Saturday, May 27, 2017

Washday Magic . . . Wait .... What?

So, this card presented something of a mystery.  What exactly is being promoted here?  And what does it  have to do with the world of scaling cards and magic?

The face of the card advertises "Washday Magic with Gas and Electricity," and sings the praises of owning an "Automatic Washer" and "Automatic Dryer." The whole magilla is presented wrapped in a gigantic magic hat, accompanied by a stylized magician.  Yet, no brand name is mentioned, nor is any specific performer identified. And the back design is immediately recognizable to magicians as the ubiquitous Fox Lake pattern made by Haines House of Cards.  So what's going on here?

Poking around  Ask Alexander, the magic history database, provides a satisfying answer to this unusual puzzle.

Thursday, May 25, 2017


O.K., so here I go again, straying outside of the domain of scaling cards. This card is not so much a scaling card as it is an advertising piece because there is no playing card back on it. I guess then by rights it shouldn't be on this post. If the masses rise up and say, "This shall not pass!!" I will take it down. I still think it's a fun post though so here goes.

This involves an Indianapolis magician named Bert Servaas, an amateur who billed himself (politically incorrectly) as “Spoo-Kee-Ching” and who joined the unending ranks of Anglo magicians trying to portray Asian characters. He also performed straight magic. I first wrote about him in my book “Cornfields and Conjurors: Magic on the Indianapolis Stage.” Here is the card in discussion,

His full name was Baastean Hanus Servaas, and he was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1889. His family moved to Indianapolis in the early 1900's and sometime around 1913 he helped found the city’s first magic organization, the Indiana Magic Fraternity. 

Servaas in 1922 from the Indiana Magic Fraternity (IMF)

His business card featured a photograph of him in costume and on the reverse, this unusual listing of effects he performed as part of his, “Program La Fun:” 

Hong-Kong Kee
Pekin Fire
Merkan Fla

It’s clear that in his effort to appear Asian, he assigned nonsense titles to tricks involving fire, vanishing glasses of water, dice and money tricks, billiard ball effects, rope, dominoes, cigarettes and cards. At the age of 49 Servaas joined the Indiana Society of Magicians. According to his application, he received his early exposure to magic from Professor Ogden and Dr. E.S. Pierce, a medium. Apparently he was also a member of the Yogi Club of Michigan. 

Servaas in 1932 with magic apparatus 
Seen on his table are a Sliding Die Box, pack of playing cards, a set of Multiplying Bottles in sore need of paint, a Rapping Hand, a skull, and of course his Linking Rings.

He gave his first “boy wonder” show in 1902 at the Academy of Music in Kalamazoo before 1,000 people. His early schooling came at the Monnock Private School and he eventually attended the University of Michigan. His parents were from Holland. Although he did not provide any details, he noted on his application that he worked all the Houdini shows and knew Thurston for 22 years. When he wasn’t performing magic he worked in the engineering and sales department of the Sinclair Refining Company. He died October 1, 1957. I close this posting with an early image of Servaas and his family. 
Servaas with his two sons, Buert and William, wife Lela, and perhaps his older daughter Lela Jo Wiliams.

Tom Ewing

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Shade on a Sunny Day

If you’re a magician looking for an intriguing stage name, “Shade” works very well. In literature and poetry, a shade is often taken to mean a spirit or ghost from the underworld. In the case of this month’s featured performer, it is both the stage and birth name of George W. Shade, an innovative illusionist, enthusiastic supporter of magic organizations, and all around fan of conjuring. Shade was born in 1891 and spent the majority of his life in the central Pennsylvania town of Shamokin. 

There is no account of how he first became interested in magic, but by the mid to late 1920s his name starts appearing in The Billboard, the leading entertainment magazine in the country, with references to him taking out his own illusion show. Prior to this he and his wife appeared in vaudeville on the Keith circuit. He also had a scaling card featuring his image as well as an ink-stamped invitation to contact him to book a show. 

I have been unable to find any program listing illusions he performed, but I discovered some tantalizing clues. Reports in the magic magazines always reference his outstanding performance of the Spirit Cabinet. In this effect, Shade was tied to a chair and placed in a curtained enclosure on stage. On a chair next to him sat a tambourine, a hand bell, metal dinner plates, and a horn. No sooner were the curtains closed than the spirits rang the bell, shook the tambourine, tossed the plates over the top of the enclosure, and caused a great ruckus. When the curtains were thrown open Shade was found still securely bound.

