World 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.
According to the reviews of the show, and to those of other performances at conventions about the same time, Conchito had a “black art” act where he impersonated a Count from Northern Europe and performed a flying ball, the disappearance of a person from the top of a ladder and successive re-apparition, followed by another vanish from a transparent box hung above the stage to finally re-appear inside a trunk by the footlights. Conchito continued to have a career in Dutch night clubs and variety stages in the 1950s, and he produced a poster (reproduced at the top of the article) showing his face, five vignettes and the title “Crossing The Centuries Show” in English – the mark of an international performer, at least in his inspiration. In later years, having abandoned the stage, he began to build and sell illusions and to attend European magic conventions. On his stand, the posters from years before were offered for sale or as a present to the buyers of his illusions: these posters are now very common and often turn up at magic auctions or at magic dealers.
Since the war years, Chefalo, the Italian illusionist, had taken residence in The Netherlands, as his young second wife was Dutch. His popularity was very high and his shows well attended: he stuck up friendship with Henk Vermeyden, the popular magic dealer and great promoter of Dutch magic, and was an inspiration to many young Dutch magicians. They could see in him a successful international illusionist, with a long career and a supreme skill in entertaining audiences with magic. His repertoire was therefore studied, dissected: many of Chefalo’s tricks were technically simple, but they were all astonishing to the audience. One of Chefalo’s effects was the construction, with four wooden slats, of a small box without top or bottom and the production from it of a very large number of silks, cages, clocks, animals and small boxes. On a large stage, with many attractive assistants wearing an Oriental costume and holding a small basket on which the objects were deposited when produced, this effect was most amazing, as demonstrated by a short film of Chefalo performing it in 1939. Conchito decided to build a copy of the effect, using the same method of Chefalo, but creating a completely different apparatus, much larger and cumbersome to transport.
This long introduction is necessary to explain why I, a collector of ephemeral material and mainly paper, have just recently added a large table and an even larger packing crate to my collection. Until a couple of months ago, the only thing I knew about Conchito was his poster, not too pretty and very common. But then, one day I received a message though this very blog: a gentleman from Holland wrote to me asking for information about a large crate that had been sitting in his barn since 1948, with the name “Chefalo” on it. This put the gears in motion and I obtained some photos of the crate and its contents: a table to reproduce Chefalo’s effect described above. The red crate had the name “Conchito” written on the front, back and top, and “Chefalo .T.” inside the lid, meaning “Chefalo Tafel”, the Dutch word for “table”. During a long email exchange, the fascinating story of the device became clear, and I managed to acquire it, crate and all. A few days ago, a very large case turned up, containing some amazing equipment, incredibly deceiving, which shows the length magicians were going to in order to amaze their audiences with mystery.
According to the story, Conchito acquired Chefalo’s own table for this trick and, in 1948, sold it to the grandfather of the gentleman who contacted me, a Dutch amateur magician who competed in the early FISM championships and who performed magic semi-professionally with the name of TOjoDA. According to the convention reports, this trick was not in his repertoire then. On examining the photos, first, and the table itself, now, I don’t believe Chefalo ever owned it. Mind you: this may have been a spare table, or he may have had it built in the war years, but I think it’s unlikely. Chefalo’s table was lower and had aluminium legs which could be folded. This is true for the table he used in 1939 (photo above) and for the table he used in the 1950s and ’60s (photo at the left). In addition to that, Chefalo was very peculiar about the look of his apparatus: everything followed the colour scheme of the show and had similar patterns, which are nothing like those on this table. I am confident that Chefalo never used it, but I would really love to be proved wrong (a photo from the war years, perhaps?).
I think Conchito made the table for himself – of course, inspired by Chefalo’s – and that he actually used it in his show at some time: this is the only reason why he would plaster his name, carefully painted, over the case, and number it “31”, a stratagem used by illusionists of times gone by: this was making their shows look larger and with more apparatus than they actually had. Perhaps Conchito did not have 31 cases in his show, but the stage-hand unloading the five or six crates from a truck may have been impressed by the quality of the magician who had such a large show!
Anyway, the table that once belonged to Conchito and then to TOjoDa (Joop Daamen), is now in my collection. It is amazing, incredibly deceptive: the tabletop is only one inch tall (about 2cm) but it is designed such as to produce three large loads. The table top contains three traps, which, after more than sixty-five years from its construction, still open fine – at least two of them. One trap doesn’t open well as a piece of wood glued under the tabletop to guide a metal bar has become unglued and will need to be re-attached. The wheels under the legs are all rusty and one of them had all the rubber gone: the previous owner had rolled around it some string to avoid the metal from ruining the floor. Since taking the picture opposite, I’ve replaced the wheels with modern ones: the table is now about 1cm shorter, which is more suitable to my height, and it can be moved freely on any floor without fearing unwelcome scratches or ear-piercing screeches. The right leg (click to see a large picture) has the side slat slightly detached: the wood has curved and without steaming it, it will not be possible to straighten. In any case, this doesn’t impact the working of the table or its display on a stage.
A swift showman, who wastes no time on poses or pauses, Chefalo produced live rabbits, live geese, canary cages, clocks, and innumerable handkerchiefs from what appeared to be a bottomless box…
The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 November 1920
The table is now in good condition: I cleaned and polished it. It could do with a small re-touch in some places where the paint has been lost, but I will not do it. The table was used in the past and I like this “lived” patina.
The case in which the table is stored has been cleaned inside and out: the dust gathered in more than half century is now gone and its colour is brilliant again. In the past, some white paint has been dropped on the lid, leaving a blob that I have not been able to remove (on the photo, it is on the left hand side). While unsightly, it doesn’t affect the crate and will probably remain there. I’m sure there are chemical products to remove it, but why make the box look as it has just been built? The crate’s locks are broken: it doesn’t close. They will have to be replaced but I haven’t been able to find suitable ones yet. This will be the next step.
The table (and crate) is quite heavy: about fifty kilograms, and requires two people to move it. The table comes apart: tabletop, the two sides with legs and two decorative slats, one at the front, the other at the back. The slats have the Dutch words for “front” and “back” (voor and achterst) on them – another detail that convinced me the table could not have belonged to Chefalo: he would have used English (or Italian) words.
One bit is still missing from this illusion: it is currently travelling towards me all the way from Thailand. This is “Chefalo’s Box”, the small box from which the production is done. Without it, the trick is incomplete, but one can understand how this small object, which can make a smaller production on its own (without requiring the use of the table), may have been stored away from the large table if the owner didn’t know the trick. Again, on looking at the photo of the apparatus, it is evident this was not used by Chefalo, who never used “Chinese” decorations in his illusions, as they did not fit his style.
What am I not showing in this post? I am not showing “the trick”, the really interesting part of this apparatus, and I am not elaborating on the details that make it incredibly illusive. It is sufficient to say that I opened the crate, removed the parts and assembled the table. I could see exactly how the trick worked, how every single piece of wood fit together, how every nook and cranny of the apparatus had been designed. Then… I moved at the front of the table and in an instant, I saw magic! What I had in front of me was such a plain, thin table that could not have hidden a silk handkerchief, let alone a dozen alarm clocks, two large bird cages and half dozen adult rabbits! I looked at it from underneath, as the audience sitting in a theatre would have done, and the illusion was perfect. I stood on a chair, then on a table, and looked at it from high up, like people sitting in the gallery of the theatre: once again, the illusion was complete! The table is one inch thick: from where does all that stuff come from?
Chefalo places a collapsible empty box on a simple little table and proceeds to extract from the box enough handkerchiefs, bird cages, boxes, live poultry and guinea-pigs to keep two or three helpers busy for some time taking the things off the stage.
The Japan Advertiser, 2 April 1921
I then switched on the television, to watch the performance of a contemporary illusionist using the same principle used in this table, in a very expensive illusion built by an alleged professional illusion builder. The most visible part of the contraption was the one that was supposed to be hidden, the one that Chefalo and Conchito had understood so well they could fool time and again audiences around the world. The little details the master illusionists of the past knew and used, have either been forgotten or have not been understood by contemporary generations. The principle behind this table is well known to me, the trick itself is one I have seen performed by Chefalo many, many times. But I would never have expected to be fooled by it and, especially, I would not have expected to wonder at the ingenuity that went into building this illusion.
As a “small magic collector”, I don’t need to add more tables to my collection: the one by Bland was the exception, but I could certainly not leave this table to sit in a barn in Holland or, heaven forbid, have it consigned to the flames. This illusion of this forgotten illusionist who had been inspired by Chefalo, is now being taken good care of. Will it be the last table in my collection?
All content is Copyright © 2010-2013 by Marco Pusterla - www.mpmagic.co.uk. All rights reserved.