What Magicians Do When Magical Tricks Go Wrong (May, 1932)

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What Magicians Do When Magical Tricks Go Wrong

Mechanical ingenuity and high-speed thinking are required by magicians when something goes haywire with their tricks. Here Fred Keating, famous magic master, tells of some of his embarrassing moments.

As told to George Bailey by FRED KEATING

AT ONE time when Robert Houdin, patron saint of modern magicians, after whom the great Houdini adopted his name, was asked by the execution of what trick he judged a conjurer, he replied, “Never by the execution of any trick, but wholly by his ability to get out of a trick that fails, and covering it up.”

I am going to tell you a number of episodes in the careers of many famous magicians of my time—and I am not quite 30 yet—where something went wrong either because of human error or mechanical blunder, resulting in embarrassment to the performer.

After all, it has always been held that the magician is merely an actor playing the part of a magician. The technique and the mechanics he uses are simply his tools in an art which he has come to master, either by practice or inherent aptitude.

Magic Is Simply Dexterous Trickery I do not deny that I aspire, though secretly, to distinguish myself in my craft. There can be no limits to aspirations. And yet, I am not one who takes his magic too solemnly. I can find a wholesome element of humor in it.

Imagine the humiliation of a very dear friend of mine who used to employ a real hen in one of his tricks, for after all magic is nothing more than tricks dexterously and artistically executed.

This magician used to point out to me that an obstinate, clucking old chicken is no congenial assistant. He would make her disappear suddenly from a coop on a table which was solid and undraped, and reappear in a jiffy in a box across the stage.

Misplaced Cockerel Makes Trick Go Wrong On this particular night I had been watching his act from the wings of the stage. He went through the first part of his trick in his customary nonchalant manner and confidently exhibited the empty coop to the audience.

Then he strode across the stage and opened the other box dramatically—and out stepped a fine young cockerel, and crowed lustily!

Long before the bellowing laughter of the audience had subsided that magician’s assistant was fired. The cockerel should have appeared in a stunt later in the act.

Bird Cage Trick Baffles Audience This reminds me of a little unpleasantry which happened to me in Boston not so long ago. For those who have not seen or heard about my featured bit of magic, I will explain that the name of Keating has become synonymous in recent years with the bird-cage trick.

In this “piece de resistance” I present a bird-cage balanced between the palms of my hands. Just an ordinary bird-cage. In it there is a canary. A real, live melodious canary. I can assure you that there is nothing illusory about these two factors.

Suddenly I clap my hands together and both cage and canary are gone! Right before your very eyes. Nothing remains in my hands, nothing goes up my sleeves. Anyway, this trick has had them baffled for a long, long time. Naturally I’m not exposing it, all the fun would be gone, for all of us.

When Bird Cage Trick Went Wrong But one night in Boston something went wrong with the works. Strangely enough it happened at a time when Florenz Ziegfeld, the famous Broadway producer, and were haranguing about my bird-cage patent rights. He wanted to use the idea in his “Simple Simon” show. He was imitating my act with burlesque bird-cages which collapsed and slid up the sleeve.

That night I came out on the stage of the Boston theatre, and after apologizing as I always do in the theatre for my rude interruption, the moment came for my bird-cage scene. It was the high water mark in my performance.

I glanced suspiciously at the cage that was handed me, for I could tell from the “feel” that it was not my old friend. The bird was the same, but I could sense that the cage had been tampered with. I could feel a horrible thumping in my heart. I knew right well that neither bird nor cage was going to disappear, no matter what sort of abracadabra I used.

I could perceive the faint beads of perspiration coming to my brow. Plainly I was foiled. The big moment in my act, the trick by which I had gathered a fair measure of fame, was going to be a flop. Verily, it called for a great struggle to maintain my poise.

Trick Varied to Save Situation After I got through a lengthy explanation of the bird-cage trick, it dawned on me to announce to the audience that I was going to vary it a little that particular night. I said I was going to treat them to a trick which was the latest I had perfected, which was the gospel truth.

Instead of making the cage and the bird disappear as I brought my hands quickly together, I was successful in causing only the canary to vanish. The cage remained intact and without any means of outlet. It made a tremendous hit and left my audience pop-eyed with amazement. Someone Tampered With Cage This is the first time that I am telling anyone of that potential embarrassing situation in Boston. I discovered later that someone had actually though adroitly opened my trunk and forced the top drawer in which the cage reposed, ostensibly to examine or copy it, though my trick has yet to be imitated. I mean the trick as I do it.

At one time the great Houdini had his thumbs locked in a pair of thumb-cuffs, the thumbs fitting into the clasps just as one might fit into a pillory. After the thumbs have been fitted, the cuffs are clamped down tightly.

Much to his surprise, Houdini discovered that some jokester had played a prank on him. The lock, which he might easily have pried apart, had been stuffed with sand!

Houdini Injured by Defective Lock Houdini suffered in silent torture as he grappled with these little thumbcuffs, the smallest apparatus that he ever dealt with. As he struggled he concealed his actual feelings, keeping from his audience the fact that he was non-plussed. In the end he actually ripped the cuffs, still snapped, from his thumbs. That took him one whole hour.

As he re-appeared on the stage for his bow, his hands were swathed in handkerchiefs. But he would not betray his feelings. He bowed and smiled and withdrew. He had to be treated by an ambulance surgeon. That night he was back on the stage for his act, omitting the thumb-cuffs number.

At another time there was another eminent magician who used to execute what he called the “Phantom Dancer” number. He would waltz to the center of the stage with a pretty girl and then suddenly she would vanish like mist before the sun.

