The New-York Historical Society – Summer of Magic

Continuing a tradition of programming its summer with an entertaining historical theme, The New-York Historical Society becomes Magic Central this season exploring illusion, prestidigitation, mentalism, and famous escapes that spotlight New York’s longstanding infatuation with being mystified. I spoke with curator Cristian Petru Panaite about the centerpiece exhibit and fascinating agenda, later taking a tour lead by world renown illusionist David Copperfield and Panaite.

You may be familiar with the legendary Harry Houdini (born Erik Weisz), but are you aware that his professional name is a tribute to French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, considered the father of modern conjuring or that Johnny Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent was a laudatory nod to The Levitation of Princess Karnac by magician Harry Kellar? Would it surprise you to learn that unlike those at Hogwarts (Harry Potter), a magician’s wand is ceremonially broken when he dies?

Might it interest you that the most famous death in magic (according to David Copperfield) is that of Chung Ling Soo (William Ellsworth Robinson, always using a fake translator in public) who failed to catch a bullet in his teeth during the bullet catch? (“Sixteen people have died performing this,” Copperfield comments.) And that when magician Alexander Herrmann died, his wife Adelaide headlined with her own solo act becoming one of the first females in the profession?

Left- Martinka Card Display; Right-Kellar Nesting Boxes. an illusion the Dean of American Magicians performed for President Roosevelt’s family–Both courtesy of NYHS

Summer of Magic looks at these and other illusionists from the Golden Age of Magic (1880s-1930s).

“Visitors can explore objects and attend a host of evening programs, family activities and free films that offer historical perspective on the spectacle of magic and magicians who became famous. The exhibition, Treasures from the David Copperfield Collection, features selected items from the International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts, an incomparable trove of 200,000 magical artifacts, books, artwork and memorabilia collected by David Copperfield.


David Copperfield (Bigstock photo)

With insights by and suggestions from Copperfield, magician Mike Caveney, and Houdini Historian John Cox, 100 objects, most never seen outside the invitation-only facility, were chosen to illuminate magic’s heyday and reflect New York magic shops of the 20th century. Added to this are dozens of magic props and magic kits as well as magic-themed posters from New-York Historical’s collection.” Cristian Petru Panaite

I asked the enthusiastic curator earliest and latest dates of exhibited objects. “There are a number of posters from the late 1800s including an enormous one of Herrmann the Great that adorned the small theater in the back of Martinka Magic Shop, one of the first of its kind in New York and the place where The Society of American Magicians was founded in 1902.

The most recent is Copperfield’s groundbreaking Death Saw which was seen on his CBS TV special in 1988, and wowed Broadway in 1996.”  This intimidating apparatus stands in the front hall.

When Copperfield walked us around the exhibit, he pointed out that audiences were conditioned to look at the oversized and dangerous saw as if it were something from which he’d escape. Watched on a performance video, chained by the neck and legs and handcuffed, the magician feigned distress as a giant circular blade revolved ten times faster than the speed you’ll see at the museum, apparently cutting him in half. “The audience was really upset,” Copperfield recalled gleefully. Two halves of his body are then pulled apart and, repeating the process backwards, rejoined. It’s something to see!

Houdini’s Metamorphosis Trunk  (Courtesy of NYHS)

“One of the most fascinating objects on view is the Metamorphosis Trunk, ca. 1900,” Panaite tells me. “In 1894, Harry and Bess Houdini’s first escape act brought the newlyweds a touring contract with the Welsh Brothers Circus. The act, billed as The Substitution Trunk or Metamorphosis was performed routinely by the Houdinis until 1904. It involved Harry stepping with tied hands into a sack that was then tied with string, sealed with wax, and placed inside a locked trunk.

A curtain was drawn and three claps (or seconds) later, when reopened, the couple would have magically traded places. The performers’ heights—Harry was five foot five and Bess considerably smaller—probably helped quick transition. In addition to the trunk, we’re also displaying a costume worn—and likely designed—by Bess Houdini for the trick.”

Copperfield adds that Houdini didn’t plan to center his career on escape, but response to Metamorphosis Trunk was so enthusiastic, he began to concoct ever more dramatic and treacherous challenges creating a unique niche for himself.

Houdini’s Mirror Handcuffs and Straight Jacket (Courtesy of NYHS)

The display case holding the trunk also boasts a straight jacket, large milk can with locks, and the handcuffs used in 1904’s London Daily Mirror Challenge. It’s been suggested that people felt socially and economically shackled in those days relating easily to the tools of Houdini’s trade. Period footage of an outdoor escape runs in a loop. Only missing, Panaite points out, are some of the hundreds of letters the artist received daring him to execute various feats. (Many are in Copperfield’s private collection)

We see what look like safe-cracking tools, props, calling cards, programs, and cases showing historical magic sets and implements. A video produced by magician Joshua Jay and Reuben Moreland demonstrates classical magic at Tannen’s iconic Magic Store, the oldest continuous magic shop in New York. Now at 35 West 34th Street, the resource has always been a welcome gathering place for professionals, amateurs and the curious.

Mysto Magic Set (Courtesy of NYHS)

David Copperfield (born David Seth Kotkin), who Forbes calls the most successful magician in the world, began as an aspiring ventriloquist. At Macy’s to purchase a better dummy, he impulsively bought his first magic trick. (We see it here.) The captivated boy then searched out Tannen’s. “Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, and Orson Welles frequented the place. It became the center of my existence…There are more books written about magic than anything but medicine…” David Copperfield

The shop even sold some affects (what the uninitiated think of as tricks) he invented. Then called Davino, Boy Magician, Copperfield was also published at the ripe age of 12. “I had great affinity for it and sucked at everything else…My quest was not only to inspire and entertain, but to tell stories, touch people’s hearts.”

This small, but stimulating exhibit is on the main floor beginning at the center back wall and curving around to the right facing in, including an alcove, and, finally, a display case by the side door.

Ticketed evening events include, in part, interactive workshops, Parlor Mind Reading, The Psychology of Magic, 7000 Years of Magic, a rare look at Women in the Golden Age of Magic, Tragic Magic (deaths), and The Magic Lantern: The Grandfather of Cinema. Copperfield notes that over the years, technically inclined magicians have added to knowledge now commonly utilized in consumer products.

On Family Saturdays and Sundays from June 23-August 26, one can experience magicians, fortune tellers, escape artists and illusionists with the price of admission. A clever photo op allows one to leave with a picture of being levitated by Copperfield.

The free film series looks at real and fictional magicians. On this list are: a documentary on Houdini, Now You See Me 1 & 2, Magician: The Astonishing World of Orson Welles, War of the Worlds, and The Prestige. Even the society’s shop gets in the act with Fantasia Magic Kits and books for those who long to amaze.

New-York Historical Society- Summer of Magic
170 Central Park West (at West 77th Street)

About Alix Cohen (658 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.