A volunteer was then selected and, after being blindfolded, was placed in the cabinet on a chair next to Shade. The curtains were closed, another ruckus of noise took place, and upon the curtains being opened, the spectator was found with his pant legs pushed up and a bucket on his head, with the still tightly tied Shade sitting next to him.

He can also be included among the very short list of magicians who performed the Bullet Catch that killed or maimed so many magicians over the years. In the 1920s when Sawing a Woman in Two was the rage, Shade also presented his version. It was built by Dave Swift but apparently Shade improved the method. Leslie Guest, a former editor of M-U-M visited Shade and recalled that his version had “…no room for an extra girl or dummy feet either, but he gets all the effects.” At that time Shade was also performing The Man Who Walks Away From His Shadow and an entirely automated Spirit Paintings routine. Guest observed fourteen illusion crates in Shade’s garage and said the house was filled with magic.

Shade was very involved in the I.B.M. and attended every annual convention from the very first in Kenton, Ohio, in 1926. He was one of those who first voted to approve the constitution of the organization, held various offices in Ring 20 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and also served on the Expose Committee. Most magic organizations of that period fought furious battles over the exposure of even the simplest magic effect to the general public. Many of these appeared in newspapers or magazines. In the case of Thurston, these exposures came in his “Magic Box of Candy.”

Shade took a sanguine approach to such matters, telling fellow magicians, “Advertising that reveals secrets of magicians is not objectionable. This form of advertising helps the professional sell entertainment and does just as much good as Thurston does when he reveals magic; only the amateur who tries to sell tricks is affected.”

Eventually Shade retired from both vaudeville and presenting his illusion show and, as the saying goes, “got a real job.” For many years he operated a drug store, and from 1938 to 1946 served as the mayor or “burgess” of his hometown. And he took the job seriously. A brief article in the Gettysburg Times for April 27, 1940, reports Shade giving himself a ticket and paying a fine for illegal parking.

One last item before we conclude this article. The town of Shamokin had another famous son, Will B. Wood, an extremely talented magician who created a levitation called Edna. Wood was on tour in Mexico when he and his wife and family were killed by pirates off the coast of Yucatan. Eventually Frederick Eugene Powell obtained the illusion and presented it throughout South America.

In closing, Shade’s close friend Edwin Bloom writing his obituary said of him, “He was genial, generous, ever ready to help the young magic enthusiast, a fine showman, and an accomplished magician. Our art has lost a great booster.”

Tom Ewing

Monday, May 22, 2017

Al Torsten

In 1959, the busy Chicago magic scene got a new member, Alexander Frank Simoneit. You say who? If the name doesn’t come to mind, it’s probably because he’s better known by his stage name Al Torsten, one of Germany’s leading vaudeville performers in pre- and post-World War II. He also had the promotional card below. I hesitate to call it a scaling card, but it’s still worthy of a post about this fascinating conjuror. It also falls into that common category on this blog of being produced by a playing card company to promote both the magician and their brand of cards.

The card features a young Torsten on the front and beneath him are the words, “Al Torsten the Card- Phantom works only with the world-famous “Altenburg-Stralsunder” playing cards – the old quality brand from Stuttgart.” On the reverse is a four-pip king of diamonds.

Torsten was born in Tula, Russia and during the Russian revolution, his family fled first to Latvia and then Lithuania. It was there in 1928 that he saw his first magician, a Greek by the name Casficis. This sparked his interest in magic and his father fed that interest by buying him new tricks and getting him teachers to train him. After high school he worked for Lufthansa airlines with ground control but his first love was magic.

He was living in Konigsberg at the time and there were no magic shops or clubs. A feature in the local newspaper on his magic resulted in other interested magicians reaching out to him and before long the Konigsberg East Prussia Magic Zirkel Society was formed with Torsten as president. 

Before he could get very far in magic he was inducted into the German army during World War II. He hated war and violence but had no other choice. The fact that he spoke five languages made him an excellent recruit as an interpreter. This was helpful with captured Russian soldiers. When he got leave to return to Germany he was subject to bombings there and so stayed with the Army.

Once while his wife Ellen was visiting him during a weekend visit their town was overrun by the Russian Army and calling upon the kindness of the very generals whom he had entertained, they moved his wife and some nurses to Western Germany where they were relatively safe. However, in the occupation of his town he lost all his magic, books, and collectibles. After the war he performed shows for the allies. 
Torsten won the 1950 Grand Prix for manipulation at the International Magicians’ Congress in Munich where he competed against 15 other nations. He also operated a magic shop and instructed magicians. Eventually he and his wife decided they’d had enough of a Germany in turmoil with post-war disruptions and decided to come to America. When they did, they chose Chicago.

He was an excellent, classical manipulator and appeared elegantly in white tie and tails. While in Chicago he also offered a number of magic effect that were sold by first Ireland’s and then later Magic Inc. He passed away in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin Nov. 29, 2004. He held IBM # 17052 and was an Order of Merlin member.

I am indebted to the late Francis Marshall for much of this background which she provided in a 1959 issue of The Linking Ring. Thanks Fran!

Tom Ewing

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Taking Stock

This posting is about the elder statesman of Cincinnati, George Stock who, during his colorful career was the spark plug for magic in the Queen City and led a colorful and fulfilling life. He also had two scaling cards (at least in my collection) and they are presented for your enjoyment.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Asking Alexander about Alexander - Part II: The Results

As described in my last post, I decided to use these long-unidentified throwout cards to test the powers of Ask Alexander, a proprietary web site/search engine housing a vast database of magic publications.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Henry Gordien

Henry Gordien passed away at seventy-seven on February 9, 1967 in Maple Grove, Minneapolis. He was active in magic for well over fifty years. He specialized in presenting assorted effects including producing bowls of water filled with gold fish, a production of a live rabbit, a torn and restore newspaper effect, the ever popular borrowed bill in lemon effect, and a featured effect that seemed almost common place in his time and that was threading over a dozen needles after swallowing them which he called the “Hindu Needle-Eating and Threading Trick”. Another magician made this trick popular and his name was Harry Houdini

Asking Alexander about Alexander - Part I: The Challenge

Who is this all-knowing powerhouse?   The image here, inspired by an iconic stone lithograph from the vaudeville-era mentalist Claude "Alexander" Conlin, is taken from the Ask Alexander site one of several fascinating services offered by the Conjuring Arts Research Center.  Ask Alexander is an elegant, proprietary search engine for a vast, and ever-growing collection of digitized magic periodicals, books and other publications. And, in this post, we're going to put Ask Alexander to the test ,,,

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Magical Copycats on World Intellectual Property Day

Today is World Intellectual Property Day, an annual commemoration instituted by the World Intellectual Property Organization, known as "WIPO," (a branch of the UN which coincidentally employs my best friend).  According to WIPO:

"Every April 26, we celebrate World Intellectual Property Day to learn about the role that intellectual property rights (patents, trademarks, industrial designs, copyright) play in encouraging innovation and creativity."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, among magicians, intellectual property rights have often been disrespected, much to the chagrin of magical inventors, innovators and manufacturers.  I will not explore that serious problem here.  In commemoration of this day, however, I thought I would highlight a few of the throwing cards which, though they may not technically violate intellectual property rights, certainly constitute bold imitations of the work of others.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Elmer Eckam

Elmer G. Eckam was born in May of 1892 in Rochester, New York. Eckam’s first stage work was working as the assistant as a teenager with fellow Rochester magician Ray Hogan (1886 – 1945). Eckam performed for over forty years. He gained experience after leaving the auspices of Hogan by working the Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits as well as many of the theatres and clubs. By the Twenties, Eckam had his own unique act that included escapes. The full evening show was performed at national and state conventions in the East and Midwest. He was well liked by magicians and was a friend to fellow performers like Harry Houdini and Harry Blackstone. At the 1927 I.B.M. Convention in Kenton, Ohio, Eckam thrilled the over one thousand participants by escaping from a straight jacket while being suspended fifty feet in the air. Eckam published a magic newspaper titled, Eckam’s Echo from 1937 to 1940. He also had a mail order magic business from his home in Rochester that he called “Art in Magic”.