At the end of November 2008, while idly browsing eBay, my eye was caught by a programme of an Italian magician, one Prof. Prete, offered for sale. I managed to buy it and it’s quite interesting. The programme is quite big, 27 x 35 cm (10.63 x 13.78 inches) and it’s full of adverts, some in Italian, some in English.
The programme was for a show at St. Joseph’s Hall in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania, under the auspices of the “Madonna of Jerusalem” Church. The show was held on the evening of Monday, Jan. 1. The year is not specified in the program, but it can be dated to 1906. That year started on a Monday, like 1912, but the layout and the wording of the adverts in the program are more “old century”, making me believe the correct date is 1906. The Madonna of Jerusalem Church was founded in 1904 and it was the Italian parish in Sharpsburg. The programme cannot be earlier than 1904 and it’s likely that in the first years the congregation would have been busy to attract attention to the church.
The program is rubber-stamped on the cover with a round stamp saying “Madonna of Jerusalem Church / Sharpsburg, PA” and it has two hand notations: one saying W.C. Meyer & Son = 2 and another saying Paid. On the second page of the programme, there is an advert for one W.C. Meyer and Son, in Italian, being a company selling: rugs, wallpaper, curtains, blankets and underpants! (tappeti, carta da camera, tendine, coperte, mutande). I suspect this copy of the programme was supposed to be delivered, in two copies, to this advertiser and it was therefore “paid”.
One can almost see the church fund-raisers going around the Italian neighbourhood with these programmes under their arms (or in a basket) and selling them to the local community’s shop-keepers, in the Christmas season, to advertise the forthcoming magic show. The adverts in the programme are really interesting for somebody who is bi-lingual, as they are in a mixture of pidgin Italian and English: the Italian adverts are for translators (with plenty of experience, of course), a furniture shop (which suggests to give furniture as a present to brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and even to children), grocers, funeral houses and liqueur shops. In this regard, the programme is not very different from any other programme for theatres and vaudeville of the period.
But let’s move to our main feature, PRETE, the Great Magician. This programme is quite peculiar as it is very rich in photos of our illusionist (and his partner), something not usually found in theatrical programmes of the period. Of course, this means that Signor Prete had some photos taken, probably some time before (more on this later) and reproduced here. I have never seen other copies of these photos anywhere and will be grateful if any collector could enlighten me with information about other copies of these images.
On the front page (see above or detail below), we have two oval pictures of The Man of Mystery who will Puzzle the Universe (quite a claim!) and a stiff Mrs. A. Prete, probably his wife and certainly his partner. However, in the program of the performance (of “slight” of hand), the assistant is called Madame Ida Prete… a name that doesn’t begin with an A. Was she the same person on the photo?
However, the name is not a problem… maybe the assistant is not the woman on the cover of the programme. In the inner pages, we can see four different photos of Signor Prete performing as many effects. The photos are below:
The first two photos show Prete with a moustache, while the last two, both with hand-written text on them (printed on the photo, not added to the programme) show a clean-shaven magician, seen from behind, showing an early hair loss. The “Danza dei Morti” (Dance Macabre) seems particularly hilarious to me, as the skeleton are obviously cardboard cut-outs.
The first photo shows the “Drum that Can’t Be Beaten“, invented by William E. Robinson (Chung Ling Soo) at the turn of the century and explained by Ellis Stanyon in the March 1904 issue of the magazine Magic. This was a practical and very popular trick of the period, which will be adapted by Chefalo and made an illusion from which he would appear (or, later, his assistant would be produced from).
The mind-reading experiment seems to indicate the divination of the serial number of a dollar bill (held in the hand of the professor). The serial number is written below a sum (?) of three numbers. Pity that the total in the photo (if it is so), is wrong: the total should be 61,494,511… the number 9 is missing from the picture. The blindfolded assistant seems much slimmer than the lady whose photo is on the first page… was this lady a previous assistant? Or was she the real assistant? In any case, the young lady doesn’t seem to be smiling… perhaps she’s realized she has got the sum wrong!
Not much can be said on the last photo, the Mysterious Garden, the same name used by Chefalo and Capretto/Palermo for their vaudeville act. This seems to be the production of a rose vase over a stool and the photo is definitely staged. We cannot guess the method from the photo, but we can think of at least three different ways to perform the effect.
Was the show a success? Did the Italian audience enjoy their fellow wizard? Who was this Signor Prete? On perusing the magical literature, nothing has come out about him, except a few notes from The Linking Ring of July 1929, the organ of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. In it, there is a biographical article of Anthony Mascaro, an Italian magician living in Pittsburgh, PA, who, in 1905 (the same year this programme was printed!) joined Professor Prete’s show. Of him, Mascaro said:
Professor Prete … presented a full evening magic show in Italian working various halls and theatres independently. Mascaro assisted Prof. Prete two years, who then repaid him by leaving him stranded in Pittsburgh , with some nice unpaid bills behind.
This tallies with what we have seen from the programme: an Italian magician, working for Italians, probably talking in Italian (as the titles of his illusions show) and the period and geographical location tallies, so it is more than likely this is the same character. Not much else has turned up on Prof. Prete: the most interesting article I found comes from The North Adams Transcript (Massachusetts) from Oct. 31, 1904 and says:
Amateurs in Columbia Theater
The club of men who managed the little Bellini theater on Walnut street, presented a play in the Columbia theater Saturday night and also introduced Professor Prete of Springfield, a magician.
The audience was small, but the entertainment pleased those who were present. Professor Prete is a clever man, having many of the sleight-of-hand tricks ot Kellar and other famous magicians.
The city of Springfield is in Massachusetts (there is one also in Pennsylvania…) and this snippet tells us where Signor Prete come from. Further research should concentrate on his immigration records, his address and other notices from that period in the North East region of the USA.
Nevertheless, from the collecting point of view, we have a nice item, in very good condition for the age (106 years old to the date of this post) presenting a small glimpse of a magician who otherwise would have completely disappeared from the folds of history. We don’t know much more of Signor Prete from this programme: we only know what he looked like and we have an idea of the tricks he was performing for audiences of immigrants who, probably, would have not been able to afford the shows of Kellar or Herrmann. What we know is that, perhaps, Mr. Prete was not the most upright magical performer and that, perhaps, his career did not last that long. We are not aware of other ephemera pertaining to him: has it survived or is this programme the only item that reminds us of his life?
To finish this (first) post, the programme of the one-man show that Monday night, 1st January 1906 in Sharpsburg. What saddens me is that Signor Prete would begin his show by explaining his own tricks… this is not really a good way to be remembered, both as a performer and as a man.
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