The Silence of Chung Ling Soo by Todd Karr
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 2002)
The are magicians, men of mystery and then there are mysterious men. Men like Isaac Fawkes, and John Cautares, L'Homme Masque names of men about whom we yearn to know more. Then there is Chung Ling Soo. What do you know about him? Probably that he was actually the American, William Robinson, who worked behind the scenes for the likes of Harry Kellar and Alexander Herrmann. Likely that he eventually became famous, at about age 40, as Chung Ling Soo, capitalizing on the popular success of the genuinely Chinese magician, Ching Ling Foo, but managed (somehow!) to keep his American origins a secret from the public. And certainly that he was killed in a terrible accident in a performance of the Bullet Catch at the age of 56.
For many of us there is little more, unless perhaps you've read the important biography by Will Dexter, The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo. But that book was written in 1955, and surely there is more of the story to tell. Thanks to Todd Karr, who has recently produced an excellent volume of the work of Sam Sharpe and the wondrous reprint of Sydney Clark's Annals of Conjuring (reviewed in November 2000 and November 2001 Genii, respectively), more of the story has finally come to light. Much more.
This beautiful volume is not a biography, and interested students are encouraged to track down the Dexter book for that purpose. But what Mr. Karr has accomplished by amassing these vast supplementary materials is to capture a sense of the man behind the mystery, the real Billy Robinson, and that is an unusual achievement in the field. Robinson was one of most highly regarded magicians of his era, widely respected by magicians as among the most inventive and knowledgeable conjurors of his time. His success as Chung Ling Soo was extraordinary, and he was at the top of his field for many years, both in American Vaudeville and overseas. He amassed a range of experience matched by few before or since, having played the role of assistant, inventor, stage manager, author, and feature performer, was a skilled card manipulator, performed a black art act, and of course masqueraded as an authentic Chinese conjuror in the glare of the public spotlight for some 18 years, after a success that came late in life. What a remarkable character!
The massive book runs almost 500 pages. Following the author's informative introduction, the volume opens with a new essay by Jim Steinmeyer examining Robinson's extraordinary (and as Mr. Steinmeyer points out probably never to be seen again) "Crystal Lantern" illusion. The next segment gathers and reprints some of Robinson's own writings, consisting primarily of articles he wrote for Mahatma, concerning subjects ranging from practical (and quite contemporary-sounding) advice on showmanship to an obituary and homage to one of his mentors. Alexander Herrmann, to a remarkably accurate piece on Indian conjuring.
The next section, entitled "Man of Mystery," consists of various profiles of Robinson, including materials drawn from the pages of Mahatma, by and from Ellis Stanyon's Magic, an interview with Will Goldston, late 20th-century writings by Walter Gibson, and an apparently unreliable personal anecdote from Howard Thurston. The next section concerns the famous "challenge" between Chung Ling Soo and Ching Ling Foo, which never quite came off. Newspaper accounts and telegrams flesh out this old story anew.
A marvelous section of correspondence between Robinson and his pal and peer, Houdini, is one of the coups amid the new material in this volume. While we have only Robinson's side, these many notes, including personal commentary, business information, sloppy language, and worse, serve to bring Robinson's voice to life right off the page (and contribute as well to animate our idea of the recipient, Houdini).
Almost a hundred pages of "Mysteries" catalog everything Mr. Karr has been able to locate about Robinson's repertoire, from many sources. Over 40 items are described here, from card tricks to stage illusions. Robinson loved bringing new life to old tricks, and many classic small apparatus items are addressed here, including the "Rice Bowls," the "Rising Cards," the "Target Illusion" ("Shooting Through a Woman"), and perhaps Robinson's trademark effect, the "Linking Rings."
The next section is a wonderful resource consisting of a substantial collection of programs and reviews of Robinson's shows, the better to assist the reader's imagination in assembling an image of what his performances most have been like.
The penultimate section—"Silence"—addresses Robinson's tragic death, including newspaper reports and accounts of the subsequent inquest, funeral, and obituaries. This is a genuinely tragic story that will leave any thoughtful reader contemplating the palpable sadness of Robinson's awful demise. Unlike many other accidents with the Bullet Catch, invariably tragic but often due to a foolish disregard for safety if not actual incompetence, Robinson was abundantly conscious of safety, and had also devised an extremely mystifying method. This renders the outcome of the story all the more frustrating and upsetting, even more than 80 years later.
The book concludes with a collection of reprints of three works authored by Robinson, including a catalog of 50 Robinson items that were offered for individual sale, entitled A Few of Robinson's New Ideas; a booklet of varied magic entitled Extraordinary Mystical Novelties; and Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena (which I believe includes the first recorded mention of a nail writer).
The book opens with a stunning section of color plates, reproducing 41 Chung Ling Soo posters in 16 pages, in all of their splendor and variety. Most of this material of course comes from the noted Norm Nielsen collection. The frontispiece of the book is notable for its color reproduction of a one-of-a-kind Soo poster, "Unseen Soo," the sole surviving example of which belongs to Charles Greene III. These pages are a quite beautiful feature, although I find the front-of-the-book placement odd and somewhat inconvenient, along with the fact that all the identifying information (titles and other details) are separated from the color plates onto another admittedly adjacent page.
Mr. Karr is to be commended for solving some of the mysteries behind the legend of Chung Ling Soo, and bringing more than silence to the voice of William Robinson, who deserves high station in the pantheon of magic's heroes. These materials reveal a man that was not only flesh and blood in death, but in life was a street-smart struggler who finally achieved success, a talented and creative originator who deserved it, a friend and family man who wore it well. This book does his memory honor, and so thereby does generous service to us all.