Jim Steinmeyer
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Fall 2004

MAGIC IN “MARY POPPINS;” AN IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: A NEW BOOK ABOUT CHUNG LING SOO; AN AMAZING SHOW IN RENO; HIDING THE ELEPHANT IN PAPERBACK; DECEPTION FOR THE EDITORIAL PAGE

Mary Poppins“MARY POPPINS,” THE STAGE MUSICAL

The newest Cameron Mackintosh and Walt Disney Theatrical production is “Mary Poppins,” and it opened in Bristol, England on September 28, 2004. It will move to the West End of London and open there in December.

This spring and summer I spent a good deal of time in London for meetings and rehearsals on “Mary Poppins,” then in Bristol for the on-stage rehearsals before it opened. I was responsible for some specific effects for Mary’s magical powers, including a sequence in which she unpacks her magical carpetbag.

But I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag… ”Mary Poppins” hasn’t officially opened yet. Still, there has been lots of anticipation and a few early reviews. It’s a magnificent show, and audience in Bristol stood and cheered at each performance. You’ll hear a lot about the cast, which is uniformly brilliant, especially Laura Michelle Kelly as Mary. It’s been a real pleasure to work with everyone in the show, and I’m proud to have been a small part of this production.

In any show like this, I end up with several “magical” solutions to technical effects. We may spend months working on a special prop, but you never get credit for the secret, just the end result. And, sometimes, you seem to outfox yourself. Years ago I did a show in this country which ended with a very impressive optical effect in which the main character materialized in front of the audience—first the glowing nervous system of his body, then a white haze which became his skin, and finally he was there, in the flesh, to complete the scene. We spent months on the secret, the optics and all the adjustments. On opening night, one of the wealthy patrons of the theatre was introduced to me and she asked which was the most difficult illusion in the show. “Actually, that last one, that you saw a few minutes ago,” I said, bewildered and slightly hurt that I had to spell things out in this way. “Oh, wasn’t that just a hologram?” she asked.

See, she’d somehow thought that her regional theatre had solved the problem with holograms and created some theatrical effect worthy of the Nobel Prize. As Guy Jarrett might have said, well, why not?

I had a similar moment for “Mary Poppins.” I worked on a complicated effect that allowed us to operate a dog puppet while it was isolated in the center of the stage for a few critical seconds. I was really proud of the solution. It’s a great illusion. But the night of our first performance in Bristol, I met a colleague, a vice president I’d worked with at Disney, who was in the audience. He asked what I’d worked on, and I mentioned the effect with the dog. “Oh,” he wrinkled his nose, “I just thought that was an audio-animatronic dog.” (That’s the Disney term for remote-controlled robotics.) He admitted that, “I was a little surprised how fast they were able to disconnect all the cables.” You see, he knew the way that Disney Imagineering solved problems with these “moon-shot” technologies. He thought that we’d spent several hundreds of thousands of dollars to make the dog move, and was unaware how impractical those sorts of solutions were for a stage show.

Yes, he was mystified, but it was another “hologram” moment. Sometimes you do these effects just for yourself.

Chung Link SooANNOUNCING: THE GLORIOUS DECEPTION

I’m proud to be able to announce that 2005 will see the publication of my second book written for the public—that is, my second book for not simply a “magician” audience. Carroll and Graf, the publishers of Hiding the Elephant, have signed The Glorious Deception, a full biography of one of magic’s most intriguing, influential and enigmatic figures, Chung Ling Soo. Here’s their catalog description of this upcoming book.

The Glorious Deception: “In a biography woven from equal parts of enchantment and mystery, Jim Steinmeyer unveils the astonishing secrets behind the most enigmatic performer in the history of stage magic, Chung Ling Soo, the “Marvelous Chinese Conjurer”—a magician whose life of intrigue and daring made his contemporary Houdini seem like the boy next door. Soo’s infamous and suspicious onstage death in 1918 mystified his fellow magicians like Houdini: he was tragically shot during a performance of a trick he called “Defying the Bullets,” in which he attempted to catch marked bullets on a porcelain plate. When Soo collapsed on the stage, his life of deception began to unravel. It was discovered that he was not Chinese but, rather, a 58-year-old American named William Ellsworth Robinson, a former magicians' assistant and the husband of Olive Robinson. But even William Robinson was not who he appeared to be, for he had kept a second family with his mistress in a fashionable home near London.

