Magic’s Second Queen – Dell O’Dell

Magician Dell O'Dell

Magician Dell O’Dell

Throughout her solo career Adelaide Herrmann was known as “The Queen of Magic,” a title that remained unchallenged over the course of her thirty years in Vaudeville. However, within a few years of Madame Herrmann’s retirement in 1928, Magic had a new Queen and rising star, the irrepressible young juggler and comedy magician, Dell O’Dell (1897-1962).

Dell O’Dell is the subject of a fantastic new biography by Michael Claxton – Don’t Fool Yourself, The Magical Life of Dell O’Dell, available through Squash Publishing. I cannot recommend this book more highly. It’s impeccably researched and beautifully written, of far higher quality and mass appeal than most magic history books. What an amazing woman and performer Dell O’Dell was! Her greatest secret (still unrevealed) was the source of her incredible energy and drive. (I suspect a secret twin, or triplets…) I would have loved to have seen her perform. By all accounts she was hilarious and simply brilliant onstage.

I had the privilege of observing Michael Claxton’s progress as he researched and wrote this book over the course of eight years, and I was flattered that he consulted me on the large amount of information on Adelaide Herrmann that he included. One interesting section is a comparison of the two Queens of Magic – Adelaide Herrmann and Dell O’Dell. Indeed, a lot of similarities are described in the book: Both women had athletic pre-magic performing careers. Both were married to European showmen, had no children and were animal lovers/owners in the extreme. Both had incredible drive. Both were short-fused redheads who could be extremely bossy. (Working in a man’s world, sometimes they had to be…)

But there are also tremendous differences, the biggest of which sets Adelaide Herrmann apart from almost all female magicians, both past and present – her complete lack of any family connection to the world of performing. Dell O’Dell grew up in the circus; her father owned and toured his own circus. She trained in juggling and other circus skills from her earliest days. Not only did Adelaide have no family connection to performing; among her people performing was considered disreputable and unacceptable. It took tremendous determination, guile and courage for Adelaide, as a young teenager, to study dance in secret for many months, knowing that if found out her punishment would be severe. She finally revealed her deceit to her parents only upon being awarded a paying role in London’s Holiday Pantomimes. The fact that she would be bringing money into the household was most certainly a factor in her parents’ (not immediately granted) permission to continue.

The other sharp contrast between Adelaide Herrmann and Dell O’Dell has to do with their respective men. Throughout her performing career, until she died, Dell had the support and partnership of her husband, the wonderful juggler Charles Carrer. While it was clear to everyone that it was Dell who wore the pants in the family, Charlie was always there, supporting her, building props for her, taking care of her, always putting her first. But Adelaide, widowed at 43, accomplished her entire thirty-year solo career alone, without a partner. Despite a couple of early and ultimately unfounded rumors, Adelaide was never again romantically associated with a man. She made her way in the world decade after decade entirely by herself. She was lonely; she never stopped missing her beloved Alexander. But there was never again to be another partner for her – a fact which, for me, serves to amplify her accomplishments.

I wish Michael Claxton much-deserved success with this book. It’s an inspiration to all female performers and should be in every library in America. A book of this literary weight and quality could easily have attracted a mainstream publisher. By choosing a publisher within the magic world, I believe marketing it to the wider audience it deserves will be a challenge. Hopefully Michael Claxton and his publisher have a strategy to bring it to mainstream readers. It’s way too important, and too good, for us magicians to keep to ourselves!

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Recreating Adelaide’s Costume

Recently I met with a renowned couture designer about recreating a modern version of Adelaide Herrmann’s costume from her Billiard Balls act. The project is very exciting – and also expensive, because it will include the elaborate beading that Adelaide’s costumes were famous for. (To make it affordable, the beading will be done in India.) Although we only have black & white photos, the fabrics and colors of many of Adelaide’s costumes were described in newspapers’ fashion pages, and many women went to her shows as much to see her glorious costumes as her magic.

My designer reminded me of the challenges Adelaide faced in the construction of her costumes. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they had no zippers or snaps, just hooks & eyes and buttons. No elastic either; nothing stretchy. There were no synthetic fabrics – only wool, cotton, linen and silk. And no dry cleaning. Heavy beaded costumes were not washable and would have been mighty rank by the end of a tour. (People weren’t that washable then, either.) With constant travel and performances, these costumes would have taken a beating, requiring constant maintenance. Beads tend to come loose and fall off. Her costumes were also heavily boned (with whalebone sewn into vertical channels), and boning tends to wear through fabric, requiring frequent repair.

By Adelaide’s time, there were foot pedal-operated sewing machines. Although I’ve found no mention of it, I’m certain she would have traveled with one. But that would have been for big jobs. Sewing beads and other minor repairs must been done by hand.

