Archive for the ‘Vaudeville Acts’ Category

WILLIAM ROBINSON (1861 – 1918) Magician

In Chinese history, Magic, People from China, Vaudeville Acts on April 4, 2011 at 4:09 PM

William Robinson

For a magician, deception and misdirection are the respected skills of a master.  For William Robinson, the layers of deception in his personal life were as confusing as his tricks, making audiences and friends question what was real and what was illusion.

Robinson was born in a trunk, as they say, in New York.  His father, James Campbell Robinson, was a versatile performer touring with minstrel shows.  He performed as Jim Campbell, and he specialized in ventriloquism, magic and singing in several dialects.  He also worked as a stage manager at the Houston Street Concert Saloon, filling in on stage when necessary.

Young Billy Robinson, as his family called him, wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.  He was tall and handsome with alluring eyes like his dad, but he lacked vocal talent and charisma.  Singing was out for him, so he set his sights on becoming a magician.  The young man used his father’s props to practice illusions in front of a mirror.

Robinson started out performing at private parties and school assemblies.  His first assistant was his younger brother, Edward.  He opened with a short introductory speech and then he proceeded to mystify the audience with card and coin tricks and other sleight of hand.

BEHIND EVERY GREAT MAN IS A WOMAN        When Robinson was 21 years old he met 16 year old Bessie Smith, and they married in February 1883 after only a couple months’ courtship.  Theirs was not exactly a mutual relationship.  Smith was love struck and happy to be married.  Robinson was happy to find a new assistant.  In December a girl, Annie, was born, but the new Mrs. Robinson was not the mother.  Robinson took custody of the girl, and his parents raised their first grandchild, perhaps as a way to save face for the family.

Robinson created a larger-than-life stage persona in the tradition of the great magicians and toured around New York with his devoted assistant.  They were billed as “Robinson, the Man of Mystery, The World’s Marvelous Enchanter, Assisted by Mlle. Bessie.”  He tried to look the part with a handle bar moustache and black knickers and tails, and he started signing his correspondence “Mystically thine, W. E. Robinson.”  When he added ventriloquism and mind reading to the act he promoted himself as “Robinson, The Man of Many Voices” and “The Famous Spiritualist.”  For all his effort, reviews of the act were just tepid.

Bessie gave birth to a baby boy, Elmore, in early 1885.  Being a magician’s assistant required more than just handing props and hiding in boxes.  It involved hours of intense rehearsal to perfect the illusions and a demanding schedule.  Now, with an infant to care for, she needed to stay home, and Robinson needed to find a new assistant.

A slim, diminutive showgirl with a young face struck Robinson’s fancy during one of the variety shows he performed in.  She was the perfect size to hide in a box and had experience with the rigorous life of a touring performer.  Her name was Augusta Pfaff, but she performed as Olive Path, and Robinson affectionately called her Dot because she was so small.  She was just what Robinson was looking for as an assistant and a lover. 

WHAT’S YOURS IS MINE        During a European tour Robinson was introduced to a new style of magic, Black Art, where black fabric and lighting were used to conceal objects.  When he returned to America he immediately incorporated this new technique into his act.  He copied the idea of adopting the persona of an Egyptian mystic from the originator of Black Art.  Hiding behind an elaborate costume and the assumption that he didn’t speak English, Robinson found a new comfort level on stage.

The magician and his assistant spent all their time together building, rehearsing and perfecting each illusion, and Robinson willfully ignored his family.  Since he was Catholic, divorce wasn’t an option, so he and Bessie just pretended that they weren’t married.  Robinson and Path started going by Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, and no one questioned them.

Two of the most renowned magicians in America were Alexander Herrmann and Harry Kellar.  As bitter rivals they competed for the most dramatic illusions and best talent to join their shows.  Keller wanted Robinson to join his act to perform his Black Art illusions.  Robinson accepted the offer for sixty dollars a week which included Path as the assistant and Robinson working backstage to set up the illusions.  Keller changed Robinson’s character to Nana Sahib, the “East Indian Necromancer in Oriental Occultism.”  During his tenure with Keller, Robinson developed a levitation illusion using a special harness and derrick he developed with machinist Benjamin Keyes.

