A still taken during the shooting of a sequence from The Magic Show at the Variety Arts Theatre in Los Angeles, 1982. From left to right: Allen Bracken (seated), Dave Egan (third from left), Don Bice, Orson Welles (seated), Bruce Gold, Oja Kodar and Kiki, Abb Dickson, and a female magic assistant.

There was a time, you know, in this land of ours when every whistle stop had a real live theatre of its own. We take you back now for a moment to those grand old days when we magicians did our stuff in gilded palaces sumptuously upholstered in scarlet plush and purple hokum.

– Orson Welles, speaking in his unfinished film The Magic Show

In 1976, as the United States celebrated its Bicentennial Year, arguably the country’s greatest moviemaker, Orson Welles, was working, as he had been for many years, as an independent filmmaker in the truest, most complete definition of the term: financing his own work (in part or in whole) with his own money, usually earned by taking acting jobs in the movies of others. In the process, he left behind a late period of films which is so remarkable, rich, and diverse as to be almost staggering, and which includes films both finished (F for Fake [1973], Filming Othello [1978]) and unfinished at the time of his death (The Other Side of the Wind, The Dreamers, Orson Welles Solo, etc).

He was about to begin shooting a new film.

During this same time period, magician Abb Dickson was a world away in Atlanta, Georgia, having just completed a run of his illusion show, “Presto!” at the Alliance Theatre. The show contained 39 large stage illusions, including one with the impossibly marvellous title of “The Disembodied Princess”. Dickson had first learned of that particular trick after seeing a photo of it being performed by Orson Welles (with his second wife, Rita Hayworth, assisting) during a USO show in Hollywood in the ’40s. In time, it became one of Dickson’s favourite illusions.

Dickson was preparing to take “Presto!” to Washington, D.C. for a Bicentennial event when he received a phone call.

Abb Dickson: One of the secretaries from the theatre came running into the rehearsal hall and she said, “There’s a man on the phone who says he’s Orson Welles – and he must speak to you.” And I said to her, “Have him call back.” Because I had no idea who it was. I do a lot of comedy magic and I had a lot of funny friends around the country, so there was no telling who it was calling. (1)

The mysterious voice on the phone persisted. Five minutes later, the secretary returned, convinced that she had heard before this voice which claimed to be Orson Welles.

AD: I went back to the phone and this voice said, “Hello! This is Orson Welles!” And I said, “And this is the Queen of England!” And indeed it was Orson. Of course, I dropped to a chair nearby when I recognised the voice as well.

Two other magicians Welles had befriended in these years, Jim Steinmeyer and Mike Caveney, also remember commencing their friendship with Welles with similar phone calls out of the blue.

AD: Orson explained that he had seen a review of my show in a magic magazine and had come across a picture of this “Disembodied Princess” prop. He wanted to know if he could rent it for a film that he was doing.

Gary Graver

The film that Welles was doing, The Magic Show, was unfinished at the time of his death in 1985, but was to be a definitive, sprawling rumination on one of the director’s most cherished subjects. Gary Graver, his longtime cinematographer, describes the project appropriately as a “mixed bag of stuff” (2). There were straightforward, though brilliantly performed illusions performed by Welles, such as “The Light Box” and “The Gypsy Thread” (the latter done in a single, mind-blowing take), but also bits of magic history (such as Welles’ ruminations on William Robinson, who fooled the whole world into believing he was the great Chinese conjurer Chung Ling Soo) and an extended slapstick sequence involving a disastrous performance by the legendary magician Abu Kahn, reenacted by Welles and his troupe. (Sometimes, the segments overlap: Welles’ history of Chung Ling Soo, for example, leads into one of the film’s most exciting illusions, with Welles and Angie Dickinson performing the “bullet trick” which, legend has it, killed its original performer.) A potpourri devoted to one of his favourite past-times and childhood loves, it may have ended up a little like a freeform “essay film” in the manner of his great F for Fake – although not as radical. Welles himself introduces most of these segments, standing beside a great mirror intoning in the classic Wellesian tradition.

AD: I explained to Orson that we were to be in Washington, DC at the end of the week. We had only five or six days before we were to leave town. And he said, “Well, that’s enough time. Do you have control of the theatre?” I said, “Certainly I do. It’s still under my contract, we’re moving in and out and we’re doing rehearsal.” He said, “Good. Then would it be possible for me to fly to Atlanta and bring a film crew with me? I will hire your assistants and we’ll put together, from what illusions you have in your show, a short film that I want to do.” I said, “Sure. When would you like to be here?” And he said, “Tomorrow”.

