last four years of his life, one of Orson Welles' closest friends was
Jim Steinmeyer, who was at that time a young magician who had just arrived
in Los Angeles. Steinmeyer has since emerged as, in the words of one magazine
profile, "the best living originator of stage illusions," developing
and planning magic for talent as diverse as Doug Henning, David Copperfield,
and Harry Blackstone. In an interview in May 2003, Steinmeyer recalled
to me his
friendship with Welles, their creative collaboration, his involvement
with a few of the many Welles films which never came to fruition, and
the ways in which magic provides a meaningful context to view Welles'
Jim Steinmeyer: Well, let's see, I think I met him in '81. I came out to Los Angeles in the early summer of '81 to work with Doug Henning, who was a magician at that time who was working, and I was hired by him to work with him. And a number of friends of mine out here were magicians who worked with Welles as kind of consultants and helpers and assistants for his magic projects. At that time he used to do, you know, he would regularly do something on The Merv Griffin Show when he appeared or--I don't think The Dean Martin Show was still running--but shows like that. So he always had people that he worked with on that level, who helped him with those projects. My friend Mike Caveney, who lives out here and was a performing magician, and another friend, Don Keller, used to help Orson kind of regularly on those. Don Wayne, also used to help him at that time.
And so I knew them and they used to talk about working with him. And Don Keller gave him a book I had just written on magic that was an historical book about stage magic and was published in Chicago before I came out here. Don said, "Oh, I gave Orson Welles your book and he really loves it." And I said, "Oh, that's great." "Well he's gonna call you." And of course, I thought, "Yeah, mm-hmm." [Laughter] And at that time, I was staying in some little--because I was out here for ostensibly six months working with Doug--so I was staying at some little studio apartment at the Oakwood, just over the hill from Hollywood. And one night, you know, I come back and there's a message on my machine and it's Orson Welles! And you think, this is completely unbelievable. So I went to meet him.
The first time
I met him, I went with Mike Caveney and they were shooting a little magic
segment I don't really know what for. I don't know if it was footage that
ended up... I have a memory that this footage was not stuff that ended
up in his magic special [The Magic Show (1976-1985; uncompleted)].
But, see, what he did was he shot all that stuff himself and then I think
several of those pieces--and I think this was one of them--was ostensibly
shot for some
PT: I've seen that actually. The Munich Filmmuseum has most of his unfinished films and have been assembling the raw footage and putting it together into presentable forms. And I've seen that as part of an assembly of material intended for The Magic Show. So it would have ended up in that, apparently.
JS: Okay, that makes sense. So anyway, I was there the night that they filmed that. And it was a really, really, really tiny studio and he was--and since you've just seen it--as I recall, part of it he was just smoking a cigar and blowing smoke through it all. And it was a studio that was really kind of like 15 X 15 feet and they were doing a little camera move in it too, so they had track down. It was almost impossible to be anywhere. What was funny was that what you ended up with--because of the camera move and everything--was that staying out of the way meant you were kind of laying on the ground, really close to him, kind of crouched down really low to not be in his eye line. It took hours and hours and hours, because it was all one long take and he did it again and again and again. Just fantastic. And the presentation was fantastic and his voice was unbelievable. And we all stunk like cigar smoke at the end as we left.
And he said, "Oh, I'll call you and we'll have dinner sometime." And he did. And I went down to his house and drove him to Ma Maison, which was weird, because I was driving a little rented Mustang at the time--and he was not self-conscious of that at all. And we went to Ma Maison.
So I knew him between '81 and when he died in 85. When I was in L.A., we kind of had dinner maybe once a week, certainly once every two weeks. And I would certainly talk to him once or twice a week. What was slightly weird was that I didn't really work with him that much. And for about three of those Merv Griffin things, I was sort of pressed into service to put them together for him. He talked to me about kind of other projects and some of these were pieces that we were building, in a very leisurely way, that he wanted for his magic special.
