Modern Magic

MAGIC. . . .

Emergence of Modern Magic

So remarkable were the innovations that Robert-Houdin introduced to stage illusions that he has been called the father of modern magic. By profession a clockmaker, he was born Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin in Blois, France, in 1805. His debut as a magician was in 1845 in Paris. He was the first magician to use electricity; he perfected the thought-transference trick; and he used common objects to create illusions instead of complicated pieces of machinery. He also denounced magicians who claimed psychic powers or supernatural help for their tricks. Robert-Houdin is the man from whom the American magician Harry Houdini took his name a generation later.

Jean Eugène Robert-HoudinIn 1856 the French government sent Robert-Houdin to Algeria to discredit native priests who were using magic to foment rebellion. Robert-Houdin used one of his best tricks to deceive them. He had an empty wooden box that anyone could lift. It had an iron bottom, however, and could be made immovable by turning on an electromagnet hidden under the stage floor. With this trick he was able to convince an audience that he could drain the strength from the strongest of men at will.

During Robert-Houdin's lifetime the number of stage magicians increased dramatically. They were always popular in Europe. As the United States grew more settled and the frontier gave way to cities and towns, theaters were built in every town that could support one.

One of the most successful illusionists and show-business promoters was English-born John Nevil Maskelyne, a noted escape artist. He began his career shortly before Robert-Houdin's death in 1871. Along with his amazing escapes he perfected levitation rising from the stage seemingly unaided. In 1893 he teamed with master magician David Devant. In 1911 they published 'Our Magic', a major sourcebook on the theory of magic. Maskelyne died in 1917, but Devant went on performing until shortly before his death in 1941 at the age of 73.

Prior to the appearance of Harry Houdini, the most outstanding American magician and showman was Harry Kellar. He learned magic as a teenager. He traveled to all parts of the civilized world before establishing himself in the United States in 1884. He performed until 1908, when he sold his show to Howard Thurston. Thurston was from Ohio and was touring the world doing mainly card tricks when Kellar met him in Paris. After he took over Kellar's show he made it the largest magic extravaganza to that time. For more than 20 years he toured with a three-hour show and became known for his large stage illusions such as the "floating lady." In 1931 he shortened his program to appear as a stage attraction in movie theaters.

The English magician P.T. Selbit (born Percy Thomas Tibbles) gained fame for two unusual illusions. In 1914 he walked through a brick wall on stage. This illusion was updated in 1986 when David Copperfield walked through the Great Wall of China in a performance that was seen on television. In 1921 Selbit gained notoriety for one of the most famous of all tricks sawing a woman in half.

Early American Magicians

Houdini and After

Tricks of the Trade

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