Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii November, 2003)
Jim Steinmeyer has devoted his life to creating illusions, and not only to inventing the large-scale items that magicians call "illusions." Rather he has spent a lifetime contributing in countless ways—in magic shows, literature, television, Broadway productions, and more to the creation of effective theatrical illusions that capture an audience's imagination. In this brave and sophisticated book, Mr. Steinmeyer now attempts to explain his life's work, and his passion for it, to that very same audience: the public.
David Devant, who makes frequent appearances in these pages, is quoted within as having said that, "A conjuring performance cannot be properly appreciated by anyone who does not know something about the art." Mr. Steinmeyer unambiguously embraces this notion, and in his introduction sets out to explain his intentions. "My experience tells me that the story of magicians can only be understood when you understand their art. And the secrets are only impressive when you understand the people responsible, the theatrics, and the history surrounding them. So readers may be surprised to find that this story does indeed explain a number of secrets, some of the important techniques that have been used by magicians onstage. Perhaps I may be considered guilty of breaking ranks and betraying trust" But he does so, he explains, because in order to tell his story, he must teach his readership... to learn to think like a magician." Along the way, he may also teach more than a few magicians to think in similar fashion.
According to its author, Hiding the Elephant ostensibly presents "a small slice of magic's history" and "the story of optical conjuring," focussing in particular on Houdini's "Vanishing Elephant," which he performed at New York's Hippodrome theater for 19 weeks of daily matinees, the longest run of his career, beginning in January of 1918. But the book is more than that, although it may not be easy to put one's finger on exactly what it might be. It is also an unabashed heart-on-sleeve encomium to magic's "Golden Era," a time in which magicians aggressively competed for audiences who were accustomed to seeing magic in theaters and vaudeville houses and music halls. This was a time of great invention in magic, as well as a time of intrigue and behind-the-scenes machinations in which magicians bought and sold and traded and stole secrets. This is a story, or a collection of stories, that is assured to make any magician's heart swell and pulse race—but will a lay public readership be similarly engaged? I for one do not pretend to know, but I surely hope so, for it would only be good for magic, and for us all.
And yet beyond its history lessons, its personality profiles, its paean to the capacity of humans in general and magicians in particular to invent and solve problems with all manner of ingenuity, this is also a book about another subject dear—indeed, dangerously dose—to the hearts of magicians. It is a book about secrets.
In part the book is a detective story about a secret: the secret of how Houdini vanished—or "hid"—an elephant, every day for 19 weeks, on the stage of the Hippodrome. This much is explicitly true. Despite the fact that it is fashionable for magicians to deride Houdini's "Vanishing Elephant"—the snide but spurious story being that it required many more men to wheel the cabinet off stage than it had to wheel it on—the author informs us that "No one really knows where or how he hid that elephant." Perhaps magicians will be even more surprised than the public to learn that Houdini has still been fooling even most magicians after all these years. While the author certainly clarifies the public's misperception of Houdini—he was not a great magician by any stretch, but he was a great escape artist and a compelling performer—he points out that "III n presenting his various challenges he was a charismatic, magnetic performer."
But the author actually has much more to say about secrets, beyond the fact of their mere existence. Mr. Steinmeyer, as a professional purveyor of secrets—many of which are his own creations—has obviously given a great deal of thought to the subject of secrets, and to their values, both measurable and immeasurable. Gradually, as his story unfolds, he reveals to us some of the conclusions he has reached. Obviously, David Devant, a worthy hero, has informed some of this thinking, and he quotes Devant's comments that a true magician "... appreciates the difference between knowing how a trick is done and knowing how to do it." Mr. Steinmeyer adds that, "Not every magician of his time understood Devant's insight or valued the intellectual property of others. Often, magicians instinctively feel a greedy desire for secrets and end up collecting them and treating them with sacred reverence, then boasting of knowing secrets as a measure of success." Elsewhere, he observes that, "Magicians must pretend that every secret is vital, which is always the first deception of a magic show." Odd, is it not, that magicians sometimes go so far as to deceive them-selves in like manner? And finally, the author acknowledges that, "Magicians have an uneasy, debilitating relationship with secrets, which they know to be priceless and worthless at the same time."
