William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo – Part 2
Last month we looked at Robinson's evolution to becoming Chung Ling Soo. In this month’s column, I want to look at a few of Robinson’s magic effects that he was famous for. Robinson's first performance as Soo was in 1900. This fell right in the middle of The Boxer Rebellion, a war in China where the United States, joined by seven other countries, sent troops to China to fight the rebellion. The rebellion was sparked by anti-imperialist sentiments, initially by the Society of Righteous and Harmonies Fist, commonly called The Boxers. Before long, Empress Dowager Cixi joined the uprising with the Chinese army. The Boxers destroyed railroads and infrastructure built by the western countries, killing missionaries and other westerners.
The Boxer Rebellion created an anti-Chinese sentiment in the west, which Robinson had to contend with in his show. When performing in England, Robinson’s closing culminated in a large production of silks, punctuated by the appearance of a large Chinese flag with a dragon on it. When the boos started, Robinson threw the flag on the ground and stomped on it. Then he took a few other flags he had produced, bundled them together, and attached them to a rope that raised the bundle above the stage, unfurling into a large Union Jack to thunderous applause.
Despite the anti-Chinese sentiment from The Boxer Rebellion, Soo remained very popular. His show included traditional Chinese Conjurors’ tricks such as the linking rings, fire eating, and the fishbowl production. His rendition of the Orange Tree and his Cannon Illusion were two very popular illusions. In the Orange Tree illusion, Soo had a conical metal tube suspended by a rope, lowered over his assistant Suee Seen. Then Soo clapped his hands, and the tube was raised with Suee Seen vanished. The tube was then lowered onto a table which, when lifted, had an orange tree that blossomed and produced oranges that were distributed to the audience.
In the Cannon Illusion, a giant cannon was brought onto the stage, and Suee Seen was loaded into it. Then an enormous black cannonball was loaded after her. The cannon was fired over the heads of the audience, causing quite a commotion that turned to laughter when the rubber cannonball bounced off the back wall and started rolling back toward the stage. Then the spotlights illuminated the first balcony to find Suee Seen standing there. Soo borrowed the rubber cannon ball idea from Alexander Herrmann.
In 1908 Soo, as his finale, introduced a fascinating new illusion, The Mystic Cauldron. An iron cauldron was brought on stage, shown empty, then suspended on a tripod like a witches' cauldron. Buckets of water filled the cauldron, and a ring of gas jets was ignited under the caldron, bringing the water to a boil. Soo's assistants then brought out a bunch of dead animals (rabbits, ducks, doves, and pigeons), dilapidated taxidermies that looked quite funny, and Soo would throw each one of them into the boiling water. Then Soo dipped his hand into the boiling water and produced three live rabbits, bright white ducks, doves, and chickens, that all hopped and waddled around the stage, creating quite a ruckus. Finally, he reached in and produced Suee Seen adorned in dry Chinese silks.
Next month I will finish up this series on William Robinson with the illusion he is most associated with. Until then, remember our rich magical heritage.
Recommended Reading: The Glorious Deception - The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo the "Marvelous Chinese Conjurer" by Jim Steinmeyer.