Making Magic With Orson Welles: A Conversation with Mike Caveney

By Peter Tonguette

Peter Tonguette is a staff writer for The Film Journal. His writing has also appeared in Senses of Cinema and Bright Lights Film Journal. You can visit Peter Tonguette's personal review site here.





In July 2003, I interviewed a magician named Jim Steinmeyer in these pages. Steinmeyer was one of Orson Welles' closest friends during the last several years of his life and his insights into the man and his work were, I felt, invaluable. Another magician who knew Welles around the same time as Steinmeyer (the early

980s) was Mike Caveney, whose name was originally mentioned to me by Jim. Caveney, himself a world renowned magician and historian of magic, has his own share of stories and memories relating to Welles the man, the filmmaker, and, of course, the magician.

I spoke with Mike Caveney in February 2004. In interviewing these gentlemen, it occurred to me once again how many people Welles' life touched and yet how relatively few are being interviewed for the biographies, documentaries, and tributes on television. It's my great hope that we are gaining a fuller picture of Orson Welles through the recollections of people like Jim Steinmeyer and Mike Caveney.

Meeting Welles

Peter Tonguette: When did you first meet Orson Welles?

Mike Caveney: 1980.

PT: And what were the circumstances?

MC: Orson used to be a very fine magician but, unbeknownst to me, still had a great love for magic. He had worked with a couple friends of mine: Don Keller and Don Wayne. It was Don Wayne who suggested to Orson that I might be able to help him. The first time that Orson Welles calls you on the telephone, you think it's a friend playing a joke on you. Eventually you realize that it's actually Orson Welles on the other end of the line and he's saying, "I need your help." It's very exciting, you can't wait to meet with him and you are anxious to make the project run smoothly. And then Orson calls again and again and again. His calls could come at any time and when he called, he was not calling to make an appointment. In that booming voice he would say, "Mike, this is Orson. Come over." You would say, "Okay, Orson. Let me see, I'm right in the middle of something..." and then you realized you're talking to Orson Welles. And you say, "Orson, I'll be right over."

But many of the projects were frustrating for various reasons. I think that's the point that Don Keller and Don Wayne had reached and they said, "Orson, we've got a great idea. You should call Mike Caveney. Mike is a magician who knows about magic history and does an act himself and he's up to speed on what's new in magic." So I think they were passing Orson off to me. One afternoon at home I got the phone call--what I thought was a prank phone call--saying, "Mike, this is Orson." I dropped everything and drove over to Orson’s house on Stanley Avenue in Hollywood for the first time.

PT: What was the project that he needed you for on this occasion?

MC: At that time Orson was a frequent guest on shows like Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson. And for Orson, the whole reason for doing these shows was not to sit and chat about something. It was to perform. He couldn't perform something from a movie or radio show but magic, something he had been well versed in early in his career, was perfectly suited to the situation. So that's what he did.

He always needed help getting these routines together and he would never do the same thing twice. It always had to be something brand new so that's what he would call about. He would have an idea and wanted to see if I had any additional thoughts. I would round up the props, go over to Orson’s and we would talk it through.

PT: In fact, the night before he died he was doing magic on Merv Griffin.

MC: That's right, he did a card trick.

PT: Were you around for that show? I know that Jim Steinmeyer was.

MC: No. I worked with Orson for a couple of years--and I say "worked [with] him," but you never knew when the phone would ring. Months would go by and you wouldn't hear anything. Then the phone would ring and you'd be back on a project. But I was his go-to guy for a couple years. And it was always the same sort of thing: he was doing a spot on a talk show and he wanted to get a trick together. So I would go do it. I would have fun. It would be nerve-wracking. And that would be that until the next time that Orson called.

So at one point, Jim Steinmeyer had moved out to LA from Chicago. Jim was a good friend of mine. I would tell him about my visits with Orson and I knew that Orson would love to meet him. Jim was very knowledgeable about magic history and when it comes to creating new magic and illusions, there's no one in the world that can touch him. Jim's the top guy in the game. So I knew that Orson would love talking to Jim and of course I knew that anyone would love to spend time with Orson.