The following morning, Welles and his troupes – his companion and chief artistic collaborator Oja Kodar, Gary Graver, Gary’s son, Sean, his assistant cameraman, Michael Stringer, and a gaffer – arrived at the Atlanta airport. At 8:30, Welles and company came through the doors of the Alliance Theatre. For an hour’s time, Welles pondered what the day’s shooting would consist of as Dickson and his crew displayed costumes and scenery from “Presto!” before the master. Welles eventually made up his mind and fifteen minutes later a script was produced; he instructed Dickson what illusions he wanted to film, what costumes he needed, and rehearsals commenced.

AD: The second morning, Orson said, “Now I want your lighting director and I want all of the lights down to the theatre floor so that I can re-aim what I want to. I’ll light for about half the day and we’ll begin shooting in earnest.” We had already gotten him a pail full of sand for his cigars. He went through three boxes of those a day. We got him a cooler to hold his Fresca, because that’s what he drank at the moment. So he began to tell my lighting director exactly where he wanted pools of light and how he wanted things done and this and that.

Gary Graver photographed every one of Welles’ film projects from 1970 onward. A versatile collaborator, his work with Welles runs the gamut from the almost revolutionary experimentation of The Other Side of the Wind (which was shot in virtually every format available in the early 1970s – 35mm and 16mm, color and B&W) to the romantic, carefully planned images of The Dreamers. The Welles-Graver collaboration is, I think, one of the great director-cinematographer collaborations in cinema history. Because The Magic Show was intended for television, Graver says, it was shot full frame, in colour, and in both 35mm and 16mm formats.

AD: Orson trusted Gary Graver completely. Orson would sit on a chair at the front of the stage, with Gary behind him, with one camera that Gary was operating, and one that would be operated remotely. And so he would constantly go, “Have you got this shot? Have you got this shot? This is what I want…”

If you’ve seen this footage, one scene begins with a squad of policemen coming through a loading door at the back of this theatre. Now this was legitimately three to four hundred feet away from the camera. The light person, of course, was going, “This isn’t going to work. There isn’t enough light here to even make this happen.” Orson’s going, “Nope, nope, just do this. Okay, Gary have you got that?” Gary says, “Yep, looks fine.” Now I must admit that I had (and continue to have) a lot of gall…and that was the fun part of it. So on the second day I said, “Mr. Welles, why is it that you never look through the camera?” He said, “Because I know exactly what the camera sees. I designed the lenses, you know.” And I went, “Oh”. Not knowing that indeed he had! So he was shooting more depth-of-field stuff as he had in Citizen Kane [1941] and several other films. And he knew that this would work. He just knew it. And Gary did too. He never ran dailies while he was here, trusted what he had in the can.

The scene Welles was shooting that day at the Alliance Theatre was part an elaborate slapstick sequence – filmed in parts over the next six years – in which a group of perplexed policemen happen upon a magic show which, through a series of mishaps on stage, has gone terribly, terribly wrong (3). The chief of police played by Dickson describes the incident as “The Case of the Blood Soaked Swami” (or “Magic Does Not Pay”) in a short prologue to the scene, hilariously voiced by Dickson in a very Southern accent. The sequence of events goes like this: after performing a trick involving a woman being lifted to the sky by a batch of balloons, Abu Kahn (Welles, who notes in the episode’s prologue that he bears a “vague physical resemblance” to the old magician!) encounters a heckler in the audience. (It seems that two versions of this scene were shot; in one version, the heckler is played by Peter Jason; in the other, the role is performed by Patrick Culliton. The version described here, featuring Jason, is the only one I’ve viewed.) The magician invites the heckler up on stage, positions him directly in front of the curtain, and begins “hypnotising” him. Unbeknownst to the scoffing heckler, a stagehand behind the curtain has been cued to whack the person on the head with a mallet. The heckler, knocked out, falls to the ground as though he was hypnotised.

Several moments later, the heckler awakens to find himself backstage. He spots the mallet. Coming to, he picks up the mallet and whacks the magician on the head from behind the curtain. Disoriented, the magician is unable to finish his routine and fumbles about trying to salvage it – in the process making even more of a mess of things. Stagehands wave furiously as Abu gets everything wrong. By the time the squad of policemen arrive, they stumble upon such sights as a woman sawed in half and not put back together (or, as Dickson’s character puts it when he recalls the event, “bits and pieces of them pretty little women strewn out all over the the-atre”) and Abu transforming another woman into a gorilla (one presumes by accident). It’s left to the policemen to try to clean up the mess and bring the various illusions to their conclusion, which produces many of the laughs to be found in this segment. All the while, Abu is still trying to recover, trying bits of hocus pocus which have apparently unintended effects: one of the funniest is when Abu’s hand tricks inadvertently cause a handkerchief to spring to life, dogging our policemen to no end. What an incredibly elegant gag.

