Chris Charlton - photo from the collection of Marco Pusterla -

Chris Charlton

If I were to say the name “Chris Charlton,” it would probably not mean much to many people. Today that name is quite common, but none of the “Chris Charlton” you can find on the Internet is the magician I want to talk about. If you had been a British, American, French, German, Australian or New Zealander theatre-goer in the 1920s and 1930s, you may have had the opportunity to witness his magic act.

Christopher Henry Charlton was born in Staffordshire, England, in 1885 (although the date is often wrongly reported as 1887 or 1883), and began to perform magic at the beginning of the century. He was not a “superstar” of magic, somebody who toured the world with his own show, instead he was a vaudeville magician, performing around the world as an act in the variety bills of small and large theatres. A few times, he was the star attraction on the bill. Read the rest of this entry »

Dissecting Drawer Box” from the Marco Pusterla Collection. Most images, when clicked on, will show the picture in higher definition.

One of the most enduring magic tricks, with which almost any magician, amateur or professional, has at least once played with, must be the “drawer box“, a wooden parallelepiped with a drawer which can be shown empty, closed, opened again, and shown to contain some objects that have mysteriously materialized. Today, this box is often found made in plastic, churned out in hundreds of thousands of copies by some company in China, and sold as a toy for children, as a commercial gadget to promote products, or as part of a magic set for aspiring magicians.

The object doesn’t really look like anything existing in this time and age, and it often looks like what it is: a suspicious magic device, hiding some clever mechanism to befuddle the unwary. On doing a quick search for images of contemporary drawer boxes on the Internet, one sees an interesting gallery of the most variegated, multi-coloured, collection of boxes. Read the rest of this entry »

Harry_August_Jansen,_known_as_DanteI often think about the hard life touring magicians had at the turn of the century, with tons of material packed in heavy crates, to be loaded on trucks or ships, driven to the back of a theatre, carried in the wings to be unpacked and prepared for the evening show, and all this repeated week in and week out, with the constant fear that the audience would not accept the illusionist, that the publicity was not enough, that inclement weather would keep patrons away.

I have already talked about the weight of magical apparatus, something that had to be considered not only when the illusionist was travelling, but also when he was stopped in a city, waiting for the next engagement. Sometimes, the engagement would not arrive: the illusionist would be rejected by a theatre. We rarely have a view of any missed engagement, but in this article, for once, we will be able to add a small bit of information – inconsequential as it may be – to the life of one of the great magicians of the 20th century.

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Ye Olde Magic MagMagazines, newspapers, journals, newsletters: the sources for recent historical research. When records of current events began to appear in the 17th century in what we now call “newspapers,” and began to be printed in hundreds, then thousands of copies, maybe nobody realized how important these papers would have been a couple of centuries down the line for all kind of historical research.

The popularity of this new media inspired the creation of journals dedicated to specific subjects, mainly literary or political, and indeed even conjurers put their hands to the new media. The first magical magazine in the English language was The Conjuror’s Magazine, or Magical and Physiognomical Mirror published in England from 1791 to 1793 by one William Locke. The title was slightly deceiving for a magician, as very little conjuring was contained in its pages, the subject having mainly to do with astrology.

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Robert Harbin and the Zig ZagRegardless of what some intellectuals of the field may say, for the Art of Magic to touch the human spirit it has to rely on the sense of mystery, otherwise it can’t be “magic.” You see, if you can figure out the method by which a magical effect is created, then you haven’t seen magic. When you watch a juggler, you can see exactly how he has to coordinate the throws of his balls to give a pleasant display of objects floating in the air. You may not be able to duplicate his display, but still you realize that long hours of practice are what allow him to do his tricks.

Similarly, if you see a magician showing a box empty by quickly opening the front door over a black interior, to then close it again and produce from it a white, fluffy bunny, you may be surprised, charmed and entertained, even if there is probably no great sense of mystery in you, no feeling of having witnessed magic. But what if this box, held upside down by a magician in the middle of a cabaret floor Read the rest of this entry »

houdini_post0002The title of this blog is The Ephemeral Collector, and in my “About” page I set out that I collect ephemeral material related to the art of magic. If you have been following this blog, you may have noticed that my recent posts were on apparatus, on posters and on more substantial items – not really on “ephemeral” objects. Sometimes, to really appreciate a small piece of paper, what I consider an “ephemeral magic object,” one has to study and investigate its story: sometimes, the discoveries will bring amazement and the ephemeral object will be seen in a different light, a small part of a larger puzzle.

