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.
Charlton was active through the two world wars and he spent the First World War in the Royal Garrison Artillery, which gave him the opportunity to perform for King George V and Queen Mary at Aldershot in 1917: he will always remember this performance and used it for advertising purposes all his life.
In 1925-26, he joined the Chinese-American magician Long Tack Sam (1884-1961) for a tour of Australia and New Zealand, then went to perform in America between 1930 and 1931, before returning to England and taking over the Royalty Theatre in London for a season of magic in 1935/36. Charlton continued to perform up to the 1950s, finally retiring when the changes of variety entertainment spelt the death of (among others) also his livelihood. Living in London, he sustained a fall in November 1963, which caused his death two weeks later.
Chris Charlton is quite well known to magic collectors as he was one of the greatest collectors of magic magazines of the era. Indeed, he was the “prince of the periodical,” having the most complete collection of magic magazines to anyone’s knowledge. But he also possessed a large collection of magic books, and finally the full collection (more than 11,000 items) was acquired by The Magic Circle in 19531, and now forms a large part of the Library of this exclusive and prestigious Magic Society.
However, not all the magazines in Charlton’s collection passed to The Magic Circle, it seems, as some of them are now piled up on the floor of my office, their smell gently filling my nostrils. Old paper has a peculiar smell: a mixture of dust, mould, water and fungus that is generally not pleasant, but, at the same time, not overbearing. Curiously, Chris Charlton had acquired a large number of magazines from the storage of Cecil Lyle2 (1889-1955), a much more famous illusionist contemporary to him, and the last magician to see Chung Ling Soo alive. What if these magazines were once Lyle’s?
These magazines are not the only subject of this article: if you want to know more about Chris Charlton and his magic, and, particularly, if you are interested in the story of an amazing find of material that was thought lost, please read on.
Being quite active on the market of magic memorabilia, and, I must say, quite well known on the internet, I get contacted from time to time by people who have some magic memorabilia to dispose and who are looking for a new, careful owner. Quite recently, I have been put in touch with a gentleman who had some Chris Charlton memorabilia that needed a new carer. This gentleman, a fellow magician and magic inventor, had acquired a few years ago, some material a builder found while renovating a house in Norwood3, London. This large Victorian house had been empty for many years, and the new owners were renovating it. On pulling down a partition, the builders discovered old, rotting boxes containing magic magazines, posters, handbills, photos, programmes of what looked like a magician: Chris Charlton.
The owners of the building were not interested in keeping the material, and were eager to dump it in the skip outside the house. The builder asked if he could salvage it and was allowed to. Shortly after, he put one magazine on eBay and this was bought by the person who contacted me, who then learnt about the other items and, wisely, decided to get them. Unless you are a collector or a magic historian, there is no much use in the archive of an old magician, especially if this contains more than 700 copies of old magazines, describing tricks that may no longer be of interest to modern audiences, and reports of magical events of more than a century ago. After keeping the collection in his attic for a few years, this gentleman decided to see if there was somebody interested in it, and was put in touch with me.
After receiving a few photos, exchanging a few emails, and chatting on the phone, I arranged a visit to see the items and… I acquired them.
Chris Charlton’s life history
After the material had arrived home, I started to look through it and began a still-ongoing cataloguing process. The heaviest bulk of the collection are more than 700 copies of two magic magazines: The Wizard and The Magic Wand, with print dates between 1909 and 1913. The Wizard was a magic magazine put out between 1905 and 1910 by P.T. Selbit, the inventor of the trick of a woman sawn in half, of whom we have already discussed. It then turned into The Magic Wand, under the editorship of George McKenzie Munro. This magazine had a much longer life, finally closing in 1957. The interesting thing is that Charlton had many dozens copies of each issue: two issues alone are present in almost 90 copies! These are not full files of the magazines, and I can’t fathom why anybody would like to get so many copies of any individual issue, unless this person is the editor himself. Many of the magazines contain an advertisement for a young Chris Charlton, with photo, but not all the issues do. Having already in my library a complete file of both magazines, I certainly didn’t buy these to complete a set.
