In the days before TV and local movie theatres, what did people do for a night’s entertainment out in the suburbs or in country towns? Playbills and broadsides provide a fascinating insight into what was “hot”. In the early years of the 20th century, variety troupes toured the country presenting special guest artists from Australia and overseas, plus the latest in mechanical “moving pictures” to amaze and delight their audiences. The Library has many wonderful examples of the playbills and broadsides that advertised these performances, but here’s one that piqued my interest because of the rather poignant story attached to one of the performers.
The Southern Cross Combination Co. presented a touring variety show and this broadside from 1910 spruiks the presence of the “Prince of Balladists” Post Mason, an American baritone, plus films of “the world’s latest and greatest sporting events” shown by an electric biograph and finally the special engagement of “Alberto the Droll Conjurer”.
Although this performance was at the Auburn Town Hall in Sydney, the Company obviously toured their show around the state, as there is an enthusiastic review of the same show from the Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate in July 1910.
Now, what attracted my attention was the curiously named “Alberto the Droll Conjurer”. Who was Alberto and what became of him? Well he cut quite a dashing figure in his performing days as this photograph from the State Library of Victoria shows.
Harold started his performing career in 1902, billing himself as “The Gay Deceiver” and “The Droll Conjurer”. He joined Harry Rickard’s Tivoli company with early tricks, The Miser’s Dream and The Vanishing Lamp. He was most famous for his More water! growing plant routine, where periodically he would shout “More water!” and pour water on a plant that was growing ridiculously large. Eventually, the plant would extend offstage into the right-side wings, only to begin to grow onto the stage from the left. Moving to the United States in 1922, he became a technical advisor to Hollywood movie studios during the 1930′s and 1940′s and committed suicide in 1964 after years struggling with severe clinical depression.
I wanted to know a bit more about this magician who went to Hollywood, so thought I’d do some digging to see if I could find out anything else. Both the Magicpedia and MagicTricks.com websites list his birth date as 1882. The only record of a birth registration I could find in Australia for 1882 that looked vaguely like him was from Geelong for an Archd Jos Harold McAuliffe. Was this our Harold? Hmmm…. I was beginning to wonder a little. There is also a birth registration record for a Harold McAuliffe in Glebe NSW in 1883. This is interesting as I found a record in the US Social Security Death Index for a Harold McAuliffe who died in California in June 1964, which shows his birth date as 1883 in Sydney – I’m convinced this is “our” Harold. Surely it’s too much of a coincidence for there to be two Harold McAuliffe’s dying in California in 1964 of about the same age? Intriguing!
Now, while working in the movies sounds exciting, I have the impression that Harold’s life may have been rather lonely and perhaps not very glamorous after his move to the US. Did he migrate there because those old variety magic shows and touring entertainment companies were losing out to the movies by the 1920s and work had dried up for our Droll Conjurer? How would someone like Harold who used to be up there on stage and receiving all the accolades feel about being just a behind the scenes “technical advisor” for the movies?
I found a record for Harold in the 1940 US census which showed that he was single, and a lodger in a hotel at 825 West Eighth Street in Los Angeles. A Los Angeles street directory from this time gave this as the address for the Abbey Hotel (probably one of those long-stay hotels that was more like a boarding house) and he paid $20 per week for his room. The hotel had obviously been there for a while. Here’s a picture of the “sitting room” from a 1926 postcard on flickr.
Rather sadly, Harold still listed his occupation as Magician on the census form and his “usual industry” as Theatre. Was he pining for those golden days of his past? Harold worked only 4 hours in the week prior to the census – so it certainly looks as though his work and income might have been a little sporadic. In the previous year he told the census that he worked 41 weeks. Did he gradually sink into depression during this time as his famous past became just a distant memory?
I’d love to know the movies Harold was involved with, and the nature of the “technical advice” he provided. Was it related to illusion and magic and sleight of hand? Or showmanship and performance? Is his name buried deep within the credits lists of those golden age movies from the 1920s to 1940s? Did he perhaps entertain his fellow workers and the actors on the set with a few magic tricks while they waited for a film shoot to get underway? I’m sure there is a lot more to tell in the story of our Harold.