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Magician's Escape Trunk

Escape trunk, restraining devices, and curtain used by magician Ben Bergor of Madison, Wisconsin, 1940s.
(Museum objects #1982.159.17,19,21,23,25)

Ben Bergor was a Madison-born and Madison-based performer and booking agent, who from the 1910s through the 1950s worked in tent shows, vaudeville, burlesque, fairgrounds, school lyceums, dance halls, trade shows, sports shows, community festivals, and movie houses, adapting his theatrical and musical talents to ever-changing popular entertainment venues. He was especially skilled at magic, escape, sleight-of-hand, and emceeing, though he tried his hand as well at ventriloquism and piano playing. He wrote gags and scripts for other performers, and booked all manner of shows, especially for labor organizations.

He is most remembered, however, as an escape artist. He and his wife, Alvina, who performed as Madame Alva, made history in the world of escape tricks with their "original combination trunk and straitjacket escape and substitution." The trick won the Wisconsin Houdini Club trophy for three consecutive years, and received plaudits from Harry Houdini's widow. The trunk is featured here. Had Ben and Alva not been very similar in size, the trick would not have been possible. Bergor himself made the trunk, then persuaded the Wehrmann trunk manufacturing company of Madison to give him a label, but only after the company examined it to make sure it was worthy of their label.

Ben Goldenberger was born in 1893 and lived in a brick house in the first block of North Hamilton Street in Madison, only a block from the State Capitol. He and his older sister, Olivia, were both interested in entertaining, and were encouraged by their mother and maternal grandmother. Olivia sang as a contralto with the Mary Garden Opera Company of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera Company of New York. Ben's talents ran in a different direction. He never graduated from high school, but received at least a few weeks of special music training at the University of Wisconsin before abandoning education for a very brief career as a boxer, then as an actor, musician, and dancer in tent and medicine shows. Harry Bostock, a Madison optometrist and magician, took Ben under his wing and cultivated his childhood interest in magic tricks.

After service in World War I, where he suffered shell-shock, Ben turned to vaudeville, music, burlesque, and magic in Wisconsin, Chicago, and occasionally New York, performing under a variety of surnames that from various emanations of the name "Goldenberger," legally changing his name to Bergor sometime in the 1940s. While in Chicago he performed sleight-of-hand on the city's experimental television station in the 1930s, perhaps the first such performance on television in the U.S.

After a long courtship, he married Alvina and settled permanently in Madison in the early 1930s. He soon incorporated Alva into his magic acts, and he added his two daughters (known as Jean and Joan to the public, but as Monona and Elvora privately) to the act, beginning when they were look-alike toddlers. The family appeared in many types of shows, particularly on fairgrounds in the summers. He also organized lyceum programs that traveled to high schools around the upper Midwest.

In 1940, Bergor and his wife performed the trunk act at the third annual Wisconsin Houdini Club convention. In the act, Bergor tied Alvina in a straitjacket, placed her in a large bag, and locked her in the trunk. He then stepped on top of the trunk, pulling up a large curtain like the one in the photo at left. Moments later, the curtain was dropped, revealing Alvina on top of the trunk and Ben locked inside the trunk in the straitjacket and bag. The Bergors won the first annual Harry Houdini Trophy (donated by Houdini's widow) for best escape act for this performance. The Bergors were also awarded the Houdini Trophy in 1941 and 1942 for the same feat, thereby earning the honor of keeping the trophy permanently.

Bergor retired from active performing in the mid 1950s and devoted himself fulltime to his booking agency. His company, Madison Entertainment Service, arranged acts for fairs, outdoor events, sports and home shows, conventions, and school groups, calling on a diverse array of performers including singers and musicians, ventriloquists, hypnotists, jugglers, puppeteers, acrobats, magicians and comedians. Bergor was a member of numerous community organizations such as the Houdini Club, International Brotherhood of Magicians, International Jugglers Association, and the Elks, Masons and Moose lodges, and received multiple honors for his contributions to his profession and his community in his later years. A Ben Bergor Magic Club still exists in Madison, and the local wing of the International Brotherhood of Magicians is known as Ben Bergor Ring 31. Bergor died in 1981.

[Sources: Ben Bergor Collection, Wisconsin Historical Society Archives; Personal communication between WHS staff and Jack Holzhueter, October 25, 2007;Houdini-gram, October 26, 1940; "Know Your Madisonian: Ben Bergor," Wisconsin State Journal, June 26, 1960; Wickland, John A. "Master Madison Jail Breaker No Criminal," Wisconsin State Journal, March 29, 1939.]

CLH


Posted on October 25, 2007

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