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Carter The Great by Mike Caveney

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 1996)


Mike Caveney has given us the most extraordinarily thorough biographical volume in the history of conjuring. Charles Joseph Carter, better known as Carter the Great, was a professional stage magician who toured internationally, and almost continually, from 1907 until his death, while on tour in India, in 1936. With the exception of a few years of doing spots in American vaudeville houses, Carter presented a two and a half to three- hour show, for which he traveled with some ten tons of equipment—often inflated to the claim of "31 tons" in his publicity materials, as if any inflation was necessary. His show frequently included a live African lion and, later, even an automobile. (The car wasn't actually part of the show, but he would drive it around town as a promotional tool.) He experienced substantial success in his time, amassing a small personal fortune, and, in most venues, consistently drew rave reviews as an entertainer. Yet largely because his greatest successes occurred overseas rather than in the States, his reputation has always been dwarfed by those of his contemporaries, particularly Kellar, Thurston, and Houdini. Most magicians are at least familiar with the Carter name, if for no other reason than from the posters he left behind, but in the final analysis, history has left him somewhat akin to the Rodney Dangerfield of magic: Carter the Great just can't get no respect.

We follow our hero—and despite his flaws, it would take a harsh reader indeed to not come to celebrate Carter's successes and suffer his losses—on no less than seven world tours, with repeated and extended trips throughout the Far East, including China and Japan, the Philippines, across India, Egypt to South Africa, and the Australian archipelago. None of these tours lasted less than a year, and some were more than double that. And it's worth mentioning again: Carter did this with some ten tons of equipment, when the only means of transatlantic travel was by steamship. (And I thought it was tough doing a 28-city European lecture tour!)

Along the way, we see his triumphs: the countless rave reviews from towns and cities spread far across the globe, in great theaters with as many as five thousand seats. We observe his battles: his entire show confiscated by an unscrupulous firm in Japan, stranding him and his companions for over a month as he attempts, unsuccessfully, to burglarize his own props, and eventually prevails, not only in getting his props out of the country and back to work, but through a seven-year lawsuit which, unprecedentedly, he wins. We witness the near disasters which we, no doubt like Carter himself, can laugh at when we discover that the results are not as bad as they could have been, as when a ramshackle stage in India gives way under the weight of a show in progress, and Carter's caged lion, along with two assistants, crashes through the stage floor to the level below. And we share in the close calls, too, like his attempt to board the maiden voyage of the

Titanic, only to be turned away due to space limitations, and an unwanted passenger— his pet lion, Baby. Carter visits the Taj Mahal, gasps at Victoria Falls in South Africa, witnesses a beheading in China, searches (unsuccessfully) for the Indian Rope Trick in India—and everywhere and anywhere he is, he writes letters.

And what a correspondent he was! Carter was a superb businessman who managed to leave more financial assets to his survivors than Houdini or Thurston ever would, and had earned a law degree while running his own theatrical booking agency and publishing a theatrical magazine, all before becoming a full-time performer. He was confident and capable concerning his own business and legal affairs, a compulsive correspondent, and a pack rat to boot, who pasted every newspaper review, good or bad, into reams of scrapbooks. He traveled with a stenographer, dictating a continuous stream of letters—soliciting business, maintaining friendships, negotiating familial difficulties. He meticulously filed all of the incoming material—including letters from Houdini, Thurston, Nicola, Selbit, Mulholland et al, and scrupulously maintained carbon copies of his outgoing missives. These letters are often frank, sometimes caustic, occasionally poetic, sardonically humorous, and constantly revealing. At best he was a man with an eye for beauty, an ear for humor, and a taste for the good life, who worked hard to present the best magic show he possibly could. At worst he was gratuitously cheap, a thief of material, a philanderer and, on occasion, distastefully bigoted (although some may see this more as a reflection of the times than of the man), sometimes toward the very countries and cultures in which he achieved his greatest successes.

Carter's success was based on many things: his skill and tenacity as a businessman, his painstaking design and extravagant use of poster advertising, the beauty of his props, costumes and scenery, and probably most of all, in terms of his showmanship skills, his ability to speak on stage and get laughs. The jokes in a reprinted script, comprising 12 pages of text, are less than raucous, but Carter must have delivered them with great flair and a finely tuned sense of timing. In Ireland, one newspaper reviewer commented that Carter was "a polished showman keeping his audience vastly amused for nearly three hours by his flow of witty comment, now dryly humorous, now screamingly funny," observations that were repeated throughout his touring career. During a New York vaudeville run in 1913, Variety reported that "There is not another magician showing an act of the magnitude of Carter's who can talk as well as he does, and perhaps there is not one who would dare try it..."

