These posters, paintings and drawings are a window into a weird world of the imagination. Over the last 250 years Stage Hypnosis has been presented as mystery, comedy, and a gateway to feats of super-human strength. Most of the protagonists below are long gone but these posters give us an insight into a highly unusual profession.
Before the first man danced with a broom on a stage in a smoke filled, candle-lit music hall, Hypnotism was a curiosity, a drawing room novelty. The medical profession had long since dismissed it as charlatanism, and yet ever since the time of Franz Mesmer, hypnotism – and hypnotists – have been dazzling audiences. Below is a watercolour of Mesmer in action.
Below: an engraving of an hypnotic soiree, incidental music provided by the pianist on the left of the picture. The ladies swoon as the hypnotist directs the action. This sort of entertainment was in fact extremely popular in the 19th century for those who could afford it.
1844… probably one of the earliest stage hypnotists, or Mesmerists as they were still known. All the rage no doubt!
1857… around the time of the Crimean War, the French were still experimenting with ‘Animal Magnetism’, a term first used by Mesmer, erroneously. The word ‘Hypnosis’ would not be invented for another half century. Nonetheless, Monsieur Allix spotted a gap in the market and set about exploiting it. Anyone speak French?
In this painting the famous French Hypnotist, Jean-Martin Charcot, a neurologist and professor of anatomical pathology conducts a demonstration for medical doctors and physicians. Charcot’s interest in hypnosis was primarily to find a cure for hysteria.
Another engraving showing a mid nineteenth century demonstration of ‘Hypnosis.’ The artist has captured both the interest and skepticism of the audience.
Lafontaine the French Mesmerist thrilled and amazed audiences on both sides of the channel. This frontispiece is from 1852. I’d pay big money for a copy of this!
Every generation has their star hypnotist. In the United Kingdom, it is now twenty years since a hypnotist appeared on television, which means very few people under the age of thirty have seen a hypnotist in action. There is a whole new generation waiting to be entranced, enthralled, and entertained.
As I trawled through my collection of posters, handbills and old theatre programmes, I was surprised to see there were some common themes. Sketches that were once thought of as novel are often updated versions of old ideas. In fact, I was thrilled to have discovered two routines from a hundred years ago, forgotten, nearly lost forever, that I now intend resurrecting, albeit with a modern twist. Looking at some of the faces peering out at me from the past, I can’t help thinking how I would love to have been able to see them perform – I’d absolutely love to be able to talk to them, especially the Flints and The Great Newman, not to mention Lil’ Jimmy the Chicken Boy, but especially to Walford Bodie!
Alvin Otto‘s business card must be the oldest advertisement for a hypnotist ever. “Hypnotism Thoroughly Taught. Charges Reasonable. Diseases cured without Medicine. Public and private Exhibitions Given.” So nothing has really changed in the last 100 years!
Could this be the first female hypnotist? Miss Annie De Montford – working the music hall circuit between 1871 and 1882 with a very reasonable ticket price of two shillings. Obviously a massive star in Barnstaple and Ilfracombe. What is interesting is that the wonderful Miss De Montford (almost certainly a stage name) is sticking to what works – as evidenced by her pictorial pot pourri of stock in trade hypnotic gags.
THERESES – now there’s a name to conjure with! Unusual and dramatic names were very popular with hypnotists in the first half of the last century. Astonishment and mystery are the themes captured by the artist on this poster. Not quite sure what the hypnotist is doing here, unless it’s something along the lines of “you are now a banana” but the outstretched hands are a dead giveaway. If music were needed in the act, the hypnotists of yesteryear would need musicians – this chap has engaged the services of a small orchestra. Thank goodness for MP3!
The precise details of Mr. & Mrs. Herbert L. Flint‘s act are probably lost forever, but I think you can see how it was all meant to pan out. The reverse gender role play is obviously something that has always guaranteed mirth. I’m sure audiences at the time found The Flint’s Hypnotic Skirt Dance outrageous and hystrically funny. Men dressed as women… Must have brought the house down!
