Friday 28 July 2017

Raymond and Dockstader, Postcards from the Top and Bottom of the Bill.

Here’s a trio of postcards that have an unusual connection. The first one I picked up is shown below, a striking portrait of a smiling magician. Most readers will have noticed this postcard isn’t quite right.

The original image is a very well known picture of The Great Raymond, a prominent American who toured extensively across the globe. It seems at some point a batch of these cards were recycled by a printer for another magician. A decorative stamp has been used to rather clumsily cover over the original name and a stamp re-naming the magician as The Great Dockstader has been used above the portrait. A similar but unaltered postcard of Raymond can be seen below.

I imagine Raymond wouldn’t have been best pleased if he knew his publicity material was being used as stock material, but I doubt many of these were made. I haven’t seen any for sale since, maybe these were recycled in the UK after Raymond had returned to touring in America or elsewhere. It's interesting to note the altered postcard shows Raymond with the classic Keller type devils on his shoulder, an image I've seen in Raymond posters before but not in a Raymond postcard.

Dockstader didn’t always use stock material as shown by this last postcard.

Declaring himself rather comically as America’s foremost illusionist this simple postcard shows the actual Dockstader. He bears very little resemblance to Raymond, so it can’t have been a particularly effective marketing tool to hand out postcards clearly of another magician!

Information on Dockstader is hard to come by, he may be related to a well know minstrel troupe leader who also used the stage name The Great Dockstader, but that is pure speculation. It would be hard to even ascertain that he's an American as many acts on the UK music hall circuits pretended to be American to appear more exotic. Maybe someone reading this knows more?

Raymond himself was a very successful magician, performing around the world. He produced a very large amount of publicity material, posters, postcards and other ephemera which have helped his image endure.

Friday 21 July 2017

Swallowing Razor Blades, a Stage Spectacle.

One of Houdini's most famous stage tricks was the swallowing of loose sewing needles and the apparent regurgitation of these threaded on a length of cotton. A variation of this old effect is performed with razor blades, much more visible on stage and with the same sense of peril as the needles effect. This photo, printed in many Davenports catalogues from the 1930s shows George "Gilly" Davenport performing the effect.

George Davenport popularised the effect after the company purchased the rights through Max Holden from an unknown American source in 1930. It was a huge success and has been sold by Davenports ever since. I have a few examples in my collection. The one shown below has the striking red and yellow packaging synonymous with Davenports with a text description of the effect stamped on the box.

The apparatus itself is in remarkable condition with the original packaging on the blades. The trick was improved by Robert Harbin with the addition of the gimmicked spool of thread, removing some of the more complicated handling. He gave these improvements to Davenports and they printed them along with the original instructions. The trick also came with a handy block to make the resetting of the trick straight forward and to avoid tangles.

This example has a few differences, the most obvious being the packaging. This has slightly rarer graphics with the clown face more generally used for jokes and novelties. It also has a wonderful stamped image of the trick, clearly based on the photograph of Gilly above.

These also come with some extra envelopes showing that the blades have been chrome plated by Paisley Cooperative Manufacturing Society Ltd. This was presumably done to make them even more showy under the spotlights and was done after they were purchased.

Both the above examples use cardboard reels. Before the Second World War Davenports manufactured the reels in wood like the below example.

Gilly performed this effect for Movietone News in 1931 and Jasper Maskelyne performed it for Pathé in 1937.

Performed live it is a striking, stage filling trick that personifies the "packs small, plays big" idea. One of the best live performances I've seen was the late Bunny Neill performing this. He produced a string of blades long enough to stretch right across the stage, a brilliant sight.

Wednesday 19 July 2017

Houdini's Circus Wagons in Budapest.

This isn't a normal post as it's not about something in my collection, but rather something spotted by chance. I went on holiday with my partner to Budapest in March 2016. We hadn't gone because of the Houdini connection, but I can't say that wasn't at the back of my mind! Early in the holiday we visited the Budapest History Museum within Buda Castle. Looking out of the window into the main courtyard I spotted the strangest thing.

I had watched the Houdini miniseries featuring Adrien Brody in 2014 and was aware some of it was filmed in Budapest. Although I didn't have a memory of seeing this wagon in the series, it could hardly be anything but a prop from it. Its reference to Welsh Brother's Circus and "Nature's Mistakes" clearly referring to Houdini performing as a wild man for that circus.

Down in the courtyard I got a closer look at this wonderful mock-up. It was beautifully made, painted and aged.

There was also another wagon tucked into a corner of the yard.

I'm not aware of any actual Maxwell The Magnificent, but I presume he was a character in the series. My memory of the show's not fantastic and, being frank, I didn't enjoy it enough to buy on DVD.

Shortly after we came home I read the news that a Houdini museum, The House of Houdini, was to open in Budapest, a city that previously had no formal memorial to one of their most famous sons. The museum itself is within Buda Castle, so that probably explains why these props were there.

We visited what we thought was the Weisz family home, though research has since shown that to be unlikely. We did explore the Jewish Quarter thoroughly though and visited the fantastic Great Synagogue, a building the family surely would have known.

More about Houdini's links to this area can be found in this article from the House of Houdini. Budapest is a wonderful city to visit and it's great to hear they're making more of Houdini, I can't wait to get back there.

Friday 14 July 2017

Paul Daniels in the 1980s.

Early last year Paul Daniels, one of the most successful magicians of all time, died. As a child I caught the end of his long prime-time television career and my start in magic began with one of his magic sets. I tend to collect items earlier than 1960 so I don’t have a great deal of things relating to Daniels, here are a few things from the height of his fame I have picked up though.

The first item is a poster from his 14 month run at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London’s West End. Starting in 1980 this run was a real rarity as variety shows in the West End has died out completely prior to “It’s Magic”. The run was hugely successful coming off the back of his television stardom which rocketed in the late 1970s.

Throughout his career he marketed magic sets for numerous toy companies. The first range under the branding TV Magic Tricks was released in the early 1980s, with individual tricks and larger magic sets available. These were manufactured by "Dubreq" and "Magic Marketing" who I assume were part of the same company.

These sets were released at the height of Daniels' fame alongside children's books and annuals bearing his name. I've always presumed these books were written with, or ghost written by, Ali Bongo as they are particularly similar to Bongo's books of this period. As with Ali Bongo's books they are among the very best magic books for children and were a big part or my childhood.

Paul Daniels didn't reserve his image for magic publicity though, in fact he was happy to put his name to almost anything. He sold tapes to help people learn foreign languages, Atari computer games and even draught excluders!

Like many magicians of my generation I started out with a Paul Daniels magic set, in my case a "Peter Pan Playthings" set I got for my forth birthday. I was lucky enough to meet Paul on a few occasions and saw him lecture and perform. He was always very kind and encouraging to young magicians.

In recent years he sold some of his considerable collection and I was lucky enough to pick up some of his Davenports items. He was a close friend of the Davenport family and cleared one of their family homes, one item from this clearance is this copper Wonder Box.

As a pioneer of TV magic and a true professional magician for over forty years he had a huge influence on the direction of magic in the UK. Working with Ali Bongo and John Fisher, his TV shows created an interest in magic for a whole generation, a legacy that will continue for many decades to come.

Friday 7 July 2017

Rice Bowls, an Enduring Classic.

The origin of the Rice Bowls trick seems unclear, the prefix "Chinese" seems to be widespread by the early 20th century however. The effect in which a bowl of rice doubles in quantity when covered by another bowl, before changing into water is truly magical when performed well.

Starting with what I presume is the earliest set of rice bowls I have here’s an earthenware set. Taken from an early Gamages magic set they have a celluloid gimmick. The rice bows are the traditional shape and have been modified rather than made specifically as magic props. One of the bowls has a ground down rim to ensure a good seal with the gimmick. They're small but have the advantage of looking like normal bowls rather that specially made props.

Here’s an even smaller set retailed by Davenports in spun aluminium. This set was marketed with a matching lota vase. It has a very similar celluloid gimmick to the above example and they work very well. They are a pleasing size for performing to small groups, but would be lost on the stage. Davenports sold larger aluminium sets than this and ceramic sets, indeed the earthenware set above may well be Davenports, a main supplier to Gamages, but it's hard to be certain. These bowls, along with the lota vases were among the first spun aluminium items marketed to magicians.

The next two sets of rice bowls were initially a mystery to me. I found the copper set first and the quality was immediately apparent. After owning them for some months I came across the original advert for these bowls in Vampire Magic’s Magic magazine. I was very glad to see they had been made by Vampire, though I would have loved for them to have been Davenports!

Shortly afterwards I found the same set heavily chromed as advertised above. Though of a good size and quality the gimmick is quite a simple plain disc with no lip, the bowls have an additional clip to secure the gimmick, though the handling is difficult.

These bowls were retailed by Davenports as well, which was why I was initially confused about the manufacturer. They can be seen in many photographs of the Davenports shop and trade stall displays at conventions. They don't carry the distinctive Vampire hallmark, so maybe they were manufactured by someone else and Max Andrews distributed them himself? Here's a picture of Gilly and Wally Davenport in the shop in 1949 which shows a set of these bowls on the shelf behind them (the photo is from Furgus Roy's The Davenport Story Vol. 3, essential reading).

George Davenport, known as Gilly, also has his own take on the rice bowls. His effect ended with both bowls squirting water into the air like miniature fountains. I don't have a Davenport set of these, but the International Magic Studio later produced them under licence.

The gimmick prevents these from being placed flat on the table, so they come with silver rubber rings on which they sit. They are nicely made, but I must concede the working is extremely awkward, which may explain why they never caught on.

The final sets were manufactured in Canada by the recently closed Morissey Magic. I have very little Morissey Magic, but as a child my favourite routine to perform was their Chop Cup Combo set. They produced high quality, good value, spun metal items, predominendtly cups and balls and dove pans. This set is a copper Brahmin Rice Bowl set, manufactured in the early 2000s.

It works on a different principle to the above examples, allowing the effect to be performed without having to ditch any gimmicks. It is, in my view, the cleanest version of the bowls. They also manufactured them in spun aluminium.

The additional bowl allows the correct amount of rice to be measured for the start of the trick and provides a neat vessel for pouring the water into at the end of the effect.

For scale here are some of the bowls alongside each other.

Though rarely part of magicians' acts today, in a stage or parlour setting this can be a really elegant and genuinely magical effect.