The troupe rode the wave of popularity for two seasons until Robinson got a better offer from Herrmann.  He took his special harness and his assistant and joined Herrmann’s company.  Both Robinson and Path played supporting characters in Herrmann’s illusions and also performed some of Robinson’s Black Art tricks.  Herrmann did not approve of Robinson’s previous character name, so he became Abdul Khan. 

During the summer while Herrmann vacationed in Europe, Robinson and Path developed their own show, performing in the Catskill Mountains and in Boston.  He revived the persona of great magician in tails, but he still didn’t feel comfortable as himself on stage.  He had to admit that his best role was as an assistant.

After two years with Herrmann, Robinson heard from Keller again.  Keller had just returned from London with many new tricks, and he used the sketches for new illusions to entice Robinson to come back.  He was hopeful that Robinson would take the bait and bring with him Herrmann’s best illusions.  Robinson couldn’t resist.  For the Black Art act, Robinson’s character went back to Keller’s name: Nana Sahib.

In 1894 Herrmann, who usually preferred his older tried and true tricks, incorporated some new ones into his act.  Two of them were virtually identical to ones that Robinson had developed with Keller.  Now there was no doubt that part of Robinson’s value was because he stole secrets. 

He had plenty of secrets in his private life, too, that he wasn’t so eager to share.  He and Path still maintained that they were married, but they weren’t.  Robinson didn’t care about a family, so the legality of relationships was incidental.  Bessie had “remarried” without a legal divorce from Robinson.  Their son, Elmore, didn’t really fit into either family, so he was placed in an orphanage.  Robinson’s life, like his illusions, was not all that it appeared to be.

REINVENTING HIMSELF         One of Herrmann’s new tricks was the Marvelous Bullet Catching Feat.  He caught six marked bullets fired from rifles in the audience on a plate in front of his chest.  Because of the risk and high dramatic value, he only performed it seven times for charity shows.  Robinson was an indispensible assistant on this illusion as the person who ensured that the bullets in the gun were actually blanks.

In 1896, Herrmann died, and Robinson decided it was time to have his own show.  He tried to resurrect his vaudeville act, but he couldn’t overcome his bad teeth and shy voice.  For a while, he and Path worked for Mrs. Herrmann who tried to continue her husband’s act to pay off the debt he left her.  Robinson also wrote journal articles giving advice and leaking secrets to magicians.

After two years of struggling, Robinson attended the Trans Mississippi Exposition in Nebraska and came face to face with his future.  At the fair, Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo performed illusions he brought from China.  He didn’t know English, so he performed in silence, using pacing and broad gestures to connect with the audience.  Later, when Foo was the headliner in New York, Robinson spent countless nights studying every detail of Foo’s act from the back of the theater. 

In 1899 Robinson left Mrs. Herrmann’s company, and, with another stolen idea, set out on his own again.  He reinvented himself as Hop Sing Loo, a Chinese speaking magician.  He shaved his moustache and his hairline and donned a wig with a long braid in back.  He used greasepaint to change his skin tone and purchased a costume from Chinatown.  Path added to the deception by become a Chinese princess, and Robinson hired a real Chinese juggler, Fee Lung, to round out the performance.

Robinson got an invitation from a manager, Ike Rose, in France to bring Hop Sing Loo and the troupe to Europe.  Robinson sold his levitation illusion and collection of books to finance the trip.  In March 1900, Hop Sing Loo appeared on stage for the first time, and the show was a disaster.  Loo’s magic was slow and deliberate, and a trick involving a large bowl of water went awry, sending a cascade into the orchestra pit and drenching the musicians.  Despite the opening night mishap, Rose managed to convince the theater owner to keep Hop Sing Loo on the bill for the contracted week, deducting the damages to the theater from his salary.  Robinson settled into the role and refined the illusions, and he felt more confident as Hop Sing Loo than he ever had as himself.

The next stop on the tour was London, and Rose made only one major change in Robinson’s act.  He hated the name Hop Sing Loo and insisted Robinson change it.  Ching Ling Foo was gaining in popularity in America, and since Robinson had already appropriated Foo’s character and a couple of his tricks, why not go all the way and imitate his name?  Robinson became Chung Ling Soo, and Path became Suee Seen.

