I’m sure that by now all my astute readers, and even the less astute one, will have answered most if not all of the questions in this year’s SCM Christmas Quiz. In case you haven’t, here they are:

1. The badge of the Sheffield Circle of Magicians is known as the Scaratika. What two magical symbols does it incorporate?

Answer: A Scarab and a Swastika. To the Ancient Egyptians, the scarab was a symbol of Khepri, a manifestation of the sun god Ra, from an analogy between the beetle’s behaviour of rolling a ball of dung across the ground and Khepri’s task of rolling the sun across the sky. They accordingly held the species to be sacred. The swastika is an ancient Indian religious symbol of peace and continuity. It is considered to be a sacred and auspicious symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism and dates back at least 11,000 years.

2. Bess Houdini held annual séances on Halloween for ten years after her husband’s death in 1926. Which secret phrase did her husband Harry promise to use to prove that his ghost was actually trying to contact her?

a) Flowers do not fade.
b) I am Erik.
c) Rosabelle believe.
d) It’s the kiss that holds the key.

Answer: c). “Rosabelle” was a song that Bess used in her original act at Coney Island. Harry Houdini spent much of his later life trying to disprove spiritualism and expose phony mediums. The agreement with his wife was his ultimate means of proving that a return from the dead was impossible. The séances were supposed to continue each year for the rest of her life.

In 1929 a medium reported that the special phrase had been uttered during a séance, but Bess claimed that the news was false – she had been ill during the séance and the secrecy of the phrase could have been compromised. Bess held annual séances for 10 years, and then gave up on waiting and passed responsibility on to magician William B. Gibson.

3. David Wighton was born in London, England in 1868. He is best known for the Mascot Moth illusion in which a woman vanishes into thin air. What is his stage name?

Answer: David Devant. Incidentally,  Devant was the first Honorary President of the Sheffield Circle of Magicians.

4. Who is generally credited as the inventor of the Sawing in Half illusion?

Answer: P. T. Selbit (Percy Thomas Tibbles). A description of the illusion was published by the great French magician Jean Robert-Houdin in 1858, but Robert-Houdin’s idea remained just that, a written description of an effect. Selbit is generally recognised as the first magician to perform such a trick on a public stage, which he did at the Finsbury Park Empire theatre in London on 17 January 1921. In fact, Selbit had previously performed the illusion in December 1920 before a select audience of promoters and theatrical agents at the St. George’s Hall

5. Considered by many to be the father of modern magic, this French magician was originally a watchmaker but later performed throughout Europe during the 1840s and 1850s. The “Light and Heavy Chest” was one of his most famous tricks.

Answer: Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin.

6.  What was the stage name of famous British magician Newton Edward Daniels?

Answer: Paul Daniels.

7. These two German magicians were famous for their work with big cats.

Answer: Siegfried & Roy.

8. A magician makes a coin vanish from his or her hands. Which European country is connected with this sleight?

Answer: France (French Drop).

9. Invented by Theo Bamberg some time in the early 1900s, this little container is a classic prop for coin magic.

Answer: Okito Coin Box (Okito was Bamberg’s stage name).

10. The inaugural meeting of the Sheffield Circle of Magicians took place on 18 May. But what year?

Answer: 1920.

There was also a tie-breaker question, which we didn’t have to use. It was:

Tie Breaker: Claude Conlin was a mind-reading magician with a disreputable past. He had been married seven, eleven or even fourteen times, depending on who you believe. He was a con man, possibly a murderer and was imprisoned for fraud. Nevertheless, he was probably the highest paid mentalist of his time. What was Conlin’s stage name?

Answer next week.

Maries-Georges-Jean Méliès, was born in Paris, where his family manufactured shoes, on December 8 1861. His early interest in  the arts led to a place at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris where he showed a particular interest in stage design and puppetry.

