Who Put the Magic in Movies?

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Who Put the Magic in Movies? By Richard Steven Cohn

A Project of the Archival Papers and Historical Committee The mission of the SMPTE Archival Papers and Historical Committee is partially stated as follows: “To collect facts and assemble data related to the historic development of the motion picture and television industries and to encourage pioneers to place their work on record in the form of papers for publication in the Journal.” This paper, by a New York City-based lighting director and gaffer, and also a magic consultant and historian, is a contribution from the committee, Edgar A. Schuller, Chairman.

Professional magicians were among the first to recognize, develop, and exploit the novelty of pictures that moved. Their contributions helped transform an adjunct to popular staged amusements into a cornerstone of modern life. This article will highlight some of these wizards and the role they played in the nascent days of motion pictures and brings us to the time of the formation of our industry. Who better to help cast the spell of movie magic than magicians themselves?



otion images are everywhere in today’s world: on telephones, computers, home entertainment centers, theaters, thrill rides, displays, outdoor advertising, amusement devices, archives, and educational aids. Obviously, this has not always been the case. In the 100 plus years of the moving picture industry as we know it, motion images have evolved from a novelty presentation to a multibillion dollar multifaceted industry that touches every aspect of our lives. Although Thomas Edison believed, at one time, that there was little commercial viability in the projection of motion pictures, what began as a fad and an adjunct to other entertainments, has truly turned into a case of the tail wagging the dog. Live entertainment and particularly the presentation of legerdemain or sleight of hand, have become virtual footnotes in the history of popular entertainment. Yet, at the dawn of the motion picture age, professional wonder workers, magicians, and their associates were among the first to harness and exhibit this novelty. Their understanding of the use of multiple technologies to achieve special effects, coupled with their abilities in staging and promoting their exhibitions, was integral to expanding and sustaining the interest of the public in what was initially regarded as a one-day wonder. What is now taken for granted throughout the world as commonplace was initially so startling and unusual that in

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retrospect, it seems most natural that professional illusionists and others versed in the ways of thaumaturgy were among motion picture’s earliest pioneers and champions (Fig. 1).

Thaumaturgy The New Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language, International Edition, defines thaumaturgy as “The working of miracles or supposed miracles.” Thaumaturgy, or perhaps legerdemain, are far more accurate words to describe what has colloquially been called conjuring in the 19th century and, even more casually, magic in the 20th. Many words have been used to describe magic and its assorted wonders during the course of human history. Although today the public has become blasé about the movement of moving pictures, it was not always so. Initially, public perception was that there was something inherently miraculous about pictures that moved.

The Fascination of Moving, Changing Pictures

Figure 1. Poster used by Carl Hertz in Australia in 1896.

Imparting movement and change to pictures has always been an area where science, shamanism, and showmanship merged. Blow books or flip books, printers’ novelties in which a sequenced series of drawings change or become animated when the pages are riffled, were first explained (in the English language) within the book, The Discovery of Witchcraft,1 authored in 1584 by Reginald Scott. Some of these specially made books exploit the phenomenon of the persistence of vision, a cornerstone of all early motion picture technology, wherein each frame displayed was analogous to each appropriately sequenced page of the book. The Discovery of Witchcraft, which also explained a variety of card tricks, animal training techniques, and props, in addition to the previously mentioned blow books, was published as a resource for magistrates, justices of the peace, and attorneys to alert them to, and reveal to them, the secrets and methods used by performers and charlatans to achieve magical effects. The Discovery of Witchcraft endeavored to dispel the prevalent superstitious notion that these things were accomplished by an unholy alliance with the powers of darkness, rather than by knowledge of science, psychology, and deception. Nonetheless, King James I of Great Britain declared The Discovery of Witchcraft, and its revelations, heresy, and ordered all copies to be destroyed by being burned by the common hangman. (One wonders what his reaction might have been to a cellphone or laptop computer.)

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Figure 2. Magic Lantern advertisement from 1895 Mahatma Magazine.

Another antecedent to motion picture exhibitions was Grand Panoramas. These were scenes painted on large canvas scrolls that would be illuminated (initially by candelabra or kerosene and later by gas, arc, and then incandescent electric bulbs) and wound on rollers past a paying audience. These were among the earliest of “moving picture” exhibitions and were often presented as part of a program that often included other novelties such as trained animals and sleight-of-hand demonstrations.

Early Projection Technology Projected magic lantern displays were another component in the evolution of presenting mechanized images for the amusement and edification of larger, admission-paying audiences (Fig. 2).2 Magic lantern projections frequently had color (tinted by hand) and sometimes had movement either through the use of scrolling gobos 3 or by gaffed mechanical elements intrinsic to the particular slide projected. As an example: a rocking boat created by a cut piece of tin fastened loosely to the slide and animated with a bit of wire controlled by the lamp operator. Magic lantern equipment was sold through conjuring depots and was an extra added attraction with many conjuring exhibitions (Fig. 3). Today’s scenic projectors such as Pani’s and GAM Scene Machines4 are the lineal descendants of magic lanterns, providing stylized theatrical effects such as waves, fire, clouds, and so on. The old-style slides and gobos lacked the degree of realism that the soon-toappear photographic moving pictures would provide. They did, however, create a ready audience for the coming sensation of “real” moving pictures. Robertson’s Phantasmagoria, presented at the Abbe des Capuchins in Paris in the 1790s, relied on images of gargoyles, skeletons, and demons projected on smoke and scrim to give those in attendance an experience represented as the materialization of morbid and fantastic creatures 5 Praxinoscopes, Mutoscopes, 82

Figure 3. Advertisement for Wilson’s Dissolving Views, 1879.

Tachyscopes, and other “recreational and physical amusements,” were popular toys and scientific curiosities that created the illusion of movement (Fig. 4). Eadward Muybridge’s use of sequential photographs for motion analysis seems to have been the key transition step from these earlier motion imitators to motion re-creators.6 The realism of the photographic reproduction coupled with the ability to now make these realistic pictures move, (forgetting for the moment about being manipulated) combined with a practical means of projection, increased potential audience size (and receipts). These were the revolutionary developments that excited the exhibitors of conjuring, to introduce this novelty into their programs. This was what excited the initial audiences as well. It would take a little time for the possibilities of trick and enhanced films and their potential for storytelling to manifest themselves. In the meanwhile, the opportunity to see someone sneeze (an

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Mutograph peep show arcades operated by furrier Adolph Zukor (later of Famous Players, which evolved into Paramount Pictures) were based on what were considered by sophisticated stage sorcerers to be little more than a “photographic blow book on a rotating drum.” It was an old standby in a new package. The Isola brothers, who had their own magic theater in Paris, understood early on that projection was the key to revenue. In their backstage shop, they quickly began manufacturing and selling their Isolatograph projectors to theaters throughout Europe in the mid 1890s and producing short films as Figure 4. Renaud’s Optical Theater. A projection system to present aniwell.9 In France, Britain, and the U.S., other mated action within a projected scene to a modest-sized audience. experienced showmen sensed a vibrancy in Engraving from Hopkin’s Magic, Stage Illusions and Scientific the new medium that beckoned across cusDiversions, 1897. tom and tradition. Felecian Trewey was one, Edison associate, Fred Ott) or leave the factory for in particular, who found himself at this juncture and follunch (a Lumiere offering) was of enough interest. That lowed the new medium. it could be done was ample sensation in the short term. Shadows Albert Hopkins’ book, Magic, Stage Illusions and Trewey was an acclaimed French magician and variScientific Diversions7 published in 1897, contained sevety artist whom the Lumiere family appointed as their eral chapters on trick photography, projection of moving exclusive representative in Great Britain. Trewey was a images, and ribbon photography (film as we know it superb entertainer who, in addition to his magic and today), as well as diagrams of apparatus used in the mimicry, was famous for several other specialty presystems devised by the Lumiers and C. Francis sentations. Particularly relevant to this history, Trewey Jenkins, one of the founders of the SMPE. was an acknowledged master of shadowgraphy. Magicians See Magic in Moving Pictures Sometimes confused with Balinese shadow puppets, Approximately 100 years ago, there were several for many people today, the art of shadowgraphy means magicians who were men of foresight and imagination. little more than a favorite uncle casting the crude silOthers were hard-bitten showmen who would take a houette of a rabbit or bird with his fingers in a swatch of gamble on an unknown, in their search for novelties direct sunlight on the floor or on the wall. In Trewey’s and revenue. Others yet were not so visionary or willing hands, shadowography was an enchanting and feato take a chance. David Bamberg,8 who later became a tured specialty. The performer created “living twoleading motion picture actor/director in Mexico City in dimensional tableaux and characters” with essentially the 1940s, recalled that his father, Theo Bamberg, nothing more than the shadow of his fingers, knuckles, internationally acclaimed variety star (who worked and hands intertwined. A skilled practitioner (others under the oriental pseudonym of Okito), and was the noted in this field included members of the Bamberg fifth generation scion of a family of royal Dutch magifamily, Edward Victor, The Joannys, and Max Holden) cians, when offered an opportunity to get involved in could create many different animals in many different film production in New York City in the early 1900s, activities as well as familiar characters, tradespeople refused. “It’s too risky”, said my Dad. “This motion picand celebrities of the day, with nothing more than their ture stuff will never amount to anything.” Indeed, severhands, a small arc lamp, and a screen to cast the al of these early motion picture enterprises like images upon. The personality that could be displayed SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal, February/March 2006 • www.smpte.org



arrangements. The early Lumiere films seem mundane in their content today, that is, short films of prosaic activities such as delivery horses making their rounds or factory hands arriving for work, but the appeal of these early films was a fairly realistic reproduction of life in motion. Storytelling, suspense, comedy, and special effects were all yet to come. Trewey saw his job as banging the drum, and signing up revenue-producing outlets, for the Lumiere novelty as it was, not as it might be. Alternatively, it is ironic that the Lumieres gave a cold shoulder to their neighbor, and fellow lease holder one floor below, George Melies. Melies was the proprietor of the Theater Robert Houdin.

George Melies and the Heritage of Robert Houdin

Figure 5. Felicien Trewey presenting Shadowgraphy.

by these shadows, as well as the almost surreal transformation from one shape to another made the shadowgraph act, as presented by a skilled and artistic operator, a highly entertaining and memorable performance. Felecian Trewey was accounted one of the best. His photographically posed lessons in shadowmaking that appeared in C. Lang Neil’s, The Modern Conjurer, published just before the turn of the 20th century, are still considered essential study for those who wish to master the art. 10 Because of his universal respect and recognition in the British and European entertainment community, his many contacts with theatrical managers and impresarios and his established reputation linking him to “living shadow plays,” Trewey was perhaps the most natural person for the Lumieres to select as their representative in the promotion of their motion picture products (Fig. 5). Trewey staged showcases to screen the Lumiere product for British and Continental theater owners and then contracted exclusive territories and distribution 84

George Melies was a Parisian stage magician who had continued the entertainment and enterprises commenced by Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, a watchmaker and builder of automatons turned stage sorcerer (Fig. 6). Regarded by many as The Father of Modern Magic, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin not only changed the look and appeal of his thaumaturgical presentations to reflect a more up-to-date style of presentation for his better heeled and educated audiences; he was also a scientific investigator in the fields of metallurgy, optics, and electricity. Some of his applications of electricity to the art of stage sorcery have been repeatedly dramatized over the past 150 years. There even appears to be evidence that he was successful in some of his final

Figure 6. George Melies transforms a live woman into an illustration.

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WHO PUT THE MAGIC IN MOVIES? experiments in the creation of an incandescent lightbulb. The monument marking his grave in Blois, France, eulogizes Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin as magician, watchmaker, mechanic, and electrician. (Note: The author recently saw a reproduction of a photographic flip book depicting Robert-Houdin opening a book from which a puff of smoke blew out. This curiosity, purportedly from 1860, and currently in the collection of French film producer Christopher Fechner may be the earliest photographic motion picture; certainly the earliest photographic moving picture depicting a magician.) George Melies carried on this multitiered tradition of presenting popular entertainments of stage-conjuring, with research and experimentation in new technologies in stagecraft and science with an eye toward harnessing these new developments for public performances.11 Besides his own research, Melies was quick to adopt the best ideas of his contemporaries from across the English Channel, be it the latest sensational levitation from London’s Home of Mystery at Egyptian Hall, or the latest optical novelty from The Royal Polytechnic Institute, where mirror and glass effects such as Peppers Ghost were first displayed. (Principles first used in Peppers Ghost, for the combining of two planes of live or recreated action to create a virtual image, were used in film-optical printers for many years.) Peppers Ghost basic concept of a variably illuminated piece of glass at a 45% angle is still used as the basis of teleprompter displays today, and in theme park attractions such as “Pirates of the Caribbean” and the “Haunted Mansion.” Melies soon came under the spell of motion pictures. Perhaps, because of the frustration of being unable to utilize equipment a tantalizingly few feet away in the Lumieres’ studio, his zeal for the new medium was even more pronounced. Melies reached out to his associate, British magic star and impresario David Devant, who had also begun to dabble in the creation, distribution, and exhibition of motion pictures. Utilizing British equipment brought over to Paris, Melies worked in ironically close proximity to the Lumieres’ locally devised and constructed gear. Soon Melies’ innovation and success, under his banner of Star Films, outshone that of the Lumieres, who had refused him access to equipment. In retrospect, this seems a recurring state of affairs in the history of motion pictures. Young inno-

Figure 7. Melies. The Man with the Rubber Head,1902.

vators, who were refused access to proprietary equipment by established concerns, would then pirate, fabricate, or innovate their own version and then achieve a commercial advantage over the earlier established group. The conceits of the Lumieres in Europe and Edison in the U.S. ultimately fueled the fires of competition and then led to their respective eclipse in the marketplace, despite their creation of the very market they had intended to monopolize.

Melies’ Innovations Melies, already a master of stage craft, set construction, and scenic and lighting effects, was delighted with the thaumaturgical possibilities of the new apparatus he was working with. Appearances, vanishes, stop motion, animation, and Lilliputian and gargantuan effects virtually tumbled from Melies’ Star Studios in his energetic enthusiasm to experiment and display the wonders he encountered everyday. Some seminal discoveries came about as innocently as continuing shooting after a lunch break only to find upon processing the film, that certain actors and props had not resumed the same positions held before lunch. Melies, with his magician’s mind, quickly grasped the possibilities in stopping the camera, making substitutions or rearrangements and then recommencing photography. Likewise, his stage experience taught him that this new medium allowed him total control of the audience’s point of view. What they did and did not see allowed Melies to boldly use, move, and change scenery and actors in ways that would have been

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tion in light of his belief in the limited income to be derived from the exhibition of motion pictures. As we like to say today, “who knew?” Later, Maskelyne’s son Neville would experiment with his own self-named Mutograph system at Egyptian Hall (Fig. 9).13 Devant, despite his partner’s lack of support, was still enthusiastic and determined. By chance, he came across an announcement of a demonstration to be given that evening in London. Devant made it a point to be in attendance that night at the demonstration given by scientific instrument maker Robert Paul, who was well established in the line of microscopes, opthalmoscopes Figure 8. Egyptian Hall Theater. etc. Although originally reluctant, London, 1896. Paul had already been making unauthorized Kinetosope copies upon learning that Edison had not patented the device in Britain. Paul had now been conducting his own David Devant and Egyptian Hall experiments with projectors. Consequently, he had also Across the English Channel, Melies’ associate David commenced to produce his own short subjects because Devant had his own challenges in the motion picture Edison, when he got wind of Paul’s bootleg field (Fig. 8). Devant had attended the first screenings Kinetoscopes, refused to sell Paul any films. As interest of the new marvel presented in London by Felicien in projected motion pictures began to heat up, David Trewey on behalf of the Lumieres. Immediately taken Devant and other magicians entered the arena. Paul, with the novelty, Devant had been rebuffed in his initial although not a conjurer himself, soon found himself in offerings to exhibit the Lumiere’s films. Trewey was making no concessions to his wand-wielding brethren and drove hard bargains on behalf of the Lumiere interests. Devant conferred with his senior partner, the grand old man of British magic and entertainment, John Nevil Maskelyne. Devant was in for a disappointment in that direction as well. Maskelyne, who in his day had ripped the cover of darkness away from phony spiritualists, invented voting machines and coin-operated locks, and patented many stage appliances, however, turned thumbs down on his junior partner’s enthusiastic desire to add motion pictures to their exhibitions. Maskelyne, like Thomas Edison, did not envision the profit to be made by mass exhibition of motion pictures. Likewise, Figure 9. Poster circa 1897 advertising Mutograph animated Maskelyne believed that the licensing agreement photographs. Note David Devant depicted in upper left of offered by the Lumieres was too expensive a proposiposter holding a rabbit. unacceptable in a live theatrical setting. The use of closeups and miniatures did not escape him either (Fig. 7). Although visionary in many respects, Melies was short-sighted in others. Before long, Star Films became internationally popular and were distributed throughout the world. Each reel was sold outright. Melies thought that sheer volume of product would insure financial success. The films were not rented or leased. It would be up to more savvy business heads to come up with that angle of commerce to ensure revenue streams returning to the producer. Melies stopped making films in 1912. Despite recognition of his pioneering efforts late in his life, Melies died in straitened financial circumstances in Paris in 1938.12


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WHO PUT THE MAGIC IN MOVIES? league with Devant, Melies, Walter Robert Booth, and other magicians in the production of motion picture content.14

Carl Hertz, Enterprising Wizard Carl Hertz (born Leib Morgenstern in San Francisco, CA, 1859) was an American magician headlining at British music halls in the 1890s when Figure 12. Edison’s Peephole Kinetoscope. the excitement over projected motion pictures hit. Never an tine or bold. A few were serendipiinventor or innovator, Hertz was tous. In Brooklyn, NY, two young noted as a performer who could men, both born in London, Albert exploit the work of others. He Smith and J. Stuart Blackton, Figure 10. Albert Smith. Cover of Mahatma had achieved far greater sucMagazine, February 1899. teamed up in a vaudeville magic cess with the Vanishing Lady offering. 15 They achieved a good and Vanishing Bird cage than deal of recognition. Smith was even their inventor, Bautier de Kolta featured on the cover of Mahatma, ever had. Likewise, when Hertz the leading conjurer’s trade journal turned his sights on the motion of the period (Figs. 10 and 11).16 picture, his determination, J. Stuart Blackton was a trick carresourcefulness, and eye for toonist whose contributions to the “the main chance” aided him in act were “lightning sketches,” some acquiring a machine ahead of of which transformed when turned the competition and duly upside down or sideways. Blackton exploiting it. The night before “filled in” by doing cartoons and Hertz was to set sail from illustrations for various newspapers, London to Cape Town, South including the New York Mirror. One Africa, to present a tour of his day he received an assignment from full evening show of magic, the Mirror to go over to West Hertz was to be found unbolting Orange, NJ, and “interview” (i.e., the Kinetoscope projector from render a sketch of) Thomas Alva the floor of the Alhambra Edison for the paper. The always Theater, where it was fastened, Figure 11. J. Stuart Blackton, partner of Albert Smith. inquisitive Edison wound up interand trundling it aboard ship in viewing the young cartoonist and the dark of night. In a few then filmed Blackton in the Black Maria (Edison’s stuweeks he had beat the competition and was highly sucdio), drawing a caricature of the inventor himself. “Sign cessful as the first to exhibit motion pictures in South it,” Edison admonished, “This will be a good advertiseAfrica and later one of the first in Australia (Fig. 1). ment for you. It will be shown all over the country.” At From Vaudeville to Vitagraph the conclusion of this exciting day, Blackton had the Although, the early days of the motion picture busiforethought and gumption to ask Edison if he could buy ness were a rough and tumble time for many of the a Vitascope projector for himself and his partner Smith entrepreneurs involved, not every move was clandesto use at the end of their vaudeville act. Edison SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal, February/March 2006 • www.smpte.org



responded that “they were not for sale.” Edison’s initial machine, found in Kinetoscope parlors, had been the peephole Kinetoscope (Fig. 12). In this machine, a battery-operated motor, actuated by a person dropping a nickel into a slot, moved a 40ft continuous loop of motion picture film past a

Figure 15. Sketch by J. Stuart Blackton of first Vitagraph open-air studio in New York City, 1897.

Figure 13. Jenkins/Armat Vitascope Projector, less lamphouse. (Photo from the Karl Malkames Camera Museum.) Figure 16. Illustration of Vitagraph Studios and Laboratory.

Figure 14. Edison’s Projecting Kinetoscope, less lamphouse. (Photo from the Karl Malkames Camera Museum.) 88

lamp and magnifying lens at the rate of 40 frames/sec. The film could be viewed by only one person, hence the name peephole Kinetoscope. There would be, however, a new projecting product that would be available for purchase in a few months. The Vitascope, a machine for actually projecting motion pictures onto a large screen, was not an Edison invention, but that of Thomas Armat and C. Francis Jenkins (Fig. 13). In an unethical, but typical, business practice of the day, Edison came out with his own device, the Edison Projecting Kinetoscope (Fig. 14). This was essentially the Vitascope released under Edison’s banner and his trade style of “Kinetoscope.” Blackton placed an order there and then, for one of the new projectors. Several months later, the new projector was delivered to Smith’s workshop. Smith designed and built his own camera and they began to produce short films to use as the tag of their vaudeville act. Soon they were providing short films to theaters and other performers. The magic act of SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal, February/March 2006 • www.smpte.org


Figure 17. Construction of Vitagraph studios in Brooklyn.

Smith and Blackton began to evolve into Vitagraph Studios, later an important component of Warner Brothers (Figs. 15, 16, and 17).17

Billy Bitzer

mechanician, and amateur magician, Billy Bitzer, as part of its staff. Before long, Koopman’s enterprises had amalgamated into American Biograph studios, and Bitzer was on his way to becoming one of the legendary pioneer cameramen. “We were credited with having inventive minds, but it was really a case of necessity being the mother of invention (Fig. 18).”18 As a magician, particularly with the initial work he undertook for the Magic Introduction Company, Bitzer was more of what is known in the magic trade as a “backroom boy,” a skilled technician and craftsman with an understanding of the properties and peculiar requirements of magician’s apparatus (Backroom boys are generally employed by a featured magician or by a manufacturer of magicians’ props.). In this regard, Billy Bitzer was similar to the previously mentioned Walter Robert Booth, and to Henry Bates, a photographer and builder of magicians’ specialized equipment, who had worked for David Devant in Great Britain. Men with machinist’s skills and insight into materials, and practical tinkering, were elemental contributors to the success of many showmen/magicians, as well as the success of the new magic medium of motion pictures. Later, Bitzer’s name and innovations would be forever linked with the films and legend of another great screen pioneer, D.W. Griffith.19

Meanwhile, another young magician was becoming aligned with the Edison competition. W.K.L. Dickson, a former Edison associate often credited as the true father of modern motion pictures, had defected from Edison and had gone into partnership with Elias Koopman, Henry Marvin, and Herman Casler to build Dickson’s own design of a movie camera. Koopman was a businessman involved in several enterprises. Marvin and Casler operated a manufacturing works/rock drill factory in Canastota, NY, where the cameras were fabricated. Another of Koopman’s businesses was the Magic Introduction Company, located in New York City. Originally a manufacturer and dealer in specialty gadgets and trick novelties, the Magic Introduction Company had branched out into one of the earliest uses of motion pictures for sales and marketing. Their portable desktop moving picture (Mutoscope) display could be carried by a salesman and used to make a sales presentation in the office of each prospective client with specialty flip cards depicting the works of a machine or piece of equipment. It was at this time that the Magic Introduction Company Figure 18. Billy Bitzer holding Biograph camera. hired a young silversmith, skilled SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal, February/March 2006 • www.smpte.org



The Magic Match: Tom “The Sailor” Sharkey Fights James J. Jeffries In the early days of Biograph, an incident occurred that brought together several of the magicians/movie makers on the same stage at the same time. The incident is particularly noteworthy to those interested in the history of motion picture lighting. The first successful use of artificial light to record an indoor event occurred at the Tom Sharkey-James Jeffries fight on November 3, 1899 in Coney Island, NY. Albert Smith of Vitagraph had devised a system of high-output lighting instruments at the urging of fight promoter and theatrical impresario, William Brady. Their first attempt at filming a fight indoors in June, 1899 (Fitzsimmons-Jeffries), had been ruined by the failure of one of the electric generating plants, causing half the lighting instruments to go dark; thus there was not enough light available to get an adequate exposure on the film. As a result, an irate Brady contracted out to Biograph to film another fight later in the year, utilizing Smith’s lighting system. Billy Bitzer was in charge of the Biograph unit. Vitagraph’s Smith was incensed at the loss of the contract and Brady’s usurpation of his lighting system. Smith felt Brady’s behavior unjust after all of Smith’s work (Smith felt, furthermore, that the failed generator, supplied by Brady, was what had ruined the filming, not Smith’s lighting scheme.) The waters now became particularly murky with the entrance of the Edison camp under the leadership of Jim White, head of Edison’s motion picture division. The Edison Company viewed with a covetous eye, the potential revenues the fight films would generate. All parties recognized the bonanza that would be reaped by the group first able to show movies of a championship boxing match in major cities and small towns throughout the U.S. and the world. White wanted to smuggle a “bootleg” camera into the Coney Island Athletic club and shoot his own footage of the fight (using the lighting provided by Brady “courtesy” of Albert Smith) and then beat Brady in the distribution of release prints. The Edison group did not have a small enough camera, but they knew someone who was developing one, namely the wizard Albert Smith at Vitagraph. Edison’s Jim White approached Vitagraph’s Albert Smith and proposed a conspiracy. Smith, for reasons of revenge and profit, agreed to participate in the plot.20 90

Figure 19. Biograph camera emplacement at Coney Island Athletic Club for Jeffries-Sharkey fight in 1899. Billy Bitzer at lower left, next to camera.

They assembled a group worthy of appearing in a future Hollywood “heist” film. Included were a loudmouthed former jockey, Snapper Garrison, and magician-songwriter Joe Howard (“I Wonder Whose Kissing Her Now”) who was a crony of C. Francis Jenkins (a founder of SMPE). Albert Smith and Jim White smuggled Smith’s camera into the crowded Coney Island Athletic Club strapped between White’s legs and concealed by White’s outsize overcoat and the tight knit group of conspirators that surrounded White as he walked/waddled into the arena (Fig. 19). Bitzer and Biograph seemed to have every advantage. They had been contracted by Brady, the promoter, and had their own shooting platform. They had several cameras, had pre-lit the arena, and were wellstaged to record the fight. The Edison/Vitagraph undercover crew, however, were soon detected in the bleachers, but the enthusiasm and excitability of the crowd made it impossible for the hired Pinkerton security guards and the irate impresario, Brady, to seize and evict the guerrilla crew. When the Pinkertons would attempt to sally into the bleachers to seize the interlopers, the spectators would erupt into their own pugilism with the Pinkertons, who were interfering with their view

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WHO PUT THE MAGIC IN MOVIES? of the action in the boxing ring. Brady and the Pinkertons were repelled several times. Meanwhile, Vitagraph’s Albert Smith kept cranking away. The fight was a marathon of endurance for the opposing boxers, Sharkey and Jeffries, who were not only pounded by the fists of each other, but broiled by the intensity of the new-fangled overhead lighting. The fight went on and on. Providence stepped in at this point and delivered a history-making snafu. In the 25th final and decisive round, Bitzer’s Biograph camera fouled, opened, and began spooling the film stock out onto the platform! Meanwhile, Albert Smith kept cranking away. The Vitagraph/Edison unlicensed camera captured the entire historymaking world championship fight on film. Then, in the ensuing pandemonium of the crowd gone wild after the long and exhausting bout, Smith successfully smuggled the footage out of the arena and out of Coney Island, away from the incensed Brady and his minions. There is more to the story, including a double cross by Edison’s White, who stole the negative from Vitagraph’s exhausted Smith the next morning, and then a triple cross by Smith, who stole the first print from White and then, in a few hours, made additional prints, beating the Edison release into theatrical distribution on the East Coast and earning Smith huge initial profits and publicity. An enraged William Brady restaged the 25th round two weeks later and subsequently released the only “authorized” version of the world championship fight: but the wind and the revenue had already been stolen from his “sales” by his unscrupulous competitors.21 Coney Island provided a backdrop and proving ground for other early motion pictures and special effects. Edison staged the electrocution of Topsey the Elephant, to demonstrate the danger of rival George Westinghouse’s system of alternating current electric distribution. Henry Roltair, a British illusionist, who had migrated to the U.S. and settled in Brooklyn, had invented “The House Upside Down,” displayed at World Expositions in Paris and Nashville, and also invented The Necromancers Black Tent for P.T. Barnum, which featured optical effects and illusions. Roltair’s masterful work with mirrors, optics, rigging, and scenic elements, particularly at Coney Island’s legendary Dreamland, were forbearers of later special effects applications in motion pictures and amusement parks.

Figure 20. Chaplin and Houdini in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of Stanley Palm.)

Alexander the Magician and the Birth of the Nontheatrical Motion Picture Industry Alexander Victor of Sweden was another conjurer who left an indelible mark on motion pictures. Alexander the Magician, as he was known, was a pioneer developer and manufacturer of cameras and projectors for the nontheatrical, home, and educational markets. Victor gained his first exposure to motion pictures as a teenage assistant to another performer, Stephanio. They showed primitive films as part of Stephanio’s programs in the 1890s. Victor inherited the show when Stephanio passed away and continued to tour with it, eventually immigrating to the U.S. A major change in his career occurred in Toledo, OH, when a theater manager refused to allow Victor to cut a trap in the stage floor, necessary for the performance of one of his featured illusions. Victor put his props temporarily in storage until ready to move on. The storage warehouse caught fire and burned to the ground. Destitute, Victor took a job as a salesman for the White Lily Washing Machine Co. of Davenport, IA. Soon, he invented an electric washing machine, which proved most successful both for the inventor and the White Lily Company. Then, by 1910, Victor had come up with another invention, the Animatograph, a film system for home use. The Animatograph was a combination motion picture camera and projector for amateurs. The first models used a nitrate film disc. Later versions used 35mm, 28mm, and finally 16mm perforated film stock.

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WHO PUT THE MAGIC IN MOVIES? The White Lily Washing Machine Co. helped bankroll the magician/inventor. This inaugurated what developed into the nontheatrical motion picture industry that eventually settled on the 16mm format. His firm, the Victor Animatograph Company, supplied many 16mm JAN (Joint Army-Navy) projectors to the armed services during World War II. Victor passed away in 1961 and was named to the SMPTE Honor Roll in 1964.22

Hollywood Magic Stars Charles Chaplin (Fig. 20) and Harold Lloyd, famed early motion picture comedians and producers, each with deep and lifelong interest in legerdemain, both utilized many conjurers’ principles throughout their respective film careers. The style of ingenuity endemic to the successful conjurer proved useful in accomplishing many motion picture tasks, both mundane and fantastic, particularly in the early days of filmmaking. Another pioneer Figure 21. Polyscope camera built by Andrew Schustek for w a s Colonel William Selig. (Photo from the Karl Malkames Camera Museum.) William Selig, a former Chicago magic dealer and traveling magician known as “Selig, Conjurer.” He expanded his act into a minstrel show attraction that also provided him with the title of “Colonel.” After seeing Edison’s Kinetoscope in Dallas, TX, in 1895, he was intrigued with the possibility of adding moving images to his minstrel show. At the Union Metal Works machine shop in Chicago, he met Andrew Schustek, a machinist, who was copying unknown mechanisms from a nameless customer which, when assembled, turned out to be a copy of the Lumiere dual camera-projector. Selig was mindful of Edison’s wrath against anyone who violated Edison’s major patents on the new motion picture camera and projector. Selig and Schustek decided, however, that there was no harm in establishing a joint venture and set up a separate machine shop to make additional copies of the Lumiere machine. Soon the Selig Standard Camera and its companion projector, the Polyscope, were devised (Fig. 21). Selig was confident that he would escape the attention and potential legal suit from Edison because his machines were based on the French Lumiere design. Nevertheless, Selig was aware of the vigorous prosecution of infringements of patents covered by the Motion Picture Patents Group, which had been established with the help of Edison. Hence, Selig set up shop in California. Space was rented in the rear of a Chinese laundry on Olive Street in Los Angeles. Here, the first film to be made completely in California was Selig’s The Figure 22. Poster for Houdini’s first feature Heart of a Race Tout, released on July 27, 1909. Selig then moved to length motion picture, The Grim Game. 92

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Figure 24. Clap Slate. (Photo from the author’s collection.)

Figure 23. Houdini with crew at Niagara Falls.

the Los Angeles suburb of Edendale where, by 1911, he had built a 230 x 220 ft complete studio and film processing facility. In addition to another studio built in his hometown of Chicago, Selig was also noted for his zoo in Los Angeles with 700 animals that he rented out to other early filmmakers. Until 1923, Selig made over 100 films, including the first motion picture serial, The Adventures of Kathlyn, and numerous westerns starring Tom Mix. This former magician, magic dealer, minstrel show producer, and film producer was perhaps the earliest filmmaker to set up a comprehensive operation in Hollywood. In 1948, he was recognized with a special Academy Award as one of the most important personalities in the growth of the early motion pictures.23

Houdini and the Movies Many people think of Harry Houdini as the greatest magician of all time. In fact, Houdini made his reputation and legend as an escape artist, presenting a short specialty act in vaudeville, releasing himself from handcuffs, ropes, chains, and such unlikely things as straitjackets, coffins, and barrels filled with beer. Further, film historians and magic aficionados know his legend was enhanced by his starring in several motion picture serials and features 24 such as Haldane of the Secret Service and The Grim Game (produced by his friend, vaudeville packager and motion picture executive, Jesse Lasky) (Fig. 22) and the much later fictionalized 1953 biopic Houdini starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Motion pictures added to Houdini’s mystique.

However, Houdini’s involvement with the magic of filmmaking goes back even earlier than his days in front of the camera (Fig. 23). He and his brother, Theo, operated the Houdini Film Processing Co., a motion picture laboratory operation in Weehawken, NJ, in the nascent days of motion picture making, when the industry in the U.S. was still primarily based in the New York metropolitan area.