There was virtually nothing in Soo’s act that was authentically Chinese.  Since Soo (as he was known in the press) didn’t speak English, even talking to the press was another gimmick.  A reporter would ask Fee Lung a question which he would repeat to Soo in actual Chinese.  Soo would respond in Chinese-sounding gibberish which Fee Lung would translate back into English.

Chung Ling Soo

Even though fellow magicians and other performers knew that Robinson was Chung Ling Soo, the public embraced his talent and accepted the guise along with it.  Soo became such a crowd-pleaser that he was earning about $5,000 a week with bookings two years in advance.  The troupe grew to 14 people, including a new juggler/stage manager, Frank Kametaro, who was Japanese.  Kametaro spoke Japanese and English but not Chinese.  During interviews, he would translate the questions to Soo in his own version of gibberish Chinese, often sounding quite different from the fake Chinese his boss was speaking.  None of the reporters seemed to notice as nothing was ever written about it.

WILL THE REAL CHINESE MAGICIAN PLEASE STAND UP        In 1904 Ching Ling Foo began a European tour in London.  He was getting limited bookings because of Soo’s act.  Foo challenged Soo to a duel of magic to prove who the real Chinese illusionist was.  Foo set the terms.  He would win if Soo failed to do ten out of twenty of Foo’s tricks, or if he failed at any one of Soo’s illusions.  Robinson accepted the challenge.

Robinson knew that losing could cost him his career.  He solicited help from an old friend for an ace-in-the-hole trick.  Magician Harry Houdini agreed to teach Robinson one of his best illusions.

On the day of the event, Soo and his entourage arrived in pompous splendor.  The small audience consisted of theater managers, who were the judges, reporters and Houdini.  After waiting half an hour for his competitor to show up, Soo entertained the crowd with ten successive tricks, and he was pronounced the winner.  Robinson changed his publicity from “The Wonderful Chinese Conjurer” to “The Original Chinese Conjurer.”

FOR LOVE OR MONEY        After 20 years of being together, Robinson and Path, both in their 40s, decided to do the right thing, so to speak, getting married in a brief civil ceremony in March 1906 in England.  The truth was so nebulous by this time, however, that to legalize their relationship only added to the complication.  Robinson was technically still married to Bessie, although he claimed to be divorced, and his many affairs made his devotion to Path dubious.  One of the objects of his affection, Louise Mary Blatchford, was barely 21 years old, and a year after Robinson was married matters got more complicated when Blatchford revealed she was pregnant.  Path was furious because Blatchford insisted that Robinson acknowledge his baby and act like a father, and Robinson, now ready for a family, agreed.  He set Blatchford up in a home in west London, and in early 1908 a son was born.

Mr. and Mrs. Robinson stayed married for the good of the act and created a business partnership.  Path started receiving a weekly salary for being Suee Seen and all of her responsibilities behind the scenes.  The members of their troupe referred to them as Mr. and Mrs. Soo, and when Blatchford came for a visit, they called her Mrs. Robinson.  When the company wasn’t touring out of the country, Robinson would visit his family on Sunday while Path and Kametaro were responsible for moving the show to the next location and setting up.  Robinson built a workshop behind his house where he could build and test illusions.  After two more children were born, Robinson spent more time in the workshop than he did with his family.

A KILLER TRICK        Chung Ling Soo had incorporated Herrmann’s Bullet Catching Trick into his own act, although he performed it rarely.  In 1918, he added it to the repertoire for a week of shows near London.  On Saturday night he had a guest in his dressing room while he was preparing the guns, and he mentioned that he didn’t feel well.  While he stepped out for a moment, Suee Seen got the weapons and put them on the prop table backstage, and then the stage manager called, “Places!”

The audience was thrilled that they would be seeing Soo perform “Defying the Bullets.”  Toward the end of the show, about 10:45, two volunteers from the audience marked the bullets to be used, and Soo and his assistants got into position.  Immediately after the command to fire, Soo staggered backwards and blood started pouring out of his chest.  The audience wasn’t sure if this was part of the act until Soo said in perfect English, “Oh my God.  Something’s happened.  Lower the curtain!”  The curtain was dropped and they played a newsreel.

