Although all magic is illusion, magicians use the words “illusions” and “illusionist” as a jargon term referring to large-scale illusions that typically involve humans who might be sawn in half or otherwise vivisected, or levitated, or transported or exchanged from within sealed boxes, and so forth. The term “grand illusion” is also sometimes used to describe this large-scale type of magic. (See my Take Two of 11/04/16 to watch and learn about two of my favorite such illusions.)
Without doubt, the greatest illusionist I’ve ever seen was Richiardi, Jr. Born Aldo Izquierdo Colosi, he was the third generation magician in a Peruvian family, and the third to take on the stage name of “Richiardi.” He was 14 years old when his father died in an automobile accident, and after serving in the military, and then studying dance, he went on to claim the family mantle and become the Great Richiardi. And great he truly was.
I first saw him in person in 1978 at the Top of the Gate in Greenwich Village, where his show, “The Incredible World of Magic and Illusion” ran for a period of time, changing guest performers who opened the show in the course of the run. I saw both comic genius Bobby Baxter and classical magician and FISM winner Ger Copper in the opening spot. But the first time I saw Richiardi I didn’t know anything about him, and I had no idea what I was in for. When he opened the show with two standard small apparatus tricks, I remember being as astonished by the precision integration with the assistants, and Richiardi’s stylish handling of the props, as much as by the magic—if not more so. His flinging of the airborne props and the seamless catching and delivery by the assistants was unlike anything I had ever seen, and as he completed the piece he was virtually hurling the props to his side, where if an assistant didn’t catch them just so, he was likely to be injured, and if he missed, well the prop was going to go hurtling into empty space until something bad happened. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “I can’t imagine the amount of rehearsal just to get this opener to look like this. Here’s the piece drawn from (as are all the clips in this week’s T2) a 1985 television special hosted by Christopher Lee entitled “Witness the Impossible.” (You are welcome to find and watch the entire special, which is on YouTube, but we’ve extracted select pieces for your convenient viewing here—four, to be exact, because they are all rather short.) Expand the browser, put your phone down, and turn up the music!
Richiardi possessed a boatload of Latin charisma, and his style was electric. He moved with speed and grace and power—the most macho illusionist I’ve ever seen, reminiscent of a bullfighter in his confidence and presence. One of the great performing challenges of large illusions is trying to convince the audience that there is a connection between the performer and what is happening in the big box. Richiardi had that down in spades. There was never a moment’s doubt who was responsible for making the magic happen.
There was also a streak of dark violence in his work that made him an occasionally foreboding presence, and this too added tremendously to his work. At the time I saw him live, Doug Henning was all the rage, unarguably responsible for reviving magic thanks to the success of “The Magic Show” on Broadway. But the impish little hippie magician always seemed more like a children’s performer to me than a grownup, which is perhaps what made him so fabulously palatable to so many, while to me it always felt like the audience was being taken back to kindergarten, and at any moment he was going to have us all sit in a circle on the floor while he handed out finger paints. When I saw Richiardi, I found what I had been missing. Richiardi was badass.
The East Indian Needle Illusion, made famous by Harry Houdini, and still featured today by the likes of Teller and Steve Spill, led to a variation created in the 1920s in which instead of swallowing needles and then bringing up the needles threaded onto a length of thread that had also been swallowed, the feat was done with razor blades. I never much liked this version, because it’s rarely convincing, until I saw Richiardi’s take. I distinctly recall how, from the edge of the stage, he leaned out over the first row of tables, and on the reappearance of the final blade, the women and the table directly beneath him screamed.
The Razor Blades
One of his signature feats was this, The Vanishing Lady. You really must turn the music up LOUD for this! Music was an integral part of Richiardi’s show, but I cannot see this piece without anticipating the rising screech of sound that occurs at the moment of the effect taking place. This is stunning magic that was utterly electrifying in person.
The Vanishing Lady
One of my favorite Richiardi pieces was his take on the levitation. I’ve seen many excellent versions of this beautiful piece, but Richiardi’s stood out for it’s simplicity, directness, beauty, and drama. It was truly magical and made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck in person. You will see a good version of it here, where you can watch how he uses music and powerful gestures to convincingly write the uncompromising narrative that Richiardi is solely responsible for her rising in the air, and that if someone were to interfere by grabbing his hands, she would come crashing back to earth.
But in the theater the piece was even better than what you see here, because you could clearly see that she began by simply lying prone no the stage—no tables, no furniture beneath her—and then, the stage began to fill with a layer of smoke, from she mysteriously rose. The impact was absolutely magical, riveting, and beautiful.
I haven’t found good video of Richiardi’s most famous piece: his Sawing in Half. I’m going to quote extensively here from the description I wrote for the book (which I co-wrote along with Carl Waldman and Joe Layden in 1997), The Art of Magic, the companion to the PBS special of the same title:
Richiardi, Jr. was renowned for his closing illusion. The curtain closed and he came out to announce that he had one more thing he wanted to show the audience but that it might prove unsettling to some and perhaps anyone with a weak stomach should leave. Needless to say, everyone stayed. He then reopened the curtain to reveal what appeared to be a hospital setting wit his assistants in surgical dress, surrounding an operating table above which was suspended a huge buzz saw. A woman came outwearing only a patient’s smock, whereupon she was seized by the assistants. Richiardi muzzled her with what seemed to be an ether-dosed handkerchief, inducing her to pass out. She was laid prostrate on the table. Richiardi started up the buzz saw and lowered it all the way through her. Blood began to spatter upward. People screamed. Richiardi then asked if anyone would to inspect the horror he had wrought. People would line up to parade across the stage for a close-up peek at the illusion. On one occasion in New York City’s famed Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden, this reportedly took nearly an hour. Afterwards, Richiardi stepped up the mike and quoted some of the comments he had overheard, like “It’s a trick!” He admitted that yes, it was indeed a trick, then: “After all, I cannot really afford to kill a woman at every performance. Especially when she is my daughter!” Then he would add, “All I ask you, is the illusion well done?” The audience invariably responded with thunderous applause as the assistants lifted the body of the unconscious and blood-smeared woman off the table and carried her off as the curtains closed, leaving a powerful and enduring vision.
It’s no wonder that illusionists like Lance Burton and David Copperfield cite Richard Jr. as a major influence. He died in 1985, barely 62, and I, for one, will never forget him, and I’m sorry that you will never get to see him perform live. But I hope these recollections help bring his magic alive for you today.