December 17, 1998
University Gazette


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It's Magic! Exhibition Examines 19th-Century Magicians

By Ken Gewertz
Gazette Staff

"Levitation." Woodcut poster printed in six colors, Stratford and Co., Nottingham.

Harry Kellar boasted that he would levitate "from stage to dome without mechanical appliances." Patrizio caught fired cannon balls in his bare hands. Signor Cavanenghi promised to eat a live man, while the Fakir of Ava advertised that he would not only perform magic but give gifts to the audience, including "sofas, lounges, tons of coal, cooking stoves, silver plated tea sets, dressing bureaus and mirrors! Livestock of all kinds."

Although these 19th-century prestidigitators have long ago performed their final disappearing acts, traces of their colorful careers remain in the form of posters, pamphlets, advertisements, playbills, photographs, and magic apparatus. A selection of these items is now on display at the Harvard Theatre Collection in Pusey Library.

"The Imagery of Illusion: Nineteenth Century Magic and Deception" can be seen through March 18, 1999. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

Alexander Hermann. Lithograph poster printed by Forbes Co., Boston and New York.

All items in the exhibition are from the Theatre Collection's archives and represent only a small portion of the materials on the arts of magic, conjuring, and illusion. They were selected by Fredric Woodbridge Wilson, curator of the Theatre Collection, and guest curator Ricky Jay, professional sleight-of-hand artist, author, and actor.

Jay, a specialist in card tricks and other "close-up" magic, appeared off-Broadway last season in a one-man show, Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants. The production was directed by playwright David Mamet and played to sold-out houses.

Jay is the author of several books on magic and unusual entertainments, including Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women. He has also appeared in several films, including House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, and Boogie Nights.

A collector in the history of magic, Jay was curator of the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts, in Los Angeles. He is also renowned for his ability to toss playing cards with enough force to slice into a watermelon, a skill he wrote about in his first book, Cards as Weapons.

"Ricky Jay brought a unique perspective to the project," Wilson said of his co-curator. "He's not only a brilliant performer, but he's also an author and historian. We had a great time working together."

Wilson said that he knew of Jay not only as a writer and performer, but also as a fellow collector of theatrical materials. A dealer who knew them both introduced them to one another.

"When I discovered that the Theatre Collection had all this material on the history of magic, it gave me the idea for an exhibition. Ricky Jay seemed the ideal person to curate it, and fortunately he was available," Wilson said.

"Zykes the Showman." Lithograph poster by Rothengatter, printed by the Metropolitan Printing Co., New York, advertising a play called "Zykes the Showman."

Jay gave a slide lecture on Dec. 9 at Agassiz Theatre to kick off the exhibition, adding background information to each image with his erudite and bemused commentary. Signor Cavanenghi, for example, never did eat a live man, at least to anyone's knowledge. What he did do was ask for volunteers, who were rarely forthcoming. When the occasional masochist actually did step up on stage, the magician would calmly sprinkle salt and pepper on the volunteer's arm and bite into it, which generally caused the volunteer to flee.

During a question-and-answer period, a woman asked Jay if he would perform a card trick. Jay, who just happened to have a deck of cards with him, complied, and had audience members pick cards without showing them to him. Then after a display of virtuoso shuffling, he made the cards leap from the deck in various surprising ways. He ended by tossing the deck into the air, then skimming two or three cards at great velocity into the balcony. To this writer's knowledge, no one was killed or injured.

To create the exhibition, Jay and Wilson sorted through thousands of items, finally narrowing their scope to the 19th century, a time "when the public had developed an unquenchable thirst for entertainments of all kinds," Wilson wrote in a background article.

It was also a time when professional conjurers were developing "illusions that were based on technology and natural phenomena - tricks and illusions based on smoke and mirrors - levitations and disappearances and decapitations, nearly all of which required ingenious and finely crafted apparatus, special lighting, and, above all, meticulous technique."

Some magicians achieved great and wealth and notoriety. Alexander Hermann, the most famous magician in America, had a mansion on Long Island, his own railroad car, and a personal yacht.

The posters, playbills, and other items displayed in the exhibition provide an evocative glimpse into this strange and colorful world. The many varieties of magic and deception are represented. There are conjurers and jugglers from India and China, illusionists who cause ghosts, devils, mermaids, and skeletons to float through the darkness, mind readers and spiritualists, amazing automata that smoke cigarettes and play musical instruments, and trained animals, including "Bismarck, the pig of genius."

"The Phenomena, The Largest Illusory Apparatus in the World!" Color woodcut poster printed by Hugh Miller, London, for the Lyric Hall, London, 1843.

The amount and variety of these items reflect the tremendous depth of the Harvard Theatre Collection, the oldest and one of the largest of its kind in the world. The Collection, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2001, got its first major boost in 1915, when it acquired the collection of Robert Gould Shaw, cousin of the Civil War hero of the same name who led a regiment of African-American soldiers in an attack on Fort Wagner. Two years later Harvard acquired the even larger collection of Evert Wendell.

The Collection is particularly strong in dance, music, English-speaking theater, original manuscripts (including many by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill), rare books, drawings, and theatrical artifacts.

"The Imagery of Illusion" is one of four exhibitions that the Collection will present this year.


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College