And now, my friends, gather round for some moments of wit from a book that, more than any other, changed my life, The Illustrated History of Magic by Milbourne Christopher. I read it first when I was twelve, in "the big people's" section of the library. And now some humor from its discussion of the 1800s :
For political reasons, the press of the day referred to President Martin Van Buren as "The Little Magician". Entertainer Signor Antonio Blitz joked that the politician was a colleague, because both "so successfully deceived the public." Van Buren pointed out that he was retired from politics, and would therefore cede the title to Blitz. Good humor. (p106)
And this from mid-century magician and pianist Robert Heller:
Shakespeare wrote well
Dickens wrote weller
Anderson was _____,
But the greatest is Heller!
Or at least the most modest.
Anderson, by the way, is the Barnum, Houdini, Trump of early/mid-century conjuring: successful in part because he went to extremes in his advertising and did not suffer from modesty, either. He allegedly put his face on pats of butter and on the pyramids of Egypt! (p 111)
At least one critic complained that Anderson relied too much on his props:
"I don't mind a man's pulling wires, but he should have the politician's skill of keeping them out of sight." The critic was comparing Anderson unfavorably with Compars Herrmann, whose greatness lay in part in his reliance on his technical skill, minimal props required. (p187)
In November of 1861, Herrmann performed at the White House. Asking President Lincoln to participate in a card trick, the President demured, passing the deck to his Secretary of War with the quip, "This gentleman shuffles the cards for me at present."(p187)
And just for fun: what magic did these magicians perform?
*Anderson was an early performer of the rabbit from a hat
*two of the magicians performed the dangerous trick of appearing to "catch" a bullet.
*two of the magicians performed "second sight" telepathy with an assistant
Last year I went back to my hometown for the first time since childhood, went to the library, and found the same copy of The Illustrated History of Magic, first edition, still on the shelf. Wow!
Of course my favorite magic quip might be too recent to be in the first edition, that of off-Broadway magician Peter Samelson: "Magic is a crime because it breaks the laws of nature."