Friday, December 13, 2013

Review of Chicago Magic by David Witter

Review of Chicago Magic by David Witter

Magic has been my life. A big part of that magic life has been a devotion to the history of the art, specifically in Chicago. It makes reading the newly published book, Chicago Magic, by David Witter all the more distressing.

The book is riddled with historical errors and out right fabrications. The body of the book is 112 pages of long from the Introduction to the end of the story and I have 10 pages of notes correcting the lack of care Mr. Witter put into his book.

There are more mistakes than I want to recount here, so I will give you an example of a single chapter.

Chapter 8 – Schulien’s

(Note: There is really only one source needed in writing a story on the Schulien Restaurant: The Magic of Matt Schulien by Phil Willmarth, first published in 1959 by Ireland Magic CO. (Magic, Inc.), a book not in the thin bibliography supplied by Mr. Witter.)

 P 61-The chapter starts with a dramatization of Charlie Schulien performing Matt’s Card on the Wall, except Charlie never performed the trick.  None of Matt’s children did Matt’s trademark trick. It was “dad’s trick.”  (Page 142, The Magic of Matt Schulien)

P 62- Throughout the book Witter misspells and, flat out, misnames many performers. He repeatedly calls Don Alan, Don Allen, especially egregious because Don is one of the most important and influential magicians to come out of Chicago.  In Chicago Magic he is mentioned several times, but as no more than a bystander to the magic world. Second, He misnames beloved magician Jimmy Krzak as Mike Krzak. It is just sloppy work.

P 63- On this page there is a lovely picture of Matt Schulien, Jay Marshall, and an unidentified magician at the door of Schulien’s. Except, it is really a picture of Charlie Schulien, Jay Marshall, and Phil Willmarth at that door. The photo matches others used in The Magic of Matt Schulien.

P 64- Witter states that Joseph Schulien bought the saloon Quincy No 9 for the Schlitz Brewing Company. Actually, this was one of many bars Joe bought for himself. He made a business of buying or opening saloons , building up the business, and then selling it off.   He finally settled at 1800 N Halsted creating the first Schulien’s.

He also says that in 1948, Matt moved north to 2100 W Irving Park. It was 1949. He also writes that at Irving Park they started serving food. Wrong again. The “1800” was also a restaurant.

In the same paragraph he misspells the name of the restaurant currently in the Irving Park space as O’Donavan’s (Actual spelling: O’Donovan’s) and he misspells the name of the restaurant across the street, Lashet’s (Actually: Laschet’s). He’ll go on to misspell it later in the chapter, also.
Continuing on page 64 Witter quotes magician Al James on the birth of magic at Schulien’s. He says that Harry Blackstone Sr. performing magic tableside in the restaurant inspired Matt. The story is false. It does not appear in The Magic of Matt Schulien. In the foreword by Harry Blackstone Sr., it is not mentioned. In the wonderful essay, recounting the history of Schulien’s, Not the Best, but the Biggest by Frances Marshall does not include the story. In Matt’s own words, describing how he got into magic, the Blackstone story is nowhere to be found.

P 65- Witter writes that Matt Schulien died in a plane crash in 1959. This is the sloppiest of research. Matt Schulien died in 1967. Matt’s Son, Matt Schulien Jr., died in that plane crash. How you could get that wrong is beyond any reasonable thought. I am left scratching my head.

P 66- Witter now recounts the story of Al James performing the Houdini Milk Can Escape as a publicity stunt at the restaurant. As background, Witter writes about Houdini and the escape.

Excusable is the fact they get Houdini’s birthday wrong, April 6 was believed to be Houdini’s birthday, but more than 20 years ago it was shown to be March 24. If only Mr. Witter had some source, like a book about Houdini where he could confirm the date. Oh wait, he has three listed in the bibliography. Or maybe if he had some convenient way to search the internet to quickly find a source talking about Houdini. Oh wait, he could have googled Houdini and found his Wikipedia page. Wikipedia being a source listed in the book’s bibliography.

He also gets the details of escape wrong as performed by Houdini. If he would have actually read the Houdini books in his bibliography he would have learned that the Milk Can was invented by Montreville Wood from Berwyn IL and the original can was built in Chicago. Not invented by Houdini.

