Dec 072018

Today is probably the birthday (1805) of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, or it might have been yesterday. You never can tell with French magicians – tricky lot. His autobiography says yesterday, but birth records say today. I’ll go with today. He is widely considered the father of the modern style of conjuring. Houdini took his stage name in homage to Robert-Houdin.

Robert-Houdin was born Jean-Eugène Robert in Blois. His father, Prosper Robert, was a watchmaker in Blois. Jean-Eugene’s mother, the former Marie-Catherine Guillon, died when he was just a young child. When Jean-Eugène  was 11, Prosper sent him to school 35 miles up the Loire to the University of Orléans. At 18, he graduated and returned to Blois. His father wanted him to be a lawyer, but Robert-Houdin wanted to follow into his father’s footsteps as a watchmaker. His penmanship was excellent, and it landed him a job as a clerk for an attorney’s office. Instead of studying law, he tinkered with mechanical gadgets. His employer sent him back to his father. He was told that he was better suited as a watchmaker than a lawyer, but by then, Jean’s father had already retired, so he became an apprentice to his cousin who had a watch shop, and for a short time worked as a watchmaker.

In the mid-1820s, he saved up to buy a copy of a two-volume set of books on clockmaking called Traité de l’horlogerie (Treatise on Clockmaking) by Ferdinand Berthoud. When he got home and opened the wrapping, instead of the Berthoud books, he had received a two-volume set on magic called Scientific Amusements. Instead of returning the books, his curiosity got the better of him, and from these relatively simple volumes, he learned the rudiments of magic. Subsequently he practiced at all hours of the day. He considered the mistake to be the hand of Fate setting him on his life’s path. He was upset that the books he got only revealed how the secrets were done but did not show how to do them. He found that learning from the books available in those days was very difficult due to the lack of detailed explanations provided, but the books piqued his interest in the art. So he began taking lessons from a local amateur magician. He paid ten francs for a series of lessons from a man named Maous from Blois who was a podiatrist but also entertained at fairs and parties doing magic. He was proficient in sleight of hand, and he taught Jean how to juggle and to coordinate his eye and hand. He also taught him rudiments of the cups and balls tricks. He told him that digital dexterity came with repetition, and as a direct result, he practiced incessantly.

Magic was his pastime, but meanwhile, his studies in horology continued. When he felt he was ready, he moved to Tours and set up a watchmaking business, doing conjuring on the side. Much of what we know about Robert-Houdin comes from his memoirs—and his writings were meant more to entertain than to chronicle, rendering it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Robert-Houdin would have readers believe that a major turning point in his life came when he became apprenticed to the magician Edmund De Grisi, Count’s son and better known as Torrini. You can find key extracts from his memoirs here:

What is known is that his early performing came from joining an amateur acting troupe. Later, he performed at social parties as a professional magician in Europe and the United States. It was during this period, while at a party, that he met the daughter of a Parisian watchmaker, Jacques François Houdin, who had also come from Jean Robert’s native Blois. The daughter’s name was Josèphe Cecile Houdin, and he fell in love with her at their first meeting. On July 8th, 1830, they were married. He hyphenated his own name to hers and became Robert-Houdin. He moved to Paris and worked in his father-in-law’s wholesale shop. Jacques François was among the last of the watchmakers to use the old methods of handcrafting each piece, yet embraced his new son-in-law’s ambitions for mechanism. While M. Houdin worked in the main shop, Jean tinkered with mechanical toys and automatic figures. He and Josèphe had eight children, of whom three survived.

Quite by accident, Robert-Houdin walked into a shop on the Rue Richelieu and discovered it sold magic (lots of happy accidents in his biography). It was owned by a Père (Papa) Roujol, and there he met fellow magicians, both amateur and professional, where he engaged in talk about conjuring, and he met an aristocrat by the name of Jules de Rovère, who purportedly coined the term “prestidigitation” to describe a major misdirection technique magicians used. At Papa Roujol’s, Robert-Houdin learned the details of many of the mechanical tricks of the time as well as how to improve upon them. From there, he built his own mechanical figures, like a singing bird, a dancer on a tightrope, and an automaton doing the cups and balls. His most acclaimed automaton was his writing and drawing figure. He displayed this figure before king Louis Philippe and eventually sold it to P. T. Barnum.

Robert-Houdin loved to watch the big magic shows that came to Paris. He dreamed about some day opening his own theater. Meanwhile, he was hired by a friend, Comte de l’Escalopier, to perform at private parties. The income from the shop and his new inventions, which he sold, gave him enough money to experiment on new tricks using glass apparatus that would be (or at least appear to be) free of trickery. He envisioned a stage that would be as elegant as the drawing rooms in which he was hired to perform. He also thought that a magician should be dressed in traditional evening clothes. De l’Escalopier lent him 15,000 francs to make his vision into reality. He rented out a suite of rooms above the archways around the gardens of the Palais Royal, which was once owned by Cardinal Richelieu. He hired workmen to redesign the old assembly room into a theatre. They painted it white with gold trim, hung tasteful drapes and chic candelabras, and the stage furniture was set in the style of Louis XV.

