Archive for the Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change Category

Magic at Coney: An Interview with Magician Gary Driefus

Posted in BROOKLYN, Coney Island, Contemporary Variety, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , on April 20, 2017 by travsd

Sundays at Noon, Gary Dreifus presents his long-running family-oriented magic show at Coney Island USA, featuring a different line-up  of expert illusionists every week. Today, Gary gives us the low-down on this popular show: 

When/ how/ why did you start performing magic?

My interest in magic began in the fourth grade.  I was assigned a “How To” book report and wound up at the 793.8 section of the library.  I took our Dunninger’s Encyclopedia of Magic and performed three effects from the book. I sucked, but it peaked my interest in magic.  Later that year, I witnessed my first live magic performance. I helped the magician take his livestock to the car and he showed me how to do a simple magic trick.  I was hooked! His name was Maurice Keshinova (sp?) and performed as Maurice the Great. He had been a vaudevillian magician and taught me several tricks.

During adolescence, I was a klutz.  My father suggested I renew my interest in magic to gain some dexterity and hand/eye coordination.  He owned a popular bakery in Midwood and a magic shop opened a block away. I had a few hours to kill between sweeping up and closing time at the bakery, so I would go and hang out at the magic store.  We were all young… the manager was Larry Scott (Youngstein), who now owns Havin’ a Party in Canarsie and is the local balloon distributor. Other kids who hung out there were Eric DeCamps, Levent (Cimkentli), Robert Baxt, Brian McGovern.

I graduated Brooklyn College with a degree in Education of the Speech and Hearing Handicapped.  My first job was as a Teacher of the Deaf in JHS 47; the city’s school for the deaf.  Since I was new teacher, they gave me the worst class in the school.  I made a deal with the students. Every day they behaved, I performed a magic trick.  The class became the best in the school and I was running out of material so I started teaching them magic. The “worst” class scored higher in math and reading scores than any other group in the school!

Throughout my professional career, I used magic to motivate, educate and entertain. I was also asked to teach a beginners (and subsequently an intermediate and advanced) magic class at Kingsborough Community College. It was in the late 1990’s that I came across a magic shop on Queens’s Boulevard in Elmhurst. The proprietor was Roger “Rogue” Quan, who asked if I could perform at one of his weekly magic shows.  I agreed, and was then asked if I could host the shows.  Thus began my career as magical host.  Met all the local performers and became friends with many of them.

In 2008, my program was eliminated by the city and I was laid-off.  A friend had a great idea to perform for restaurants and bars. We had contracts on Long Island and the Jersey shore. Unfortunately, we weren’t getting paid and had to run after EVERY penny! I parted ways with my partner and started teaching magic in local community centers.

How/ when did you come to be doing your regular Sunday shows at Coney Island USA?

In the summer of 2010 I was meeting with another magician at the Freak Bar in Coney Island. He introduced me to Patrick Wall, then the stage manager at Coney Island USA. I asked why there weren’t any regular magic shows at Sideshows by the Seashore.  I was told they had tried, but they never took off. I did some research and found that magic and magicians were an integral part of Coney Island. Coney Island was a beacon for magicians throughout the world. The local sideshows at Dreamland, Luna Park and Steeplechase Park, as well as the local dance halls and theaters were a proving ground for those performing artists looking to hone their skills. Luminaries such as Houdini, his brother Hardeen, Cary Grant, William “Bud” Abbott, Dai Vernon, Jean Hugard and Al Flosso were featured artists who went on to stardom around the world.

I drew up a proposal for a magic variety show and pitched it to Dick Zigun, the artistic director of CIUSA. I began on a Wednesday in September. We had eight acts for that first show… It was some time after midnight that we finished! The important lesson I learned was that performing artists have NO concept of time! Fifteen minutes maximum turned into a 40 minute set! The show was a HUGE success. Audience response was fantastic. Magic at Coney!!! continued as a monthly show, then twice per month the following season.

During the 2013 season, I was asked if we could perform during the off-season. Thus began the Sunday matinees.

What do you like about performing there?

Magic at Coney!!! belongs at the same venue where the last of the sideshows is performed. The Coney Island Museum makes a perfect backdrop, allowing for a mix of both old and new Coney Island.

Who are your heroes, mentors, models in the magic world?

I love watching Marc Salem perform.  I think he’s the top working mentalist today. I love watching Rocco perform. He brings magic to a whole new level. Bobby Torkova is fantastic as is Thomas Solomon. I enjoy working with ALL of the artists involved with Magic at Coney!!!  Each brings his or her own take to the art.

