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  • Beth A. Kattelman

How did he do that? This question has been on the lips of audience members since magicians first began delighting and amazing viewers with skills of dexterity and legerdemain. The first-known recorded, secular magic performance dates back to 2500 b.c. when the conjuror Dedi presented a series of tricks for the Egyptian king Cheops at the royal palace. The event was recorded in the Westcar papyrus, a document that was composed around 1700 b.c. but is thought by Egyptologists to have been copied from earlier sources. Yes, magic and conjuring have long been an integral part of popular entertainment, and from these very early beginnings, secular magicians have continued to provide entertainment for audiences of all ages right up through the present day. Magic shows are still some of the hottest tickets of the Las Vegas strip, and touring artists such as David Copperfield can still fill theatres. Magic is also popular on television once again thanks to the work of David Blaine and Criss Angel. Organizations such as the International Brotherhood of Magicians (IBM) and the Society of American Magicians (SAM) also boast a strong membership.

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1. Lund, Robert, Abracadabra: Michigan and Magic (Ann Arbor: Historical Society of Michigan, 1992), 20.

2. The designation “secular magic” is used here to distinguish magic accomplished through skill and dexterity that was acknowledged as performance from that of magic associated with religious rites or occultism that was said to occur as a result of otherworldly forces.

3. Christopher, Milbourne, The Illustrated History of Magic (New York: Thomas Crowell, 1973), 8.

4. See, for example, Jay, Ricky, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986); Steinmeyer, Jim, Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003); Dawes, Edwin A., Charles Bertram: The Court Conjurer (Washington, DC: Kaufman & Co., 1997).

5. The Billboard was established in 1894. In 1961 the publication started devoting its pages solely to the music industry and thus became the Billboard Magazine that is still in existence today. Information about the other entertainments was put into a new spin-off magazine called Amusement Business, a publication that folded in 2006.

6. The American Museum of Magic's Web site,, accessed 27 April 2007.

7. Magic tokens and throw-out cards (also known as “scaling cards”) are coins and cards imprinted with a magician's name and/or image that are specifically manufactured to be used as advertising pieces. In the days of vaudeville, these items were often used in the show then thrown out into the audience as souvenirs.

8. Unidentified newspaper clipping, 1 February 1955, Robert Nelson Scrapbook, Lund Memorial Library.

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Theatre Survey
  • ISSN: 0040-5574
  • EISSN: 1475-4533
  • URL: /core/journals/theatre-survey
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