Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Magic Magazine

This is a slightly edited version of an editorial I wrote for Magic Magazine. ( One of the things we should do as a community is support magazines like Magic and Genii. They generally provide wonderful opportunities to tell the stories of our art.)

Ever wanted to solve a mystery? It’s our job, you know, as magicians. We solve a mystery. We show it to our audiences. They wonder at and often try to solve it themselves.
What if I was to tell you there are other mysteries—normally reserved for a select few—waiting for your discovery? Would you say yes to your adventure?
I did.
Let me tell you what I’ve gotten myself into. In 2004, I naively decided I would write the history of magic in Chicago. A great idea, so great nobody has ever thought to try. A project so monumentally large, no one has ever dared to try. So, where to start?
Well, to get the full history, you start as early as possible. My local library owns the microfilm archives of the Chicago Tribune starting at 1864. To date I’ve gone through nearly a quarter of a million pages up to 1894. Now you are asking yourself, besides a mind-boggling stack of paper what do all these pages add up to?
I found a previously unreported event in the life of Harry Kellar. I discovered the first magic shop in Chicago and uncovered an interview with August Roterberg that has not been seen since it was first published. That is just a start to the discoveries.
There is so much information that I have been unable to process it. I did manage to self-publish two books, got invited to the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History, lectured at the same conference and rubbed shoulders with Jim Steinmeyer, Mike Caveney, Ricky Jay, and Teller, among others.
The good news is that you can do it too.
Now, I don’t expect that you will make the same commitment of time that I did. And I am sure I do not have to explain to you how important it is to preserve our collective history. The thing you have to know is that history is a democratic process. Look at the back of any book of history. It is written by the hands of the many, not the hands of the few. Our history should not and cannot be left to the few of our elite storytellers. The great thing is—they want to share it. The men named above are generous with their knowledge and they acknowledge that they cannot continue to write the complete story alone.
They want your help. You can continue to add to our knowledge. After I received the book Kellar’s Wonders, I thought there was nothing left to report about Kellar’s life. I was wrong. The story is not finished when the writing is done. Who knows what discoveries are waiting to be found in the newspaper archives in your town?
Did Kellar come to your town? Or Herrmann? Or Houdini? The stories are there. Silently waiting. When and what theater did they play? What did the press write about them? The smallest fact you may uncover may change the way we look at a legend. You may even uncover a forgotten master, lost to the world.
Most importantly, you will be saving the stories. It is all about the stories. I cannot afford the prices of posters, props, or antique books. The fact that those things seem important is magic’s greatest illusion, it’s the stories attached to these things that make them valuable.
I collect these stories. I relish the humor, sadness, and drama in the lives of the past. I try best to learn lessons from their experience.
Did you enjoy reading Ricky Jay’s Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women or Jim Steinmeyer’s Hiding the Elephant? You’ll meet the legendary, the anonymous, the unusual and the most interesting performers, personally.
You do not have to be a writer. The ads and articles will speak for themselves. You do not have to decide what is important or not. Every bit of every story is important. So how do you start playing Indiana Jones?
In small ways.
Save the stories you are told. Write them down. Pass them on. Seek out new stories, listen, and ask questions. In the last year, we lost Jay Marshall and Bob Read and all the stories they had to share. Can we afford to lose any more? You can find a history in all men’s lives.
Also, support your local library. Find your town’s local newspaper archives; these are your most important resources for information. Again, you do not have to make the same commitment of time that I made.
But, spend some time, any time, going through the papers. Do not get discouraged, discoveries come by the application of persistence, they rarely occur instantly.
There are mysteries waiting for you. Isn’t time you found them?
For all of us.

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