By Roy Maloy
When I was 14 my mother took me to the YWCA in Elizabeth St, Melbourne. It was a Monday night and it was raining.
When we arrived at the building we were sent to the 4th floor via an elevator that was very small. I was excited, but also nervous. We were going to our first meeting of the ‘Magic Circle Club’ and I was a mad keen magician. When we arrived at level four we walked along a long corridor and then came to a room that was lit with neon’s. There was a small, skinny old man greeting people. He was pleased to see us. Not many new members came to the Magic Circle Club. We sat down and the meeting began. It was my first meeting at the Circle and I continued to attend for about three years.
In the time I was a member of the Magic Circle Club I learned a lot of amazing magic tricks. I learned to force a card, palm a coin and tie a balloon animal. But that wasn’t what planted a seed in my mind that has been germinating ever since. What struck me at the Magic Circle was the very old men and women who were its members; the magicians who had performed in the 1930’s and 40’s. The pre-television performers who truly knew a real Australian vaudeville culture in the normal suburban life and landscape, which seemed to have been incapacitated by the advent of movies but then put into coma by TV.
One of the first amazing people I met was man whose professional stage name was Le Roy. Good name in my opinion. He was raised in regional Victoria to parents who owned a farm. As a child a vaudeville troupe hired his local community hall, to put on a show, that he said had a magician, a ballet dancer, whip cracker, a sharp shooter, a gum leaf player and a poetry recitalist. As the son of a farmer he was mechanically minded so he worked out how to do several of the tricks that the magician did for him that day and built replica tricks to perform himself. Then, a year later, he was able to get a spot at the local agricultural show, performing on their main stage between a sheep presentation and the presentation of trophies for the best knitted wares in the textile pavilion. In his opinion he needed something huge that none of the other locals had seen before and all the tricks he’d practiced were tricks that the rest of the town saw when he saw them a year earlier. So, he went home to his farm and began looking about for something amazing to perform. What Le Roy found was a saw. It was, by his description, a huge disk with teeth that was supported by an axel, and two wooden arms. A leather belt turned the blade so that it cut logs into planks. It hadn’t been used since his grandfather’s time and was in the old shed on the property. So, he and his brother took it down. They attached it to a new structure that was a collapsible A-frame and kidded their 17 year old, female cousin into being the assistant.
What happened next is the stuff of legend, but also the illustration to my point. Le Roy and his brother set up the A-frame so that their attractive cousin was lying at its bottom. They would pull a pi and release the spinning blade on its swinging arm and it would swing down, through the A-frame, Appearing to cut their cousin in half. However their cousin was wearing a paper machete girdle and a hole was dug under the A-frame before the show. When the cousin would lay under the A-frame the blade would swing down, but her body had actually fallen into the hole in the ground, leaving the paper machete body in the blade’s path.
All that sounds amazing, however, what happened at the actual show that day wasn’t a moment that should be remembered in circus history forever. Le Roy and his brother catered for their cousin’s body to fall into the hole under the blade’s lowest point when it swung through the A-Frame, slicing into the body cast of their cousin’s torso. However, their calculations were wrong. They’d only calculated for the length of the saw from the top of the A-frame to the bottom of the blade when it was hanging loosely. When it was in full swing and gravity had the better of it and it was extended by about an inch more than it was when sitting still because of the emerita and gravity. So, on show day, their cousin was laying in the dirt ditch they’d dug and covered with a mat, and when the blade swung down it cut her stomach across where navel is. The cut was only enough to need several stitches, according to Le Roy but it was a moment that had a surprise twist. When the blade dropped and hit her, she let out a scream that can’t be faked. The kind of shriek that the audience bought, but to their eyes they’d seen the blade go through her whole body, cutting her in two! When she got up and was gushing with blood the audience assumed it was also a special effect and they cheered for what Le Roy said felt like forever.
As an artist I’ve often considered the question, ‘why vaudeville?’ The answer for me is best given in Le Roy’s mishap. Vaudeville is the place where the truest, most diverse and extreme action, entertainment, skill and brilliance happens. When we pay $18 to see a movie what we’re seeing is sterile. It’s more often than not a display of computer animation, cut and re-cut over and over to appear flawless, and appear effortless. But the trade-off is the lack of any kind of possibility that you may be about to see the real human interaction of skill and brilliance as the true artist moves and moulds their one off, amazing skills to meet that audience that day.
As we prepare for one of our most dynamic Speakeasy line-ups ever I will be joining a huge audience of people who will see real magic happen that night – the kind of magic that will never be repeated. That’s why vaudeville.
Speakeasy Nuevo will be presenting Valentine’s Vaudeville on Sat. Feb 15th. Visit out website for tickets www.Speakeasy-HQ.com