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Skirball Cultural Center

2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90049 - (310) 440-4500


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Press Walkthrough: Wednesday, April 27, 10:00 a.m.
Reservations required: (310) 440-4544


Skirball Cultural Center presents


April 28–September 4, 2011

First-ever museum exhibition on the contributions of Jewish magicians to modern magic

Left: Great Ballantine (1917–2009) with Cards and Balls, c.1935. Courtesy of Saratoga Ballantine.
Right: The Great Herrmann and His Wonderful Specialties, 1880. Courtesy of Mike Caveney’s Egyptian Hall Museum.

LOS ANGELES—In conjunction with its presentation of the traveling exhibition Houdini: Art and Magic, the Skirball Cultural Center has developed a major companion exhibition, Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age. The pair will be on view concurrently from April 28 through September 4, 2011. Spotlighting innovators of magic's “Golden Age,” which spanned 1875 to 1948, Masters of Illusion is the first museum exhibition to investigate the contributions of Jewish magicians to the development of modern magic. Through more than 150 original artifacts, it highlights the accomplishments of Hardeen, the Herrmann and Bamberg dynasties, and more than thirty leading Jewish magicians of the day, including Harry Houdini. By considering Houdini's contemporaries—and, in some cases, his competitors—Masters of Illusion helps put into context the life and legacy of the famed escape artist and addresses magicians whose stories have largely been forgotten.

Skirball curator Erin Clancey, who conceived and created Masters of Illusion, remarks, “We hope that visitors will enjoy the opportunity to view the extraordinary treasures presented in both exhibitions, and that they will come to appreciate the impact Jewish magicians made on entertainment history and on American and European culture, lifestyle, and traditions.”

In Masters of Illusion, the history of magical entertainment and the dynamic careers of Jewish magicians are showcased through a range of objects and media, including advertising lithographs, playbills, broadsides, costumes, stage props, automata, and film and radio clips. Notable are the 1584 first edition of the Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot, thought to be the first English language book to distinguish magic as a performance requiring skill and illusion rather than a practice of witchcraft; famous automata, the mechanized figures and objects that eerily mimicked human abilities and movements, such as Robert-Houdin’s “Antonio Diavolo” and David “Papa” Bambergs “Mephistopheles”; a 1901 will signed twice by Houdini, first using his well-known stage name and second using his given name, Ehrich Weiss; and a billboard-sized Horace Goldin “Tiger God” poster. Also on view are Theodore “Okito” Bambergs Chinese Dragon Robe, Alexander Herrmanns magic wand, and Carl Ballantines trunk of magical props.

These stunning artifacts are drawn from many private collections, including those of renowned magicians, magic historians, and descendants of magicians featured in the exhibition. The items on view will be displayed in a gallery designed to recall environments where magic was often performed, such as Victorian magic parlors and vaudeville stages.

To complement Masters of Illusion and Houdini: Art and Magic, the Skirball has organized a range of related programs for all ages, including appearances by magicians Joshua Jay and Max Maven, an excursion to the Magic Castle, numerous magic shows, a late-night multimedia party, and a magic-inspired sleepover for kids and parents.


Exhibition Overview

The exhibition opens by tracing the evolution of social attitudes toward magic. Before the seventeenth century, magic was typically regarded as a practice of trickery and deception, if not witchcraft. By the eighteenth century, however, royal records show that magicians were so acceptable that they were standard entertainment in court. In the mid-nineteenth century, French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805–1871) established the modern style of conjuring; a young Ehrich Weiss would come to honor Robert-Houdin in his choice of “Houdini” as stage name. Clearly a significant, if not Jewish, forefather, Robert-Houdin is represented in the exhibition through three of his automata.

Also on display are artifacts attributed to early-modern magicians such as David “Papa” Bamberg (1843–1914), a fourth-generation magician, several of whose sons and grandsons followed in his footsteps; eighteenth-century mnemonist Rabbi Hirsch Danemark; “Wizard of Wizards” Joseph Jacobs (1813–1870); and the renowned conjurer Compars “Carl” Herrmann (1816–1887), also the founder of a magic dynasty. The exhibition displays tools of their trade, including examples of the cups-and-balls and die-box illusions, magic wands, magic kits, and magicians' specially printed playing cards.

Following the Industrial Revolution, the consequent influx of populations to cities, and the rise of the middle class and increase in leisure time, a new form of amusement for the mainstream public emerged. Known alternately as vaudeville, music hall, or variety, these live entertainments presented a hodgepodge of talents suitable for family audiences. The careers of many magicians thrived in this climate. To downplay his thick accent, Horace Goldin (1873–1939) eschewed patter and popularized the silent, fast-moving magical act. The Great Leon (1876–1951), a.k.a. Chunda Hula and Kadan Sami, was known for spectacles of great originality. French magician Alexander Herrmann, known as Herrmann the Great (1844–1896), inspired the iconic image of the menacing, devilish magician type with pointed mustache and goatee; after Herrmann's death, his wife, Adelaide, continued her husband’s act, including his famous decapitation illusion and the bullet catch trick. The Great Lafayette (1872–1911), a born showman and animal lover, was the highest-paid performer of his time.