AD: The handkerchief began to plague me like a fly – as he said – flying around my head and eventually wound up scurrying into my jacket. Now I’m tickled by this thing running around under my coat. I begin to pat myself and you see the thing popping out of sleeves and necklines and so forth. Eventually, a hundred handkerchiefs come flying out of every orifice in this coat – lots of them just zoomed out. It looked like something from Ghostbusters [Ivan Reitman, 1984]. During the course of this I was to grab this handkerchief and shoot it with a blank pistol. Well, he thought it would be funnier if all of the policemen – like Keystone Cops – were shooting this poor handkerchief, which eventually died and had death rattles and all of this business.

It is a brilliantly funny, impeccably orchestrated sequence. Welles himself described it to Bill Krohn in a 1982 interview: “[The Magic Show] has a long low comedy sequence in it where I play a magician who in the middle of his magic act forgets how to put the woman back together or get the floating lady down. And it has a very talented young fellow from Atlanta who plays the head of a sort of group of Keystone Kops. That’s the fastest sequence in it.” (4) Among other things, The Magic Show demonstrates what an unexpected knack Welles had for screen comedy. Indeed, the material quite explicitly harks back to silent movie days.

AD: There was to have been no “vocal sound” during the policeman sketches, Orson envisioned it as almost a Keystone Kops kind of piece…with only music underscoring the piece. Like a silent movie, there would have been dramatic music, comedy music, sound effects, and Old Tyme Hand Drawn Title Cards. He thought that the characters’ actions would speak for themselves.

Orson Welles as Abu Kahn in The Magic Show. © Filmmuseum Muenchen/Orson Welles Collection

Dickson says that the Abu Kahn slapstick sequence was to conclude The Magic Show – although it was the scene Welles began shooting first that day in 1976. As Graver puts it, The Magic Show was “an ongoing project. It was something that was always going”. At one point, he rented Welles a turban from Western Costume, only to discover that Welles had no interest in returning it. As Graver tells the story, “I said, ‘You know, I’ve got to take that turban back.’ And he said, ‘No, no, no, just call them and tell them we lost it!’ Because he wanted to keep it so he could keep using it for years, instead of renting it. He was naughty about those sorts of things. So I had to go tell Western Costume that it was lost – and pay for it. So he always had it and he had his own cape, so whenever he wanted to shoot something, he just pulled it out of the closet and we shot.”

All told, Dickson played several roles in The Magic Show in addition to the policeman who does battle with the handkerchief and an amnesiac magician.

AD: The Policeman was the first appearance for me in the film, and Orson intended to use the “thinly disguised similarities” as a running gag. “Excuse me, you look like someone I might know? No, I’m a completely different person now…”

Abu-Nar the Wizard, a role Welles created for Dickson in 1976 (and which is a play on Dickson’s first name – Abner), was a central one, a magician who, not unlike William Robinson, adopted the persona of a Chinese conjurer named Fu Ling Yu.

AD: Like most actors, the only person that the magician was actually fooling was himself, for the audience always recognised him through his rather thin disguise, but because of the genuine childlike qualities and the fact that he was a likeable character, the audience “played along” with the charade.

Welles’ intention was for Fu Ling Yu, who wasn’t fooling anybody, to come on stage and fill in for Abu Kahn after Abu lost his senses. Fu Ling Yu’s act, Dickson says, was shot as part of a television magic special conceived and written by Dickson in 1978, Orson Welles at the Magic Castle. Welles intended to re-shoot it as part of the Abu Kahn section in The Magic Show.

Following those three days of shooting at the Alliance Theatre, Dickson and his troupe headed to Washington while Welles and his troupe returned to Los Angeles. But the two stayed in touch as Dickson traveled across the country with “Presto!”

AD: I would send Orson my route sheets…my schedule of cities, and I would be in a hotel somewhere or another and at 2 in the morning, I would get a telephone call like this: “Abner, do you remember an illusion Thurston did in 1935 with a bucket of water and a sand pail?” “Yes, it was blah blah blah…” Because I carried my library with me, I was able to research things. But I had one of these memories of old illusions that just gelled greatly with the great man. So he would call and ask me a question. He would never say thank-you, he would just hang-up. That was it until another phantom phone call would come.

So after I would finish my tour, I would always go to Hollywood and spend a little time with Orson back-and-forth in any of the number of homes that he rented out there. We became fast friends and I would supply Orson with whatever props that he needed or remembered. Because he had been doing things since the ’30s it was helpful that one of the things that I do is collect antique magic props, especially the larger ones.

As was the case with Caveney and Steinmeyer, the parameters of Welles’ friendship with Dickson included the unspoken rule that they were never to discuss his film career or, indeed, movies in general. It seems obvious that one of the reasons Welles surrounded himself with so many magicians late in his life is because their company provided a respite from the struggles he encountered in trying to put together film projects. With them, he could withdraw in to a world he had loved since childhood.

AD: Orson often would rather have the company of magicians, I think, because it’s a fantasy world we live in. It was simply a way that he could just relax his own mind and get it out of the day-to-day rut of Hollywood and back into, “Let me clear my head and let me work on another project.”

