100 years after his shocking death on stage in Edinburgh, the magic of the Great Lafayette returns, writes Mark Fisher
DIG deep into the archives of the New York Times and, in the edition of 8 December 1902, you will find a three-paragraph story with the headline: "Fined for Cruelty to Lion". It relates how officers of the Humane Society had inspected the stage at the Duquesne Theatre in Pittsburgh where the famous illusionist the Great Lafayette was performing. They were not happy with what they found.
The centrepiece of the magician's act was a 25-minute routine called the Lion's Bride in which an assistant playing a princess was forced to enter the cage of a real lion. To convince the audience of the danger involved, the Great Lafayette needed the beast to roar on cue. This he achieved by feeding an electric current through large copper plates on the floor of the cage. The lion, reported the paper, "dashed about in a way that led the audience to believe that its fury was natural".
It also meant the poor creature had good reason to leave the cage into a secret compartment when the Great Lafayette needed it to "magically" disappear.
On this occasion, he was fined $20 and costs, a sum he regarded as an occupational hazard. He received similar penalties in other cities and carried on regardless.
And why wouldn't he? The man born Sigmund Neuberger in 1871 had transformed himself into the greatest entertainment star of his day. He had an act that worked and had made him rich. "He was a very good illusionist," says magician and admirer Paul Daniels. "The actual 'how', the method of why a trick works, is really not all that important. It's all down to the presenter and this guy was obviously a very good presenter: he was flamboyant, the whole show was colourful and it had the biggest scenery of the time..."
Daniels is the headline act in a weekend dedicated to the Great Lafayette at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre where, exactly 100 years ago, the self-styled "man of mystery" made his most spectacular - and fatal - last exit. Telling the story of the Munich-born star, Daniels will be mixing new tricks with old to salute one of the most astonishing, not to mention eccentric, names of his profession. "I'm putting in a couple of illusions from the time, but performed in a modern manner," he says. "People keep saying 'are you going to bring in the horse and the lion', but for a one-night stand, I'm already not making any money on this one."
Having moved as a child with his Jewish family to the USA in the time of the gold rush, Neuberger went into vaudeville, developing an archery routine in which he billed himself as the "crackshot with the bow". Influenced by the Chinese magic of Ching Ling Foo and the spectacle of his friend Harry Houdini, he branched out into magic. "It was a big spectacle, paralleled in the late-20th century by Siegfried and Roy, who again ran a very big, colourful, flamboyant show," says Daniels.
He was known especially as a quick-change artist; in one favourite routine, he conducted the theatre's orchestra while instantaneously changing costumes to reflect the various band leaders he was imitating. Moving to London, he became the world's highest paid entertainer, earning over 40,000 a year, taking bookings ten years in advance and employing a team of over 40 assistants, technicians and animal handlers. Rumour has it he made his staff salute him as a mark of respect, but he paid them well for their efforts.
As Siegfried and Roy will tell you, there is a downside to doing magic with big cats. When Roy Horn was bitten by a tiger during a show at the Mirage in Las Vegas in 2003, he was lucky to survive. The incident halted a career that, in its sense of scale and audacity, owed a huge debt to the turn-of-the-century star. Like Horn, the Great Lafayette survived several scrapes with his performing lion and was once badly injured when struck by a heavy cage.
And like the Las Vegas acts of today, the Great Lafayette delighted audiences with his visual panache. He was the Liberace of his day, right down to the chauffeur-driven limousines and the taste for diamond rings. To open his act, after taking the stage to a trumpet fanfare while dressed in a satin outfit, he would shake a sequined cloth to release a small flock of birds and then, from the folds of the same piece of material, he would produce a bejewelled goat.
You can imagine the excitement, therefore, when the Great Lafayette called into Edinburgh for a two-week engagement at what was then the Empire Palace Theatre. He had arrived by train in his own private Pullman coach and checked into the Caledonian Hotel. There was one suite for him and one suite for Beauty, the cross-breed dog given him as a present by Houdini.
If he was guilty of cruelty to the lion, the same was not true of his treatment of Beauty. Visitors to his London mansion were met by a bronze plaque that read: "You may drink my wine. You may eat my food. You may command my servants. But you must respect my dog." His idea of respect was to give the pooch its own rooms, velvet cushions to sleep on, dog-sized furniture, a diamond-studded collar and five-course meals. He even put a likeness of Beauty on the radiator of his silver-grey Mercedes.
