Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sunday Gallery: Magic Relics

The Fechner Collection Sale

In the movie “The Prestige”, the mechanics of a collapsing miniature cage vanishing a canary by killing it, is one of the most persistent images remaining in the spectator. Of the thousands that saw the lavish film, the most probably ignore that such apparatus really existed, even if their working required some less cruelty. This gone world, between the late XVIII and the early XX century, from Mitteleuropa to United States, revolved around legendary craftmen, named Conradi-Hoster, Carl Brema, Willmann, masters of merging mechanics, chemistry and pneumathics.

One of the world’s largest collection of that kind was the one of French film moghul Christian Fechner: I was lucky to visit his Boulogne-Billancourt’s mansion where this cave of marvels was assembled. Was, because every year in October, a part of this unique collection is liquidated at Swann Galleries in New York. The third Fechner sale went on last week, and it included the “Goldin” chairs we published the other day.

The highest paid items was two posters. And, by coincidence, from the two most marvellous false orientals (and magic inventors) of the early 20th century stage: a unique French publicity for Okito (Theo Bamberg), sold at 42.0000 dollars; and a poster of Chung Ling Soo (W.E.Robinson) portrayed in the gun trick that costed him his life, sold at 24.000.

About collecting, we never can say if is more logical the assembling (on our personal criteria), or the casual dispersion. In a tribute to this dilemma, we offer today a gallery of some of the Fechner sold items: objects beautifully disconnected from their contexts, isolated by a photographer in their sublime and nonsensical surrealistic solitude, still reflecting the amber lights and glories of the early modern theatres, now carefully placed in in the morgue of the inanimated things in their sublime inutility.

To the profane, those mysterious objects can have at the same time the bizarre evocation of an ipothetic victorian sexy shop as well as a church’s sacresty. Their purposes seems so futile as complicate and ingenious is imagined their workings. Their names’ beautiful absurdity seems come from a collision between an André Breton poem, the Bible, a pricelist of some suburban cheap pranks store, a black mass inventory, a scrapbook from Salvador Dali or Lewis Carroll, an undertaker’s dream: cones of Satan, travelling die, canary’s grave, Aladdin’s casket, multiplying candles, production funnels, Solomon’s pillars, billiard ball candelabra, spirit bell, rapping hand, watch mortar…

Today, stage magic has lost the precious aspect of unconfortable mistery, and his innocent gaze on the unknown, sadly based today on “ props” missing the required power to evocate other worlds.

The Fechner Magic Sale (1)

The Fechner Magic Sale (2)

The Fechner Magic Sale (3)

The Fechner Magic Sale (4)

The Fechner Magic Sale (5)

The Fechner Magic Sale (6 and last)

Friday, October 26, 2007

Mouth Juggling Legends

This man was called "El Gran Picaso".
Portrayed here in a rare early moment of his career in some Spanish circus, he became one of the main features of the night club life around the world. In the magic era between the 60s and the 70s, he was one of the truly great Las Vegas stars.
He became famous in the world as "the man who juggles with his mouth".
When I first saw him in some European circus I was a child: what I remeber was an unconfortable gasp in my small throat every time he juggled a ping pong ball from his mouth...

Today "Picaso" is happily retired; but his son Francisco inherited his act in the 90s with the stage name, obviously, of Picaso jr. I had the opportunity to stage his act for my Ringling-Barnum's "Kaleidoscape" production.
And from the publicity of this show is this magnificent photograph of this second-generation "mouth juggler".
You can see him today performing in Germany at Circus Roncalli (probably the world's most beautiful one).

And you can have today a chance to a look back to El Gran Picaso in the video below.
Enjoy, but don't try it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The man who produced two chairs from one

Horace Goldin, one of the world's leading stage illusionists in the 10s and 20s, was famous for the speed and silent smoothness of his whirlwind acts. French theatre critic Louis Leon-Martin compared him to "a teacher of mathematics mounted on sliding spheres".

The London "Strand Magazine" pictured some of his bizarre feats, as this of producing two chairs from one, in mid-air.

After almost a century, those very same chairs are not disappeared, as the picture at the bottom proves.

Where are the chairs now?

