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Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear Hardcover – September 19, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The success of a magician "lies in making a human connection to the magic." Create an illusion in the audience's mind, and they're hooked. But to understand magicians, we need to understand the art of that creation. Steinmeyer, who has designed illusions for Siegfried and Roy and David Copperfield, presents a cultural history of magic's golden age (from the 1890s to the 1930s), some legendary tricks (including the Levitation of Princess Karnak and Harry Houdini's Disappearing Elephant) and the fierce rivalries that dominated the craft. Steinmeyer reveals certain secrets, which rely on engineering, artistry and sheer chutzpah, but he hasn't betrayed anyone; most of his information has been published elsewhere. What he adds is context. Magicians advertise deceit, then perform it. Unlike political chicanery, which Steinmeyer dubs dishonest trickery, magic is a kind of pure trickery. Audiences pay for a ruse, not a lecture on fraud. Do we believe movie special effects are real? Of course not, but it doesn't detract from our enjoyment. Similarly, while many 19th-century spiritualists were rightfully debunked as frauds and charlatans, audiences loved the antics. Some, such as the Davenport brothers, were a magnet of controversy and a wild hit, successfully mixing "religion, agnosticism, science, superstition, and fraud." Steinmeyer diagrams famous tricks, celebrating their science and ingenuity. Readers meet characters as colorful as their acts. Buyer beware: If you want to keep your illusions, go to Las Vegas. But for magic lovers who revel in learning the magician's art, this book part research study, part salute is a find. 8 pages of b&w photos and diagrams.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Writing a history of stage magic, Steinmeyer reveals the secrets of such famous feats as hiding an elephant, one of Houdini's big tricks, as he details notable stage magicians' careers. He shows that this venerable entertainment genre is indubitably more illusion, performed by monumentally clever practitioners, than magic. Brother-and-sister mind-reading act Charles and Lilian Morritt perfected a silent code based on synchronized counting that defied cagey observers' abilities to detect, let alone understand. Charles went on to realize the sleight central to Houdini's disappearing elephant bit, and that is just one of the delicious connections Steinmeyer points out among performers who seem to constitute a fellowship. Complementing Steinmeyer's profiles are excellent portraits of his subjects by underground-comix stalwart William Stout. Delightful and informative. Mike Tribby
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Carroll & Graf (September 19, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0786712260
  • ISBN-13: 978-0786712267
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #656,143 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

51 of 54 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on February 16, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The magic duo Penn and Teller have a trick called "The Honor System." Instead of putting a curtain around the box from which Teller is to escape, they simply invite onlookers to keep their eyes closed, and open them once he is out. Those who take them up on the deal see Teller locked into a secure wooden box, and after a spell of eyes closed, they see him magically, inexplicably free. Those who peek see just how easily the trick is worked. Penn and Teller know that they can give away the secret of this or other tricks and there is still a show. The gadgets used in the illusions aren't the story, the performance is. Jim Steinmeyer knows this, too. He has designed illusions for magicians and Broadway shows, so he knows all the hardware. In his book _Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear_ (Carroll and Graf), he has given away lots of secrets. But he is not the stupid Masked Magician, revealing tricks for notoriety and fortune. What he has given us is an appreciation of magic history and the refinements in fooling people by clever stagecraft, but he has never forgotten to remind us of the dazzle of the performance.
The elephant of the title is one named Jennie, who, at the New York Hippodrome in 1918, vanished from her box on stage, under the direction of none other than Harry Houdini. The hardware he used to make Jenny disappear was surprisingly simple (as are most of the gadgets that make magical effects). It was a product of a boom in the art of conjuring that had started around sixty years before.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By j.e.g. on October 26, 2003
Format: Hardcover
In an extremely entertaining and insightful new book, Jim Steinmeyer has
explained the world of the magicians. How they do it, how they entertain
audiences, and how, throughout the years they struggled for their careers,
begged, borrowed or stole people, secrets and ideas.

Imagine a cross between Longitude and Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women and
you'll have a good idea of Hiding the Elephant. It's a fun, lively and
well-written read, a page-turner organized like a mystery to keep pulling
you from story to story. This book is a combination of history, biography
and science, a tribute to the art of magic.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are the accounts of magicians
like Davenport, Maskelyne or Devent, who changed what magicians did on stage
and the way magicians went about deceiving people. The author's "cast of
characters" have fantastic stories. Robert Houdin was asked to perform magic
for the French government and stop an uprising in Africa. Magicians Devent
and Melies discovered cinema. Houdini became a star by turning to dangerous
escapes. Morrit reinvented the way tricks were accomplished. Jarrett decided
to publish a book of all his secrets, explaining his best tricks for a few
dollars. Some of these stories end in triumph, some in tragedy. Many
magicians found that their careers ended when movies became popular. One
famous magician, at the height of his fame, tragically lost control of hands
and ended his life as an invalid.

The author points out that the greatest magicians were successful because
they were partly artists and partly scientists.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By hugh connor on October 26, 2003
Format: Hardcover
For years we've heard that it's all done with mirrors. Hiding the Elephant
is the story of just how it's done. Why we insist on looking here while
they're doing something else over there.
Starting with Houdini's greatest feat, attempting to make a live elephant
disappear, the author has tracked and explained the discovery of various
optical illusions, like how to become invisible by using mirrors. For
example, a magician in Paris actually made transparent ghosts, who performed
in plays that terrified his audiences. (I was surprised at how clever and
simple this could be done: again, think "mirrors.") Two spiritualist
brothers also produced the illusion of ghosts, although their version was
much less optical and much more psychological. These secrets are often easy
to understand, although I noticed that some secrets are explained in
deliberately sketchy form and remain concealed by the end of this book, like
a discussion of the famous "Sawn in Half" illusion. (Once a magician, always
a magician?) The author concentrates on why various secrets were useful and
how some were stolen or hoarded over the years. (Through some detective
work, he does manage to explain how Houdini did the elephant trick.) This
backstage element of the book might be the most interesting part. For
example, there were magicians who thought that secrets were worthless and
actually told audiences how they did it, because they thought that made
their magic tricks even better!
The book is fast moving and well written, leading us from one mystery to
another and re-introducing characters from the past or hinting about what's
just around the corner.
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