Orson was a terrific magic nut, by the way. He never got over his wonderful suspension of disbelief and childhood wonder. He just loved magic tricks. From a couple of the larger magic companies in the United States, he would get their sale flyer and he would order one of each! They would be sent to him and he would keep these in boxes. When I would show up – or sometimes he would call Jim Steinmeyer to come over to his house – and we would open these boxes and perform these things for him.

There were times when Oja might be out of town. And Orson would call me up and say, “Let’s go and raid Cantor’s!” Now Cantor’s was a well-known delicatessen in L.A. in the Jewish district, and they have a pastry counter right in front of the window. Well, I drove a big red convertible that was easy for Orson to get in and out of. Business associates would always send a limousine for him and he hated that because it was physically hard to get in and out of, so he would often call me to take him to various places. He also had a friend who drove a pizza delivery wagon…and would ride with him… Anyway, here we are in an open convertible, and we’re going to raid Cantor’s. We would drive to Cantor’s, which had a friendly parking space right in front of the pastry window, and he would sit in the car while I would go in and point at things in the counter. And he’d go, “Yes”, “No”, “Yes”, four fingers, two fingers, whatever. We’d wind up with all of this stuff that we probably shouldn’t have had. We went home and made a wonderful feast with a quart of milk and all of this pastry.

Peter Tonguette: That reminds me a bit of a short film Welles made in the ’60s called Vienna [1968]. It was originally conceived as part of a CBS special. It’s essentially Welles walking around Vienna, talking about the city and its history. And there’s one little sequence where he goes by a Viennese pastry shop and for a minute straight he rhapsodises about these wonderful pastries.

AD: Yes.

PT: Have you ever seen that footage?

AD: Yes, I have. It was a delicious film.

From time to time, Welles would cast Dickson in roles in real life. When he needed a lawyer or business representative or a film producer from Germany – “because”, Dickson says, “I can fake a fair German accent” – he called on his friend to help him out.

AD: I would go with Orson to the “Company Cafeteria”, which was Ma Maison. Whenever he would meet anyone there, the procedure was this: if you were to meet Orson at two o’clock, when you arrived, he would already be there and seated in his favourite table, which was right next to the kitchen door. During your meeting with Orson, certain timing devices happened. A script would arrive at the table from someone. “Oh, I’m getting scripts from everyone, you know.” He knew that was 30 minutes. At 45 minutes, I would show up sometimes, just passing by. And then he would sit me down to sort of cut short the meeting and we would have dessert, at which point he would say, “Abner, come with me into the kitchen, we must thank the chef for this marvellous meal.” And he would leave, leaving the person there of course with the check. And Orson would go back through the kitchen.

And the reason he went through the kitchen is because literally he was having a very tough time walking and so we would go through the kitchen and out the door to the waiting car and speed away before the person could get out of the restaurant. No one would see him having this physical difficulty moving around. Legitimately, although he would never want it known, Orson was practically in a wheelchair by the time the end was near. He could hardly get around. But it was my job many times to go and plan the entrance and exit for him and plan various alibis to get him in and out of places gracefully, shall we say.

PT: Was his black poodle around?

AD: Oh, absolutely!

PT: Kiki.

AD: Kiki. He loved that dog to death. Why that dog didn’t die of overeating, I have no idea. That dog had the finest cuisine! But he literally loved that little puppy.

Another instance in which Welles recruited Dickson occurred during Welles’ long and rather infamous association with Paul Masson wine, for which he lent his voice and likeness in a series of commercials.

AD: At some point or another, the wine people just pissed Orson off. They said, “All right, the scene is going to be a party at your home.” He said, “Not at my home, certainly!” They said, “No, we’ve rented a house and we want you to talk about the variety of friends that you have at this party, somewhat like the variety of grapes that it takes to make a great wine” …which he thought was horseshit.

Well, we arrived on the scene and the wine people had no idea who I was. So Orson told them I was his lawyer-at-fact. And there’s a difference between a lawyer-at-fact and a lawyer-in-fact. One of them is a legitimate lawyer, but a lawyer-at-fact can be just a person who gives you advice. So indeed I was. And I had the suit that looked like it. So here we arrive at this home – beautiful Hollywood home – and Orson looked in and there were the extras standing around. He said, “Who the hell are these people?” And they said, “Well, they’re the guests at your party.” And he said, “They’re the guests at Robert Young’s party, but they wouldn’t be my guests! Send them all home, call the Actor’s Home, I’ll make a few phone calls and I’ll get you really interesting people.”

And indeed within about an hour here come a whole lot of people whose faces you have seen for years on film, older people that the cameras had forgotten. Pretty soon the place was populated with everybody from gypsies to prime ministers to people with turbans running around – it was indeed an Orson party.

