Thursday, August 4, 2011

Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians

The Skirball Cultural Center is a museum located far up the Santa Monica Mountains, so high up it’s located beyond Bel Air and The Getty Museum. The museum is located in an area is so remote it defies credibility but there is nothing so incredible as the world of magic, which is why I went there. The Skirball hosted an exhibit on Jewish magicians of the early 20th century titled “Masters of Illusion”. I thought it was a wonderful show.

In addition to beautiful show posters for magicians as diverse as Kellar, Jean-Eugene Robert Houdin, Goldin and the great Houdini there were props from the original acts, including magic wands, trick cards and balls, restraints and the inevitable strait-jacket. Magic as a form of popular entertainment was at its peak around the late 19th-early 20th century thanks to Vaudeville, Music Halls and Carnivals. Their greatest rival was this new thing called movies, which eventually signed up Harry Houdini who starred in several mystery-sci fi serials, which were screened at The Skirball that afternoon.

A lot of pieces were on loan from Ricky Jay, a great magician who’s worked in millions of movies like “House of Games” and “The Grifters”, the ultimate sleight-of-hand movies you need to catch up on. Others were loaned out from The Magic Castle, an invitation-only club that exclusively showcases magic acts.

Many anecdotes on Houdini were posted at the exhibit, but my favorite was the one about Houdini’s attendance at a séance at writer Arthur Conan Doyle’s home. Doyle’s wife was a big fan of the occult and conducted a séance where Houdini’s mother supposedly contacted him from the grave. Houdini was skeptical of the ceremony and patiently sat through the whole bogus affair. Needless to say, the ceremony reached a new pitch of outrage when after the séance Mrs. Doyle handed him a letter “written” by his mother from the great beyond. It was in English; strike one, Houdini’s mother only spoke to him in Hungarian, their native language. It also had a crucifix scrawled on it; strike two, Houdini was a rabbi’s son, so he came from an orthodox Jewish home. Houdini exposed Mrs. Doyle as a fraud and doubled his efforts at exposing fraudulent séances, many at the time targeted at bilking rich widowers of their money, as fictionalized in the great movie “Nightmare Alley”.

I don’t think magic will ever leave us as a major entertainment form. We still have conjurers like Penn & Teller and that weird TV goth guy whose name escapes me still doing the sleight of hand, and some people are dumb enough to believe Harry Potter’s a real magician, so the art of magic still lurks among us.

Another exhibition recently attended was the “Beauty Culture” show at the Annenberg Photography Space in Century City.  I thought the Annenberg was a gorgeous space to view photography. On display were diverse images from the past century with icons either represented by movie stars, i.e. Marilyn, Bardot, Harlow, Audrey, etc. or supermodels, i.e. Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Lauren Hutton, Heidi Klum, etc.  I enjoyed discovering photographers I was previously unaware of, like Horst P. Horst and the amazing Marvin Sokolsky = check out his floating balloon series, absolutely amazing. And as I said there was diversity in images of beauty, whether it was photos of tribal beauties, mid-century models still working into their seventies and plus-sized beauties, to name a few. The show runs through November, admission is free, and is highly recommended.

1 comment:

Busy Gal said...

Love the straightjacket photo! I think I want to stitch one up. The other photos are a little creepy.
I enjoyed reading this.