They did not fill the can with water while Houdini was in the can. It was filled before.

Houdini did not let spectators get into the can.

Houdini’s assistant Franz Kukol did not stand by the can with an axe asking the audience if they thought it was time to “hack.”

P 68- Here we go again. For a guy who purports to know Chicago history, why can’t you spell White Sox broadcaster Harry Caray’s name correctly? (Harry Carey)

 First, he writes that Schulien’s moved in 1948, now he writes it moved in 1947. He has two tries at the date and both are wrong.

He implies that Ed Schulien (Matt’s sons, Charlie and Ed, ran the business after Matt retired in 1952.) dropped out of the business and then Charlie sold out in 1999. In reality, Ed left the business in 1974.

And that ends the chapter.

Surprisingly, Witter misses the most important part of Schulien’s legacy. There is an acknowledged Chicago Style of Magic. Matt Schulien developed this style at Schulien’s. It is never mentioned. In a Chicago magic history book. Not once.

Virtually, every chapter that has anything to do with history has similar problems.

Witter also makes two confounding choices to end the book. The second to last chapter is a list of songs with a magic theme. The last chapter is a list of celebrities that do/did magic. Neither of these chapters has Chicago connections, so why are they in a book about Chicago Magic. It is the laziest kind of filler.

Finally, the book is poorly written. Especially shocking because the biography of Mr. Witter tells us that he is an English teacher.  However, as you’ve already seen, being devoid of any editorial process is the least of the book’s problems.

If you like your history fabricated then you’ll love this book , but if you want your history to be…true, then move along there is nothing to see here. Just a train wreck.

One of the worst history books I’ve ever read.

Monday, September 02, 2013

In 1890, Barnum’s voice was recorded on an Edison cylinder. I’ve had a copy for a while, but it has always been too degraded to play in my show. I just found a cleaned up version and made a little video for it. Now, you can see and hear it on my website.

Friday, April 19, 2013


I will be slowly moving the better parts of this blog to my newly improved website. Please feel free to visit me there:

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Artistic Magic Props

I cannot say enough about the fine wood Chop Cup and Benson Bowls that Evanna hand crafts. They are true works of art that you can perform with in your everyday show. Go buy one. Or two.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The 12th LA Conference on Magic History 2011

November 12 – Saturday

There will be only two events on Saturday, a field trip and the big show.


The second field trip of the Conference is to what is called’ “the most famous address in magic.” I guess for the west coast centric magic community that may be so. I expect so Midwesterners or east coasters may have their own choices. Either way this private residence is home to a long and great magic legacy.

In 1930, Floyd Thayer opened his Studio of Magic in his home. It was named Brookledge because out behind Thayer built an addition on the home which transverses a small brook that runs though the back yard. This housed his workshop and an ornate theater.

The theater was used as a demonstration platform for the new Thayer products. Every Saturday afternoon magicians, notable or not, would gather in the theater to watch the Thayer demonstrator show off the newest in magic.

The aim of the presentation today was to give us an experience of one of those afternoons. It was a huge success.

We were transported to Thayer’s 1942. Mike Caveney emceed and gave some historical tidbits, like that Orson Wells rehearsed his Mercury Wonder Show on that stage. He then introduced the newest of the Thayer demonstrators, the young Marvyn Roy.
Okay, Mr. Electric isn’t so young anymore, but in 1942 the war had taken Thayer’s demonstrator. The teenage Marvyn got the promotion.

I’ve seen Marvyn at several of these conventions and he has always seemed…old, frail. But on this day, he was also transported to 1942. He commanded the stage with renewed vigor and great humor. He still has all that charm and greatness in him. Marvyn showed off the new Thayer catalog. “Only 1 dollar. I know you are thinking that is a lot of money,” drew laughs from the audience and the line became a running joke every time he announced the 1942 price.

This was the second emotional moment in the Conference. It was a strong one. A lasting memory.

Brookledge is now owned by the Larsen family (In an elaborate deal in which part of the purchase they traded houses with the Thayers.) We have them to thank for opening their home for this event.

