FRANK VAN HOVEN'S TRAGIC FAILURE.
FRANK Van Hoven started life as a peanut seller in the fair grounds of America. That he was not a success in this simple walk of life is no reflection on his character. But the fact remains that he never held the same job for more than a month on end. Nor was this to be wondered at. No reasonable employer could be expected to retain a youth whose chief hobby seemed to be smashing bottles, and leaving the broken glass in untidy heaps around his stall.
The truth of the matter was that Frank had decided to become a bottle juggler. He accordingly bought up all the empty bottles he could lay his hands on, and, in the intervals of serving peanuts, practised until his arms ached.
One day, as he was swinging his bottles through the air, he attracted the attention of a professional conjurer named Jenson, who has since become famous under the stage name of Dante.
"So you're trying to be a juggler?" said Jenson, not a little puzzled by the other's amateurish antics.
"Trying is the right word," returned Van Hoven. "I haven't got the hang of things yet. But one of these days I am going to make my fortune at this game. You'll see my name in the lights over Broadway--' Frank Van Hoven, the World's Greatest Bottle juggler.'"
"I'm glad to hear it," was the encouraging reply. "I guess you'll have to make a lot of money to pay for all the bottles you've broken. If you're really interested, you had better come and practise on the stage at my theatre. You can put a mattress down, and the bottles won't break. That'll save you the trouble of sweeping up all the broken glass."
Van Hoven was delighted to have somebody take an interest in his efforts, and duly presented himself at the theatre. But no sooner had he seen Jenson, give a conjuring performance than he decided to give up juggling in favour of magic.
Again Jenson, was willing to help. He gave the ambitious youth several lessons in magic, and told him to purchase some cheap apparatus from Roterburg of Chicago. But Van Hoven was either lacking in imagination or else was extremely ungrateful. He purchased the same tricks that Jenson, himself was using, and even went so far as to steal his tutor's patter. If a prize had been offered for the world's worst conjurer, Van Hoven would have won it hands down. It is true that he managed to obtain several engagements, but he never gave more than one performance at each theatre. After his first show, the manager invariably greeted him with the phrase "You're fired-beat it!" And poor Frank, together with the tricks he performed so badly, was bundled unceremoniously into the street. At last he decided to try his luck in New York. Jenson, strongly advised him not to do so, and told him there would be little hope of success in the capital if he had been a failure in the small towns of the Middle West. But Van Hoven was nothing if not ambitious, and decided to take his chance. It was the luckiest thing he ever did.
He managed to obtain an engagement at a small picture theatre in the New York suburbs. It so happened that an important booking agent dropped into the theatre on business, and, quite by chance, he saw the magician's performance.
"That's the rottenest act I've ever seen," he told the manager. "In fact, he's so rotten that he's really good. As a conjurer he's a flop, but as a turn to raise the laughs he's great."
It was about this time that Van Hoven adopted the slapstick programme which eventually made him famous. The idea was taken to America by an English conjurer named William J. Hillier. Van Hoven saw Hillier's performance, and decided to use it as his own. By such small things can a man be made.
From that moment Van Hoven never looked back. The theatrical agent mentioned his name to Hammerstein, the variety magnate of America, who gave him several important bookings. Frank decided to go in for laughter raising rather than rabbit producing. His turn in which the four boy assistants were made to perform all sorts of nonsensical absurdities, was declared to be the funniest thing America had seen for years. Frank's slogan--The Man Who Made Ice Famous--was first suggested by myself.
FRANK VAN HOVEN AND A FELLOW ARTIST'S WIFE.
FRANK Van Hoven was a kindly soul. There were occasions when his generosity astounded even his closest friends, and many of his less fortunate fellow artists have been grateful for his brotherly assistance.
Some unkind folk have described him as the luckiest magician of the two continents. This is not quite true. Although there is not the slightest doubt that Dame Fortune took a kindly interest in him throughout his lifetime, I have known occasions when his luck was anything but good.
