December 31, 2016

Photo Essay: To the Bell Tower

In Havana, there are five historic squares, each plaza devoted to its own cause: Old Town, the revolution, arms, St. Francis, and the cathedral.

The cathedral in question at Plaza de la Catedral is that of San Cristóbal—or Saint Christopher, supposedly named after Christopher Columbus, who was not, in fact, a saint.

While our guide tried to direct our attention around the 18th century plaza, a former swamp that once functioned as a navy yard...

...I couldn't take my eyes off of that great, baroque church...

...or its bell towers.

Made of locally-quarried limestone, its ornate exterior appears actually to be that of two different cathedrals...

...because its two towers were built during different time periods—and only one of them by the Jesuits before they were expelled from Cuba in 1767.

 The Franciscans finished the job over the course of the next decade.

It's unusual to see a monument in the baroque style to have such an asymmetrical facade...

...and even more unusual to be able to spot so many marine fossils in the surface of the stone.

The inside of the cathedral has been stripped down to a more neoclassical style, with colored light filtering through the stained glass and ornamenting the stone pillars and vaulted ceilings.

As I had been gazing up at its beauty, a man (who I presumed to be a local) asked me, "Do you like our cathedral?" And when I said yes, he told me, "You know, you can go up into the tower..." I told him I didn't think I had the time. After all, most of the stops on our tour of Havana were all too brief.

I was about to rejoin the group in the plaza when I caught wind of one of my fellow American tourists convincing the bell tower ticket guy to accept her U.S. dollar in place of a Cuban convertible peso. I actually didn't have any Cuban or U.S. currency on me (having brought Euros to skip the fees at the foreign currency exchange), so I scrambled to borrow a dollar from someone and ran back to plead with him on my own behalf, "Por favor..."

I knew that climbing that tower would make me late, but I didn't care.

After all, I could still see my group from up there.

I could call out to them if I wanted to.

But I was too busy gazing out at the other tower, the clock tower...

...and examining the bells in my tower as I climbed as high as I could get...

...until I reached the top.

Over the course of my life, I've spent too much time gazing up at towers rather than climbing up into them.

Yes, all that climbing does make me late sometimes. But if anybody's looking for me, you can just look up to the highest height, peel back the curtain, and step into the darkest corner—and there, I'll be.

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December 30, 2016

Photo Essay: The Mysteries of the Pasadena Magic House & Museum

There's a Craftsman-style house in Pasadena, where it's not all that special to be a Craftsman house.

But this house is different.

Depending on who you ask, the house was built in 1906 or 1907—around the same time as the housing subdivision (then known as "Prospect Square") was created. It was designed by architect W.J. Saunders for a "society woman" named Ella Bartlett, who lived there (rather unhappily) for a time with her second husband Charles S. Eaton.

Truth be told, she preferred the company of a single lady named Margaret Pence, who became her companion after Charles scandalously divorced her on grounds of physical and emotional abuse.

But that's not the most fascinating story that this house has to tell.

This California Stick Chalet-style bungalow...

...built along "Prospect Creek"...

...on the Prospect Park Tract in the Prospect Historic District...

...has a secret collection inside of it.

There are some clues to what's in store for you once you get past the exterior gingerbread details—but only if you look closely at the light fixtures... the garden for fairies...

...and investigate what hangs from the trees.

Particularly in the twilight hours, it feels magical...


...and even devilish.

This is the so-called "Magic House," the private residence of professional magicians (and spouses) Mike Caveney and Tina Lenert.

By the time of its construction, Harry Houdini had already successfully completed the "Mirror Handcuff" escape in London and had escaped from the Washington D.C. prison that once held President Garfield's assassin.

But although Houdini is probably the only turn-of-the-century magician that anybody knows by name anymore, he certainly wasn't the only one of the time.

Inside the Magic House, you can get to know many of Houdini's lesser-known contemporaries through the artifacts collected here.

Mike and Tina have spent years accruing ephemera, memorabilia, and what-have-you of some of the greats from throughout the "Golden Age of Magic."

They've got a library that's stacked floor-to-ceiling with various tomes...

...and the creepy faces that peer out from in between them.

Sure, some of it may be gimmicky.

Some of it may be so incredibly simple that a child could learn to do it.

But where the real mysteries lie is behind the door to the "Egyptian Hall," a recreation / relocation of an extensive private collection that dates back to 1895 in Kenton, Ohio.

The Egyptian Hall Museum contains one of the world's most comprehensive collections of actual performance posters from stage magicians like "Alexander, The Man Who Knows" (a.k.a. "Alexander the Crystal Seer") and Chung Ling Soo, the magician who was discovered not to be Chinese after he was shot to death onstage during one of his tricks that went miserably wrong.

There are also escape barrels...

...vintage publications...

...a magic chair...

...and even the pillory from vaudeville headliner "The Great Leon."

You can find a carousel of magic wands...

...that were used by many different famous magicians... well as various decks of cards...

...and other props for card tricks... well as some trick cards.

The Egyptian Hall Museum collection has expanded over time, of course—and it's gotten shuffled around, too.

The whole thing was relocated from Ohio to Tennessee in the 1950s...

...and in 1999, it was sold once again and split between Mike in Pasadena and fellow collector George Daily in Pennsylvania.

Since Mike is still a performing magician (who you might find at The Magic Castle), and he's still collecting, anybody who's got something magical to sell or give away knows who to contact.

More often than not, it's junk. But Mike is the kind of guy who's got to chase every goose... just in case.

And every now and then, he stumbles across something so unique, he's got to have it.

It just has to have some connection to magic—even if it's a snoring cessation device made of wire nostril expanders that was invented, marketed, and (unsuccessfully) sold by Thurston the Great Magician.

Upon your visit to the Magic House, Mike might treat you to one of his own professional routines...

...but don't expect him to tell you all of the secrets behind them.

Magic tends to be better when it's left a mystery.

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