Here we see that the Flint’s have branched out and included more serious stuff in their act. Left: breaking a piece of rock, or a paving slab on someone’s chest was something I remember seeing when I was very young. Right: the Flint family demonstrate the effectiveness of hypnosis on Mrs. Flint. This stunt is undoubtedly faked (there is a plank of wood under the long suffering Mrs. Flint) but audiences would have been thrilled by it. I think these photographs were taken in the 1890’s or early 1900’s when the music halls were still going strong. What dates it is the dress but especially Mr. Flint’s Piccadilly weepers.
The next four posters are obviously designed by the same artist. This hypnotist (Duncan McKnight) is obviously playing it for laughs. The distinctly art deco style points to the 1920’s. What is interesting is that not very much has changed in the last nearly one hundred years. We see subjects playing imaginary musical instruments, riding a ‘horse,’ conducting an imaginary orchestra and so on. In each frame, the hypnotist is portrayed (formally attired in white tie and tails) as puppet master, arms outstretched in a pose seemingly popular with hypnotists and for no technical reason whatsoever. In one image, two men can be seen ‘flirting’ on the couch in the background, while in the second, a male subject tries on women’s clothes (that old chestnut.) Again, gender role reversal has always got the biggest laughs!
Sylvain A. LEE, ‘in his wonderful hypnotic performances’ surrounds himself with the tools of his trade – the routines that his audiences would have recognised instantly. Obviously a man for stunts, the image at bottom left shows a subject suspended between two chairs about to have a concrete block smashed with a sledge hammer. You could get away with that sort of stuff in those days and the stunt was popular with amazed audiences, but I’d like to see you get that one past the licensing committee today! Bottom right, and possibly Lee himself, is performing the well known publicity stunt of being buried alive for days on end, a trick recently resurrected by David Blaine, amongst others.
BARNUM THE HYPNOTIST – almost certainly not his real name – opts for a traditional collage of hypnotic stunts. From top left: a man is fishing for something, we know not what; an impossible version of The Human Bridge; a man proposes to another gent, his advances spurned; bottom: two imaginary orchestras play in time to the music; bottom right: a man seems to be riding an imaginary horse.
Displays of superhuman strength were once the hypnotist’s ‘convincer’ although it is highly unlikely that the stunt depicted in the poster was ever performed without a deal of trickery. In this instance, the hypnotist, Nicola, presents ‘The Sleeping Miracle of Strength’, However, the poster suggests to me an elaborate illusion rather than true hypnosis. The ‘hypnotist’ and his star subject were in all likelihood related (husband and wife double acts were a popular staple in the music hall) and the feat comes complete with hypnotic outstretched arms (why do they do that?) Maybe it’s to make sure everyone gasps in amazement at the right moment.
By the 1930’s Hypnosis Acts had become very popular. ‘KENNEDY THE MESMERIST’ promises “Screams of Laughter Every Evening”, not unlike todays more modern Mesmerists.
Newman the Great tempts his audience with pictures of they are likely to see if the toddle along to his show. Theres quite a lot of this in hypnosis artwork, as we shall see. Not sure what to make of the picture bottom left, but it was obviously taken somewhere in Lancashire.
Prof. Theodore PULL, the Greatest German Hypnotist (before Hitler came along) varied his act with some Mind Reading, again, not unlike a certain Mentalist of the modern era. Zamir the Amazing Hypnotist goes for the rays coming out of the eyes routine, but I suspect most people would be going because they wanted to see the chicken boy. I know I would! I’m wondering if Lil’ Jimmy was perhaps a ‘hypnotised’ stooge, part of the act, taken on tour to guarantee laughs? Even the French seem to have got in on the act. Well, to be fair, I suppose it all started over there.