For posterity records, in the table below, the list of each copy and their quantity, as they came to me:
|The Wizard||Vol. 4 n. 43||March 1909||W. T. Stead||2|
|The Wizard||Vol. 4 n. 45||May 1909||G. W. Hunter||86|
|The Wizard||Vol. 5 n. 49||September 1909||Imro Fox||2|
|The Wizard||Vol. 5 n. 51||November 1909||The Magician’s Annual in Hot Water (Will Goldston)||71|
|The Wizard||Vol. 5 n. 52||December 1909||Chris Van Bern||74|
|The Wizard||Vol. 5 n. 53||January 1910||Arnold de Biere||67|
|The Wizard||Vol. 5 n. 55||March 1910||Mr & Mrs. Harry Houdini||2|
|The Wizard||Vol. 5 n. 56||April 1910||Chung Ling Soo||3|
|The Wizard||Vol. 5 n. 59||July 1910||E. Lazern||2|
|The Magic Wand||Vol. 1 n. 1||September 1910||Devant, Maskelyne, Noakes, etc.||13|
|The Magic Wand||Vol. 1 n. 6||February 1911||H. Courtney-Page||7|
|The Magic Wand||Vol. 1 n. 10||June 1911||Society of Magicians, Dundee||45|
|The Magic Wand||Vol. 1 n. 11||July 1911||Walton Brozen||17|
|The Magic Wand||Vol. 1 n 12||August 1911||Nathan Dean||6|
|The Magic Wand||Vol. 2 n. 20||April 1912||Mr. Henry Donn||2|
|The Magic Wand||Vol. 2 n. 21||May 1912||Mr. Charles Oates, Jr.||18|
|The Magic Wand||Vol. 2 n. 22||June 1912||Mr. H. E. Bernau||2|
|The Magic Wand||Vol. 2 n. 23||July 1912||Mr. Sydney W. Clarke||15|
|The Magic Wand||Vol. 2 n. 24||August 1912||Herr Carl Stackemann||2|
|The Magic Wand||Vol. 3 n. 51||March 1913||Mr. Edward Victor||2|
|The magic wand||Vol. 3 n. 52||April 1913||Mr. Ernest E. Noakes||70|
|The Magic Wand||Vol. 3 n. 33||May 1913||E. A. Maskelyne||32|
|The Magic Wand||Vol. 3 n. 35||July 1913||“Seeing Things”||86|
|The Magic Wand||Vol. 3 n. 36||August 1913||Mr. J. Harry Webster||75|
The quality of the individual issues varies greatly, with some in almost pristine conditions (but dusty), while others are water-damaged, creased, flaking. All of them have very rusty staples, something to be expected by having been stored in damp conditions for more than a century.
Handbills and Programmes
How does one reconstruct the career of a magician in the golden era of variety theatres? There are basically two methods. The first one involves long hours spent in libraries or in front of a screen, checking the theatrical records of old newspapers. This activity has been simplified greatly in recent years, with the advent of numerous websites providing access to old newspapers. But, however good the digitized material is, one will never be able to fully record the activity of any magician. This is because not all performances may have been announced on newspapers: if a magician was a minor one, he could have been an act on a “variety bill” who did not warrant being individually named. Or the name may have been misspelt. Or, and this is the most likely situation, no digital, microfilm or print copy of the issue of the newspaper announcing the performance, exists.
However, almost all theatres produced a programme of the week’s show, to be sold to patrons, and this listed all acts on the bill for the week. Theatrical programmes are a treasure trove for the magic biographer but they, alas!, are so difficult to find and to collate. Programmes for the specific week of the magician’s performance in a given theatre may no longer exist, with all copies destroyed with the passing of time, or may be spread across different collectors and dealers, so much so that it is almost impossible to rely on the opportunity to see them all and to use the primary data they provide.
It was therefore very exciting to discover in this lot, a large number of programmes about Chris Charlton and his performances, covering most of his life. Unlike Chefalo, whose collection I had the opportunity to examine, Charlton had the good habit to save one or more programmes from any theatre he performed in, and for any event he presented his magic. I now have almost 1.2 kg of papers being an eclectic collection of programmes and advertising brochures from 1906 to 1950. Here, too, we have a few duplicates (not as many as the magazines, thankfully!) and programmes in various states of disrepair, with a few greatly damaged, although most of them are in good condition.
