Stupid Question ™
Nov. 24, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: Are there any old magic tricks for which the secret is now unknown?
—A. Blalock, from the Internet
A: Given the secretive nature of stage magicians, surprisingly few secrets have been lost. They’re passed down orally or in private manuscripts, or preserved in elite magic libraries accessible only to professionals. Some make their way into popular books.
Of the lost tricks, some are more lost than others.
Jack White of the International Brotherhood of Magicians suggested to me the never-ending debate about the “original” Hindu (or Indian) Rope Trick.
This illusion, in which a rope tossed into the air becomes erect, and an assistant disappears after climbing up it, debuted on the European stage in the early 1900s, and its trick is well-known. However, it is thematically borrowed from an Indian street-magic stunt described in literature more than 1,000 years ago. It seems there really was such a trick (though some dispute even that), but there are no good eyewitness reports of it—not even agreement about its illusory content. It falls more into the category of the “unknowable” than the “lost.”
Similarly, Harry Houdini’s multiple methods for hiding lockpicks and keys and escaping from underwater containers are well-known to professionals. But it is impossible to say exactly which method he used on any particular stunt.
Truly lost tricks are typically remembered because they were clearly innovative and eyewitnessed by fellow magicians who could not explain the trick—and forgotten because they somehow felt too minor to doggedly copy or research.
Jim Steinmeyer, a professional illusion designer for David Copperfield, Siegfried & Roy and others, mentioned a few lost tricks to me.
One is Max Malini’s ice block production. Malini (1873-1942) performed this after-dinner stuntmany times, according to reliable anecdotes. After a private dinner, having never left the table, Malini would ask a female guest for her hat. He would spin a half-dollar on the table and cover it with the hat, asking the owner to call heads or tails, and then reveal the result. He would then repeat this practice—except that when the hat was lifted, the coin was gone and a block of ice was in its place.
“No one can figure out how he concealed a block of cold ice for that period of time,” Steinmeyer said. That includes the great sleight-of-hand magician Dai Vernon, who was specifically invited to one such dinner to observe and figure out Malini’s trick, and left baffled.
Magician Paul Daniels has since duplicated Malini’s ice production—but on stage, not after a dinner party.
The most famous lost trick is Houdini’s 1918 Vanishing Elephant (and its lesser-known, less impressive and probably more complicated predecessor, Charles Morritt’s Disappearing Donkey). Both illusions involved the animals being led into a large, raised box in the center of a stage, which was then shown to be empty with escape impossible.
Magicians today could probably come up with 10 ways to make an elephant disappear. (Steinmeyer himself has designed the disappearance of a whole herd of them.) But exactly how Houdini and Morritt did their innovative tricks is a mystery. As it happens, Steinmeyer has a brand new book out this month, “Hiding the Elephant,” in which he comes up with his own solutions (and even test-drives a donkey disappearance).
It was probably done, as they say, with mirrors, but in a revolutionary way.
Steinmeyer notes in his book the oddity of the secret to a Houdini trick seen by an estimated half-million people being lost. He ascribes it, in part, to Houdini’s infamously clumsy stage manner, a venue with poor sight lines and a resulting disappointment in audiences who were distinctly underwhelmed. Other magicians who saw the trick failed to explain it, but they also felt little urge to figure it out.
“It might have been a great illusion disguised as a bad illusion,” Steinmeyer writes.