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.

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