Suee Seen rushed on stage, and Soo impelled her to call for a doctor.  One stage hand ripped off part of the curtain to keep Soo warm.  It took about 45 minutes for doctors to arrive, and by then they could barely find a pulse.  A bullet had grazed the heart and fractured the fifth rib upon entering Soo’s body and then exited through the back.  It wasn’t until 2:30am that Soo was taken to a hospital, and he died about two hours later.

At the coroner’s inquest Path had to reveal the secret of the trick so the jury could understand what happened.  She also had to explain the triangle of her, her husband and the woman he was living with.  After testimony by Robinson’s other assistants, the coroner and a gun expert, the jury ruled Soo’s death an accident, calling it “death by misadventure.”

QUESTION:  Have you ever promised to keep a secret and then shared it with someone?  What happened?

©2011 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved


Steinmeyer, Jim, The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chunk Ling Soo, the “Marvelous Chinese Conjurer.” New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2005.

KATIE SANDWINA (1884 – 1952) Circus Strongwoman

In American History, Biography, Circus Performers, Female Athletes, Feminists, Vaudeville Acts, women on December 14, 2010 at 10:20 PM

Katie Sandwina

Catherine Brumbach (“Katie”) was born with everything she needed to succeed in life, and she grew to be a beautiful, strong woman, a really strong woman.  Her physical strength and beauty gave her an edge in a man’s world, making her the specimen of perfection. 

Brumbach was the second oldest of 15 children whose parents were circus performers.  Of Bavarian stock, Philippe, who was six feet six inches tall and weighed about 260 pounds with a 56 inch chest, and his wife, Johanna, whose biceps measured 15 inches, amazed European audiences with their feats of strength.  Three daughters inherited the strength and talent of their parents and joined the act very young. 

When she was two, Brumbach reportedly did hand stands on her father’s hands.  She was trained in gymnastics and then added weightlifting to her regime when she hit adolescence.  Brumbach wasn’t the strongest of her siblings, but her strength combined with her perfect proportions and natural beauty made her the main attraction.

JOINING THE FAMILY BUSINESS                      The Brumbach family were contract players in circuses all over Europe, and Brumbach’s star continued to rise.  When she was a teenager, her father offered 100 German marks to any man who would come on stage and beat her at wrestling.  She won every time, and one evening she got a prize she hadn’t expected.  Max Heymann, a five foot six inch acrobat who weighed about 160 pounds, was having a hard time getting his career off the ground.  He saw an opportunity for easy cash and sauntered confidently onto the stage.  Brumbach won the match handily, but he won her heart.  She was 16 and Heymann was 19, and two years later he joined the act permanently when they married.

While touring around Europe, the strongwoman and her fellow performers happened to briefly go to New York.  As a publicity stunt at the end of the act, she challenged anyone who dared to try to lift more weight than she did.  Eugen Sandow, the most famous bodybuilder of the time (click here for the profile of Eugen Sandow) happened to be in the audience.  No publicity manager could have ever conceived of a more perfect attraction.  They matched each other pound for pound until Brumbach lifted a 300 pound bar bell over her head.  As a stunned audience witnessed, Sandow could only raise it to his chest.  Brumbach proudly carried her victory with her everywhere by adopting the moniker “Sandwina,” a female derivative of Sandow.

JUST ANOTHER DAY AT THE OFFICE              Sandwina and Heymann and a couple of other men became “The Sandwinas.”  Early in the 20th century they came to America for a more extended commitment and performed with small vaudeville shows up and down the East coast.  A year later they were hired by the prestigious Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit and toured throughout the country.  Sandwina was billed as “Europe’s Queen of Strength and Beauty.”  She twisted iron bars into spirals and broke chains with her bare hands, juggled cannonballs and supported a 1,200-pound cannon on her shoulders.  She even lay on a bed of nails while volunteers used sledgehammers to hit an anvil balanced on her chest.

