Welcome to my inaugural column of Our Rich Magical Heritage. My goal is to monthly introduce you to some of the greatest and maybe a few not so well known magicians from the past. It has become a bit cliche to state that "we stand on the shoulders of giants," but that doesn't make it any less accurate. I hope to introduce you to a few of them in the months to come.
Like many of you, I was introduced to magic at a young age. My father, who was into magic as a teenager, sat down with his number four son (me) and introduced me to magic. I fondly remember many times that we watched the movie "Houdini" together. That is the one with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, back when you had to watch the TV Guide to know when the movie would be shown. My father had seen Blackstone, Sr. at the Masonic Temple Theatre in Saginaw, and together we developed a keen sense of nostalgia for the "Golden Age of Magic." (In the modern era, The Golden Age of Magic is considered to have been from the mid-1800s until the early 1900s,)
Jumping forward to graduate school, I specialized in American theater history and the popular entertainments of the 19th and early 20th centuries. After completing my thesis, I wrote additional papers on theater history that I presented to conferences, so writing about this time period is in my blood. I look forward to sharing this enthusiasm in the months to come. Now, on to this month's story.
One lucky attendee of June's meeting will win this poster of the American Magician William Ellsworth Robinson (1861 – 1918), who performed in the character of an Asian Magician under the stage name Chung Ling Soo. Over the next three months, I will write about Robinson; however, this month, I want to focus on the phenomenon of magicians from Europe and the United States choosing to perform as Chinese Magicians. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, artists and designers would draw inspiration from North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia in a movement called Orientalism. As part of Orientalism's broader cultural movement that gripped the West, magicians chose to perform as Chinese Magicians. This usually included dressing in ornate robes, using yellow facepaint, and speaking Chinese Pidgin English. While Orientalism made for some fascinating art and, as we shall see, magic, at Orientalism's core was a negative stereotype of these races as primitive and static.
For magicians, Orientalism provided a shroud of mystery to throw over the rise of science and loss of mystery in the West. “For some, the idea of oriental magic became a kind of flourish, like pixie dust, that could be cast over audiences in London, Paris, and New York to help audiences find that precious feeling of enchantment. (Conjuring Asia: Magic, Orientalism, and the Making of the Modern World. Groto-Jones, Cambridge University Press, 2016.)
Before becoming Chung Ling Soo, Robinson was billed first as “Robinson, the Man of Mystery” and then “Achmed Ben Ali" when he started to perform a black art illusion show in the style of the European magician “Ben Ali Bey." When he first started his performance as a faux Chinese magician, he went under the stage name "Hop Sing Soo" and invented an elaborate backstory to support his character. A booker suggested Robinson change his stage name to Chung Ling Soo.
Some professional magicians knew that Soo was Robinson, but the general public was shocked to learn this upon Robinson's untimely death. Robinson created this illusion by never going out in public unless dressed in character and never speaking English in public. He always took a translator with him to meet with the press, solidifying the illusion that he was, in fact, Chung Ling Soo. In the end, Robinson would speak one last line of English on stage, but that is a story for another time.
Next month, I will look at some of Robinson's famous illusions. Until then, remember the rich magical heritage that we have inherited.
For further reading:
"The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo - Chinese Conjuror" by Will Dexter.