You wouldn't think, in an era before movies, TV, or even radio, that it would take much convincing to get people to a magic show. Even the cups and balls routine must have been a thrilling alternative to singing in rounds or the regular Friday night hay ride. But as two exhibits currently at the Skirball Center attest, the seductive pull of the couch (or rocking chair?) is strong, and a bit of shamelessly sensational advertising never hurts.
“Houdini: Art and Magic” and “Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age” each have over 150 posters, props, film clips and costumes from magic's heyday. The posters especially show how the growing middle class — those drudges again! — turned towards the exotic and stupendous to escape the “Time to Make the Widgets” grind.
Here are seven of our favorite techniques for getting your lazy, early 20th century ass down to that magic show.
7. The Kitchen Sink
If you're planning on rolling into town with The Decapitation Act, The Spirit Cabinet, The Hunchback Quadrille, a ventriloquist, an uber-flexible brother/brother/sister dance squad, the musically-possessed Onofri Brothers and the perennial favorite “Drop the Handkerchief Right Into the Audience” routine, you might as well just use it all. Work day over!
6. Interactive Marketing
As many a Twitter campaign or annoying Hulu ad is currently trying to prove, we looooove being part of what's being sold to us. Houdini was all over that game, offering cash money to anyone who could slap a pair of handcuffs on him that he couldn't get off. The public never did manage to come with manacles he couldn't defeat, and the Skirball has a selection of some of the surprisingly varied and unique cuffs on display. (What kind of culture needs 50 variations on the handcuff? You tell me, Victorian America.)
But don't forget that interactive marketing can have its pitfalls: for decades Houdini, in tip-top shape in the years when Grover Cleveland was considered an eligible bachelor, had an open challenge that he could take any punch to the gut. In 1926, one enthusiastic lug took the swing before the magician had a chance to prepare himself, rupturing Houdini's appendix. He died seven days later.
This poster also has some other good pointers, liberal use of bold type chief among them. Put those CTRL+B fingers to work! After sprinkling the poster with typeface emphasis, turn-of-the-century advertisers went for the similarly flat-out strategy of just writing “IMPORTANT” really big at the top, and followed all that up with the not-quite-flashy promise from Houdini that “I do not slip my hands.” Cheap thrill and a half!
5. Visual Excitement
But even the most grandiose Victorian verbal stylings and typesetting couldn't match the image's power for describing the increasingly elaborate tricks Houdini and his contemporaries were devising. In the same year as that IMPORTANT poster, Houdini splashed out on a two-tone lithograph that attempted to convey the instantaneous surprise of the Houdini's famous “Metamorphosis” act. Yeah, I know it looks like they're just standing there, but in the first picture he's in the sack, and in the second one she is, you feel me? As curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport notes, “a text explaining the performance takes longer to read than the three seconds the 'Metamorphosis' takes to complete.” Boom. Sell out show.
4. Exotic Escape
Chromolithography, or color printing, came along just as magicians were expanding what it meant to be novel and awe-inspiring. Skirball curator Erin Clancey explains that as railroads, steamships and automobiles began to take traveling magicians to increasingly distant and obscure destinations, “magicians became interpreters of world culture for the general public, and their acts and personas often reflected this role.”
The Great Ramses (a.k.a. Albert Marchinsky) was savvy to what a dash of the timeless supernatural could do for box office. Theo and David Bamberg, the sixth and seventh generation members of the Bamberg Magical Dynasty (I'm not even going to deal with the extraordinary coolness of that phrase) were more hep to the “crudely interpreted racial exoticism” game, and their out-and-out yellowface personas Okito and Fu Manchu endured in popularity from the late 1800's (Okito) all the way to the 1960's (Fu Manchu).
3. Cult of Personality
2. Play Up the Drama, Even if You're Kind of Making Up
If a picture of your magician being lowered upside down into a tank of water by his ankles and locked in until he figures out a way to escape just isn't conveying the sense of excitement you want to get across, maybe draw a big green goblin holding the lid down? That gets some sort of ineffable “you're screwed” quality across that just isn't captured in a dumb old honest drawing.
Interestingly, the goblins disappear once color lithography begins to be replaced by that newcomer, photography. Suspense and terror course through both of these images, but photography's claims to accuracy just covered more ground in the “I'd pee my pants if that was me / Hey wait that's kind of exciting / Let's go and see if he dies” department.
1. The Just Plan Sensational
Like Lady Gaga always says: when in doubt, go for something elaborately constructed, made of fairly creepy material and smacking of mental instability. Houdini practiced the Straightjacket Escape for over fifteen years before debuting it in 1915. Always the publicity hound, he'd perform his most documented trick hanging off the roofs of newspaper offices, advertising the free outdoor performance for days ahead of time (you can make him out as a blurry line just to the left of the third story windows of the “Evening News” building. He's blurry because he's wiggling!). Then he'd repeat the escape in routinely sold-out follow-up performances at the local theater.
Not to get all serious, but here's the outgoing footnote to this story: magic's golden age faded by just some of these same means of publicity. When the “free entertainment” of radio and television provided not just magic acts but more stupendous feats of the unimaginable, the live performance of tricks that had been passed down for generations (see The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Clay) lost their luster. While some magicians found success in promoting their live acts on late-night and other variety formats, the vast majority of music hall and vaudeville performers, as well as the colorful posters that hawked them, became relics of another time. Like the record industry has learned the hard way, if you can't get the butts off the couch to come and pay to see you, letting them have your stuff for free can be a tough way to make a living.
“Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age” and “Houdini: Art and Magic” run April 28 thru September 4 at the Skirball Cultural Center. A full list of tours, lectures, films, magic performances and field trips can be found by clicking here.