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Oscar Eliason - The Original ‘Dante the Great’


Australasia was due for a change of pace from magicians. Although such great entertainers as John Henry Anderson, Robert Heller and Harry Kellar had toured under the equator it was not until 1892, when Carl Hertz appeared, that magicians' programmes started to show a more modern and creative style.
The Bulletin magazine viewed conjurors in its usual waggish fashion:-

Professor Dante

"Illusionists and their kind are a good deal alike. The illusionist mostly appears in evening dress (though there was once one in Sydney who called himself a Greek and performed in a short petticoat ). He has a long narrow smile like the Great Wall of China painted white, and he smiles that great wall twice over each trick - once at the beginning and once at the end. If it is a long trick he also smiles in the middle. He performs with his sleeves rolled up, and his great purpose is to hold up something which looks as if it was just what it was, and then prove it wasn't.
At the beginning of the trick, when he holds up the thing which looks in a quiet sort of way as if it was only itself, he invariably says "I now take an elephant", or else a drink or a cathedral, or a fit, according to what the object may be. And at the end of the trick when the object which seemed to be itself proves to be something else, he usually says as he holds it up, "here I have a violent prejudice", or a cold, or a live duck or an ingrowing toenail, or whatever it may have chanced to turn into.
If the trick is one he is specially proud of he fires a small gun at the moment when the loaf concealed under the rag is suddenly changing itself into a tunnel, or an ironclad, or a new religion …"

Dante was one of the new breed. It can be clearly seen that his repertoire was greatly influenced by Alexander Herrmann (effects such as Nanko, Trilby and Black Art) yet his tricks were dressed in new forms, and his style of presentation was very different.

Dante performed in court dress, with silk pumps and hose. A handsome young man with a strong voice, his manner was smooth and pleasant, with cleanness of technique and light humour taking the place of boisterous jokes and posturing. Charles Waller, writing in the late 1940s, stated that 'with the exception of Chung Ling Soo, this young man was the best presenter of magic I have seen; Dante could present magic in a dramatic way. He was indeed an actor playing the part of a magician.'

Newspapers of the time agreed. "There is a bland and confidential air about the Professor when he is at his most mystic point, as though to say 'this is a very simple thing but I will just show it to you', and then he proceeds to be more bewildering than ever as he melts his wife into thin air."

The Sydney Mail, October 15, 1898 said, "In the matter of committees, Dante, unlike most conjurers, makes a point of never making anyone seem ridiculous, who goes on stage, and thus he gets, and has got here, well-known men among his audiences to go up."

The show was presented with Edmunda in the lead female role and brother Frank as chief male assistant, both lending their own talents to the success of the performance. Frank was a good magician in his own right.

Mdle. Edmunda
(Sydney Mail October 22, 1898)

Following are the main items of the programme. As changes were made during each season, not all of the effects were seen in each show, but all were regular parts of the repertoire:

A borrowed watch, a glass and a handkerchief transfer from one side of the stage to a hat held by a spectator.

These included a single handed colour change, and the stunt of tearing a pack in half. The Rising Cards was "an old card dodge with variations - a pack of cards on a dish with a glass cover out of which rise certain selected cards. Dante's variation is that he lets anybody in the audience hold the dish, and that person's eyes bulge out till umbrellas could be hung on them, trying to discover the spring and the hair attached to the card. But he never discovers anything … an expert in the conjuring biz. himself held the dish one night and he got no further than anyone else, so the Bulletin gives it up … "

The Organ Pipes trick. A supper for three, including tablecloth, serviettes, cutlery, glass, wine and a roast fowl is produced from a set of empty metal pipes.

Edmunda stands inside a cabinet, covered down to the waist by a curtain. With her skirt still in view, the cabinet is suspended above the stage. Suddenly a pistol is fired, the curtain drops, the skirt fades from view, and Edmunda is gone. Instantly she appears from the rear of the stalls, amongst the audience. This was the 'closer' for Part 1. 'Madam Sans Gene' (Madam Doesn't Care) was the title of a Napoleonic comedy by Victorien Sardou which was playing during this period, in which a humble washerwoman is elevated by Revolution to the position of Duchess

NANKO (An Asiatic Miracle)
The curtains open on an Eastern scene with suspended lanterns and a pagoda-like tent upstage. Two oriental porters of dissimilar build, Nanko and Koko, dance a jig to a quaint orchestral accompaniment. A yellow scarf is tied to one assistant's arm and he is placed in a sack, then a locked trunk, and this in turn is lowered into a second trunk. With the trunks inside the tent, the audience is invited to time the proceedings. The tent flaps are shut, assistant number two enters, and in a few seconds the first porter appears. It is shown that the two have changed places.

Dramatically produced to stormy music, this scene always caused comment. A park with a heavy picnic table sets the scene into which Edmunda enters, dressed in rags. Seating herself, she droops despondently. "Mephisto" (Dante) enters clad in a flowing red cloak, to tempt the maiden. Standing on the table, she is briefly covered by a light canopy which falls from above. When the canopy rises, the maiden is richly dressed in a beautiful gown.
Although Mephisto plucks money from the air, the girl is not to be tempted. The canopy falls and the enraged Mephisto sets it alight. A fierce flame fills the canopy; the maiden dissolves in thunder and lightning leaving only a skull, grinning at the audience.
Presented in a striking manner, the effect was basically the "She" or "Phoenix" illusion, and closed Part 2. The Bulletin remarked, after Dante had proven a success, that the skull seemed to show a glint of gold in its teeth!



Second Sight tests wherein Edmunda, as the blindfolded medium, gives answers to sums written on a board, names cards, and calls the number on a banknote.

