The 7th Los Angeles Conference on Magic History: A First Timer's Take

Discuss general aspects of Genii.

Postby Dustin Stinett » 11/12/01 01:44 AM

I'm certain that Richard will have his review of the conference in Genii and/or here, but I'd like to share my thoughts from the point of view of someone who was attending for the first time.

The semi-annual conference began Thursday, November 8 and ran through Saturday (with a couple of bonuses tossed in for good measure). The hotel, the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn in North Hollywood, is beautiful. With its ivy-covered walls and tree-lined walks, it is a perfect venue. (Perhaps the only place that could possibly be better would be if someone would get off their butts and restore the Ambassador Hotel, including the incredible Coconut Grove showroom, to its original opulence.)

The dealer's rooms were a collector's dream: Everything imaginable: posters, apparatus, ephemera, rare books and even a few new books, videos and DVDs. There wasn't a booth that didn't have something I didn't want to buy, but alas, the CFO (the wife) limited my budget to well under my dreams. One of my favorite tables was Joe Steven's (Steven's Magic Emporium) who had a vast array of Thayer items for sale. I quipped to Joe that his was the "if you have to ask, you can't afford it table." Another incredible site was Norm Nielson's amazing poster reproductions. Printed on canvas, these are wonderfully produced alternatives for those with a limited budget and/or wall space.

The exhibit room was another wonder to behold. Posters from the Egyptian Hall collection (Mike Caveney) adorned the walls of a room containing priceless treasures including illusion equipment designed by Guy Jarrett; Robert-Houdin's clear glass clock (the workings are invisible); assorted automata (from John Gaughan) and a levitation harness that allowed the person floating to turn. There was an exhibit of Abbott's equipment that was more than familiar to many of us. It was nice to see this equipment in the condition it was in when they first arrived at our doors!

The centerpiece of the exhibit room was "The Thayer Shrine." Quite literally a shrine, this was an amazing assortment of rare and beautiful Thayer apparatus from the Gaughan collection.

The first series of talks began Thursday evening. Opening was a delightful talk by Glen David Gold, author of the new (and best-selling) novel titled Carter Beats the Devil. He spoke about the intricacies of writing a piece of fiction while interweaving historical fact.

Richard Hatch (H&R Books) was next with a long but fast paced (if not slightly manic) presentation that was actually a continuation from a talk he gave on the identity of Erdnase at the 6th Conference. He has yet another possible candidate and presented the evidence that led him to his (current) conclusion. The fact that he also provided evidence which casts doubt on some of the other candidates brought forth recently was only a coincidence.

After a short break, David Stahl gave a nice presentation on the always fascinating Lafayette. He shared some new insights into the life and death of this eccentric but amazing magician and his beloved dog, Beauty.

Closing the evening was Bill McIlhany with yet another amazing example of magic on film. He spoke on the recently restored print of The Spider. A film whose main character is a magician. He showed the opening sequence of the film, which was a tease to the many film buffs in attendance.

I would be remiss had I not mentioned the centerpiece of the ballroom where the presentations took place: An immense 28-sheet lithograph of Frederick Bancroft, "Prince of Magicians." Mike Caveney spoke about the restoration of this incredible poster and mentioned something about its availability. Again, if you have to ask you probably can't afford it. Even if you have the means, I cannot imagine where one would place a 9 foot high by 25 foot wide work of art. It's a tad too big for even the largest room here at the Stinett compound. But this gorgeous work certainly deserves to be on display somewhere.

Friday morning began with a "photo-op." Those wishing to could have their picture taken in one, or both, of two "special effect" poses. The first was of you sitting at a table speaking with (or playing cards or whatever) with four other people: all of which happen to be you!

The other was a set up where you were clearly sawed in half: no boxes, just your two halves, posed (if you like) with the two folks who did the deed holding a large saw. This was a very popular attraction, and one that was yet another added bonus from the producers of the conference.

The dealer's rooms opened in the morning and, as usual, were a buzz with activity and commerce.

Friday afternoon's program began a bit early with a short video showing the restoration process that brought the Bancroft lithograph back to its full glory. It was interesting watching the painstaking care and artistry of the people doing the work. Mike Caveney promised that the purchaser of the lithograph could get a copy of the restoration video free of charge!

The program itself began with an unscheduled, and insightful talk done by David Charvet on Alexander, the Man Who Knows. A sordid tale of alleged murder, tax evasion and womanizing, this fascinating story could make a fine movie of the week!

