Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Mysterious and Humorous Signor Blitz

Sig. Blitz, The Great Magician and Ventriloquist with his Learned Canary Birds, (Philadelphia, 1863).
Princeton University’s Curator of Graphic Arts, Julie Mellby, wrote a blog post on the 19th-century performer Signor Antonio Blitz (1810-1877), inspiring me to delve deeper into our collection to see what we might have related to this intriguing performer.  My first encounter with Signor Blitz was upon viewing our exhibition on John A. McAllister, in which the above playbill was used to illustrate benefits that were held to raise funds for Civil War hospitals.  During the Civil War, Blitz performed what he estimated to be 132 shows to 63,000 soldiers recuperating at various Civil War hospitals in Philadelphia.  A touching statement from his autobiography reads:

Whenever it was known that I was to appear, unusual excitement prevailed.  Men whose limbs had been amputated but a few days, although forbidden by the physician, begged to be dressed, that they might attend; and the same was the case with the feeble and exhausted, who were confined to their beds; who, when reminded of the imprudence and danger, replied, “A good laugh will raise our spirits, and bring about a speedy recovery.” (p. 417)  

Detail of above playbill
As indicated by the title of his autobiography, Fifty years in the magic circle: being an account of the author’s professional life; his wonderful tricks and feats; with laughable incidents, and adventures as a magician, necromancer, and ventriloquist (1871), Signor Blitz led a varied life as a performer with ventriloquism, séances, and magic acts appearing as parts of his routine.

With the focal point of the above playbill being his “Learned Canary Birds,” the left border illustrates what a ticketholder might see if attending the performance.  These incredible acts include a canary sitting in a ring of fire, another canary pulling a dead(?) canary on a wheeled cart, a canary standing on its head, and a canary returning to life, to mention a few.

Upon first viewing the above playbill, I was utterly fascinated by Signor Blitz, wondering to what kind of coercion he subjected these canaries.  Were they alive or perhaps taxidermy pets? The description of his performance evoked myriad imaginings of the performance: women using lorgnettes to view the show, men sporting binoculars (how could people view the performance from even a few rows back?), a cacophony of birds chirping, birds playing dead?
W. & F. Langenheim (Firm), photographer.   Signor Blitz, ventriloquist, from life.   Philadelphia [ca. 1859].  Albumen print stereograph.
When looking further into our collection, my first exciting find was the above portrait of Blitz, revealing a sly smile, somewhat uncommon for portraits of that era.  As the playbill for his May 1863 benefit show mentions, “Come and Laugh, Come and See the Funny Blitz--The Amusing Blitz--The Remarkable Blitz--The Laughing Blitz--The Popular Blitz--The Blitz who Makes All Happy,” proclaiming his intent to be perceived as a merry person.
Alice Austin, Dance of Six Dinner Plates photographed by Jon Snyder.
Our Conservator, Alice Austin, was inspired by his “Dance of Six Dinner Plates,” also mentioned in the featured playbill, and created the above pamphlet in honor of this routine.   This printed pamphlet with detached inset (see below) was showcased in our exhibition featuring art by Library Company staff inspired by works in our collection.  Alice also displayed the aforementioned playbill next to her print, as seen below.

Alice Austin, Dance of Six Dinner Plates (bottom and upper left corners) in the Library Company’s staff art exhibition photographed by Jon Snyder.
Those who come across Signor Blitz seem to be intrigued, if we can judge by the experience of Alice Austin and Julie Mellby.  I invite others to learn more about him by visiting the Library Company to view various playbills for his shows, as well as his autobiography, which can be found in our collection.

Nicole Joniec
Print Department Assistant & Digital Collections Manager

Antonio Blitz, Fifty Years in the Magic Circle: Being an Account of the Author's Professional Life ; his Wonderful Tricks and Feats ; with Laughable Incidents, and Adventures as a Magician, Necromancer, and Ventriloquist.  Hartford, CT: Belknap & Bliss, 1871.