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New Victory Blog

The New Victory Blog is a place to learn more about New York's theater for families and the shows we produce. Find out what we do and what we're passionate about—exploring the arts as a family.
November 27, 2017

Magic on 42nd Street


In celebration of Jason Bishop: Believe in Magic, coming soon to The New Victory Theater, we spoke to Manhattan's resident history buff Tim Dolan about one of Jason's idols—Harry Houdini—and his time on 42nd Street.
 

Paradise Roof GardenWhile Broadway is mainly known for big budget musicals and plays, magicians, like the The New Victory's upcoming illusionist Jason Bishop, have always been in the mix. As early as 1899, Harry Houdini was performing his handcuff escapes in vaudeville theaters all over America, eventually appearing throughout his career at a handful of Broadway theaters in Times Square. He made his last Broadway appearance in 1926 alongside his wife Bess just one block south of The New Victory at The Nederlander Theatre (then called The National) on 41st Street. 

While Houdini never performed on the mainstage of the New Vic, he did perform on the roof! Rooftop garden theaters began to pop up in Times Square to provde open-air entertainment during the hot summer months in a pre-air conditioned world. Always incorporating some sort of floral element for a "garden feel," each rooftop presented small revue shows, magicians, acrobatic performances and famous comedians of the day. Oscar Hammerstein I, who built The New Victory in 1900, created the Paradise Rooftop Garden atop his theater to rival others in the area. It was outfitted with over 600 seats (over 100 more seats than inside the New Vic today) and a metal covering overhead to protect patrons from rain. Houdini and Jennie

During the summer of 1912, Houdini erected a 5,500-gallon water tank centerstage at the Paradise Rooftop Garden. In front of a packed audience, he escaped from leg shackles and handcuffs while in a submerged box that had been nailed shut and encased in chains. After performing this trick successfully the week prior in New York's East River, this was the first performance of the act inside of a theater. He would later perform the same feat at New York's largest theater, The Hippodrome, on Sixth Avenue—just a few blocks to the east of The New Victory Theater.

The "overboard box escape" wasn't the only act Houdini performed at The Hippodrome. On January 7th, 1918, Houdini walked onstage in front of thousands of World War I soldiers in uniform who were preparing to embark on their first tour overseas—he carried with him a few different sets of handcuffs. To thank them for their patriotism, Houdini prepared an educational performance. It's widely known that magicians like Houdini and Jason Bishop never reveal their secrets, but for this performance, Houdini did just that. He demonstrated how to escape the restraints of German handcuffs, how to free oneself from jail cells and what to do if trapped under water.

 

Gizmo and Jason! Gizmo and Jason! Photo: Alexis Buatti Ramos
While the performance was meant to be educational, Houdini unveiled a new trick at the conclusion for an entertaining twist. The troops watched as stagehands brought out an enormous cabinet and placed it center stage, followed by one other performer: Jennie, the daughter of P.T. Barnum's world famous elephant Jumbo. Jennie, Houdini explained, would be the first elephant he would ever make disappear. After having Jennie perform a few of her standard circus tricks, Houdini loaded her into the cabinet, placed a curtain over the front and waited. After a few minutes Houdini removed the curtain to reveal…an empty cabinet. To this day, Houdini's notes for the vanishing elephant trick have not been found, and it is his only act that remains shrouded in mystery. While Jason Bishop's animal assistant, Gizmo, is quite a bit smaller than Jennie, you can still expect some mind blowing illusions starring the pint-sized pup. 

As audiences settle into the plush seats of The New Victory Theater to enjoy the magic of Jason Bishop: Believe in Magic, they are joining the millions of audience members before them who have been fascinated by other illusionists on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in vaudeville theaters all over the United States—and are just a few floors below the same spot where Houdini conjured up his magic 105 years ago! 

 
 
Jason Bishop Thumb Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but this show is so delightful! Back by popular demand after last season's sold-out run, Jason Bishop returns with even more tricks (and wry one-liners) up his sleeve. Get your tickets to Jason Bishop: Believe in Magic today!

 
Posted by Beth Henderson

Step Afrika! began as a collaboration between American dancers and members of Johannesburg's Soweto Dance Theater in 1994. They have since emerged as one of the top stepping companies in the United States. Their most prolific work, The Migration Series: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, is now on stage at the New Vic! In this, they bring to life The Migration Series, a landmark painting series by Jacob Lawrence inspired by the journey of the millions of African Americans who moved from the rural South to the urban North to rebuild their lives after World War I. We sat down with founder C. Brian Williams to discuss the cultural context surrounding the show.

1. How do you think The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence reflects today's landscape? 
 
The Migration is an extremely important work for Step Afrika! Every time the cast walks onto the stage, I think of those brave men and women who left the South with its unbearable restrictions on African American life and took a journey without truly understanding what awaited them on the other side. No one ever wants to abandon their home, unless there's no other reasonable alternative. Every performance of The Migration is a percussive tribute to the strength and resilience of these migrants. Their movement truly transformed our country.
 
Seeing the devastating, forced migration of families in Syria, Myanmar and the Central African Republic, alongside our own country's heated dialogue about immigration, I'm reminded that the issues Jacob Lawrence painted about in 1940 remain relevant today. My hope is that those of us not currently in motion demonstrate even more compassion for those who are. 

The Migration
 
2. What do you want audience members to walk away thinking? 
 
First and foremost, I want the audience to have an incredible time at the theater. For Step Afrika! and our incredible team of artists, the theater is a special place where the audience and artist create a very special moment in time together. We all need to make more room for live performance, especially in challenging times, because there's nothing quite like it.
 
The Migration also gives the audience a chance to reflect on their own individual migration stories. The  journeys taken by all of our ancestors make us who we are. Although we focus on the Great Migration, you can compare Lawrence's paintings and our show to photographs taken at Ellis Island in the early 1900s, videos of migrants heading towards the border in the Southwestern United States, and the images of the tens of thousands of Syrian families escaping the challenges back home in the hope of peace and a better life elsewhere.
 
We want to remind the audience that within each and every one of us lies a migration story. When we see the challenges faced by the migrants of today, we should never forget that many of our ancestors once walked in those shoes.
 
C. Brian Williams3. Tell us about stepping and why do you think it's now, finally coming into mainstream culture.
 
Stepping is such an unique art form and dance tradition and we've enjoyed sharing it with audiences around the globe for over 23 years. With its origins in the early 1900s, stepping was created by African American men and women on college campuses who became members of fraternities and sororities. These Greek-letter organizations, like Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., of which I am a member, or Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., the first African-American sorority created in the United States, led to the development of stepping on college campuses. It took over 85 years before mainstream America took notice. 
 
In 1988, famed director Spike Lee released his film, Skool Daze, which brought an incredible amount of attention to both African American college life and the tradition of stepping. Just a few years later, in 1994, Step Afrika! began and we have been spreading the word non-stop ever since.
 
The Migration In The Migration, "two art forms meld, and then painted images seem to come to life," according to The Washington Post. Tickets are available today!


Photos: William Perrigen
Posted by Beth Henderson
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