Please wait until our next Sunday's gallery to learn more.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Chelman on Genii

For those of you used to the secrets of conjuring, may be interesting give a glimpse to the October issue of Genii, perhaps the world's most prestigious magicians magazine. Here you can read my cover story interview "A Shaman among Magicians", that I wrote about about performer and collector Christian Chelman from Bruxelles. Cover and article are graced with photographs by talented Belgian artist Anne-Laure Jacquart.
Mr. Chelman interests are a bizarre convergence between theatrical magic, cryptozoology, supernatural, gambling, lost civilizations and fairy tales. We posted about him on this blog exactly (and strangely) one year ago, Oct.20, 2006.: you can search about him at that page of the blog; or, far better, visit his unique Museum of Supernatural History at
My guarantee, you've seen nothing as it before.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sunday Gallery: Postmodern Pantomime Phenomenon

James Thierrée and the ghosts of Sadler's Wells

Sadler’s Wells in London is one of the oldest theatres in the world. Originated as a pleasure garden around 1660, it is the witness of that fascinating era when, without categories or laws, performers and audiences made no distinction between singers, acrobats, dancers, musicians, equestrian vaulting masters or actors, in the name of fantasy and amazement. It was the birthplace of pantomime: the theatrical discipline that, to show the realms of unknown and magic, had as pillars early stage transformations and machinery, conjuring, clowning and Commedia at his bests, impossible acrobatic skills, water spectaculars, ballets and oversized props and costumes. It was the house of Joe Grimaldi, ancestor of modern clowns, that struggled onstage against giant animated vegetables when not dissapearing into mid-air traps.

Finally, at the end of XVIII century, three great modern genres simultaneously emerged from that world: opera, ballet, and circus.

Today, Sadler’s Wells is still surviving on the same place: a modern building, temple of contemporary dance. Next week, a show will unsuspectably bring back the surreal tradition of early pantomime, even in all his modernity: it is due to James Thierrée’s company, with his third acclamed show “Au Revoir Parapluie” (literally: “farewell umbrella”). The perfect nightmare for the Halloween weekend.

If you don’t know James, he is one of world’s foremost visual performers: writer, director, acrobat, mime, dancer, actor, etc. Just as his father Jean Baptiste and his mother Victoria Chaplin. Just as his grandfather Charles Chaplin. Who, at his turn, was the most talented son of the London victorian pantomime stage, being at turn was the direct artistic heir of the Sadler’s Well’s ancestors. So the circle today closes, going back for a couple of week to the Grimaldi era and his absurd nightmares and transformations.

We devote to this bizarre coincidence today’s gallery.

If you live on the other side of the Ocean, this very same show will be presented in early December at Brooklin Academy of Music.

Sunday Gallery: James Thierrée's "Au Revoir Parapluie" (1)

Au Revoir Parapluie 2

Au Revoir Parapluie 3

Au Revoir Parapluie 4

Au Revoir Parapluie 5

Friday, October 19, 2007


The Nicolodis and
the golden age of music-hall acrobats

Nothing is for man closer to real flight than the purety of acrobatic. In a time when acrobats tends to sophisticate their gifts with elaborate coreographies and boutique presentations, we wish to remember the recent but gone era of night clubs and classical circuses. An era when acrobats graced the surreal twists of their bodies just with simple smiles, gazes to the girls in the house, or a bit of humor in real contact with the audience. They presented themselves as normal peoples, supported by a live band, seemingly enjoing the frenesy and the apparent easiness of their instead incredibly hard tricks.

This is the case of the Nicolodi, a family that for five generation have been performing in each corner of the globe, in front of admiring crowned heads, distracted jet-set tourists, or amazed family audiences in european villages.

I happened to spend for few years, the late 80s, nights after nights in the Moulin Rouge dressing rooms: hearing the audience and band during the acts, then seeing appearing the calm, sweating performers, as coming after a trip in an unreal world. The Nicolodi act was costumed as a kind of gala italian waiters, serving the most energetic acrobatic specialities ever compacted in the law of the seven minutes. Everytime you felt their act was finished, you had more.

