Four magicians took the stage of the Dweck Cultural Center last month, brightening the basement of the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch with a sampling of the magic and history of one of the borough’s favorite gems: Coney Island. Established as a panel discussion, “The Magicians of Coney Island” was a part of the Library’s School of Magic series that is slated to continue throughout 2018. Herb Scher served as moderator, with George Schindler, Richard Cohn, and Mark Mitton joining on stage to discuss history, trace legacy, and recreate some of the best-known effects from Coney Island in its heyday.
The panelists presented a largely chronological historical survey, in what was clearly a race to cover as much material as possible in a very limiting 90 minutes. Since the turn of the century, some of America’s and indeed the world’s greatest magicians have popped up in this entertainment oasis at the edge of Brooklyn. The panel set the stage for decades of magic by outlining Coney Island’s main stages, starting with parks like Sea Lion Park, Steeplechase, and Dreamland, all pioneering in their day and often packed with magic. When Sea Lion Park eventually became Luna Park (not to be confused with the Luna Park of Coney Island today), its new owners also happened to be magicians and creators. “[Frederic] Thompson and [Elmer] Dundy were magic nuts, so magicians always got work at Luna Park,” said Richard Cohn on stage.
When Dreamland opened in 1904, American magician Henry Roltair presented intricate illusions and effects like Spidora (a woman’s head grafted onto the body of a spider), Arabian Nights Up to Date, and Creation, Roltair’s illusion ride based on the bible story of Genesis that debuted at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. At institutions like Henderson’s Music Hall, magicians from Harry Jansen to Horace Goldin graced the stage alongside entertainment treasures like the Marx Brothers. Harry Houdini performed at Henderson’s in 1915, which was just one of many ways he and his family were enamored and entangled with Coney Island at the time. Apparently, Harry’s brother Hardeen was one of the first to dub Coney Island “Sodom by the Sea.”
Many magicians still revered in contemporary circles today once appeared at Coney Island, from Dai Vernon’s early days cutting silhouettes to Jean Hugard’s decade of performance from 1919-1929, which included illusions like Birth of a Pearl and The Fairy Fountains. Why were so many magicians performing at Coney Island at the turn of the century? “For money,” said Schindler. “A dollar a day was a lot of money back then.” But he added that the atmosphere would have been an equally important draw. There was something magical about Coney Island—it’s an otherworldly experience that still draws crowds and captures imaginations today, even long after Coney Island’s glory days.
Moderator Herb Scher says Coney Island’s ability to transport visitors today back to a golden age of Brooklyn magic is part of what caught his interest in the first place. Scher is an active member of the SAM Parent Assembly and often performs as Myron the Magnificent, a character he describes as “a worn out, frumpy Vegas magician.” During the panel, he performed a rope routine without going full Myron. After moving to New York from Miami, Scher ended up at Coney Island on a whim and stuck around for the photography. It wasn’t until later that Scher took on magic professionally and his many passions crossed. “I’m infatuated with Coney Island,” he tells GeniiOnline. “Part of what fascinates me is the continuity of magic at Coney Island. The fact that you can look back to 1880 or even earlier and then to today, people are still enacting these amazing feats, these miracles of conjuring. Obviously things have changed, Coney Island has gone up and down, but it’s still there, it’s still alive.”
Scher says he immediately wanted to originate a panel topic that would be relevant to the Brooklyn audience when Barbara Wansbrough, curator of the School of Magic events, asked if he had any ideas. Wansbrough conceived of the series while trying to develop a fresh take on library programming and special events. Her young son had gotten hooked on magic, and through him Wansbrough caught a bit of the bug herself. She saw the power of magic to amaze and inspire, and set out to curate a series of events that could both educate and entertain audiences.
Scher’s interest in inviting other members of the SAM Parent Assembly to the panel led him to George Schindler, now the ninth magician to be named Dean of the SAM since the club began in 1902. At the panel, Schindler performed a quick Houdini handcuff escape and a version of Horace Goldin’s 1920s sawing a lady using a jigsaw. From the performances to the historical content, Schindler says the pressures of a 90-minute time limit informed many of their decisions. “We tried to boil it down so that the public and the magicians who were there would be interested,” Schindler says. “Those tricks are still being done today, and Coney Island magicians did them 60, 70 years ago. So the information was accurate and the magic was accurate.”