Welles’ gesture of solidarity, if you will, towards the elderly and forgotten in the acting community was not surprising. In 1942, as he was casting the role of Major Amberson in The Magnificent Ambersons, he remembered an actor he had seen on stage as a youth – Richard Bennett. (5) Bennett’s power and grace as an actor had made such an impression on Welles that he knew he had to be his Major Amberson. He found Bennett living in a boarding house in Catalina, “totally forgotten by the world”; he hadn’t made a movie in seven years.

AD: It was sad to me on the day that we were shooting this party scene and Orson had imported these marvellous character actors and foreign actors and people that were just – we know these people! And the comment was, “Who did you used to be?” There are so many of those people in Hollywood where the comment is, “Well, I didn’t know you were still alive!” Or, “You’re a silent film star? Now what’s a silent film?”

So many Welles films depict, in different ways, the sadness surrounding ageing – Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil (1958), The Fountain of Youth (1958), Chimes at Midnight (1965) (“The times we have seen, the times we have seen!”), The Immortal Story – that Welles’ actions that day on the wine commercial seem, in this light, entirely predictable. After all, one of his very favourite films was Leo McCarey’s great depiction of an unwanted elderly couple, Make Way For Tomorrow (1937) (6). But he didn’t get to make what would have surely been his definitive statement on the topic of growing old, his adaptation of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, King Lear. Oja Kodar has said, “Orson had his own ideas about King Lear which are completely different from all the other interpretations.” (7) Welles’ interpretation posited that, in Kodar’s words, “Lear’s basic problem was that he lives with his knights and has children but he doesn’t know women. His second tragedy is that he’s old. Old people want to be loved and respected, otherwise they turn into tyrants.”

Dickson was to play the Fool to Welles’ Lear. Welles sent Dickson a copy of his script. One night, Welles he suddenly began reading some lines of Lear’s to Dickson – and Dickson answered him with lines of the Fool’s. Welles recorded these sessions on a Nagra audiotape and then instructed Dickson to memorise his lines precisely. He would work with Dickson on the dialect later.

AD: Sadly, we didn’t do this ever again.

But Welles had, apparently, been doing some shooting for Lear over the years, although the precise nature of this footage is unclear. He told Dickson that he had been “working on this for a long time… almost as long as Don Quixote” – a film, one recalls, the director had been shooting intermittently from 1957 until at least the early 70s.

AD: Literally, he had been shooting King Lear for so long that you could see the King age all the way through! I’ve seen this footage so I know that it exists.

Gary Graver confirms that he shot what he describes as “lighting and makeup tests” with Welles as Lear; the purpose of these tests were to determine the quality of videotape to film transfers, for Welles wanted to shoot significant portions of his Lear film on tape. Graver explains, “He wanted to do all the acting on video and then the pageantry scenes—big scenes with lots of extras and stuff and costumed people – he wanted to shoot in 35. Because he wanted to shoot on video so he could shoot lots and lots of acting, without spending a lot of money on film.” Unfortunately, this footage – along with whatever else Welles may have shot for King Lear – is presently unaccounted for (and Graver believes the “lighting and makeup tests” – which he says looked “really good” – to be lost). The Munich Filmmuseum, which houses many of the “unseen” Welles films (including The Magic Show), does not have any material the director shot for King Lear.

AD: For those people who said that Orson was a cantankerous person, the person never to be worked with, awful to his crew and cast – they probably never really worked with the man, because legitimately he was the kindest soul to everyone in the business. People would be there, they would finish their filming, they would take down the curtains, they would roll up the cords and get the tape off the floor, they would do this and do that. Orson would sign any autograph, sign any script pages or whatever, made sure that every crew person had every thing. One evening, Orson finished and he looked at me. We were the last two there – Oja I think had gone to bed. Just worn out. And Orson looked at me and he looked around the house. There are pizza boxes and flotsam and jetsam and tape and this and that. He says, “You know, I’m Orson Welles and I must clean this up before I go to bed – or Oja will shoot me.”

Oja was a terrific gal to be with too. She was a great “minder” – as we want to say – of Orson. She was very strong-willed and took care of him very well. And, of course, put up with all of us silly people doing various things. She could con me into conning Orson into doing something back and forth. She was just a delight to be with. But there at the house at Stanley, which was the last house I think, she was perfectly at home out in the yard with a grinder and a big block of wood or granite or something, whacking away at some statue.

PT: She’s a sculptress.

AD: Yes. And she was working on her statues, and we were inside doing our magic tricks. It was a perfect world.

Oja was a great light in his life. He loved her so much. It was a mutual thing. They were very good together. I never met the real Mrs Welles, but I can say that the relationship with Oja was a wonderful one and you can’t say anything bad about it – they were just terrific with one another.

PT: And she was such an important artistic collaborator on so many of his late projects too.

AD: Yes, many, many times. And she was a wonderful Princess! We have floated Oja in the air for hours on end. She never issued even an annoyance. She was wonderful at playing the magical Princess. She just had a ball doing what we could come up with.

