The curtain will soon close on Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age—on view for just three more weeks. As our team prepares to return the fantastic objects we borrowed to their rightful owners, I find myself reflecting on what made it so rewarding for me.
I especially enjoyed meeting family members of some of the performers spotlighted in the exhibition.They shared amazing personal stories as well as priceless memorabilia. Les Arnold, who bears a striking resemblance to his grandfather Leon Levy (known on stage as The Great Leon), shared a photo of Leon atop an elephant. Riding alongside him is his wife, Edythe Packard Levy (of the Packard Motor Car family), and an assistant.
The photo is inscribed “Simla, India, April 24th, 1908”—but as Les explained, “Simla” was closer to the Bronx Zoo than the Taj Mahal. Leon faked the photo to pass himself off as the great Hindu fakir “Kadan Sami” and to earn a spot on B.F. Keith’s hot-ticket vaudeville circuit. In another photo, Leon is pictured in an act he called The Fakir’s Supper, also designed to transport his audience to a mystical and mysterious foreign land. In this illusion, Leon would pull all of the items for a great banquet from the foulard over his arm! Leon passed on his love of magic to his grandson and great-granddaughter: Les and his daughter Alex continue to perform as the comedy magic duo Les Arnold and Dazzle.
Another memorable character from the Golden Age was Carl Ballantine, who changed his name from Meyer Kessler after seeing a bottle of Ballantine Scotch Whisky. Carl died at the age of 92 just one year before the exhibition opened. I met his daughter Saratoga through a remarkable woman named Joan Lawton, who has worked at L.A.’s legendary Magic Castle since the very beginning. The Magic Castle was one of Carl’s favorite places to hang out, according to Saratoga; his other was the race track (Saratoga and her sister, Molly Caliente, were named after Carl’s second love: horse racing). Saratoga told me that her father was known to head over to the Magic Castle when he was hungry and wait for fans to invite him to their table. His unwitting host invariably picked up the tab!
Saratoga’s Hollywood home is filled with photos and mementos of her dad’s long career in entertainment. Though he counseled her not to get into showbiz herself, she comes by it naturally as the daughter of two veteran performers (her mom, Ceil Cabot, was a cabaret singer and actress). With fellow filmmaker Dea Lawrence, Saratoga produced the documentary film Troupers, which recently premiered at the Hollywood Film Festival. The film profiles actors over the age of eighty who made it in Hollywood despite decades of rejection, never-ending auditions, the Hollywood black list, and more. Her dad is, of course, one of the film’s stars.
Magic is an endlessly fascinating community of talented, warm, witty, and generous people, and I consider myself fortunate to have been invited into their world while I organized Masters of Illusion. I will miss having magic on the brain 24/7 once the show closes, but I’ll be on to the next exhibition soon enough. Mah jongg, anyone?