Schindler grew up in Brooklyn and saw his first magician at Coney Island. “I got hooked,” he says. “I wanted to figure out how he did it, so I went back every Saturday from then on.” Schindler became a professional magician after college, specializing in trade show events. Listening to Schindler talk about his trade show days, I noticed that it all sounded very similar to the Coney Island outside talkers and street performers charged with drawing in their own crowds and selling tickets to passersby. Schindler agreed: “It’s very similar, just trade shows are a higher level, more sophisticated. Coney Island was very broad: you can see the half a man and half a woman and for 25 cents, we’ll sell you the pictures. Trade shows are very much like the old sideshow barker, come to think of it.”
It was Schindler who recommended a magician named Mark Mitton when the Coney Island history conversation inevitably led to Al Flosso. Most magicians agree that any history of magic at Coney Island would be incomplete without mention of Flosso, the Coney Island Fakir. Mark Mitton performed a sort of tribute with his Miser’s Dream, one of Flosso’s trademark pieces. Mitton embodied Flosso’s brash performance style with an adult audience volunteer presented as a stand-in for a young boy—all the children in the room were a little too young for Flosso’s handsy, in-your-face presentation. Mitton also performed Houdini's Needles trick, swallowing a handful of needles and a spool of thread before pulling them from his mouth strung together one-by-one. He dug into a good deal of historical research with the Houdini community in order to present the Needles as faithfully as possible to Houdini’s original presentation.
Scher also credits Mitton with the decision to include more of the sideshow element of Coney Island performance. In the sideshow section, they delved into Coney Island’s claims to performers like Bobby Reynolds, Melvin Burkhart, and Todd Robbins. But Mitton sees that segmented approach separating magic and sideshow as a layperson’s fallacy: “It gets into carnie traditions, and who’s an insider and who’s an outsider,” Mitton says. “To people outside the profession, it doesn’t make sense that magicians are escape artists and hypnotists and ventriloquists. To a magician, it’s completely normal that those categories are fluid. It’s only when you get away from the actual people and into the modern Coney Island with more of the university educated Coney Island people that you don’t get the blurred categories.”
Richard Cohn bolstered the scholarly side of the panel—I’ve lost count of how many magicians have referred to Cohn as a walking encyclopedia of New York’s magic history. Cohn and Schindler conducted research at the Conjuring Arts Library and the Parent Assembly’s historical collection, of which Cohn is the official archivist. They spent a couple of months preparing, and through their discovery of pieces of Coney Island history that they’d never uncovered before, Schindler remains convinced that there are still more gems hidden in the archive.
In addition to his work as a performing magician, Cohn also consults on the history of magic for all kinds of events. At the event, he performed a torn-and-restored newspaper routine and magic with silks in homage to Jean Hugard’s book, Silken Sorcery. Hugard spent many seasons performing on Coney Island, and is also one of the eight SAM deans that came before Schindler. Cohn says he was passionate about including Brooklyn’s magical dynasties in the presentation, like the Zancigs, the Bambergs, and the Herrmanns. David Bamberg was better known to the public as Fu Manchu, but according to Cohn, he grew up in Flatbush.
Breaking up the long string of white men that dominate, well, most popular histories, the panel made sure to include women and people of color who performed at Coney Island in their day. Adelaide Herrmann become a magician in her own right after the death of her husband Alexander, also known as Herrmann the Great. As the Queen of Magic, Adelaide spent a season at Coney Island performing illusions as a headline magician instead of a magician’s assistant. And Jamaican magician Wilmont Barclay performed at Coney Island between the 1920s and the 1940s, taking on a character called Professor Maharajah. Panelists pointed to Barclay’s “exotic” Indian character as evidence of how hard it was to perform as a black magician back then.
The School of Magic series will continue at the Brooklyn Public Library throughout the year, including a performance later in April by mentalist Eric Walton. To get straight to the source, there’s also still plenty of magic making its home at Coney Island today. One of the magicians in the audience at the panel last month was Gary Dreifus, the producer behind Coney Island USA’s weekly show, Magic at Coney. Every Sunday, Dreifus presents all kinds of magicians in a rotating cast of some of Brooklyn’s best.