THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS, FORGOTTEN ILLUSIONIST
In the days before movies and the rise of the ‘silver screen’ the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed the Golden Age of theatre. In terms of popular entertainment, theatres were the centre of the universe back then. Of all the variety acts appearing on stage, the most popular by far were the magicians and illusionists. In 2006 the films, The Prestige and The Illusionist, were released to critical acclaim and, in part, help us today to capture just a little of the real sense of awe and wonder that audiences experienced when they first witnessed those magic acts of a century past. Such was the success and impact of those stage spectacles, that even today most of the stage magic and illusions that we see are either direct copies, or adaptations, of the magic tricks created by the pioneers from that Golden Age. Sawing the lady in half, catching bullets and big cats, in magic – all originated around 100 years ago.
Delighted audiences of the day were informed that much of the magic being performed was from the strange and mysterious East. Some stars of the day took on Eastern names (such as Ching Ling Foo and Chung Ling Soo) and the wearing of turbans, to give an air of Eastern mystery, was adopted by a host of magicians. For the Victorian and Edwardian audiences, China and Arabia were mysterious places, a world away from the one they knew. The sense of how strange these places were to ordinary theatre-goers may have been similar to the bar scene on the planet, Tatooine, when first witnessed by the Star Wars generation. The very best magical acts were so stunning that many theatre-goers actually believed that they were seeing real magic happening before their eyes.
From that bygone age, the great Harry Houdini is still remembered today around the globe, but what of his famous friend, The Great Lafayette? Lafayette was perhaps the biggest name in popular entertainment when he died in 1911. One of the reasons that Houdini is remembered is that he was one of the greatest self-publicists and lived long enough to transfer his fame onto the ‘silver screen’. Lafayette’s greatness faded, sadly, as the golden age of theatre, of which he was king, became eclipsed by the twentieth-century new entertainment medium, the movies.
Lafayette’s story is so fascinating and bizarre in parts that I and my colleague, Gordon Rutter, decided to mark the 100th anniversary of his death by sharing his story with modern audiences in our tribute book, The Death and Life of the Great Lafayette, New Lands Press 2011.
The Great Lafayette started out in life as Sigmund Ignatius Neuberger, a German Jew, born in Munich on 25 February 1871. Little is known of his childhood, but we do know that he emigrated with his family to America in 1889. His father ran a successful silk business in New York and wanted Sigmund to join him, but he had already decided that his career destination was the stage. In 1890 he headed west to become a vaudeville star. His early years were tough and not terribly successful. During those early years, however, he supported a quick-change artist, known as the man who was many men. Learning the tricks of the trade himself, he soon became a fairly accomplished quick-change artist in his own right, a talent which would serve him well in the years ahead. As part of his developing act, he imitated the Chinese performer, Ching Ling Foo, adopting some of his magic tricks. Before long he was getting occasional bookings on the vaudeville circuit. One stage critic gave him a boost when his positive review stated that The Great Lafayette’s Ching Ling Foo was more like Ching Ling Foo than the real Ching Ling Foo!
In life Lafayette was a loner, with only a very small circle of friends, one of whom was Erik Weisz, who was also a struggling artist in the 1890s. Erik, better known by his stage name, Harry Houdini, was making ends meet in the early days by exploiting the growing interest in spiritualism, performing fake séances to gullible patrons. (Ironically, once Houdini became famous he became one of the biggest opponents of hoax mediums, exposing them at every opportunity.)
The breakthrough for the two friends came in 1899, with Houdini unwittingly creating a unique act for Lafayette that would make him a superstar. The popular account of what happened is that Lafayette often complained to Houdini that he did not have a friend in the world and that life on the vaudeville circuit was tough. As a joke one day, Houdini presented him with a little dog, called Beauty, stating that dogs are known to be man’s best friend – so here was a best friend for Lafayette. Whether meant as a joke or not, Lafayette instantly fell in love with the affectionate little dog, who would remain his best friend for the rest of their lives.
One evening Beauty broke free from her lead and appeared on stage with her master during one of his illusions. The crowd, thinking that Beauty was part of the show, gave Lafayette the biggest applause that he had ever received. Seeing the potential in this, he incorporated Beauty into the act as a magic dog. She was taught to perform tricks as a magician in her own right, something that no other artist was doing. Their rise to fame was instant and within a few years Lafayette was arguably the biggest star in America and Europe. In 1901 he became the first illusionist to take a big cat on stage, for his famous Lion’s Bride sketch. With this addition to his show, his future was assured.
As Lafayette’s personal fortune grew, he lavished gifts on his best friend. Beauty became pampered beyond belief, wearing diamond-studded collars, eating at the best restaurants with her master and having her own private rooms, when on tour, in some of the world’s finest hotels. News reports of the day started to point out the strange and obsessive bond between Lafayette and Beauty, but this just added to the interest in this novelty act. Outside his London home, Lafayette had a plaque hung which read: ‘The more I see of people, the more I love my dog’. On the inside of his property, on entering the drawing room, visitors read the following: ‘You may eat my food, you may command my servants, but you must respect my dog’.
From all accounts Lafayette was a genius, but difficult to work with if you did not do as he said. He was responsible for all the illusions in his show, he created each of the acts required for the three-hour show his audiences came to see, he planned all the scenery and stage props, designed all the costumes and he even designed the theatre programmes. His shows were executed with military precision and, although some found him difficult, he was very loyal to those who followed his orders.