I’ve also found no mention of Adelaide Herrmann sitting in train cars and hotel rooms repairing and re-beading costumes, but that’s the unglamorous drudgework which no performer wants to highlight. Because what the audience must see is not a dirty, stinky constantly-repaired garment but rather a magnificent, sparkling gown of pure magic.

Adelaide Herrmann’s Grand-Nephew

On Saturday, May 3rd, I had the honor of presenting my Adelaide Herrmann lecture to the Descendants of the Founders of New Jersey. In attendance was Alfred Hahn, the grandson of Adelaide’s sister, Mathilde Scarcez Owles. Al’s wife, Gail, is a genealogist who – like a number of other Adelaide Herrmann relatives – found me via Ancestry.com.

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Alfred Hahn & Margaret Steele – May 3, 2014

Mathilde was Adelaide’s closest sister, both in age (Mathilde was two years older) and in shared experience. Mathilde and Adelaide were both born in London, after the family emigrated from Belgium. Their three older sisters and oldest brother were all born in Belgium. (An older brother born in London died in early childhood.) Mathilde was the sister who kept Adelaide’s secret when she discovered that her little sister was sneaking off and taking dance classes.

Mathilde had five children, three sons and two daughters. The older daughter, Adele Owles (1878-1965), came to America as a teenager and was Adelaide Herrmann’s onstage assistant until her marriage in 1905. (Adele inherited Adelaide’s estate – including the manuscript of her memoir.) The youngest child, Eugenie Owles (1892-1940) took care of Mathilde when she became ill. (Family members believe she had leukemia). Soon after Mathilde died in 1912, Eugenie came to America, settling in with her sister Adele, first in Brooklyn and then in Newark, NJ. She married Mr. Hahn and gave birth to Alfred in 1934 – two years after Adelaide’s death.

Sadly, Eugenie died when Al was very small, and little Al went on excursions with his Aunt Adele (“Aunt Dell”) until his father remarried, after which he never saw her again. Adele never said a word about her previous life as a magician’s assistant, and never once mentioned his famous great aunt, Adelaide Herrmann.

Al doesn’t remember much about his roots, but I think he has his Aunt Adelaide’s eyes.

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Eugenie Owles Hahn, Alfred Hahn (baby) & Adele Owles Smith at Herrmann gravesite, Woodlawn Cemetery 1930s.

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Alfred Hahn and his aunt, Adele Owles Smith, New York City, 1930s.

 

Adelaide Herrmann & Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month, so let’s pledge a toast to the great Queen of Magic, Adelaide Herrmann! To me she seems glaringly absent from this month’s festivities. I take the blame for that.

For the last couple of months all my usual Adelaide Herrmann activities (blogging & research) have taken a back seat to preparing for my new Adelaide Herrmann show, debuting at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, CT on May 9th. It’s very exciting. I’ll be doing some new magic (new for me – but some of Adelaide’s old classics), and the performance will be accompanied by award-winning concert pianist Agustin Muriago.

Now I’m in a tizzy and a flurry, dealing with mile-long lists – script, illusions, costumes, sets, assistants, music, lighting/tech, rehearsals, publicity. It’s all the same stuff that Adelaide did, but without her 70+ performing animals and with all the benefits of modern technology.

So My Dear Adelaide, please forgive my public neglect this month as I prepare to honor you big time in May.

Adelaide’s Darkest Day

Courtesy of The Magic Circle Collection

Courtesy of The Magic Circle Collection


Today is the anniversary of the worst day of Adelaide Herrmann’s life – December 17th, 1896 – the day her beloved husband died in her arms on a train “flying along at fifty miles an hour on the coldest day in December.” (In Adelaide’s words, from her memoir.) The train was southbound from Rochester, NY towards Bradford, PA, the Herrmanns’ next stop.

Alexander Herrmann, age fifty-two, had been increasingly ill for a while. Adelaide wrote that “for some time he had been troubled by heart attacks.” It’s not clear exactly how she defined a heart attack, but Alexander’s episodes of chest pain drove him to seek medical help. A specialist in Chicago told him that if he didn’t stop his incessant cigarette smoking, he would die within two years. Alexander wouldn’t or couldn’t quit, and various doctors on the road diagnosed his distress as nervous indigestion.

The Herrmanns were in the midst of a grueling tour. The acquisition of a private railcar had opened new markets to them. For years Alexander Herrmann, the night owl, had refused to accept one-night and split week bookings because he hated waking early. With his luxurious railcar, Herrmann could wine and dine after his shows and never again be rousted from his hotel to catch an early morning train. This tour, the Herrmanns were playing both big and small cities, sometimes just for a single night.

When the company had arrived in Rochester on Monday, December 14, Alexander wasn’t feeling well. But he’d already promised a visit to the State Industrial School. He was whisked straight from the train to the school, only to find that they were expecting a show! Alexander sent word back to the theater, and his assistants brought some of his props up to the school. He then invited the entire school to his Wednesday matinee performance.

