Making Magic for Magicians (Jan, 1931)
Making Magic for Magicians
“I know it’s a trick, but who invents all of those gadgets?” you no doubt say as you watch a magician perform. This story tells you about the man who devotes his life to inventing these tricks. .
“With your kind attention, ladies and gentlemen,” says the magician as he arches his Mephistophelian brow, “I shall endeavor to perform one of the most difficult tricks of magic ever seen in this country, or anywhere else in the universe.”
A tense, silent audience is spellbound. Every eye is riveted on every move the magician makes. The dimly-lighted stage adds to the enthralling mystery.
A man, who is the subject of this trick, is standing on a little table. The magician shakes the table gently to prove there are no secret appliances. He bids the man to bow to prove he is a living being.
Then, with studied pace which grips the audience still firmer, he backs ten paces away from the table, he fires a shot at the man, the lights go off for the mere fraction of a secondâ€”and the man has vanishedâ€”Thereupon the curtain drops, and a mystified house, fully aware that the magic-worker has put one over on it, is trying to fathom the workings of the final stunt in the act.
But what that particular audience and the world in general little thinks of is the man who is behind the magician who works the magic. Seldom has the creator of the magic ever been accorded the honor which was his due.
In a dingy, though highly-fascinating establishment in the Chelsea district of New York City is the birthplace of most of the magic tricks which have been in existence for nearly a half century and which have enjoyed a well-deserved popularity.
It is there that Frank Ducrot, master mind of magic, toils zealously and quietly each day originating new gadgets, new tricks, fashioning devices for famous magicians, private individuals and occupies whatever spare moments he has with bringing new toys into being.
Frank Ducrot, who for 37 years was the advisor to Houdini, carries his cycle of magic beyond the creation point. He actually teaches magic and its operations to professional magicians and also to tyros. There is hardly a magician on the American stage today who i at some time or other has not come into contact with Ducrot, to acquire either special apparatus or instruction in the manipulation of some device or article.
In this modern Merlin’s shop there are 3,700 different items of magic, the origin of some of them dating back to the Egyptians of antiquity. It is one of the strangest and weirdest laboratories in the world. There is no mistaking it for anything else than the workshop of one who communes with the supernatural.
Frank Ducrot, although he once practiced his mystical arts with circuses, fairs and on the stage, does not fill the present-day conception of a magician. This past master might pass for the vice president of a tire company or an instructor in psychology in some college. His appearance is simple and his humor is hearty. There is nothing sly or suspicious about him. His manner is far from the racy palaver of the smooth, deceiving magician. As for his good-natured humor, it was exemplified in part while the writer was calling on him to examine the baffling * mysteries of his House of Magic Wonders. We were both looking at a screen opposite us. Of course, it had been his design to attract my attention to the screen. It was blank and seemed to be made of green cloth.
“That’s a pretty good invention of mine there,” he said. “It’s a screen which is full of cats. Could never figure how it got that way.”
And suddenly a kitten appeared in the middle of the screen. There was no hole or perforation whereby the kitten had been thrust through by an accomplice.
“Just a little simple trick of my own,” he remarked. “I use it sometimes when I’m giving a private show at some millionaire’s home.”
“But,” he went on to say, “you’ve heard of the rabbit tricks. Out of hats, out of boxes, out of practically everything into which a rabbit would fit. Well, you see that basket up there on the top shelf, facing you there ? You can see, can’t you, that there’s nothing in it? Well, just walk over there and see if you can believe your eyes.”
And sure enough there was a white, pink-eyed rabbit, looking a little scared, no doubt he also wondered how in the world he ever got there.
“It’s all really very simple,” assured Ducrot. “It’s the simple works of magic which get you. When you get a trick all complicated it does not interest you so much and neither does it work efficiently. Some time ago I had one magician crazy over a little trick I did with just a nail and a piece of string.”
Ducrot started on his uncanny career of magic forty-one years ago. He recalls the day he heard that you could multiply eggs in a hat by a trick whose recipe would cost fifty cents.
He went to the magical storehouse of the famous Martinka brothers, whose establishment he now owns, and sought to purchase the trick.
Francis Martinka, one of the most famous makers of magic the world has ever known, handed young Ducrot a little envelope in which was sealed the knowledge he sought about the multiplication of eggs. The lad was a little surprised that he was getting just a small package for the fifty cents he had saved a week.