In 1909 while on tour with the Orpheum, the Heymanns had a baby, Teddy.  Being pregnant made Sandwina seem more feminine to some people, but she didn’t let it interfere with her career.  She performed two shows the night before her son was born.  This strapping child, who weighed 50 pounds at age two, was nicknamed “Superbaby” by the press.  During interviews, reporters asked Sandwina’s advice on the care and feeding of children so other kids could grow up to be equally robust and strong.

The Sandwinas went back to Europe for a while.  Holding her husband overhead had become a popular feat, and to add to that, for the finale Sandwina lifted three men.  John Ringling, one of the brothers who had recently bought the Barnum & Bailey circus, was on a scouting trip.  He signed Sandwina and Heymann and brought them back to the States in 1911.  They weren’t a featured act but instead had to perform simultaneously with four other strength acts, all competing for attention.  When reporters became curious about Sandwina, a press conference was arranged to move her into the spotlight.

THE PICTURE OF PERFECTION                          P.T. Barnum was once quoted as saying, “Without promotion something terrible happens…Nothing!”1 so meeting the press became an event.  At Madison Square Garden, where they were performing, over a dozen doctors were brought in to weigh and measure Sandwina publicly.  She was deemed to be the perfect female specimen.  She was five feet nine and three quarters inches tall and weighed 210 pounds.  Her chest was 44 inches, her waist was 29 inches, and her hips were 43 inches.  Her calf measured 16 inches and her flexed right bicep was 14 inches.  To enhance her appearance, especially in contrast to her husband, Sandwina always wore two-inch heels and piled her hair on top of her head to make her look taller.  When the measuring was finished Sandwina demonstrated her strength for the reporters.  First she lifted Heymann over her head with one hand, and then she lifted her husband and son, holding them both with only one arm.

For all her bulk, Sandwina was described as beautiful and feminine with supple curves and arms smooth enough to look good in a ball gown.  With her new status in the center ring, Sandwina was earning up to $1,500 a week.  Sandwina represented the perfect woman in many ways.  Besides her physical beauty, strength and charm, she was a working mother.  In 1912 she became the Vice President of the suffrage group at the Barnum & Bailey Circus.  Working with her husband and dominating him in the act made her seem all the more liberated.

In 1918 while the Heymann family was in Istanbul, a second son, Alfred, was born.  The story has been passed down that it happened during some civil unrest and Sandwina had to crawl under barbed wire to get herself to a hospital.  When she arrived, the hospital was full and she gave birth on the floor.

When The Sandwinas retired from the Barnum & Bailey Circus they continued to do what they loved.  For a while in the 1930s they worked with the WPA circus, and then in the 1940s they opened a cafe/bar in Queens, New York.  Occasionally when a customer asked, Sandwina would bend an iron bar or break a horseshoe after serving their drink.

In 1952 Sandwina died of cancer, and after 52 years of marriage, The Sandwinas split up.

QUESTION:  If you could join the circus, what kind of act would you want to do?

 ©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved



EUGEN SANDOW (1867-1925) First Bodybuilder and Perfect Physical Specimen

In Biography, Bodybuilders, Bodybuilding, Entrepreneurs, Exercise, History, Inventions, People, People from Germany, Uncategorized, Vaudeville Acts, Victorian Women on March 15, 2010 at 9:15 PM

Eugen Sandow

Eugen Sandow had a body that men envied and women drooled over, and it brought him fame and fortune.  The only person who didn’t appreciate his success was his wife. 

Sandow was born Friedrich Muller, the son of a green grocer in a German city in East Prussia.  He was a draft dodger and changed his name to Eugen Sandow to avoid conscription.  His family didn’t appreciate that.  When his parents said, “What are you going to do, join the circus?” Sandow said yes, and ran away with one that was passing through town.  

He toured and performed as an acrobat until the circus went bankrupt in Brussels.  In this city he met Louis Attila who helped Sandow develop his physical structure and showmanship.  Together they made ends meet showing off their strength in music halls.  In 1889 Attila moved to London and sent word to Sandow of an irresistible challenge.  