This question of value is a fascinating one which percolates beneath the surface of the entire story. The author is quietly fascinated by how secrets have been valued by those who create them, the magicians who use them, and the audiences who view the effects they can produce. And no since secrets are clearly (as the author alludes to in his introduction) one of the subjects of the book, he finds it necessary to reveal some of them in order to talk about the idea of them—not just the specific ideas, which are indeed necessary in order to tell the story he wishes to tell, but also to be able to talk about the larger idea of what secrets mean. And so, in the course of the text, some magicians will doubtless be surprised to see the secrets explained, and sometimes diagrammed, of "Pepper's Ghost," the "Sphinx" illusion, the "Protean Cabinet," the fan of wires levitation principle, the levitation gooseneck and hoop pass, the Back Palm, the "Mascot Moth," the Morritt "Vanishing Donkey," and of course, eventually, the "Vanishing Elephant."
Some magicians may find that a breathtaking army of "exposures." But of course, these secrets are not merely recounted baldly, devoid of context or purpose. For just as secrets are merely the tools of the magician's trade, here they are the tools of Mr. Steinmeyer's story, which concerns men like John Nevi! Maskelyne, David Devant, Bautier DeKolta, Charles Morritt, Harry Kellar, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, Howard Thurston, P.T. Selbit, and Guy Jarrett. I believe the author would pose this question to those who object to the explanations he chooses to examine: Can the real story of such men—of these men—be told without telling of their secrets? And of course, he has already provided his answer, to wit: "... the story of magicians can only be understood when you understand their art."
To briefly advocate on the side of the mythical fallen angel, the thought occurs that Ken Silverman, in his marvelous biography, HOUDINI!!!, chose to entirely avoid any revelation of methods. This was a workable choice with a subject as rich as Houdini, in which the revelation of secrets might have in fact interfered with grasping the scale of the tale and the scope of the man. But for the story that Mr. Steinmeyer sets out to tell—for the insights he has to offer into the workings of the men and minds behind the secrets, and how those secrets affected their lives and work and art—to avoid the secrets would be to perform an act of literary contortionism that would be incomplete, ultimately pointless, and likely simply impossible.
You may discern from this that I approve of Mr. Steinmeyer's choices, and I do so quite heartily. I suspect that some others in the magic community will feel otherwise. Perhaps they will be given pause in their objections by the author's reminder that "Every illusion that I've discussed in this book has already been explained in books.... the particular secrets that I've explained here I first found when I was a boy, in books published for the public that were in the local library." He does not reveal these principles completely and with thoughtless abandon; in fact he is quite circumspect in his explanations, and much is strategically left out, such that any lay reader who sees a Las Vegas show using any of these principles is extremely unlikely to recognize them. He does not remind us in detail that Hoffmann's Modern Magic, was written for the public. He does not point out the illustration on the cover of the Dover reprint.
He does examine David Devant's eventual excision from The Magic Circle, for which he had served as its first president, as punishment for revealing a few magic tricks in The Windsor, a magazine for the public, late in his life. (Magicians may find some of that material reprinted in the deliciously subversive book, The Wizard Exposed by Johnstone and Dawes.) In response to this imbroglio, Devant wrote, "The Magic Circle seems to think that the mechanics of a trick are the secret of its success. In my view it is only the artistry of the performer that can make it magic." Mr. Steinmeyer also quotes Sidney Oldridge, "a magician who had served on the board of directors at St. George's Hall, [who] wrote a letter decrying the witch-hunt: 'After all is said and done, how could magic have survived without 'exposures?' No, a nation without history does not survive [and] neither does an art without public records and 'exposure."
