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How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear

by Jim Steinmeyer

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-7867-1226-0

A good-natured, respectful, and modestly revelatory excursion through a century of the magic arts from one of the innovators of the game.

“My experience tells me that the story of magicians can only be understood when you understand their art. And the secrets are only impressive when you understand the people responsible, the theatrics, and the history surrounding them,” writes illusionist Steinmeyer, who then genially proceeds to introduce the great magicians from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries: David Devant, Alexander Herrmann, the Meskelynes, and Howard Thurston. Harry Houdini is dismissed as a “terrible magician,” though as an escape artist he was in the firmament, and his disappearing elephant does capture Steinmeyer’s imagination, if only for its magnitude and bravura. They were all, Steinmeyer writes, comfortable in both the worlds of theater and science, likely to cultivate reputations for travel to lands of wonder—the Indian subcontinent or the Himalaya of flying monks. With low-key panache, Steinmeyer clues us in on smoke and angles, sightlines and dark pits, synchronized counting, distraction, the gooseneck that allowed a hoop to pass around a levitating body, the exploitation of audiences’ anticipations, preconceptions, and assumptions—though sadly, we learn, many a neat trick went to the grave with its creator. Mostly, though, Steinmeyer tells of mirrors and panes of glass, of the optical formulas for invisibility. Need an elephant to vanish? Get a big mirror and a good angle. For other disappearing acts, build a Porteau Cabinet or a Corsican Trap, a Maskelyne’s Gorilla Den or Davenport Spirit Cabinet. Each works with mirrors, and Steinmeyer explains how (though rope tricks remain difficult to grasp after what appears—remember, never trust appearances in the company of magicians—a very clear explanation).

Steinmeyer never tenders a deflating moment, even after the tricks are turned inside out. A buoyant articulation of the brilliance and brains behind the best artists’ ingenious feats. (Illustrations)