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Magic Mysteries and Cunning Cut-Outs

'Larry in Paperland'

as published in Steve Rydzewski's SLAPSTICK! #4, July 2001, the Magazine Devoted to the Appreciation, Documentation and Preservation of Early Film Comedy

Claudia Sassen

When Zera Semon died in 1901 at the premature age of 54 he had spent a life dedicated to the stage, travelling Canada, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and the United States with his troupe of artists. He was an all-round prodigy, well-known for his gift shows that included ventriloquism, pantomime and highly-skilled magic acts in which he was aptly aided by his wife and his son Lawrence "Larry" Semon. Magic had been some tradition of the family since Larry´s grandfather Emanuel Semon became involved with the tours of Herrmann the Great1 and studied his magic routines.

Zera´s show was a success, but he remained poor and things turned out even worse when he had to close down during a disastrous trip to California at the end of the 19th century. This shattering experience obviously prompted Zera upon his death-bed to ask Larry to abandon the stage, study cartooning and embark on a career in the newspaper business so that he had a reliable job to earn his living. Zera had a knack for drawing cartoons and taught Larry, who had inherited his talent, his first steps which the young boy gladly took up2. In a contemporary interview Larry recalls that he used the pages of his Latin grammar to draw an "animated" cartoon in the upper corners. By flipping the pages one could see a round of boxing [14].

Larry complied with his father´s last wish. After attending High School in Savannah, Georgia, Larry went to art school in New York [14] and later began work on the staff of several Philadelphian newspapers before he went on to The New York Telegram, The Morning Telegraph, The New York Herald and finally to The New York Evening Sun [5].
Larry apparently did not have to face great obstacles entering newspaper business and his father was only too aware of this: Jacob Semon, Larry´s uncle, was a popular figure in the city. His tobacco shop that opened in the Merchants' Hotel, opposite the State House and later moved to Chestnut Street, where the theatre was located, was a rendezvous for many prominent men. Soon after his first wife Anna had died he married the daughter of Thomas Jackson, a well-known newspaper man [1]. Taking articles into account that were released soon after rumour spread that Larry had signed his 3.6 million dollar contract with Vitagraph, Larry in fact needed to pull strings to find a job: the Toledo Blade titled Larry Semon proved poor cartoonist but gets laughs as screen comedian [7], while his former colleagues of the New York Telegram, which on the occasion spontaneously formed the I Knew Him When-Club, were even harder in their judgement: they remembered him as a conscientious objector to work [...] supposed to be as funny in his attempts at cartooning as a cry for help. A short time back he was known for his hangdog expression and a constant fear of drawing the little blue envelope instead of his thirty-five per. One member of the staff put it even so far as to mention that as a cartoonist he was a good jockey, for one city editor told him as man to man that he would be better off if he got out of that line of work. Apparently he needed the advice [12], see also [6].

Larry Semon ca. 1915

Larry ca. 1915. Already
a director and still in
newspaper business.

Building of the North American
The North American Building as it looked when Larry
started his newspaper career. Courtesy Steve Rydzewski
With these evaluations in mind it seems odd to learn from other sources that Larry at the early age of 18 already had a high reputation in New York cartoonist circles and that President Taft sent for Larry from the White House to draw his caricature [9]. It would be difficult to judge his ability had not some of his earliest professional art work been found in a volume of the North American3 that ranked among the most respected papers of old Philadelphia. Initially, Larry had been working as a general handy man in the art department of the paper [2]. As far as it could be traced back Larry had begun to contribute cut-out paper toys in Spring 1909 to the children´s section of the Sunday magazine taking the place of Ted´s colour halves. After some alternating turns with M.A. Hayes his cut-outs became a regular gimmick. Larry´s art work along with the other half page comic features of his colleagues survive in beautiful and luminiscent colours. Printed on acid paper, however, the pages are unfortunately prone to fall to pieces and had to be preserved using massive amounts of archival tape for this issue of Slapstick. Larry's cut-outs include all kinds of immobile and moving characters which cover figures to put up, jumping jacks or technically more elaborate jiggers with rotating heads and pendulum eyes. They depict nursery figures such as Simple Simon4, the comic heroes of his staff such as Hays' and Wiedersheim's Kaptin Kiddo, the awkward heroine of the Grif series It's Only Ethelinda, or typical scenes of foreign cultures designed to teach the children. The latter demanded from him a slight detachment from his cartoons towards a more elegant and serious style; a transition that he easily mastered.
Sometimes it seems he even turned members of his staff into cartoons: at least this is what the cut-out of the jigger indicates, since Larry attached to it an apology to fellow worker Bradford, who usually occupied the colour half slot above Larry's for his Enoch Pickelweight comic strip.
toy of Ethelinda by Larry Semon

