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About the Author:
: Ricky Jay is the author of Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women, and Dice: Deception, Fate, & Rotten Luck, with photographs by Rosamond Purcell (Quantuck Lane, 2002). Considered one of the world's greatest sleight-of-hand artists, he is the former curator of the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts. His heralded one-man shows, "Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants" and "Ricky Jay: On the Stem" were both directed by David Mamet, in whose films Jay has also appeared.
The Faithful Monetto & The Inimitable Dick.
The Nineteenth Century, not so unlike those which preceded and succeeded it, was rich in showmen who appropriated the acts of more illustrious and innovative rivals. As a performer, I can think of no more opprobrious behavior. History, however, affords us a retrospective view which, on occasion, can transform the fatuous into the farcical. When the perpetrator of act-stealing is animal rather than human, our willingness to smile instead of chide is increased, particularly when the performing repertoire can be antedated by many dog years, indeed.
The subject apotheosized in the woodcut below is Monetto, the time-telling, tail-wagging, signifying, studious, and faithful dog presented by the felicitously named Mr. Hoare. The animal was in deed and spirit, although not in appearance, an imitator of Signor Castelli's justly celebrated Munito.
In an era rich in examples of animal scholarship, Munito was a star. Some called him the "Isaac Newton of his race." A highly manicured poodle, he appeared at Laxton's Rooms, New Bond Street, London, in 1817. To commence his act, he was introduced into a circle of pasteboards on which were printed various numbers. With his teeth Munito picked up the correct cards to solve problems in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. For inquiries in the disciplines of geography, botany, and natural history he selected appropriate alphabet cards. He could identify colors and objects and was adept at dominoes, often winning against celebrated competition. He seems to have captured the public's imagination as no other canine star before or since.
Listing the impressive patronage of the Prince Regent and the Duke of York, who not "only beheld him with Astonishment, but gave him their most unbounded Applause," the dog's trainer boasted his ward had "qualifications almost beyond human credibility." As a keepsake of the exhibition, one could purchase an Historical Account of the Life and Habits of the Learned Dog Munito, by A Friend to Beasts. Such was the poodle's fame that a translation of his memoirs was available in Dutch, and likenesses of him appeared on souvenir prints and on china plates which were sold in London, Paris, and Amsterdam.
After his initial success in England, Munito traveled to the Continent, no doubt to fulfill contractual obligations. When he returned to London, advertisements cleverly announced his "having been abroad for some time to finish his education." Actually, it was his newly found endurance which was most impressive, as Munito was now appearing every hour from twelve until five o'clock at No. 1 Leicester Square (previously at Laxton's Rooms he had shown only at three and seven o'clock). Even though Munito had in the interim obtained a medal from the Humane Society for "having saved the life of a lady in the most extraordinary manner," the price of admission to his revue remained one shilling. (This was a substantial sum well beyond the means of many Londoners.)
Such was the poodle's impact that forty-five years after witnessing his show Charles Dickens was able to recall Munito's repertoire. A magic fancier and amateur conjurer himself, Dickens admitted to being fooled by the dog's "canswering questions, telling the hour of the day, the day of the week or date of the month, and picking out any cards called for from a pack spread on the ground."
Dickens witnessed the performance a second time and "watched more narrowly . . . We noted that between each feat the master gave the dog some small bits of some sort of food, and that there was a faint smell of aniseed from that corner of the room. We noticed that the dog, as he passed round the circle of cards with his nose down and his eyes directed to the ground, never pounced on the right card as his eyes covered it, but turned back and picked it out. It was clear that he chose it by the smell and not by . . . sight. We recalled that each time before the dog began his circuit, the master arranged and settled the cards, and we then found that he pressed the fleshy part of his thumb on the particular card the dog was to draw, which thumb he previously put into his waistcoat-pocket for an instant, and as he passed close to us, his waistcoat had an aniseed scent. After the performance we remained until the room was clear, and then spoke to the master. He did not deny the discovery of his principle."
This scenario has a surprisingly modern ring, not in the performance of the dog but rather in the interchange between the amateur and professional conjurer. In the time-honored tradition the amateur, thoroughly fooled, returns to scrutinize the show. He intuits a method which, although almost certainly incorrect (or at best providing only a partial explanation), satisfies him. He now confronts the conjurer (unlike many of his present-day counterparts, Dickens had the courtesy to wait for the room to clear) and proudly announces his theory. The performer smiles and says nothing. This the amateur interprets as a sign of assent. Convinced of his remarkable powers of observation and analysis, the tyro departs, basking in the glow of self-congratulation.