A textured view of the world of Carter's time gradually emerges from the book, as Carter sees wonders and places that few, even with the advantages of contemporary transport, will ever have the chance to experience. We join Carter through the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition, learn of the workings of show business, and watch the glory of vaudeville waste away in the face of Hollywood's film-making onslaught. We see Carter buying the finest props and greatest effects of his era, made by P&L, Thayer, Martinka and others, but we also see him copy and steal when his purchasing attempts are rebuffed. Sometimes the thefts were blatant: Carter secretly sent his mechanic on stage as part of Nicola's audience committee to examine Nicola's version of Selbit's spike cabinet, and then promptly constructed a copy of his own; he hired away Maskelyne's own mechanics so they would duplicate the master's levitation, which Carter featured throughout his life, his performance of which was unquestionably a masterpiece. Sometimes the ethics were more complex: When Horace Goldin refused Carter's offer of $500 to purchase Goldin's new Sawing illusion, demanding a price ten times higher, Carter laughed and created his own version. Along the way he made some decided improvements, separating not only the box halves, as in Goldin's revolutionary illusion, but the table halves as well. Goldin would continue to complain about this for years to come, and his petulant letters, along with Carter's good-humored responses, make for entertaining reading.

Carter's letters are constantly revealing—his mourning the untimely passing of his friend Houdini is particularly touching—and the book achieves a tone of autobiography at times, as the reader is enlightened by Mr. Carter's first person narratives. But autobiography and biography are distinctly different forms, and the blurring of the lines between in the pages of this volume are not always to its advantage. Autobiography is, of course, colored by the subject's own biases and posturing; biography attempts to construct a more complete portrait by dint of a multifaceted examination. While we are presented with a continuum of newspaper reports, these are limited to reviews of Carter's performances. Carter's promotion of himself in the international public's eye was inversely proportional to his efforts within the magic community at home, and so there is little first-hand reportage from within the conjuring world. Carter maintained personal correspondences, but the whining letters of his dysfunctional siblings reveal more about themselves than about their worldly wise and ever-solicitous brother. Carter's friends and contemporaries are gone now, and while there must have been commentary about Carter in their correspondences, only a smattering appears here, albeit in very interesting form, especially in some exchanges between Thurston and Dante, as the former attempted to plot ways of discovering Carter's itinerary, in a time when such information was power for competing acts. Hence the richness of Carter's archives is also the limitation which inhabits this book: knowing Carter by his own hand is not as complete a picture as we might have had from other sources.

As well, Mr. Caveney, apparently quite deliberately, seems determined to prevent himself from imposing his own views on the narrative. The book reads at times like a researcher's report, rather than a fully formed personal vision. In the one moment that the author fully reveals his own voice, he sets the opportunity apart in a footnote, in contrasting his vision of present day Los Angeles with Carter's report from 1922. Mr. Caveney seems to pick up a little steam in providing a bit of his personal tone as the book passes the halfway mark, but he appears to rein himself in after a time and let Mr. Carter tell his own story.

That story is readable, engaging, and at times downright exciting. Much attention is of course given to Carter's trademark effects, including an appendix, complete with photographs, concerning the surviving apparatus. Some of Carter's most notable effects included Flyto, a stunning airborne transposition; the aforementioned Goldin Sawing and Maskelyne Levitation; his version of William Robinson's Gone! Chair, wherein a woman visibly disappears from a simple chair suspended in mid-air, leaving the empty chair to come crashing to the stage. We witness Carter's grand plan to mount a magic pavilion at the 1933 World's Fair, only to fail to be able to win paying customers away from the notoriously semi-naked Sally Rand (or, for that matter, from the two-headed baby grind show that was right next door, albeit unmentioned in this volume). We watch Carter as he attempts to sell his entire show and retire on his fortune, and become a magic dealer as an unsuccessful part-owner of Martinka's. And we see Carter sell the shop, revamp the show yet again and take to the road, not because he still needed to earn a living, but because it seems it was, in the end, what he knew and loved best.

The book is carefully produced, in an appropriately oversized format on glossy paper. The typesetting is rather inelegant, printed throughout in boldface, the pages split into ungainly dual columns. But Mr. Caveney's design efforts truly shine in the exquisite section of 16 color pages reproducing 24 posters, one of each remaining design known to exist (some of which are limited to a single surviving example). These are simply the finest color reproductions of such work I have ever seen, executed with stunning care and precision, and capturing more than a hint of the velvety depth of high-quality stone lithography, which is all too often lost entirely on the dismally printed page. The color reproduction is simply breathtaking, and Mr. Caveney is to be commended for the substantial effort that must have been required to achieve these results.

"...I am a gypsy...the tang of the sea and the caw of the sparrow hawk, or the shrill cry of the albatross beckons me away on an irresistible impulse to other lands." —Charles Carter From a letter to his sister Mary, November 14, 1932.

"Was Carter really great?" is a worthy question, and the author provides us with a wealth of information with which we can attempt to devise an answer. While the author is circumspect in giving us his own clearly stated view, we strongly suspect his answer is "Yes!"—and we are just as strongly inclined to agree. And whether or not you believe Carter to have in fact been a "great" magician, he certainly led a great life, and perhaps that is the true meaning of the adjective as it appears in the title of this book. This is indeed a great story—I enjoyed it immensely, and I can't conceive of any magician who wouldn't. Long live Carter the Great, in the pages of this wonderful book.

9" X 11-1/2" hardcover with full color laminated dustjacket; 375 pages; illustrated with 190 photographs including 16 pages in color; 1995; Published by Mike Caveney's Magic Words