Méliès’ father wanted him to learn English so Georges continued his studies in London. In 1884 he attended a performance by Maskelyne and Cooke at The Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. This sparked his life-long interest in stage magic. His fascination with film began the following year after seeing a demonstration of the Lumière brothers’ camera. Apparently he tried to buy the machine, but was turned down. Undeterred, he travelled back to London and investigated the camera/projector of Robert Paul.

What happened next depends upon whose account you read: either he bought a machine from Paul, or he returned to Paris and built his own projector based on Paul’s design. Whichever the truth, we do know that he began screening his own film presentations on 4 April 1896. At first he showed other people’s films, but within a few months he was making and screening his own short films. At first these were one-reel views or event records, lasting about a minute.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. After returning to Paris  from London he started work at his father’s shoe factory, taking over as manager when his father retired. The lure of the theatre was still there, however, and when the famous Theatre Robert-Houdin came up for sale in 1888 he bought it. Soon he was moving away from the simple cityscapes and began using his camera to record magic acts and gags.

We’ve all heard the (probably apocryphal) story of Méliès’ accidental discovery of the most basic camera trick in the fantasy film-makers’ armory: Apparently he was filming a street scene (in 1896) when the camera jammed. He sorted the problem out and continued filming. When he came to process the film Méliès must have been delighted to see the result: objects apparently changing, appearing and transforming instantaneously… a magician’s dream?

In 1897, he established a studio on a rooftop property in Montreuil. Actors performed in front of a painted set inspired by the conventions of magic and musical theatre. He directed 531 films between 1896 and 1914, ranging in length from one to forty minutes. In subject matter, these films are often similar to the shows that Méliès had been doing as a stage magician at the Robert-Houdin, containing “tricks” and impossible events, such as objects disappearing or changing size.

We now recognise Méliès’ importance in developing many technical and narrative techniques in early cinema. He was one of the first to use multiple exposure (see Un Homme de têtes, 1898), time-lapse, and dissolves in his films.

This is perhaps Méliès’ most famous film A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune) made in 1902, which includes the celebrated scene in which a spaceship hits the eye of the man in the moon. We are told that agents of Thomas Edison bribed a theatre owner in London for a copy of A Trip to the Moon. Edison then made hundreds of copies and showed them in New York City. Méliès received no compensation. [Plus ca change… eh Roger?]

Like many of Méliès’ films, A Trip to the Moon, shot of course in black anbd white, was also sold in hand-coloured versions. Each of the 13,375 frames was labouriously hand tinted. The result is extraordinarily beautiful. The only known coloured version was discovered in a state of almost complete decomposition by the Spanish Filmoteca de Catalunya. A frame by frame restoration was begun in 1999 and completed in 2010, often by taking missing frames from the monochrome version and digitising them to match the original hand tinting. It premiered at Cannes in 2011, 109 years after its original release.

In 1913 Georges Méliès’ film company was forced into bankruptcy by the large French and American studios and his company was bought out of receivership by Pathé Frères. His beloved Theatre Robert Houdin was demolished. After being driven out of business Méliès became a toy salesman at the Gare Montparnasse. (Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo, based on Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret and set in the Gare Montparnasse, is something of a tribute to Méliès.)

Tragically, the importance of Méliès’ films was ignored and most of the cellulose stock was seized by the French Army seized to be melted down into boot heels during World War I. Many of the other films were sold to be recycled into new film. As a result many of these films do not exist today.

In 1932 the Cinema Society gave Méliès a home in Chateau D’Orly. In time, Méliès was rediscovered and honored for his work, eventually taking up stage performance again.

Georges Méliès was awarded the Légion d’honneur. He died in Paris on January 21 1938 and was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Legendary film-maker D.W. Griffith was once asked how important Méliès’ work was to him. He replied, “I owe him everything.”

[This post is based on an article which appeared in Issue 2 of PrestiDigital,  the world’s first multimedia magic magazine, accompanying a video of Méliès’ 1898 film The Four Troublesome Heads (Un homme de têtes).]