What I found most satisfying in this lot, are programmes for private events in which Charlton was one of the artists: these are dates one would normally not know, as private events are often not recorded in newspapers, and whose programmes, if they have ever been printed, have probably long since been thrown away by the few attendees. Who is interested in keeping the programme of an entertainment on a specific night on a transatlantic ship in the 1910s?
|27/02/1906||Municipal Hall||St. George’s Newcastle-under-Lyme|
|27/03/1912||R.M.S. Edinburgh Castle||Concert at sea|
|08/04/1915||Order of the Magi||Manchester|
|18/10/1917||The Lydd Cinema||Lydd|
|31/01/1919||Wilberforce Memorial Hall||Sierra Leone, West Africa|
|27/11/1921||Vaudeville River Club||Thames Ditton|
|28/09/1922||City Art Gallery||Leeds|
|28/04/1925||Theatre Royal||Sydney (Australia)|
|12/03/1929||Casino d’Antibes||Antibes (France)|
|21/12/1929||S.S. Leviathan||Concert at sea|
|17/05/1930||R.M.S. Berengaria||(ship – Cunard Lines)|
|12/11/1930||Masonic Temple||Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA|
|11/12/1930||Young Mens Business Club||Seattle (USA)|
|17/08/1933||The Grand Pavilion Theatre||Llandrindod Wells|
|09/12/1935||Assembly Hall||Tunbridge Wells|
|26/05/1940||De La Warr Pavilion||Bexhill-on-Sea|
|13/05/1949||Plaza Theatre||West Bromwich|
|05/09/1955||The Royal Hall||Harrogate|
A few programmes are not about Charlton: some (those underlined: if you hover your mouse over them, some information should pop up) are for other performers Charlton may have gone to see. Most shows are for the full week, while a few are for only a few days or a single performance.
What can we see from the above? We can see a magic career that spans exactly 50 years, from the first performance as a 21-year-old young man, to the last one, a 71-year old professional magician with a long career behind him and ready for retirement.
A note about dates above: while most years are clearly stated on the programmes, a few only carry the day and month. For these, the year is a best guess based on the style of the programme and on the day of the week the show was performed. There may be errors, and if any reader knows better, a note would be appreciated. While this collection is certainly incomplete, as – as we shall see – Charlton performed many more shows, it is still an amazing record of dates and of work for a fascinating and skilled illusionist.
One thing that most magicians love more in their Art, is the possibility to learn continuously new tricks, new secrets, acquire new mysterious apparatus to improve one’s performances. It has been said before that magicians never really grow up, remaining forever like children, looking for new toys – the magic tricks and their secrets.
While magic, for Chris Charlton, was certainly a job, he never lost his passion for the trick in itself, for the magic novelty: his continual acquisition of magic books and magazines (at the time there were less titles available than today) is a testament to this passion for magic. It was no surprise, then, to discover among Charlton’s files, a large number of explanations of magic tricks: manuscripts that were produced by magicians worldwide and then sold, from the 1920s onward, as individual tricks with the apparatus (or not) to use. In the collection, there are instructions for thirty-nine different tricks, some of which in more than one copy.
We have tricks by Allan Lambie, by Joseph Ovette and by other, less known, inventors, covering all magic categories: from card magic to close-up, from stage magic (including the original explanation of the Zombie Ball trick – a practical floating ball with an original method for the time) to spiritualism: Chris Charlton had a wide range of magical interests.
One of the tricks (pictured above) has never been opened, while all the others have been read and perhaps even performed by Chris Charlton. In this group of memorabilia, there are also two unpublished manuscripts by Chris Charlton, describing as many stage acts (but with no explanation of the methods), and from what I’ve been able to ascertain, these were never produced. A further unpublished manuscript is Fred Culpitt‘s patter for the tambourine trick. Culpitt was a comedy magician contemporary to Charlton and the inventor of The Doll’s House illusion, among other tricks now standard, but this patter doesn’t seem very good… at least to my eyes!
More Magic Posters
In the course of his life, in a time long before the internet, Chris Charlton, like many other magicians, had some posters printed to advertise his shows. Some of the posters, especially those in the 1920s and 1930s, were “pictorial,” i.e. with large, colourful images of the conjurer. However, most of his performances were announced on posters listing all the acts in the show, modern-day broadsides to attract people into a theatre by rising their curiosity on the entertainment available in the week.
During his career, Charlton had some posters designed and printed exclusively for himself, like the three-sheet one at the side (recently sold by Potter & Potter), and these are all quite rare now. As every magician with a long career, all the thousands of posters that had been printed, have been used to create interest in the shows, rather than being given away to collectors or having them left behind when the performer died suddenly, or retired.
Chris Charlton kept in his personal collection, in addition to the objects so far discussed, some less exciting posters, the various letterpress bills announcing his presence in variety shows. As it happened with the posters of Linga Singh which I acquired a few years ago and of which I have already written about, these ephemeral items provide in most instances the only surviving copy of the specific poster, the only ephemeral record for the show.
For record’s sake, below is the list of the posters, with the dates of the shows. Again: some posters did not have a year indicated on the date, so these have been estimated at the best of our knowledge: if any reader knows better, please let us know with a comment below, or a message.
|Date||Place||City||Width (cm.)||Height (cm.)|
|26/09/1938||Eden Theatre||Bishop Auckland||51||75|
Charlton had in his collection, in addition to these posters that can be dated, others, generally parts of larger posters, just containing his name (in very large letters), and posters of colleagues (Hardeen – Houdini’s brother – and Cecil Lyle). The posters are generally in fair condition, but they still represent rare ephemeral memorabilia for entertainment from between the two World Wars.
I am quite concerned about the future of magic history, and the lack of printed photographs of contemporary magicians to be available in a few decades from now. With the almost complete move to digital photography, there is a risk of losing many memories of magic performances and performers: even if now there are thousands of digital images of magicians, these are stored on electronic devices which may malfunction, get lost, erased or become obsolete. I have already discussed elsewhere the risks of digital collections, and I’m happy to live in a time where one can still find printouts of photos of magicians from the past which, while frail, provide a tangible link to times gone by.
In the Chris Charlton‘s collection, I was fortunate to find a number of photos of this magician, of his performances, and of his family. A few photos are publicity ones, showing a mysterious illusionist from the 1930s, while a few portray Charlton on stage during his magic act. A few photos of his wife, a couple of “candid” ones (on a ship, probably en route towards America or sailing back to Great Britain), and some autographed photos of magician friends (Culpitt, Grdina…), completed this small collection. I think this is a significant collection, as most of the existing photographs of Chris Charlton are all alike, showing either his profile (as in the poster above) or his portrait, in various stages of his life, being publicity photos for autograph seekers, friends, colleagues or theatres.
It is thanks to the photos taken during live shows that one can visualize what the magical effect as reported by newspapers or magazines, really looked like, and either be amazed by the impossibility, or surprised that a crude effect could create such rave.
Below is a review of his show from The Magician Monthly4 from 1930, describing Charlton’s act: some of the photos from the collection are from that period and illustrate a few of the tricks:
Chris Charlton has been performing around town lately with his wonderful show. The sympathetic silks are his first offering followed by a study in black and white; this is not a trick with a bottle of the best, but a clever paper-tearing effect, where Felix, the cat, is illustrated. The paper is crumpled up, and made to levitate. A new addition to his act is the cut and restored rope. This is getting quite a favourite with magicians. Having a kind heart and a leaning towards human nature, Charlton introduces his inexhaustible kettle, and proceeds to keep the occupants of the stalls well lubricated […]. No sooner does he finish the distribution of the drinks, when members of a pussyfoot gang, complete with false noses and top hats, arrest him. He is placed in a sack and hoisted in mid air. One of the gang is left to do the dirty work, by pulling the rope, which is attached to the sack. The sack drops to the stage empty, whilst the villain turns round, removes his disguise (one false nose and top hat) and here we have Chris Charlton. A small boy from the audience is called upon the stage and given a lesson in magic, a handkerchief being borrowed for the purpose. The handkerchief is cut, burned, elongated and restored in various ways. Needless to say, the fun during this part of the performance is fast and furious. The final illusion is “The Bathing Belle.” A lady assistant takes her position in a bathing coach, which is pulled up clear of the stage, and yet without any covering whatsoever she vanishes into thin air. While the audience are left scratching their heads with one hand and applauding with the other, Charlton comes before the curtain and performs the torn and restored strip of paper, afterwards showing the audience how it is done (?), or should we say, how they are done.
Every performer, either magician or any other visual artist, builds through his or her career one or more scrapbooks, often substantial, containing various newspaper articles of mentions about them. These scrapbooks were an impressive way to introduce oneself to a booker, a theatre manager, an entertainment agency.