John Zweers, Past National President of the SAM, spoke about his personal boyhood relationship with Floyd Thayer. It was a touching reminiscence of an era gone by and one the likes of which we'll never see again.

In another unscheduled moment, John Cannon (Aladdin Books) shared a recording of several post show interviews that included Thayer. It is believed to be the only recording of this truly gifted man.

Phil Schwartz followed by showing photo examples of some incredible Thayer apparatus and spoke on the history of the company. Arguably, the greatest magic manufacturing company of all time. Few manufacturers' equipment is as coveted and command the prices of those created by Floyd Thayer.

Even a conference on magic history needs a little magic, and Earl Nelson provided it. He closed the afternoon program with some beautiful magic. He performed the ring on rope; some lovely knot magic with the rope; some card effects and he closed with a gorgeous linking ring routine. Mr. Nelson is a modern master and, as Jim Steinmeyer said at the end, "oh - that's what it's supposed to look like!"

Of the many delights of the conference for me, one that stands out was the chance to meet in person a boyhood acquaintance of mine. Todd Karr, who many of you know produces some very fine books through his company, The Miracle Factory, is working his way toward becoming one of the "go to" guys for magical history knowledge. Todd opened the Friday night program with an amazing talk that included a series of letters written by Chung Ling Soo (William Robinson) to Harry Houdini - one of his best friends (you will be able to read many of these in the December issue of Genii). It was fascinating to hear the letters, which allowed us to gain some insight to this amazing man. Todd will soon be releasing a book on Soo. If the material in the talk in indicative of what we can expect to see in the book, be sure to nab a copy of The Silence of Chung Ling Soo as soon as its available.

Mark Mitton gave a fabulous presentation on my favorite past performer, Max Malini. As significant Malini material is limited to the Vernon/Ganson book (Malini and His Magic), the chapter in Ricky Jay's Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women and the November 1999 issue of Genii, I was delighted to hear this information, which both verified and cleared up a few of the Malini legends. However, the big highlight was that Oziar Malini, Max's son, attended the conference as well. Obviously, his insights are invaluable when it comes to documenting the historical record on Malini. It was nice to learn that, not only was Malini one of the greatest magicians of the 20th century, but he was also a very good single father.

Anne Davenport, co-author (with John Salisse) of the new book St. George's Hall (Caveney's Magic Words, 2001) spoke on the history of the Maskelyne family and the theaters they ran during the "Golden Age of Magic." While an in-depth presentation, she did a masterful job of teasing us by holding back the behind the scenes dramas that took place over the 35 years that St. George's Hall was the center of magic in the world.

Bill Schmeelk closed the night with a riotous presentation that focused on the less than accurate descriptions of the magic tricks advertised in some catalogs during the late 1950s & '60s. Zeroing in on the mail order catalogs of Vick Lawston (Ft. Lauderdale, Florida), Schmeelk told the tale of young Tommy Tweed and his dream of becoming the next Milbourne Christopher. By sending away for the amazing "Vanishing Head" illusion, young Tommy could make his dream come true. Using a mix of video and photo slides, Schmeelk's presentation culminated with a live presentation of a "working model" of this absurd "illusion." The illusion did work - sort of - but not quite as well as Schmeelk's hysterical presentation.

After another morning of the amazing vanishing cash effect (which took place in the dealer's rooms), the afternoon program commenced with Tim Wright, a former employee of Abbott's. In a lighthearted and well-presented talk, he spoke of his childhood visits to, and him ultimately working at, Abbott's in Colon, Michigan; "The Magic Capitol of the World." It was a wonderful start to the penultimate program of the conference.

Diego Domingo gave a fast paced and fascinating talk on radio mentalists and "mind readers" of the early 20th century. He chronicled the exploits of Mel-Roy and others, including a few unsavory types who made life difficult for Mel-Roy by not only stealing his name, but the money of those listeners gullible enough to fall for their acts. He discussed the parallels between these early "mediums" and today's charlatans who are busy taking the money of those here in our "enlightened" times. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Many of us have been lucky enough to witness the wondrous spectacles that are the full shows of David Copperfield, Siegfried & Roy and Lance Burton. Some of us have also witnessed the "magic" that is a performance of Cirque du Soleil. Well, imagine one show that is all of these shows combined. For decades, Tihany has toured South America (and other parts of the world - but not in the U.S.) with just such a show. A video montage of this amazing looking show was just enough to convince those of us never fortunate enough to have seen it into knowing that this is a must see extravaganza.