My biggest influences were probably the late Bob Cassidy, Kenton Knepper and Eugene Berger. Ken Weber gave me specific suggestions that changed and improved certain specific effects. Simon Lovell was an incredible performer who also helped me improve.

The entire Magic at Coney!!! project could not have succeeded without the support and dedication of a group of talented magicians.  The friendships I’ve made have been tight and everlasting, and I cannot thank them all enough.

What’s Up at Coney

Posted in AMERICANA, Coney Island, Contemporary Variety, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, PLUGS, SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , , , , , on March 13, 2017 by travsd

We all associate Coney Island with summer (it’s a beach and amusement park after all), but it may be a lesser known fact that there’s stuff happening at Coney Island USA all through the winter season as well. For example, most every Sunday Gary Dreifus presents his kid friendly Magic at Coney show. I was mightily entertained by Mr. Dreifus’s feats in yesterday’s show, as well as those of his special guests Magical Vince and Phil Crosson.  Here’s next week’s line-up:

The magic show takes place in the Coney Island Museum,  open on weekend throughout the winter. The museum has recently been spruced up with some new displays and wall text


Koo Koo the Bird Girl and her jolly friend (okay, he’s dressed like a jester, but I don’t know how jolly he is).



“Slapstick Used By Angelo the Midget at the Steeplechase Blowhole”

And now there is a whole new Hot Dog section of the museum featuring items like:


These stained glass windows are from the original Feltman’s Restaurant, birthplace of the hot dog

Thence (the real pull for the day) a special preview event for the new exhibition Five Cents to Dreamland: A Trip to Coney Island, created and curated by the New York Transit Museum. 

A 1998 sideshow banner by the one and only Marie Roberts!

A genuine vintage Strength-Tester mallet.


CIUSA Founder Dick Zigun (center): with Concetta Bencivenga, director of the NYTM; and John di Domenico, who serves on the boards of both organizations


Coney’s own Patrick Wall, Your Mix-Master


CIUSA board members James Fitzsimmons and Dr. Jeff Birnbaum, with Birnbaum’s son


Coney Island USA’s annual gala is happening in just two weeks, March 25! An all-star cast celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Mermaid Parade with a Corral Jubilee! Follow this magical portal for tickets and details! 


Samri Baldwin, “The White Mahatma”

Posted in Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Stars of Vaudeville with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2017 by travsd



Today is the birthday of Samuel Spencer “Samri” Baldwin (1848-1924) . Originally from Cincinnati, Baldwin became inspired to become a magician by studying the Davenport Brothers, and became one of the first mentalists by studying the tricks of Anna Eva Fay (who claimed to be a true medium). Billed as “The White Mahatama”, Baldwin publicly performed handcuff escapes and debunked fraudulent mediums, both activities prior to Houdini. His wife Kate or Kittie was often employed as his partner in the mentalism part of his act, as was his daughter Shadow.  The lady confederate would be led onstage in a trance, blindfolded, and then asked to ascertain the content of messages audience members had written on pads of paper. The Baldwins were the first to do this type of act.  Samri Baldwin’s books include Spirit Mediums Exposed (1879) and Secrets of Mahatma Land Explained (1895).

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold

Scenes of the Houdini Museum (on the 90th Anniversary of His Death)

Posted in EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on October 31, 2016 by travsd


90 years ago this very night, Harry Houdini shuffled off this moral coil. I happened to find myself near the Houdini Museum today, so I popped in to remember him (it’s located in the Fantasma Magic Shop, across the street from Penn Station.) Here are some snaps I took:




This bust, modelled from life, was removed from Houdini's grave monument in Queens

This bust, modeled from life, was removed from Houdini’s grave monument in Queens







For more on Houdini, magic, and vaudeville consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous

Sylvester Schaffer

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, German, Jugglers, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Music, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Sylvester Schaffer (1885-1949). Schaffer was a second generation star of the Berlin variety stage. His father was the Austrian-Bohemian juggler and painter George Sylvester Schaffer. Schaffer fils had both those skills, and was also a magician, lightning sketch artist, musician, acrobat and trick rider. He was often called as the “one man variety show”.

Shaffer’s public persona was not unlike Houdini’s, and like the American escape artist Schaffer was also considered a dashing sex symbol and starred in a series of silent adventure movies during the 1920s. Also like Houdini, Schaffer was an international star, and he toured American vaudeville many times in the teens and twenties, including the greatest venue of all, the Palace, where he presented a lavish stage show with ten elaborate sets.

When Hitler came to power Schaffer fled Germany and settled into semi-retirement in Los Angeles, concentrating on visual art and music studies for his remaining years.

