Collecting magic memorabilia and ephemera is a strange but pleasant hobby and there are so many ways to approach this pastime. Many collectors specialize in a subject, or a range of collectibles, be them posters, memorabilia of some magician, more or less known, magic tricks made in wood or metal, or made by a selected number of manufacturers; still more seem to accumulate all sort of antique (or not-so-antique) magic paraphernalia they may happen to find…
While I specialize in collecting memorabilia pertaining to Raffaele Chefalo – as I have already written more than once – I also like to add to my modest collection some unusual items, the stuff that you don’t often see. Only recently, I come across an unusual poster, of a forgotten illusionist, somebody whose image I had never seen, showing an illusion of which I was aware, which I remember seeing performed in the 1970′s – 1980′s.
In the early years of the 20th century, magic was going through what has been defined as its “golden age”. In variety theatres across Europe and the United States of America, many magicians were entertaining audiences, trying to top each other with novel tricks and illusions. That period was seeing a real explosion of magic ideas and many new principles of magic were then developed. The same principles are still used today, the hidden secrets of illusions performed by television magicians worldwide.
England was, at the time, the centre for magic: the British audiences did not seem to get enough of magic, a theatre in London (The Egyptian Hall) was exclusively devoted to magic and many foreign performers were doing successful tours of the country, in the last years of the Victorian era.
One of these artistes was a continental magician who was billed as Carlo Venturini: this Italian-sounding name was actually the artistic name of Albert Winckler (often spelled – wrongly – Winkler), a minor German magician who had some success between the 1890s and 1910s. Mr. Venturini toured the Far East (India, Japan, China…) around 1902 with Harmston’s Circus and Menagerie, which was the largest tent circus touring that part of the world. Below a snippet from The Strait Times from 13 June 1902 mentioning Venturini (click to go to the original page). Once his engagement with the Circus had finished, Venturini returned to Europe to perform in second-class theatres: some of his tracks can be found in England.
However, before coming to England, Venturini stopped for some time in Berlin, his home town (his address was 41 Steinmentzstrasse) where he acquired some new illusions for his shows. One of the illusions he acquired is the so-called “Dida”. This is the production of a girl inside a tank full of water on a bare stage, immediately followed by the production of a second girl.
The illusion was invented in 1904 by Carl Rosenfeld, who got two German patents to protect two different methods: these were number 160,682 (issued 26 February 1904) and 168,138 (issued 18 September 1904). Rosenfeld then applied for American patents on 13 September and 6 December, 1904, respectively, and the US Patents office granted the patents on 25 and 18 April 1905. The American patents are nr. 787,946 and 787,589. These patents will be published by Will Goldston in The Magician’s Annual 1908-09, with some clearer drawings.
Who was Carl Rosenfeld? Well, according to the late German historian Maldino (Fred Mahlo, 1911-2003), Herr Rosenfeld was a carnival or side-show performer as the illusion is the kind that could be used in a side-show performance. However, Herr Rosenfeld will patent another illusion, the production of a lady behind a blackboard, which looks much more like the type of illusion a regular magician would perform.
Mr. Maldino said that in 1905, Albert Winckler (Venturini) had his name added to the patent. Actually, Winckler patented an improvement on the illusion and the patent (nr. 188,828) was granted in Germany on 11 March 1905. Maldino acquired the apparatus from one Otto Heinemann and performed it after the war: his book Das Jahrhundert der Zauberer – Wie was es? (1999) has a chapter about the illusion with many nice photos of the apparatus. From Maldino’s description of the apparatus, one can see that this was the same method patented by Venturini.
The illusion was to become quite popular for a brief period of time: in 1904 a number of theatres where showing it, associated to a performer or even without an illusionist’s name. For example, the week of 17 April 1905, Chefalo was working at the Howard Athenaeum in Boston while at Keith’s was being shown the illusion “Dida”. Howard Thurston himself used the illusion for some time in 1904-05 with the title of “Creation”. In Robert E. Olson’s book The Complete Life of Howard Franklin Thurston, Vol. 1 there is a nice picture of Thurston with this illusion (p. 61). It seems that the illusion debuted in the USA in March 1905 and that five different copies where touring at that time (Mahatma, Vol. 8, N. 9, p. 100). In the same magazine, only six pages later, the secret of the illusion was offered for sale for a meager $1.00!
In addition of acquiring the illusion and to somehow getting involved in its patent, Winckler/Venturini had some posters printed in Berlin showing his “latest illusion” and one of these posters is now in my collection and it’s the subject of this post. The poster presents Venturini’s Latest Jllusion (yes, with a “J” rather than an “I”…) and was printed in Berlin by “Star Printing Office” (Alex Hoenig). The poster is not dated, but we can be safely date it to 1905.
The name of the illusion is not shown, and here we get into a bit of controversy. To protect what Venturini considered “his” illusion and, certainly, his improvements, he patented it again in England (GB190507604, patent issued on 29 June 1905). The name “Dida” was however registered by the Alhambra theatre chain, to prevent people from copying it. Winckler was then forced to present the illusion, for which he apparently had rights, as So-Da (with a hyphen), playing in opposition to the Dida name. In the first issue of The Wizard (September 1905), P.T. Selbit talks about the controversy without, perhaps, having all the correct facts. Selbit confessed he did not know how the illusion, which he saw performed in Manchester, worked. Incidentally, the poster comes from Manchester… who knows? it may have been outside the theatre where Selbit saw Venturini perform.
Venturini continued to perform the illusion for some time: in Will Goldston’s The Magician Monthlyfor December 1907, we find the following:
Venturini’s latest illusion entitled “So-Da” is proving a great success. Two ladies (we are given to understand) are produced from nothing. A long tank being partly filled with water, Venturini covers it momentarily with a cloth, on the withdrawal of which a young lady is seen reclining in the water. On emerging she presents herself, with her soaked clothing, before the astonished audience. Then the process is gone through again, and a second form appears under similar circumstances.
Venturini would disappear from the magic scene in the Summer of 1914 and nothing more is known of him (with WWI starting and with Winckler being a German, it is likely he left England, where he was still touring without much success, and returned to Berlin). Apparently, he claimed to have invented the “AGA” illusion (he was performing it since January 1905) and registered the name and, in 1910, he sold the “exclusive rights” for Great Britain to Gamages, Ltd. Winckler is generally remembered for having invented this practical levitation and certainly the names “Aga” and “Dida” are quite similar (and likewise is “So-Da”), but there is no agreement among historians. Winckler/Venturini’s life is quite interesting, from what I’ve been able to discover, and perhaps one day I will write some notes about him… if there is enough interest.
What does all this tell us? Well, in 1905 a new illusion, very baffling, became the “latest craze” in magicdom and was very popular for a while, with performers copying it, performing it sometimes without associating their names to it, trying to attract audiences to theatres. The illusion was not very practical though: it was heavy, the water was cold, the assistants would get soaked, make-up would wash away… not really a very practical illusion, especially in 1905.
However, the illusion is really magical and, when performed as invented by Herr Rosenfeld, is a definite mystery. Today, one doesn’t see very often an illusion where a woman appears magically in a tank full of water: since Mark Wilson in the 1970′s, many performers used a tank of water to execute a transposition. The exception is the illusion Aqua by Franz Harary, licensed to Steve Wyrick, which can be seen below:
But after more than 100 years, it seems that controversy is somehow still tied to the illusion… just a few years ago Mr. Harary and Mr. Wyrick had a disagreement, fuelled by various posts on magic forums, about the rights of this illusion… exactly as Venturini and other illusionists had in 1905. (I should mention that Harary’s method is greatly different from the Rosenfeld/Venturini’s).
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it…
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