The most logical explanation of Munito's methods is provided in E. de Tarade's Education du Chien (Paris, 1866). According to the author, it was Munito's exceptional sense of sound, not smell, which was exploited by his presenter. As Munito circled the cards with an "air of reflection," the trainer would, at the appropriate time, make an almost inaudible clicking noise with his fingernail or a toothpick. This would alert the dog to the proper selection. To further disguise the method, the sound was made with the trainer's hand concealed in his pocket.
Munito was presented by a Signor Castelli. There is speculation that Nief, a Dutch trainer, assumed the name of Castelli, as Italians were thought to be more intriguing than showmen from Holland in the early nineteenth century.
Although the dog's fame was extraordinary, it never lived up to the prediction of the usually astute circus historian, Hugues Le Roux, who proclaimed in 1889 that "Munito . . . seems to have as much chance of being remembered as Archimedes the Syracusian."
Monetto, on the other hand, may be remembered only by the woodcut herein reproduced. From his carriage one would imagine him more likely to point out partridge than to tell the time on a gentleman's pocket-watch. His rustic appearance is most unlike that of the elegantly coifed poodle that preceded him on the boards.
Nicholas Hoare, Monetto's exhibitor, survives in almost a dozen playbills I have seen, none of which, however, mentions his faithful dog. Although Sidney Clarke in his Annals of Conjuring (London, 1929) dismisses Hoare in a single line as a "small fry," the showman presented a pleasing if fairly standard early-nineteenth-century magic show. Torn or burnt cards were restored, coins were vanished and subsequently reappeared, pancakes were fried in a gentleman's hat, playing cards were transformed into small animals, and a rooster was decapitated and his head then reaffixed.
Hoare's fame, what trifle exists, is due almost entirely to his exhibition of trained animals. In addition to Monetto, he presented an unnamed learned goose, and the eponymy of learned pigs, "Toby the Sapient Swine." Mr. Hoare, for all his faults as an imitative showman, was the instigator, if not the author, of one of the great examples of genre literature. The Life and Adventures of Toby the Sapient Pig, with his Opinion of Men and Manners (London, c. 1817) is an autobiography which, viewed with my myopic eyes, equals in stature those of Franklin, Cellini, and Robert-Houdin. It is a far better read than The Dog of Knowledge, or Memoirs of Bob, the Spotted Terrier, Supposed to be written by Himself (London, 1801).
Originality was a quality sought, but rarely achieved, by generation after generation of itinerant showmen. Trained dogs had been exhibited since Roman antiquity, but caused little excitement when compared to more exotic examples of brute creation. The appearance of "learned" dogs became popular in the eighteenth century, and a remarkable volume, Tractaetlein mit Hundedressurkunststucken, was published in Germany (c. 1730). It contained numerous hand-colored copperplate engravings showing its canine star selecting cards, totaling dice, spelling words, and returning borrowed objects to their rightful owners — almost a century before Munito mounted the stage.
Even "Bobby, the Handcuff Dog," the terrier owned and presented by Houdini in 1918 (he was, if we are to believe his master, capable of extricating himself from ropes, handcuffs, and a pooch-sized strait-jacket), had his progenitor in Emile, the Newfoundland star of a "doggie-drama" at the Cirque Olympique in Paris. One of the highlights of the French production was the dog's impressive release from the restraints which bound him and his master.
Another Dog who mastered the act of a human star was the "Inimitable Dick," a talented poodle who through diligent effort re-created Loïe Fuller's "Serpentine Dance."
Loïe Fuller, a most unlikely star of vaudeville and music hall, was born in Fullersberg, Illinois, in 1862. She was a singer, dancer, and actress of no great distinction. While rehearsing a play in 1890, she held up the folds of her long and flimsy gown to avoid tripping. As she gathered and swirled the diaphanous material the spotlight bouncing off her dress created a startling effect.
Loïe capitalized on this chance discovery and choreographed a series of dances involving multiple beams of light projected through colored gels onto the folds of her costume. Often her dresses consisted of hundreds of yards of material which were enhanced with wire frameworks to aid in their manipulation. The flower dance, the mirror dance, the butterfly dance, the fire dance, and the serpentine dance brought her praise, profit, and fame. Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis heralded her as a pioneer. (The approbation, however, was not universal. As one critic related, "she stood stock still and only moved her arms." Her dance, he said, looked like an exercise "routine with Indian Clubs.")
