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Making magic

Producing local magicians

Harry Houdini as he appeared before jumping off the Canal Street ferry wharf in 1907.

Nearly 10,000 New Orleanians crowded the wharves by the Canal Street ferry landing on Sunday, November 17, 1907, to watch magician Harry Houdini be shackled in chains and padlocks by First Recorder’s Court Judge Jon Fogarty, using manacles from Orleans Parish Prison. Houdini then jumped into the Mississippi river. Half a minute later, when he emerged unchained, the crowd roared its approval. New Orleans has always liked tricksters.

Today, a century later, a host of magicians are still plying their trade here. There are even local chapters of two separate magicians’ societies. There is a Louisiana Ring of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, a worldwide group founded in 1922. And, locals can also belong to the New Orleans Assembly of the Society of American Magicians, the national organization founded in 1902.

New Orleans has regularly hosted traveling magicians as stage performers: Harry Blackstone performed here regularly, and his son, Harry Blackstone Jr., even married a local woman, Gay Blackstone, who’s still active in the Magic Castle in Hollywood. Both Blackstones were regularly invited to the Bards of Bohemia Carnival Krewe festivities, since an active member, the late attorney Lawrence “Cadillac” Smith, was an avid magician himself. Smith’s obituary noted that he had put himself through Loyola Law School with his magician’s earning.

A famous French magician in his time was Buatier de Kolta, who died of kidney disease in New Orleans while performing at the St. Charles Theater in 1903. Earle Christenberry, founder of the I.B.M. Ring in New Orleans and a 60-year member of that group, notes that de Kolta was the inventor of a well-known illusion, still called the de Kolta Chair. As Christenberry explains, “a person sits in the chair, it’s then covered with a large cloth, the magician whips the sheet away and the person has vanished.”

The 2008 Magician of the Year for the S.A.M. in New Orleans was Milton Scheurman, longtime Architecture Professor at Tulane University. Scheurman doesn’t do “tricks,” he prefers the term “effects,” and he always follows a story line. Even in his classes, such as “Architecture and Mysticism” he manages to work in magic. He prefers “mentalism,” akin to mind reading, and he actively involves his audience. “I do very little. They do the magic themselves; that’s the way it seems,” he says.

Scheurman began magic as a 10-year-old, but after a 1994 concert he become more seriously active. Scheurman and Thais St. Julien, the only female to be president of both local magic societies, are active in a medieval music group, Musica da Camera. As Scheurman explained, “the 1994 program was ‘I Will Tell You a Miracle’ – 13th-century songs dealing with miracles, and Bryce Reveley, our harpist, knew that Jon Racherbaumer lived here and we asked him to perform with us.” Scheurman says, “I was flabbergasted that he lived here – I knew him from his books.”

Racherbaumer, author of some 70 books on magic, still lives here, travels, lectures and performs magic. As Racherbaumer remembers the event, “It felt like I was in another era – I had [on] a monk’s hood. I created intermittent little vignettes of magic while they played, magical effects that a street performer from that time might perform – things relevant to the song lyrics, tricks with candles, balls, fire, silks.”

Racherbaumer was a consultant for the book Magic for Dummies, and advised on a Walt Disney film, Now You See It about child magicians, filmed in New Orleans and starring Frank Langella. He learned his first card trick from a great uncle, and got hooked on magic after seeing a stage show of Harlan Tarbell, author of a mail-order course on magic.

Racherbaumer now prefers “close-up” magic, when a small audience gets engaged with the performer. “You do something extraordinary with the ordinary – a rubber band, a pencil – anything that’s not a magic prop.” The old Masson’s Restaurant was one of his performance sites. Trade shows and conventions currently provide performance space for magicians. Children’s birthday parties can have magicians (Pete Fountain’s brother Ralph Fountain often performed at them.)

There are fewer stages today for stage magic, but at one time magicians regularly performed at the Blue Room and other local nightclubs. Bourbon Street also featured performing magicians. Journalist David Cuthbert’s father Phil D’Rey, was a magician and ventriloquist. (David Cuthbert still has “two tables with secret compartments – that’s where he hid his getaway money.”) According to Cuthbert, Chet Lowe was “the longest-running magician on Bourbon Street. “ He also fondly remembers George Peirce, who did a magic act in Chinese costume. Today, young magician Dante (Sean Dawson) tops the bill at Bustout Burlesque and acts as master of ceremonies. Illusionist and comic Harry Anderson had been a street performer here even before opening his now-closed Oswald’s Speakeasy and Sideshow magic shop.

New Orleanians have also taken their acts on the road. Eddie Adams, 84, joined S.A.M. at 21, and began magic as a child. “My daddy did a few little tricks and he fooled the devil out of me and that’s how I got started.” As a Marine, he also performed. After his discharge, his wife joined his magic act and they toured nightclubs in Florida, and once, in Mexico, he managed to perform an illusion in which his wife was balanced on three swords and he removed two of them – while they were atop the Pyramid of the Sun at Mexico City. “My friend was supposed to film us so we could get in the Guinness Book of World Records – they later told me they didn’t have a category for that.”

Magic can carry over to other fields – Eddie Adams was one of the first to use hypnosis for a dental patient here, and local urologist Dr. Neil Baum calms young patients with magic. Unique local magicians would include “World’s Smallest Magician” Irwin Royes, who performed at the Children’s Castle in Kenner in one of his better known locations, and Gottleib Kogel, who, besides being a magician, operates a nudist park near Slidell.
The newest magic spot in New Orleans would be the Paraplex, 4800 Canal St. (site of the former P.J. McMahon Funeral Home) which bills itself as the “World’s First Paranormal Laboratory, Museum and Observatory.”

Earle Christenberry recalls being befriended by an older former vaudevillian Joe Borello when he first joined the I.B.M. here, and he has served as a mentor for younger magicians in his turn. He began doing magic in the Army, and kept it up. “Magic requires a lot of study and practice,” he says. “I guess you just have to be a little different to love that sort of thing. “

Are things different today? “Magic as a whole has suffered a great bit from inventions of the electronic world – people find other things to get interested in now for a hobby,” he notes.

Still, there’s something alluring about magic. As Jon Racherbaumer explains, “The analog for me is the trickster – a person who would come into your environment for a moment and make mischief with your mind. That’s something that can be not only memorable but transformative.”

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