Prestidigitation as a Jewish vocation? Could there be such a thing as Yiddeshe legerdemain? Pulling an answer out of its hat, the Skirball Cultural Center is set to open two shows: a traveling exhibition that originated at the Jewish Museum in New York, “Houdini: Art and Magic,” and a new show organized by the Skirball, “Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age.”
The shows, which will run concurrently from April 28 through Sept. 4, 2011, conjure up a world of mystery and mastery, a little-known world of Jewish magicians.
We find that Harry Houdini, the son of a rabbi, born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary, in 1874, though a great escape artist, did not try to escape his Jewish identity.
“Coming to America, Houdini’s family faced a lot of the same issues that other Jewish immigrants faced, including anti-Semitism,” said Brooke Kamin Rapaport, guest curator of the Houdini show.
“I never was ashamed to acknowledge that I was a Jew, and never will be,” Houdini is quoted as writing to a friend in the show’s sepia-toned and well-documented catalog.
According to the exhibition wall text written by Rapaport, Houdini’s escapes “had particular resonance for those who sought liberation from political, ethnic or religious persecution.”
Houdini, who Rapaport considers “the most famous magician who ever lived,” died Oct. 31, 1926, of peritonitis that resulted from a ruptured appendix.
“He really was involved with the new media of this time. He was a savvy marketer,” Rapaport said. With more than 160 objects, the show includes advertising posters and broadsides that Houdini used to promote his shows.
Also on display will be magic apparatus Houdini made famous: handcuffs, shackles, a straitjacket, his Metamorphosis Trunk and a milk can that Houdini squeezed himself into. Contemporary works by artists influenced by Houdini will be on view as well.
New to the show is a finely crafted reproduction of Houdini’s famous Water Torture Cell created by illusion designer John Gaughan; the cell will be on view only at the Skirball stop of the show’s tour.
In addition, with a deftly shuffling sleight of hand, the “Masters of Illusion” show puts on display an entire deck of Jewish magicians — kings, jacks and jokers.
The show skillfully reveals the careers of several influential Jewish magicians, including the Great Leon, who created the Death Ray Gun, as well as several generations of two magical dynasties: the French Herrmanns and the Dutch Bambergs.
According to Richard Hatch, an expert on magic who consulted with the Skirball on the show, the Herrmanns — Carl “Compars” (1816-1887) and brother Alexander (1844-1896) — helped to popularize the “Mephistophelian appearance,” the devilish pointed beard and mustache, as well as the stage wit and charm that influenced generations of magicians.
The Bambergs are represented in the exhibition by large posters showing them in the elaborate Japanese and Chinese personas they assumed on stage: Tobias “Theo” Leendert Bamberg (1875-1963), who performed under the name Okito, and his son, David “Theodore” Bamberg (1904-1974), who performed as Fu Manchu.
“Because Jews were cultural outsiders, they had a unique view on mainstream tastes,” said Erin Clancey, the show’s curator, explaining the Jewish success in magic.
A virtual magician’s cabinet of props and tricks reveals how they achieved that success — almost. “There will be no secrets revealed,” said Clancey, who feels “it’s almost better not to know” how the tricks are done.
On display will be a “Matter Through Matter Cabinet,” a very serviceable-looking pillory, even a card-dealing automaton that requires a human assistant. Colorfully lithographed original playbills and broadsides draw you in, and elaborately mirrored costumes catch your eye.
“Masters of Illusion” also tells the story of how magic helped Herbert Levin — who performed as Herbert Nivelli — survive Auschwitz by performing tricks for the Nazis. Another magician, Carl Rosini — born Jakob (Johan) Rosenzweig — was able to escape by emigrating from Poland to Germany to England and eventually to the United States.
“Because of their knowledge of travel, some were able to escape,” Clancey said.
The exhibition also features a rare copy of Guenther Dammann’s 1933 “Die Juden in der Zauberkunst” (“Jews in the Art of Conjuring”), which profiled many prominent Jewish magicians of the day.
A recent article by Hatch in Magic magazine shows that Jewish magicians remain prominent today. Hatch estimates that out of the magazine’s 1999 list of the 100 magicians who most influenced 20th century American magic, 18.5 percent are Jewish.
“You don’t have to be Jewish to be a great magician, but it helps,” Hatch said.
Putting an exclamation point on that is the show’s presentation of Carl Ballantine (1917-2009), a magician who was great in a haimish and humorous way. Contemporary audiences will remember him as the magician who just couldn’t get it right, as well as for his portrayal of Lester Gruber on the ABC TV sitcom “McHale’s Navy.”
“The Great Ballantine” who according to his daughter Sara, was born Meyer Kessler, took his stage name from a brand of whiskey. (Sara was named after Ballantine’s favorite racetrack, Saratoga.)
“He was a vaudeville magician who knew he could never be as good as the great magicians,” she related.
“One night, one of his tricks got screwed up, he said something to cover, and the audience laughed,” she remembered. “So he started adding more. As a child, when I saw my father perform on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ I would just cry,” she said. “Poor Da-Da,” she remembered saying.
“He was a tummler” — a lively entertainer — observed Max Maven, a Los Angeles mentalist who once interviewed Ballantine.
On May 26, as part of series of events the Skirball has organized to complement the show, Maven will speak on why the Jewish presence in magic is so distinct.
Standing before a table displaying Ballantine’s top hat (minus a top) and a cloth banner he used to introduce his act, “Ballantine the World’s Greatest Magishen,” Clancey remarked that before curating “Masters of Illusion,” she enjoyed a good magic show but did not have any special affinity for it.
“Now I’m a total fan,” Clancey said. “People I have met through the exhibit have been remarkable. That’s the community that magic creates.”
For more exhibition information, go to skirball.org