An invitation to meet Houdini

Posted: March 26, 2014 in collecting
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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.

It is now accepted that magazines and newspapers are larded with advertising material, often adding considerable weight to the publication, especially in newsagents’ magazines and in Sunday newspapers’ supplements. If you are like me, you would dump this material straight away, without giving it a single glance: this would render present day leaflets and other “inserts” very ephemeral, even if printed in the hundred of thousands of copies. The habit of producing inserts for magazines is by no means a recent idea: tokens and other material – usually of an advertising nature – was in use a hundred years ago. Material like that is very ephemeral by nature: as I said, it would often have found its way to the rubbish bin, or it would have become separated from the magazine. Not long ago, while pursuing my research for Chefalo, I acquired at auction, for a very reasonable price, some issues of The Magician Monthly, the magic magazine produced by Gamages and edited by Will Goldston, of whom we have already talked about.

In the May 1911 issue an insert was mentioned in Goldston’s article about The League of Magicians (page 106):

As an inset to this number of “The Magician,” we publish a formal invitation to the meeting. But this is principally by way of reminder. As a matter of fact, any magician who presents his card at the door of the Crown Room, will be admitted to the meeting.

In my copy, for a curious twist of fate, this inset was still there, held in place by half of the rusty staple that had been holding the pages together for more than a hundred years. The image below is the actual invitation (almost all images, when clicked, will display a higher quality version):

Invitation to meet Houdini

Invitation to meet Houdini

What was this invitation about? If you are a magic historian or collector, you will probably know the story of the League of Magicians, but if you aren’t, then I hope these notes may prove of interest to you.

In the first years of the twentieth century, London was the world capital of magic: it had many theatres that were presenting daily variety shows and regularly magicians would star. For an idea of the quantity of places where one could have been able to see a magician, a visit to the website of Arthur Lloyd will give hours of pleasant research. All the great magicians of the age would perform in London, each trying to better each other: this was a time where new ideas were being developed, tried in front of an audience, perfected in order to give the illusion of real magic to a knowledgeable theatre audience.

A. W. Gamage, Holborn, London

A. W. Gamage Ltd., Holborn, London

In London, in 1905, a group of amateur and professional magicians had formed The Magic Circle, which in the century since has become the most important magic club in the country and one of the most prestigious associations in the world. One of its early members was the very visible Will Goldston (Wolf Goldstein, 1878-1948) who, after a disagreement with the management, relinquished his membership only after one year. Goldston, the manager of the Entertainment department of Gamages, a large department store in the capital, and the editor of The Magician Monthly, had his own ideas on how to run a magic association and in the Magician’s Annual for 1910-11, he published an article advocating for the formation of a “League of Magicians,” a magic association that would reunite the professionals of the art in order to preserve the quality of magic as given to the theatrical audience. The proposal was to create an entity that could act as a seal of approval for magical performers, ensuring their quality and professionalism for public shows.

Cartoon about the controversy between Will Goldston and The Magic Circle

Cartoon about the controversy between Will Goldston and The Magic Circle

The suggestion created interest in the magical world and, to keep the wheels turning, a meeting was organized, as can be seen from the invitation above, for 3 p.m. on Saturday 27 May 1911 in the Crown Room of the Holborn Restaurant, London. An article in the April issue of The Magician announced that Goldston and his friends were making arrangements  for the inaugural meeting to be held shortly. Goldston also said that:

It is with peculiar pleasure that we announce that Harry Houdini has consented to preside at the meeting. From the first he has been with us heart and soul in the matter… His eminent position in the profession and his fine business qualities will make him an admirable chairman. The League of Magicians will be well launched by Houdini…. Houdini must be well supported at the meeting. Every magician who can possibly attend must do so.

Goldston was also hoping to piggyback on the coronation of George V (on 22 June 1911) and to be able to receive the Royal patronage – which will not happen. Sadly, on 9 May, the Great Lafayette (Sigmund Neuberger, 1871-1911) died in the fire of the Empire Theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the May issue of The Magician dedicated a considerable number of pages to this artiste, limiting the space for Will Goldston to further rally for the club.

But Goldston should not have worried: between the articles, the inset in the magazine, the printing of another 1,000 copies of the magazine, and word of mouth among magicians, the room of the restaurant was, that Saturday afternoon, filled by many professional and amateur magicians. Two emblematic photos of the event, one showing the panel, the other the audience, were published in the June 1911 issue of the magazine, and again in the Annual for 1911-12, a few months later. The original photo is in my collection as well, as one of the magicians sitting in the committee was Chefalo:

Houdini in the chair at the Inaugural Meeting of the Magicians Club - 1911

Houdini in the chair at the Inaugural Meeting of the Magicians Club – 1911

The audience

The audience

After a passionate speech by Houdini, the Club was duly formed, taking the name of Magicians’ Club, rather than the proposed “League of the Magicians.” Houdini was the president and Will Goldston was nominated treasurer, a position that he will maintain for the rest of his life.

Artist's rendition of the Inaugural Meeting

Artist’s rendition of the Inaugural Meeting

One of the most amazing characteristics of this event was the large number of professional magicians present at its inauguration and during its life: generally, magic clubs are attended by amateur magicians, and amateur magicians form the largest part of a magic club membership. On this occasion, around that table, there were some of the greatest names in magic in history: in the above photo, from left to right, one can see Carl Stakemann, Ralph Chefalo, Maurice Garland, Rameses (Albert Marchinski), George Wetton, Will Goldston, Harry Houdini, Stanley Collins, Maurice, Chris Van Bern, Servais Le Roy, Charles De Vere, Lieutenant Albini, Sydney Lee. The names that are not in in bold are those of amateurs or less known magicians (“Maurice” was a a professional magician, specializing in card magic, but too little is known of him).

Among the magicians in the audience, one can recognize Lewis Davenport, Louis Nikola, George McKenzie Munro, P.T. Selbit and others, I’m sure. Indeed, if any fellow collector can recognize some more faces among the public, I’m sure every reader will appreciate a note in the comments section below. In the front row, Mrs. Goldston created the void behind her thanks to her large hat (she is the lady looking straight into the camera).

The club will continue its existence until the death of Will Goldston, then it will fade away. However, in the first years of its life, its activity was  considerable, and it continued to attract great professional magicians among its members. But once again, sadly no serious study of the activities of this club has been recorded.

The word “ephemeral” comes from the Greek, literally meaning “lasting only one day.” This ticket has been indeed valid only one day: 27 May 1911 – this was more than 100 years ago. If we had this ticket then – assuming we would have been in England at the time – then, we would have been able to attend an event unique in the history of magic, the only occasion where some of the greatest magicians of the time were in the same place, at the same time, all together. Never again such a collection of magical performers and inventors would be together. Never again.

The unknown original subscriber of the magazine now in my collection may have not been able to attend the meeting, or he could have simply decided to “present his card” at the door, and he may be smiling to us from the photo above. Anyway, he did not trash the ticket for one of the few magical events I would have liked to attend. What to do with this ticket? Shall I remove it carefully from the magazine, frame it and hang it on a wall, thus breaking once and for all the link to the magazine, rendering it truly ephemeral; or shall I leave it where it is , between the pages of an old magazine? If so, should I have the magazines bound to be protected and preserved? Different collectors have different opinions on the way forward: any comment and suggestion will be welcome. While deciding what to do, I shall read these magazines, individually, while in my favourite chair, dreaming of a time when a free ticket could have allowed you to meet the most mysterious men of the era.

The Magician Monthly May 1911

All content is Copyright © 2010-2014 by Marco Pusterla - All rights reserved.
  1. Angelo Mitri says:

    Ciao Marco, che bella storia ti ha ispirato un biglietto d’invito. Complimenti per le foto veramente notevoli. Il mio parere è di non recidere l’unione dell’invito dalla rivista. Per oltre cento anni sono rimasti legati, perché dividerli? L’invito, ora, lo hai valorizzato con il tuo post, quindi è come se lo avessi idealmente estratto fuori dalla rivista.


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