Oscar Eliason - The Original ‘Dante the Great’
Chapter 3 - PERFORMANCE AND PERSONALITY
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.
"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 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.
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:
EXPERIMENTS WITH CARDS
THE FATE OF MADAME SANS GENE
NANKO (An Asiatic Miracle)
THE BEGGAR'S DREAM
THE BULLET CATCH
AROUND THE WORLD IN FIVE MINUTES
FLORA'S MANIFESTATION OF SPRING
CREATION - THE ILLUSIONARY DANCE
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.
THE SIM LA SEANCE
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!
FLIGHT OF BIRDS
THE INEXHAUSTIBLE BOTTLE
THE MARVELLOUS BICYCLIST
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.