Review ~ Hiding the Elephant

Cover via Goodreads

Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear by Jim Steinmeyer

Harry Houdini was the greatest escape artist in history, yet known to his contemporaries as a terrible stage magician. Nevertheless, in 1917 he performed a single illusion that has been hotly debated ever since: Under the bright spotlights of New York’s Theatre Hippodrome, he made a live elephant disappear. Where did he learn this amazing trick and how did it work? The answers lie in magic expert Jim Steinmeyer’s chronicle of illusionary innovation, backstage chicanery and espionage, elevated showmanship, and keen competition within the world of magicians. Steinmeyer has captured the cultural history of magic during its “Golden Age” in America and abroad. Readers will learn the secrets and life stories of the fascinating personalities behind optical marvels such as floating ghosts appearing onstage and interacting with live actors, disembodied heads, and vanishing ladies. The people and events surrounding each step toward “The Vanishing Elephant” reveal how simple principles, mixed with ingenious psychology, can entertain and deceive. Houdini’s great feat of invisibility was based on a secret passed onto him by Charles Morritt, and the trick remained their secret for more than eighty years. In this book, Steinmeyer reveals Houdini’s mystery and more. (via Goodreads)

So, I’m currently reading another magic-related book called Penn & Teller’s How to Play with Your Food. This is a quote from page 58:

Some tricks … have great secrets, secrets that are fun to know. We’re sorry, but that’s the definition of amateur magic. If the secret is fun to know, then the end user should know the secret. With professional magic, the secret is no fun–it’s duct tape, gimmicked props, a confederate, and ugly lies–anything to get the job done.

Unfortunately, this definition doesn’t apply to people who want to know the ugly secrets, who might find that “fun” as well. I’m one of those people. I find a lot of beauty in systems. How a trick in done is as amazing to me as the trick itself. There’s an admirable amount of technology and human ingenuity behind magic. If you’re not someone who likes to know how magic tricks are done, Hiding the Elephant may not be for you.* But I warn you, you’ll be missing out on a very well written book on the history of stage magic.

Stage magic came into its own in the mid-1800s with its heyday somewhat past by the 1920s. Jim Steimeyer, a well-regarded designer of modern stage magic, explores this era through the glass of Houdini’s elephant disappearance. There are two notable things about Houdini’s 1917 stunt: 1) It really didn’t go over well with the audience. 2) The technique was not well-documented. Yes, disappearing an elephant was a flop. It relied on a technique that wasn’t well suited for the venue. (Imagine a magician doing “pick-a-card-any-card’ in the middle of a football field and you’re in the stands with no video on the big screens. Houdini’s elephant disappear was kind of like that.) Because the trick was a flop, no one wrote down more than passing reference to it, and no one wanted to buy or steal it. The paradox of magic and secrets is, if magic tricks were truly kept secret, there would never be innovation. Magicians would continually reinvent old tricks if the information was never shared.

Steinmeyer goes through the history of illusions to piece together how the disappearing elephant trick came to be. He introduces us to all the characters; their friendship, feuds, and careers. If I have one criticism of this book, it’s that there are too many names to comfortably keep track of. Some of them (Jean Robert-Houdin, the Davenport brothers, Howard Thurston, Harry Houdini) might be familiar names to a general 21st century audience. Most are not. It doesn’t matter. Steinmeyer is an adept enough teller of tales that a reader can float along in the story without checking the Cast of Characters posted the beginning of the book.

*As for tricks and secrets, Steinmeyer doesn’t shy away from explaining techniques when needed but doesn’t go out of his to reveal secrets. This isn’t tell-all. This isn’t the Masked Magician. The descriptions of the tricks are fairly technical. Diagrams are involved. Yet, the writing never as boring as a episode of Breaking the Magician’s Code. (Seriously, if you watched more than two episodes of this show, you find that the repetitiveness really gets to you. Magic societies have nothing to fear when secrets are presented in a boring manner.) Some tricks, like Pepper’s ghost, are not used much in modern magic shows. Some are. If you watch a magic trick on YouTube and the comment section is filled with “it’s done with mirrors” or “it’s done with wires,” chances are, after reading Hiding the Elephant, you’ll have a better idea of how the mirrors and wires were actually used than the smart-ass commenter. I won’t lie, I love that about this book. But I also love how passionately Steinmeyer writes about the subject of magic and its history, There aren’t too many things better than someone with writing talent writing about something they love.

Genre: Non-fiction
Why did I choose to read this book? I’m writing a novel which includes early 20th century magic. It’s led to me reading some really great books.
Did I finish this book? (If not, why?) Yes!
Craft Lessons: It doesn’t hurt to love what you write about.
Format: Trade Paperback
Procurement: Amazon
Bookmark: A jury duty badge. I am still using it to mark a quote I like.

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5 thoughts on “Review ~ Hiding the Elephant

  1. Pingback: Penn and Teller’s How to Play with Your Food | The Writerly Reader

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