The Lansing was well filled last night, especially in the parquet, for everybody was anxious to sit well forward to see "how it was done." But they did not find out. Herrmann is too deep a magician for any ordinary critic. Undoubtedly there is a fine technique in magic and an expert critic might find and explain to us some of Mr. Herrmann's shortcomings. But it is enough for us to know that we were mystified, and delightfully, too.
Probably the most entertaining parts of the program were those where Mr. Herrmann was alone on the stage. The more carefully prepared scenic effects were startling, but they took too much time to prepare, considering the very short time they lasted. Even the "Chicken Polka" failed to amuse in some of the longer waits.
Among the best things was the trick with the canaries. Four birds, all alive and singing, should not be improved by being wrapped up in paper and shot with a pistol. And yet, when Mr. Herrmann treated them so, they came out all the merrier. Then there were hats that proved to be filled with flowers, rabbits that did under the coat collars of people in the audience, handkerchiefs that vanished at a word, and a general uncertainty as to what anything was or where it would turn up next.
The most striking thing was the little spirit scene. A good many had, for the first time in their lives, the privilege of seeing a real and uncannily impressive ghost, and a set of banjo-playing skeletons that made the flesh creep. There seemed to be dozens of them, flocking out of everywhere, and they danced a wild, bony dance to the tune of "Ta-ra-ra-ra Boom de aye." The house was pitch dark, and all one could see was the white forms capering wildly on the black background, how far or how near one could not well tell. This scene of the spiritualistic manifestations was the only one of the more carefully prepared scenes that really was worth the long waiting. "After the Ball," an exhibition of a trick mirror, was disappointing. One wants something more thrilling than mere disappearances. The same thing applies to the much advertised "Escape From Sing Sing," and to the "Magic Swing."
Mme. Herrmann's dances were beautiful, especially the last one, when all the colors of the rainbow were turned on from six calcium lights. It is a pity that more of the stage was not draped in black, for the effect would have been better. Still, it was really wonderful as it was, being by far the best dance of the kind seen in Lincoln this season.
Mr. Herrmann won everybody from parquet to gallery. His smile, like his shower of picture cards, was far-reaching, and he ultimately won even the most obdurate of the gods to silent attention. He went so far at the end as to explain one simple trick with a few eggs and handkerchiefs, one that, he said, one could learn by practice — for three or four years.
Everybody went away trying to explain how he did it. The only trouble was that their explanations were all different. But then, after all, no one really wants the tricks explained. We would almost like to forget that they are tricks, and believe them, as the children do, to be real magic, and Mr. Herrmann, with his little black wand, to be a real magician.
Lansing Theatre: The Lansing Theater, on the southwest corner of 13th and P Streets, was built in 1891, displacing the Funke Opera House as the largest and finest theater in Lincoln. The owners were J.F. Lansing (b. 1842), a Lincoln real estate man, and his brother-in-law Henry Oliver (b. 1857); Edward A. Church was the manager. According to the program of the opening week (November 23-28, 1891) the auditorium consisted of the orchestra and parquet seating on the main level, with dress circle at the rear and sides; three tiers of five boxes each and six loges were at the sides. Above were the balcony and the gallery. With standing room, about 2500 people could be present.
The building also housed offices, including that of Cather's friend and fellow reviewer, Dr. Julius H. Tyndale. It was renamed the Oliver Theater in 1898.
the parquet: The ground floor of a theater, especially the front part behind the orchestra to the area beneath the galleries or balcony.
Herrmann: Alexander Herrmann (1844-1896)—known as "Herrmann the Great"—was born in Paris. As a boy he served his older brother, magician Carl Herrmann (d.1887), as an assistant, thus getting his own start. He became tremendously successful in Europe and the U.S., where he became a citizen, making as much as $100,000 a year, with a house on Long Island, a private railroad car, and a yacht. He married Adelaide Scarcez in 1875; she served as his assistant and after his death of a heart attack in 1896, continued the act with his nephew, Leon Herrmann. Herrmann, the Magician: His Life, His Secrets was published in 1896.
"Chicken Polka": The music of the "Chicken Polka" remains popular with polka and bluegrass musicians, but its origins are obscure.
Polka: The polka, a lively dance for couples in 2-4 time, originated in Bohemia in the 1830s; it was introduced first in theaters in England, France, and the U.S. in the early 1840s, then into ballrooms, where it became one of the most popular of nineteenth century dances.Eugene Coulon's Hand Book of ballroom dancing (1873) described the dance thusly:There are only three steps in the Polka, which are all jumped, and occupy one bar of music, the fourth interval being only a repose to give time to prepare for the next foot. To begin, the foot is raised a little behind, the gentleman using his left, the lady her right foot.1) The first step, springs lightly on the right foot, and almost simultaneously slides the left foot to the side, finishing on both feet, with the knees bent.2) For the second step he makes a jetté with the right foot, which brings the left foot extended to the left, and raised a little from the ground;3) For the third step he makes a jetté before with the left foot, and finishes with the right foot up, a little behind. Then, without stopping, he bends on the left foot, in order to employ the fourth interval of the bar, and proceeds in the same manner with the right foot. The lady does the same, only, as I have mentioned, beginning with her right foot.This description of the Polka step may be danced either to the right or to the left. But when it is desired to go forward or backward, as well as in turning, it must be observed that the first step is taken backwards or forwards in the direction that is required."
Ta-ra-ra-ra Boom de aye: The title (which is also the chorus) of this early hit song, credited to Henry J. Sayers, is given on the early sheet music as "Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay." Sayers was a press agent for various performers in Missouri and is not otherwise known as a composer; some sources suggest the words originated in the brothels of St. Louis, and that the tune is a German one. The 1891 song was introduced by Lottie Collins first in London, and then in New York in 1892. Verses were soon added, and many parody versions exist using the famous title.
Escape From Sing Sing: Walter Gibson, in his 1958 book Magic Explained, described this trick as one in which assistants seem to travel among cabinets decorated like prison cells.
"Magic Swing": One of Herrmann the magician's magic acts.
Mme. Herrmann: Adelaide Scarcez (1854-1932) married Alexander Herrman in 1875; she served as his assistant and after his death of a heart attack in 1896, continued the act with his nephew, Leon Hermann. She wrote The Art of "Palming" (1905).
Image available at the University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections.
Calcium lights: Another name for limelight; calcium is widely found in nature in the form of lime (calcium carbonate). Limelight, invented in the early nineteenth century and often called Drummond lights in Britain, produced an intense white light, much brighter than oil or gas lights, when a piece of lime was burned in an oxyhydrogen flame. It was used in theaters to illuminate the star players, as well as to create special effects with transparent scenery.