Laurel & Hardy and Magic by Robert G Dickson.
At three times in their film careers, the boys were involved with magic and magicians. The most significant encounter occurred in POLITIQUERIAS, the Spanish language version of CHICKENS COME HOME, in which the Mexican magician, Cantu, appeared as part of the entertainment for Ollie's dinner guests. Cantu begins his act by producing - from thin air - several suites of playing cards followed by individual cards. He next lights a cigarette, takes several puffs, appears to extinguish it on the floor a couple of times only to produce it again and create more smoke, with and without the cigarette.
After a brief bit in which a handkerchief with a knot in it unties itself, Cantu performs his most convincing effect. Having asked the guests to pay attention to the fact that his hands are never near his body, he tears a two page section of the newspaper into four strips, tears those apart, folds them into a package approximately six- inches-square, which he then unfolds to reveal the intact, unborn pages.
For his next trick, Cantu needs a volunteer and selects Jimmy Finlayson, who is playing Ollie's butler. Cantu proceeds to remove a toy snake, various scarves and playing cards from Jimmy's person. At one point he puts his hand into Fin's trouser pocket and receives one of Fin's celebrated ''takes''! Fin then appears to produce several playing cards from behind Cantu's head.
The act's finale begins with Cantu showing the audience an empty hat from which he produces more than a dozen eggs, which he passes to Fin to hold in his hands.
Jimmy drops a couple of the eggs.
Cantu tells him to sit down on a folding chair, which explodes and collapses to the accompaniment of laughter and applause from the guests. Cantu bows off, followed by an embarrassed Fin, who is still clutching some of the eggs.
Abraham J Cantu was born in Monterrey, Mexico on November 24, 1896. He did not have a childhood interest in magic but began after a brief career as a barber. Magician L. 0. Gunn proposed him for membership in the Los Angeles Society of Magicians and a Billboard account of March 24, 1928, states that, at a meeting of the Society, he won a prize for his trick of finding a card in a cigarette selected from the audience.
Frakson, a leading American magician, greatly encouraged Cantu and was responsible for his getting the bookings, which launched a successful career in America. Cantu also toured his native Mexico, but, because his name was relatively common there, he reversed the syllables therein and worked as Professor Tucan. Cantu also appeared in Europe, and Variety reported his London debut at the Grosvenor House Cabaret on July 20, 1939, replacing Ruth and Billy Ambrose.
On the outbreak of war, Cantu returned to America. After a fallow period during which he apparently created and perfected his method of producing doves and pigeons, he was offered a contract to play Leon and Eddie's nightclub in New York. A rave review from columnist Walter Winchell assured him of future bookings in all the major clubs.
His dove production technique was adapted by Channing Pollock and can be traced through to today's magicians.
Sadly, A J Cantu died an early death. He was killed in a car accident on August 27, 1949, while en route to an engagement in Morgantown, West Virginia. Len Gunn wrote the following encomium in Billboard:
He was my best friend ... Cantu got his first trick of magic from me in 1925. I gave him his first show and took him on his first tour in 1928 when we played Yosemite National Park ... Cantu was a gentleman at all times; a clever man with many original ideas ...
People used to say to Cantu, ''Are you Spanish?" His answer was, "No, I am Mexican." He was proud of being a Mexican
HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929
In the rarely revived (for good reason) Hollywood Revue of 1929, Stan and Ollie appear in an almost six-minute sketch as magicians. As Master of Ceremonies, Jack Benny begins to introduce an act, the curtains behind him part to reveal Stan and Ollie, with their backs to the audience, preparing their magic act. Ollie is planting objects in Stan's jacket.
O11ie: ''Now, remember, don't take your hat off!" They realise the audience and Benny are watching them.
Benny: "How do you do?" Ollie raises his hat and responds, ''How do you do?" Stan raises his hat and out flies a dove.
Unfortunately, the gag is telegraphed due to the fact that Stan is holding onto his hat as Ollie responds, no doubt to avoid premature release of the bird.
The Boys indulge in a bit of pushing and shoving, which ends with Ollie putting his hand into a bowl of eggs and breaking some. He throws the bowl and contents into the wings. Benny enters and tells them to be careful where they throw stuff.
After Ollie calls for music and THE SKATER'S WALTZ begins, they perform their first trick, which involves transforming a candlestick into a vase of flowers behind a black cloth. As the cloth is pulled away, we just catch the candlestick disappearing behind Ollie's back.
Stan fiddles with the vase as Ollie announces that their next trick will be that of turning a banana into an egg! Ollie then kicks Stan - for having revealed the mechanics of the previous trick - breaking one of the eggs concealed in Stan's suit.
Ollie: "The egg trick is out. But, nevertheless, we will show you how to put a large cake into oblivion" Ollie holds the cake while Stan clears off the table. As Ollie crosses to the table he slips on the banana peel from the abandoned trick and does an excellent fall onto the cake.
Ollie: "I faw down ... and go blop!" Ollie gets up and tosses the cake off stage. Benny enters, covered with cake - the Boys exit.
A HAUNTING WE WILL GO
All of this plays almost as bleakly as it reads! In the dismal A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO, The Boys were teamed with world-class magician, Dante.
Ironically there is precious little real magic in the show - most of the tricks being executed via mechanical or optical him effects.
However, when we first meet Dante in the dining car of a train, he does perform two tricks for a small group of children. He transforms a bowl of sugar into a bowl of candies and produces a duckling from an empty sugar bowl - both tricks done without camera cuts. It is a bit of a mystery as to why the film featured so little of Dante 's famous routines and pleasant personality Born Harry A Jansen in 1883 in Denmark, Dante began his magic career as a builder of mechanical illusions In 1927, after a ten-year association with magician Howard Thurston, Dante sailed from New York and, over the next twelve years, presented his mystery revue, SIM-SALA -BIM in, according to an advertisement he placed in Variety in 1939, "every country of the world to enormous business, each date with prolongations or returns and all in first class theatres".
The advertisement lists bookings in many major cities throughout Europe but also in then exotic and out-of-the-way places like Shanghai, Manila; Tokyo, Johannesburg, Calcutta and Melbourne! After opening in London in August of 1936, Dante was booked for an unheard-of 150 continuous weeks throughout Britain by the Stoll circuit, including dates at Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, Lewisham, Croydon and Finsbury Park.
Dante was appearing with his company at the Scala, Berlin, when war broke out. They were able to return to America via Sweden. In September of 1940, SIM-SALA-BIM opened on Broadway at the Morosco Theatre to excellent reviews, then toured throughout
America. A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO was shot at Fox in March of 1942. Dante continued to tour America during the war and, post-war, returned to Britain for another lengthy tour in 1946-47. Other engagements followed in Europe and in America.
Dante died June 15, 1955, aged 71, of a heart attack at his ranch near Northridge, California, where he and his wife had recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
Although The Boys had these encounters with magic and magicians, the real magic of Laurel and Hardy occurs when you get the chance to see them on a big screen, with an audience. Then you can experience their own special brand of "magic"
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I am particularly grateful to David Price of the Egyptian Hall Museum, Brentwood, Tennessee; Ricky Jay, Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts, Los Angeles,
California; Dr Edwin A Dawes of The Magic Circle (UK) for their kind assistance in the preparation of this article.
Copyright 1990 Robert G Dickson.
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