Archive for magic

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! 


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.

More Creepy Ventriloquists: William Wood

Posted in Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, PLUGS, Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , on October 24, 2014 by travsd


The current production the ventrilooquialcentric Dead End Dummy has prompted me to add to the ventriloquism section of Travalanche. We already have most of the best known ventriloquists of the classical show biz era represented (find them here),  but there is always more to add (although less will likely be known about them). Anyway, here is today’s installment…



William Wood (1862-1908) was an American ventriloquist and magician who began his career as an assistant to Harry Kellar. One of his most famous stunts (as depicted on these posters) was the spectacular levitation his wife Edna. By the last decade of his life he was considered one of America’s top ventriloquists.


While traveling on the Gulf of Mexico on tour, with his young daughter, a large sum of money and all his equipment including eight ventriloquist dummies he was lost at sea under mysterious circumstances. There was reported to have been a shipwreck, but (suspiciously) all of the crew survived, while Wood, his daughter and and their money ($20,000) all vanished. All that survived were four dummies, which washed ashore. They now reside at the Vent Haven Museum in Kentucky, where they are being preserved. Here is one of them:


These dummies were featured on a 2013 episode of Mysteries at the Museum on the Travel Channel.

But if you truly can’t get enough mysterious ventriloquism, please join us here!


A Short History of Evil Ventriloquists in the Movies

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Indie Theatre, ME, Movies, My Shows, Silent Film, Television, Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2014 by travsd


Ah! The emotionally troubled ventriloquist and his scary dummy!

There are enough movies, plays and tv shows about this ancient schizoid character that it constitutes a minor subgenre all its own. It’s not surprising that terror is an offshoot of this ancient discipline. Its roots, like the roots of all theatre, go back to caveman times, and no doubt the supernatural was part of the original dodge. Like clowns, ventriloquists and their dummies are uncanny — they seem to be acting out some dream. If you’ll check out the ventriloquism section of this blog, you will find biographies of all the major vents going back to the mid 19th century . Some of their photos, especially in the early days are quite disturbing indeed. Moreover, there is something about having a little “mini-me” that psychologically encourages the ventriloquist to pour his negative energy into it. The dummy has permission to say all the things that a person would usually censor himself from saying. Even relatively light comedy acts like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy had that feature. Charlie says all the wicked, lecherous, rude things — and Edgar’s role is to scold him and apologize to the audience. Meanwhile, it’s been Bergen who’s really been saying those nasty things all along! It’s downright diabolical!

And we are far from the first to notice. So here are some notable evil vent stories of stage and screen from the past century. Just in time for Halloween.


The Unholy Three (1925 and 1930): But of COURSE Tod Browning and Lon Chaney inaugurate the genre…except they almost don’t.  Based on a novel by Tod Robbins (the same guy who wrote the story which Freaks is based onThe Unholy Three does indeed cast Chaney as a criminal ventriloquist (whose best job is making pet-shop parrots seem to talk), but he also goes around in drag, and is in cahoots with a midget (Harry Earles) who pretends to be a baby, a strong man (Victor McLaglen) and a sexy vamp (Mae Busch). So the vent stuff gets tamped down a little, it’s not the main focus. Still, it counts! I give two dates above because there was both a silent version (1925) and a talkie remake (1930).


The Great Gabbo (1929): I saw this one for the first time the other night — what sheer unadulterated delight. Based on a short story by Ben Hecht called “The Rival Dummy” and directed by James Cruze (best known for his silent epic The Covered Wagon) , the film stars Erich Von Stroheim as a cruel, fascistic ventriloquist who browbeats his lover and assistant (Betty Compson) and is only able to demonstrate tenderness through his dummy. After she leaves him, he is only able to relate to his dummy…and that’s a little weird. Towards the end, when they meet again, he mistakes the girl’s kindness for a rapprochement. When it proves illusory, he goes completely insane, and that my friends is worth watching. As are the very bizarre comedy routines with Stroheim’s German accent in falsetto telling the jokes, and the eerie silences that follow them (this being one of the earliest sound films). The movie is also a strange hybrid…at least 50% musical comedy, fairly unrelated to the plot.


Dead of Night (1945): One of the terrifying classics of the horror anthology genre, Dead of Night tells six stories, one of which casts Michael Redgrave as an insane ventriloquist named Maxwell whose dummy Hugo gets him into some very bad trouble. In the end, Max does what must be done. Here’s the famous, chilling climax:


The Twilight Zone: Episode: “The Dummy” (1962):   Cliff Roberston is a down and out ventriloquist. His fear of his dummy has caused him to develop a drinking problem. Determined to fight, he decides to replace the current dummy with a sillier one. But Willy (the current one) tricks him and torments him. In the end, they have traded places. Willy is now the ventriloquist and Robertson’s character is the dummy….