PT: Do you think that Welles thought of himself as an illusionist even when he was working in a medium other than magic, whether it’s film or radio? I know that both Jim and Mike feel this way, that Welles was all about pulling off an amazing effect for the viewer.

F for Fake

AD: Yes, yes. He had such a great sense of being able to, in the middle of a scene, to turn his eyes towards the camera and get the attention of that one theatregoer in the seat, letting him in on the scam. And everything was a culmination of this magical misdirection and control of the audience and control of the situation. He used that many times in many places.

Orson also liked to do things as a bit of a joke…just to see if people were paying attention. Orson had a love of fake noses, for example. He used them in various things. In The Third Man [Carol Reed, 1949], he would reshape the nose all the time between scenes – just to throw people off. They’d be looking and think, There’s a shadow I’ve not seen.

Dickson’s involvement with The Magic Show continued until 1982 when the last portion of the Abu Kahn material was shot. But that film wasn’t his only professional collaboration with Welles. In the late ’70s, Dickson came into contact with a producer named Joe Butt, who had contacts at Columbia Pictures Pay Television. Dickson pitched the idea of a magic special to take place at the world renowned Magic Castle in Hollywood. Butt thought the idea interesting, but doubted Columbia would be interested due to the lack of a star. So just as Welles called upon Dickson several years prior, Dickson now called upon his friend to help him out.

AD: I said, “Well, how about Orson Welles?” He said, “You couldn’t get Orson Welles to do this!” I said, “Give me your phone.” I picked up the phone, I called Orson, I said, “Look, I’ve written this Magic Castle special…” Joe Butt is standing there with his mouth open. I said, “I need for you to do the introduction and the in-and-out. It will probably be one day of shooting, at the most two, and I’ve only got, I think, $25,000. Will you shoot this?” And he said, “Sure! But I get the extra film.” I said, “Okay, great.” I hung up the phone and said, “Okay, we got him.” Joe Butt was truly amazed.

When Welles asked Dickson for “the extra film”, he was referring to a favoured practice of Welles during these years.

AD: One of Orson’s jobs – as he said – was making nickel and dime money doing all these commercials and little things so he could get the tail footage from the films. In other words, if you’re going to shoot a commercial and you order 500 feet of stock, he could do it in 100 feet. Then he would have 400 feet to deal with on his own.

Columbia Pictures Pay Television was sold on Orson Welles at the Magic Castle (as the special became known) and thus began the saga of actually making the project. Welles’ introductory segments were shot in a single day (with Dickson doubling for Welles – complete with Wellesian hat made specially for him by Western Costume – in some exterior shots), but things became more complicated when it came to the shooting of a trick Welles wanted to perform on camera.

AD: One of the things that Orson wanted to do was this trick that a magician in the 1930s had done called the “Duck Tub”. Now the trick is this: you show a barrel cut in half, you tip it up and show that it’s empty. Then you fill this barrel full of water and you crack a dozen duck eggs into the barrel, and suddenly a dozen ducks come out of the barrel – quacking. So he asked me, “Do you know where this barrel is?” And I said, “Yes, I know what collector has it, but you don’t want to know, it’s probably got a plant growing in it. It hasn’t been used since the ’40s and it’s just rusting somewhere.” He said, “Can you get it and put it back into condition?”

It took some effort, but Dickson did eventually get the barrel back into working order. The trick worked like this:

AD: The ducks were placed in a rather tight hidden compartment within the tub. At the push of a secret release, the ducks would be released from their hiding place into the water filled tub… and as you can imagine, they were pretty mad!

The rehearsal of the piece is a story in and of itself:

AD: Finally one afternoon, Orson calls and he wants to rehearse this. Well, where are we going to rehearse it? Behind the Magic Castle. “I’ll just drive up in the car and you do the trick.” Well, we go up and we sit this behind the Magic Castle. Then we realise that even with a fire hose we couldn’t fill up this barrel fast enough …we needed buckets of water.. So I go running down the street to the Burger King, where their pickles come in a plastic bucket. So I buy a dozen of these empty pickle buckets and am running up Highland with a dozen buckets on my arm. Meanwhile Bill Smith, a fellow magician, is trying to wrangle these ducks from the parking lot at the hotel next to the Magic Castle up to where the barrel is. He’s trying to squish them all down into their little compartments – of course they don’t want to be there, because they’ve never been there in their life. But suddenly we have all of these ducks in the bucket and I’m standing there covered in pickle juice with buckets and barrels of water. Suddenly the producer from Columbia, Angela Shapiro, is standing there, “What the hell is this going to look like? How’s it gonna work?” We’d been hiding this from her so she won’t see the ducks and she won’t know how this works, trying to maintain the secrecy of something.

