The Magic of Kalanag
In this week’s History of Magic, we focus on who is probably the most famous German magician / illusionist, Kalanag. Kalanag was born Helmut Schreiber in Fornsbach near Stuttgart in 1903. Although famous throughout his broad career he had a rather problematic background. Despite his achievements as a grand stage illusionist, his reputation and props lay in tatters, as his career came to an end. Helmut Schreiber prior to the Second World War was involved in the German Film Industry and was president of the German Magic Circle and editor of the German Magic Magazine ‘Magie’. Only towards the end of his highly successful career did it became known that he had a close sympathetic interaction with high ranking members of the Nazi party that included Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Goring and the Fuhrer himself. At the end of the war he built and developed a lavish illusion show revue that travelled the world. It became one of the last great spectacular touring stage shows of the 20th century. He took the name kaala naag from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Tales’, as he thought Westerners may have trouble pronouncing the name Schreiber. His show was also sometimes known as the Sim Sala Bim Show.
Association with the Nazi Party:
With his extensive background with film, as an executive of the Tobis Film Corporation he was appointed by the Reichminister Goring himself as chief of the large Bavarian Film Corporation that was responsible for over 150 movies that included propaganda films. As president of the Magischer Zirkel Von Deutchland he was also involved in the anti-Semitization campaign against the country’s Jewish magicians. He performed for the Fuhrer at his Berghof Retreat and mingled freely among the Nazi elite. He worked under the direction of the then Nazi minister for information Joseph Goebbels. Today there is much controversy among the German magic fraternity, some holding him in contempt for his coercive use of illusion in the services of political power, while others acclaim his talents as an opportunistic but skillful performer and grand master of illusion.
Kalanag became a very successful and extremely capable illusionist with his wife Gloria De Vos and a troupe of 40 assistants. He was noted for his sawing in half dressed as a surgeon, and used a beautiful black cheetah called Simbo that was a gift from the late Haillie Selassie of Ethiopia. Kalanag presented a very authentic stage version of the famed ‘Indian Rope Trick’. A coil of rope was shown, Kalanag played an Eastern flute and the rope mysteriously rose up off the floor high above the stage. A small boy then climbed the rope only to vanish with the boy’s body parts dropping to the floor as the rope fell. The boy appeared once again from a basket on stage none the worse for his ordeal.
“It became very evident in his stage character and presentation that Kalanag’s experience and expertise in the film industry became very apparent with his confident manner and use of stage craft that incorporated lavish backdrops, music, chorus lines and numerous costume changes.”
A lesson for magicians here is the importance of learning stage craft and how to walk, talk and move on stage as Kalanag did. He commanded the attention he received and always looked the part of the true consummate performer. He was elegant, his movements smooth and confident.
Kalanag presented a rather elaborate but bewildering levitation. Placing his wife Gloria into a trance state, she was placed on a plank across two chairs. One of the chairs was removed to show her laying there inert. The plank was removed and also the other chair leaving her to appear to be apparently floating unsupported. A hoop was passed right around her body eliminating the use of wires or any form of visible support, as she slowly descended almost to the floor. Kalanag then dramatically gestures for the floating lady to rise and again slowly she is seen to literally float upwards stopping high above the stage – motionless. Kalanag again gestured and the lady began to descend into the arms of waiting assistants and brought out of her trance by the master of illusion. It is even by today’s standards a most spectacular and dramatic illusion that brought a breathless silence to those watching who were in awe.
The Death and Legacy of Kalanag:
Kalanag just before his death was invited onto the Ed Sullivan Show in the United States where he presented his now famous Chair Illusion. Possibly his last public performance that must have been a privilege for someone with such a controversial background and career.
Another of Kalanag’s popular effects was his Lota Jar that he continually emptied throughout his show that is very much like the inexhaustible ‘Water from India’ magic trick favoured by many magicians. This is one of the few remaining effects from Kalanag’s show. After his death in 1963 aged 60, his wife tried unsuccessfully to sell the whole show and even offered it to Siegfried and Roy who declined the offer. By this time much of his clandestine past had been disclosed and most magicians chose not to be associated with the Kalanag name.
While performing for Hitler at his Berghof retreat, Kalanag unobtrusively managed to up load 150 Deutschmarks into his pocket that greatly surprised the Fuhrer. While Kalanag found favour with the Nazi hierarchy, another Austrian Jewish magician Erik Jan Hanussen (1888-1933) lost favour. Hanussen was a hypnotist, occultist, psychic clairvoyant and obvious charlatan who Hitler retained as his confidant and personal forecaster. For a few years he maintained this liaison with Hitler to whom he taught the Fuhrer much of his ability to speak confidently and rousingly to influence the German populous. After a strange fire that Hanussen had predicted he was found murdered under strange circumstances. Herein lays another weird and fascinating story of its own. Hitler relied on Hanussen for his occult interpretation of future events and often relied on his forecasts when making major decisions. However as his last predictions came to fruition failed he was eliminated.
“I have spoken to people who have witnessed the Kalanag show and all acclaim that it was indeed a spectacular stage revue that displayed Kalanag’s talents for not only his sleight of hand and dexterous manipulation but as truly one of the grand masters of illusion.”
There is much we will probably never know about Helmut Schreiber because so much of his career and background was deliberately destroyed in the chaos and aftermath of the Second World War. In 2008 an exhibition was arranged in England by Johnathan Allen that brought out more about the personality of the illusionist through a selection of his many photographs, rather than concentrating on his talent as a stage performer. Hitler’s “Minister of Magic” may not be remembered as well as many before him due to his dubious and what many may call a dastardly past, but Kalanag is certainly part of the history of magic, though that part of history may not always be to everyone’s liking.
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