In a basement room at Montreal’s McCord Museum, two handlers unroll an enormous colourful poster made from eight lithographed sheets joined together. “Buried Alive! Egyptian Fakirs Outdone,” reads a legend at the top of the poster, above an image of a man padlocked in a coffin near the Sphinx, and the name Houdini spelled out in big yellow letters.
Through the magic of a gift from a Toronto foundation linked to media tycoon Allan Slaight, the McCord has made this and 600 other vintage posters from the golden age of stage magic materialize in its storerooms. Acquisition of the privately-held collection gives the McCord the largest cache of magic-related ephemera in Canada.
“There is material here for dozens of exhibitions,” said McCord president and CEO Suzanne Sauvage. The first show featuring the Allan Slaight Collection will open in 2017 and tour widely, she said.
The $3-million collection, gathered over 50 years by a magic buff who preferred to remain anonymous, includes 200 rare books about magic, as well as over 200 handbills, photographs, props and other objects connected to Harry Houdini, as well as posters measuring up to 2 by 2.75 metres. The star magicians pictured include Alexander Herrmann and Harry Kellar, great rivals who in the 1890s often engaged in poster wars, covering each other’s posters with their own as fast as possible.
Many of the pristine posters in the McCord acquisition were purchased off the lithographic plates from the studios where they were made, said David Ben, a Canadian magician who advised the museum. Apart from what it reveals about magic and its culture, he said, the collection shows commercial lithography at its peak, when teams of highly-skilled artisans collaborated on large displays.
All of the magicians pictured were regular performers in Montreal, which was on the circuit for top-draw illusionists. Houdini also gave a lecture in the building that now houses the McCord, after which he received the punch to the stomach, given as a challenge by a McGill University student, that led to his death in 1926.
The McCord’s focus on social history, and its vivid link to Houdini, helped persuade La Fondation Emmanuelle Gattuso that the collection it had purchased should go to Montreal. In a written statement, Gattuso said she wanted to honour her husband, Allan Slaight, who toured western Canada as a magician and mind-reader before beginning his business career.