Sit comfortable, dear reader, and let me tell you the story of an unused invitation to meet the master of the masters in his prime, the one and only Harry Houdini.

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Posters advertising Chung Ling Soo's performance at The Palace (Bristol, UK), circa 1910.

Posters advertising Chung Ling Soo‘s performance at The Palace (Bristol, UK), circa 1910.

Before the times of the internet, radio and television, advertisement was done with the help of what we call “posters,” placards and bills that were posted on walls to inform the passer-by of events or products. Theatre shows, plays and indeed also magic shows were thus advertised. Most of the posters before 1870 were textual or just printed with black ink: it was with the perfection of colour lithography that economical, mass production of colour posters became available. Between posters advertising products or political ideas, those relating to entertainment were a common fixture on city walls and every theatre printed posters weekly to try to entice the paying public to the show.

Magicians, especially travelling ones, had been using posters for generations: many travelled with their own printing blocks and had new posters created in every city where they managed to give one or more performances. With the advent of lithography, magicians started to make good use of the technology to produce colourful images, with which to plaster walls, as it can be seen in the photo above, announcing a week’s performance of (fake) Chinese magician Chung Ling Soo in Bristol, showing 31 different pictorial posters (and two with the week’s “bill” at the theatre). These were only a small part of the posters used by Chung Ling Soo…

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cl017-james-bond-bracesA good magician is a keeper of secrets. Secrets are at the base of magic: it is only because the magician knows the secrets behind his tricks that he can fool you. A good magic trick contains many different layers of secrets: there may be the mechanical secret that operates a box; the hidden sleight of nimble fingers that causes cards to fly from the pack; the psychological secrets that cause the audience to look in a different place just when the “secret” maneuver happens. All these elements must be coordinated to ensure the magic trick is successful.

Magicians are not the only keepers of secrets: since antiquity the practice to hide information of knowledge from another party has been used by governments, groups of people and individual to both protect themselves and to get some kind of advantage over another party. Espionage is documented to ancient civilizations and what is not often known is that some spies had a public or, more often, private attraction to the Art of Magic. I have already mentioned Hieronimo Scoto as a spy for the Duke of Parma in the European courts of the XVI century, but only recently I acquired an unknown magic manuscript of a modern spy…

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Issue 49 cover smallA few weeks ago, I received an email from Mark Leveridge, the editor of MagicSeen, a magic magazine for the younger and cooler side of the magic profession. Mark wanted to publish an article about magic collecting and, having found my blog interesting, decided to interview myself and Fergus Roy, the noted collector, organizer of magic collecting events, scholar, magic historian and part of the well-known Davenport family, on why magic collecting is important. Read the rest of this entry »

Conchito_PosterWorld War II had, as it is well known, a huge impact on Europe, on its geography, on its political ideas, on the relations between different countries. And it also had a large impact on magic. When the war ended, in 1945, diffidence and mistrust was rife in all European countries. One of the few exceptions was in the world of magic: magicians are a friendly group, looking for contacts, friendship, novelties from other lovers of the art, anywhere in the world. While Europe was busy rebuilding trades, houses and families, a group of magicians from different countries made a significant step towards the reunion of magic lovers: the first international (actually, pan-European) magic convention. In 1946, three-hundred magicians from all around Europe descended to Amsterdam, Holland, for the first magic meeting after the war.

The following year, the event was repeated in Paris, France, with the attendance of more than five-hundred conjurers from Europe and abroad, and the base was set for the creation of FISM, the International Federation of Magic Societies that, since then, has been organizing regular conventions and, especially, the most prestigious magic competition in the World, which every three years crowns the best magician in the world. While in recent years the number of competitors has swelled, in 1947 only 70 magicians competed for a handful of prizes in only three categories: some competitors were also performing in the gala shows for the attendees! One of the categories was “Presentation” which was to recognize the most original performers of classic magic tricks. The first prize winner was Englishman Willane (William H. Lane), a popular author of magic books for the fraternity. The winner of the third prize was an obscure Dutch magician, a popular illusionist in Holland in the years after the war, and the subject of this story: Conchito.

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