April 25, 2011
Jewish masters of magic materialize at Skirball
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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
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