As transportation developed beyond primitive roads and horse-drawn vehicles, magicians could mount increasingly complex and far-reaching acts. Railways and steam ships, and eventually cars and trucks, took these intrepid travelers not only across America and Europe, but to the far reaches of the globe. Magicians became interpreters of world culture for the general public, and their acts and personas often reflected this role. Examples include Theodore Bamberg (1875–1963), a.k.a. Okito, who performed both in Japanese and Chinese guises, and his son David Bamberg (1904–1974), who performed as “Fu Manchu.”

Magicians also took advantage of developments in communications, availing themselves of the new electric power and telegraph lines to promote their acts. Masters of Illusion presents a variety of playbills and posters featuring florid typography and grandiose language, as well as magicians’ images on manufactured products, early examples of product placement. After the 1860s, when color came to commercial lithography, magicians shifted to alluring, image-based advertisements.

Masters of Illusion marks World War II through the careers of Nivelli (1906–1977), who survived concentration camps by performing for the Nazis; and Carl Rosini (1885–1969), who fortunately emigrated from Poland and Germany to England and ultimately to the United States, where he became a popular USO performer. The exhibition also features a rare copy of Guenther Dammann’s 1933 Die Juden in der Zauberkunst (Jews in the Art of Conjuring), which profiled many prominent Jewish magicians of the day; the author did not survive the war.

Through the 1920s and 1930s, the inventions of radio, film, and talking motion pictures were severe blows to the popularity of vaudeville, but many magicians took advantage of new ideas and technology to keep their acts current. The Great Leon (1876–1951) created a key illusion, the Death Ray Gun, around the theory of radio waves, while Mr. Electric (b. 1925) invented a series of tricks utilizing light bulbs. The new medium of television also provided opportunities for many popular vaudeville acts, including magicians. Carl Ballantine (1917–2009) transitioned to night clubs and television with an act based on magic tricks gone hilariously awry. In these ways, magicians strove to reinvent themselves through the end of magic's Golden Age.


Related Exhibition

Organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, and on view at the Skirball from April 28 through September 4, 2011, Houdini: Art and Magic is the first major art museum exhibition to explore the life and legacy of the celebrated American showman. Combining more than 150 biographical and historical objects—including film clips, period posters, theater ephemera, rare photographs, and original props—with contemporary art inspired by Houdini’s physical audacity and celebrity, the exhibition documents Houdini’s rise to fame, his lasting cultural influence in the decades beyond his death, and the iconic status he still holds today.


Related Programs

During the runs of both Houdini: Art and Magic and Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age, the Skirball will present many related programs:

