. Barnum. “It really plays,” Gaughan says. “Thirty-two notes on 16 keys.”
Some of these items are legendary. “Illusions disappear if no one learns them. Later, we read the handbills and eyewitness accounts from 19th-century music-hall shows and have no idea how some tricks were accomplished.” Gaughan has about half of one renowned program performed by Robert Houdin (from whom Houdini took his name in homage), including Antonio, the trapeze artist. There was and is only one Antonio, and there he sits, a frozen dandy in his red cap, blue bowtie and velvet brocaded jacket. “In Houdin’s hands,” Gaughan says, “Antonio took on a life of his own, doing tricks on his trapeze across the stage.”
In one corner is a whole section of intricate clocks. “Many magicians were also watchmakers,” he explains. “Both require intricate planning and mechanical ingenuity.” Reinforcing the similarities is a giant wrought-iron apple corer, whose teeth and gears are reminders that modern magic was born during the industrial revolution, when the new technology seemed to bring magic everywhere.
Which is part of the reason why the Turk was so convincing at the time. “But it turned out not to be modernity but old-fashioned magic,” Gaughan says as we step back to the Turk for closer inspection. “Even when people knew there was someone inside,” he continues, opening the cabinet on all sides to reveal that it is empty but for the gears that supposedly move the automaton, “they still didn’t know where exactly.” Gaughan’s breakthrough happened when he came across correspondence from a man who had worked inside the Turk and discovered that the original machine’s inner chessboard wasn’t burned in the fire. “From that I reverse-engineered the key mechanics.”
“The real trick,” I say while leaning down and peering through the empty cabinet, “is finding a master chess player who is also a midget.”
“No midget required,” Gaughan says. “You could fit in there. How’s your game?”
I am still pondering the impossibility of this statement as Gaughan adds that despite his experience in building the Turk, there may be more to learn about him. “I still don’t know if I have it completely figured out.”