Trouping With Dante by Marion S. Trikosko
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 2006)
America's last great magicians of the Vaudeville era were Harry Jansen, better known as Dante, and his contemporary, Harry Blackstone, Sr. There are fewer and fewer surviving wit-nesses to the likes of Dante and Blackstone, and thus it is a treat when someone goes to the trouble to tell their story before such stories vanish altogether. Trouping With Dante is one such semi-precious jewel a firsthand account of Marion Trikosko's experience touring with the Dante show.
In 1943, Mr. Trikosko was an enthusiastic 16-year-old amateur magician. In Chicago he went to see the Dante show, then working in the post-Vaudeville era in which live acts performed between movie screenings. The young Trikosko returned to the the-ater a few days later, watched the show twice more, then walked down a back 11 alley and knocked on the backstage IP door, announcing his desire to join the 5 show. After a brief meeting, Dante him- Ei self offered the lad a salary of $40 a week. Now all the boy had to do was convince his family to let him go and somehow he did. A week later he began a two-year adventure that left Mr. Trikosko memories Nar for a lifetime.
The author went on to spend two seasons on the road with Dante, the first one concluding in April of 1944 after 618 performances in a little more than nine months. Six months later he would return to the show for another run which concluded the following year. By 1948, when he was asked aboard again, Mr. Trikosko had discovered an interest in photography (which was to become his life's work), and turned down the invitation. As it turns out, that would be the final (and briefest) season in the show's history, after which Dante retired.
In between the author's own eyewitness accounts, he also relates Dante's life story. Many of the broadest brush strokes will already be known to fans of magic history, beginning with Dante's birth in Denmark and emigration to the U.S. at the age of six, continuing through his early magic career as The Great Jansen, to being hired as illusion builder to Howard Thurston then America's leading magician who would eventually send Jansen out in the world as Dante the Magician. The name of Dante actually came from another American magician, one Oscar Eliason, but 15 years after his death Thurston, developing a plan to send secondary magic companies out on tour, attached the defunct moniker to Jansen.
As a new hand on deck, the young Mr. Trikosko's back-stage duties were primarily confined to maintaining the livestock. It was a dirty job but someone had to do it, and it was counter-balanced by the excitement of his brief appearances on stage, moving props along with the pigeons, ducks, and a screeching piglet. His firsthand anecdotes of working backstage for "Pops," as the 23-person troupe affectionately called the show's tar, are what make this a warming and readable book. When the author recalls how the thread for the Floating Ball caused the feather on Dante's turban to twitch, or remembers standing by on stage as Dante struggles to stuff a woman (a local stooge) into the Sawing illusion in order to get the blade past her substantial posterior—the reader is swept across time and footlights to the place and the moment.
It is a compelling trip. As Lance Burton writes in his introduction, "This is not a ho-hum, cradle-to-grave telling of the facts, filled out with stories from second-hand sources." This is a lively and very affectionate account of a boy's dream come true, complete with the eye-opening life lessons he received. Like most people suddenly faced with show business from the inside out, it wasn't quite what he expected, but it was certainly grand nonetheless.
Thus, neither is this an exhaustive biography, and despite the fact that there are several Dante titles extant, we have probably yet to see the definitive Dante volume. This book does include brief chapters on Dante's famous and beloved onstage assistant, Moi-yo Miller; about Dante's backstage assistant and eventually Moi-yo's husband, Arturo Montes; and about Dante's backstage show chief, George White. The portrait of Mr. White is particularly engaging. Howard Thurston hired Mr. White (who was in fact black) when the latter was a mere boy of nine years old, to operate Thurston's Rising Cards from backstage. White eventually ended up as Thurston's chief backstage man, where he worked with Dante when the latter was Thurston's builder. Eventually White would play the same role for Dante as he had for Thurston, and even continued to live at Dante's ranch after the magician's retirement. The book leaves us with a small but evocative mystery of what really happened when White left the ranch one day, never to be heard from again.
Mr. Trikosko of course also tells us about much of the magic of Dante's illusion show. He recounts how Dante improved Goldin's Sawing illusion for Thurston, enhancing the thin base concept, which Dante would also apply to the Asrah. However, this is not a detailed book about illusion design or history; after all, it was the Asrah's creator, Servais LeRoy, who originated the "wedge base" principle for that very illusion. But in the "Extra Added Attractions" in this volume, the author also includes the details of Dante's patent on his version of the Asrah albeit that we do not get Mr. LeRoy's thoughts on the subject of that patent. The ongoing illusion wars between Thurston, Selbit, Goldin, LeRoy, and Dante are touched upon but not exhaustively addressed.
Other interesting magical accounts include that of Dante's remarkable Fountania production, which filled the stage with a multitude of water spouts, and the author's sometimes soggy role. There is an interesting description of Dante's barbershop illusion, billed in his program as The Un-Sevilled Barber, with a clever use of a DeKolta Chair principle. There are stories (and a diagram) of "Big Arthur," the (barely) portable trap that was installed in every stage Dante played on.
Show business is always hard work, but it was much harder in those days. There are times when you read a book like this and wonder at the drive that was necessary to keep its practitioners going. Dante, at age 28, made his first overseas trip with a company of 15 but virtually no money left in his pockets, yet somehow ended up spending more than three years touring the Far East and Australia before returning home. When Dante is past 60, during the author's time with the show, the company is doing five shows a day between movies, resetting the show behind the screen. In between those many years there is a tour in the Soviet Union which leaves Dante and company departing the country without payment or props (a trick Copperfield repeated in 1999), stranding them in Germany waiting for both (the money came sooner than the props, which took almost a month). There was a run in Manchuria with the cast wearing overcoats on stage to survive the cold. But there were plenty of good times, too as in London, where, the author recalls, lalfter the evening show, Pop's card-playing buddies, Horace Goldin, Les Levante, Brunel White, and the Australian escapologist, Murray, came over and played cards to the wee hours of the morning."
The personal tastes Mr. Trikosko reveals in this book are occasionally amusing such as his lack of appreciation (to put it mildly) for the great jazz drummer, Gene Krupa, whose legendary playing seemed to the author to be nothing more than "a waste of perspiration." Amid the section of "Extra Added Attractions" the author also pro-vides his personal recollections of the carnival midway at Riverview Park, including freaks, geeks, and a description of a regurgitator act who, to the best of my knowledge, appears to be none other than the legendary sideshow performer, The Great Waldo.
Mr. Trikosko, it turns out, became a successful photo-journalist, and a search of his name on the Internet presented me with a remarkable array of photographs taken in the era of civil rights activism, circa late 19605, including striking images of historically momentous moments and figures including Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, James Meredith, and President John F. Kennedy.
Marion Trikosko's time with the Dante show was memorable and we are fortunate that he remembers that time, so many decades later, with a photojournalist's eye for real life detail. I wish I had had such an adventure, but failing that, I enjoyed his magical trip down the passage of time, and I can't imagine that any lover of magic's history won't also thrill at this lovely account.