  • DOCENT TOURS: Docent-led tours of Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age (Tuesday–Sunday starting May 1, 12:30 p.m.) as well as Houdini: Art and Magic  (Tuesday–Sunday starting May 1, 12:30 and 2:30 p.m.). The tours are appropriate for adults and children 8 and up.
  • GUEST WALKTHROUGHS: Exhibition tours led by expert commentators and special guests, including magician Mike Caveney (Sunday, June 26, 1:30 p.m.) and Skirball curator Erin Clancey. (Dates and additional guests TBD.)
  • LECTURE: A revealing talk on Jewish magicians by Max Maven, Hollywood mentalist and author of approximately 2,000 articles, tricks, and essays. (Thursday, May 26, 8:00 p.m.)
  • LECTURE: “The Secret Life of Houdini,” by William Kalush, director of The Conjuring Arts Research Center and author of The Secret Life of Houdini. (Sunday, July 24, 2:00 p.m.)
  • LECTURE: An insightful dialogue between esteemed magicians Marvyn Roy (“Mr. Electric”) and Mike Caveney. Roy is the only surviving magician featured in the exhibition Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age. (Sunday, August 21, 2:00 p.m.)
  • LECTURE/PERFORMANCE: “Tragic Magic: A History of Fatal Conjuring,” by Joshua Jay, World Champion of Close-Up Magic and author of the bestselling book Magic: The Complete Course. In this lecture/performance, Jay vividly explores some of the strangest deaths that have befallen magicians, assistants, and even audience members throughout magic’s rich history. Jay even performs one of these deadly stunts! (Thursday, June 30, 8:00 p.m.)
  • EXCURSION: A visit to L.A.’s famed Magic Castle, including an illustrated lecture on Houdini’s experiences in Hollywood by Houdini expert Patrick Culliton, a tour of the Houdini séance room, a performance by Jim Bentley, an accomplished magician and escape artist who performs in the style of Houdini, plus a catered lunch. (Friday, June 3, 11:00 a.m.–2:30 p.m.)
  • FILM: Free matinees of films about Harry Houdini and the influence of magic in Western society, namely Houdini (1953) (Tuesday, May 3, 1:30 p.m.); Ragtime (1981) (Tuesday, May 10, 1:30 p.m.); FairyTale: A True Story (1997) (Tuesday, June 7, 1:30 p.m.); and The Great Houdini (1976) (Tuesday, June 14, 1:30 p.m.)
  • FILM: Double-feature screening of two serials starring Harry Houdini: Terror Island (1920) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923). (Sunday, July 10, 2:00 p.m.)
  • LATE-NIGHT EVENT: Magic-inspired evening featuring live music, a DJ, magicians, film screening of the Houdini serial Master Mystery (1920), poetry readings, and gallery tours. Performers TBA. (Friday, July 8, 9:00 p.m.–12:00 a.m.)
  • FAMILY PROGRAM: On Sunday afternoons, performances by a strolling magician across the Skirball grounds. (Sundays, May 1–September 4; intermittently 12:00–2:00 p.m.)
  • FAMILY PROGRAM: Magic Day at the Skirball, featuring a variety of magic shows, opportunities to create magic-inspired art, personal encounters with card-trick and sleight-of-hand performers from the Magic Castle, and a screening of the documentary Make Believe, which celebrates the power of magic to positively shape young people’s identities. (Sunday, May 15: drop in anytime 10:00 a.m.–4:30 p.m.)
  • FAMILY PROGRAM: A six-session Toddler Time class for toddlers and their caregivers to explore the exhibitions and engage in related art, music, and movement activities. (Thursdays, May 19–June 23, 10:30 a.m.–12:00 p.m.)
  • FAMILY PROGRAM: As part of the Skirball’s annual Family Amphitheater Performances summertime series, a rich line-up of magic acts to complement music, dance, storytelling, and other family-friendly performances. (Saturdays and Sundays, July 9–September 4, 12:00 and 2:00 p.m.)
  • FAMILY PROGRAM: An overnight getaway inviting kids and grown-ups to explore the exhibitions after dark, participate in “Houdini-esque” activities, and cozy up for bed with the creatures in the Skirball’s Noah’s Ark galleries. (Saturday, July 16–Sunday, July 17, 6:00 p.m.–9:00 a.m.)

As part of its extensive outreach to local schools, the Skirball will offer an interactive, gallery-based program for students in Grades 3–8. The program will include a tour of Houdini: Art and Magic, and encounters with objects from Houdini’s most famous performances. It will address topics of immigration and identity through discussion of Houdini’s family history and his transition into the field of entertainment. School visits will also include a tour of the companion exhibition, Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age, as well as a live performance by a local magician.

The Skirball will also offer a Houdini-related, in-school residency program focusing on spoken word performance. A group of area high-school students will work with spoken word artist Joshua Silverstein on the creation of pieces that they will perform at their respective schools and at the Skirball. Participating students will visit both magic exhibitions and focus on the themes of personal transformation and the invention of a public persona.

MEDIA SPONSORS: KCRW 89.9 FM, Los Angeles magazine


About the Skirball

The Skirball Cultural Center is dedicated to exploring the connections between 4,000 years of Jewish heritage and the vitality of American democratic ideals. It welcomes and seeks to inspire people of every ethnic and cultural identity. Guided by our respective memories and experiences, together we aspire to build a society in which all of us can feel at home. The Skirball Cultural Center achieves its mission through educational programs that explore literary, visual, and performing arts from around the world; through the display and interpretation of its permanent collections and changing exhibitions; through an interactive family destination inspired by the Noah’s Ark story; and through outreach to the community.

Visiting the Skirball

The Skirball Cultural Center is located at 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90049. Free on-site parking; street parking strictly prohibited. The Skirball is also accessible by Metro Rapid Bus 761. Museum hours: Tuesday–Friday 12:00–5:00 p.m.; Saturday–Sunday 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.; closed Mondays and holidays, including June 8 in observance of Shavuot. Admission to exhibitions: $10 General; $7 Seniors, Full-Time Students, and Children over 12; $5 Children 2–12. Exhibitions are always free to Skirball Members and Children under 2. Exhibitions are free to all visitors on Thursdays. For general information, the public may call (310) 440-4500 or visit The Skirball is also home to Zeidler’s Café, which serves innovative California cuisine in an elegant setting, and Audrey’s Museum Store, which sells books, contemporary art, music, jewelry, and more.


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