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Oscar Eliason - The Original ‘Dante the Great’

Chapter 9 - John Angus, ‘The Australian Dante’

Sydney Morning Herald, May 30, 1933 -
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IN EQUITY - (Before Mr. Justice Long Innes) - STAGE NAME AND APPEARANCE.
Application was made by Harry Jansen, known also by the stage name of "Dante" for an injunction to restrain John Angus from using the name "Dante" or adopting an appearance on the stage as of "Dante". It was stated that respondent, an entertainer, had used the name and made himself to resemble "Dante". Respondent claimed that he was entitled to use the name and denied infringement. An order was made in plaintiff's favour, Angus being restrained from using the name "Dante" in conjunction with any representation of plaintiff. Mr. H. H. Mason (instructed by Messrs. Sly and Russell) appeared for plaintiff; and Mr. N. Pilcher (instructed by Mr. W. M. Niland) for respondent.

The Controversy

The preceding judgement was the result of court action taken by Harry Jansen, early in his 1933 visit to Australia, against John Angus, an Australian performer. Jansen was at this stage merely protecting his professional name, although the matter became more serious in ensuing months. What makes this small legal clash of interest is that John ("Jack") Angus claimed he was entitled to use the name "Dante", by right of usage prior to Jansen. His claim, however, has received no examination in the published magical record to date. This article will attempt to place some more flesh on the bones of "The Australian Dante".

Many 'Dantes'

There have many performers over the years to use the name "Dante", including a Josef Kadlec before the turn of the century (1), Australian manipulator Arthur Buckley (2) and numerous later magicians. The significant players in this tale are:-

Oscar "Dante The Great" Eliason (1869 - 1899): A young American performer, born in Salt Lake City, who broke theatrical records during a record-breaking tour of Australasia in 1898-1899. His skill and personality was such that Eliason became the standard against which newspaper critics judged all other visiting magicians in the following decade. (3)

Frank Eliason - Brother of Oscar, he took over the touring show and adopted the name "Dante" in 1899 when Oscar was tragically killed in a hunting accident in Australia. He departed Australia in late 1904. The last reference located about Frank Eliason (4) reported that in August, 1911, he was performing in the United States under the name "Cunning" although this may be incorrect as there were other magicians using the name. Eugene Laurant (5) recollects meeting Frank some years after 1899, when Frank was "performing the Spirit Sťance in vaudeville. It was a beautiful act, thoroughly mystifying. Even today I can say I have never seen the Sťance more artistically presented."

Harry "Dante" Jansen (1883 - 1955): Danish-born illusionist who took the name Dante to world-wide fame. As "Jansen", he performed successfully (6) in Australia between 1912 - 1914, returning with an abortive attempt at the Sawing A Woman act in 1922, and then in spectacular style as "Dante" in 1933 and 1935. Jansen's new stage name was bestowed by Howard Thurston, who may well have recalled the fame and popularity of the late Eliason.

John "Dante" Angus, aka "Jack Angus" - As will be seen, the facts of Angus' life are sparse and littered with contradiction. In summary, he claimed to have been associated with the show of Oscar Eliason as a boy, obtained Eliason's props for his own show, and was therefore entitled to adopt "Dante" as his own stage name.

The Claims of John "Dante" Angus
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Angus' claims to have been associated with Oscar "Dante" Eliason in 1898 were repeated regularly, but with some inconsistencies. In newspapers, programmes and other sources, he made these claims:-
- Born in Salt Lake City, came to Australia as young boy.
- Born in Salt Lake City in 1886, at age of twelve set out on a tour from there with Oscar Eliason, arrived in Australia opening in October 1898.
- Pupil at Crown Street High School in 1898.
- Apprenticed to Oscar Eliason.
- Apprenticed to Eliason's mechanician.
- Helped onstage during Eliason's 1898 Palace Theatre season with an escape act.
- Was present at the time of Eliason's death in Dubbo, 1899.
- Billed as the boy "who disappears inside a trunk" back in 1898.
- Joined the Tivoli vaudeville circuit aged sixteen.
- Bought the show from Eliason's widow.
- Toured America and then Australia.
- Appeared as an illusionist at the Princess Theatre in 1898.

Angus also related to Keith Smith (7), "Early on, I realised that people found it difficult to remember my name which was foreign, and Dante was suggested by a theatre manager who said, "You perform an illusion which has to do with cremation. Why not call yourself Dante after Dante's Inferno? I did and I've performed under that name for the past seventy years."
This almost plausible story is supported by a programme in the W. G. Alma Conjuring Collection, circa 1930's, showing a young, beardless magician performing as "The Great Danzic" While the tale.sounds fine, newspaper research only reveals the title “Danzic” being used during the year 1936, mainly in Adelaide, several years after his run-in with Harry Jansen.
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Do the claims hold up?