But let's face it, such explanations—sophisticated as they may be, free of the mystical anti-exposure dogma magicians are inculcated with, unarguably attested to by reality—have never served to quiet the "witch hunts" against exposure, and Mr. Steinmeyer may end up with more in common with his hero Devant than we had previously surmised. What will be amusing will be the response of people like the leadership of the World Alliance of Magicians (WAM). For several years now WAM has waged battles on two fronts which are utterly in conflict with one another, albeit a fact not apparent to their supporters. On the one hand the organization has championed a fight against unauthorized copying and knockoffs of illusion design and other thefts of intellectual property in the magic world, a battle that is well worth pursuing and which in fact might someday make some progress. In this regard, WAM is trying to induce magic magazines—first and foremost house organs of the fraternal organizations but also commercial journals as well—to refuse advertising from notorious rip-off manufacturers. This is a worthy if difficult project and one you are not likely to read much about in any of the magazines being so pressured, but it also involves complex legal implications that WAM is sincerely trying to address. Interestingly, Jim Steinmeyer has been at the forefront of their battle, not as an activist per se but rather as a beneficiary of sorts and a visible example of someone whose work has been repeatedly victimized by unauthorized copying. So far, so good.
However, WAM has also insisted on expending equal energies on a hopelessly unproductive cause, namely in trying to battle exposure—whatever that means. One man's exposure, after all, is another man's gambling book—or beginner's magic instruction—or Dover reprint. No one can define it clearly, no one can agree on where to draw the lines—what about that bottom deal expos6 in Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants, after all?—and no one can stop it. What's more, consider the words of Sydney Oldridge—what's to say that stopping it would be good for magic? Indeed, Derren Brown recently said to me that the Masked Magician specials probably rekindled magic on television in the U.K., in that it demonstrated to network programmers that magic still had the potential to find an audience!
And so now, in an ironic twist, WAM's unintentional poster boy of sorts seems to have his the hand that was trying to feed him or, per-haps, the other hand. Will they slap him with one while continuing to pet him with the other? As one wag put it okay, it was Max Maven it's bound to be wamalicious to watch the lack of fun unfold.
I confess it’s unfortunate to have filled this much space on the issue, since the book is about so much more than magicians petty fetishism of secrecy. But there's little doubt there will be some complaint raised in at least some quarters, so I find it necessary to consider the implications now. But such tempests in tophats aside, ultimately either the issue will go away or it will sell more books; as with the Masked Magician, the chasing of a few advertisers does not a boycott make, the Masked Magician continued to make another special long after WAM declared a victory, and only vanished from the screen because it ran out of gas with the public, not because it was "bad"—i.e., evil but because it was bad—i.e., lousy. Write those letters if you want to help sell some books for Mr. Steinmeyer. Hell, when you put it that way, maybe I'll write a letter myself Meanwhile, the story of magic's golden age of invention begins here with the Davenport Brothers, as a way of setting the stage for Houdini, who would of course end up fooling as all by story's end with the "Vanishing Elephant." The Davenports provide an example of the kind of spiritualistic medium techniques—rope ties and escapes and such—that Houdini secularized and turned into a career as an escape artist. As the author tells it, "(all a time when the Victorians prided themselves on science and rationality, the two quiet young men from Buffalo, New York began a confusing debate about just how honest a magician needed to be or could afford to be." A debate, one hastens to add, that continues to this day.
The author puts his literary skills to good use here and throughout the text, bringing stories and performances like those of the Davenport Brothers to vivid life on the page, in ways that will be found evocative and entertaining even to magicians already well familiar with the historical details. As the book unfolds, we learn about "Pepper's Ghost" and other early optical effects, leading to the discovery of mirror principles as used in the "Sphinx" and the "Protean Cabinet," among other applications. Mr. Steinmeyer's deep understanding of the technology of these principles as well as of their history enables him to convey them to the reader in compelling fashion. Magicians will no doubt recognize some of these elements from the author's previous works for magicians, including The Science Behind the Ghost, Discovering Invisibility (both since reprinted in a single volume), and other material drawn from his book, Art & Artifice.