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Evil Magicians and Mesmerists in Classic Horror

Posted in Asian, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2015 by travsd

Continuing our month-long series of classic horror posts launched here, today we survey several films from the 1930s and 40s that are centered around sinister monsters and villains who scheme for wealth, sex and/or power using magic and thought control. You might call this subgenre an offshoot of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. And the Mummy films certainly fall into this subgenre, but there are so many of them that they form their own category and we have given them their own post. 

Often in such films the characters have much in common with mad scientists. The line between science and the supernatural is often blurred. In both cases the person at the center is in fanatical pursuit of knowledge, a knowledge so earth-shaking it transforms him into a monster. In this particular branch of the genre, the racism we spoke about in our opening essay comes into play — the magicians are usually from the “East”:  Asians or Jews, with an intrinsic ability to horrify or disgust based on their foreignness, a story point readers of H.P. Lovecraft know well, although he is far from the only perpetrator of this unhealthy mindset. And horror is far from the only genre to encompass it — it can be hard to know where to draw the line, for many murder mysteries and suspense thrillers of the day come very close in spirit (and even science fiction fantasy if you consider characters like Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon serials). For me it crosses the line into horror when: A) the mystical villain possesses actual uncanny magical powers that are not revealed to have mechanical solutions; and B) he either commits or tries to commit abduction, torture, rape, murder…or world domination.

A few related posts on closely allied subgenres will follow, on mad scientists, sadists and witch doctors.


Svengali (1931)

I find it strange that this film is not normally associated with horror — I think it qualifies as much as, say, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  And John Barrymore, who plays the title character earned more than his share of horror street cred in his version of the former film. There is more than a hint of the supernatural in Svengali’s hypnotism, especially as realized in this film….his eyes become these amazing huge smokey orbs with no pupil or iris. Also he is as evil as any monster or mad scientist, and , as in so many horror films of the time, his creepy aim is to catch, control and rape “the girl”.

I read the novel Trilby many years ago…it is is dreadful, as bad as, or worse than Dracula. And the book is jaw-droppingly anti-semitic. That aspect has been expunged here. Instead of a Jew, Svengali has now become a mysterious “Pole or something”. But he is still painted as disgusting, with unwashed, greasy long hair, a pariah even among bohemian artists.

Trilby (Marian Marsh) comes into the scene as an artist’s model. Svengali is attracted to her at once, gives her his “headache cure” and the story proceeds from there. But he also notes that she has rare vocal architecture. He can control her mind long distance. He makes her a great singing star. But the process drains him. He begins to waste away. Five years later when the heroes catch up with them they are at their peak, but begin to descend because Svengali can’t keep it up any more. At the last performance he dies…and because she is psychically connected to him, Trilby dies too.

Poster - Chandu the Magician_01

Chandu the Magician (1932)

Fox’s answer to Universal’s string of horror hits. It is an absolutely gorgeous movie set in a “Mysterious East” of the imagination. It is based on a radio show that had much in common with The Shadow and Mandrake the Magician, and clearly is a model for the later comic book Dr. Strange.

“Chandu” is the American Frank Chandler (Edmund Lowe) who in the first act has just finished a course to be a yogi of the highest order. He celebrates his mystic ceremony by performing some gratuitous, familiar magic tricks: causing a rope to float, walking across fire. He is given his mission by his mystical mentor to go out and do good in the world. Conveniently his first mission is close to home. His brother in law, a scientist who is working on a death ray (cue the tesla coils) is kidnapped by an evil mad scientist played by Bela Lugosi. Lugosi is great in the part; the guy who plays Chandu unfortunately is a bit of a schmuck. The bulk of the plot is set in Egypt which mysteriously bears not a trace of resemblance to the modern Muslim country. Though gang members have names like Abdullah, they appear to worship Osiris and other ancient gods, providing us with a choice Mummy movie atmosphere.

Chandu’s sidekick is an old army buddy—for some reason he is a Kiplingesque hard drinking Britisher….what army were they in precisely? He is the comic relief, always sneaking a drink. To keep him in line, Chandu conquers a little impish double who constantly chides him for his drinking. There are many memorable scenes. One very racy Pre-Code scene has Chandu’s niece being sold at a white slave auction. Several, toothless, dark-hued foreigners leer and drool as they bid on her. In a great set piece, the villain causes the floor of the cell containing Chandu’s family to slowly drop out, threatening to send them plummeting into an underground river several hundred feet below. And the climax is blood chilling. Chandu causes Lugosi to freeze with his hands on the control to the death ray. The thing starts to overheat, while the villain stands there horribly immobile until the thing explodes. Nightmarish.