But, you know, at the same time Mike Caveney was doing these, and Don Keller, and I didn't really become one of those guys that he just sort of worked with. Occasionally, like I say, he asked me to help with some of those, but mostly it was kind of conversation about magic and other things, like politics. I remember several evenings there, thinking, This is ridiculous that I'm here. [Laughter] Think of who would want to be talking to him about his films. But, you know, I also was aware that I guess that's part of the reason I was there. Because he wanted to talk about other things. He wanted to talk about magic and historical magic--he was really, really knowledgeable about that. I probably don't need to say that. But as far as magicians go, he really was amazing about his insights: the people he knew, the people he'd seen, the stories he had. He talked to me about a magician named Thurston, who he had seen as a boy, about what he was like. And David Bamberg... he trained with David Bamberg and he was taught the floating ball routine by his father.
So we talked a lot about magic and we used to talk about certainly politics and kind of what was happening in the day. And he certainly did talk about his films, although I sort of didn't feel like what I wanted to do was be the guy saying, "Tell me about the scene in Citizen Kane (1941) where you did..." You know.
PT: Right, he was probably pretty sick of that...
JS: Because everyone in the world could do that and I kind of realized he didn't want that, that wasn't of interest to him.
PT: So did you two kind of hit it off immediately?
JS: I would say so. He was really amazing and I also have to say he was really an amazing friend. I remember him calling once and, you know, kind of saying, "What's going on? What are you working on? How are you doing?" And I said, "I'm fine." "Well, you don't sound fine. We should get together."
And, you know, he was fascinating on any subject. I mean, the stories were unbelievable. He loved to go to Ma Maison. He said that the reason he always went there was because they let him bring the dog and he used to go in the back entrance with the dog...
PT: And this was his black poodle?
JS: This was his black poodle, Kiki, who was just nasty. [Laughter] I mean, it was a sweet little dog, but it was one of those dogs that would bark when you get up to leave. You know, it would go for your ankles when you leave! But Kiki was great with him. He always kind of had Kiki in the crook of his arm and then he would put her down on the chair next to him.
So he used to go there, because he could bring the dog. A European thing. They have fantastic food. They were really nice, obsequious to him. But there was a point where going there was a little silly, I used to think. And I didn't quite know what to do. Sometimes I would bring Chinese food. I think I found a place in Glendale that had some stuff that he liked. And it was just nicer because it was a little more low-key, you know, rather than go into that place.
Then I went to New York to do this show--Doug Henning was doing a show on Broadway. And while we were planning it, Orson came through New York I think twice. My memory is twice. But I used to talk to him on the phone and I saw him when he came through New York a couple times and stayed at, I think, the Carlyle. It was on the Upper East Side.
And then shortly
after that, I came back to Los Angeles and was working with Doug again
with other performers and I continued to see him now and then. I think
after that is sort of when he asked me to put together a couple of these
segments. And that's when we were also talking about segments for The
Magic Show. So that would have been '83, '84, into '85. And I did,
like I said, a couple of the Merv Griffin things. There were all sorts
of stories about how
But I did talk
to him about various things. We talked about shooting The Cradle Will
Rock in Italy (1). It was going to be done in an Italian film studio.
And that fell apart.
Years before, we'd talked once about something--I think it was him that said, "Oh this would make a great script." And we talked about it a little bit, about kind of a turn of the century magician.
PT: I was going to ask you about that. Jonathan Rosenbaum mentions that project in his afterward to the published screenplay of The Cradle Will Rock ( Orson Welles. Santa Barbara: Santa Teresa Press, 1994)...
JS: Yeah, I think he got that from me. I kind of forget what I had said to him.
Orson and I talked about a story. I know what it was hinged on. I remember the elements, the kind of truthful elements to it. It was kind of based on Harry Kellar, who was an American magician who retired in 1908. And Kellar toured the world a lot, working at a time when some of his audience thought it was real magic and part of the audience didn't. Which was kind of the last generation and the last opportunity to really be doing that in big cities, in civilized countries, even if at times it was a third world.