Mc Steinmeyer has also been involved in recreating many of these mysteries, often as part of his role in the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History. There he helped recreate, for example, Maskelyne's "Will, the Witch, and the Watch," which is discussed in detail in Hiding the Elephant, and Morrites "Vanishing Donkey," which might be considered the missing link of sorts between early mirror principles and what eventually became Houdini's "Vanishing Elephant." That firsthand knowledge contributes significantly to the level of conviction and authority he brings to his subjects.
Finally and it is no small point there are lessons in magic throughout this book that, while intended for the laity, will doubt-less do service of inestimable value to magicians who are paying attention. By "lessons" I do not mean the workings of the fan of wires levitation, although there are doubtless many magicians who will be learning that secret for the first time in these pages. Rather. if one pays close attention to the author's observations, often (but not always) at the start of a chapter, one will gradually notice an accumulated set of instructions for what it takes to be a "great magician" in the author's terms. "When magicians are good at their jobs, it is because they anticipate the way the audience thinks. ... Great magicians don't leave the audience's thought patterns to chance, they depend on the audience's bringing something to the table—preconceptions or assumptions that can be naturally exploited." And another such lesson: "A magic performance consists of a collection of tiny lies, in words and deeds, that are stacked and arranged ingeniously to form the battlement for an illusion. It's a delicate battle of wits—an audience that welcomes being deceived, then dares to be fooled, alternately questioning, prodding, and surrendering." Elsewhere, Mr. Steinmeyer, who has designed many magical effects for television, flatly (and quite rightly) states that "In fact, magic doesn't really belong on television." And finally, here's a favorite of mine from the eminently quotable Mr. Steinmeyer: "Magicians tend to focus on deception, as if it's the essence of their skills. ... If a magician man-ages to fool his audience, most accept that he's done his job ... With the expectations set so low, most magicians are perfectly happy to descend to them."
What is the author's purpose in writing this book? In considering the now-classic text Our Magic by Maskelyne and Devant, Mr. Steinmeyer makes these observations: "Our Magic was a remarkable book with an astonishing premise. The authors intended to change the perception of the art, and invited readers to know everything about magic. Everything. As they explained in the introduction, 'So far from feeling any reluctance toward letting the general public into the secrets of our procedure, we are most anxious to educate the public on such matters, in order that a proper understanding of our art maybe disseminated among its votaries and patrons. The point is this: tricks and dodges are of comparatively small importance in the art of magic. At the utmost, they display inventive ability, but nothing more. We hope that even the man in the street will have learned the fact that so-called 'secrets are to the magician little more than are, to the actor, the wigs, grease-paints and other make-up with which he prepares himself for appearance before the public ... Those devices are merely his working tools."
Is changing "the perception of the art" also Mr. Steinmeyer's intention? I'm not so sure he's as ambitious as that. I imagine he wouldn't mind if it happened, but he also knows that much of Maskelyne's argument fell on deaf ears, and he even takes Maskelyne's portion of the book to task for being vague and pretentious, in comparison to the practical clarity and precision of Devant's segment. But he does certainly want us to understand a bit more about his own work, about his passions, and about our precious secrets—what they can achieve, where they can fail, and where they must simply suffice: "We recognize Devant's achievements through his secrets. We see him as an artist not because we can study his paintings but because he's left us the globs of paint from his palette. It's a poor substitute for his real achievements: looking at a mix of colors and trying to imagine how beautiful any individual painting could have been."
And it is a poor substitute. Devant's secrets are most of what remains of him, most of what we know. Then there is Charles Mount: "He kept his secrets. When Houdini's brother Theo wrote to him, explaining that he had inherited Houdini's props and asking for technical details of the illusions, Morritt was firm, insisting that he would-n't put the secrets on paper. Morritt never disclosed how his don-key, Solomon. disappeared, or how his friend Houdini had managed to hide the elephant." Mr. Steinmeyer knows that, "... magicians have survived by ... focusing on the tiniest, most glorious achievements." In his own lovely fashion, he reminds us how tiny they are, he examines how glorious they can be, and he leads us all in the celebration.