The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

This is tangentially a horror film, a sort of sub-genre (murder mystery/sci fi/ travelogue of the Mysterious East, much like Chandu the Magician). Karloff is the titular Fu a sinister, soulless villain with eight inch long finger nails and a plot to use the powers of the recently discovered sword of Genghis Khan to take over the entire world. He kidnaps the archaeologist who found it, demanding to know its whereabouts, and terrorizing his friends and family. Fu is scarcely human — he much resembles Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless. He is also a mad scientist, cementing his inclusion here amongst the horror films. His full title is DR. Fu Manchu.  He operates on people, but usually just to torture them. His torture methods are diabolically creative—he relishes it. Also he has excellent Tesla coils , which he uses to great effect when he gets his hand on Khan’s sword.  His daughter, played by Myrna Loy, exists only to corrupt and torture. They seem to have mysterious powers to mesmerize people against their will and make them their slaves. In the end, the heroes turn the electric ray on Fu’s army of minions and make their escape.


The Ghoul (1933)

A British horror film, with a light tone for the most part that reminds one of “Old Dark House” movies. Boris Karloff an eccentric rich man on his death bed. He had purchased certain stolen Egyptian relics that, with proper ceremony, will bestow immortality. He dispatches his butler to take care of certain necessary duties relevant to the ritual. Then he dies.

The middle of the film reads like a haunted-house, reading-of-the-will comedy. Two heirs: a young man and a young woman who are cousins but become romantically entwined (h’m…), the girl’s room-mate, a scheming lawyer (Cedric Hardwicke), an Egyptian who wants the relics back and his lackey, and a young priest (Ralph Richardson in his first film role). After a bit of interplay amongst them all, including arguments, flirtation, and so forth Karloff comes back to life. He kills the Egyptian’s assistant, attacks the girl etc. He enacts a ritual in the tomb. It then emerges that is a trick, the priest is really some kind of crook. Several characters are locked in the tomb, the others fight outside, and the tomb catches on fire. Finally the tomb explodes, and the couple escapes. Meanwhile, it has emerged that Karloff didn’t really die, he was just catatonic, and the supernatural events were fakes—a naturalistic explanation to the whole thing.


The Return of Chandu (1934)

The sequel to Chandu was done as a serial, this time with Lugosi as Frank Chandler (his thick accent completely unexplained). This edition seems done on the cheap and is rather dull, I couldn’t get past the first couple of episodes.


She (1935)

An amazing movie, based on the novel by H. Rider Haggard. A kind of flip of the usual sex roles. In this one the monster (or “mad scientist) is an immortal, despotic woman, played by Helen Gahagan Douglas (wife of Melvyn and nemesis of Nixon) in her one and only starring role. And the love object is a young man, Randolph Scott in one of his early non-western roles. He and his partner Nigel Bruce travel to the Arctic circle above Russia and team up with a trader and his daughter (Helen Mack). They are en route to find a rare element said to bestow immortality. “The Flame of Life”. The trader is killed in an avalanche. The three are captured in a cave by Morelock-like primitives, who seem poised to eat them. Then ancient-attired soldiers appear (evoking Sumeria and other ancient civilizations) and rescue them and bring them to She Who Must Be Obeyed (Douglas) in their subterranean land.

She rules with an iron fist, kills whomever displeases her. She wants Scott (who resembles her lover of 500 years ago who happens to have been his ancestor), and has convinced him to stay with her, but then she makes the mistake of trying to sacrifice the trader’s daughter in a ritual ceremony. Scott and Bruce rescue her and escape. Then they run into She at her temple, where she steps into the Flame of Life, which for some mysterious reasons ages her horribly until she dies. This is an RKO picture — gorgeous art deco design, and some very neat choreography in ritual scenes. 


Revolt of the Zombies (1936)

We shall write about this one further in our upcoming zombies post, but it kind of straddles both subgenres, because this one is set in — of all places — Cambodia. And so the atmosphere is very much that of the Mysterious East, with swirling incense and gongs…



Just wanted to note a related film here. Frank Capra’s 1937 Lost Horizon (which I wrote about here), seems to me much related and it moments seems to intimate horror, but ultimately isn’t, but it’s interesting to contemplate the similarities.

Also: the kind of film we have been writing about seems to evaporate after the 1930s. The reason why is obvious, it seems to me. World War Two brought the western world very much into contact with the Eastern. After that, it lost a good deal of its “mystery”; it was hard to paint it as a world of Fairy Tale Imagination when millions of G.I.’s  had been there and back and never encountered any magicians or magic. It doesn’t vanish entirely, of course. (I think of Marvel Comic’s Dr. Strange, for example, as a particularly late example.) But it is far less prevalent — and certainly not the default, as it once was.

