Jim Steinmeyer
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Summer 2003

Hiding the ElephantThis fall, Carroll and Graf of New York is publishing my new book, titled Hiding the Elephant. It's an unconventional look at a slice of magic's history, explaining the interesting personalities, discoveries and backstage intrigues which led to the development of stage magic. I've discussed a few of these historical topics in some previous publications, but I hope that Hiding the Elephant will be an especially appealing, unexpected approach to the subject.

Believe it or not, you can order the book now through Amazon.com. They are currently offering an excellent pre-publication price. It's worth taking a look. Here's the link:

And here's part of the publisher's description. The book is due in September or October.

Hiding the Elephant
How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear

Jim Steinmeyer

$26.00, $39.95 Cdn
Trade Cloth
352pp, 6 x 9
16 pages of b&w photographs with diagrams and drawings throughout
HISTORY / Modern/General
Fall 2003
Carroll & Graf

Harry Houdini was the greatest escape artist in history, yet known to his contemporaries as a terrible stage magician. Nevertheless, in 1917 he performed a single illusion that has been hotly debated ever since: Under the bright spotlights of New York’s Theatre Hippodrome, he made a live elephant disappear. Where did he learn this amazing trick and how did it work? The answers lie in magic expert Jim Steinmeyer’s chronicle of illusionary innovation, backstage chicanery and espionage, elevated showmanship, and keen competition within the world of magicians. Steinmeyer has captured the cultural history of magic during its “Golden Age” in America and abroad.

Houdini wows the crowd in HIDING THE ELEPHANT

At Manhattan’s Hippodrome theatre, the curtain opened on an oversized wooden box, about the dimensions of a small garage, decorated like a brightly colored circus wagon. It was raised off the stage on large wheels. As a Sousa march blared from the orchestra, the trainer led Jennie the elephant stoically up a ramp and into the box.

Harry Houdini, little more than a black speck hovering in front of the action, signaled a halt to the music. He had learned to overenunciate each syllable, which disguised his Lower East Side accent and made his words stab the back wall of the theatre like a knife. "Watch closely," he proclaimed, "for it happens it two seconds. The whole operation had taken several minutes to this point, but no one quibbled with his slight exaggeration. Drumroll. He clapped his hands and the stagehands quickly ran to the ends of the circus wagon. They reached over and opened circular doors so the audience could look straight through the box to the bright curtains behind. A loud crash chord, and Houdini stepped center stage. "You can plainly see ... the an-nee-mile is com-plete-ly gone!" Houdini was right. The box really did look empty.

A great magic performance consists of a collection of tiny lies, in words and deeds, which are stacked and arranged ingeniously to form the impenetrable battlement for an illusion. In their upholstered seats, the customers take their parts in this delicate battle of wits, prodding, questioning and happily surrendering. They may welcome being deceived, then dare the performer to fool them, and finally doubt the illusion being created. A great magician seems always to play catch-up to the thoughts of his audience, but secretly stays two steps ahead of them: not only solicitous and anticipating, but also coaxing expectations from them.

In order to understand how Houdini hid his elephant, I’m going to have to take you into my confidence and explain a few secrets. If you thought that magicians are bound by oaths of secrecy, you’ll be surprised to find that our mysterious techniques have been treasured, stolen, even blabbed to the world. In the process, I promise that there will be a few fascinating disillusionments, and more than a few astonishments. To appreciate magic as an art, you’ll have to understand not only the baldest deceptions but also the subtlest techniques.

You’ll have to learn to think like a magician.

* * * * * * *

That's me with Frankie, the "little woman." We were performing a trick inside of an Aames Room, as the room was performing a trick on us. My friend John Gaughan built this version of the famous optical illusion for a European display.

I was very proud to be able to publish The Magic of David Berglas last year. It's a remarkable book which represents a lifetime of creative thought from one of Great Britain's most original and successful "mystery workers." It's always been hard to categorize David Berglas. He's something of a magician. Much of his material feels like mentalism. The easiest way to say it is that he doesn't bother with anything less than a miracle. His material has been eagerly awaited and debated for many years. It took the diligence of David Britland, working closely with David Berglas to get it all down in print.

The bad news is that, just months after the book was published, the limited edition of 1000 copies was virtually gone. I've continued to sell the books through the website; I think we're now the only source for them. Unfortunately, because of the current market for the book (which went directly to "collector's item") and the sales on eBay, I've been forced to raise the price slightly for these last few copies. You can still get it through this site. Don't miss it. It took a lifetime to write, and, judging from every comment and review I've seen, it can easily provide material for a lifetime of work in entertainment. But when they're gone…well, I warned you.

AmourAt the end of last year, I was busy with a number of projects. "Amour" opened at the Music Box Theatre on Broadway, October 20, 2002. This understated Michel Legrand musical, directed by James Lapine, was based on a French story about a man who walks through walls. Critics found it charming, and I was fortunate to receive good notices on the illusion effects. Newsday complimented the effects as "magically effective" and The Hollywood Reporter thought the illusions were well suited to the show, "admirably simple but highly clever." Among the effects were, at the finale of the story, the main character being trapped half-way through a brick wall. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough "Amour" generated by the audiences, and the show lasted only a matter of weeks.

Autumn 2003 finds Mike Caveney, John Gaughan, Frankie Glass, Joan Lawton and I hosting the Eighth Los Angeles Conference on Magic History. It's hard to believe that there have already been seven of these events. We hold them every two years and the weekend is always a sell-out. As always, we have a number of surprises planned. As always, they aren't surprises if I tell you about them. We've been amazed at the guests and the level of talks that we've been able to arrange, and I promise that a few "lost" illusions will be rediscovered during the weekend Conference. I'll have a report after the event.

The previous Conferences have left us with a few extra souvenir programs. You can find programs from a few previous Conferences in the Catalog section of this site. There are very few left, and the programs from the first Conference have long been out of print and difficult to obtain. We also have a few posters from "The Unexpected" (The Blue Room), "Will, the Witch and the Watchman," and "The Mascot Moth."

I don't attend many conventions and I do very few lectures for magicians, but every few years I assemble a new lecture and a set of lecture notes. For a May 2003 lecture at Misdirections Magic Shop in San Francisco, I've put together "Artificial Conclusions," a collection of nine interesting effects with playing cards. There are some nice surprises inside, including a topological effect with two cards called Through the Trapdoor. The notes are only available through my site (and, of course, at my occasional magic lectures).

In the last months I've been working on some new material for Rick Thomas's Las Vegas show at the Tropicana and Lance Burton's show at his own theatre at the Monte Carlo. The material will be included in gradual steps, which should provide plenty of reasons to go back and see these great shows next time you're in Las Vegas. If you haven't seen Lance's version of the Mousetrap Illusion (an effect which was built for him with the late Doug Henning's permission), you're in for a treat. I worked with Lance on the Mousetrap design, and he's got a fantastic presentation for it, which he performs on his early shows.

I've included a sketch of the design, and a photo of Willie and Lance with the (nearly) finished product.


Thanks for your interest.

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