Thurston and Dante... The Written Word by Phil Temple
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii October, 2007)
Harry Jansen, better known as Dante, was one of the most successful stage magicians of the first half of the 20th century, including the heyday and aftermath of the so-called Golden Age of Magic. Howard Thurston gave Dante his stage name, and Thurston also took the Dane under his wing and sent him out with a second Thurston touring show in the late 1920s and early '30s, until Dante eventually went out on his own. Thurston was, for a time, the most visible magician in North America, even as the days of the big touring magic shows were fading. Blackstone, Sr. also toured in Thurston's day, and was probably considered the most famous illusionist in the U.S. after Thurston's retirement, while Dante the last great name of the that golden era toured all five continents and still managed to be a hit on Broadway, and later to be seen on television and in film. These are the greatest names of the waning years of that beloved Golden Age, as magicians were caught up in the mass slaughter of vaudeville and live theater variety shows by the invading conquerors of film and television.
Dante's name and history are inseparable from those of Howard Thurston, and in 1981, Phil Temple gathered and published some 340 of their letters in a bound set that became known as the "Thurston-Dante Letter Set." Mr. Temple is a retired illusionist, a historian and collector (and Dante specialist), and he has now reprinted that 1981 collection of which there were only 150 copies produced to render it more readily available to a new generation of magic history buffs.
Along the way, the 450-page original has now been transformed into almost 800 pages in a magnificently produced two-volume set. The books are produced on heavy 80-lb. semi-gloss paper with full-color laminated covers, complete with place ribbons and a matching laminated slipcase. The volumes are decorated with a wealth of full-page color poster reproductions, and the entire package is offered for a price that, in the world of such books, can only be described as a bargain. If the subject matter is the kind of thing that interests you, then you will simply have to own this eye-popping pair of books.
And the subject matter is fascinating, albeit not the kind of thing that many will be inclined to read cover to cover. These many hundreds of letters are filled with the day-to-day minutia of the business of touring big magic shows. Page after page includes references to bills, requests for payments, acknowledgements of checks sent, cables received, and so on. On the face of it, this may not seem like riveting stuff. On first look, I found the idea of reading these books daunting. But then, they began to take hold, and eventually I found myself looking forward to the next page.
Volume 1 includes letters between 1923-1927; Volume 2 covers 1928-1935. Thus the correspondence essentially begins when Dante takes the Thurston show out on the road and ends with Thurston's death, with many successes still to come for Dante. The apprentice thus transforms into a star in his own right in the years covered in these letters, and the transition can make for fascinating reading, with Thurston first guiding the struggling Dante, and then, oh so gradually, the master's star fading as the protégés rises.
As editor, Mr. Temple has provided a number of services to the reader to facilitate utilizing these materials for research. The Table of Contents lists each letter by date, identifies who is writing to whom, and adds a brief but extremely useful notation as to subjects covered; a seven-page index provides further itemized access to the contents. The placement of the poster reprints generally relates to the subjects at hand, and serve to enliven the sometimes dense or repetitive content. Dante is by far the more verbose of the two, and his lengthy letters are often very detailed and range through a variety of subjects in a single missive. But the more taciturn Thurston always seems pleased with Dante's success, when it does occur, and sympathetic about his struggles. As is often the case when reading histories of this time period, it is sometimes simply amazing that anyone had the drive and will to survive the rigors of show business life.
While much of these letters deal with such mundane matters, it doesn't take long for the words these men committed to paper to begin to provide a view through a close-up lens into another world and time. Thurston, the veteran, offers Dante constant advice and encouragement and guidance. While at times there are tensions between them, mostly there is equanimity and even occasional affection, while they slog their way through the hard work and hard times of show business. There are countless lessons to be learned, as Thurston points out that "The [stage]traps you are cutting now will not have to be cut next year"; that "all musicians are difficult to get along with"; and that "You should consider your Company as a lot of children, and you are the Dad." There is discussion about tricks, about the workings and presentations for some, the history and rights of others, the search for new material both large and small. There are battles and threats and lawsuits, with magic industry commentators and other performers. There is comment and curiosity about competitors, from Houdin! to Blackstone. There are permissions granted and still fought over, like Goldin's agreement to allow Dante to use the Sawing in Half.
And there are many posters to be ordered and re-ordered. And there is the long march of attrition toward the death of vaudeville and beyond, both in the U.S. and England. In August of 1929, Dante writes that "England is really in a sad way. The talkies have played the same trick as in the States. I am told by the agents that where they formerly had 115 Theatres to provide acts for there are now 12. Acrobats and Musical acts are performing on the street corners. Understand that Conradi’s has gone bankrupt; Selbit told me he has gotten out of the business; the Egyptian hall is about on its last legs; in fact everything seems to has lost its pep." A year later Thurston would write from the U.S., "Conditions here are terrible. Everyone is short of money. Show business is very bad."
The book concludes with a few additional items. In an "Editor's Comment" of several pages, Mr. Temple offers that there was never any clear line of succession among America's great stage magicians, disputing some of the promotional claims that others have made, dating back to the business deal that led to Thurston being declared successor to Harry Kellar. In the letters, Thurston often dangles such succession in front of Dante, but it was never to actually take place, and Dante never claimed it had. An historical "epilogue" by Byron Walker reports on the relocating of Dante's and his wife's remains in 2004, and a concluding page is devoted to a current effort to restore the condition of Thurston's final resting place, known as Green Lawn Abbey.
The correspondence section, however, concludes with an undated letter to Dante from C.F. Bell, who worked as a press agent and later as advance man for Thurston. The letter was written sometime after Thurston's death in 1936. "It seems that every magician that Thurston ever spoke to or shook hands with in the past thirty years," Bell writes, "is claiming the Thurston Crown. The worse the magician, the harder he is claiming the title." Bell mentions that George White, Thurston longtime chief assistant, along with Kenneth Claude, have been "living in the warehouse where the show is stored at Flushing. They haven't worked since the show closed. They are having a tough time, also the rest of the company is finding it a problem to get connected." He continues, "If you ever have an opening for an advance or press agent, would appreciate it if you would consider me for the job." And he adds, "I personally don't believe the Thurston show will ever go out again."