Oscar Eliason - The Original ‘Dante the Great’
Chapter 9 - John Angus, ‘The Australian Dante’
Sydney Morning Herald, May 30, 1933 -
IN EQUITY - (Before Mr. Justice Long Innes) - STAGE NAME AND APPEARANCE.
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".
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:-
The Claims of John "Dante" Angus
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:-
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."
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.
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:-
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
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?
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:-
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".
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."
(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".
>>> 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.