The Hypnotist as mystic. Looks like Nadia was Handy Bandy‘s full time subject and the pair probably toured together at a time when that sort of fakery was normal, probably as a music hall speciality double act. Love the outfit dear, but again with the hands! I wonder if his friends called him Randy Bandy? SZELES is still a name to be reckoned with in the U.S. His poster is a perfect homage to the earlier says of stage hypnotism, showing him centre stage, again portrayed by the artist as demon puppet master, arms in the air like the conductor of an orchestra of the surreal, while four hypnotic scenes play out around him.
The Great McEwen on the other hand, seems confident to rely on the mere mention of his name to draw a crowd.
For more than four decades, from 1896 to 1939, ‘Dr.’ Walford Bodie MD ruled the roost in the UK. Originally from Scotland, he claimed the MD stood for Merry Devil. An electrician by trade, Bodie’s approach was to mix entertainment with a kind of pseudo medical science, hence the claims of bloodless surgery (this IS possible and many surgeons use the technique today) and stunts involving electricity which would probably be illegal now. His main claim to fame was his immaculately waxed moustache. His other claim to fame was the medical student riots in Glasgow and London – the students were outraged at his use of the adjunct MD. He was a megastar in the 1920’s and 1930’s, attracting huge audiences and was for a while Britain’s highest paid entertainer. I suspect Peter Casson was inspired by him because he [Casson] mentioned him to me several times. Casson would have been a young man at the time and was certain to have been lucky enough to see Bodie in action. It was almost certainly Bodie who was responsible for the creation of the modern one-man hypnosis show, indeed, he was the inventor of many of today’s stock in trade gags. He died in 1939 after completing a long run in Blackpool, leaving the way clear for a man who was an expert in mass hypnosis and who would dominate the headlines for the next six years, Austria’s very own Adolf Schicklgruber.
Walford Bodie was without doubt the greatest and most famous hypnotist that ever lived!
To find out more about him and read his incredible story, please go to http://www.newtonhypnosis.com/electric-wizard-amazing-story-dr-walford-bodie/
I really would like to have had the opportunity of meeting and having a talk with him! He is quoted as saying “I’ve got a living to make, to put it plainly; there’s more money in shocking and terrifying than in edifying.” So true… and what secrets would be uncovered!
The coming of silent pictures was the death knell for the music hall and with it, stage hypnotism. The new celluloid hypnotists however took on a more macabre form. Lon Chaney played just about every make-believe villain there was: Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf-Man… and the Hypnotist. It was this kind of portrayal of hypnosis in the early movies that changed the public’s perception of hypnotists and especially of stage hypnosis. Before Hollywood got it’s hands on hypnosis, the stage hypnotist had been just like any other magician or mind reader – amazing, astounding, astonishing, and trusted. The silents changed all that. Stage hypnotism has borne the brunt of that stigma ever since.
The Great Morton, the World’s Greatest Living Hypnotist, Scientific, Educational, and of course Hilariously Funny. And long dead.
Spooky or what?! The Great (they always start with ‘the great’ something or other) Albani. Originally from Switzerland, Alban-Jean Goldschmitt played in Paris and Berlin in the 1920’s and 30’s but his gigs were abruptly cancelled due to a certain public lack of interest brought about by the outbreak of World War Two. The artwork is stark, minimalist and typical of the time.
Van Loewe‘s return visit to the Olympia Theatre – Scientific, Educational and Hilarious, and a Clean Family Show – I think for performances in Australia – a hot bed of stage hypnosis in the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s. He’s gone for the power stare, but creepy was probably what sold well back then. The Great Franquin, whose stage name was a contraction of his real name – Frank Quinn. A new Zealander by birth, Franquin embarked upon several tours of America and was a household name in the 1950’s and 1960’s, both in New Zealand and Australia, where he eventually retired, to the year round sunshine of the Gold Coast I believe.
Resident for many years but hidden from public view, the Great Franquin resides backstage at the Opera House, Palmerston North, New Zealand. I played the Opera House over forty times in the 1980’s and early 1990’s and took this picture myself.