On July 3rd, 1845, Robert-Houdin premiered his 200-seat theatre in what he called “Soirées Fantastiques”. No critics covered Robert-Houdin’s debut, and in his memoirs, Robert-Houdin said that the show had been a disaster. He suffered from stage fright that caused him to talk too fast and in a monotone. He said that he did not know what he was saying or doing, and everything was a blur. He believed that a magician should not present a trick until it was mechanically perfected to be certain of avoiding failure, and this caused him to over-rehearse. After the first show, he was about to have a nervous breakdown. He closed the theater and had every intention to close it for good, until a friend agreed that the venture was a silly idea. Instead of admitting defeat, Robert-Houdin, irked at the friend’s effrontery, used this insult to regain his courage, and persevered in giving the show a long run, becoming more polished and confident onstage.

With each performance, Robert-Houdin got better, and he began to receive critical acclaim. Le Charivari and L’Illustration both said that his mechanical marvels and artistic magic was comparable to those of his predecessors like Philippe and Bartolomeo Bosco. Even with all of this, still relatively few people came to the little theatre during the summer months, and he struggled to keep it opened. To meet expenses, he sold the three houses that he had inherited from his mother. The following year, he added a new trick to his program that became especially popular. Seats at the Palais Royal were at a premium. This new marvel was called Second Sight. Second Sight drew the audiences into the little theatre. He walked into the audience and touched items that the audience members held up, and his blindfolded assistant, played by his son, described each one in detail. It caused a sensation and brought throngs to see his shows. Eventually, he changed the method, so instead of asking his son what was in his hands, he simply rang a bell. This stunned those that suspected a spoken code was being used. He would even set the bell off to the side and remain silent, and his son still described every object handed to his father. At one point he made the test even more difficult. He placed a glass of water into his son’s hands, and Emile proceeded to drink from it. He was able to perceive the taste of the liquids that spectators from the audience merely thought of. Even then, the audiences were not entirely convinced, they tried to trip up Emile by bringing in books written in Greek, or odd tools such as a thread counter used by a weaver.

On one of Robert-Houdin’s side tables, he had an egg, a lemon, and an orange. He went into the audience and borrowed a lady’s handkerchief that was in style then. He rolled it into a ball. He rubbed the ball in between his hands, and the handkerchief got smaller and smaller until it disappeared, passing through to the egg on the table. He picked up the egg, and the audience expected him to crack it open and produce the spectator’s handkerchief. Instead, he made that disappear too. He told the audience that the egg went to the lemon. This was repeated with the lemon and the orange. When he made the orange disappear, all that was left was a fine powder which he placed into a silver vial. He soaked this vial with alcohol and set it on fire. A small orange tree planted in a wooden box was brought forth by one of his assistants. The audience noticed that the tree was barren of any blossoms or fruit. The blue flame from the vial was placed underneath it. The vapors from it caused the leaves to spread and sprout orange blossoms from it. Robert-Houdin then picked up his magic wand and waved it. The flowers disappeared and oranges bloomed forth. He plucked the oranges from the tree and tossed them to the audience to prove they were real. He did this until he had only one left. He waved his wand again, and the orange split open into four sections, revealing a white material of sorts inside of it. Two clockwork butterflies appeared from behind the tree. The butterflies grabbed the end of the corner of the white cloth and spread it open, revealing the spectator’s handkerchief.

When touring in Algeria, he used another famous trick to prove that French “magic” was stronger than local superstitions: he presented an empty box with an iron bottom that anyone could lift. By turning on an electromagnet hidden under the floor, he made it immovable, “proving” that through his “will power”, he could make it impossible to be lifted even by the strongest Algerian warriors. He found the trick was more impressive not when he claimed that he could make the trunk heavy, but when he claimed he could make the strong man too weak to lift a trunk that even a small child could lift. When he performed this trick the first time, the Algerian strong man he worked it on became so enraged that he left in a fury. It took a great deal of diplomacy to convince the Algerians that his actions were all trickery and not sorcery. These and other tricks are described by Robert-Houdin himself in detail in the link I gave above.

After his mission in Algeria, Robert-Houdin gave his last public performance at the Grand Théâtre in Marseille, then returned to his home in Saint-Gervais, near his native Blois, where he wrote his memoirs, Confidences d’un Prestidigitateur. He also wrote several books on the art of magic. He lived happily in retirement for about fifteen years, until the advent of the Franco Prussian War. His son Eugene was a captain in a Zouave regiment. On August 6th, 1870, Robert-Houdin heard news of his son being mortally wounded at the Battle of Worth. Meanwhile, Hessian Soldiers captured Paris, and Robert-Houdin hid his family in a cave near his property. Four days later, Robert-Houdin learned that his son had died of his wounds. With the stress from that and the war, his health deteriorated, and he contracted pneumonia. On June 13th, 1871, he died at the age of 65.

His home in Blois is open to the public as the publicly owned La Maison de la Magie Robert-Houdin. It is a museum and theater first opened by his grandson Paul Robert-Houdin in April 1966.

There are videos on magic tricks in the kitchen but they are pretty lame. This one on tricks with eggs is not strictly magic, but there are some fun ideas.

Or you can go with a Loire valley regional dish such as salmon with lemon sauce to celebrate Blois.


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