By 1911 Lafayette and Beauty had the world at their feet. They travelled in their own railway carriage, which was luxuriously fitted out. They stayed in only the best hotels and their car was a silver-grey Mercedes, with a silver statue of Beauty on the radiator cap. A few years earlier Sigmund had legally changed his name to The Great Lafayette, he and Beauty were now based in London and the famous Lion’s Bride performance was being performed with the assistance of the famous stage beauty, Miss Lalla Selbini. Bookings were in the diary for the next 10 years when the show came to the prestigious Empire Palace Theatre in Edinburgh in May 1911. This venue was the flagship theatre of the impresario, Edward Moss. Edinburgh, however, was the city where everything would change for ever!
Four days into the sell-out show at the Empire, Beauty died. Her death was a combination of old age and eating too rich a diet. Lafayette was distraught and was quoted as saying that he did not know if he would be able to live without her. This was to become a prophetic statement. He had always treated Beauty more like a person than an animal during their time together and he credited her with all his fortune and success. Now he believed that his good luck had gone! That said, in true showbiz style, he continued to perform each night in Edinburgh, sometimes in tears, telling the audience what Beauty would have done at various junctures throughout the show.
A fitting burial was required for such a great friend, so he appointed the funeral director, Dunbar and Sons, to find an Edinburgh graveyard to take Beauty. Having animals buried in human cemeteries was not the done thing, but eventually Piershill Cemetery agreed to take Beauty. Complaints from the public about this included one from a sharp-witted protester, who pointed out that at the cemetery gates a ‘no dogs allowed’ sign had been on display for some time. There was, however, one condition that Lafayette was required to make: the grave would be his and when his time came his remains would be transported to Edinburgh from wherever he was in the world for burial with his pet. Unbeknown to him at the time, he would never leave Edinburgh and he would join his friend within the week.
Lafayette’s performances were legendary, especially the the ‘Lion’s Bride’, which was the ‘jewel in the crown’ of all his illusions. This 20-minute finale to his show required a beautiful woman (Lalla), a real lion, a horse and a cast of faithful performers. Audiences witnessed the most jaw-dropping quick changes take place magically before their eyes. No one knew how The Great Lafayette, jumping from his horse, was able in an instant to have swapped places with the bride, who was to be thrown into the lion’s cage. Once inside the cage, the lion turned to pounce on Lafayette in the bride’s costume, wearing a veil. Incredibly, at this point the lion’s head fell back to reveal Lafayette, in a lion suit, where the real lion had been only moments before. The secrecy surrounding this stunning illusion was paramount, so before each show Lafayette would have the exit doors at the back of the stage locked to stop anyone from discovering how the tricks were performed. This was to be his downfall.
At the second performance, on the evening of 9 May 1911, a Chinese lantern accidentally set the stage curtains alight. Thinking that this was part of the act, the audience remained in their seats. Luckily, the quick-thinking conductor interrupted the performance by getting the orchestra to play ‘God Save the King’, which immediately had everyone on their feet. Seeing the fire continue to spread, and realising that all was not well, the audience vacated the building. Many of the cast backstage, however, were not so lucky and ten of them, including The Great Lafayette, perished in the flames.
Ironically, Lafayette had initially escaped from the flame-licked stage and was outside with some of the cast. Visibly shaken at what was happening, his last recorded words were, ‘I must go back for my horse.’ It was days later before his lifeless, charred remains were recovered and arrangements were made for his remains to be cremated in preparation for being placed beside his beloved Beauty. The following day, dumbfounded fire officers discovered another Great Lafayette in the wreckage of the theatre. In death, as well as in life, he had tricked his public again. The first body had been that of a man called Richards, his body double used in one of the quick-change routines.
Being a Jew, the Chief Rabbi was approached to officiate at Lafayette’s funeral, but as a dog was involved and is deemed unclean by Jewish tradition, he declined to be involved. With a Church of Scotland minister enlisted, the funeral procession set off from the undertakers, W.T. Dunbar and Sons in Morrison Street, on 14 May 1911 and was witnessed by thousands of spectators along the route to Piershill Cemetery. This was the biggest free show that Edinburgh had ever seen. Lafayette’s popularity, coupled with his eccentricity, was such that this ‘show’ pulled a bigger crowd than the royal visit to Edinburgh a few years earlier. His final performance was reportedly a spectacular sight to behold. His silver-grey Mercedes escorted only one passenger – his principle mourner. This mourner was no ordinary mourner, but was his other dog, a Dalmatian hound called Mabel, sporting a black bow on her head! Standing on the running boards of the car were two black cast members. His remains, contained in a casket, were escorted to the cemetery by a black horse-drawn carriage. In a very strange ceremony Lafayette’s remains were eventually placed between the paws of the preserved body of his great love, Beauty!
Many years later Lafayette’s friend, Houdini, died. The famous escapologist had promised his wife, Bess, that if he could escape death, he would come back and let her know. From 1926 until 1936 the famous Houdini Halloween séances took place, but he never came through. On that last evening Bess finished the séance with the words, ‘Good night, Harry.’ Harry never made it back, but there is an interesting account relating that The Great Lafayette did. In an article in the Psychic News of 28 April 1932 the magician, Will Goldston, reported that during a séance with the famous Scottish medium, Helen Duncan, he and some colleagues were astounded when The Great Lafayette materialised and spoke to them in his own voice. Today, eighty years later, staff at the Festival Theatre (on the site of the old Empire Palace Theatre) claim that the ghost of the illusionist still haunts the theatre.
The show must go on!!!
[This article appeared in the original version of The Heretic Magazine: Volume 1]