Sunday, December 31, 2006

Prestigious Prestiges of the Past : Pepper’s Ghost

Further curiosities on science and magic

The recent movie “Prestige” developed, in many of our readers, curiosities and inspirations about the connections between science and magic: two fields which most glorious era coincided, as we remebered in our recent Robert-Houdin article.
The great first Victorian exemple was perhaps “Pepper’s Ghost”. Virtually every handbook or encyclopedia of theatre depicts the working of this stage invention, here proposed in a popular print from our collection. The invention of this mechanical projection of a ghost upon a stage was originated by Henry Dirks and John Henry Pepper of the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London, 1863. Its complicate history of fights and patents, subterfuges and variations, is not far from the atmosphere depicted in “Prestige”. But for their passionate narration, we suggest the literary achievements of Jim Steinmeyer.
Instead, we call your attention on the less known theatrical application of the said invention. Principally, it was used neither for standard magic shows nor for the stagings of opera or drama. After his birth as science demonstration, “Pepper’s Ghost” was used by theatrical companies specialized in dramatizations of the invention in popular circuits.
This poster from 1893, is from one of them: the now forgotten “Mr.Smith’s Original Pepper Ghost’s and Spectral Opera Company” (preserved in the London Public Record Office).
What exactly did a spectral opera company? They built the apparatus on and under the stage, then presented some sort of ghost variety show. It consisted in a selection of famous scenes from dramas, novels, or operas in wich at least a ghost included. We have of course some doubts on the acting talent of companies as Mr.Smith’s in playing the likes of Faust or Lancashire Witches. And we are more perplexed at the eventual singing abilities in selections from Flying Dutchman; or at the accuracy in the dramatization of literary classics as Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Christmas Carol.
But we firmly believe that the prestige was perfectly crafted, and the manifestations of spectres, evil or saints, was for the audience more thrilling at the times than any movie magic of today.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas Circuses

With a tribute to Bertram Mills

Few things are more connected to Christmas than a visit to the circus.
When I was a child, I had a great chance. In the 70s, Christmas circuses in Italy used to have the highest possible standard in the world. Stepping into one of those huge decorated big top, best if covered by recent snow, was for me a weird sensation. It felt as to step inside a christmas tree, or have a strange walk into a full life nativity diorama. The mysterious unfolding of the acts was a no minor pleasure of unwrapping toys and gift. And what gifts I was treated to, when at the circus!
I didn’t knew to be admiring legendary names: from the contorsions of Archie and Diana Bennett “directly from Las Vegas”, to the legendary Rastelli clowns; from Bulgarian teeterboard pioneers as Boitchanovi or Silagis, to cycling champions as Bertini, King Charles or New Dollys; the horse pyramids of the Caroli or Casartelli families; aerials from Miss Mara to the Flying Palacios, to the triple of Raul Jimenez…Elvin Bale…the Munoz on the wire; the risley icons Rios brothers; the lions of Darix Togni or the bears of Ursula Bottcher; the 25 elephants of Circo Americano; the lavish coreographies of Arturo Castilla or Liana Orfei, the water or ice circus pantomimes...
I can mention just few of the many I was used to see year by year, and all at few blocks from home.
But destiny, birth and age didn’t gave me the chance to know the best of all christmas circuses in history. I speak ofthe London Olympia circus created by Bertram Mills between 1919 and 1964. Only pictures and fading memories of few survivors are today remaining to describe this immense hall transformed for few week in the home of the best circus heroes of XX century. I think that for a child in London, this should have been better than a visit to Willy Wonka’s factory.
Beside the main circus hall, Mills used to build into the Olympia a menagerie, then the “fun fair” with his rides, a complete sideshow (mostly with Ringling attractions from overseas) including sometimes a lilliput village. An army of the greatest British clowns, the last heirs of classic pantomime, animated the shows. The trapeze net was all the time above your heads, remembering all the time the thrill of the circus. Sometimes Merle Evans was called as the band leader.You was sure to see the best animal acts in the world, and Willy Schumann was the equestrian director.
And the Queen, of course, came every year, and greeted each one of the performers backstage, from the unycicle juggler to the last of Ubangi savages.
As a tribute, we offer here a couple of images remembering this Mills era. One is from the imagination of famous painter Dame Laura Knight, that used to visit the Olympia show: this is a partial view of her huge painting “Charivari” (1928).
The other is a photo of the reality. Taken in the mid-30s, it depicts one of the incredible Schumann horse living carousels.
What about Christmas circuses today? The bests are actually in Germany, Switzerland, Holland, in temporary big tops or halls. And Big Apple at Lincoln Center in New York, of course. But if you wish to feel the real magic of a Christmas circus, the destinations are the two oldest circus buildings in the world: the Carrè Royal Theatre in Amsterdam, with the Knie family, and the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris, with the new generation of Bouglione dinasty. Wherhever you are, I guarantee that they both are worth the trip.

