Sunday night’s opening two-hour seg, entitled “Centuries of Deception,” traces the roots of magic to the Egyptian empire of 249 B.C. (where, oddly enough, David Copperfield was already working on making the pyramids disappear). In the earliest days, magic was confused with witchcraft and the occult, meaning that the reward for a good magic show was sometimes death.
The cups-and-balls trick, it turns out, is literally one of the oldest tricks in the book — popularized in one form today by three-card monte professionals on the streets of New York. And a certain automaton humanoid chess player in the 18th century drove everyone batty.
We learn that a 19th-century Frenchman named Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin is credited as the father of modern magic, turning his interest in clock-making into a stirring career of weaving illusions that combined “technology with feeling.” Magic was also there at the birth of moviemaking and cinematography through magician Georges Melies, who would die bitter and penniless.
Second two hours, “Mystery in America,” shows magic riding the crest of vaudeville. It also picks up with Harry Houdini, whom Jay pronounces “the world’s first superstar.” Besides all of the wondrous, death-defying stunt footage of the magic great, Houdini is singled out for his crusade against spiritualism and embracing of film.
Yet once cinema took hold of America, it booted live magic shows out of the nation’s theaters, pushing the art onto street corners and into nightclubs. TV would later give rise to the glitzy Las Vegas-style magic extravaganza a la Doug Henning. But as “Story of Magic” tells us, the aura of the past essentially evaporated.
Doc begins losing steam in part two at roughly the same time that magic itself does, around the 1940s. Producers Rick Davis and Jim Steinmeyer simply run out of interesting personalities to profile, and once you’ve seen one levitation, you’ve seem ’em all. But it’s to the producers’ credit that they are able to take so many loose ends and connect them into as neatly woven a quilt as they manage here.
Of course, as the documentarians themselves readily admit, “Story of Magic” isn’t truly a history of magic. It’s merely the history of magic that they had pictures of.
At least we finally uncover the origins of abracadabra. Turns out, it was an ancient nonsense word meaning … nothing. Consider yourself informed.