Just as singers have their favorite songs, magicians have our favorite tricks.
One of my all-time favorites is Think-a-Drink. The proper title of this routine is Any Drink Called For, and has also been known as The Bar Act. I’ve been performing this routine in my shows for the past eight years, but it has existed in various forms for over a century. The trick is so old, it’s new again.
The father of modern conjuring, JEAN EUGENE ROBERT-HOUDIN performed its precursor, The Inexhaustible Bottle at his intimate theater shows in 19th century Paris.
In this early version of the trick, the magician poured a large volume of liquors from a single bottle – much greater than the bottle’s capacity.
I found the following historic details regarding The Inexhaustible Bottle on a lovely blog called Victorian Magic:
(quoted from Scribner’s Monthly, December 1880)
The Inexhaustible Bottle, which produces different liquors, and apparently in endless quantity, was first made popular in this country by Professor Anderson (JOHN HENRY ANDERSON, “The Great Wizard of the North”), and since his day has been exhibited by very many magicians. Of late years, it has been sold in the toy shops, and the public have learned that its effect is due in part to a well-known principle in physics, and in part to the wine glasses used, which are made so as to contain, at most, not more than a thimbleful.
The trick having become common and generally understood, conjurers began to look about for a means whereby something similar in effect might be produced, but by altogether dissimilar means. The result is a bottle-trick in which lager-beer is furnished in sufficient quantity to satisfy the thirst of a large audience. It is a very effective trick, and to it one well-known performer almost entirely owes his success.
It is only suitable for public exhibition, however, as the beer is pumped up from beneath the stage, and passes through rubber tubing, concealed in the dress of the performer, to the bottle held in the hand. The connection with the stage is made by means of a hollow boot-heel, and during the progress of the trick, the performer is unable to move.
This methodology is reminiscent of the traditional Japanese performance of mizugei (translated: “water art”), in which streams of water are sprayed into the air from specific parts of the stage, as well as from the tip of a sword, and even from an assistant’s head.
The British magician ROBERT HELLER was so enamored by Robert-Houdin that he changed his name from William Henry Palmer to Robert Heller, since they both begin with the initials “R.H.,” and performed many of Robert-Houdin’s routines in his act. In the following poster (circa 1860s), Heller is depicted performing The Inexhaustible Bottle in the upper right corner.
Here are some images of famous magicians who performed Any Drink Called For, and I’ll follow these images with more historic stories of the characters involved.
DAVID DEVANT, the great English illusionist and first president of The Magic Circle (in London) performed with a teakettle instead of a bottle. The teakettle was apparently used (in place of a bottle) at the suggestion of Devant’s wife. Here is a publicity poster (circa 1890s) advertising his performances at Maskelyne & Cooke’s Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly.
The following studio photograph depicts British magician OWEN CLARK, who performed at St. George’s Hall in London (and later toured America), and is included here with thanks to David Hibberd of the Magic Circle, London. I’m not certain which of these two similar images came first, but I suspect that it was Devant, who had a much higher profile than Clark.
I don’t know much about the following two poster images, which depict the Any Drink Called For act in a similar fashion to each other – with split streams of multi-colored liquids.
I modeled my own promotional photo on the “split stream” concept in these two posters.
CHARLES HOFFMAN (1895-1965), known professionally as “THINK-A-DRINK” HOFFMAN, performed Any Drink Called For in American vaudeville houses and circuit theaters as a popular variety act.
Hoffman was sometimes promoted as “The Highest Paid Bartender in the World.” His main props included a small bar and several cocktail shakers, from which he poured any drink you could imagine – up to 80 in total during a single performance. There is a nice write-up of Hoffman in the highly detailed book Vaudeville, Old & New, An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, Vol. 1.
Since his act was based on the theme of “prohibition,” a law at that time, audiences loved the fact that they were receiving alcoholic beverages, for free no less! He poured straight or mixed drinks, such as high balls, cocktails, liquors, zombies, coffee and ice cream sodas from metal cocktail shakers which were shown to be empty and from beakers filled with water. These were drinks that were merely thought of by his audience members.
In the December 1951 issue of The Sphinx, a trade magazine for magicians, an article by Jay Palmer entitled “From Keg to Kettle” described the progression of Hoffman’s career:
“Hoffmann’s reason for adding the peculiar prefix “Think A Drink” to his name is the following. When he first introduced his bar act, he used to ask the spectators to call for any drinks they wanted. This, as always occurs in performances of similar nature, caused an uproar in the theatre, scores of thirsty individual’s shouting their “orders”. Hoffman did not like the pandemonium created, and Dr. Tarbell (HARLAN TARBELL) suggested that instead of getting drinks called for, he should ask the spectators to think of any cocktail they fancied. As the idea appealed to him, he immediately adopted it, and added the “Think A Drink” to his surname.”
Bill Palmer (no relation to the author of the Sphinx article) claims that it was BURLING HULL, not Harlan Tarbell, who suggested the name “Think-a-Drink” to Hoffman. Hull’s name will resurface later in the story, as you will see below.
According to historian Milbourne Christopher, a rival Swiss magician named DE ROZE poured martinis, manhattans, beer, milk and soda from pitchers of crystal-clear water. And in fact, several other contemporaries of Hoffman (including VAL VOLTAINE, MYSTIC CRAIG, DELL O’DELL, DANNY DEW, and the Australian LES LEVANTE) performed similar acts, some which spurred high-profile legal battles.
In the July 3, 1943 issue of Billboard magazine, the following article appeared:
DRINK-ACT PROGRAM GETS 4-WAY HOOK-UP
Hoffman, Volta, Maurice and Joan Brandon
NEW YORK, July 3 – The attempt of “Think-a-Drink” Hoffman to prevent alleged imitators from working has developed into a hour-cornered fight among magicians for the right to do the call-out-a-drink routine.
Latest development is the Great Volta retaining an attorney, David Godwin, to protect him against further onslaughts from Hoffman. Volta claims he lost two weeks’ work in Florida because Hoffman’s attorney had warned employers that only Hoffman had the legal right to do the drink act. (Hoffman won an injunction against Maurice Glazer in the Florida courts recently. Glazer also does a drink turn.)
Volta (BURLING VOLTA HULL) has dug up a June 1921 issue of a magicians’ magazine containing an ad of Boole Bros. Magic Shop, owned 60 percent by Volta, and which listed for sale a magic bar act. The ad describes the drink routine in detail and offers for sale the necessary equipment. Volta also claims that DeRosa revived the act in 1932 in Europe and brought it here after Prohibition.
Meanwhile, Maurice’s attorney, Simon Feinstein, says he is preparing suit against Hoffman, and Joan Brandon has entered the fight by having her attorney warn Hoffman that he will be sued if he causes Miss Brandon to lose work.
If you wish to read the legal case and its ruling, I’ve tracked it down on the web. Click here for the Dade County, Florida circuit court ruling, dated November 26, 1943.
Any Drink Called For has been performed more recently on television by British celebrity magician Paul Daniels, and by Las Vegas magician Lance Burton.
The trick has enjoyed a rich history, and I am doing my best to honor the past masters of magic by including it in my Chamber Magic shows at the Waldorf-Astoria. To date, I’ve performed this trick over one thousand times. I don’t think that I, or my audiences, will ever tire of participating in this “magical cocktail party.”