It seems to be stretching coincidence too far to believe that both Angus and Oscar Eliason were born in Salt Lake City.

Angus' claim that he worked with the Eliason show are not supported by any concrete evidence. Newspaper reports of the 'escape trunk', (actually a substitution illusion titled "Nanko") state that two oriental performers of dissimilar build, Nanko and Koko, dance a jig to quaint orchestral accompaniment before performing the double trunk illusion. One of these assistants was certainly Frank Eliason, the other remains un-named.

The issue of whether props were purchased from either Eliason's widow or from Frank Eliason is similarly not supported. It seems unlikely that Frank Eliason would sell the large parts of the show when he was continuing to perform both in Australia and overseas. In all likelihood Frank took the equipment away when he left Australia in 1904.

Programmes and advertising does show that Angus later presented some of the Eliason show's central illusions, namely "Madam Sans Gene", "The Beggar's Dream" and "Nanko". However these were not uncommon illusions, and Eliason's style was closely copied by many a band-wagon jumper. Eliason himself was following in the style of the great Alexander Herrmann, as were many magicians of the time.

Dreams, Half-truths and Lies

We know (see below) that Angus was born  around 1886. Many of his stories suggest that as a boy of around twelve (1898) he was performing in august company with some of the most prestigious theatrical entrepreneurs in Australia.
However, nothing speaks to Jack Angus’ capacity for self-delusion and misrepresentation than an interview he gave to the Macleay Argus in 1946, during an enforced lay-off when his truck broke down. In the interview Angus strings together so many vague dates, unsupported performances, convenient connection with famous artists, and outright lies that it is hard to know where to start. At the time, Angus was travelling with another itinerant showman, Dave Stirling, who is mentioned again in our story on Udinis

MacLeay Argus (Kempsey NSW), March 26, 1946
"My father was a Scotchman, my mother an Englishwoman, and I was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA."

... In theatricals he followed his mother, who, gifted with a fine voice, moved in New York Opera Company circles. His father was an engineer. in 1897 the family left Salt Lake City, and were in Manilla (Philippines) when the "Admiral Dewey" was sunk. Being Americans, they got away from Manilla as quickly as they could and found themselves in New Zealand. They fell in with that well-known theatrical notability Edwin Geach and, coming with him to Australia in 1898, opened in the Palace Theatre on his first tour. Since then "Dante" has made several tours of the Australian continent and has toured the Old World.

... "It was my privilege", he said, "to serve with Australia in both world wars 1 and 2.: .... with promotion to Captain Jack Angus he was attached to Second Seventh AGH as entertainment officer.

...After his first two years in Australia, young Angus in 1900 returned to America
[aged 14 apparently] , and played with the Keith Orpheum Circuit, then vaudeville and later known as the RKO film industry. In 1911 he toured Europe and played the La Scala Theatre in Berlin. On that tour he had the honor entertaining the late Russian Czar Nicholas in Moscow. He had met in London that year the famous Polish pianist, Paderewski, who had then just returned from his Australian tour [No - Paderewski was in Australia in 1904], and who a few months later became Premier of Poland.

..In 1898 [ aged 12?] he played for Harry Rickard the entrepreneur of Australian vaudeville. It was his privilege, as he put it, to have appeared with such men as Sandow and Houdini the great escapologist. He was with Paul Cinquevalli, the famous juggler, and other Australian performers as Charles Fanning, "Vaude and Verne", and George Sorlie. He was billed with those English performers, Alan Wilkie, the Shakespearean bard, "Little Tich", Ella Shields of "Burlington Bertie" fame, Eugene Stratton, who made "Lily of Lugano" and Billy Williams of "Have a Banana" notoriety.

 

It can at least be stated that not a single one of these claims is supported by newspaper records, except his connection with some of the minor characters of touring Australian variety theatre. The stories are interwoven with the genuine history of Oscar Eliason (who worked for Geach and appeared at the Palace Theatre) just sufficiently to not arouse suspicion; in the words of W.S.Gilbert, enough to “add verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”! Even his military record as “Captain” has not yet been confirmed as true.

The bald facts are that Angus was a touring magician of ordinary origins, who travelled Australia in a caravan and played many townships, sometimes larger theatres in major cities. There is no argument that he was a capable magician.

Angus’ Probable birth history

We know, from court reports surrounding Harry Jansen’s court case in 1933, that our subject’s name was John Fleetwood Angus. Evidence of Angus’ birth in Sydney is fairly reliable. Two newspaper stories of later years (11) give Angus’ age at the time, and both match up with a birthdate of 1885 or 1886.

