I've been picking up and re-reading Jim Steinmeyer's 'Hiding the Elephant' over the last month or so, a few pages or a chapter at a time, and it's just as interesting the second time around, as he knows what he is talking about, being a designer of special effects and a magic consultant for the likes of David Copperfield.
Telling the tales of the Victorian (and earlier) magicians who paved the way for the current crop, it documents the original ideas for tricks, and the backstabbing, stealing and double crossing that followed the inventions, plus the intertwining lives, relationships and legacies of the masters. Some such as Harry Keller, Howard Thurston, John Nevil Maskelyne, David Devant and Harry Houdini became famous and made a fortune, while others were cast aside as their illusions were stolen.
The 'Hiding the Elephant' title comes from an illusion that Houdini (and Jennie the elephant) performed many times at The New York Hippodrome, a place l would loved to have seen magic performed at. The size of it was staggering (the hall, not the elephant). War battles could be re-enacted on the stage, while below, it held a huge water tank to stage sea battles. It must have been staggering, especially for an audience years ago. You (or at least l do) also forget that they used smaller mechanical props such as butterflies and blooming flowers, and once they got the hang of using mirrors correctly, could make people appear and disappear. Then they started sawing people in half.
Levitation, ghosts, spiritualism, disappearing donkeys, women and cars, escapology and slight of hand, it's all brilliant stuff, but it has now made me want to read 'Carter beats the Devil' (by Glen David Gold) again. Damn!! You've got to put the hours in!
Here's Houdini and Jennie the elephant (not Nellie. She went to town and said goodbye to the circus)
And here's some old posters