And I know that really interested Orson. He certainly had never seen Kellar, but he knew about him. I think that was the element of it that sort of got him excited, that whole element of this kind of exotic tour and being right on the edge of it being real or not. And I remember there was a great story that was from Walter Gibson. Walter Gibson was a writer who did The Shadow and certainly Orson knew him. He didn't do the scripts, he wrote the books and created the character, under the name of Maxwell Grant. And Walter told me years ago about touring with Blackstone--this would have been in the '40s--and watching the levitation illusion of Blackstone's. He used to go in the basement, under the stage, and watch the machinery work from below. And that's how he used to watch what was happening on the stage--he would watch the machinery rising and falling underneath and he knew how it all connected.
And I remember Orson was really fascinated with that kind of thing, of this sort of disconnected machinery working. I kind of remember that he was saying, "That's a great scene because the great way to portray magic is to see some fantastic apparatus and not necessarily know how it connects." In other words, to see some wonderful piece of machinery and then see some fantastic effect on stage. But then you don't necessarily know how ....
PT: ...how it fits together.
JS: Right, but you realize that there's a lot of work involved. I think that that's sort of where that whole thing of watching the footsteps through the holes in the stage came from that ended up at the beginning of Cradle Will Rock. I mean, no one ever did that. You just wouldn't do that. That's just preposterous and Orson knew that. But I think that was completely his idea and that he quickly kind of fell in love with that, the whole thing of watching the little holes and watching the lights go out in the holes and everyone following.
And then fast
forward a year or so later, whenever he was writing Cradle Will Rock,
he was talking to me about it. And he told me a lot about that production
originally. He was very proud of it and it was really magical--it was
all based in stage illusion. And I know he thought that one of the problems
with it was that the magic didn't really look great. The real magic wouldn't
look great translated to film and so that he would need to goose it for
the film. And I think that was sort of why he applied that scene going
on onstage and the scene going on beneath the stage and all the men following
everything. And then it turned into his entrance in the film, how he comes
through the bag.
As you're probably aware, when he died, the next day he was supposed to start shooting. He had explained what else he wanted to shoot to put this together. And we had outlined things and he was going to shoot at UCLA [the next day], he had a theatre.
So he assembled in his mind how that was going to go together, but I have a feeling that that Abu Kahn narrative was kind of shot as short segments. And then over the years, he'd sort of figured out how he wanted it assembled.
PT: Yes, because he did work on it for so long.
JS: Yeah, absolutely.
PT: In the chronology at the back of This Is Orson Welles (Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, HaperCollins, New York, 1992) there's an entry in 1976 which says something to the effect of, "Work begun on The Magic Show"--or what became The Magic Show.
JS: Yeah, I don't know if he had planned how the footage would finally be used. Some of the segments might not have been intended for one project. He shot magic that he liked, or intended the segments to be used in other television specials.
one routine we worked on. I'll tell you what it was all hinged on. It
was that Alexander Graham Bell at the end of his life was working on a
machine to talk to the dead. And Orson thought that was just fantastic,
that kind of mix of technology and pseudo-science. And we talked about
a routine that was a spirit cabinet. A spirit cabinet is a really old
thing that in fact Kellar would have done. The tradition of it was that
it was a really old, wooden cabinet and ghosts would appear. And Orson
wanted to do one that was quite technological. He would get an older lady
up from the audience and then an image of her would actually appear in
this cabinet at a certain point. And I know he filmed it because I was
in New York at the time. I was quite surprised because one time I talked
to him, he said, "We're going to shoot the spirit cabinet at the
Variety Arts Theatre and we're going to do it next week." A friend
of mine, Don Bice, was involved, because Don told me all about it. So
I know it was shot, but I never saw anything about it... I kind of felt
Orson wasn't really happy with it. (3)
JS: Yeah, of course. The only guy that knows about that--I say that because even Oja [Kodar] was kind of in town and out of town during these things--is Gary Graver, because he shot all of it. This [the spirit cabinet routine] would have been kind of '82, end of '81, beginning of '82, I think when this was shot.
I worked with
him on a couple of things that I guess were slated for The Magic Show.
One was an antique piece of apparatus, called the "card star."
