The 15th Anniversary Issue (June/July2008) of Bust Magazine has an article in it titled "Use Your Illusion".
The editor of Bust Magazine has graciously granted us permission to post this article on our website.
A mystical history of the women who broke the "lovely assistant" mold
and sawed the boys' club of magic in half.
By Nicole Summer
AFTER MONTHS OF research with the best ballistics experts she could find, magician Dorothy Dietrich, clad in a low-cut fringed bodysuit with her long blond hair swept back from her face, stood on stage at an International Brotherhood of Magicians convention in Pittsburgh. Across from her, a man raised a gun and fired a .22 caliber bullet directly at her face. She caught the bullet in a metal cup in her mouth. It was 1980, and Dietrich had ust become the first woman on record to successfully complete the bullet catch, a trick that has killed 12 men and that not even the great Houdini dared attempt. More important, she had just earned the much sought-after respect of her magical male brethren and her place in the pantheon of magic history.
one of only a few women to have made her mark in this male-dominated
field. And despite her success, no female magicians have ever had the
mainstream fame of someone like David Copperfield. That's because, unlike
other male-dominated professions, breaking the glass ceiling in magic
isn't just about getting into a certain school. In magic, you have to be
admitted into the circle, a secret society of sorts. The secrets required
for many magic tricks, and certainly for the grandest illusions, are held
closely by those who learned them from magicians before them. This
knowledge isn't available to just anyone with a rabbit and top hat-it has
to be earned. And since magic has always been a man's world, the men have
kept these secrets to themselves.
Women have had a place in magic, however, usually as the "lovely assistant." The famous sawing-a-woman-in-half trick actually began with a man facing the saw's teeth. But putting a woman in the box sensationalized the trick; as Val Andrews, a noted magician and theatrical historian, wrote, "The idea of cutting through such a fragile and delightful being made the situation so much more dramatic and alarming."
Not content to be mere sawdust, some women were determined to jump out of the box and claim the spotlight for themselves. Julie Sobanski, a magician in Milwaukee who is currently writing a book about the history of female magicians, has uncovered records of more than 300 female magicians since the 1700s, although there were surely female magicians before then. "They just were overlooked," she says. According to Sobanski, the first known female magician was Mrs. John Brenon, a sleight-of-hand artist who performed with her Irish magician husband in his rope-walking act in 1787 in New York. Alas, not even her first name is known. She was "swept underneath the magic carpet," says Sobanski.
Adelaide Herrmann is widely considered the first trailblazing female magician to achieve fame and success. Herrmann began as her husband Alexander's assistant, but when he died in 1896, she was determined to carry on the show. She initially worked with Alexander's nephew, but after a falling-out, she struck out on her own and had a longer and financially more successful career than her husband ever did. Incorporating Noah's Ark into her shows, she thrilled audiences by producing animals from a seemingly empty wooden vessel. A 1926 fire killed 60 of her trained animals, much of her magic equipment, and almost her morale, but just 2 months later, the 73-year-old emerged with a new act and continued to perform for 2 more years, and she became the second female member admitted to the Society of American Magicians (SAM).
Adelaide Herrmann performing her multiplying billard ball trick in the late 1890s.
Another pioneer, Mercedes Talma, could manipulate up to 30 coins in her petite hands, earning her the nickname Queen of Coins. Beginning in 1899 and performing through the 1920s, Talma played to crowds all over the world with her husband, magician Servais Le Roy. Talma mystified critics with her show; because she wore sleeveless off-the-shoulder evening gowns, she couldn't possibly be hiding the coins up her sleeves, as male magicians were known to do. She was "dainty and petite and bubbling over with good spirits and vivacity," according to one critic. Her dexterity was not to be trifled with, as a couple of would-be muggers found out when they attempted to rob her on a New York street: she began producing coins out of nothingness. Astonished and confused, they fled.
Mercedes Talma, Queen of Coins, from the early 1900s.
