MEMOIRS - 01 - Memoirs of Harry Venson

"How did you become a Magician?"
"What made you think of learning Sleigh of Hand?"
"When did you first take up Conjuring?"

These and many similar questions are always being asked me, and as my friends are always advising me to write my memoirs, I have at last decided to put on record a few of the many interesting episodes which have arisen during my career as a Magical entertainer.

Well, to start at the beginning, I was about twenty-one or twenty-two years of age, when my Mother gave a house party on the occasion of my sister’s birthday, and one of the artists, engaged to entertain the guests, was ‘Cogswell’ , a well known Conjurer. I was fascinated and intrigued by his performance, and from that moment I made up my mind to learn Conjuring.

Before ‘Cogswell’ had left the house, I had made arrangements to have lessons in Conjuring and Sleight of Hand from him.

At that time we were living in Tavestock Square, London, in the same house that was eventually occupied by ‘The Great Lafayette’, whom you will perhaps remember, lost his life in a fire at the Empire Theatre, in Edinburgh, on May 9th, 1911, when trying to save his favourite dog.

Soon after I had interested myself in the Magic Art, we moved to Holland Park, quite close to Nevil Maskelyne’s residence, which was in Elgin Crescent. I had at that time every opportunity of meeting and mixing with well known people and celebrities of the Theatres and Music Halls, as well as a few of the best known Society Entertainers; and it was at some of our Social functions that I personally met such people as Sir Walter de Freese, Vesta Tilley, Sir Harry Lauder, David Devant, Charles Bertram, Gertie Miller,

Chung Ling Soo, Horace Golden, Dr. Byrd Page and a host of others whose names have slipped my memory for the time being. I also became acquainted with some of the ‘Moss Stoll Combination’ Staff, Messrs O’Connell, Johns and Agnew, all well-known names to the profession at that time.

Well, to get on with my Magical progress. I found that Conjuring was not an easy thing to learn, and it is all tommy rot for people to say "It’s easy when you know how"; in fact, your difficulties just start when you know the secret of a trick, and it means a lot of hard work and many hours of practice, before even the semblance of success with even the simplest trick, is assured. However, I had set my heart on being a Conjurer, and so I got down to it, good and proper and after months of hard work, I was able to put on a thirty minutes programme, which, after presenting to my friends, I decided to try out at some of the Boys’ Homes in and around London. These were frightening affairs, but very good practice and experience for the novice.

From the Boys’ Homes, it was only a step to the Working Men’s Clubs. Concerts were held at these Clubs every Sunday morning, and as they were all fitted up with stage, complete with dressing rooms, drops and footlights, they were the amateur and novice’s happy hunting ground. The Audiences at these Clubs were ‘critical’ and if they did not like your turn, they let you know it, and if you got the ‘bird’, well you’d had it’. These Sunday morning Concerts or Variety Entertainment’s were conducted in the good old Music hall style, with a Chairman announcing each item; so, a novice certainly got the right atmosphere and real good experience; and you can well imagine a performer soon realised if his act was going to be any good or not.

The Political Clubs were my next stepping stones. Concert and good Variety Artists

were always welcome at the Conservative and Liberal Clubs; and down to these entertainment’s came the Concert and Vaudeville Agents, looking for new talent. I got spotted by a booking agent who was looking for a Magical Entertainer, and for some time afterwards he kept me busy with all the engagements I could cope with.

After my ‘apprentice’ days, I gradually got into the swing of things and was booking engagements at such places as Friscati’s, Ritz and Savoy Hotels, private house parties and at Social functions and Receptions.

At this time I also did a lot of concert work for agents; Club shows, children’s parties and Ladies’ At Homes. Work and engagements varied from a Society function in Mayfair to a concert for Road Sweepers. When working under contract for an agent, one must take whatever is offered or booked out to you. After-dinner shows were very popular, also Masonic functions were particularly favourable to Conjurers, as Charles Bertram and Dr. Byrd page had made Magic popular at private gatherings.

During the London Season, a Conjurer has to work very hard indeed, sometimes as many as three or four shows a day, and not getting home till the small hours of the morning.