The popular duo Sampson and Cyclops were posing as strongmen on stage with a cleverly choreographed act that concealed their lack of strength.  Each night Sampson issued a challenge to the audience: he would pay 500 pounds to anyone who could match the stunts he performed on stage.  Sandow was intrigued, so he went to London and briefly resumed training under Attila.  One night he answered Sampson’s call to prove his physical prowess and handily won the prize. 

This turned Sandow into a sensation, and he spent the next four years touring the music halls of Britain, wowing audiences with his feats of strength.   In 1893 he followed fame and fortune to New York where his act was under appreciated, perhaps because he had to share the stage with some third rate burlesque talent.  

This was not the American dream he was promised until one patron noticed how the women in the audience responded to Sandow’s flexing and posing.  Florenz Ziegfeld took him under his wing and coached Sandow to play to the audiences’ fascination with his bulging muscles.  He downplayed the heavy lifting for these “muscle display performances” and added some sensationalism such as breaking a chain around his neck.  Ziegfeld used the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago to debut Sandow’s new routine.  The audiences went wild, and for the next three years, Ziegfeld and Sandow toured extensively.  They continually added new ways to demonstrate Sandow’s physical prowess such as fighting a lion, or tearing apart furniture. In addition, Sandow made a short film with Thomas Edison featuring his poses.  (  

Sandow got the inspiration for his manly physique from Greek and Roman statues.  He measured the sculptures and crafted his body to their exact proportions, thereby creating “The Grecian Ideal” as the representation of the perfect male body.  After a thorough examination, doctor and Harvard professor Dudley Sargent pronounced Sandow “the most perfectly developed man in the world.”  His stage performances exploited this image by featuring him standing on a rotating pedestal encased in glass.  With physical perfection came lots of female attention, and Sandow became a sex symbol, something he didn’t seem to mind at all.  

The intense schedule and demands of celebrity caused Sandow to have a nervous breakdown.  At some point on a trip to England, Sandow had married Blanche Brookes.  When he became ill, he retreated back to England and the care of his wife. 

Away from the limelight, Sandow became passionate about helping people maintain personal fitness.  He created a place for people to learn about and practice bodybuilding and exercise called Institutes of Physical Culture.  The popularity of these gyms inspired other teachers to do the same, and a fitness craze started gaining momentum.  In order to reach the masses, Sandow published a magazine and five books.  The book that gave the sport its name, Body Building or Man in the Making, was published in 1904.  In Body Building, Sandow states his intention.  “What I live to teach is the gospel of health, and the bringing of the body to the condition to which Nature intended it.”  He outlined his system for achieving maximum physical potential as well as exercises for both men and women that dealt with specific ailments such as constipation, digestion and liver problems. (

Sandow capitalized on his success by developing equipment to enhance the efficacy of the exercises.  His spring-loaded dumbbell and weighted resistance band were available through mail order, which made it possible for the general population to get in shape in the comfort of home. In Body Building, he insisted, however, that rote repetition of the exercises was not enough. He emphasized the connection between the body and the mind. “The secret of success does not lie in the construction of the apparatus, but in the proper application and use if it, and this can only be obtained through the brain.  In other words, it is not a question as to how much you exercise, but how you exercise.” 

Sandow’s entrepreneurial spirit extended beyond the gym.  He produced Sandow Cigars and Sandow Health and Strength Cocoa.  In addition, he was one of the first proponents of mandatory physical education in school.  He believed that employers should give their employees time off for daily exercise, and he developed exercises for pregnant women to ease the pain of childbirth. 

Perhaps his biggest contribution to the sport of bodybuilding came in 1901.  Sandow organized the first bodybuilding contest, called the “Great Competition,” held in Royal Albert Hall in London to a standing room only crowd.  One of the judges was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories. 

Being a perfect physical specimen and sex symbol had its price. Despite his physical strength, Sandow’s emotional weakness for women did him in.  When he died, the public story was that he had a stroke, but many believed he had succumbed to syphilis.  In retaliation for his philandering, his wife insisted that he be buried in an unmarked grave. 

Sandow hasn’t faded into total obscurity, however.  He has been immortalized by a bronze statue sculpted in his image which is the prize for winning the Mr. Olympia contest. It is called The Sandow. 

QUESTION: What physical feature do other people appreciate most about you? 

                              © 2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved