I 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.
Harry August Jansen, known in the magic world as Danté The Magician, was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1883 and moved to the USA as a child. While a young man, he began a magic career as an illusion builder and in the early 1920s, he moved from the workbench to the stage. America’s pre-eminent magician, Howard Thurston (1869-1936) engaged him to tour with a copy of his show, being the “second unit” of this large illusions show. Doing this allowed Thurston to bring his name to the smaller American theatres and, when work dried up in the late 1920s, to send Danté abroad to minimize the competition on American soil.
The life and career of Danté is well documented in a number of books, most notably Phil Temple‘s Dante: the Devil Himself, published in 1991, and in the unedited collection of the letters between Danté and Thurston (Thurston and Dante: The Written Word), published by the same author. One of the things that transpire from Danté’s letters is the constant struggle he had to secure engagements avoiding long “lay-off” periods. But what is more ephemeral than the record of rejection? Triumph is welcome and deserves to be recorded: rejection isn’t, and it is usually quickly forgotten, dismissed, brushed aside, as if it never existed. In my collection there is a very ephemeral bit of memorabilia relating to one of Danté’s rejections: let’s have a look at it.
Danté spent his career touring the world for many years, returning to the USA only a few years after Thurston’s death in 1936 and just before the start of World War 2. His tours included South America, Australia and Europe, jumping from one continent to another while trying to secure bookings in another country. In January 1932, Danté left England, where the competition from Chefalo and the economic insecurity were affecting his performances, and went to Argentina for a few months. From there, at the end of July, he sent a letter to Thurston, saying:
Please let me know if you received your copy of my “Fifty Mysteries“. Plan to issue one of these every year, and mail to every Theatre manager in the World, and incorporating in each new press stories, with new effects added, experiences, photos, etc. I think it a good idea, for the managers must be sold first.1
Fifty Mysteries was the cover title of a brochure Danté had printed for theatre managements and newspapers, to promote his show and to introduce him to potential bookers. He followed on his plan and one of the theatre managers who received this brochure was the director of the Rembrandt Theatre in Amsterdam, Holland. Clicking on the photo above, you will be able to read some more information about this large cine-theatre in the centre of the Dutch capital that, since 1903, had been mainly used to show films. The envelope, more than eighty years old, is torn and frayed, and has a large stain across the centre, as you can see from the image below (all images can be clicked to show a higher quality copy):
Inside the envelope, Danté had certainly included a letter which has since been separated and it’s not in my collection, and a copy of his 50 Mysteries book, the 30-pages, large format (23 x 31.5 cm) advertising brochure giving a romanticized biography of Danté, with many photos of his shows and of the places he had been (including his recent visits – 1931 – to some Italian cities). This book has an amazing cover, reproducing one of the most emblematic posters used by Danté in which the magician, with Mephistophelian looks, holds a glass sphere inside of which you can see some scenes from his show, while little imps look on and participate in the illusions. You can see a high quality version of the poster (not of the brochure) in the collection of Zack Coutroulis, here.
From what I’ve been able to ascertain, Danté was never booked to perform in the Rembrandt Theater: from Argentina, he went – following the same route as Chefalo did – to South Africa and finally to Australia where, in July 1933, his youngest son, Bill Jansen, died in a tragic motorbike accident, at the age of 21. At the time of Thurston’s death, Danté was touring England and he continued to reap great success there until the start of the war, when he finally returned to the USA and attempted to take his large show on the road. But by then, times had changed, and the great illusion show was a relic from the past and no longer economically viable.
I don’t know when the letter in my collection was posted: the post office stamp on the envelope suffers from the frustrating lack of ink many stamps have, and the only figure one can make out is “29”, the day it was stamped. No indication of the month or the year is visible, but I strongly suspect this was sometime in 1932. A few weeks later, the letter would have reached The Netherlands and the “Direktor” of the theatre would have opened it and studied the brochure, to then decide that American illusionist Danté was not suitable for his establishment. Probably, the director did not even send Danté a note to this effect. The envelope and brochure passed then through the hands of a few collectors, survived a World War, and finally joined my collection, as another bit of ephemera in the file related to this illusionist. Danté was not booked for this theatre, but we are now richer in knowing that he tried.
1. Thurston and Dante… the Written Word, Phil Temple, Vol. 2, p. 718