Many magicians, the non-professionals, the amateurs, often create their own scrapbooks by collecting local newspaper articles about magicians, magic stories (the “Indian Rope Trick” was a popular one in Victorian and Edwardian times), or with explanation of magic tricks – a subject that seems to be of constant interest to newspaper editors.
The problem with scrapbooks is that they exist in a single copy: nobody has ever created two copies, exactly the same, of the same scrapbook. And then, and this is even worse, scrapbooks tend to deteriorate fairly quickly: the pages yellow, become brittle, the newspaper clippings absorb the acid from the cardboard pages and from the glue used to attach them. The preservation of scrapbooks is a very challenging endeavour, even more so for scrapbooks of historical importance, be them “prima manus” (first hand, those collected and collated by the artist himself), or those containing newspaper clippings only belonging to a single performer or place.
The highlight of the Chris Charlton collection, for me as magic historian and researcher, are four scrapbooks compiled by Charlton in his life, collecting various newspaper clippings, mostly on his performances, but also on magic tricks and on contemporary magicians. In addition to these, in the collection there is a large number of newspaper clippings that have not been yet glued to the pages, and that will take a long time to study. The largest amount of clippings is from the 1930s, and many of those come from the American season of Charlton. On examining the clippings, one can discover that a few were sent to Charlton by “clipping agencies,” i.e. companies that would browse newspapers on behalf of their customers, identifying, clipping and sending on, the articles related to subjects of interest. Today, modern services monitor the internet and provide email links to stories/pages you may be interested in: in the first half of the previous century, many magicians relied on these paper services to keep up to date on their own reviews and on their colleagues. Houdini himself used news clipping agencies to help him compile his scrapbooks, most of which are now in the Library of Congress, but one dedicated to spiritualism was only recently found.
The four scrapbooks are not completely full and the pages (of thick cardboard) have clippings glued only on one side. Their condition is generally very good: only one had a damaged cover, but the clippings inside are intact. The scrapbooks are all of different sizes, containing articles from 1915 to the mid-1930s, and also some pages from older magazines, generally with the explanation of tricks. While most of the material is about Charlton, especially the older scrapbooks contain articles on Maskelyne, Selbit and other magicians of the “golden age” of magic.
It will take me a long time to study these scrapbooks and to catalogue their contents: indeed, the clippings should all be digitized and then printed on acid-free paper to properly preserve them, but the feel of old paper, its dusty smell and the knowledge that these objects were once touched and created by Chris Charlton himself, makes them unique and, for me, much preferable to the pure information.
Odds and Ends
The Chris Charlton collection contains also a small number of other items not directly related to Charlton: these include advertising brochures of other magicians, a letter from a theatrical agency proposing acts for a show (some of which were then booked by Charlton, as deduced from some of the programmes), and the ticket to meet Houdini of which I’ve already talked about in another post. This is particularly fascinating to me: while it may have been in the copy of The Magician Charlton bought in 1911, and may have been taken to the meeting for the formation of the magic club, it may – more prosaically – come from another copy of the magazine Charlton bought later. I like to think it was the former, and that Charlton regretted for all his life his non attendance at that exceptional meeting (see this post for details).
While I don’t have a preference on any of the items from this collection, of which I am humbled to be the temporary custodian, one object stands out for me. This is a very early business card of Chris Charlton, when, as a young man, still in his local Hanley, Staffordshire, was offering his skills as “The Incomparable Magician” with an entertainment of “Magic, Mirth and Mystery” for “Drawing Room(s), Homes, Concerts, Bazaars, etc.” The thing that makes me smile is a phrase about the price: “Terms Low.” Already in 1906 magicians had to ask for little money to secure an engagement! Some things never change.
- 1 The Magic Circular, Vol. 48, n. 533, p. 116, Jan. 1954
- 2 The Magical Bookie, n. 2, p. 2, June 1960
- 3 Chris Charlton lived at 1 Worcester Gardens in 1963, only a few miles away from Norwood. The exact location of the house where these items have been found, has not been disclosed and it is possible it was actually Charlton’s own home. Certainly, the geographical region matches. Charlton’s wife died a year and half after her husband, but we don’t know what happened to the house after that. We know the house was sold in 2001 and converted to flats shortly after then.
- 4 The Magician Monthly, vol. 26, n. 2, p. 17, January 1930