However, on reaching home he succeeded in executing the trick after destroying nearly a dozen eggs. That started his interest in magic, though he genially says that magic started with him the day he was able to first get out of bed. “Why,” he says, “I was born with a rabbit in one hand and nothing up my sleeves.”
When he was seven years old he appeared in the historic Philip’s Turn-Hall in Brooklyn and treated the audience to four stunts which he still includes in his bag of tricks today. One of them was changing wine to water and vice versa, which is popularly known as being made possible through the use of certain chemicals.
On the other hand, Frank Ducrot shies away from exposing how any of his thousand and one tricks work. Anybody with any intelligence, says he, knows that there is a trick behind the magic. They know that the magician is out to deceive them and does not sincerely try to impress them with the notion that he is endowed with some divine power. It’s the old law that the hand is quicker than the eye which is responsible for the success of most magical deceptions. Also, there is far more to it than the mere escape from sight detection. The man who creates magic must be a chemist. He must be well trained in mechanics. He must possess actual inventive genius. What’s more he must know human nature thoroughly. He is a thorough psychologist.
There is no telling what hour of the day that some man, and he might be anybody from a writer of plays to a magician or a minister, and the customer will ask for apparatus to illustrate a special point, to make magic out of what is simply an idea in the stranger’s mind. One day the author of “The Charlatan,” a tremendous Broadway dramatic hit of several seasons ago, strolled into his shop and explained that he wanted a special cabinet. In it he intended to place a woman and she was to disappear. The idea was that the leading-man played the part of a magician. He was in love with this woman but she had been unfaithful to him. Consequently, when he placed her in this cabinet one night, he poisoned her with pins in the panels and she failed to re-appear after she had once been placed in the chamber. The magician got his vengeance.
“The phenomenon of a cabinet on a stage,” said Ducrot, “was not new, but this playwright did have little twists in the action which were puzzling. Anyhow, in one week’s time I gave him a cabinet which worked successfully and which kept them gazing on the Broadway stage for over a year. Even today somebody asks me how it was done. I never tell. That is the unwritten law of all men who fabricate magic. I don’t pretend to say that the lady actually disappeared, but so far as the public was concerned, they had enough to do to dope out how she would ever come back for the next night’s performance.”
Next he brought forth two silver bowls. It was his pet work of magic. It was his own creation. He said it was his most popular and as yet no one outside the sphere of professional magicians has been able to penetrate to the inside of this clever bluff.
One bowl was filled to the rim with rice. Then the other bowl, which was empty, was placed snugly over it. The rice was passed from one bowl to the other. The extra bowl was removed and it was astonishing to note that the first bowl was heaped high with rice; that it had multiplied.
The process was repeated and each time more and more rice brimmed over. Finally, the two bowls were placed together again. He lifted the top bowl and again he amazingly showed that the rice was all gone and that nothing but water remained. The entire bowl was filled with water.
One of the most elaborate tricks he has ever known was that of Houdini. The great magician used to be hand-cuffed and imprisoned in a steel barrel which fitted him like a strait-jacket and was then lowered into a large transparent tank on the stage. He managed to extricate himself from the handcuffs and then from the lank into which he had been locked. Many writers and scientists have tried to explain how Houdini did it, said Ducrot, but the true secrets have followed the greatest of all magicians to the grave.
“Here is how I go about doping out magic,” said Ducrot. “A man will come to me and say, ‘I’ve got an act that is a little dull in a spot. I want to brighten it up with something. Maybe you could show me how to turn a goose into a monkey.’ “That magician is right. He certainly could brighten up his act if he could turn a goose into a monkey. He gives me his idea and then he leaves and says he’ll be back in a week. Then I sit down and try to scheme out a way of changing a goose into a monkey. I’ve never tried it but I think if I got a hold of the right goose I might be able to do it. If some magician really wanted to, I’d have to furnish it to him. The tools with which I would work would be a knowledge of science, mechanics and human nature.
“You would be surprised to know that the whole world is excited over magic. Just the other day I gave a demonstration at a garden party given by Gifford Pinchot, the former governor of Pennsylvania. Wallace Reid and Rudolph Valentino never failed to drop in here when they were in town. Jesse Lasky, the motion picture magnate, is quite a bug on magic.