Sydney Morning Herald family notices announce:- January 11, 1886 - “ANGUS - December 26, at her residence, Twickenham, Malton-crescent, Petersham, the wife of W.Angus, of a son.” On March 29, 1887 a daughter was announced.

Sydney Morning Herald June 29, 1912, and the St.George Call, Kogarah detail a wedding:-
“ANGUS - GROSS, May 29, at St. Thomas’ Church, North Sydney, by the Rev. S. Childe, John Fleetwood Angus, youngest son of the late William Fleetwood Angus, of Stoke Hall, Stoke-on-Trent, England, and Mrs. [S] Smith, of Kogarah, to Ida Elsie, second daughter of Mr. and Mrs. R. Gross, of Crow’s Nest, North Sydney.”

The father, William Fleetwood Angus, cannot yet be traced further, but there is little reason to suppose other than that John Angus was born in Petersham, Sydney, in 1886. (see reference 12)

At this stage, we can do little better than to quote Will Alma, whose research files contain this commentary:- 'Many statements in this report [Alma's files] have no foundation. Dante was a touring showman and had repeated his stories so often he believed them himself. He was born in Sydney. He did not buy the Eliason show. I have found no record of his having left Australia at any time. He was a very good magician, however, who had learned his craft the hard way on the show-grounds of the Commonwealth, at times performing 20 shows a day.' (8)

Angus vs. Jansen
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It might be assumed that Jansen, having won his court injunction in May 1933, would not have been troubled by Angus any further, whether or not Angus' claims had any merit. Such is not the case, however, for a programme of July 8, 1933 shows Angus appearing at the Bridge Theatre, Newtown, still billed as Dante.

In July, 1933, Harry Jansen's son, Bill, was killed in a motorcycle accident in Brisbane. Only days later, when Angus advertised his own show in Queensland under the billing of "The Original Dante", Victor Hoblee of the Birch, Carroll & Hoyle Theatrical Management Co. took out advertisements to alert the public that Angus was not identical to Jansen. He also wrote to Jansen’s manager, "it seems a disgraceful thing that a showman, such as Mr. Jansen, cannot be protected from such imposters as this man. Furthermore, to trade on public sympathy by wearing a black arm band is, in my opinion, a most cruel and callous action", with which sentiment one must surely agree.

Between 1941 and 1943, according to historian Will Alma,  Angus was an army private. A flurry of words broke out in July 1943 when Angus appeared in Broken Hill. George Andrews wrote to the "Barrier Truth", claiming that Angus had plagiarised the show name "Sim Sala Bim" and deliberately made himself up to look "near to Jansen". To this, Angus replied that Jansen went broke at the Criterion Theatre in Sydney in 1933; a statement which flies in the face of facts. With comical bravado Angus also stated that "Jansen changed his name to Dante and then made good on my reputation."

If doubt remains that Angus was prepared to trade on Jansen's work, it can be removed by viewing a programme in the Alma files, where artwork from a 1935/36 Jansen brochure has been directly lifted and used by Angus.

Was Angus a Scoundrel?
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Whatever your feelings about Angus' dubious promotional activities, it seems that he was an performer who provided a good show. Will Alma lists show dates from 1949 to 1966, showing that Angus covered the country areas of Western Australia, Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales. He appeared in reputable city theatres including Clay's Bridge Theatre and the Princess, Melbourne.

He toured with Australian comedian Lucky Grills, and with the show of the great Australian country singer, Slim Dusty. In conversation with Mrs. Joy Kirkpatrick, Slim Dusty's wife and singing partner, she told me that Angus was a wonderful performer who never used a microphone but could have the audience's attention in a minute. He could be bad-tempered, but was a perfectionist and demanding on his assistants. Dusty's biography, "Walk A Country Mile" (9), says of Angus:-
"There was no cheap card act conjuring for Dante - he specialised in elaborately staged 'high class' magic, over which he presided with lofty elan. John Fleetwood Dante sawed women in half with style. We watch, jaws hanging, as he held an audience in his hand for ninety minutes. Then, as they burst into the final rounds of rapturous applause, he began the task of genteelly accepting their praise, and sending them home with his blessings. 'Thank you … good night … God bless you,' said the Great Dante as he moved first to the left of the stage, and bowed in his stiff correct manner. He glided back to the right, bowed again, waved, and then, as the applause reached its crescendo, moved to the centre for his final bow, looking like a prophet returned to earth in an evening suit. 'Thank you, Good ni- Jesus Ker-ist , are you bastards trying to bloody murder me?'. The bloke lowering the roller curtain had slipped and let go the rope - sending the heavy wooden rod thumping down on the Great Dante's head."