So there I am, sweating like a whatever… suddenly, Orson arrives in the convertible. And he stands up like a Potentate in a parade, puts his hands on the windshield, and commands, “Show the tub empty!” We do. “Pour the water!” We do. “Produce the ducks!” We do. “I’ll call you in the morning!” And the Potentate sits down and rolls away. Now here stands six people and we have just produced six ducks who don’t like to be in this tub. So they’re escaping up the Hollywood Hills, around the corners, anywhere in the world. And we’re looking at each other like, This is the Twilight Zone. This is not happening. This is amazing.

The next morning, Orson calls and says, “No, it’s too messy. It’s not as I remember it. We’ll cut it from the show.” [Laughs] So that was it. But do we have something else we can put in? Yes, we can do this, blah, blah, blah. We went over to his house, it was shot, we brought the film back, and Columbia thought it was perfect.

Well, the coda to this is that these ducks – in Hollywood, you can’t just buy a duck. You can’t rent a duck. So the only place that you can buy ducks is in Chinatown, where they’re going to be someone’s lunch. Here we had ten out of the twelve ducks – two had escaped – and what am I going to do with ten ducks? So I remembered that I was once playing in a downtown theatre in Los Angeles and there in front of one of the big hotels was a park with a lake. I thought, We’ll take the ducks downtown and take them down by the lake, we’ll open the box and we’ll let them live happily ever after and children will feed ducks and they won’t be somebody’s Chinese lunch. So I told Orson what we were going to do and he said, “That’s very benevolent of you.” So now I’m going down to release the ducks and as I got to the lake – had another guy with me – as we just open the box, here comes this searchlight and the police car says, “STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING! YOU’RE STEALING DUCKS FROM A PUBLIC PARK! YOU CAN BE ARRESTED!” Of course, Orson had called one of his buddies in the police department and had them go down and just put the fear of God in us. We’re trying to explain to the man that we’re not stealing the ducks, we’re letting the ducks go! This went on for about 20 minutes until he burst into laughter and said “Okay, we were put up to doing this.”

Orson and I had this kind of wonderful relationship. Here was this man who enjoyed a practical joke, enjoyed putting someone on to the point of tears, and he could just do this to you and then be so nice and so good and so giving that everyone would just roar with laughter over a good joke. He was that kind of guy. It was as if we were children, playing in our own land of make-believe.

Orson Welles performing an illusion in The Magic Show. © Filmmuseum Muenchen/Orson Welles Collection

Welles once said that his love for magic had less to do with the illusion-making in and of itself than the fact that “it’s connected with the circus, and with a kid of corny velvet-and-gold-braid sort of world that’s gone and that fascinated me and that I like. That’s really it. It’s not the skillful wonder-worker part of it but the ambience, the atmosphere of a magic show that delights me. I never saw anything in the theatre that entranced me so much as magic – and not the wonder of it: it’s the kind of slightly seedy, slightly carnival side of it.” (8) It is the ambience and atmosphere of which Welles speaks which permeates through every frame of The Magic Show: the scarlet plush and purple hokum Welles refers to is evident in abundance. In this aspect, I am reminded of Jacques Tati’s “circus” film, Parade (1973); while The Magic Show lacks that film’s fascinating involvement of the audience in the action (a quality Jonathan Rosenbaum has written perceptively about (9)), they share a certain revelry in the simple act of putting on a good, old fashioned show. The believability of the tricks being performed does not seem to have been a primary concern for Welles; only a single illusion (the aforementioned “Gypsy Thread”) is staged in a single, uninterrupted take. Everything else was, in the words of the project’s editor, Jonathon Braun, “unabashedly cinematically edited” (10). Every portion I’ve seen from The Magic Show is boldly realised from a stylistic standpoint, with Welles more interested in making his film work as a movie than in necessarily preserving the audience’s sense of disbelief. The film, then, is largely a matter of tone and attitude, the almost gleeful playfulness of Welles’ voice when he stares intensely into the camera and asks at one point, “Do you believe in magic?” Orson, we do.

Ultimately, then, it is the remarkable material they shot together for The Magic Show which stands as the greatest legacy of the friendship of Abb Dickson and Orson Welles. The good news is that it may well see the light of day in our lifetimes. The Munich Filmmuseum has been showing at festivals around the world an abbreviated assembly of the material, an important first step towards the goal of making the film better known. Happily, everyone I’ve spoken to connected with The Magic Show – from Dickson to Gary Graver to Jonathon Braun – seem to concur that it was nearly finished at the time of Welles’s death; in Graver’s words, “It could probably be made into a film.” Dickson says that there was only one segment which Welles didn’t live to shoot: “the teleportation of a live human being along a piece of (then new) fiber-optic cable from Coast-to-Coast.”

AD: Orson loved the idea of “hoaxing once again” the scientific community, for as he said, “…learned professors and scientists are perhaps the easiest to fool. They think in terms of absolute reality rather than fantasy…and fantasy is our world, not theirs.”