“Women also go for magic in a big way. Take the former Alice Roosevelt, now Mrs. Longworth. She is very fond of card tricks and from time to time I have gone to Washington to impart to her some of my sleight-of-hand work with cards. I don’t mean to insinuate she cheats at cards, you understand. I simply say she sometimes entertains her intimate friends with a couple of choice passes at cards.
“Then there is Mrs. Beatrice Houdini, the widow of the most famous magician who ever lived. She joined one of my classes for magicians. It didn’t take her long to acquire a fancy repertoire and I put her in vaudeville where she went over with a bang.
“One of the most extraordinary cases of a man remote from the stage world applying magic movements to his profession is the Rev. Dr. C. H. Woolston, of Philadelphia. The Quaker City minister employs tricks of magic in his Bible classes to illustrate stories from the Scriptures. Dr. Woolston and I have spent many hours together studying out these experiments. I have attended his Bible study classes and have noted how these demonstra tions have impressed the students, apparently indelibly.
“I have sat in the rear of the room and watched Dr. Woolston explain to the Bible students how Jesus Christ changed water to wine, and he illustrated it with a trick of magic which is quite a common phenomenon in the magician’s line. I have seen him illustrate the multiplication of loaves of bread in the same way. We even went farther. We succeeded in demonstrating the story of the Creationâ€”bringing the earth and water, then light and sun, and the moon and man. I think Dr. Woolston’s idea has been marvelous and his work has been most successful.
“Yet magic has been applied to more prosaic uses. In recent months it has become very popular with salesmen, although they have resorted to it on a more or less smaller scale from time immemorial.
“Scores of salesmen trot in here every day to inquire about some little article by which they might win their way into the good graces of a prospect. They, say it helps business along. For instance, for the golf ball salesman I have a trick array of golf balls by which he can produce five balls from one which he has at first.
“For the purveyor of cigars I have the trick cigar. He offers it to you and as you reach for it, it vanishesâ€”up his sleeve. Just a little laugh to start you off on, then commences the process of putting his product over. A lot of these gents come over from the garment district. They are always looking for tricks to do with pieces of cloth material. They get it too, all the way from trick handkerchiefs to stockings which can be changed into shirtwaists, which ought to be a good article to sell in any market. But this is magic I’m talking aboutâ€”and apt to be deceiving.
“A man in this business, and I doubt if there are five in the same trade throughout the entire country, has got to keep abreast of the times. I have to follow the day’s events, the styles and fashions. No day slips by but what I don’t turn out something new. Many times I notice a list of the world’s toughest jobs but no one ever thinks of me. What about these magicians who stroll in here and proposition me to do the impossible?”
Next Professor Ducrot brought forth two small wooden cubes, painted on all sides in various colors. Placed between the thumb and index finger, he twisted them so that the colors shifted without detection. Last year over 100,000 of those cubes went out of his magic shop at ten cents a pair, plus a little slip of paper which gave the directions.
“Just a little simple trick,” said Monsieur Ducrot, “but you’d laugh at yourself for being so foolish when you found out how it’s done. Recently Charles Edison, the son of Thomas A. Edison, called me to his hospital bedside. He said he wanted to see me do the kaleidoscopic blocks trick, which is the one I have, just described.
“You know that just fascinated him. It lifted him up in spirit. He was weary of lying in a hospital bed. He wanted some sort of entertainment to distract him. I figured if that magic was going to work any kind of a cure, he was going to get a substantial dose of it. So much to his surprise I produced the two silver bowls and showed him how rice could multiply, and then vanish, leaving me only water to pour out. I know after I get through talking about this there are going to be a lot of people around the country who will holler that it’s a fake and all that sort of thing.
“But all I say is that I’m located at 304 West 34th St., New York City, and that they are invited to bring any two bowls and their own rice. And I’ll send them away with a bowl of water. But one thing I would advise my guests to do is to take a final peek at the package supposed to contain the bowls they depart withâ€”there’s no telling about our legerdemain tactics. They may leave with only a handful of rice in their bundle. For instance, Mr. Magazine Man, if you want the fountain pen you came in here with, you will find it in that tall silk hat down at the end of the counter.”