Frank was a great philosopher. Nothing ever worried him much. "I don't mind," he would say when things went wrong. "It'll turn out alright in the long run." Subsequent events usually proved him right. The following little story of his concern for the misfortunes of a fellow artist may not, I think, be without interest.
In 1918, Van Hoven was performing in vaudeville at Chicago. One of the other artists at the theatre was, to use Frank's own words, "getting it pretty rough." Connubial bliss was at a discount. This particular man performed in a double act with his wife, and it was soon apparent to all behind the scenes that it was this good lady who really "bossed" the partnership. As an assistant in the double act she was admirable, but her decided views on the rights and privileges of a wife did not tend to increase the happiness of her sadly misunderstood husband.
One day Frank called the man aside and boldly asked him why he allowed his wife to make his life so miserable.
"Gee!" replied the other, pulling a wry face. "You don't know my wife." "But why don't you put your foot down?" "She's the only one who does that." "If you can't do anything with her, why don't you get rid of her--divorce her. It's easy enough." "You can tie a can on that stuff," came the sharp retort. "I've got no money for that." "Suppose I give it to you? "What!" "Suppose I give you the money to divorce your wife?" "You mean that? "Sure." "God bless you then! It seems too good to be true!"
And that was that. Frank duly found the necessary money, and the divorce was carried through. [ No reflection is intended on the lady who was divorced according to the Laws ruling in the United States of America. ] It was a happy day for the little vaudeville artist when, after many months of unhappiness, he found himself a free man.
And so, for a short time the wife fades from our picture. But you can't keep a pushful woman down. When next we hear of her, she is Mrs. Frank Van Hoven!
But even the genial Frank was no match for the fiery lady. From the day he contracted his unwise marriage, his life was one long round of misery. "Gee, she's too hot for me," he told me in describing his bride. "She's just a big packet of trouble. Whenever I go out, she follows like a dog. I visit some friends; she comes and drags me home again. I go to the Club; but I guess she's hanging somewhere around. If she can't see me, she'll be over the 'phone to me. Night and morning she's at my heels. I'm becoming the laughing stock of the profession."
So he took my fatherly advice and found another wife!
FRANK VAN HOVEN--A CHANGED MAN.
THERE is nothing more annoying to the average Englishman than a disturbance at his breakfast table. It was, therefore, in no pleasant frame of mind that I left my eggs and bacon to answer the impatient ringing of the telephone bell one spring morning fifteen years ago.
"Hello," I cried as I took up the receiver. "What the deuce do you want?" It was the secretary in my office. Mr. Frank Van Hoven had called and would like to see Mr. Goldston. He wanted to see Mr. Goldston right now. He wasn't in? Well then, perhaps the secretary would ring up Mr. Goldston and tell him to step along. Mr. Van Hoven wanted to talk big business. Yes, he would wait.
I hastily swallowed the remainder of my breakfast and took a taxi along to Leicester Square. My feeling of annoyance had given way to one of genuine pleasure. Van Hoven's reputation had preceded him from America, and I took it as no small compliment that he should visit me so shortly after he had arrived in this country.
For some time we discussed various Mutual friends in the profession. "By the way," said Van Hoven suddenly, "I've heard a deal about you in America. I want to place a big order with you. I'll take some of the stuff now. And in case I forget, you might drop into the Finsbury Park Empire to-night. I'm giving my first show in England, and I'd like you to be there. Now, about these tricks...."
He proceeded to choose a large number of illusions which he intended to take away with him. To my utter astonishment he picked on tricks that were suitable for the crudest amateurs, simple effects that delight the average schoolboy. I made no remark, however, and assisted him with his purchases to a waiting taxi.
I naturally assumed that Van Hoven intended to use the tricks in his performance that same evening. But again I was in for a surprise. The conjurer simply went through his usual foolery of smashing up ice, spilling water over his assistants, lighting innumerable candles with an endless supply of matches, and so on.
