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Father and inspiration of stage and screen magic
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                                         [Image: MTE5NDg0MDU1MDAyNTE0OTU5.jpg]
In all aspects of culture there are individuals who are powerful sources of influence and originality, but who fade into obscurity as their ideas are adopted and developed by those who live after them.
If Jean Eugene Robert had lived until the age of  movies and technology, his name would be universally known. Instead, it's almost entirely unknown, although many aspects of modern entertainment and culture owe their very existence to him.
Born in France in 1805, Robert was the son of a watchmaker, which was a profound influence on him. However he studied law, but became entranced with the art of conjuring, stage "magic" and illusion. Exponents were largely still regarded as tricksters, sorcerers and scoundrels, but audiences could not resist them. He paid such a performer, who used the stage name Maous, to teach him basic "close-up" tricks with the hands, using cards, dice, coins and other props. He also learned juggling and soon had a passable stage act which he performed as an amateur, still pursuing a career in clockmaking.
Robert developed and enhanced his act, initiating the now traditional tail  coat and top hat trademarks of stage conjurers. It's said that his act was improved by association with the magician Torrini, but from whatever influence, his act became a one-man variety show worthy of stages all over France.
When he married Cecile Houdin in 1830, their surname became Robert-Houdin, and he became widely known as the famous entertainer Robert Houdin.
He retained a fascination with clocks and began to create other artefacts powered by clockwork, the most famous being a humanoid automaton able to write and draw on paper. He also originated, devised and perfected some of the now-routine "magic" tricks that still engross audiences throughout the world.
Funded by a financial backer, Robert-Houdin opened his own theatre in Paris in 1845. It had a shaky start, largely owing to his nervousness, but in time he devised a programme called Second Sight, and the audiences flocked to his theatre.
Just a few of the techniques he perfected - and still used to great effect - include:
0 Catching a bullet between the teeth
0 Levitation of a living person (first done by Ching Lau Lauro in 1832)
0 Use of electro-magnetism for tricks and illusions
0 "Mind-reading" (identification of objects whilst blindfolded)
0 "Audience participation" - taking items from members of the audience for tricks
0 The "incredible portfolio" - a thin folder from which large objects were extracted.
His enormous success permeated all levels of French society and King Louis-Phillipe demanded a private performance. In 1856 he was commissioned by Louis Napoleon to perform in  French Algeria.
The world of entertainment was also more than impressed. Erich Weiss was impressed enough to become the magician and escapologist Houdini, even adapting the stage name from his mentor.
Another aficionado was the more modest conjuror Georges Melies. He was a frequent patron of the theatre and became a friend of Robert-Houdin. In 1888, 17 years after Robert-Houdin died, Melies bought the Teatre Robert Houdin from the maestro's widow, and later used it for his seminal films in the early days of movies. Melies also acquired the humanoid automaton - a feature of the movie Hugo - and numerous other artefacts left by Robert-Houdin.
It's ironic that Houdini is a household name but Robert-Houdin is not, since much of his repertoire was originated by Robert-Houdin, not to mention the adaptation of his name.
Today, "magicians" all over the world dress in tail coats and top hats, and perform tricks and manoeuvres originated or perfected by Robert-Houdin, and another disciple - Georges Melies - became arguably the most important pioneer in movie history.
Whilst no-one can predict their importance in history, everything has to start somewhere and it's only fair that true originators receive due tribute after their own lifetimes, and none is more deserving than Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. A museum dedicated to him has been established in his French birthplace, Blois, and a plaque in Paris denotes where his theatre stood before it was demolished in 1924.


[Image: 170px-Plaque_Robert-Houdin%2C_11_rue_de_...aris_1.jpg]
 
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