Sunday, October 8, 2017

A Thurston Artifact from the Goulet Collection

Special Postscript - hours after this post first appeared on October 8, I learned the terrible news that Ray Goulet had passed away only the day before.  The timing was coincidental -- indeed, I had written this draft months ago, intending to post it on Howard Thurston's birthday.  I first had the pleasure of meeting Ray Goulet a little over a year ago.  In that time, I twice visited his shop and fabulous museum, and had the pleasure of attending the NEMCA conference in 2016 at his kind invitation.   That conference led to the creation of this blog, as Tom Ewing, Gary Frank and I, all attendees at the event, crafted the idea for creating this site shortly after thereafter.   And perhaps this post can serve as an early tribute to Mr. Goulet, who brought this treasure into my life, as he brought so much magic to countless others. 

Readers interested in learning more about Mr. Goulet's extraordinary life and career may wish to seek out a copy of Ray Goulet Recollections of a Renaissance Man by Frank Dudgeon and Ann Goulet. 

In this post, we examine a special memento of the career of the great Howard Thurston.  On a visit to Ray Goulet’s Magic Art Studio in January 2017, I was able to persuade him to part with this curious treasure -- a Steamboat playing card bearing the following hand inscription:

"This Card Was Used By Howard Thurston in connection With the Back and Front Palm, Boston, 1931, Tremont Theater." 
Being particularly interested in Thurston memorabilia, it was exciting to obtain this item for my collection.  

Of course, the provenance of such an item always presents a question.   That someone took a playing card and wrote this upon it does not necessarily make it so.   But there are several factors that can provide a high level of confidence about the bona fides of this particular piece.
  • First, the acquisition of this piece from a collector with the standing of Mr. Goulet provides one with a certain degree of assurance.  I personally removed this card from a collection binder brimming with items of similar age and of equal or far greater value.  This first-hand experience imbues the piece with a legitimacy that far exceeds that which may be derived from, say, a purchase from an anonymous eBay seller.  

Ray and Ann Goulet at the Magic Art Studio
  • Second, physical examination of the piece tends to corroborate the representation made upon its face.  The writing appears to be consistent with the use of a fountain
    pen, rather than a marker or ballpoint, and highly resembles the kind of handwriting one would see on postcards of this era.   The piece is unquestionably a vintage Steamboat card, with the proper feel, weight and finish.
These factors seem to support the facial representation on the card.   But, to help confirm, we need to do a little research.

One question is whether Thurston used Steamboat cards when performing front and back palms.   It seems logical, as the cards were cheap, thin and light, and while Thurston had a plethora of throwing cards at his disposal his heavyweight scalers could never be used for the magician’s famed card manipulations.  But we need not rely on speculation alone.

Invoking the power of the mighty Ask Alexander search
engine, I quickly turned up an article by none other than Professor Hoffmann (a highly reliable source) in a 1911 issue of The Magic Wand.  In the article, entitled "Some Useful Card Sleights," the good professor notes:

"The  actual  originator of the  back palm  is  unknown,  though  many  have claimed  the  credit of the  invention. . . Mr. Howard  Thurston . . .  made  the sleight  in  question  peculiarly  his  own, and  brought  its  execution  to  an extraordinary  pitch of perfection. . .  To be able to execute the continuous palm to perfection, it is essential to have suitable cards. These should be (for hands of normal dimensions) of full size, thin  and flexible, not highly glazed, and  their  backs  should be of a quiet greyish tint, as being  the least conspicuous.  The cards recommended by Mr. Howard Thurston  as best answering  the  above  conditions  are those  known  as  Steamboat No. 999.  They are of American make, but can be procured at any leading conjuring depot, at a cost of about one shilling per pack.  They work all the better after a moderate amount of use."

So clearly we have the right kind of card.  The last question revolves around the purported engagement.  Ask Alexander again provides the answer: an obscure magic journal called The Seven Circles reported in a 1931 issue that "Thurston opens at the Tremont Theater April 13th for a two weeks' engagement with his big full evening show."  The Sphinx for May 1931 carried a similar report.

In sum, this seems to be the real thing, a card manipulated, onstage, by Howard Thurston, nearly a century ago.   It’s kind of thrilling.  I think I’m going to go put this in a protective case . . .

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