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Authors: The Last Greatest Magician in the World

Jim Steinmeyer

Table of Contents
 
 
 
JEREMY P. TARCHER/PENGUIN
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Copyright © 2011 by Jim Steinmeyer
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Steinmeyer, Jim.
The last greatest magician in the world :
Howard Thurston versus Houdini & the battles of the American wizards / Jim Steinmeyer.
p. cm.
eISBN : 978-1-101-48634-4
1. Thurston, Howard, 1869-1936. 2. Houdini, Harry, 1874-1926. 3. Magicians—United States—Biography.
4. Magic—United States—History. I. Title.
GV1545.T5S
793.8092’2—dc22
[B]
 
 
 
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INTRODUCTION
“I WOULDN’T DECEIVE YOU ...”
E
very work of art is a mystery. That’s the difference between a crudely painted portrait—which is too honest and functional to intrigue us—and the
Mona Lisa
, which gives and conceals at the same time. The mystery provides a peculiar and distinctive thrill. We return to puzzle over the subject, her sanguine features, or the astonishing techniques used by the artist to so perfectly capture a brief moment of changing expression. We concoct stories to explain this layered puzzle. It initially attracts on an emotional level, and then continually challenges on an intellectual level.
Every performance is a magic show. The audience trusts the magician—depending on the performance, they might use the term
actor
,
comedian
, or
playwright
—who uses equal doses of deception and honesty to lure us through a transparent fantasy, and then engage us, bemuse us by the unexpected plausibility of it all, and ultimately delight us with a genuine surprise. If a magic show today seems old-fashioned or unnecessary, that’s because so many of its essential elements have been purloined by other forms of entertainment. The wires, trapdoors, and artful exaggerations, which were once the specialty of magicians like Howard Thurston, the subject of this book, have been integrated into much of our storytelling.
I suppose this is a shame, for a good magic show, experienced in person, is uniquely, elementally entertaining. It encapsulates the experience of wonder and exploits our need for unadulterated fantasy. Modern audiences like to tell themselves that fashions have changed, or that unadorned marvels—magic for magic’s sake—are out-of-date or unsophisticated. Yet audiences have developed a taste for songs that further a story (a Broadway musical), as well as songs that are presented for their own sake (a performer in concert).
It is the public’s fickleness with their magicians that has left Howard Thurston all but forgotten today. His story is one of the most remarkable in show business. During his life, from 1869 to 1936, he successfully navigated the most dramatic changes in entertainment—from street performances to sideshows to wagon tours through America’s western territories. He became one of the world’s most renowned vaudeville stars, boldly performing an act with just a handful of playing cards, and then had the sense to leave vaudeville, expanding his show into an extravaganza with over forty tons of apparatus and costumes. His touring production was an American institution for nearly thirty years, and Thurston earned a brand name equal to Barnum, Ziegfeld, George M. Cohan, and Ringling Brothers.
Most remarkably, Howard Thurston was Houdini’s chief rival during the first decades of the 1900s, and Thurston won. He won with a bigger show, a more successful reputation, and the title of America’s greatest magician. Today Houdini may have earned legendary status for his daredevil feats. But Howard Thurston was the public’s favorite. After generations of “greats,” there’s no question that Thurston was the last, greatest magician in the world. His ultimate struggle was with an economic depression and competition from Hollywood films, a very different kind of magic. That’s when everything changed. After Hollywood, there was no longer any need for the great magicians of the past.
For anyone who has ever watched a magic show and dared to ask “How is it done?” I hope that I’m able to provide a few answers. In return, Howard Thurston presents an intriguing mystery to the reader: “Why was it done?”
 
 
INVARIABLY,
at the start of the twenty-first century we perceive a magic show as old-fashioned because we imagine the common cliché of such a performance, evoking the dusty traditions of vaudeville, the bright footlights, and the rat-a-tat style of one indistinguishable performer after another. We might imagine these vaudeville magicians as they often appear in comic books, anonymous miracle workers flapping a cape and attempting to impress us by sheer force of their deceptions.
Of course, it was never really like this. By today’s standards—television standards—vaudeville performers were given extravagant amounts of time onstage, between ten and twenty minutes for an individual act. They chatted to the audience and were highly valued for their personalities. If Thurston were to perform today, I can say with some experience that his show would be every bit as marvelous to a modern audience. We might recognize changes of fashion—the pace of Thurston’s scripted patter, or the designs of his costumes or scenery—but there was nothing about the nature of his magic that would seem outdated or obsolete. The magic would still be miraculous because, like any talented magician, Thurston selected illusions that did not rely on the latest bits of technology, but on universal, fairy-tale themes: causing a person to float in the air, contacting the spirits, appearance, disappearance, destruction and restoration.
Most of all, Thurston’s success depended upon his personality in front of his audience. These clues to a performer’s manner are difficult to summon in any theatrical biography, and doubly so for a magician. Harlan Tarbell, a fellow magician and friend of Thurston’s, wrote an influential course on magic, advising student magicians to remember that they must play “on a plane higher than the average person,” with “a bit of supernatural power to do things ordinary folks cannot do.” At the same time, a performer had to show deference and present himself as someone who could be trusted. “Audiences respect an artist who is sincere in his work.... He must make illusion seem like truth and must believe that the thing really happens.”
Most magicians are remembered by their most sensational feats; my uncle used to tell me about watching Thurston at the Erlanger Theater in Chicago, describing the tremendous puff of smoke as an automobile, “loaded with pretty girls,” instantly disappeared onstage. These accounts of Thurston’s marvels imply a standoffish, grand character and ignore his appeal. In fact, there was no magic ever created without establishing a trust with an audience—without seducing them first. Howard Thurston was dependent upon charming his audience.
 
 
AL JOLSON,
one of Thurston’s contemporaries in the American theater, was famous for his dynamic and self-assured personality that seemed to wash over the footlights and overwhelm every member of the audience. Debatably, he may have been history’s greatest entertainer, a powerful and daunting force of nature. Onstage he was always the great man. But his appeal was clearly tied to the human qualities behind his greatness, the soft cry in his voice that followed the booming solos. In Herbert Goldman’s insightful biography of the singer, he described the death of Jolson’s mother when the boy was just eight years old. Summoned to her bedside, Jolson opened the door to see her sitting up in bed, eyes wide, screaming with terror. The young boy tried to run to her, but the doctor pushed him from the room.

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