There is only so much indulgence a dog can take, however, and on 5 May 1911, soon after their arrival in Edinburgh, Beauty died from apoplexy, a condition caused by over eating. The Great Lafayette was inconsolable and was determined to give the animal a formal burial. After much negotiation, the Piershill Cemetery in Edinburgh agreed to take the embalmed dog on condition its owner would be buried in the same plot. Little did the Great Lafayette know how soon that would happen.
For the time being, the show had to go on. Four days after Beauty's death, the 3,000-capacity audience at the Empire Palace Theatre was in raptures over the Great Lafayette's headline act. It was approaching 11pm and the air was awash with fashionable Orientalism. The Lion's Bride was much more than just a trick with a princess in a cage with a wild animal. It was an elaborate spectacle involving a stallion, fire eaters, jugglers and contortionists, all building up to the finale in which, just as the woman was in greatest peril, the pelt dropped off the lion to reveal - the Great Lafayette!
It would have been the most memorable part of the evening - but a fire had broken out on stage caused by a faulty lantern. So spectacular had the performance been that the audience assumed the inferno was all part of the show and applauded. Only a hasty round of God Save the King from the orchestra got them onto their feet and ready to make a fast exit as flames reached into the auditorium. "The fire leaped towards those of us in the front stalls and the friend who was with me had his eyebrows and the side of his head scorched," an eye-witness told the Daily Record.
Down came the fire curtain - the first example of such a precaution saving lives in a theatre - and the audience got out largely unscathed. Eye-witnesses said the Great Lafayette himself escaped but then returned to rescue his animals, in particular his horse. It was then the backstage area collapsed around him. He died at the age of 40 along with ten others, including performers, a musician and backstage crew, not to mention sundry animals.
That, however, was not the end of the Great Lafayette's disappearing act. It took three days for the authorities to realise the body they had assumed to be his was actually that of an identically dressed assistant, Bandsman Richards. Lafayette's body was found by a workman clearing debris and identified by the rings on his fingers.
The crowds who turned out for his funeral on 14 May, 1911 were phenomenal. After cremation in Glasgow, his ashes were brought back to Edinburgh where a brass band led the procession behind a horse-drawn hearse. The chief mourner was Mabel, his pet Dalmatian, riding alone in his Mercedes.
To mark the centenary of his death, the theatre has programmed a long weekend of magic-related events. On Saturday 7 May, before Daniels' show, which also stars Scott Penrose, vice-president of the Magic Circle, is a day of close-up magic and backstage tours. Then on Monday 9 May, the actual centenary, Edinburgh Secret Society is holding a seance to be broadcast on the internet.
"I'm constantly saying to young magicians, don't buy the latest stuff," says Daniels, who will return to the city for the Edinburgh International Magic Festival in July and again for a four-week Fringe run at Assembly in August. "Read all the old books because in there are amazing effects and what you've got to do is try and find a modern way to present them."
The Great Lafayette Festival, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 7-9 May.
Five Scottish magicians ... just like that
1. Janet Horne: not a stage act, but in her time considered the genuine article. Horne was the last woman to be legally executed in Britain for witchcraft. In 1727, she was accused of casting a spell to turn her daughter's hands and feet into horse shoes so that she could ride her like a pony. Beat that David Blaine.
2. John Henry Anderson: born in the Mearns in 1814, the man they called the Great Wizard of the North is said to be the first conjurer to pull a white rabbit out of a top hat. He also popularised the bullet-catch illusion.
3. 'Dr' Walford Bodie: the highlight of the act by the Banffshire man they called the British Edison, born in 1869, came when he placed a potato in a volunteer's mouth and cooked it by passing electricity through their head.
4. Roy Walton: the (English)man behind the counter at Tam Shepherd's Trick Shop in Glasgow is not only a great card magician, but a key inspiration to a generation of magicians from Jerry Sadowitz down.
5. Harry Potter: all it takes is a wand and a bit of cod Latin and the boy wizard can deal with everything from Muggles to horcruxes. It's a valuable skill.