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The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston Versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards Paperback – August 30, 2012
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From Publishers Weekly
Expanding on his chapters on Howard Thurston in his history of magic, Hiding the Elephant, Steinmeyer produces an engaging full-length biography of the man Orson Welles called œthe master. While Houdini™s daring stunts were legendary, Steinmeyer says Thurston was the public™s favorite, captivating audiences with his œself-assured grandeur. Hailing from Columbus, Ohio, Thurston gained fame in the early part of the 20th century with his œRising Card Trick, in which he levitated cards named by audience members. He successfully changed with the times, going from street performances to wagon tours through the West. He then became a top vaudeville star, but wisely left the vaudeville circuit to produce more ambitious spectacles involving 40 tons of magic apparatus and colorful costumes, a variety of animals, and more than two dozen assistants. Tracing the magician™s rise to fame, this volume neatly juggles his marriages and his magic with his triumphs, travails, showmanship, and marketing ballyhoo (œThe Wonder Show of the Universe). Steinmeyer recovers, from the shadows of his greatest rival, a figure whose grandiose productions were an American institution for almost 30 years. (Feb. 3)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“There is no greater expert on the history of stage magicians than Jim Steinmeyer. His deep knowledge of the subject, combined with a remarkable mastery of magical know-how, makes this book a smart, fantastic read. I can't recommend it enough!”
—Neil Patrick Harris
“Steinmeyer produces an engaging full-length biography of the man Orson Welles called ‘the master’…Steinmeyer recovers, from the shadows of his greatest rival, a figure whose grandiose productions were an American institution for almost 30 years.”
"Few historians of magic are as qualified as Jim Steinmeyer to bring Howard Thurston back onstage. The Last Greatest Magician in the World vividly conjures up Thurston's troubled life and great illusions."
—The Wall Street Journal
“Magician and author Jim Steinmeyer rescues a forgotten American icon from Houdini’s shadow.”
—AARP: The Magazine
“Thurston may have been forgotten, but The Last Greatest Magician In The World ably resurrects his legend and his awe-inspiring magic.”
—The Onion A.V. Club
"Jim Steinmeyer knows the outside-in world of magic from the inside; he is a celebrated 'invisible man' - inventor, designer and creative brain behind many of the great stage magicians of the last quarter-century... Steinmeyer writes about events a century ago as vividly as if he had been there; and in a sense, he has been... No author has ever better conveyed the way the love of conjuring consumes a magician's life with magic's joys, terrors and longings."
—Teller (of Penn and Teller), The New York Times Book Review
"Steinmeyer's combination of enthusiasm and erudition is a joy."
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It's better when you can't fathom how the trick is done, when your eyes blink in disbelief, and rational thought begins to short-circuit, so that's one reason *not* to read The Last Great Magician in the World (and I will avoid Steinmeyer's Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear), because Steinmeyer divulges the secrets of how many of Thurston's major illusions were accomplished.
It is well known that the most egregious crime in magic is *exposure*: revealing magic secrets to the laity. But that doesn't count here, because (1.) anyone who purchases a biography of Howard Thurston, now long forgotten, has likely performed magic, and (2.) it's doubtful that these beautiful illusions will ever be performed again. Such shows are simply too expensive to produce and transport. I live in a metropolitan area of about five million, and it's been years since a major magic show toured here. Why would anyone pay top dollar to see a woman levitated a mere six feet, when any movie theater will show a woman turn into a space creature (or vice-versa)? If soap-opera actors are accosted on the street by viewers who believe their villainy to be real, and if adults attend premieres dressed as Star Wars characters, making a woman disappear from a cabinet seems pointless and mundane. Why pretend to saw a woman in half, when the popular torture-porn movies show her entrails falling out?
Music lovers have lamented the demise of live performances (especially with acoustic instruments) in favor of disco (what J. P. Sousa called "canned music") and lip-syncing, but the passing of live magic is, I believe, an equal loss. Before performing the celebrated Floating Lightbulb Illusion, Harry Blackstone, Jr. would announce Howard Thurston's famous phrase (and Thurston likely got it from someone before him), "This is something you will remember for the rest of your life." The other performer I heard speak those words was Bill Monroe, and both men were right. They are both long dead, but I yet recall each performance clearly. It was more than a light bulb on a slack thread or a mandolin player, it was pure artistry.
So this is a very sad book, in that it describes something wonderful that is gone, probably forever. I almost wish I hadn't read it, because I now feel deprived of the pleasure of seeing Thurston perform. I'm jaded with movies, and I want to see something impossible happen before my eyes -- without the aid of 3-D glasses -- but magic is disappearing into the past.
The book, however, is worth reading, and for important reasons. What a story! A young thief, pickpocket, cheat, con-artist, and wife-beater does whatever he can to succeed and eventually achieves fame and a precarious fortune. Steinmeyer examines all aspects of Thurston's life and calls attention to the less flattering incidents (there are many of them), but one can't help but feel that Steinmeyer is cheering for The Last Greatest Magician in the World, and so does the reader.
The book's dust jacket touts the book as being about Thurston versus Houdini, but that's not quite accurate. There's not a lot about Houdini during much of the book, and I'm sure that his name was included on the cover only because somehow, Houdini (whom Steinmeyer regards as an inferior magician) is still remembered today, whereas Thurston is sadly forgotten.
I believe that the history we are taught in school, political history, is of little value, and I've always been interested in social history. What was life like before we arrived on the scene? That's another reason to recommend this book, because it offers a fascinating glimpse into the theater of a century ago when magic was created without the aid of Adobe® After Effects CS5.
And last, I found a recording of Thurston's theme song, the sentimental "Zenda Waltzes," music I was previously unfamiliar with, so that's yet another thing I gained from the book.
On reflection, I'd say that I enjoyed this book more than any other I've read this year.