The same book also makes an interesting statement, that the Rosedale Hall near Sale has a carved signature backstage which reads "The Great Dante 1911".Angus Poster 2

Newspapers report a couple of minor run-ins with the law, firstly on November 16, 1943 when Angus was fined three pounds after he drove through an intersection and overturned another car in Hobart. In mid-October 1949, Angus was fined Eighty-eight pounds plus costs on five counts of failing to properly declare taxable income on ticket sales. Angus was at the time heading up a production of a “Puss In Boots” pantomime in Perth, W.A, and it appears he regularly produced pantos with himself in a featured performance; in December 1951 with “Babes in the Wood with Robin Hood” in Perth, and in June 1954 with “Harlequinade” at Healesville, Victoria.

John Angus was still performing in his old age, and was featured regularly in magazine articles during the 1960's and 1970's. Around August 1970 he performed on the "In Melbourne Tonight" television variety show, then later on "New Faces" and the "Ugly Dave Grey" shows. His appearance on "New Faces", a talent quest, was made just to show that he could still put on a good act, and he was brought back in the next show by popular audience demand. An existing video-tape shows a performer of the old school, demonstrating the Linking Rings with the confidence which comes from years of experience.

In the late 1950s, Angus’ home address was at 22 Fitzroy St, St Kilda, Victoria. By 1970 he was living in Berowra, a suburb of Sydney NSW.

Angus' last public notice came in January 1975, in a half-page newspaper article (10) which quoted his age as eighty-nine (exactly matching the 1886 birth date suggested above), and repeated the old tales of touring with Oscar Eliason. Angus confessed that he still suffered from itchy feet. "That's why I live in a caravan", he said. "I've spent most of my life living on four wheels, and although I am nearly 90 I still hold a driving licence". It's nice to know I can still pull up stakes if I want to."

References

(1) Undated photograph in "Dante - The Devil Himself" (Phil Temple, 1991)

(2) "Who's Who In Magic” (Bart Whaley, 1991)

(3) "Oscar Eliason - The Original Dante The Great" (Blackmore, 1984). Eliason's adoption of the title "Dante" can be traced to a surviving copy of Hoffmann's "Modern Magic" in which Eliason, in May 1880, inscribed his own name with the title "Dante - The Prince of Magic".Angus poster 1

        >>> These two images are from a catalogue of the 2016 auction of Norm Nielsen’s famed poster collection, both circa 1930s and printed by F.S Pacey in New South Wales. The upper image contains an explicit disclaimer, “We present The Original Dante,Ě acclaimed by press & public everywhere as a master magician. Remember! He is in no way connected with Harry Jansen nor with any other person or firm using the name of  Dante”

 

(4) "Magic Mirror" magazine, Australia, August 15, 1911.

(5) "The Sphinx" magazine, March 1942.

(6) Something, however, caught up with Jansen judging by a report in "Australian Variety and Show World" magazine, April 8, 1914:- 'Jack Matthews, of Matthews and Mack, drops a line across after a considerable interval. The act is now playing the Shaftesbury Theatre, Perth. Amongst other things, Matthews states:- "I lost quite a wad with Jansen; he has quit the country and gone to Batavia, and many creditors are left lamenting." By the way, it is said that Le Roy, Talma and Bosco, who are due here shortly under engagement to Mr. E.J. Carroll, are anxious to get hold of Jansen.'

(7) "The Time Of Their Lives" (Keith Smith)

(8) W. G. Alma Conjuring Collection, State Library of Victoria. Alma, unfortunately, provides no evidence for his claims that Angus was Sydney-born, and that he did not buy the Eliason show. However, even in the absence of other hard facts, his summation is credible.

(9) "Walk A Country Mile" (Slim Dusty and John Lapsley, Rigby Limited, 1979)

(10) Sun Herald, Sydney, January 19, 1975.

(11) Advocate, Burnie, Tasmania, November 1 1943 states his age as 58. Sun-Herald January 19, 1975, states he was 89.

(12) Register of the Balmain Cemetery shows William Fleetwood Angus, death date September 17, 1885. This cemetery was decommissioned in the 1940s and is now “Pioneers Memorial Park”. The date of death needs to be reconciled with the 1887 announcement of the birth of a daughter to Mrs Angus.
https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=angus&GSmn=fleetwood&GSbyrel=all&GSdyrel=all&GScntry=15&GSob=n&GRid=151949540&df=all&

 

 

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