Thursday, March 15, 2018

Poor Jennie

I just read Hiding The Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer.  It's a history of the world of magic in the late 1800s and early 1900s, particularly in Britain and America.  David Devant, Harry Kellar, John Nevil Maskelyne and Howard Thurston may not be very well known today, but a century ago they were literally names to conjure with.

Of course, there's the biggest name of all, Harry Houdini.  He transcended the genre.  The book's title refers to the famous trick where he vanished an elephant (her name was Jennie and she was 8 feet high).  Houdini is just one of the characters in the book, but he haunts it, because, if he wasn't the greatest magician, he was certainly the best self-promoter, which is why we still talk about him--magic is as much about presentation as anything, and Houdini was presenting himself, not his tricks.

And what about his trick?  It actually wasn't that great, since it was done on a giant stage (the Hippodrome, as big as a football field) and only a small portion of the audience had proper sightlines.  Everyone else had to pretty much take Houdini's word for it.  But that's the point--Houdini did it, and then promoted that fact relentlessly.

Indeed, he wasn't necessarily as talented as the top magicians of his time, but he was the greatest escape artist (though that involved plenty of trickery as well) and knew how to get his name in the papers.  He was also a bit of a jerk, quite jealous and ready to attack any contemporaries if he felt threatened.

It's understandable that Houdini might fear for his reputation.  When you think about it (as author Steinmeyer has--he's been designing magic tricks for decades), there are only a handful of moves magicians have.  Those at the top and bottom of the craft are doing essentially the same tricks--what makes it magical is how it's perceived by the audience.  Hiding The Elephant appreciates the art, and hearing the stories of great illusionists like Devant and Thurston gives you an appreciation of how true (i.e., fake) magic works.

By the way, Steinmeyer does explain how many of the famous tricks of the past were done, including Houdini's elephant.  If you want to know, read the book (or some of the other books that give away such information, or go the YouTube, for that matter).  But be warned, knowing how a trick done is often disappointing.  It appears so mysterious when you don't know, and so dumb when you do.  Generally, it's smoke and mirrors (and in the book, mostly the latter).  But how the tricks are done is gravy.  Making the world of a century or so ago come alive is the real fun.

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