And it was this kind of thing that looked like an antenna with five points
on it. He would throw a deck of cards at it and a card would stick to
each point of the star. And we had a really nice routine worked out for
that, for the card star--really wonderful handling of that. And then we
had built a spirit painting effect, which was really a beautiful effect
that hadn't been done since Vaudeville. I think it was kind of one of
the first things I worked on with him. It sort of came out of conversation.
We talked about some improvements and how to change it around a little
bit. So we had the apparatus made and he was really happy with it. And
I kind of thought, "Oh, this will be something he'll do on television."
Well, he said, "Oh, no, this is too good, this is too good. We're
not going to do this on Merv Griffin. This is too good for that show."
PT: Did you know Oja Kodar well?
JS: I wouldn't
say I knew Oja Kodar well. She was in town and out of town--sometimes
she was out of the country. She wasn't a magic fan. She kind of said that,
she kind of joked about that. I really liked her. I thought she was really
smart and really perceptive. And just kind of as a person that was around,
I have to say I thought a lot of her. I thought she was really talented
My observation is that they really loved each other.
PT: And, you know, she worked on so many of his late projects...
I mean, it's astonishing.
PT: Peter Bogdanovich has talked about how disarming Welles was in person. We've kind of talked about this a little already, but it took people off-guard because they were expecting some kind of tyrant. Is that an impression you'd share?
JS: Oh, I would say so. Again, I've heard stories of working with him. You know, I've certainly heard that tape of him doing those ridiculous British commercials, you know, where he blows up. And so you know there's a guy there that's capable of that. But, no, it was completely the opposite, and it was incredibly disarming. I think that's absolutely right. He was really pleasant. He really, really listened to people. He could talk intelligently about just about anything.
I'll tell you a story that's a really good example of this, of just how... I remember going to dinner with him. It wasn't long before he died. Maybe a year before he died. And something was bothering him. I mean, I remember thinking that I could probably have gone back and figured out what it was. I don't know if it was when the financing for Cradle Will Rock fell apart or all the goofy stuff about selling the sled when Spielberg bought it. (4) Something was bothering him. And I guess I was supposed to be--you know, he wanted to go to dinner and he wanted a diversion and I guess I was supposed to be it.
We were at Ma Maison and I didn't know what I was supposed to say. I would mention something and he would sort of dismiss it, in a slightly grumpy, in a slightly depressed way. And I remember one of the things I said to him was that I had just read Preston Sturges' first play, Strictly Dishonorable, and what a really great play it was. And he kind of said, "Oh, yeah, yeah, I saw that." That was what the whole conversation was like. If you started something, he would dismiss it. And I knew that there was something else on his mind, so I was thinking, "Okay, I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing here."
Then there was this long silence. Just as I'm starting to think, "Well, he didn't see it, but he doesn't want to talk about it," he kind of looked up and he said, Tulio Carmanate played the Latin lover in that." And he said also, "Antoinette Perry was in it when I saw it, but she didn't do it for a long time." And he said, "You know, that was also the role that made Cesar Romero a star when Carmanate left." Well, you know, I had just read the cast list and he was completely right. And then he proceeded to slowly recall the entire thing and all the fine points of that story. Just right after I had kind of thought that he was just trying to cut off the conversation.
So, you know, it was really disarming because he really had seen all this stuff! [Laughter] He had really done it all and had really been there. And you couldn't underestimate that. I learned you really had to be careful of dismissing anything he said. I know that there all the stories about him kind of exaggerating stories. I would imagine he probably did exaggerate some stories. But he had experienced an awful lot and had interesting insights on it all.
PT: Were you in touch with him right up until his death?
JS: Well, I
was there the night at the Griffin show. (5) I met Barbara Leaming that
night and was supposed to go to dinner with him afterwards and begged
off. One of the reasons I begged off is because I was shooting a television
show at the time and I had to be on a set down in Marina Del Ray early
in the morning. So he went off to dinner with Barbara Leaming. And I was
on the set all day and when I got back to my apartment, 4 o'clock or 5
o'clock, there were all sorts of messages on the machine.
