Monsieur Theo, the French Magician
This performer certainly arrived in Australia well equipped with mechanical props in the style of Robert-Houdin. Charles Waller, in the absence of other information, speculates whether Mons.Theo might have been the same performer as Mons. Philippe De Barr; but this is ruled out by further details which have come to light.
Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer, March 22, 1856
[Prince of Wales Theatre, Sydney] “Monsieur Theo, the Magician. – We are happy in being enabled to welcome to our fair city the above celebrated performer, who will appear for the first time at the Prince of Wales Theatre on Monday evening. From what we have heard of the ability of Monsieur Theo, a rich treat is in store for the Theatre-going community. This talented performer excels in the display of the most wonderful tricks. His feats of legerdemain and off-hand ingenuity in deception and exhibition of the most extraordinary mechanical contrivances are unrivalled. The paraphernalia, scenery, and other properties are of the most costly description. Monsieur Theo has had the honor of appearing at Windsor before the Emperor and Empress of the French, during their Majesties recent visit to England.”
The paragraph above smacks of having been printed directly from publicity material supplied by the magician. On March 24 [Sydney Morning Herald] he advertised a programme including the Enchanted Orange Tree, the Telescope of Mephistobel, The Magic Casket, The Obedient and Intellectual Clock, The Travelling Half-Crowns, the Atmospheric Washerwoman, The Mysterious Portfolio and Animated Pictures, The Bowl of Neptune, The Shower of Gold Fish, and The Horn of Plenty. In the event, Mons. Theo had not found enough time to fully set up his apparatus for his first appearance.
Emperor Napoleon III had indeed visited Windsor in 1855. The Sydney Morning Herald of March 24, 1855 mentions M. Theo and includes a favourable quote from the British ‘Windsor and Eton Express’ in May 1855. From brief excerpts found, that newspaper reveals that Theo was performing at the Theatre Royal, Windsor, in May, and intended travelling to Australia in the future. He was also providing private entertainments, and being French it is reasonable to conclude that he may have made some appearance before the royals, although no specific mention is made in the papers or Court Notices.
The most useful piece of information from the Windsor and Eton Express comes in a report (1) of legal charges laid against a hackney cab driver, who had kept two hats left in his cab, being the property of Mr. Theophilus Lacombe (“M. Theo, the French Magician”).
The Empire of March 26, 1856 commented favourably on Mons. Theo’s performance …. ‘were performed generally with a dexterity and ease that showed an entire mastery of his mysterious art; but that which called forth the loudest applause from the audience was the metamorphosis of a pocket handkerchief, blackened and stained after the most undesirable fashion, to its pristine whiteness….”
In two more ominous comments, the article remarked that the ‘attendance was very scant, and must have tended somewhat to disconcert the operations of the worthy professor on the occasion of his debut’ and that ‘many remarks … could not be generally be appreciated by the audience, on account of his limited knowledge of the English language.’
The Sydney Morning Herald remarked upon the “really clever performance in the art of legerdemain and mechanical delusion ….” and the” chaste and elegant” arrangement of the stage, with tables wholly uncovered and without any drapery about them.
Performing, with a change of programme, until at least March 31 at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Mons. Theo had announced (2) his intention of proceeding to Melbourne and the gold diggings. Whether or not he succeeded in reaching any country regions is doubtful; he certainly did not play Melbourne.
On August 8, 1856, the Empire advertised a sad sale; the entirety of Monsieur Theo’s show. Perhaps strong competition, in Sydney, from the Wizard Jacobs, had proven too much, but it appears that Theo could not draw audiences and was forced to sell. One can only hope that some fortunate person bought the collector’s treasure-cavern of props and that they still exist somewhere in the world.
Shipping records for December 9, 1856 may show our magician, Mr. Lacombe, departing aboard the ‘Bombay’ headed for Pondicherry (now Puducherry), a French colonial settlement on the south-east coast of India.
Will Alma (3) stated that he “was an interesting French Magician, whose real name was Degago; he always wore a mask during his performance. Showed the mechanical effects as introduced by Robert-Houdin, and is credited as being the first magician to feature a ‘gift show’ in Australia.”
It is unclear how Alma came to this conclusion; the real name of the magician who performed as L’Homme Masque was Jose Antenor de Gago y Zavala, but he was born in 1851 and could not have been the same man. Magicpedia (4) refers to an imitator "Willy le Masque" who styled himself "The King of Gifts" because he would distribute souvenirs among his audience; but again, unless borne out by papers in the Alma collection, there is nothing to connect Mons. Theo with the masked magician or gift shows.
(1)Windsor and Eton Express, May 12, 1855.
(2)The Argus, Melbourne, April 7, 1856 p.8
(3) Will Alma’s “Magic Circle Mirror”, April 1972.