Three ducks appear in a wash tub covered with a cloth. Another was sometimes produced from a long streamer whirled in the air.

Dante's version of this feat involved four Committee men standing in the dress circle. They fired at Dante, who held a plate to his chest; the bullets were caught and shown to be hot. In 1899 reports in America indicated that Dante had fallen victim to this infamous illusion, but it was not the 'jinx' trick that caused his downfall, as will be seen.

A large cloth map of the world is shown both sides and hung from a rod. To appropriate music, flags of different nations are produced from their corresponding places on the map. Finally the cloth falls, disclosing Edmunda dressed in a costume which represents all the nations.

Dante, in a leisurely fashion, twists a sheet of paper into a cone, producing a stream of flowers. A sidelight is thrown on the falling flowers, creating a very pretty effect.

Using this versatile principle, a scene from Faust is enacted. Dante first introduces a dancing skeleton which separates into pieces, then he throws a cloak around the character of Marguerite/Edmunda. She vanishes, leaving behind three dove
s hovering in mid air.

In their second United States tour, the Dante troupe had been joined by Loie Fuller , the first stage artist to experiment with moving lights as part of the choreography of a dance. Fuller's free-flowing, whirling dances won her world-wide fame and much imitation. Among those who performed her dances were Adelaide Herrmann (a regular visitor to Salt Lake) and Madam Dante. Perhaps Edmunda had as much right as any to present this most spectacular series of dances.

The curtains part on a totally black set with immense mirrors at the rear, to reflect every action of the dancer, clad in a flowing white dress. Manipulating the long mass of silk with wands attached to the cloth, the costume is sent into action in a beautiful shimmering, billowing wave. In one dance the silk forms a gigantic arum lily. Finally red lights are thrown on the stage from all sides and from a glass platform on the floor. The Dance of Fire 'consumes' the dancer, and she drops in a crumpled heap to the stage.
>> Video of Loie Fuller

Frank acted as the medium in this Davenport Cabinet mystery. Seated on a chair within a curtained cabinet, Frank is aided by an Indian Spirit called Silverlight. A committee, made up of the most eminent audience members to be found, is asked to guard the cabinet. A length of rope is thrown in side and the curtains are opened up to reveal the medium, entranced, and securely tied. Tests follow, including the placing of flour in the hands, coins between the fingertips and filling the mouth with water. Despite this, bells and tambourines ring and harmonicas play. The sťance ends when Frank rushes from the cabinet, free of his bonds.

In Zeehan, Tasmania,"there was indignation from the audience when a spectator unfairly tried to peep under the sťance curtain." The Davenports could have wished for an audience like this!

Canaries are made to vanish from a box, to appear in a cage on the opposite side of the stage.

Following the usual production of assorted liquids and the finding of a guinea pig or rabbit within the bottle, the creature is thrown into the air, vanishes, and is reproduced from a spectator's coat.

Entering in a top hat and opera cloak, Dante partly removes the cloak, which vanishes (by means of a large "pull" to beneath the stage.)


One of the few known Dante Posters, showing the Marvellous Bicyclist illusion.
Now in the Phil Temple collection.

A startling effect whereby Edmunda rides a bicycle onto the stage and up into the air. Before the cycle returns to earth it performs astonishing manoeuvres, at one stage leaving the rider upside down beneath the cycle.

Said the 'Telegraph','when the audience leave the theatre, if a vivacious omnibus driver were to say 'Hey Presto!' and fly with his bus and team of horses to the top of the Post Office Tower, they would evince no surprise whatever at the feat, but would merely ejaculate 'Ah! Smartly done!' and pass on.'

Other regularly performed feats included the Multiplying Billiards, the Miser's Dream, and the Burned and Restored Handkerchief. Occasionally Dante would accidentally step upon a violin which had been carelessly left on the walkway by one of the orchestra members. After a deal of enjoyable acrimony between the magician and the musician, the pieces of the violin were crammed into a small cannon and it was fired into the audience. A restored instrument glided down from the gallery on a wire, to the delight of the audience!

Such was the programme with which Dante travelled through Australia and New Zealand. Its novel and varied nature, combined with the principals' good looks and pleasing, bright personalities, won over audiences everywhere they appeared. I have found only two remarks critical of the show; one saying that the Sim La Sťance was somewhat anti-climaxed by the medium rushing from the cabinet at the committee. The other, from that tongue-in-cheek writer of the Bulletin:- 'The public has pretty well given up trying to find out how most of Dante's tricks are done; what the feminine part would like to know is whether that nice young man's hair curls naturally, or whether he puts it in papers at night.'

Dante's advertising was, like that of most magicians, of the 'drum beating' variety, going so far as to claim Dante to be 'the equal and in many instances superior to the Great and only Herrmann.' His publicity led many a writer to speculate, prior to a show, whether this was just another of the usual inflated performers, with a reputation underserved. But after Dante was seen, their opinion was unanimous; "Looking down the long line of illusionists who have appeared from time to time, no-one can question Dante's claim to be called 'great' amongst the illustrious crowd."

Offstage, Oscar Eliason was hard to recognise as the master magician. Working in his shirt sleeves he merged in with the stage hands, checking minor details of equipment and stage angles. To his friends he was known as Skipper, and he spent much time, when he could, in the company of his family (his daughter, Ethel, five years old, was with them) and his friends, among them Paul Cinquevalli, a juggler of outstanding skill whose successes in Australia rivalled those of his companion.

This, then, was the man and his magic. The next chapters look at the wide-ranging tours he made, and the tragedy that awaited.

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