Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Smoke and Mirrors - Professor Morritt Sets The Stage

When Harry Houdini decided that being the world's greatest escape artist was no longer enough and set his sights on becoming the worlds greatest magician, he turned to Charles Morritt. Morritt was a Yorkshire born mentalist and illusionist that began, like many of his contemporaries, by recreating the Davenport Brothers' spirit box onstage when he was only eighteen years old.

Within a few years, "Professor" Morritt had become something of an impresario, managing several theaters in northern England and touring with his partner Lillian performing a very effective mentalist act.

Morritt was a very talented creator of illusions, but had a dark side and was a serious drinker. His problems got so bad that he disappeared for five or six years, and was eventually found by David Devant performing in a makeshift theater in a tiny village in the English countryside. Morritt had created an illusion in which he vanished a donkey onstage in a raised cabinet on wheels which was thrown open and made completely visible on (almost) all sides for the audience's inspection. It was then closed and the donkey was trotted out the same way he went in.

Devant was amazed by the apparatus and the illusion, and bought the trick from Morritt to use at the Egyptian Theater in London. Morritt had trained there himself with John Nevil Maskelyne, Devant's partner. When Houdini began his search for new illusions, he turned to Morritt, who suggested a version of the trick using an elephant instead of a donkey.

Houdini performed the illusion at the famous New York Hippodrome, but it was not a particularly successful trick. Much of the audience could barely see inside cabinet to verify the elephant had indeed disappeared because of the viewing angles and altitude of the seats in relation to the stage. Houdini wasn't bothered by this and most audience members weren't either; they came to see the great Houdini. The elephant was a supporting cast member.

Morritt continued creating illusions and performing, as well as drinking heavily; Eventually he died from tuberculosis in 1936.

Jim Steinmeyer's Art and Artifice has an excellent section on Morritt and how Steinmeyer deduced the secret of the donkey vanishing cabinet and recreated it himself.

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