Today is the birthday of The Great Lafayette (Siegmund Neuberger, 1872-1911) one of vaudeville’s few literal martyrs. He moved to the U.S. from his native Munich at age 19 and began his career as one of the many imitators of Ching Ling Foo. His early act had elements of Grand Giugnol (his sawing a woman in half smacks of The Mad Magician“) and he gradually built up to an enormous set piece illusions, the most famous of which was “The Lion’s Bride”, which used a live menagerie, including the King of Beasts, who at the act’s climax, magically transformed into Lafayette. It all went up in smoke on May 9, 1911 during his act, when the set caught fire killing the magician, most of his animals, and 11 audience members. The irony is that he had ordered all the backstage doors locked so no one could steal his secrets.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.