A Magic Night Out

Judith Zerdin - Thursday 18th 2005f August 2005

Magician Henry Lewis

It’s Monday night in the Centre for the Magic Arts. The lobby is buzzing with activity.

People rush up and down the shimmering helical staircase, which spirals down between all the floors of the building, and gentlemen prop up the bar.

But this is no ordinary Monday. It’s the day before the world’s most prestigious magic society, the Magic Circle, starts to celebrate its centenary, and over 1,000 magicians have congregated in the Euston headquarters to see each other perform, hear talks and lectures, and of course, talk shop. And it appears that there’s no shortage of Kosher conjurers there either.

“I’m here for the centenary gala and to participate in the Heritage Day,” Richard Cohn, who has flown over from New York, tells TJ. “I’m giving a lecture on the history of the amusement area at Coney Island in the US and the magicians who worked there – including the Jewish magicians Horace Goldin, Al Flosso and of course, Harry Houdini.”

According to Cohn, Houdini, aka Ehrich Weiss – probably the most famous magician ever - made his name at Coney Island in the 1890s, performing first with his brother and then his wife. Although he was the most famous Jewish magician, there have been scores of others.

“There were also magic families, such as the Herrmann family – Alexander Herrmann was one of the great American magicians, and his brother Carl was a great magician here in the UK,” Cohn explains. “Then there were the Bambergs – seven generations in one family, of which Theodore Bamberg masqueraded as the character “Okito” and his son David, went by his stage name Fu Manchu.”

What does he think is the connection between being Jewish and performing magic? “Historically speaking, Jews have been very active in magic – from the story of Moses turning his staff into a serpent to the one where he tapped his staff on a rock to bring water to the desert – there are many ancient stories and myths connected with the Jewish faith and history.”

There are currently about 1,500 members of the Circle worldwide, in 43 countries. Of those, over 200 members are Jewish. And let’s not forget America’s man of mystery, David Copperfield, born David Kotkin, famous for making the Statue of Liberty disappear and walking through the Great Wall of China – as well as illusionist David Blaine.

And of course we have Lord Greville Janner, a long-standing member of the Magic Circle. “Jewish people have always been happily involved in the joys of magic and I’m delighted to be one of them,” he says. “Magic is a great ice-breaker because you don’t need language. It’s the international language of fun.”

Bobby Bernard, a retired member of the Inner Magic Circle, which is the highest degree of membership the society offers, has his own theories as to why there are so many Jews in the world of magic.

“I think it could be because, in the diaspora, Jews didn’t have much money and magic was something they could do where they could use their skill and intelligence to entertain people using very simple props – a piece of rope, some coins, or a stick,” the 75-year-old from Kilburn says. “I’m sure they were also attracted to the theatricality and flamboyance of it.”

Bernard himself became interested in magic when he was a small child. “I was a sickly child so I was sent off to Wales to recuperate, and when I came back to London my mother used to bribe me to go to the hospital by taking me to a magic shop, so I started from there,” he recalls. He worked as a professional magician for 50 years before retiring.

One member who is particularly proud to be there today is Henry Lewis, the Magic Circle’s first ever Jewish Vice President, who’s been a member since 1946. His “calling” came at the age of eight. “One day I saw a book on top of some rubbish bins outside the flat where I grew up in South London,” he recounts. “It was called ‘Magic Made Easy’ by David Devant – I read it and that’s how I got involved.” Ironically enough, Devant was the Magic Circle’s first President.

Now Lewis performs at conferences, private parties, cabarets, weddings, gala dinners and corporate meetings, and has also performed in all Israel’s major theatres and regularly takes his show to Jewish charities such as Nightingale and AJEX. “As a magician you never get old because you’re doing things all the time – I retired 17 years ago and I’m still very busy,” he laughs.

Another overseas visitor to the celebrations is Matthew Field, who has recently moved over from New York to edit the society’s monthly magazine, The Magic Circular. “This is a very historic occasion – no other magic organisation has such a rich history,” he explains. “And the finest magicians of the world are coming to this event, so there’s a tremendous sense of history. It’s a big birthday party for an organisation that was founded at the back of a restaurant in London and has survived two world wars.”