pt selbit

The following is a chapter from a great book about PT Selbit by Mike Caveney. Reprinted here without permission.

Upon his return from America, Selbit developed two new illusions simultaneously, "The Shadow People" and "The Mighty Cheese." The "Cheese" was based on the toy gyroscopic top, and the apparatus was designed and built for him (from a verbal description) by Henry Bates, a well-known British magical mechanic. It was more of a "fun thing" than an illusion, and one can only compare it with the "Light and Heavy Chest" of Robert-Houdin. It had a fair run, mostly in third-class music halls, but was not greatly successful. Several illusionists tried it in later years, but with no success.

It is therefore somewhat curious that the Cheese has become rather (in)famous in recent years, even more so that some of Selbit's more enduring creations. One possible reason for this is that he rarely used colorful pictorial posters, but did so in this case. David Allen and Sons, the London lithographers used a cartoon style to create a comical image of a group of men trying unsuccessfully to manhandle the Cheese.

The Cheese itself was a round disc about eighteen inches in diameter and seven inches thick with tapering edges. With the back side painted a reddish color, it did indeed look like a giant wheel of cheese sealed in wax.

In a printed advertisement Selbit once invited two famous wrestlers named Gotch and Hack to test their skills against the Wrestling Cheese. In the absence of celebrity challengers, a committee of five or six men (at least two of which were "stooges") was invited to the stage. Some comedy was introduced by Selbit, who insisted on volunteers who were well-built and strong and then evaluated the claimants. When all were assembled on the stage, the Cheese was wheeled out. When released, it remained standing on edge instead of falling over. Selbit announced that this was "the strongest cheese on earth" and challenged the committee to lay it flat on the stage, offering a reward of ten shillings to anyone who succeeded. No one could, for every attempt caused the Cheese to twist and move in any direction except on its side, and sometimes the gyrations were so forcible that the wrestler was sent flying.

Variety and a climax were included in the presentation to keep up the entertainment value. Stating that perhaps the best way to move the Cheese would be on wheels, he persuaded two of the volunteers (the stooges) to don rollerskates to carry the Cheese away, but this proved to be more impossible than before, the skaters being tumbled in all directions.

Selbit then explained, "Seriously, the only way to move it is with a hoist." A rope over a pulley was lowered from the flies and one end of the rope attached to the Cheese. Several men then succeeded in lifting the Cheese some four or five feet high; but then the Cheese asserted itself and descended to the stage, pulling the men into the air. This was accomplished by means of a special pulley and an extra length of rope which went offstage to a winch. This hookup allowed the movement of the rope over the pulley to be controlled at will.

The secret of the Cheese was based on the principle of the gyroscope. The Cheese itself was constructed of metal, and inside there was a framework which held a balanced iron cross (not a disc, like in the toy). Access to the axle was through a small hole center in one side of the Cheese. Backstage was a special modified bicycle the rear of which was slightly elevated so a seated assistant could pedal in place. A belt from the rear wheel (the tire having been removed) set the gyroscope into motion. A sufficiently healthy assistant could achieve a maximum speed of about 1,200 rpm.

In the original model, the axle of the cross revolved in well-greased bearings. When Les Levante, the Australian illusionist, later purchased a model of the apparatus, he changed the mechanism over to ball-bearings and replaced the bicycle with a one-half horsepower motor. These improvements allowed the gyroscope to achieve 2,000 rpm.

Levante had no success with the trick and after a few trials flatly stated that it had no entertainment value. He eventually sold it to Jim Bonley, a retired illusionist from Los Angeles, who also never used it. As a rule, Jim was generous to a fault with his considerable knowledge of magic, but was reluctant to talk about the Cheese. When pressed he said it was a "lethal weapon" and it "could break a person's leg."

Selbit now had his mind set on another trip to the United States and he realized that the Cheese was not of suitable caliber for such a tour; so he passed on the performing rights to other magicians.

A year later there was a court action which arose, at the Westminster County Court on June 20 1913. The act had been booked into the Runcorn Palace, a minor music hall. After an initial showing, William Dunn, the manager, withdrew the act and refused to pay for it on the grounds that it had caused box office receipts to drop off, that it had been very badly received, and that it had not been performed by the original company (meaning Selbit). Selbit sued for the sum of thirty-five pounds, due under the contract.

Selbit maintained that any falling off of box office receipts was not due to the Cheese, but to the Bioscope films they were showing, and which had been so badly presented that they were often projected upside down. In addition, he pointed out that the contract affirmed that a person other than Selbit would be permitted to present the act: so he won the case and was awarded full damages and costs. His wisdom in forming "Selbit Limited" is evident here.

Copyright Colin Summers 2006 and other years.