Charming Ethelinda. Larry taking up the cartoon characters of his colleagues of the North American, here the awkward heroine of Grif's series It´s Only Ethelinda.

Paper toy of a Jigger by Larry Semon A Jolly Jingling Johnson Jigger. Not only is the alliteration remarkable (a habit he would keep titling his early films), but also the fact that he obviously turned his cartoon colleague Bradford into a jumping jack.

The cut-outs suggest Larry´s drawing talent being an extraordinary one and even more so when one considers that he was in his early twenties. His work was of equal quality to some of the other contributors and far ahead of most of them. He succeeded very well in drawing faces as well as all parts of the body. In particular he had the gift to draw hands of which many artists claim that it is a terrible job to do. Whatever Larry contributed to the North American is of a well-balanced composition which gives his drawing a mature impression5. Undoubtedly, Zera would have been proud of him. Speaking of maturity, Larry had the strange habit of frequently changing his signature with every new item he submitted. So while his artistic style showed consistency in itself there obviously were other fields where he was still in an experimental phase.

 Larry Semon and newspaper collegues
A rare shot of Larry's days in paper biz. When this shot was taken he ranked as a famous sport writer. Courtesy Kevin Brownlow.
Of Larry's art work which is available for this publication, though no example of his New York Telegram era was at hand, it seems that Larry prepared his best work while he was with the North American. Instances of his later work illustrate that he seldom took the time or had the time to elaborate the details of his cartoons so that they remained as pen and ink versions. An exception make the posters he designed for the promotion of his own films. These items are a delight considering the fact that many poster artists failed to capture the essence of Larry's facial expressions though they did a good job depicting the vivacity of his comic movements. As even later cartoons of Larry show he remained one of the best to do his own portrait. The most unfortunate cartoon by Larry that could be found was a comic strip called Marcus, the Boarding House Goat, which he did around 1913 for the Post-Dispatch. For an advertising campaign of Tuxedo Tobacco he drew very similar characters (see comic strip in [11]). Not that his technical skills would have been deplorable, but what makes the series disappointing is that he did not create his own characters. Instead he would obtain a Goldbergish style that was en vogue then.
But without doubt this is another proof of how well he knew to adopt different styles and maybe he was even asked to imitate the work of one of his most popular drawing contemporaries. Another drawback of these instances is that they are indeed not particularly funny (see [12]). But one can imagine that it is easier to technically adopt someone else's style than to fill it with life.

Larry would not keep his drawing expertise to himself. As contemporary newspaper clippings demonstrate he trained his second wife Dorothy Dwan in the art of cartooning. Recently, an appraiser who was hired to assess a gouache painting from the twenties by a certain Lucille Carlisle6 assumed that Larry also nurtured her drawing talent. But this is speculation. Of what else is known for sure Larry handed down his drawing talent to Virginia, his only daughter, although he probably never trained her. Virginia was an avid amateur painter, who took lessons and indulged in her passion in the afternoons after all the housework had been done. She never went public.