And Happy Holidays, of course.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

More Koringa

In 1937 Koringa was discovered by Cyril Mills in some French big top, and was booked at the London Olympia for the Holiday Season. Mr.Cyril remember in his memories that his legendary father Bertram Mills had some doubt, considering the act “someway borderline” . But an impressive advertising campaign was built, and the act was the success of the season.

Koringa’s act was basically the same of Blacaman’s: a first part of fakir classics as the sword ladder or the burial alive under the ring, then the hypnotism with reptiles: snakes before, than crocodiles.

The following picture from the Mills program is eloquent in all the erotic stimulation of obscure fantasies that the British audience between the wars could have hidden under the icy curtain of a London Christmas.

Koringa was such a success, that the act was kept on tour by Mills for the following big top season.

Friday, December 01, 2006


On the literary legitimization of legerdemain (celebrating two new editions of the old).

As in religions, the mytologies and legends of show-business are often started by biographies. Vocation and careers are said to be initiated at tender age by the noctural reading or the daydreaming of life and adventures of stage saints.We often forget that the so-called “father of modern magic” Robert-Houdin ( Jean-Eugene Robert, 1805-71) owes his worlwide fame more to the infinite editions and translations of his mémoirs, than to his effective performing career (shorter than other average long-life performers). His autobiography (Confidences d'un prestidigitateur- une vie d'artiste,1858) is a literary operation (enhanced by fiction) for a precise project: the social legitimation of magic elevated to the bourgeois “artiste” world from the outlaw vagabond jongleurs.
This vision evolved with more technical works. If later he wrote a treatise on gambling in the literary tradition of unmasking frauds (Les Tricheries des Grecs dévoilées ; l'art de gagner à tous les jeux, 1861), and after his career a pamplet on the built-in subterfuges of his haunted villa in Blois (Le Prieuré, organisations mystérieuses pour le confort et l'agrément d'une demeure,1867), more surprises was awaiting.
In the very last years of his life, he conceived two works that perhaps changed forever the concept of « magic literature ». Those two books ( Comment on devient sorcier. Les secrets de la prestidigitation et de la magie,1871, and Magie et physique amusante, postumous, 1877) are the first exemples of technical magic books not as pampleths to reveal “secrets” of sorcerers, nor simple pastimes. They are instead conceived as the divulgation of legitimate learning tools for everybody in the society willing to learn an harmless theatrical art.
For the first time, the subtle mechanics of hand dexterity and object mistification are described within the psycological frame of a true artistic context. A new art for a new world, when the industrial revolution was creating the concept of leisure, and the rise of photography was revolutioning the illusory reproduction of reality, the visual perception of the things and of the world. Monsieur Robert lived long enough to witness the progress of sophisticated science over simple mechanic. He slowly transformed himself from an horologist into an oftalmologyst. This contrast between the craft of automata and the evanescent mistery of new science is the most fascinating contribute of Robert-Houdin to the challenge of magic with the movies for her last “golden age”. It is a curious case if the Lumiere bros. photographic studio was installed in the floor above Robert-Houdin’s small theatre, and Georges Méliés inherited this same with his secrets.
Robert-Houdin books are the pillars on which the golden age of stage magicians was built between the XIX and XX centuries.
The erudite and boring notes above, may have stimulated some curiosities in bibliophily. An this brings us too into the subjects of actuality of the present post.
Until today, Robert’s books have been more or less availables, in various editions, but generally abridged. The complete editions have been preserved in some collection or libraries around the world.
Today, two centuries after the pioneer’s death, those works are the object of two distincts publishing efforts. One is French, the other American. The French publisher “Omnibus” presented few weeks ago the first ever complete edition of Robert-Houdin four books. It is an economic paperback edition conceveid for the general audience (as the author’s intention was, before the rising of the “magic fraternity” hypocrisy), at the bargain prize of 24 Euros for more than 900 pages (check it on In the last few days, a very beautiful essay on the books appeared on Le Monde with the prestigious signature of Christian Fechner. You don’t read French? Coincidentally, last October, the magic publishing house Miracle Factory ( animated by Toddd Karr, presented a very elegant and sophisticated English translation, rich in illustrations and enhanced with commentaries by experts.

A pedantic appendice to our notes: Robert-Houdin wrote also a treatise on oftalmology: Note sur de nouveaux instruments propres à l'observation des divers organes de l'oeil ainsi qu'à la manifestation des images entoptiques (1867) . It is not included in none of the two new edition, but we honestly thinks that it should not be a a remarkable loss for the readers.

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