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:-
Oscar Eliason has appeared numerous time before home audiences, but never with such ease of manner, dexterity of hand and completeness of accessories as at the Grand last evening. Assisting him were Mrs. Eliason, wearing a natty and very becoming page's costume, and Frank Eliason, whose humble and somewhat stupid appearance is cleverly assumed and most befitting the role he plays. Could the audience realize the actual part he fills in the evening's entertainment, they would be far from imagining him a slow-witted fellow.
Oscar Eliason has made a wonderful advance in his short season on the road, not alone in addition of new feats, but in a confidence, readiness and imperturbability which are necessary to make conjuring a complete success.... Best of all, however, and worthy of the first necromancers, was the act entitled, "Escape From Sing Sing". Two grated cells, every part in full view of the audience, stood on the stage. In one of these a convict was locked. In a twinkling the convict had vanished and his keeper was discovered imprisoned in the other cell, previously empty. Almost the same instant the convict came rushing down the aisle from the main entrance, was captured and once more put behind the bars. Again he disappeared, only to appear in the other cage. His final escape from this cell, only to drop dead under fire from the guard, made a fitting climax and sent people homeward chatting of the extraordinary feat."
Later the same month, the Tribune heralded a closing-night hoax perpetrated by Eliason on his audience and the manager of the Grand theatre:-
"Best of all the hoaxes ever given in Salt Lake City, because it took in even the management of the house, was the accident to Willard Weihe's violin. Now everybody in Salt Lake knows that Willard Weihe has a violin which is as dear to him as life itself. This he inadvertently laid down upon the "runway" at his elbow. In going out to borrow a hat, Frank Eliason, the assistant, accidentally stepped into the violin, utterly smashing the prized instrument in the region of the abdomen. Weihe flared up, and Eliason told him that he would arrange matters after the show, but Weihe grew furious. Then Eliason retorted that the "runway" belonged to him, and that it was Weihe's own negligence that was responsible for the accident. Just then some friend of Weihe's in the audience commenced to back him up. Manager John Rogers, who sat in the box, shouted to Eliason to go on with his performance and stop the quarrelling.
As the dispute grew warmer, Rogers, in a very peremptory sort of way, rushed back of the stage and told Eliason to go on and settle the difficulty afterward. Treasurer Brig Piper, white as a sheet, rushed to the stage door, and various other attaches hastened to the wings. Just then Eliason suggest that he would fire a new violin for Weihe out of a cannon, and the audience realized it was nicely hoaxed. The worst sold man in the whole house, however, was Manager Rogers, whose experience with the musicians has been such as so make him realize the seriousness of ruining a thousand-dollar violin. Brig Piper was scared out of a week's sleep, while Bishop O'Mally forgot all about his bicycle actors in the awfulness of the situation. Everybody left the Theater confessing to being sold, and admitting that it was the best worked hoax ever perpetrated in Salt Lake. Willard Weihe has jumped at a single bound to the first rank as an actor, while Eliason has added to his own laurels."
The local press was keeping a close eye on the progress of their local boy-making-good, the Tribune commenting:-
"Oscar Eliason last Sunday night again heightened the esteem in which he is held by the community as a rising exponent of legerdemain. He has not the experience nor has he all the sang froid of Herrmann or Kellar. Those who remember with any degree of accuracy the performances of these master conjurers in earlier days will appreciate how far Eliason is ahead of where his predecessors started...."
Throughout 1895, Eliason continued to perform in a relatively tight circle of townships, including the Salt Lake Theater in April, the Grand Opera House on June 1-2, the Thatcher Opera House on June 4-5, 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
Small House Witnesses A Good Performance.
A combination of unfavourable circumstances caused a very light attendance last night upon what is one of the most expensive attractions of the road. Few even of the large aggregations with heavy scenery have so large an expense account as Herrmann.... the heavy storm yesterday hurt business badly. The Young Ladies' Aid Society ball, which drew the fashionable part of the town, further detracted from attendance.
But to be frank, probably the most important cause of all is that Salt Lake has been so deluged with shows of magic as to become heartily tired of them for the time being. Mr. Herrmann himself has paid us visits annually, and with the important exception of the "Trilby act" [suspension of a lady in mid-air], his own work does not vary a particle from that of last season. Again, Oscar Eliason has duplicated here over and over nearly every trick performed by Mr. Herrmann, and done them equally as well. Mr. Eliason has not yet developed the humor of Herrmann; but even the witty remarks of the master magician have been repeated so often as to have a familiar set to them. These observations are made neither with the purpose of lauding Eliason nor belittling Herrmann, but as a plain reason why the once crowded houses
have shrunk to unprofitable proportions."
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.
[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 New Orleans, Ohio, the mining towns of Colorado and then his New York debut; presumably that tour occurred around this 1896 period.
Finally, on August 29, 1896, the Salt Lake Tribune spoke in unqualified terms of Eliason's readiness to face the world:-
"The day when Salt Lakers expected to see small things from Eliason has since passed. It was with highly-wrought expectations, arising from past surprises and mysteries, that the large audience gathered at the theater last night. With dumbfounded senses, feelings of deep local pride and expressions of astonished delight, the same people moved homeward at the end of the show. Truly Eliason, the conjurer, has a programme to conjure with. Laying aside all interest in him as a "home product," it seems that he has outstripped those whose names have become of National note as magicians and wonder-makers...
...it is noticeable that Eliason's entertainment this year has a breadth, symmetry and completeness none of his previous exhibits have possessed. All triviality - useful in the absence of the greater things - has been expunged. What was before breath-taking and strange now is employed for background, and in perspective stand out the big illusions on which he has devoted seasons of thought and a summer of earnest preparation."
The sequence of touring during the following year is not yet clear. It is hoped that further research will identify the dates of Eliason's next tours of the United States. By October 1897 his advertising reported that he was "Direct from a tour of the Southern states, Mexico and Cuba". 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.")
Between October 1897 and January 1898 Oscar played theatres within his home state. At some stage in early 1898 he appears to have once again gone out on tour, eventually travelling through Portland, Seattle and Tacoma and on to Canada. News articles from later dates make brief reference to a fire, apparently at the New Brunswick Y.M.C.A, in which Eliason lost a thousand pounds worth of equipment, While playing in Seattle the news arrived that Dewey had just defeated a Spanish squadron in the Philippines. In the ensuing victory celebrations the night's show opened to an almost empty house.
At Vancouver they met with Maurice Bertram Curtis, a well known entrepreneur, and were offered an engagement in New Zealand, which was accepted on June 2. Traveling via Honolulu, where the company of twelve played for three weeks, including a performance on July 6, 1898 before Crown Princess Victoria Ka'iulani of Hawai'i, the show prepared to open in Wellington.
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!
In early August 1898, New Zealand awoke to the magic of
Dante the Great and Mdle. Edmunda.