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Sideshow takes center stage

September 02, 2007|Scarlet Cheng

"I just added a piece which I got today," says sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay, walking across a gallery at the Hammer Museum. Around us hang some 160 vintage broadsides, playbills and posters he's collected, all advertising magicians, sideshow performers and novelty acts -- say, pigs that do math.

Jay, who's also an author an actor, points to a medium-sized poster propped against the wall. "It may take a while to explain why this is such an amazing piece, but I can try," he begins, and launches into another of his 1,001 tales of the arcane world.

In the mid-1800s, the Davenport Brothers became famous by plugging into the Spiritualist movement, pretending to be mediums who could contact the dead. Two of their employees, William Fay and Harry Keller, made off with their secrets and set up their own act, and on the 1874 poster, you can see how the names of the two usurpers have been carefully pasted over the Davenport name. The original image, though, is unchanged: Two men tied to chairs sit on a darkened stage, and around them float disembodied hands and musical instruments -- presumably blown and rattled during a performance.

"Keller," Jay notes, "went on to become the most famous magician in America, and this is the first item I'm aware of to feature his name."

The vintage ephemera in the show advertises anomalous creatures, mysterious devices and astonishing feats of physical and mental skill. This includes human performers as well as prodigious dogs, cats, horses and pigs that seemed conversant with geography and cookery. The pieces on exhibit date from the early 17th century to the late 19th century, says Allegra Pesenti, curator of the Hammer show,

The juxtaposition of material spins a history rich and strange. Mathew Buchinger, for example, was an 18th century marvel who painted, played instruments, bowled and danced -- all without the benefit of hands or feet. Alongside a broadside depicting him is an example of one of his specialties -- an elaborate pen-and-ink delineation of a family tree, his own no less. Adjoining an autographed photograph of Cinquevalli, the most famous juggler of his time, hangs a near-life-sized color poster of him, in a pose clearly derived from the photograph.

"Extraordinary Exhibitions: Broadsides from the Collections of Ricky Jay" is up through Nov. 25.

-- Scarlet Cheng

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