Peter Casson was a master of the postural sway rapid induction. I saw Peter Casson at the Talk of the North in Manchester in 1980 where he thoroughly impressed me with his technique, which was very, very smooth – on that night at least, faultless in fact. By then he was in his sixties and you could see the forty years of experience coming into play. His pompous controlling nature and bullying personality however won him few friends. He founded the Federation of Ethical Stage Hypnotists (FESH) in 1978, ostensibly to protect both stage hypnotism and the welfare of the general public, but by then he had well and truly lost the plot. He used FESH as his own private instrument to wage war on other hypnotists (including your’s truly.) Casson passed away in 1995, mourned by no one of note.
BRANDON, the World’s Greatest Hypnotist (I’ve never heard of him) has hit on the one selling point that really works – seeing your friends actually hypnotised! True… it’s always a lot more fun when there’s someone you know up there. That’s the only reason he’s here. Great use of the hands. Why do they insist on doing that?
Peter Reveen – ‘The Impossibilist’ – another Australian who achieved huge fame and fortune across Canada in the 1960’s and 70’s, ditched the word hypnosis altogether and rebranded it The Superconscious Experience to get around the anti stage hypnotism law in Canada. Despite the hype, he was one of the worst hypnotists I have ever seen. Only Gordon Delavar was worse, but he was clinically mad and had an excuse. Reveen’s entourage consisted of his whole family – his wife, sons and daughters-in-law were all part of the act, which, despite the avalanche of advance publicity turned out to be an overblown faux spectacular that offered absolutely nothing of any substance whatsoever. I saw him at the Edinburgh Playhouse in 1981 at the start of his UK tour, which was peremptorily cancelled after the disastrous Edinburgh run. A huge crowd were herded on and off the stage by Reveen’s family, who quietly moved chairs around the stage like a team of ghostly feng shui consultants and shepherded errant subjects in a surreal ballet, complete with the kind of exaggerated arm gymnastics favoured by amateur magician’s assistants, showing off their glorious matching chiffon evening gowns. I experienced a brief moment of excitement when it suddenly occurred to me we might have missed the point – that Reveen’s performance was an intended satire: at any moment, the audience would get the joke. But no such luck. Reveen regaled us with tales of his glorious career, fabulous achievements and his blissfully happy marriage and then bored us to the point of despair by telling us about his children’s fabulous achievements and their blissfully happy marriages. To my astonishment and completely out of the blue, he gave me a mention on stage – “I’m not like that controversial guy from Liverpool” he protested, for no apparent reason. Yep, that was me! I was having one of my spats with Peter Casson at the time and it had attracted a great deal of attention in the newspapers. For reasons known only to himself, the great Reveen seized the moment to educate anyone who was still listening about the ethics of the profession. Then came the longest selection process and induction in history, designed to send the audience to sleep as well as the subjects, who by this time were being bored into submission. Finally, Reveen announced the interval, during which many of the audience fled the theatre. Reveen reappeared in the second half in a vivd red sequinned tuxedo and finally did some routines, the funniest of which was telling the subjects they were on the Titanic and about to drown. The kindest thing that could be said about the show was that it was excessively schmaltzy. A tosser of the very highest order, as is self-evident from his poster. Eventually relocating to Las Vegas, he became magician Lance Burton’s full time manager.
The diminutive Martin St. James, another Australian. In 1980 I saw him live at the Batley Varieties, one of the great cabaret clubs in the UK, all of which are now closed, and met him briefly in Sydney when I first performed there in 1981. Found him rather odd. Terribly irritating manner of talking up to you. For reasons as yet unfathomable, he always insisted on being photographed with his hands in the air in demonic hypnotic pose. At Batley, a woman came up to him after his one hour cabaret to have her picture taken with him. Up came the hands in the manner below. Really quite strange. Based his career on doing sinister Al Jolson impersonations. Martin St. James has contributed generously to the world’s population. He has 20 (yes, twenty) children by several different women, only three of whom he was married to.
Edwin Heath, the last of the Gentlemen Hypnotists. I met him in Scarborough in 1980 when he was performing at the Opera House. Terribly, terribly, terribly nice chap.