Today this kind of acts just doesn’t exist anymore; but we can still gaze for seven minutes into the past.
Ladies and gentleman: the Nicolodi Troupe.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Circus Busch bizarries (6 and last)

Desperate escapists

Circus Busch bizarries (5)

Machines and Mysteries

Circus Busch bizarries (4)

Weimar years occultists

Circus Busch bizarries (3)

(Morten and McMorton)

Circus Busch bizarries(2)

Modern Samsons
(Marino and Breitbart)

Circus Busch bizarries(1)

Human volcanos and living hydrants

Sunday Poster Gallery: Circus Busch in the 20s

The imponent Circus Busch in Berlin marked the beginning of XX century as the last great European circus building. Opened by Paul Busch, it resisted the advent of the movies with his wagnerian-size pantomimes on historical and mythological themes.

In the 20’s, when the screen took the crown for the visual spectacle, Busch turned toward the strange, the inusual and the dark, reflecting the uncertain athmospere of the Weimar years.

So, from the predictable trained monkeys, the barnumian freaks or acrobatic prodigies, Busch promoted a series of more disturbing acts, emphasizing the domination of the natural forces or offering a glimpse on the supernatural ones (after all, Houdini was often a Busch feature). The man eated animals, survived sadistic challenges, turned himself into a radio, an hydrant or a volcano, celebrated the jewish masculinity or the feminine ability of seeing the future.

The Busch posters, almost often printed by Friedlander, began to reflect the unique stylized and often hallucinated of the German graphics in the 20s. In those years Busch was the temple of celebrated Hanussen the clairvoyant, killed after predicting the Reichstag fire.

Under a later conflagration, the Berlin bombing of 1945, human hydrants or death-defyng strongmen sadly were not there, to save Circus Busch from his final destruction. And his world of demons, rigurgitators, and magicians on the edge of suicide disappeared forever.

Today’s gallery is dedicated to the last era of this German cahtedral of the strange, when live entertainment could still give the thrills of the dark and unknown.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


A nostalgic curiosity about the noble and estinguished art of hoax

In 1841, P.T.Barnum discovered a curiosity brought from the South Seas called, as we know, the "Fiji Mermaid", becoming one of his greatest successes in the art of hoax.
Grace to a time still prived by photography, peoples was obliged to believe in drawings, and impresarios could speculate about their promises. Here, you see how the mermaid was announced (left), and the later famous artifact that you in reality saw once inside (right).

But less is known about the origins and previous iconography of the creature we know as "Fiji Mermaid", before Barnum revealed it to the world. Here is a japanese drawing, far older than Barnum himself.

You can learn more about the oriental origins of mermaids, from a wonderful documentation of Takeshi Yamada, "visual anthropologist", recently posted on

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Indian posters 5

"Every magician is the greatest magician in the world", said Orson Welles.
And that's the end of this Sunday's poster gallery.

Indian posters 4

Indian posters 3

Indian posters 2

Indian posters 1

Indian circus and magic posters gives us the flavour of a bollywood subculture.
They looks based on some leaflet hazardously arrived perhaps from Italy or Great Britain in the suitcase of some second-rate juggler, and quickly redesigned in cheap watercolurs by the local printer for the Indian impresario...

Sunday Poster Gallery: Indian Circuses

The most we know about circus in India is the famous photographic work of Mary Ellen Mark, that in the 90s was the subject of her beautiful book “Indian Circus”.
Some dozens of circuses travels in India today, with generic names as “Imperial, European, Continental, Royal, etc”. They are a combinatioin of mud and approximate clown make up, hippopotamuses and children performers, fourth-hand tents and dwarves motorcycle acrobats.

Today’s gallery is about their advertising.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Victoria's animal secrets

In the 1830s, Isaac Van Amburgh became a star of the rising Broadway stage. He was not an actor, neither a singer or a pianist. He acted pantomimes among his menagerie’s beasts. Crossing the ocean, he became a popular celebrity, establishing in Europe the tradition of the “lion drama”. It is said that he put peace between man and the animals, the lion and the lamb: at a point that Queen Victoria asked to visit the four-legged performers backstage during the day “for the purpose of seeing the animals in their more excited and savage state during the operation of feeding them”. And, for the purpose of guarantee to the young Queen her most reserved emotions and fantasies, “the animals had been kept purposely without food for six and thirty hours”.

Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-73), a prominent painter of the victorian era, assured to Van Amburgh the posterity with two beautiful oils, today in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. Reproduced here is “Isaac Van Amburgh and his Animals (1839)”.

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