She played the major European theaters, but was particularly heralded by the French, who in a pre-Jerry Lewis frenzy embraced her as "La Loïe." Her Théâtre de Loïe Fuller was the leading attraction of the 1900 World Exposition in Paris. Her image, often much more flatteringly rendered than nature allowed, was immortalized in posters by Cheret, Pal, Meunier, Orazi, and Toulouse-Lautrec. She spawned numerous imitators, human and canine.
Under the tutorship of Miss Doré, an eccentric clown and animal trainer, the poodle named Dick appeared at the Alhambra in London doing a jam-up version of Loïe Fuller's serpentine dance. The act was a resounding success. Moving to the Théâtre des Nouveautés in the revue "Paris-qui-passe," the dog received star billing as "La Nouvelle Loïe Fuller" and "L' Inimitable Dick."
The idea for Dick's performance, and indeed Dick himself, was supplied by Pierre Hachet-Souplet, the respected animal trainer and author of the classic Le Dressage des Animaux. Hachet-Souplet's little black poodle was already capable of walking up four flights of stairs on his hind legs and then executing a five-minute waltz without once lowering his forepaws. Miss Doré took advantage of Dick's natural talents in her theatrical staging. The bells and bracelets Dick formerly wore on his legs were replaced with extension sticks necessary for the serpentine dance. With Dick's forepaw turned back against his shoulder, a stick positioned almost like a rifle at rest helped him to perform the butterfly dance. A light robe, fourteen meters in circumference, was draped on the dog. When stationary, he seemed engulfed in fabric, but when Dick began to waltz the garment would waft gracefully, allowing the dog to re-create Loïe's rose dance.
For Dick's French debut in "Paris-qui-passe," the master of ceremonies, M. Germain, opened with a comic tune about the serpentine dance. Suddenly a spotlight appeared stage left. As the orchestra played Loïe Fuller's signature waltz, a peculiar form, seemingly Lilliputian, appeared, wearing a gold robe and a blond doll wig. As it took mincing steps toward center stage the audience began to comprehend, some shouting audibly, "It's a dog." Dick began to pirouette while the projector changed the color of his costume successively from red, to blue, to violet. Then, with leaps of two meters at a time, Dick propelled himself toward the wings, his movements shaking free his dress so that his puffed poodle tail came into view just as he disappeared offstage.
For a finale, "The Inimitable Dick" mounted a platform in a costume of light blue silk. An enormous blacksmith's bellows concealed in the framework inflated Dick's dress so that it rose in the air and fanned out around him in imitation of Loïe Fuller and in anticipation of Marilyn Monroe.
Dick proved everything but "inimitable" as, according to a Düsseldorf trade paper, he spawned imitators in four countries — some twenty different dogs tried to appropriate his highly successful act. All, it was said, were inferior to the model. Miss Kosiki, Tchernoff, Parker, and Néraguet were some of the transgressing trainers; but they all fared better than another presenter, Professor Richard. The latter advertised the serpentine dancing dog act in colored lithographs for appearances at the famous café-concert-cum-music hall, the Alcazar d' Été. He was dragged to court and enjoined from using the term "creator" (of the dog Loïe Fuller act) on his advertising material. Richard was sentenced at the Tribunal of Commerce at the Seine on April 24,1895.
*Endnotes were omitted
Copyright © 2001 Ricky Jay
|The Faithful Monetto & The Inimitable Dick||3|
|Edward Bright: The Gazing Stock and Admiration of all People||9|
|The Bonassus: Verbal Deception Deciphered||17|
|Fact & Crucifixion||25|
|The Smallest Show on Earth: or, Parasites for Sore Eyes||35|
|Grinners, Gurners & Grimaciers||45|
|Isaac Fawkes: Surprizing Dexterity of Hand||53|
|Dancing on the Ceiling||65|
|Magical Mayhem: or, The Celebrated Nose Amputation||75|
|The Wizard of the North and the Aztec Lilliputians||83|
|The Gnome Fly||95|
|Subterfuge at Skittles: or, Bowling for Blacklegs||105|
|The Ultimate Diet: The Art and Artifice of Fasting||115|
|Suspensions of Disbelief||135|
|The Automaton Chess Player, The Invisible Girl & The Telephone||147|
Posted October 26, 2008
No text was provided for this review.