Introduction of Sound Provides New Opportunities for Magic As motion pictures continued to evolve, magical performers and “backroom boys” continued to make important contributions to the techniques and traditions of filmmaking. Leon Leon, son of and member of the troupe of vaudeville headliner, The Great Leon, settled in southern California in the twilight days of vaudeville, which coincided with the early days of motion picture sound recording. Leon Jr. became an early studio sound recordist. He is generally credited with being the first to utilize two ingenious landmark pieces of sound equipment, i.e., the fish pole microphone boom and the clap slate.25 Although their origins remain challenged and debatable, handheld boom poles are still very much in evidence on all sorts of productions, despite the proliferation of wireless microphones. Leon’s other innovative use of the clap slate (Fig. 24), although superseded by time code, smart slates, and other electronic synchronization methods, still remains an icon of filmmaking and an evocative prop, perhaps one of the

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most universally recognized tools of professional moviemaking. The clap slate has become a logo and symbol that says “Lights! Camera! Action!” and evokes the bravura, sparkle, and glamour of motion picture production everywhere.

Conclusion When one refers to movie magic, the contributions of conjurers to the cinema are never far from hand. They are a considerable and still tangible part of our motion picture heritage. Whether a debt owed to vanished technology (the Vitascope), a contemporary application of an old principle (Pepper’s Ghost), or an icon symbolic of filmmaking (the clap slate), magicians have cast their lingering spell upon the world of motion pictures. They helped to put the magic into the movies and thus helped motion pictures to become the biggest magic of all.

Acknowledgments Illustrations not otherwise credited, originated in publications listed under References and Notes. The author thanks Karl Malkames and Walter Druker, committee members, and Edgar Schuller, Chairman, Archival Papers and Historical Committee, for assistance in the editing and final preparation of this paper.

References and Notes 1. Stephen James Forrester, The Annotated Discovery of WitchCraft, Book XIII, 2000, Calgary, Canada. 2. Various Editors, Mahatma Magazine, Vol. I, No. IV, p. 9, June, 1895, Brooklyn, NY, 1895-1905. 3. A gobo is a “go between” usually made of cut metal or painted glass that goes between a light source and the surface it is projected on to create a shadow, break up, pattern or effect. 4. Pani and GAM are contemporary manufacturers of specialized lighting equipment. 5. Erik Barnouw, The Magician and the Cinema, Oxford University Press: New York, NY, and Oxford, England, pp. 19-21, 1981. 6. Eadward Muybridge’s pictures of a galloping horse photographed by a series of still cameras, each activated by a trip wire, to settle a bet as to whether or not the horse’s hoofs actually left the ground as it ran, are often cited as Edison’s inspiration for his own motion picture research. 7. A. Hopkins, Magic, Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions, Book V, Chapter I through III, 1897. 8. David Bamberg, Illusion Show, Meyerbooks, Chapter 10, p. 42, 1988. 9. Barnouw, Ibid., p.48.


10. C. Lang Neil, The Modern Conjurer, American Edition, Wehman Bros.: New York, NY, pp. 373-386, 1937. 11. Edited by Paolo Usai, A Trip to the Movies: George Melies Filmaker and Magician (1891-1938), International Museum of Photography: Rochester, NY, pp. 39-51, 1991. 12. Ibid., p. 159, p. 173. 13. Barnouw, Ibid, p. 57. 14. Ibid., p.54, p. 56. 15. Albert E. Smith, Two Reels and a Crank, Doubleday and Co.: Garden City, NY, pp. 27-28, 1952. 16. Mahatma Magazine, Ibid., Vol. II No. VIII, Feb. 1899. 17. Anthony Slide, Early American Cinema, A. S. Barnes and Co., Inc.: Cranbury, NJ, p. 46, 1970. 18. Billy Bitzer, Billy Bitzer, His Story, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York, NY, p .4, 1973. 19. Ibid., pp. 63-90. 20. Edo McCullough, Good Old Coney Island, Charles Scribners & Sons: New York, NY, pp. 165-66, 1957. 21. Ibid., p. 181. 22. Barnouw, Ibid., p. 66. 23. Edited by Kalton C. Lahue, Motion Picture Pioneer: The Selig Polyscope Company, A. S. Barnes and Co., Inc.: Cranbury, NJ, 1973. 24. M. Christopher, Houdini: A Pictorial Life, Thomas Y. Crowel Co.: New York, NY, pp. 85-117, 1976. 25. Bart Whaley, Who’s Who in Magic, An International Biographical Guide from Past to Present, Jeff Busby Magic Inc.: Wallace, ID, p. 199, 1991.

Bibliography Burlingame, H. J., Leaves from the Conjurers Scrapbook, Donohue, Henneberry & Co.: Chicago, IL, 1891. Clark, Frank, Special Effects in Motion Pictures, SMPTE: New York, 1966. Silverman, Kenneth, Houdini!!!, Harper Collins: New York, NY, 1996.

THE AUTHOR Richard Cohn is a gaffer and lighting director, as well as an author, magic consultant, historian, and performer. He is a member of IATSE (International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees) Studio Mechanics Local #52 in New York City, where he has been active in safety and training seminars in addition to his lighting work on feature films, television programs, and commercials. Cohn has been a member of SMPTE since 1979. He is an associate of The Inner Magic Circle of London, England, and has been a featured speaker at the Magic Collectors Association convention in Chicago and the Society of American Magicians Centennial Convention in New York City.

SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal, February/March 2006 • www.smpte.org