There has been some discussion among magicians recently about the similarities in performance between the new winner of Britain’s Got Talent, Richard Jones, and previous contestants in America’s Got Talent. One of the effects in question concerns the cutting of a celebrity silhouette from a piece of paper.
The trick was marketed by Oz Pearlman, one of the AGT contestants, as 21st Century Phantom in 2008. Credit was given to Annemann and Percy Naldrett for the original effect. A review by W. S. Duncan in M-U-M magazine said, ‘While it would be easy to accuse Mr Pearlman of grave robbing in his production of this effect, I think a more honest assessment would call it resurrecting.’ The trick was a close-up version of The Phantom Artist published by Annemann in The Jinx (Summer 1937 Extra) and later in Annemann’s Practical Mental Effects (1944). And in fact it was Annemann who was doing the resurrecting, pointing out that the trick had previously been published by Percy Naldrett as The Celebrity Trick. Which actually wasn't quite true.
The trick was the work of H C Mole, a magician from Aintree in Liverpool with several books to his name. Like Richard Jones he also had a connection to the military in that he organised hundreds of shows for troops in the Boehr War (Mole was born in the 1870s) as well as the first and second World Wars. He wrote about this aspect of his work in magic articles and pamphlets. But he also had another skill and one that might show why he came up with an effect in which a portrait was cut into a sheet of paper. He was a pioneer in the performance of rag pictures.
In this curious art the performer would create a picture from bits of cloth on an easel. Patter, rhyme and music were added to make it entertaining but perhaps what made it interesting to audiences is that the pictures were astonishingly good. You can get an glimpse of the kind of pictures H C Mole made in Abracadabra magazine (28th February 1948). In an article he wrote entitled Rag Picture Wrinkles there is a photograph of a tourist postcard set alongside a photograph of his wife putting the finishing touches to their rag rendition of the postcard. The similarity is amazing.
H C Mole didn’t read The Jinx. And it wasn’t until he read the Potter’s Bar series in The Budget, in which Jack Potter listed published tricks, that Mole realised his trick had been reprinted by Annemann. Mole wrote an article for Abracadabra magazine (24th June, 1950) entitled Piracy. He complained that Annemann had lifted his copyrighted material, saying, Is it not time, though, that such bare-faced robbery should be stopped, for I am not the only sufferer in this respect?’
H C Mole died in 1952 leaving a legacy of interesting books and articles including Those Entertaining Years (1950, a reminiscence of his magical life. The profits went to Benevolent Funds of the IBM. In one story he recalls his wife’s reaction to the Biblical tale in which Aaron cast down his rod and it became a serpent. This prompted the Egyptian magicians to do the same. ‘It’s funny,’ said Mrs Mole, that they all knew the same conjuring trick!’
There is one more thing to mention about H C Mole and The Celebrity Trick. It was published in 1919 by Percy Naldrett in a book called The Magic of To-Morrow. Meaning that the trick that helped Richard Jones win Britain’s Got Talent was almost 100 years old. How very prescient of Mr Mole.