“Here is a one-of-a-kind look at the education of a magician in the rough and tumble world of turn-of-the-century entertainments, the West’s discovery of Oriental culture, and Chung Ling Soo's strange descent into secrecy as he rose to stardom—written by Steinmeyer, the foremost chronicler of magic’s history and culture.  Due to the scandals surrounding Robinson’s death, his full story has never been told, but was guarded by his mistress' family. For the first time, Steinmeyer's research has uncovered the secrets of William Robinson. His life was a dazzling “smell-of-the-greasepaint” adventure, with dramatic twists and turns for each new deception and an explosive, tragic finale.”

Chung Ling Soo is a well-known figure to many magicians, who are familiar with the strange and tragic circumstances of his death and his unusual, fraudulent pose as a Chinese magician. But The Glorious Deception will offer a number of real surprises about this amazing magician and his era of illusion and variety entertainment. I’m proud of the research and anxious to finish the writing. Watch this space and, late in 2005, watch a bookstore shelf near you.

THE GREATEST MAGIC SHOW YOU’VE NEVER SEEN

If you’re interested in seeing great magic, really great magic in a fantastic setting with talented performers, there is one remarkable show that’s been humming along beneath the radar. “Real Magic” is Kalin and Jinger’s first enterprise in their own theatre in Reno Nevada, part of the Pioneer Arts Center in the center of town. They call the location Magic Underground.

Magic Underground might be the perfect place to see a magic show, with tiered seating for about 200 people, and an impressive stage. Unlike many “small magic shows,” this one has been produced and performed by two seasoned professionals, Kalin and Jinger, who are award-winning magicians and illusionists who have won awards for their shows in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Reno. Previous to the tiny, intimate Magic Underground, they presented their own show on the gigantic stage of the Reno Hilton, where they made a full-sized jet airplane disappear!

Kalin and JingerSo, basically, these folks know what they’re doing. And you’ve never really experienced magic like this before--with everything from dazzling, full stage illusions to delicate sleight-of-hand.

I’ve been proud to work with Kalin and Jinger for several years now on their projects, and I was involved in some of the planning and scripting of “Real Magic.” So maybe I’m not completely unbiased. But their careful work, years of experience and skills have never been better displayed. Magicians have been swooning over the show, and the theatre-goers have been delighted and stunned by the magical evening. I really can’t recommend it too highly.

Around Halloween, they’re planning a scaled down, creepier show called “Ghost!” And a holiday edition of the show will be on view for Christmas.

THE ELEPHANT IN PAPERBACK, THE ELEPHANT IN GREAT BRITAIN

Hiding the ElephantEarly in October, Hiding the Elephant was published in a paperback edition. It’s $14, and you can purchase a copy at your local bookstore or through Amazon, here. I’m delighted to be able to report that the paperback edition features a new forward by Teller, of Penn and Teller, who also reviewed the book for the New York Times. At the end of October, I’ll be doing some book signings in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. You can order the paperback edition from Amazon by clicking here. The hardcover edition is still available as well.

In November, Hiding the Elephant is being published in the U.K. by Heinemann. They’ve done a new cover design--based on another classic poster. I’ll be in London doing some publicity for the book in November: “Midweek” on Radio 4.

IF YOU WANT TO READ MORE ABOUT THE MAGIC IN HIDING THE ELEPHANT

I wrote about the topics in Hiding the Elephant in a small books of essays, Art & Artifice, which was published in 1998, and this book is since out of print. But a 2001 collection of essays, Two Lectures on Stage Illusions, contains the technical details behind the history, science and development of Pepper’s Ghost and Tobin’s mirror illusions (the lectures were “The Science Behind the Ghost,” and “Discovering Invisibility”) as well as the many later developments. Two Lectures is a book filled with diagrams and historical information on these effects, much more technical and detailed than my approach in Hiding the Elephant. You can find Two Lectures in the Catalog section of this website.

Also, there’s additional material on Hiding the Elephant in my previous Newsletter, archived at the left side of this page.

JIM STEINMEYER IN THE LOS ANGELES TIMES

My op-ed ran on Sunday, April 11, 2004 in the Los Angeles Times, on the op-ed page. It’s a magician’s view of deceptive politics. Here’s the text.