85 year old Tihany shared a few stories about his life as a showman, including his escape from death at the hands of the Nazis. After his sharing a few insights on touring a completely self-contained (including power generators) tented show (2,500 seats) that requires 50 semi trucks to transport, Tihany was presented with life time achievement awards from the Society of American Magicians (presented by John Zweers) and the Academy of Magical Arts (presented by Academy President Dale Hindman, accompanied by Gay Blackstone). Afterward, Tihany enjoyed a rousing and well-deserved standing ovation from the attendees.

Following a coffee and dessert reception, the final evening program of the conference commenced.

The Roots of Invention began with Jim Steinmeyer speaking on, and presenting two of Guy Jarrett's illusions including an impossible rope escape illusion and Jarrett's ingenious version of "The Lady Sawn in Halves." Included in this presentation was a talk by Marilee Anderson, the great niece of Jarrett. She knew him very well and was instrumental in the corrections made by Mr. Steinmeyer in the new edition of The Complete Jarrett.

Also part of the presentation was part of a taped interview between Jay Marshal and Jarrett that took place in 1956. It was a fascinating glimpse into the character of this unusual man.

Gary Hunt presented a talk and film on the rise and tragic end to the life of The Great Fasola. The presentation focused on the contributions made by Gustave Fasola (Fergus Greenwood) to the show of Howard Thurston, his most trusted friend. In attendance was Trevor Greenwood, Fasola's grandson, who produced the film, which was particularly heart wrenching. Trevor narrated the film, covering Fasola's final trip to London, with him reading several moving letters written by Fasola to Thurston.

Part three of the program brightened the mood with the performance of Walter Jean's illusion, "The Million Dollar Mystery" by Mike Caveney. Words are inadequate to describe this wonder. However, from inside a small box is produced two full buckets of water, hundreds of plastic balls and enough balloons to cover the small stage. Never one to disappoint a room of magicians, Caveney and the box even did a card trick. But the finale was a solid box four times the size of the small one going in the side of the small box, apparently turning 90 degrees and being pulled back out the front. Then the lovely Tina Lenert steps from the larger box. All of the equipment for this illusion was originally that of Charles Carter (Carter The Great), which of course is now part of the Caveney Collection.

The closing segment was John Gaughan performing Buatier de Kolta's wonderful "Expanding Die" illusion. A 3-inch die first triples in size, then, in the blink of an eye, expands to a full three foot square. From under the die, a young lady is produced, and only moments later, Mike Caveney appeared from underneath the die to close out the final show of the conference to a rousing ovation.

One last pass through the dealer's rooms and the exhibits marked the official end of my first L.A. Conference on Magic History. I say "official" because Mike Caveney graciously invited all who attended the conference to visit his home the next (Sunday) morning. Words still fail me, other than to say that his home is the embodiment of my dream "magic house." His collection is on full display throughout the home, and, in some cases, is a part of the architecture. Even with all of the magical trappings throughout (which would remind most of a museum), it is still very homey and comfortable. Mike and Tina have done a truly wonderful, loving job on their home, and it shows up even in the smallest details. I would like to pass on my profound thanks to Mike Caveney and Tina Lenert for their kind invitation to their home.

The final bonus for those attendees who signed up is a special trip on Monday to the Getty Center for a private viewing of "Devices of Wonder," an exhibit in which John Gaughan and Ricky Jay are involved. It doesn't open officially until Tuesday, but this is yet another special event organized by the producers of the conference.

The producers of this amazing event are Mike Caveney, Jim Steinmeyer, John Gaughan, Frankie Glass and Joan Lawton. Of course, the entire staff, crew, and speakers at this most extraordinary event also are deserving of thanks. It was a most memorable three and half days.

Dustin Stinett
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Postby Matthew Field » 11/12/01 07:10 AM

Dustin -- a spectacular write-up! Many thanks from an appreciative reader who wishes he could have been there to see the Million Dollar Mystery.

By the way, for those interested, this effect is described in Jim Steinmeyer's wonderful book "The Science Behind the Ghost and Discovering Invisibility," and the Jarrett sawing can be found in Jim's "Complete Jarrett." I love those books, and I'm a card guy!

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Postby Steve V » 11/14/01 12:57 AM

Thank you Dustin, I appreciate the excellent review of the event.
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