I regret I cannot find a poster, or even a photograph of Robert Halpern. If anyone has one, I would be grateful if you could please email it to me. Halpern was, from 1976 to 1983, a household name in Scotland, mainly playing the Glasgow Pavilion Theatre and the Caley Picture House in Edinburgh. In one three month summer season in Glasgow in 1980, Halpern’s share of the profits was over £300,000 – that’s over £1million in today’s money. He was habitually late for shows and often kept his audiences waiting for up to an hour and a half. A flamboyant character, his life was often on display in the Scottish newspapers and not always for the right reasons. There were rumours of gambling debts and massive tax arrears. After 1983, he suddenly disappeared from the radar, enigmatic to the end. If he is still alive today he would be in his early seventies. The image below is of his show, in it’s early stages, at the Glasgow Pavilion in 1983.
Peter Powers is the modern face of entertainment hypnotism. Originally from Bolton in the UK, Peter made it big in Australia, securing two TV series and several one-off TV specials. He remains one of a very small and select group in that his originality and inventiveness has been the engine of his success. Despite his mischievous stage persona, he is deep down a very kind and generous man – he once did me an enormous favour and I owe him one.
Three of my own posters. Each follows the tradition of using some of the ‘characters’ from the performance. The first is an unmistakeable reference to Monty Python and was designed by Annie Miller. The second and third are by renowned artist and cartoonist Russ Tudor and are very much in the style of VIZ magazine. With modern social media, my posters and leaflets are now more likely to be distributed by email.
In the last few years I have opted for a more direct approach to get the message over – the old tried and tested show business formula of what it is, where it is, when it is, has to come though clearly.
Wait a minute… What’s he doing here? Haven’t we seen this before? This is Ty Reveen, Peter Reveen’s son, carrying on the family tradition of dressing up in silly clothes. And using other people’s artwork.
Americans. Beth Bovaird and Paul Irving. An hypnotic double act. She’s the hypnotist and he’s the stand-up comedian, doubtless adding to the mirth with witty asides. A modern husband and wife double act? What drew my attention to the poster is the totally up to date raw image – the sexually provocative female, the leather jacket clad street stand up magician/comedian, and the corrugated graffiti adorned backdrop. This is urban hypnosis. Or maybe not. Look! No hands!
Ken Webster is one of Britain’s most successful and well-known stage hypnotists. He holds the record for the world’s longest running hypnosis show. He appears every year at the Horseshoe at Blackpool’s world famous Pleasure Beach. The season starts at Easter and runs through to the end of the Blackpool Illuminations in mid November. His show is overtly risqué and often close to the line, but Ken draws the crowds year after year at a time when the traditional English Summer Season show is now a distant memory. Including some mentalism in the act when stage hypnosis was going through a short burst of unpopularity in the UK, Ken held it together by sheer force of personality and originality, something of a rarity in stage hypnosis. His posters, a selection of which appear below, tell the whole story.
Ken will celebrate 30 years of shows at the Horseshoe at Blackpool Pleasure Beach in 2018.
Everyone’s getting in on the act!! Over the last twenty years, largely as a result of television, and of course the internet, the fad of stage hypnotism has spread like a virus over the planet. It’s everywhere you go, like McDonalds. Again with the hands! The poster promises an amazing and fun filled laughter show for all the family, offers a side line in curing ailments as well as an opportunity to learn hypnosis. Probably.
Is this the future of Stage Hypnosis? The Harlequin Hypnosis Show, devised by Hypnotist Rob Hadley employs six hypnotists who work closely with volunteers from the audience. There are moving sets and props and sumptuous costumes, all of which form an integral part of a flowing narrative. It’s totally unlike any hypnosis show ever seen and it’s certainly the best poster of the lot! Let’s hope that’s an indication of things to come.
Charcot, wearing his Legion d’Honneur;
OK, finally found a photo of Robert Halpern, probably taken in the mid to late 1980’s.
Would you go for a private session with this guy?
Stop that now Martin! Enough already! It’s totally unnecessary!