Who will be the next queen of magic?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
March 2 2011 12:05 PM

The Next Queen of Magic

Does magic need more female performers to be cool again?

Slide Show: The Next Queen of Magic. Click image to expand.

When a magician named Horace Goldin first demonstrated that he could saw an assistant in half in front of a 1921 meeting of the Society of American Magicians, the crowd was so unimpressed that the event didn't even make the meeting's minutes. Sure, Goldin's box apparatus was clumsily obvious. But perhaps worse was that a bus boy served as his assistant. When the trick became part of the magic-show format that we all recognize today, the young boy had been replaced by a beautiful woman.

The boy was switched out for the lady during magic's heyday, from the end of the 19th century through the arrival of the movies. These days, Harry Houdini's name lives on, synonymous with daring and virility, inspiring artists and writers from Matthew Barney to E.L. Doctorow. Yet contemporary magicians have lost their cultural swagger. Why isn't magic cool anymore? And could it have something to do with that damsel in distress?

For a glimpse into the glory days, it doesn't get much better than magic historian and consultant Jim Steinmeyer's new book The Last Greatest Magician in the World. The book relates the story of Howard Thurston, a now little-remembered magician who mesmerized thousands at his peak. Thurston's success was due to his groundbreaking set of large-scale illusions, his smooth self-confidence, and his slogan, spoken during every show: "I wouldn't deceive you for the world." In 1937, Dale Carnegie even praised Thurston's showmanship in How To Win Friends and Influence People. But Thurston lost out in our collective memory to Harry Houdini—just as Houdini would have wanted it. According to one of Thurston's ghostwriters, quoted by Steinmeyer, "Every bit of Thurston's publicity was about getting you into the theater to see the show. And Houdini's publicity was about creating a legend." As if to prove the point, the Jewish Museum in New York has mounted a major exhibit called "Houdini: Art and Magic" (bound also for Los Angeles; San Francisco; and Appleton, Wis., Houdini's home state) and published a beautifully illustrated catalog to accompany it. The show displays Houdini's own gear, including straitjackets and handcuffs, alongside with contemporary works of art inspired by his legend.

The story of magic's role in American popular culture is one of the influence captured by the show, and then decline. Most magicians at the turn of the 20th century lived peripatetically, performing in beer halls, carnivals, vaudeville houses, medicine shows, or even on street corners. But the successful ones—also Herrmann the Great, Servais Le Roy, Harry Kellar—played to huge crowds and became household names. Then came Hollywood, which poached magic's special effects tricks and eventually its audience. The industries blurred at first. Houdini starred in several films, and Orson Welles performed as a magician. But in the battle for expendable income and cache, we know who won. Today's magicians haunt corporate conventions and birthday parties; the few big names make it in Las Vegas, not New York or L.A.

In contemporary pop culture, magicians are buffoons: Think of incompetent amateur Gob Bluth in Arrested Development. As played by Will Arnett, unemployed Gob wheels around on a Segway and grandiosely insists on referring to his frequently bungled tricks as "illusions."Steve Carell is rumored to be starring in the upcoming comedy Burt Wonderstone, as half of a theatrical Vegas team who must rediscover his passion when his partner is killed in a risky stunt. Magicians are taken seriously only in contemporary historical fiction, as in the 2006 film The Prestige or in Glen David Gold's 2001 best-selling novel Carter Beats the Devil. The animated film The Illusionist  is about an aging stage magician whose variety-show act is a flop with young audiences in the 1950s. That's the magic narrative that just got an Oscar nomination.

The real-life magicians aren't much better: They're foppish like Siegfried and Roy, the bespangled Vegas institution known best for their work with tigers, or douchebags like Criss Angel, whose television show Mindfreak was a hit but who once made headlines for obscenely berating blogger Perez Hilton in the audience during a performance. Brooding David Blaine, renowned in the late 1990s for his low-tech "close-up" magic, lost his cool when he graduated to bigger feats of endurance. When he had the genius stunt idea of sealing himself without food in a glass box that dangled off London's Tower Bridge for 44 days, agitators threw eggs at him and banged drums to keep him from sleeping.

Is it a coincidence that these offenders are all male, and that magic is still a man's game?The head of the Society of American Magicians says the group has about 420 female members, out of a total of approximately 6,000—or 7 percent. Last year, when the online magazine Miller McCune posted on several magic Web sites and discussion boards asking why there aren't more female magicians, 220 men and seven women answered. There are a few reasons for this, some more and some less legitimate. Card tricks often require large hands, and many other tricks rely on suit jackets, pants pockets, and wallets. Powerful taboos against the publication of tricks means the industry is unusually cloistered, making the men's club even more difficult to penetrate than it is in, say, comedy. And as if trying to distance themselves from their profession's nerdy reputation, many contemporary magicians have reputations as womanizers.

Then there are the strict gender roles on stage that is magic's vaudeville legacy. Bess Houdini, Harry's wife and assistant, often wore a large bow in her hair, and used an exaggerated girlish voice onstage. (She shed these affectations and became a solo performer after her husband died.) Howard Thurston's adult daughter, Jane, used a similar little-girl shtick in their joint performances. She was best known for a song called "My Daddy's a Hocus Pocus Man." Tiny women made the best assistants, because they could contort themselves into boxes and trunks and other stage apparatus. Decades ago, in popular early illusions, it was standard for beautiful assistants to appear to have their necks sliced, be set on fire, be drowned, and, very often, to disappear. "Just as modern women—the suffragettes—were demanding equal rights, staging violent strikes in England, and protesting in the United States," Steinmeyer writes, "vaudeville theaters were offering tongue in cheek vengeance."

While magicians wield masculine props like wands and saws, women are (still!) employed as sexy distractions and torture subjects. On the rare occasion when a woman breaks through as a headliner, she often has to rely on her sex appeal. Celeste Evans, a midcentury magician known for her knockout beauty and ability to conjure doves while wearing sleeveless gowns, was dogged by rumors that she was "trading tricks for tricks." Jade, probably the most famous female magician working today, emphasizes her act's beauty, grace, and "exotic allure." A 2008 article about Jade on the Web site of the International Brotherhood of Magicians condescendingly notes that "[h]er heart is filled with passion and love, not only for her family, but also for her second love, magic."

An early exception was Adelaide Herrmann, who stepped onto the stage after the death of her husband, known as Herrmann the Great. Adelaide at first handed over her husband's mantle to his nephew, Leon, a Frenchman who barely spoke English and who had a pitiful stage presence. Fed up after just a short time, she took over the act herself. Soon after her husband's death, she is said to have stepped in front of a firing squad on stage at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York to perform the rare and difficult "Bullet Catch" trick, which entails stepping in front of a firing squad. The woman whose very last name hinted at a blending of feminine and masculine headlined tours for decades as the Queen of Magic. If modern magic needs a new bag of tricks, it might start by finding the next Adelaide Herrmann.

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Click here to read a slide show  on magicians.

Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.

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