PT: And Jim had written a book that Welles had been impressed with.

MC: That's right. That was the Jarrett book. This was a book written by a previous illusion inventor, a fellow named Guy Jarrett, back in 1936. He wrote a really innovative and cranky book. The pages were written as he set the type. He would print a page and then break the type down and write the next page using the metal type and then he would print that page. He bound the copies himself, sold them for $5 each and over the years it has become an infamous book. Jim wrote a fascinating annotated version of the Jarrett book.

It was exactly the kind of book that Orson would be interested in. Because in 1936, all the guys that Guy Jarrett was writing about--Howard Thurston for example--were guys that Orson had seen as a kid. So that book was a great introduction for Jim. I recently discovered in my old date book that on August 24, 1981, I brought a copy of Jim’s Jarrett book over to Orson’s house. Three days later we were going to shoot a magic routine called the Gypsy Thread in a small Hollywood studio and I told Orson that I would bring Jim along. So Jim met Orson and they hit it off right away. Soon after, Jim became the guy that Orson started calling.

A Line of Friends

PT: So there was kind of a group of magicians that Welles hung around and worked with in the early '80s...

MC: Well, I would say that he didn't hang around with us at the same time. We kind of formed a line. We didn't know it at the time, but looking back there were was Don Keller and Don Wayne before me, then there was me, then came Jim, and then Orson died.

PT: How often did you get together? Did you get together in social situations in addition to working together?

MC: I would say not. The purpose of our meetings was always because there was a TV show and a trick to be done. It was always either at Orson's house or at the studio.

PT: I asked this of Jim too, and his answer was no, but did you talk about his film career at all? Or did most of your conversations center on magic and magicians?

MC: In my experience, Orson had no interest in talking about his film career. And in being with him in many situations--like at studios--most people knew Orson Welles for his film career and they all wanted to say, "Oh, Orson, Citizen Kane was my favorite movie." And Orson was so sick of a lifetime of hearing about that. He'd heard it a thousand times and he didn't need to hear it again. He would absolutely cut people off, saying, "We're not here to talk about movies. We're here to do a magic trick." And, wow, they would get it. I saw him do that, so I kind of got the idea that Orson was not interested in talking about the camera angles in Kane. At least to me he wasn’t. Now when Peter Bogdanovich was around, maybe things were different.

But what Orson got from me and from the other magic guys was something that he couldn't get from the movie community. And that was a chance to talk about magic theory; about old magicians that had worked in vaudeville and that Orson may have known or seen; or about illusions he had seen or read about. I can't hold up my end of a conversation talking to Orson about directing films, but when it came to magic there was plenty I could bring to the table. And he was very much interested in talking about that. So it was funny to turn the tables and see Orson as the student and us young magic guys as the teachers.

PT: I'm sure that's one of the reasons that he enjoyed working with and talking to you guys.

MC: Orson had worked on another program one time with another mutual magic friend of all of ours: a guy named Don Bice. Orson liked Don. One time I was at Orson's and said, "Hey, I saw Don Bice and he said that he always had a great time talking about magic with you and he mentioned that he'd love to see you again." Orson lit up and said, "Listen, talk to Don and sometime you guys come over here, we'll order a couple pizzas, and talk magic all night." Well, we never did it. But just to think... that was Orson's idea of a perfect evening, sitting around in his living room, eating pizza, and talking about magic and magicians.

PT: That’s wonderful.

MC: I now think that our failure to follow up on such an evening was a great disappointment not only to us, but most of all to Orson. He was such an awe inspiring person, and in many ways intimidating, that many friends never had the nerve to just call him up and say, “Hey Orson, what are ya doing tonight? Let’s grab a pizza and hang out.” We all thought that Orson was most likely meeting with some important people or swamped with work but I now believe that he spent many quiet evenings at home with Oja [Kodar] and would have loved to have some friends over. I’m sure that he would have enjoyed it at least as much as we would have.

