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Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear Paperback – September 15, 2004
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The book's title, "Hiding The Elephant", is based on the infamous 1918 illusion that Harry Houdini did on the stage at the New York Hippodrome, when he caused "Jennie The Elephant" to vanish into thin air. Or, did he ? That's what this book is all about, and the well-known term "Smoke & Mirrors" comes into play throughout the books 362 Pages, proving that "the hand may be quicker than the eye", but it's deception, and, misdirection that makes the trick - or, illusion - work.
Steinmeyer takes a chronological look at the history of these, sometimes, seemingly impossible vanishing illusions, as well as the tricks used by those who caused disembodied heads to appear, ghosts to float, ladies to be sawed-in-half...and, donkeys, cars, and, elephants, and almost anything else you can name, to disappear.
THE NAMES OF THOSE chronicled within the book are some of the most-famous of all-time: Kellar, Herrmann, Dante, Houdini, Bamberg, the Davenport Brothers, Robert-Houdin, Thurston, the Maskelynes', Goldin...well, you get the picture. But I was a little upset that Blackstone, as well as "Carter The Great" weren't profiled in here. Both had superb careers, and Blackstone was one of Houdini's greatest rivals, and in-reality a better magician & illusionist than Houdini, who excelled more as an escape artist than as a magician.
Speaking of "rivalry", this is the part of the book that I hadn't fully known about. I didn't realize the backstabbing, the belittling, the thievery that went on behind-the-scenes of these legendary icons...with almost all of those mentioned, taking part in those activities. Page-after-page stories of tricks, illusions, designs of apparatus, and, sometimes actual items, being stolen by one illusionist/magician from the other ! I was shocked at this new light that was shed on a profession I have loved, followed, and, at one time, participated-in myself...it gave me new insight and soured me on those who took part in any of the above-mentioned callous deeds.
As the well-known magician/actor/writer, Ricky Jay states, Steinmeyer's book is "An enthralling history of great illusionists that reveals not only how magicians act but how they think."
"HIDING THE ELEPHANT", by Jim Steinmeyer, has 362 Pages that contain 16 Chapters, 65 Illustrations, 8 Pages of rare photos, and, a great section on Acknowledgements & Notes. In reading it, prepare yourself for a look back at Magic's History going from the 1800's-to-today, and learn, as I did, that in the World of Magic not everything is as it seems: On Stage, OR, Off.
A magician who created an illusion in the era Steinmeyer describes faced a dilemma - once he presented an illusion, other magicians were likely to discern how the effect was achieved, and copy it. If the effect were patented, the secret of the effect was available to the general public - an even worse situation in the minds of most illusionists. The way in which various magicians handled this dilemma is a major subject of "Hiding the Elephant". Some magicians would team up, some would campaign against each other, but it seems that they were all linked together by their craft. Another point Steinmeyer drives home is the talent involved in creating illusions. The magicians described in "Hiding the Elephant" employed understandings of optics, physics, and psychology to deceive their audiences, usually without any training in these areas. Those magicians who succeeded also understood changing social moods. Sawing a woman in half, for instance, was in part a reaction to the growing suffrage movement, and some feminist leaders of the day were invited to be assistants in the new illusion.
Steinmeyer's treatment of Houdini is especially interesting. Houdini isn't given the attention one would expect from a book covering the era in which he performed, and this alone is noteworthy. The coverage Houdini gets is not what one would expect, either. Steinmeyer points out that Houdini was at best a mediocre illusionist (even the disappearing elephant illusion referred to in the title, when performed by Houdini, received only a lukewarm response). Steinmeyer points out that Houdini could be petty and unfair in his criticism of others, especially in his book discrediting the magician from which he took his name. This isn't to say that Steinmeyer doesn't admire Houdini or respect his talent as a showman or escape artist. It seems that Steinmeyer simply wants to place Houdini "side by side" with the other magicians and escape artists of the era, instead of singling Houdini out for praise as many others do.
Jim Steinmeyer is a talented illusion designer, and his love for the craft shows in his exploration of its history. "Hiding the Elephant" is a worthwhile read, even for those who aren't fans of magic. In fact, it may change the minds of some who feel that way.
Although the book does reveal some of the workings of some older illusions, there are no "Masked Magician" or William Poundstone style exposures for exposure's sake here. None of the revelations are gratuitous; they're necessary to appreciate the story.
Steinmeyer is not only a master illusion designer and builder but a true scholar of his art and a very good writer. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I bet you will too.
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