In addition to this, Dickson believes Welles wanted to include clips in the finished film of himself performing magic in other movies, such as Black Magic (Gregory Ratoff, 1944) Casino Royale (Val Guest, John Huston, Kenneth Hughes, Joseph McGrath & Robert Parrish, 1966) and his own F for Fake (the woman in a suitcase illusion, featuring Welles, Kodar, and Laurence Harvey), as well as a “space type” illusion he had already performed on a David Copperfield special.

But Braun confirmed to me that the material Welles did shoot was essentially edited prior to his death. All that remains is to assemble the pieces into an order, something Welles apparently never did.

AD: The times that we did talk about the studio system and how it worked, he said, “We simply got up in the morning and got on the streetcar and we went to the studio and we made whatever it is they want us to make, Monday through Friday, and then we shot sometimes on Saturday, then we got a day off, and then we came back. Friday we were a cowboy, Monday we were a detective, Tuesday we were something else.” So it was just a factory. We did talk a little bit about Citizen Kane and where the group came from because they hired Orson and he insisted that his troops – the entire Mercury Players – come with him. So after they made Citizen Kane, then they came to him with another script and said, “You’re going to make this next.” He said, “No, I’ll make what I choose next.” They said, “Well, see on the contract it says that we’ve hired you and this entire bunch of players so if you don’t want to play the game, then we’ll continue to use the rest of the people and you’re out.” And that spoiled it. He did get to make Ambersons the way he wanted to, but after that it was simply that they’d taken the wind out of him. They’d told him what he could and couldn’t do.

PT: It’s a shame that he didn’t get to finish some of these projects that he financed himself during his life, but I would speculate that he preferred working on this independent level…

AD: He preferred the freedom of being able to do it himself with his own group of happy little players.

Orson Welles had this to say about his friend Abb Dickson in an article published in Genii Magazine: (11)

There’s a lovely element of play in all he does, and if he sometimes handles a trick as though it were a toy, he somehow manages to make us feel that this is a toy from a different country – not our world – from the land of Oz perhaps – where nothing is impossible…

Just here, I suppose, it should be confessed that the author of this little piece is a magician who has been, for some time, moonlighting in the movies. That means I’m rather sharply torn between two loyalties: I want to see my friend starring away up there on the screen (he’s got all the makings); but at the same time my conscience keeps reminding me that magic can’t afford to be without Abb Dickson.

Perhaps the reason Welles and Dickson got along so well is because Welles, it is clear from the above, saw some of himself in his friend. It’s entirely plausible to assume so. Welles himself may have been “torn between two loyalties”: his love of cinema, even with all the heartache that went along with it, and his love of magic. The Magic Show unites two sides of Welles; for this reason, and for the sheer beauty and wonderment of the footage itself, it is also essential Welles.

Earlier in the same piece, Welles writes evocatively and charmingly:

The trouble with magic is there’s no such thing as a full stage of supporting magicians. A box jumper may, in privacy, be an object of the wizard’s most tender esteem, but as far as the show is concerned, she’s part of the livestock, along with the doves and tigers. Old fashioned? Of course. “Modern Magic” is the title of a beautiful antique book, otherwise it doesn’t exist. The plot is eternal. It looks backward into the forbidden darkness of secret chambers in temples forgotten under the sands.

For Welles, then, it seems the world of magic wasn’t so different from the world as it existed before the advent of the automobile (in The Magnificent Ambersons) or Merrie Olde England prior to Prince Hal’s ascent (in Chimes at Midnight), two other universes “forgotten under the sands” which he sought to commemorate with the force of his artistic vision.

I’m greatly indebted to the immense generosity of Abb Dickson for agreeing to speak to me on the record about his friendship and artistic collaboration with Orson Welles. Special thanks also to Jonathon Braun, Stefan Droessler, Gary Graver, and Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Endnotes

  1. All comments by Abb Dickson are from interviews and conversations with the author, March, April, and May 2004.
  2. Gary Graver, interview with the author, April 2004.
  3. The description of this scene is drawn from my own viewing of an extensive amount of material from The Magic Show and from Dickson’s memory of it, which has aided me considerably in understanding the narrative.
  4. “My Favourite Mask Is Myself: An Interview with Orson Welles”, The Unknown Orson Welles, ed. Stefan Droessler, Belleville/Filmmuseum Muenchen, Munich. 2004.
  5. Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles, ed. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Da Capo Press, New York, 1998.
  6. Peter Bogdanovich, “Leo McCarey” in Who the Devil Made It, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1997, p. 379.
  7. “Oja as a Gift”, in Droessler, 2004.
  8. Welles and Bogdanovich, 1998.
  9. Jonathon Braun, interview with the author, May 2004.
  10. See Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Parade”, (capsule review), Chicago Reader, accessed June 28, 2004.
  11. Orson Welles, “Citizen Abner”, Genii Magazine, special Abb Dickson issue, January 1989.