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The Sorcerer's Appliances

John Gaughan's Wizardry Will Make You Believe in Magic

January 05, 2003|SONDRA FARRELL BAZROD

When master illusionist John Gaughan is not making a rock star materialize on a throne before frenzied crowds, he delights in collecting and restoring devices from magic eras past, including Harry Houdini's water torture cell from 1913. "They still fool and entertain audiences," says Gaughan, who loaned some of his antique marvels to the "Devices of Wonder" exhibit that ran at the Getty Museum last year.

Gaughan spent years restoring Antonio Diavolo, a 34-inch trapeze-artist puppet that belonged to the French magician Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin (Houdini took his name), who performed in Paris from 1845 to 1860. "We think of Houdin today as the father of modern magic. He was the first to go onstage in a tuxedo and not some pointed hat like Merlin the mystic," Gaughan says. The rejuvenated Antonio can do acrobatics and hang by the knees on his trapeze before jumping back into Gaughan's hand.

Then there's the Android Clarinetist, a 6-foot-tall automaton musician built in Holland in 1838 that plays Beethoven and Von Weber on a 32-note clarinet-like instrument. It arrived in the United States in 1850 and was bought by P.T. Barnum in 1855 for his museum. After a fire there, it languished for more than 100 years at the University of Michigan. The clarinetist was in pieces when Gaughan acquired it five years ago. Gaughan spent 20 years restoring a 1769 automaton chess player that performed before Napoleon, Benjamin Franklin and Edgar Allan Poe.

By the time Gaughan was 8, he was hanging around the magic shop in his Dallas neighborhood. "At 14, I went to work for local magician Mark Wilson. I started as a handyman and gofer." Wilson put together a children's television show called "The Magic Land of Allakazam," and a 21-year-old Gaughan came to Los Angeles with the group. He is self-taught when it comes to illusions. "My college degree in industrial design/furniture design kind of parallels what I do in that you're hiding people in furniture, and now it's furniture on the stage."

In his Los Angeles workshop, Gaughan constructs the devilishly ingenious contraptions that help elicit gasps from audiences at shows by big-name magic acts such as the late Doug Henning. Gaughan also has a rock resume that includes stage effects for the 2001 Ozzfest tour as well as Jim Morrison and the Doors. This being the magic business, however, he isn't long on details. "There are many fittings, and it doesn't always work the first time with the push of a button," says the artist, who works in the company of his two parrots (one age 75, the other 40).

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