There are later films that come close in spirit, though. This is one:


The Climax (1944)

A rotten title for a movie, but it ends up being worthwhile picture. But one must be patient, and sit through several goopy musical theatre routines. It was conceived as a sort of sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, and has much in common as well with Svengali. Boris Karloff is the throat doctor to a Viennese opera company. Years ago he became obsessed with a diva and killed her. Now the same thing is happening with a new singer. Note to singers: always beware of Boris Karloff when he soothes and assures you and offers to take you back to his house for an “examination”! He hyponotizes the girl so she can’t sing and he now has control over her. (It’s the hypnosis that justified this film’s inclusion here) Eveneually others piece together what’s going on. The singer’s own will triumphs. Karoff flees to his chamber where his previous victim is in suspended animation. Then, as so often, happens, he dies in a spectacular fire. 

On the Vaudeville of Gothic Horror

Posted in Clown, Comedians, Comedy, Horror (Mostly Gothic), Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on October 3, 2015 by travsd
Vincent Price IS

Vincent Price IS “The Mad Magician”

This post grew out of the introduction to a talk I gave at Clay McLeod Chapman’s Fear Mongers panel series a few years ago. The bulk of my talk was about a favorite tv show of mine when I was a kid (The Night Stalker), but I wanted to start out with a justification as to why a supposed vaudeville expert was giving a talk about horror at all. I gave the matter a great deal of thought. And I actually came up with a bunch of stuff.

To start with the most obvious point of intersection (for this writer anyway): all of the classic comedians with vaudeville and burlesque backgrounds who made spook comedies:  the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, the Ritz Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, etc etc etc.  There are scientists who study people’s reactions to certain stimuli from the stand-point of physiology. What is laughter? Some kind of involuntary nervous spasm we get when certain sights and sounds strike us a certain way. I’ve always been interested in the similarity of the reactions of audiences to both comedy and horror. A scream and laughter often go hand in hand. I think this is one reason why spook comedy is a “thing.”

And the crossover is often flipped. Just as comedians often like to dabble in horror, stars of classic horror can frequently barely restrain themselves from camping it up. Director James Whale (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man) encouraged this in his actors. In later years Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and others became toothless parodies of themselves, possibly harmful to the genre, necessitating a pushing of the horror “restart button” circa 1978.

And there is yet a third way in which horror and comedy (especially vaudeville comedy) combine. What about when the clown is (entirely or partially) an instrument of terror? I wrote a bit about this in an earlier article about the theatrical grotesque (read it here). This is another place where horror and clowning meet. A few years ago when I told a friend I was writing a book about silent comedy movies, he said “I can’t watch them — I find the make-up too disturbing”. This goes back to ancient times, to primitive man. Clown make up vs. demon make up: what’s the difference? A friend who is an expert on commedia dell’arte once told me that a true Harlequin mask is supposed to be a little scary. The Court Jester is often a Monster. Lon Chaney in those clown movies. 

And speaking of Lon Chaney, we come to the consummate point of vaudeville-horror crossover in the person of his frequent collaborator Tod Browning.  Browning started out in vaudeville and carnivals. He had been a sideshow spieler, ringmaster, circus clown, contortionist, escape artist and something called a “Hypnotic Living Corpse” He also claimed to have worked as an assistant to the great magicians Leon Herriman and Ching Ling Foo. Then he worked in films, initially making silent comedies. This was his background for being a horror director: sideshow, carny and vaudeville. There is much crossover amongst the three. A wonderful example can be found in Browning’s notorious 1932 horror film Freaks: the conjoined Hilton Sisters. 

So: 1) clowns, 2) sideshow freaks, and…there’s a third.

And it really took a while for this one to dawn on me. It’s funny how you can look at a thing for quite some time and not see it. And then one day…You do see it. This one came to by way of Marilyn Manson. A few years ago (when he was still married to Dita Von Teese) he embarked on this “Vodevil” tour (he called a song that too) and in interviews described what he did as “vaudeville”. And I always bristled when I heard heavy metal guys like him or Alice Cooper or Ozzie Osbourne describe what they did as “vaudeville”. I couldn’t see it.

But then one day I did. It may be obvious to you, but I was looking at it the wrong way. It has nothing to do with music. It has everything to do costume and stagecraft and illusion. And the analogy is not the hat and cane song and dance man, but to THE MAGICIAN. D’oh! Right? A fake guillotine? A gallows? Dry ice? That has as great a claim to being “vaudeville” as anything I can think of.

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