Then there was the inimitable Dell O'Dell, the original Queen of Magic. Born in 1902, O'Dell grew up in Kansas and learned magic from her father, a carnival magician. As a teenager, O'Dell became fanatical about exercise. She developed a "strong-woman act" and won the title Miss Physical Culture. She eventually incorporated magic into her act and began making a name for herself in the 1930s and '40s. O'Dell would mingle with the audience before her performance began, so that "by the time she was doing the show, they were already on her side," says Sobanski. Her occasionally bawdy sense of humor and her sly innuendos prompted gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell to quip, after a party, "There was the roughest lady magician, Dell O'Dell, whose libido was as free as if we were at an Elk's Convention."
Although O'Dell's act was decent enough, featuring rabbits, doves, ducks, and goldfish, her business acumen and work ethic were what really propelled her forward. Her name graced books, stamp albums, dolls, hand cream, puzzles, novelties, magic shops-you name it, she branded it. In 1951, she got her own weekly half-hour show, The Dell O'Dell Show, on KTLA-TV in California. Continuing to perform until 48 hours before her death from cancer at age 59, she left a legacy of business genius that magicians after her would try to emulate.
"In the '50s and '60s, an explosion
of lady magicians came on the scene," says Sobanski. Along with advances
in education and women's rights, explains
Maria Ibanez, magician and
president of SAM,"females became more accepted as performers. Women also
began touring for the U.S.O. and other morale-boosting groups for troops."
In addition, as Las Vegas and the nightclub culture blossomed in the
1950s, the demand for performers of all varieties surged, giving liberated
female performers more opportunities and venues. And with Hollywood
cornmodifying sex appeal and making female sexuality palatable to the
general public, some women magicians, such as Celeste Evans, appropriated
that alluring screen-siren persona and appearance.
Evans, known for her elegant, sophisticated acts with loves and silks, was the "Jane Russell of magic," according to modern-day magician Maritess Zurbano. With her movie-star looks and her glamorous costumes, Evans had ro trouble finding gigs, even though she refused to work as a magician's assistant. When clients wanted to book a magician, the agent would ask whether they wanted a guy in a penguin suit or "a sexy young gal in a tight strapless gown with no sleeves" who produced doves. "Well, who do you think got the job? I got the job," says Evans, 76, who now lives in Florida. Gay Blackstone, wife of the legendary late magician Harry Blackstone Jr., recalls that after Evans had made some doves appear, someone asked where the doves came from, as her dress had no sleeves. Evans slyly replied, 'You've never noticed how flat-chested I am?"
Unlike earlier generations of female magicians, Evans did not grow up in show business or learn magic from a family member. Rather, she was drawn to magic on her own when, as a young girl in British Columbia in the 1940s, a boy showed her a trick turning knots into silk and told her, "You can't do this because you're a girl." "That clinched it right there," says Evans. "I told him, 'I'm going to be a magician, and I'm gonna be one of the best magicians in the world, and you'll hear about me.'" After high school, Evans moved to Vancouver, found a magic teacher who was willing to teach her some tricks, and in no time was off to entertain U.S. troops in Korea. The jet-setting glamour of a professional magician's life appealed to Evans, and she hopscotched around the globe. With a musician and two other entertainers, Evans toured the Belgian Congo in the late 1950s, at a time of violent uprising. Rebels followed the performers, and Evans and the others would leave each show by helicopter or plane. "Right after we left, the camp would be raided," she says. Evans, who was inducted into SAM'S Magic Hall of Fame in 1998, used her sex appeal to her advantage, but taking jobs away from her male colleagues wasn't without its drawbacks. Snide remarks dogged her. "One of the rumors was that I was trading tricks for tricks," she says, still sounding a bit miffed about it.
Celeste Evans New York publicity shots, circa 1956.