The Twilight Zone : Episode: “Caesar and Me” (1964):  Jackie Cooper plays an Irish ventriloquist who is having a tough time making a go of it. His fully sentient dummy convinces him to commit robberies. When he does so and gets caught, and tries to demonstrate that the dummy put him up to it, the dummy falls silent. He is led away in handcuffs.


Devil Doll (1964)

This may be my favorite in the genre now for many reasons. One is that it takes the ancient idea of the “Uncanny” all the way back to its primitive origins. The Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday), a magician, had gone off to the mystic East to study the secrets of the swamis. When he returns he succeeds in imprisoning the soul of one of his partners inside the ventriloquist dummy. His dummy can not only think and talk on its own, but it can walk by itself…and that is a mighty creepy sight indeed. Tod Browning also made a film by this name (originally called The Witch of Timbuktu), which while not a ventriloquist film, plays similarly with this ancient folk terror of the dollikin or manikin…the tiny evil imp who will sneak up on you in your sleep. In the end, Vorelli goes too far and his dummy Hugo (his name no doubt a nod to Dead of Night) turns the table on him. Look for more on star Bryant Haliday here in future. He grew up in a monastery in Rhode Island, did art theatre in the Boston area, and made several British horror films in the 60s. His is a most interesting profile.


Soap (1977-1981) On this ABC sit-com soap opera parody Jay Johnson played a guy named Chuck who was never without his wooden friend Bob. This was probably the first major, mainstream ear-pulling of the evil ventriloquist genre. Though it was a comedy, Bob WAS evil. He said and did things far worse than your Charlie McCarthys and your Jerry Mahoneys. Bob drew blood, and Chuck couldn’t control him.


The Ventriloquists Wife (1978) The great comic playwright and actor Charles Ludlam had an off-Broadway hit in 1978 with this play about a murderous ventriloquist dummy and the toll he takes on the life of his hapless partner. This script plays with the evil ventriloquist genre on its own terms (by being dark) but unlike all the classic movies and Twilight Zone episodes up until that time — the comedy routines are actually funny. This makes it unique within the entire genre. The gorgeous Black-Eyed Susan was the titular wife.


Magic (1978) This may well be the best known evil ventriloquist movie of all, and it’s a strange one. Anthony Hopkins plays true to type as a very ill-at-ease young man who finally manages to break out of his shell by augmenting his magic act with ventriloquism. The dummy “Fats” is crude and makes a lot of dick jokes, which passes for humor in the film in a way I don’t find creditable. (Hopkins characterization is interesting to me — reminds me a bit of Jay Johnson’s in Soap. Young, longish hair, and that nerd look, sweaters, sneakers, shirt tails hanging out…did he base the character on Jay? Or Chuck, rather?). Anyway, Hopkins’ character proves to be about as stable as Norman Bates. There’s no hint of the supernatural in this film; he’s  just a natural psycho. Oddly he does very little actual killing in the film by horror movie standards, making the film a bit of a head scratcher. What is it? A character portrait of no one who ever existed? But it sticks in the craw.


Tales from the Crypt: Episode : “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” (1990): SPOILER ALERT!  yes, this one proves not so much to be an evil ventriloquist dummy movie as an evil parasitic twin movie, which is an even better act! Bobcat Goldthwait plays a young ventriloquist; Don Rickles, the older one with a…secret.


Cradle Will Rock (1999) Bill Murray is a down and out ventriloquist now out of work because of the death of vaudeville. He has a secret which gives him a breakdown. This is a subplot in Tim Robbins’ larger movie about Orson Welles’ rocky attempt to mount the Marc Blitzstein musical of the same name. 


Dead Silence (2007) I was shocked at how much I enjoyed this film, and how original it is. I was expecting a retread of a story we’ve seen many times. Directed by James Wan, and written by Leigh Whannel, Dead Silence takes place entirely in a fairy tale realm, the ghost story space…the only realistic beats are in the film’s first five minutes. A box containing a ventriloquist dummy shows up unexpectedly at a young couple’s house….leading to a journey to an entire town where the leading citizens are murdered by the ghost of a ventriloquist. It is (so far) the only movie in which there’s not just ONE, but over ONE HUNDRED evil ventriloquist dummies  on the loose! In a haunted old theatre! Boo!


VentriloquistTwo plays by Rick Mitchell (2012): I wrote the introduction to this book! You can buy it here.


The Plight of Cecil Sinclair (2014):  My old pal “rock and roll ventriloquist” Carla Rhodes just launched her exciting and hilarious and creepy new web series. Watch it here.

Bartolomeo Bosco

Posted in Impressionists, Italian with tags , , on January 3, 2014 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Giovanni Bartolomeo Bosco (1793-1863). Bosco was a magician so popular and influential that many others later appropriated his name. He is mostly commonly mentioned in connection with the Cups and Balls routine, and for seeming to be able to switch the heads of live birds. A native of Turin, he served in the Napoleonic wars, briefly studied medicine and then embarked on his magic career which took the courts of the rulers of Russia, France, Prussia and Sweden.

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


Don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


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