What’s up Their Sleeve? Our Eagerness to be Gulled.
By Jim Steinmeyer

In 1925, Count Victor Lustig, who wasn’t a count at all but one of the great confidence men of the 20th century, managed to sell the Eiffel Tower. Twice.

His fraud was a masterpiece of presentation. He advertised himself as a representative of France’s “Ministry of Mail and Telegraphs,” then arranged a meeting of scrap-metal dealers in a Paris hotel.  The French government, he informed his audience, was in a delicate bind.  The Eiffel Tower had catastrophic structural problems and was going to be pulled down.  But fearful of public outcry, the government had decided to keep these plans secret until a demolition contract had been finalized and the administration could boast of the savings to the taxpayers.

The dealers salivated.  Determining the most likely sucker among his eager prey, Lustig quietly promised him a contract in return for a fat bribe, pocketed the money, repaired to Vienna and waited for the scandal to erupt.

It didn’t.  The scrap dealer was so ashamed that he didn’t breathe a word to reporters or file a complaint with authorities.  Lustig returned to Paris, contacted a second dealer who had also heard his pitch, solicited another bribe and left town again.

The most insidious part of any confidence game is not its outrageous claims but its appeal to the needs of its potential victims.  Lustig’s con was typical of many famous swindles, in which the victim ends up so humiliated – so complicit – that the crime is never reported.  Once the scrap dealer let his greed overcome him and committed to paying the bribe, it became, in his mind, his very own confidence game.  The dealer deceived himself.

Like any magic trick, it sounds ridiculously simple and preposterously unimpressive – but that’s because the real art of deception lies in understanding how subtle touches and preconceptions can be twisted in the minds of victim or viewer.

Professional magicians are the only honest deceivers. They tell you that you’re going to be fooled and then deliver on that promise.  I’ve worked with professional magicians for years, developing deceptions for them and researching the art’s lost secrets.  This has led me to consider deception as a larger subject.  I can assure you, any successful deception requires a cooperative audience.

It’s not as simple as finding stupid people who are willing to accept what they’re told or happy to overlook obvious clues.  The key is finding smart people who bring a lot to the table – cultural experience, shared expectations, preconceptions.  The more they bring, the more there is to work with, and the easier it is to get the audience to make allowances – to reach the “right” conclusion and unwittingly participate in the deception.

That’s why a career in academia or scientific study doesn’t make someone less susceptible to trickery – it simply offers another belief system to be exploited.  Over the years, a number of talented scientists have attempted to study psychic phenomena and been deceived by embarrassingly simple tricks.  Their knowledge of the scientific method has beet twisted to work against them, like jujitsu.

Deception may require complicity, but a little disorientation helps as well.  Lee Siegel, a professor of religion at the University of Hawaii, studied with Indian street fakirs, documenting their techniques for his book, “Net of Magic.”  Siegel once explained to me that Indian sleight-of-hand artists had a simple game: They get their audiences to laugh, then tap into another emotion, fear.  Once frightened, their marks were ripe to be sold whatever promised to soothe their fear.  For a fakir working a New Delhi street corner, this meant seducing passersby with disarming jokes, then suddenly frightening them with a bloody trick injury to, say, a child, followed by the pitch: The fakir’s amulets and rings would assure a happy ending.  As often as not, the need for comfort will overrule reason.

And this formula isn’t out of place on Madison Avenue or the campaign trail.  Charm them, then pull the rug out from under them: “Your house isn’t as clean as your neighbor’s house”; “That candidate is menacing your way of life.”  Finally, with the victim rattled and looking for a way to make things right, the “sale” can quickly be closed.

That’s why, unlike ferreting out a simple lie, it’s tough to pass judgment on the salesman or politician who plays on our fears, then delivers the fatherly, and false, embrace of his protection.

Magicians see the nobility of deception because they recognise that it can be innocently used to create an uplifting feeling of entertaining amazement.  But it’s a fine line between the careful secrets of a magic show and the deceptions that may be useful in the hard-boiled world of commerce and politics.

As the old saying starts, “Fool me once, shame on you . . . “ Trust me, lying is for amateurs.  The experts will only fool you because you’re asking for it.

Stay tuned and thanks for your interest.
Jim Steinmeyer

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