In a world riven with problems, we all still love a magician. Magical thinking used to be confined to little children: now it is the preserve of the Left, the Federal Reserve, the EU and Feminists. But a good entertaining show is even more needed in the face of that lot.
John Preston led off a great show in the Restaurant this evening. As diners ate, he recounted a few choice and funny stories before he introduced the two main acts.
He reminded those of us who new their magic history:
Magic, not altogether surprisingly, took off as a public spectacle during the Age of Reason, when the desire to believe in the inexplicable underwent a sudden, indirect, surge.
For a long time, China was held to be the source of the most powerful magic — it being very far away and full of famously inscrutable people. By the end of the 19th century, the theatres of London, Paris and New York were full of magicians with shaved heads and droopy moustaches and names like Fu Manchu.
Many, like Fu Manchu himself — real name David Bamberg — had never been further east than Barking, and therefore had to keep their stage patter to a minimum.
One man, Ching Ling Soo (aka William Robinson) only ever spoke on stage once. This was when his famous Bullet Catching Trick went horribly wrong and he was shot through the heart. The audience, assuming Ching’s death agonies were part of his act, were astonished to hear him shriek, in perfect English, ‘Oh my God, something’s happened! Lower the curtain!’
The French magician, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin — who Houdini named himself after — became such a national figure that in 1856 the French government begged him to come out of retirement to help quell a rebellion in Algeria.I think he is STILL needed in the Arab world. !
The rebellion was led by a group of Muslims called the Marabouts, and the French believed that if Houdin’s magic could be shown to be more powerful than the Marabouts’ proclaimed supernatural powers, their rebellion would fizzle out in ignominy.
In a tent in the desert, Houdin performed his Light and Heavy Chest Trick, which involved placing a wooden chest with a metal plate in the bottom above an electromagnet. As soon as the current was turned on, the box became impossible to lift.
The brawniest Marabout grasped the box’s metal handles and huffed and puffed futilely away — to the astonishment of his colleagues. For good measure, Houdin then re-directed the electrical current through the handles, prompting the Marabout to let loose an agonised scream and run from the tent. Sure enough, they never troubled the French again.
Karl the Necromancer, Hermann the Great, Carter the Mysterious, Bancroft the Magician… They all pass through these pages with their pointy beards and their swirling capes. But my favourite story here isn’t about magic at all — although it does give a vivid flavour of the atmosphere in 19th-century beer halls where many stage magicians plied their craft.
One evening in the 1890s the manager of a beer hall in New York stepped on stage and announced, ‘Now, gentlemen, Miss Lillian Dinkins will sing Love Among the Roses.’
‘She’s a whore!’, shouted a drunk in the audience.
Without missing a beat, the manager continued, ‘Nevertheless, Miss Dinkins will sing Love Among the Roses.’
Then it was onto the acts. No miss Lillian Dinkins, I am sad to say, but we did get Piff, the Magic Dragon. He came with a CV.
Then Michael Davis took us back before the current Left dominance to show us how he entertained way back when the Right was righter. Not that he was a 'real' magician, but sometimes even they turn to juggling on cold days when they need the exercise.
And so a good time was had by all and we were reminded of what a nice chap that Mr Reagan was. Frankly getting anyone to see a modern politician as 'nice' needs magic.