Larry exposing his father's tricks
Expose! Larry did not refrain from the worst a magician could do: explain his tricks to the public.
Although Zera inspired Larry to make the best of his artistic talent he probably did not suggest he abuse his knowledge of magic tricks. But this is what Larry did - systematically - and we had better not guess at the horde of magicians whom he made see red. On 18 July, 1909 Larry started his series Mysteries of Magic, Past and Present, Exposed, again in the North American and again in its Sunday magazine, but this time as a contribution to the women's section. Usually occupying three or four columns, he weekly explained the trick of popular illusions. As to what the North American volumes available indicate, the series terminated at the end of March, 1910 after 35 episodes. Some of them, such as levitation acts, referred to the routines which Herrmann the Great used on the stage, others were collections of smaller sleight-of-hand mysteries or, like the Trunk Trick, they came right from the treasure trove of Zera Semon himself. Larry illustrated each exposure by a black and white ink drawing that as usual was his own work and in doing so displayed yet another drawing style. And again he would be playing around with his signature.
It remains obscure why Larry decided to expose all those magic tricks. Maybe it was in order to preserve a great repertoire of magic knowledge. At least this can be inferred from what he told magazine writer Elizabeth Peltret:

The old magicians are gone now, [...]. They were too careful of their secrets and so in most cases those secrets died with them [9].

Given that his intentions had been so gentle, why did he reveal the tricks to the public and in doing so robbed audiences of their wonderment? Why did he not write a book that would only be traded in magic circles? What mainly triggered him to publish the tricks had obviously been money. When it is true that he was on the staff of more than one paper he probably had the income of a freelance worker and so had to secure payment wherever possible. And since the subheader of each article reads

By Lawrence Semon - Son of the late Professor Zera Semon, one of the most noted magicians of his day,
it adds the assumption that he was -understandably- anxious to make himself a name7. Be it as it may, everybody who has to make a living from the mystery of magic tricks must have been aghast about his behaviour and if these articles were not enough, Larry even had the guts to conclude his articles with the appeal

Those who want an explanation of any particular trick of any magician, past or present, may obtain it by addressing Mr. Semon, in care of the Sunday North American, and inclosing a stamped envelope for reply. In writing, state distinctly the trick you desire to have explained. Do not ask for more than one trick in the same letter.

It is very likely that Larry wrote the answers to his readers' enquiries by hand or typewriter and autographed them. It would be interesting to learn whether some of these replies still exist.

One might assume that in publishing his articles Larry cut off his connections with the conjuring guild for good. The more it is surprising that he was a most welcome guest in the Los Angeles Society of Magicians (L.A.S.M.). The Magical Bulletin of 1922 reports the event and is much in praise:

We thought by this time, all the Motion Picture Magicians had been discovered. It was Matt Martin who found the Dean of them all, Larry Semon. Larry attended the Los Angeles Society of Magicians show at the Gamut Club and was so impressed by Matt Martin's work, he invited him to the studio. Matt wandered out, expecting to meet a mere inquisitive movie actor. Instead he found Larry Semon, a very clever magician. Even Larry's camera-man, George Baxter, is a magician and member of the L.A.S.M. [8]: 173, see also [10].

Since Larry's misdeeds had been those of a rather unknown youngster more than 12 years ago, most of the L.A.S.M. members either did not remember or even not know about them. Those who remembered presumably ignored the case in favour of the fact that they were having a great star in their circle.

Larry and Matt Martin
Forgiven not forgotten? Despite his misdeeds as a youngster Larry was still a welcome guest in magic circles. By courtesy of David Price.

When Larry was on the North American he had probably reached the height of his achievements as a cartoonist and when he was featured in the Sun he had reached the pinnacle of his career. A new challenge proved motion picture industry and last not least his drawing ability was a splendid foundation that helped him sketch his ideas so that he had a valuable means to go quickly into production.

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Next: Bibliography
Claudia Sassen 2002-08-26