The demonstration/show was closed by Brett Loudermilk, a real up and coming sideshow performer and Liberty Larsen. They demonstrated a larger Thayer illusion. Afterward we were treated to lemonade and cookies in the garden just like Jennie Thayer would lay out for the magicians so many years ago.

The Show

The Saturday night show is where it all the previous days’ work comes together. Talk becomes action. The magic of the past returns to life to inspire the magic of the future. It is the lucky position of us historians to reveal this important idea to the public. The show will also bring out a couple of celebrities, Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes sat right behind me.

This night John Gaughan will perform with Robert-Houdin’s acrobatic automaton Antonio Diavolo which, surprising had never before appeared at a Conference. Antonio is a fine performer, restored by John some years back. It has been seen on several TV specials, but is appreciated all the more in live performance. A quick search of youtube will reveal a performance if you are curious.

Mike Caveney reminded all of us as to what a fine performer he is. As a 19 year old he assisted Orson Wells on the Johnny Carson show. Tonight, he would play Orson and recreate the performance word for word. It is a simple vanish and reproduction of a Persian princess embellished with Orson’s Arabian Nights style script. This bit was marred only by a slight technical glitch when the prop gun fails to fire, but saved by Mike’s funny adlib. The act was followed by the original recording of Orson’s performance. It turns out that Mike sucked us all in. This recreation was actually word for word, even the “mistake” and adlib was Orson’s. We the audience was totally invested in the performance and heartily laughed at seeing we were fooled. Orson got a huge audience reaction from the audience present at his performance and Mike got just as huge a reaction for his work.

Jim Steinmeyer will introduce the next part of the show. For years the Conference hosts have avoided the straight recreations of performers of the past, feeling that such bordered on the ghoulish. They rather perform the old as new. Tonight they depart from such thinking in the most successful way, Jonathan Levit performs as Thurston. Using first hand and written accounts of Howard Thurston’s shows, they will give us the experience of seeing the great magician perform his Rising Cards and Sawing a Lady in Halves.

The show closed with a homage to the McElroy brothers, makers or ventriloquism figure by the superstar ventriloquist, Jeff Dunham. Jeff recently had John Gaughan restore one of his figures and after a little of John’s arm twisting, Jeff agreed to fit the conference into his busy schedule. Jeff showed pieces from his collection of figures, demonstrating the progression of the figures through the McElroy’s career and peppering his talk with humorous adlibs. He closed to an ovation with his familiar character, Walter, and some new scripted material. Wisely no one had to follow him and we ended the night on a high note. 

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The 12th LA Conference on Magic History 2011

The 12th LA Conference on Magic History 2011

November 11 – Friday

In the morning is the first of two field trips arranged for the Conference. Starting early buses head out to the Skirball Cultural Center. The Skirball recently hosted the Houdini exhibit and in conjunction created Masters of Illusion, Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age.

The exhibit contained treasures from the collections of Burt Sperber, Mike Caveney, John Gaughan, Bill Kalush, Ricky Jay, Richard Hatch, Ken Trombly, Gary Frank, Les Arnold, Bob Rossi, Bruce Averbook, Cary and Joseph Hanosek, Barry Katz, Chris Woodward, Bob Underwood, Arthur Moses, and Saratoga Ballantine.

John Gaughan’s own magic room was the inspiration for the dark wood Victorian style of the displays. The lavish exhibit presented items from the earliest English book containing magic, Discoverie of Witchcraft, to props from the act of Mr. Electric, Marvyn Roy.

Available from Mike Caveney is a slick exhibit catalog with photos and descriptions.

Afternoon Session

A Magical Romance
Charles McCall tells the story of the courtship of McDonald Birch and Mabel Sperry. First, just hired for the show as assistant and Xylophone act, Mabel was set against any romance with Birch. But like running water on the rock, shore he wore down her objections and revealed the perfect mate. She even handled the business for the act. (A magician’s dream!) Charles really only covered their relationship up to their marriage and this made for an odd moment like when he jumped from the couple’s marriage to McDonald’s death many years later without pause to comment on the years in between.

