Oscar Eliason - The Original ‘Dante the Great’
Chapter 2 - THE MORMON WIZARD
Following his successful clashes with the spirit world, Oscar Eliason's aspirations were firmly set on becoming a full-time professional magician. Over the next few years he would gradually consolidate his repertoire and hone the skills for which he would earn the highest praise.
June and August saw him presenting some magic which would eventually be moulded into routines for the show; a depiction of the trial, condemnation and cremation of a heretic at the stake, for an "Encampment" festival, and an evening in which Oscar and Edmunda demonstrated (and exposed) the feats of Annie May Abbott, the "Georgia Magnet". The Magnet act remained in the show, without the associated exposure of methods. The Tribune reported (October 14, 1894), "Oscar Eliason has for several months been quietly devoting himself to preparations for a road tour. His idea, a good one, has been to eliminate those tricks and illusions with which theatergoers are familiar. During the week he has been getting some handsome portraits for advertising..." Those posters, it was was later remarked, "beat the devil - at least the devil thereon looks very much beaten."
Clearly, Eliason was rapidly developing into far more than a talented amateur. In late 1894 it was reported that a planned road trip had been delayed until after the Election, and Oscar was later noted appearing in Aspen and Denver, Colorado, from which he was required to return urgently, called home by a telegram announcing the dangerous illness of his baby girl, Ethel. Happily on arrival he found the child improved.
On April 8, 1895, the Tribune reported:-
Later the same month, the Tribune heralded a closing-night hoax perpetrated by Eliason on his audience and the manager of the Grand theatre:-
Throughout 1895, Eliason continued to perform in a relatively tight circle of townships to mid-June, including the Salt Lake Theater in April, the Grand Opera House on June 1-2, the Thatcher Opera House on June 4-5, reportedly thence to Logan, Brigham City, and Pocatello (Idaho). He performed at Saltair's Carnival Day of July 31 and the Bountiful Opera House from September 7-9.
One of Oscar's featured illusions was the impressive illusion, "After The Ball", in which a lady admires herself in a large mirror, raised off the ground; when covered by a light screen she disappears. The size and weight of this illusion was given as one reason why the show was unable to tour widely with its best material. When the great Alexander Herrmann came to tour Utah, The Salt Lake Tribune (Nov.23, 1895) made some pertinent comments which indicated that Eliason was starting to outgrow his local arena, and doubtless he was starting to make plans to tour further afield:-
Herrmann At The Theater Eliason and M.B.Curtis crossing paths at Salt Lake
Eliason and M.B.Curtis crossing paths at Salt Lake
Apparently the need to grow was obvious to the magician, for in early 1896, backed by Salt Lake resident and public Receiver, Major Silva, and managed by W. W. Tilletson, Oscar launched out on an experimental eight-week tour of the United States as "The Mormon Wizard", ending the tour with a season at the Grand Opera House. His first noted appearancs were at the Wheeler Opera House (Aspen Colorado), on January 21, 1896, the Crawford Grand (Wichita Kansas) February 4 and 5, and by reports on February 9, into Nebraskan townships.
[March 8] "Maj. Silva is much elated over Eliason. From the time of quitting Salt Lake to the close of the preliminary season there was not an unfavorable criticism...a handsome line of printing is being executed for next season. Eliason returns to Chicago soon to manufacture new illusions, next seasons' programme being an entire change. The route will lie through the east next year, for which bookings are now being made by Klaw & Erlinger."
[March 15] "The fact that the Major has hastened to close a five year's contract, under the advice of Mr. Tilletson, who manages the show, probably speaks much more effectually than anything else. For four years it has repeatedly been said that Eliason would prove a gold mine in the hands of an experienced manager. But like the Mercur gold mines, Eliason was "prospected" in a hap-hazzard, unbusiness-like way, until a man came along who was willing to give him solid backing. It might now be said that Eliason within ten years will be at the head of his profession."
In mid-June, 1896, Oscar had an embarrassing incident in which he mistakenly called in the police to arrest a man who bore a strong resemblance to one "Hermans", a preacher who was sought in the murder of women. The arrested man was actually John Bastard, postmaster of Port Adelaide in Australia who, enjoying a visit to England and the United States, was alarmed to learn of his close resemblance to the murderer. The Denver Police soon recognised the error and Mr. Bastard was quickly set free again.
That incident aside, Oscar planned for his next tour, while making appearances in the region (Salt Lake Theatre on August 28-29, Grand Opera House on October 23, 1896) immediately followed by a week's engagement in New Orleans at the Academy Of Music. According to a newspaper report of 1898 (Otago Witness, 11 August 1898) Eliason had made a twelve-month tour through which included a New York debut, yet to be confirmed.
One of his new illusions, built in Chicago, was “Around the World in Five Minutes”. An intriguing comment in the Salt Lake Herald of August 10, 1896, states that, besides having new illusions built , ”gorgeous pictorial work has been ordered from the largest eastern lithographing firms ...” Considering the paucity of posters in existence today, one can only dream.
Finally, on August 29, 1896, the Salt Lake Tribune spoke in unqualified terms of Eliason's readiness to face the world:-
Reporting on his performance at Salt Lake city, the Salt Lake Herald of August 29, 1896 wrote, “The Eliason engagement closes tonight, and from here he will go at once to New Orleans, where he enters upon his forty-weeks tour with a week’s engagement. W.W.Tillotson, the well known New York manager, is business representative.”
The extent of Eliason’s travels in late 1896 to 1897 is yet to be uncovered, though in September the Salt Lake Herald mentioned that “he is still touring in the South”. On February 3, 1897, it reported that he was touring Tennessee, in company with [dancer] Loie Fuller; good business is reported.”
By October 1897 his advertising reported that he was "Direct from a tour of the Southern states, Mexico and Cuba". In mid-October he was at Boise, Idaho, playing Pocatello (Oct.18) and Ogden before returning home for rest at the end of the month. The new name “Dante, the Mormon Wizard” is noted in the same report.
Under the direction of William A. Brady, the performers travelled through Texas, Mexico and to Cuba where they played in Havana and Cienfuegos. These were politically unstable places, and in February 1898; the Spanish-American War broke out. Americans were incensed at the destruction of their battleship 'Maine', claiming that it had been attacked by Spaniards who at that time ruled Cuba. The war would last until December 1898. (In an Australian interview of October 1898, Eliason stated "we intended to go on to Venezuela, but smallpox and other diseases were so rife in Cuba that we found we should be quarantined at sea for twelve days, and decided to return to New York.")
Having performed under the title 'Eliason' or, as he was dubbed by the non-Utah press,'The Mormon Wizard', Oscar adopted a new stage name, borrowing from the great Florentine poet Dante Alighieri ( 1265 - 1321 ) who wrote the 'Divine Comedy', including the 'Inferno' around 1308 a.d.
From about 1896, Eliason became known as 'Dante'. Interestingly, he had kept this stage name in mind for a long time. Allan Sullivan, an Australian magician and collector, has a first edition copy of Professor Hoffmann's classic work, 'Modern Magic'. On the title page is the inscription, "Dante, Prince of Magic", written by Oscar in May 1880 when he was just eleven years old!