I often went to England’s Home of Mystery in Piccadilly, Maskelyne & Cooke’s ever-popular Magical Entertainment’s. David Devant was of course a partner, but it was not until they moved to St. Georges Hall that I really became a keen follower of Magic; but once I had been bitten by the Magic ‘bug’, I made a point of going to see as many Conjurers as possible. David Devant was, in my opinion, the leading Conjurer of his day, and I have spent hours, sitting watching him perform or when he was rehearsing at St. Georges Hall; even his voice was magical; things just happened when he was performing, "No trouble at all".

Another well known Conjurer whom I knew well, was Charles Bertram, and I used to go and see him perform whenever possible. His Four Ace trick, Billiard Balls and Diminishing Cards being his outstanding effects, and his catch-phrase "Isn’t it wonderful" always got a laugh and was a feature of his show.

John Nevil Maskelyne I never met personally, but I knew his son Necil very well, as he lived quite close to me in Elgin Crescent, and very often we came home together after a meeting of the Magic Circle. Nevil Maskelyne was the father of Clive and Jasper Maskelyne, both of whom have visited South Africa.

Dr. Byrd Page was one of the leading Society Entertainers in my early days, so also was ‘Malini’, but whereas Dr. Byrd Page was working the ‘Upper 5en’, Malini was engaged by a well known London Hotel, to entertain guests at private functions and dinners at that Hotel. A very good story is told of these two Masters of Magic, when they unexpectedly met at a private supper party, where Dr. Byrd Page had been engaged to entertain the guests. The supper was arranged at numerous small tables holding four to six persons, and Dr. Byrd Page had been moving from table to table doing small pocket and card tricks for the guests at each table. It was getting late and the Dr. was tired and sleepy, and as a final trick he had asked Gertie Miller to select a card, when Malini popped his head through the curtains and when he saw Dr. Byrd Page, he apologised and retired, but Dr. Page called him back and told him that Gertie had selected a card, and that the card was now back in the pack; and handing the pack to Malini he asked him to find it. Malini returned the pack to the Doctor and walked away in disgust, without saying a word. Again the Doctor called him back, and this time when Malini put his head through the curtains, he opened his mouth and there, folded on his tongue, was the very card that Gertie Miller had selected.

This was quite an impromptu effect and amazed the guests, and was talked about for a long time afterwards, even among members of the Magical Circle itself.

Carlton, the Comedy Conjurer, was topping the Bill at the Palace Theatre of Varieties, when I first met him at the London Circle; he had come in to give us a demonstration of his new "Sleight of Foot" trick, as he called it. He was good and properly blindfolded by two members of the Circle, and a chalk line was then drawn on the floor, starting from the top of the run-down on the stage, to the article that had been hidden away, at the back of the hall. This chalk line was drawn in and out of rows of chairs, up against the wall and away again at an angle, and it led right from the stage to the hidden article. The bandage on Carlton’s eyes was once more examined, to make sure that he could not see, and Carlton, who had taken his shoes off was guided to the start of the chalk line; he put one foot on the line and then started to move forward, and followed it

up till he came to the hidden article. The only time that he fumbled, to find the line, was at the point where it shot off at an angle from the wall.

The only time in my life that I really got the ‘wind up’ and funked going on the stage was at a show given at a Variety Aritists’ Club on one Sunday evening. All the artists were Star turns, except myself, but as a promising amateur, I had been given the opportunity by one of the Committee, to give a performance, as a sort of try-out. I arrived in good time, and started getting my tables ready at the back of the stage. I was told that on the same programme were George Robey, Vesta Tilley, Harry Lauder, Carlton and others; and when I heard the tremendous applause following each item, I slowly but surely began to get frightened, with a bad attack of ‘inferiority complex’; and when, suddenly a long streak of a fellow, dressed in black tights, came over to me and said "Well, young man, I see that you are a conjurer, good luck to you, my boy, I hope you get your act over well." That was Carlton, and he was just going on, and when I heard the tremendous reception he got, my heart failed me, and I immediately packed up and left, without giving my show.