Today is the birthday of Frank Van Hoven (1886-1929), who billed himself as the “Mad Magician”. He was less noted for his magic tricks, however, than his practical jokes. His most famous stunt was to make twe guys hold enormous cakes of ice while he tried to decide what he was going to do (or a variation, while he attempted to conjure a handkerchief inside the ice).
Initially he had been a juggler; it was Dante who suggested he take up magic. He started out as an assistant to black art performer Paul Kleist (who’d once worked with Thurston). But he was pretty terrible at magic, too. Before he began injecting comedy into his act he kept getting fired. Early in his career he had worked for the Gus Sun circuit and gotten fired. Later, after he’d performed on the big time Keith circuit, he forced Gus Sun to pay him $1000 a week, and advertised the earlier firing. The last decade of his career was spent mostly in British music hall, where his ssense of humor was especially appreciated. When Van Hoven died at a young age in 1929, everyone assumed that that too was just a practical joke.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.