Throughout the history of magic, scores of books on the art have been written specifically for the lay public. Some have reached iconographic status within the art it exposed, such as Hoffmanns Modern Magic
; its stated purpose to teach the aspiring conjuror the craft. Some are what they are: blatant exposs with little redeeming value to the art. Few, however, have a sincerely
stated purpose of offering secrets for the sole purpose of giving the reader an appreciation for the art; not so they might perform it, but so they might better enjoy its performance. Maskelyne and Devants Our Magic
was one such book. By most accounts it sold poorly among its target market, the lay public, but it is embraced by conjurors today as a bedrock theoretical text.Hiding the Elephant
by Jim Steinmeyer (Carroll & Graf, 2003) is also such a book. Its stated purpose is found in Mr. Steinmeyers words: My experience tells me that the story of magicians can only be understood when you understand their art.
And secrets, being an essential part of the art, are indeed discussed throughout the book. I am delighted in the fact that, in the year or so since this book was published, I am unaware of anyone in magic screaming exposure! in regard to this book. This is not to say that there may not be some who might be whispering it in the darkened corners of their cloistered little world. If there are those among us saying that, they fall into two categories: the first have never read the book, but heard
it exposed secrets. The second read the book, but failed to comprehend its message because they view the whole art of magic as revolving only around its secrets and any exposure threatens its fragile existence. The common thread of these two groups is a simple lack of awareness. The former need only read the book before passing judgment while the latters belief is shattered by the historical record: magic, even in the midst of this information age, continues to survive even gratuitous exposures, something Hiding the Elephant
certainly is not
. Is that, perhaps, because lay audiences are smarter than some magicians give them credit for? Apparently Jim Steinmeyer seems to think so, and in this book he treats the whole art of magic as well as his readers with the respect they both deserve.Hiding the Elephant
is a cross between detective story and magic history lesson. While it is the search for how, in 1918, Houdini could create the illusion of Jennie the elephant disappearing while on the stage of the New York Hippodrome, its also the story of how Mr. Steinmeyer was able to cause Midget the donkey to vanish while on stage at the 1995 Conference on Magic History in Los Angeles. Though somehow I doubt if Hiding the Donkey
was ever considered as a possible title.
As someone who is enamored by the history of our art, it should come as no surprise that it was easy for me to be swept up by the story. What is truly wonderful about this book, given its success in the general marketplace, is that it clearly sweeps up those with only a passing, or even no, interest in magics history. For lay readers, I suspect, the detective story is the hook while the history lesson lays the foundation for the appreciation of the art. Weaving magical secrets in with the personalities who developed them gives the secrets a form of humanity of their own: the reader cares for and appreciates them far more than when a stranger mocks them while hiding behind a mask. And magicians who have ignored the historical aspect of their art may very well find themselves craving more, since Hiding the Elephant
reveals only a small slice of magics past. But the slice Mr. Steinmeyer chose to carve outa necessity for his mission: how to hide a donkeyalso happens to be one of magic historys richest periods: the early 19th through the early 20th centuries. It was a period ripe with invention. The threads of technological invention, theatrical illusion and fraud were intertwined in a fascinating tapestry; the principal players from each camp the only ones able to grasp the confusing tangle behind it. These players lives crossed paths in ways that ranged from family members and friendly partners to competitive rivals and reviled adversaries. There were inventors and thieves; artists and swindlers.
The brief introduction of this cast of characters at the beginning of the book proves a helpful device. Even those already familiar with the names will benefit from the primer, even if its nothing more than a review. By way of introduction we find out Mr. Steinmeyers motive for pursuing old secrets that were never unveileda motive that transcends mere professional curiosity. This pursuit led him not only backstage (of both illusion and special effect), but also into the workshops of scientists and engineers from a time when they were first discovering things we take for granted today and, in some respects, remain hidden
to this day. He starts with Houdini and his success at the Hippodrome. To understand this event, we must be taken further back into history, to the first uses of optics to create illusion and special effects. These scientific wonders find their way into the hands of opportunistic performers who are able to further develop the principles into practical stage illusions. Steinmeyer continues to weave his story, bringing us forward through time as we meet other magicians, mediums and illusionists: their lives, inventions and actions all playing a partdirectly or indirectlyin this wondrous tale when we are again brought back to the New York Hippodrome where we discover that the story doesnt end! (After all, all good stories are unpredictable.) But ultimately, after we first learn of magics turn toward the shock value of mutilation (vs. the pure astonishment of a perfect vanish), we make it back at the stage in Los Angeles where our travels over more than 100 years of magics colorful history culminate with the successful disappearance of Midget the donkey. We are all fortunate that Jim Steinmeyer discovered the secret to hiding a donkey. Had he not, we
might not have had the pleasure of discovering Hiding the Elephant.
PS: Mr. Steinmeyer (until now, I hope) was unaware that his book would be featured here. I made the announcement (though it was quickly replaced by pressing issues) prior to his announcement on the release of the paperback edition (with a new introduction by Teller) and that there would be a brief book-signing tour. Its not too late for the signing scheduled for the Los Angeles area. You can access that post here: http://geniimagazine.com/forum/noncgi/u ... 0;t=001242