At the end of the performance, he was called on to make a speech. He thanked the audience for their great kindness, and told them how pleased he was to receive such a magnificent reception on his first appearance in England. Incidentally, he paid me a very pretty compliment.
He explained that he had bought a certain number of books and illusions from me that very morning. "They are tricks that I have always wanted," he murmured in a voice so hushed that it was difficult to hear exactly what he said. "They are lying beneath the stage now--I don't suppose I shall ever have the opportunity of giving a public performance with them. But when I first started as a magician I determined I would get those tricks. And now my wish is realised." He added a few words in praise of myself that I should blush to repeat.
"I know you are disappointed, Goldston," he said to me, a few minutes later, in his dressing room. "But I meant what I said out there on the stage. As a matter of fact, I don't know a damn thing about magic. That's one of the greatest sorrows of my life."
Truly a strange confession for a professional magician! Poor Frank! His life was something in the nature of a tragedy. His one ambition was to be an illusionist; he was cast by the hand of fate into the role of a jester. And, although in his own form of entertainment he was a wonderful success, I incline to the belief that he put himself down as one of life's failures. I can still recollect the pathetic speech he made at the Magicians' Club. His cheery personality soon endeared itself to the members, and before he returned to America, he was presented with an illuminated address and silver casket.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said in a broken voice, "this is the only occasion in my life I have been honoured. You have seen my performance you know it for a ridiculous burlesque. But I hope from the bottom of my heart that the day is not far distant when I shall be able to show you a genuine magical performance." That day never came.
With the passage of time, Van Hoven and I became great friends. One evening, I called on him at the Victoria Palace. He walked out from the wings accompanied by a man whom I recognized as an old assistant I had sacked for dishonesty.
"Hello. Frank," I said, extending my hand. "How's the show going?" Van Hoven looked at me without smiling.
"I'm afraid I'm too busy to bother with you just at present, Mr. Goldston," he said. "Another time, perhaps." And, turning on his heel, he walked through to his dressing room.
To say that I was surprised would be stating things mildly. To receive a public rebuff from such an old friend was a great shock to me. And it was not until a year afterwards that an explanation was forthcoming. Twelve months later, Van Hoven called on me, accompanied by a lady friend. My secretary intimated that I was too busy to see him. Later the same day he called alone, and told me the whole story. It appeared that my ex-assistant had told Van Hoven that I had described him as "the rottenest conjurer in the world." Such a statement was entirely untrue. Although I had no illusions as to the American's magical ability, I had never made any public statement which might have been at all damaging to his reputation. I only saw Frank on one further occasion after that. In November, 1928, he walked into my office, and I found him strangely changed. His first action was to offer me a further apology for his conduct.
"Forget it, Frank," I said, shaking him warmly by the hand. "These little upsets in life often happen."
My companion's gaze rested on a photo of Houdini which hangs above my desk.
"Life, Will? Yes, it's a funny thing. I wonder what it all means. There's poor Houdini--he's gone. My mother died recently. That was a sad blow to me--she was a great woman."
He leaned back in his chair, wrapped in contemplation. I had not the courage to break in on his thoughts.
At last he spoke again. "Will, you know what sort of a chap I am. I've led a pretty racy life up to now, haven't I?"
"Well, er--a trifle Bohemian," I assented.
"Exactly. Women and wine. It's amusing for a time, but it's a shallow life, a rotten life. I'm changed completely. The deaths of Houdini and my mother have affected me more than any man will ever guess. Don't laugh at me, Will, but I believe I've become religious. At any rate, I'm sure there's something in religion, isn't there?" He looked at me with something akin to tears in his eyes.
"Sure," I said slowly. I felt strangely sad, for it takes no small amount of courage for a man to lay bare his soul to another.
Poor Frank. Inside three months he was dead.
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