Trick Failure Ruins Magician’s Career At the very critical moment, something went haywire either with his physical maneuvers or the mechanical works. Nevertheless, she failed to disappear as he reached midstage.

He immediately became disconcerted and showed it in quite a pronounced fashion. He wrestled and tussled with his lady assistant until it seemed that he was on the verge of committing assault and battery. Boos, catcalls and what we thespians jokingly refer to as the “Bronx cheer” accompanied his vain efforts.

In the end the curtain was rung down, simultaneously marking the end of this conjurer’s career. He became so unnerved by the incident that he lost his courage. You see he was not a disciple of Robert Houdin.

Youth Uses Tricks in Church Jasper Maskelyne, the noted British magician, tells of an embarrassing time he had once when a small boy asked him to teach him a trick. He taught the lad to pake a penny disappear and reproduce it from behind his ear. The very genial Mr. Maskelyne forgot all about the lesson he gave the boy until he got a letter from the child’s parents a week later.

It seems that the youngster worked the trick with the penny given him for the basket at church. A solemn deacon held out the canister and the boy created quite a local sensation by making his penny disappear and then, after a short, frenzied search, he dramatically produced it from his ear, and put it into the basket.

“And it was all blamed on to me,” says Mr. Maskelyne.

At another time my very esteemed friend, Arthur Train, the novelist and himself a rabid lover of magic, asked me to join him at a dinner given by an austere Park Avenue society lady for a group of literary personages. Mr. Train, given the privilege of inviting a compan ion who might add a little color to this seance, had selected me.

He warned me that the hostess was a woman of extreme catholic tastes, that she had a maniacal abhorrence of the mystic or what pretended to be mystic. As for magicians, she often vowed that they ought to have been exterminated with the mastodons and their ilk.

Magician Flusters Party Hostess Mr. Train told me all this in advance. To be sure I was not in for a charming time, exactly. However, I did not feel phased. I’m going to tell this one just to show that the embarrassing moments aren’t all on the magic maker.

At this party were a number of celebrities. Privately I warned them not to partake of the chocolate-coated mints which would be passed around after dinner.

I happened to be sitting at the hostess’ right hand. I managed to take one of the mints and, unseen, slid a half dollar into it.

After dinner things grew a little informal and our hostess directed that the chocolate mints be passed. I picked one up, nibbled at it, and then grunted. I pretended to be terribly ashamed of having made a noise.

Finds Half Dollars in Candy Fully conscious that my hostess was staring at me in my predicament, I revealed that I had bitten into a half-dollar that had been inserted into the candy.

The rest of the guests were divided between glares and guffaws.

The hostess seemed very much disturbed. While she apologized, I assured her it was perfectly all right, and took another one. This one also turned out to be loaded with a half dollar.

By the time I was through I had a stack of half dollars piled up alongside

of me, which I had extracted from her candy, and she had the most purplish face I have ever seen.

Finally Mr. Train let the cat out of the bag. She was indeed quite good-natured about it all. Today I do not think there is a more enthusiastic lover of magic than my once-embarrassed hostess.

Crucial Moments at First Nights One of the most unfortunate escapades I have ever undergone so far as discomfitures go occurred on the opening night of the “9:15 Revue”.

Everyone knows that the opening night, though this happened to be out in the sticks, marks the thin gray line between fame and failure for a show on Broadway. This premiere was considered very important for a thousand and one reasons, but principally because New York theatrical brokers were on hand to look the show over with a prospect toward buying up blocks of seats when it landed in New York City.

The stage was all set for a trunk trick which’ I did with my assistant, Harry Anderson, whom I have nicknamed “The Great Alexander.” The apparatus consisted of a cabinet, six feet square. This was moved on the stage with a sliding curtain in front of it. A regular standard trunk was placed on a big rug to show that no traps were used. Then I took off my coat and asked someone in the audience to loan me his.

My hands were tied behind me and I was’ placed in a large bag which was afterwards sealed. Next I was placed in the trunk and after it was locked, chains and ropes were firmly linked around it.

In three seconds I would be loose, rip away the curtains which had been drawn around the trunk by the Great Alexander, and there I would be in my shirtsleeves. The trunk was still bound with the ropes and chains.

That is how I used to do it before that fatal night.

However, at the opening of the “9:15 Revue,” the Great Alexander and I exchanged places. We wanted to make a real big hit.

The Great Alexander was bound and bundled into the bag and then placed in the trunk, from which post he was to extricate himself. Instantly I went to the table drawer—which shows how this trick was done—to get the key which would release the trunk. It was gone!

My mind worked like fury. I couldn’t imagine what was wrong. The Great Alexander’s life was in peril. I dashed to my dressing-room while the audience suspected nothing. Fortunately, I found a duplicate key there.

In the end I got the Great Alexander out of his bondage. That trunk might easily have proved his sarcophagus with another moment’s delay. And I’m not the kind of a magician who can do much for a fellow after he gets into a coffin in a serious way.

Curious to learn what had gone awry, I asked the Great Alexander about it.

“Well, I’ll tell you,” he replied, still shaking, “you see I got so excited about doing the important part of this trick that I forgot to put the key in the drawer. I kept it in my pocket.”

Perhaps some of the most distressing embarrassment I have suffered came with the folding-up prematurely of Broadway night clubs and musical comedy shows, without getting my full salary after starring in them. The sheriff always seemed to have it in for any show I was in. Getting out of these embarrassing situations has given me the greatest thrills of my life.

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