After his last show on Wednesday night, Alexander Herrmann was entertained by local dignitaries at the Genessee Valley Club. But, as usual, it was Herrmann doing the entertaining. Adelaide reported that he was in rare form, charming his hosts with witty stories and constant tricks. After the party, he brought several guests back to the rail yard to tour his private car and to see his horses and carriages.

At the end of the evening, he said to Adelaide, “Well, we ought enjoy these things while we are living, because after we die we are soon forgotten.”

The train left at 7:30 the next morning. Alexander had breakfast and met for a while with his business manager. A little later that morning, Adelaide discovered Alexander lying on her bed, looking deathly pale. He told her he was having trouble breathing. She helped him to his own bedchamber. A few minutes later his arms just dropped, and he was dead – according to Adelaide, “in just the way he had desired.”

The train stopped in Salamanca, NY, where a doctor boarded and pronounced Alexander Herrmann dead. The Herrmanns’ private car and their other railcars were detached from the southbound train and reconnected to a train heading east back to New York, where Adelaide and her company of sixteen would arrive at 8am Friday.

At this time of year, the sun goes down at 4:30pm. On this date in 1896, as her train headed east, away from the setting sun, Adelaide Herrmann was beginning the longest and darkest night of her life.

Magic, Addie Style

Adelaide Herrmann in 1899 - Courtesy of The Magic Circle Collection

Adelaide Herrmann in 1899 – Courtesy of The Magic Circle Collection

It’s a shame there’s no surviving film footage of Adelaide Herrmann’s magic act. If there were, she might have changed the course of magic even more than she did. And rather than fading into an unsung heroine, she might have received the credit she deserved for her tremendous innovations to the art of magic.

Like most magicians, she was not an inventor of tricks. But, according to her own accounts, she dramatically innovated the style in which magic was presented. Before she teamed up with Alexander Herrmann in the 1870s, magic – even in a big theater – was presented like parlor entertainment. Magicians bantered with the audience, performing in front of a curtain or whatever stock painted backdrop the theater happened to display. If they used musical accompaniment, it was whatever the house “orchestra” (usually no more than piano, violin and drums) chose to play.

Adelaide, in her youth, had danced in the Holiday Pantomimes in London, where she had witnessed the highest-tech theater magic of the time – flash appearances via stage traps, deus ex machina sets, and complex story lines beautifully supported by a coordinated combination of custom sets, backdrops and music.

Madame Herrmann was the first to come up with the idea of merging stage magic and stage conjuring. As soon as she married Alexander, the Herrmanns began their evolution into what Adelaide called “spectacular magic.” They began buying illusions. While other female magic assistants were presenting demure Second Sight acts (which Adelaide did as well) Madame Herrmann became the first glamorous, athletic and erotic female assistant. She oversaw the construction of custom backdrops and sets that the Herrmanns carried with them. Custom musical scores specific to each illusion were commissioned, and the Herrmanns began traveling with their own music director.  Illusions were developed into elaborate story lines, often topical, referencing popular novels or news events.

Every illusion show past and present evolved from this single model – the spectacular Herrmann magic show. Yet very few people – even the performers – realize that their entire genre originated with Adelaide Herrmann.

If this were her sole contribution to magic, it would be tremendous. But she took it much further. After Alexander Herrmann’s tragic early death, Adelaide debuted in vaudeville in 1899 as the first and only headlining female magician. (As with most “firsts” the story is more complicated, but Adelaide far outshined any predecessors and contemporaries.)

Again, she introduced tremendous stylistic innovations. For her entire career, she worked silently, to music. This in itself was a departure from the talking acts of all her male colleagues. Adelaide Herrmann feminized magic in a most elegant way. Too old (debuting at age 46) to play the ingénue or sexy showgirl, she was a regal presence onstage – a High Priestess of Magic in impossibly lavish gowns, baring shoulders and ample bosom, but never her thighs.

Because the films we know she made are lost, we have to piece together information about her magical style from reviews and other accounts. She was definitely charismatic and extremely skilled at connecting with her audience. Her magic was delicate, graceful and performed exquisitely slowly. She was a dancer who moved with the music. Her magic looked like no one else’s.

Because we have no video of her, generations of female magicians have grown up without this hugely-important role model. And it really shows. All of us learned our magic from men. We then had to take it and try to make it our own. Our female role models have been few, and for me, not useful except as inspirations. The great Dell O’Dell was a one-of-a-kind personality, and most of the others – like the highly-successful Celeste Evans – played The Bombshell, which even in my age-appropriate days was never me.

I hope that Adelaide’s rediscovery will show female magicians that there’s another, different, path – one that’s not primarily about comedy or selling sex. Beautiful, graceful, elegant, regal, highly skilled, dazzlingly feminine conjuring has been around for over a hundred years. And now, hopefully, it’s on its way back.