Poster Restoration
John Davis of Poster Mountain is Mike Caveney’s go to guy for restoring and preserving his legendary poster collection. John will give an illustrated talk of his efforts to do the repairs needed to bring the posters to “new” condition. John is a leading authority on ethical restoration (restoration not to deceive) and has a passion for posters that came through in his talk. One quote in particular stood out, he said he preserved these posters as a “remembrance of the world that once was.”

The Thought Reader Craze
Barry Wiley discussed the rise of the “mentalists” in the late Victorian age. The family tree of these performers started in Chicago with John Randall Brown, who originally practiced contact mind reading and then expanded into other stunts. He begat the celebrated and infamous Washington Irving Bishop, who worked for Brown and stole the act. Bishop’s own assistant, Stuart Charles Cumberland, (Apparently, mentalists, assassins, and serial killers all need three names.) “borrowed” the act and, while lesser known, became the most financially successful of the group. This was a preview of Barry’s forthcoming book on the subject. If it is anything like his Anna Eva Fay book, it should be an excellent piece of history.

Evening Session

Gary Hunt spoke on Minerva, the great female “Houdini.”  Minerva had a successful career in the European music halls copying the stunts of Houdini. She was a beautiful, yet powerful woman who could stand the rigors of escaping from straitjackets, water filled barrels, and handcuffed bridge jumps. Although one reviewer thought it was not pleasing to see a woman exert herself like that. It cannot be denied there was a definite sexual and social subtext to the performance of a woman being tied up on stage. In fact, Gary could not resist repeatedly alluding to the various men/husbands in Minerva’s life. To this observer his tone smacked of that same kind of misogyny that has permeated magic for much too long.  Otherwise it was an excellent talk and it looks like another well researched book will be coming out soon.

Sanders and Erdnase
Writer Marty Demarest recaps his research on his candidate for the identity of Erdnase. If you want to know what his talk was, read the article in Genii. It was the same information. After that, get your hands on a copy of the most recent Magicol (#180 August 2011), which is focused on all things Erdnase. There are several well written, informative, and thoughtful articles on the subject. The most I can tell you is that while just about every presenter this weekend was a performer, Marty, a writer, gave the best presentation of any speaker. I am not sure what to make of that.

Phil Shwartz gave a brief history of the “most famous address in magic.” He then hosted a panel discussion of the residence with Marvyn Roy, Irene Larson, and Milt Larson. I’ll write more about Brookledge in my next installment when we actually visit the house.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The 12th LA Conference on Magic History 2011

November 10 – Thursday

From almost the moment the last Conference ended I’ve been waiting for the next one, like a child counting down the days before Christmas. It wasn’t a daily obsession, but always there, in the background. This convention is that special of an experience.

I arrived a couple of days early. Time for me to relax after a busy October and do a few touristy type things including my traditional visit to the Magic Castle. There were quite a few other early arrivers and what is really the best part of the Conference started early, the social interaction. I’ve written about it before and I won’t write a long list of names, but increasingly this is my favorite part. Mostly over at the bar, I got to visit with old friends and make new ones. Had two long conversations with an amazing woman and got to know her a little better, more than confirming that amazing part.

Thursday is the pick-up of the registration packets and where the fun really begins. I specifically avoided any knowledge of what the events might be in order to be surprised. Everyone tears into their packets, again like Christmas morning, to see what they hold.

Inside are our badges, schedules, and the beautiful Conference program put together by Jim Steinmeyer. The program is 40 glossy pages of picture and articles illustrating the days’ events.

The first session will start at 2:30

John Gaughan will begin our day with a tribute to some of our friends who have passed including Burton Sperber, who spoke several times and often provided expensively produced booklets on the subject matter to the Conference attendees at his own expense. He will then introduce Margaret Steele

Margaret is a magician who is widely known for her recreation performances as Adelaide Herrmann. She has been a tireless researcher on the life of Adelaide Herrmann and has some exciting news. After years of following leads and rumors, Margaret has discovered the existence of Adelaide’s autobiography. A manuscript lost to the magic world for 78 years. Adelaide can be considered the first great magic assistant, a true partner to her husband Alexander. She can also be considered the first great female magician, a successful vaudeville headliner. Most of Margaret’s talk will deal with the lavish, expensive book she published containing the manuscript, full color pictures, and her own additions to the story. She does tell us that 25 of the 30 chapters cover Adelaide’s life with Alexander. There she creates a narrative of how she wanted him to be remembered, no warts here. She often takes credit for improving the act and adding a more theatrical sense to the show. The last 5 chapters in the book cover her 30 years after her husband’s death. I eagerly await a non-collector’s version of this important memoir.