PT: I haven't seen too many of the Merv Griffin appearances, but that's one I have seen and it's pretty great.
JS: You know,
I have to tell you, I don't know why he did those. [Laughs] Because having
been there two or three times--and, in fact, that night I had to go and
have Merv Griffin shuffle the deck. That was part of what Orson wanted--he
wanted someone to shuffle ahead of time. And I took the deck into Merv
Griffin to shuffle to give it to him. And, you know, none of those people
were interested in him doing that stuff. I mean, I'm involved in magic
but, the people on the show didn't care. And I couldn't quite understand
why he felt a need always to do the magic.
really interesting. I think you might actually be right. I hadn't thought
about that before. How would you rate Welles as a magician?
Technically, you had to be really careful not to underestimate him. He was self-conscious about performing sleight of hand that he used to be able to do. I remember, it's funny, he always liked handling bridge-sized cards, narrow cards, which looked small for him, I thought. But he always liked handling bridge cards. I remember once having a conversation with him talking about how he used to do a one-hand top palm really well, which is a move--I gotta tell you, for someone not doing magic very often--isn't an easy move. It's a real knack. And then he picked up the cards and went bang-bang-bang and did a one-hand top palm and I saw and he really did do it. He pointed out to me how his hands now shake a little and because of that sometimes it doesn't fall exactly right. But there's no question he had real skills technically.
I think he
has a reputation among magicians of having done some incredibly complicated,
overly complicated tricks on those guest appearances. My observation was
that he tended to over think magic and when he had doubts about it and
he would complicate it in an effort to make it more interesting. And so
he would add another layer to the presentation and then he would add another
layer to the presentation. And there were a couple of Tonight Show
appearances and things where things went wrong. The presentations
had been so complicated that it was building up to a miracle and, of course,
there was no way that it could pay off. I think that's the criticism of
him, doing those complicated presentations. My observation is that if
he spent too much time... if he spent two full weeks on something planning
it, it got too complicated because he would second-guess it. But if you
said to him, "I think that's too much," he'd go, "Okay,
fine." And I think people seldom said that to him. No one ever said,
"I don't think you need to do that, Orson."Because, you know,
if Orson Welles was saying, "This is what we're going to do,"
they went, "Okay, fine."
PT: I was just going to mention that as an example of this...
JS: Some of that goes too far. I don't if his ability to solve problems was a problem, because he really did know what he could get away with. And sometimes that works as a detriment. Almost being too clever like that. Because you know every trick, and you know what the audience will let you get away with, you sometimes are tying yourself up in knots.
PT: An observation I've made about The Dreamers footage--since I'm familiar with it--is how he was able to achieve such expressive effects with very, very little in the way of production resources. The film was to be a period piece set in the 19th century, but the material he shot was filmed essentially in his living room and backyard in Hollywood. And I think things like that make it easy for one to form some tenuous connections... the whole idea of the director as an illusionist.
JS: I remember him talking about, incredibly, simple things like using carpets for camera moves, dragging carpets. But you realize that he was really in those positions to need that at the last minute. And he wasn't intimidated by any of that. He wasn't intimidated at kind of changing directions and doing something slightly different.
I think he did approach a lot of things kind of as a magic show, that he looked at creating the most effect from anything--what it was all about was creating an individual effect in someone's mind and that you want to leave them with an impression. You know, in a magic show, there aren't any base hits. You either hit a home run or nothing happens. So every bit of psychology and every bit of that has to be organized like that.
selfishly thinking when he died--I think I was 27--that I might have met
the most interesting person of my life at 27. He was a remarkable person.
Cradle Will Rock was a screenplay written by Welles in 1984. Welles
was originally approached to direct a film detailing his efforts to stage
the Marc Blitzstein play of the same title in the 1930s. Though initially
reluctant to direct, he eventually ended up discarding the Ring Lardner
authored screenplay and rewriting it himself with the intent of directing.
(3) This material
is not included in the Munich Filmmuseum's aforementioned assembly of
material intended for The Magic Show.