Like Evans, the bullet-catching Dorothy Dietrich-also known as the Female Houdini-found that being an attractive woman magician was both a help and a hindrance to her career. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania with six brothers, she often found herself tied up as the damsel in distress during their games of cowboys and Indians but would somehow manage to escape on her own. When an aunt saw her freeing herself one day, she said to her, "Who do you think you are, Houdini?" Dietrich had no clue who Houdini was but set off for the local library to find out. From then on, she was smitten. Doing odd jobs, she saved enough money as a young teen to hitch a ride with a girl-friend's older brother to New York and ran away from her abusive father, her first true escape act.
Once in New York, however, Dietrich found that agents were skeptical of "girl magicians," telling her they could only get her jobs if she wanted to make her clothes disappear as well, which she refused to do. At one gig for the Shriners in New Jersey, she found herself in a backstage dressing room with 20 pretty girls who were all wearing baby-doll jammies and who then went to sit on the men's laps in the audience. When Dietrich took the stage with her magic props, fully clothed, men in the audience bellowed, "Yeah, go ahead, baby, take it off!" But she ignored them and continued her show, just wanting it to be over. "I did probably the best show of my life because I did it as fast as I could do it-bam, bam, bam, dove; barn, bam, bam, dove; oh, wow, rabbit!" Dietrich says. After that, she told her agent never to book her for an event like that again.
Coming up in the magic world, she had a hard time finding male magicians who would take her under their wing. "They didn't say they wouldn't teach a woman, but they wouldn't," she says. When she finagled a performance for the New York SAM chapter in an effort to become a member, her male colleagues were stunned when she told them after the show that she was self-taught, and two of them took to Dietrich and helped show her the magic ropes. In the 1970s, she landed on TV shows-Good Morning New York, Good Morning America, Bill Cosby's variety show. But she wanted to take it a step further and do Houdini-esque tricks. So on an HBO show hosted by Tony Curtis, she escaped from a straitjacket while hanging from a burning rope suspended 150 feet above the ground. Then in 1980, she caught the bullet in her mouth, cementing her "Lady Houdini" reputation. Appropriately, Dietrich is currently the director of the Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA, and still has an active career as a magician.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, female magicians began to slowly increase in number, and today their population is stacked with the likes of Becky Blaney, Lisa Menna, Luna Shemada, Julie Sobanski, Paula Paul, and many others. But they still remain relatively unknown, and the statistics are telling: Ibanez estimates that only about 10 - 15 percent of SAM'S approximately 7,000 global members are women.
"The template is, if a chick is on stage, she's wearing a bikini or holding something. Basically, she's a servant" says Zurbano, a young (although she won't say how young) magician better known as "Maritess, Queen of Magic," who was recently named Female Magician of the Year by the International Magicians Society. Part of a new generation of female illusionists, Zurbano plays with gender notions in her shows, using male assistants and pulling male volunteers from the audience to have them bend over or flex their muscles, getting quick laughs from the audience and blushing faces from the volunteers. In one bit, she places foam balls in a male volunteer's hands and turns them into pink dildos.
Zurbano's sexuality has informed her magic career since the very start. When she was about 11 or 12 years old, she bought one of her first magic tricks at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. The man demonstrating the trick at the wharf, with his thick black hair, black eyes, and full lips, reminded her a little of David Copperfield, on whom she had a crush. As he improbably pushed a cigarette through a quarter, she felt an odd sensation. "I'm just experiencing this tingling between my legs, and I'm like, 'Do I have to go to the bathroom? What's going on?'" she says, laughing. "So I bought the trick."
Today, Zurbano's magic act is about taking back power, exerting that power over her audience, and owning the sexual overtones. "I love the feeling of fooling myself and fooling other people and that shared instant intimacy," she says. So does Zurbano hope to be the lady magician who finally achieves the level of fame of David Blaine? "Ha!" she laughs. "I don't want to be the female David Blaine or female David Copperfield. I want to be the Martha Stewart of magic!"