Ho Yam was the stage name of William Mayoh, who adopted the “Chinese style” of performance after seeing magicians’ acts such as by Okito. In 1949, he published the book “Ho Yam Mysteries” describing his stage magic. Years ago, Nate Kvetny met Mayoh and purchased some of his costumes and custom apparatus. Because of his accent and halting way of speaking English, Nate chooses to use a friend’s recording of the introduction to Ho Yam’s book as an introduction to the man and his performing philosophies. This goes on for much too long. I begin to think it might be an “Andy Kaufman” type bit and it will just go on and on until the audience gives up. When finished, Nate will perform a series of production effects using Ho Yam’s original props. He wears Ho Yam’s hand embroidered costume. It is a delicate and old fashioned performance that is magical, especially since some of those props are nearly 100 years old.

The last talk of the afternoon is a somewhat bizarre one. Bill Taylor will speak about the set of cups and balls Dai Vernon used. Well, actually, just the cups specifically. Oh, and another set just like them. He gets into the minutia of their construction including the various ways a metal cup can be constructed. He will also talk about their exact measurements (because they were handmade each is a little different). Also, we’ll learn about the silver/lead/copper and other metal content of the cups, all of them. I do give him credit for his diligent detective work, but really, I don’t know who cares about this, beside him apparently.

The Evening Session 7:30

In the first talk Steve Freeman discusses his experiences with Suzy Cottrell. First a little background on Suzy from an article on “sightless vision”: “Outstanding in the field of sightless vision was Susie Cottrell, a student at the University of Kansas, who appeared in the American Johnny Carson "Tonight Show" in 1977, and whose claims were extensively tested by a Denver psychiatrist and parapsychologist Dr Jule Eisenbud, and other highly qualified academics. Susie Cottrell's repertoire included predicting the selection of a nominated card, the order of the cards in a deck, the sequence of suits, the naming of cards in sealed envelopes and predicting which persons would select the highest cards in a simple dealing of the pack…”

Steve was invited to a private party to meet Suzy and to try to discern her methods. Immediately, he recognized she was using trickery, an advanced use of a Matt Schulien card force among other techniques. In one on one “testing” with Steve, she failed terribly. Missing the card more than a dozen times in a row. After Steve broke down her methods and his experience, he played a video of her 17 minute appearance on the Tonight Show.

Following Steve was the most eagerly awaited and most disappointing events of the weekend. The legendary Philip Morris would appear. Did I say disappointing, I meant disastrous. I want to learn more about the man; instead we got a commercial for his business Morris Costumes and all it provides. Then he spoke about his involvement in the Bigfoot film hoax. This went on much to long, as if he was trying to build a case that Bigfoot is fake. We know that already. He showed video clip after video clip, all of them saying exactly the same thing to support his case. Simply said, too much of that other garbage and not enough Morris. I might suggest anyone else considering him for their convention to do an interview format. Philip has to have some great stories to tell, just not on this night.

One of the big surprises and heart warming moments of the weekend was the introduction of Albert Ching. For years, Mike Caveney sent guests to a little hamburger shack called the White Hut, but it wasn’t until Arden James mentioned he did magic that it was revealed that the owner was a magician also. And not just any magician. After serving our country in World War II (Thank you, Albert!), he took advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled in the Chavez School of Magic, where he learned from Benny and Marion Chavez. He went on to perform at the Palace in New York (3 times) and appeared twice on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town. We were treated to a short clip of Ching, The Oriental Mystifier on that same show. A fine performance. Albert and his family were treated to extended applause. It was an emotional moment for all of us.