The Magic Show

PT: Were you involved in his unfinished film project The Magic Show, which was to be a collection of his greatest magic pieces and also a kind of essay on magic and magicians? I'm pretty sure that the shoot that you took Jim to--the thread trick--was intended for The Magic Show.

MC: At the time, I didn't know that. One day I heard that familiar voice on the line, "Mike, come over." I got in my car and drove to Orson's house. He said, "We're going to be shooting at a little studio in Hollywood and I want to do the Gypsy Thread." (1) Now this is an old trick, well known in magic, and a really terrific trick. It's very simple. You reel off a piece of heavy sewing thread and break it into pieces. You roll them up into a little ball. You hold out one piece that's maybe five or six inches long and you stick this little wadded up ball to the middle of the short piece. Then you take the ends of that short piece and slowly stretch it out and all the broken pieces restore themselves into one long piece again. Very amazing trick.

I'm sure Orson had seen it before and decided, "I want to do this trick." But he hadn't done it before and he didn't know what kind of thread to get and he didn't know the exact handling. So my phone rang. Fortunately, I was familiar with the Gypsy Thread. I went to Orson's and we talked about it. Normally this trick is performed sitting at a table and the back edge of the table plays into the secret of the trick. You need that edge of the table to hide a little gimmick at one point. So any magician who was going to perform it on television or in a film, would say, "Okay, put the table here and the camera there and I'll do the trick just like always." But Orson didn't think that way. Orson knew that a television or movie screen has an edge around it where the picture ends. He used the right side of the screen in place of the edge of the table. In other words, he could see, by watching the monitor, when his hand momentarily exited the right side of the picture, and when it was safe to drop something without having it seen. It was just a fraction of a second that his apparently empty hand would disappear from view. The viewers would realize that his hands never came near the table or anything else. The magic happened right out in mid air and his hands were completely clean at the finish. It really is an ingenious idea.

He also said, "At the same time, I want the camera to be dollying in, zooming in to get closer and closer." One of the great things about doing this trick on film is that the background of the trick can be your face. And of course Orson had this great face. The restoration of the thread could happen right in front of his face and he wanted the camera to zoom in on this. So the camera was zooming in at the same time his hand was finding the right spot in frame where he could safely drop this thing without being seen.

My assignment was to teach Orson the proper handling and setting up the thread to make sure that the trick was going to work right technically. Then we went to this studio and Jim came along. The first time, we could see Orson drop it. So I set up the thread and we did it again. He had some great patter to go along with it. He did it again and said, "My hand went too far out of sight. It looked fishy. It looked like I was hiding something." I set up another thread and we did it again. This time the thread didn't stretch out smoothly. So we did it again.

For some reason, I kept track of the takes and we shot it 22 times. I don't know if he loved the 22nd time or if he just said, "Everybody's exhausted and hungry and it's late and we've done this enough. Somewhere in here we'll have something we can use." But 22 times over five hours, Orson broke this thread up and recited the patter, the camera zoomed in and the thread was restored. (2)

It's amazing, but of all the times that I worked with Orson, I never had the sense to bring a camera along and take some pictures. But on this night, my wife Tina (who worked with Orson almost as much as I did), was with me and she snapped a picture of me standing with Orson between takes. It's the only one I've got of Orson and myself so of course today, some 23 years later, it’s a treasure.

PT: It sounds as though he really re-conceived the magic so that it would play on film that The Magic Show wasn’t just going to be a filmed record of how a trick would be done on the stage.

MC: I would say that that's absolutely true.

Bring Me a Quacker

PT: Did you work on any other pieces that were going to be in The Magic Show?

MC: I really didn't, no. I was aware when some other sequences were being shot and where. I remember him shooting at the Magic Castle and needing some ducks. A friend of mine, Bill Smith, used ducks in his magic act so he brought his ducks to the Magic Castle. Just like everybody else, all you had to say was, "Hey, do you want to meet Orson Welles?" And they'd do anything. Bill was the same way. So Bill went to the Magic Castle and waited patiently with two ducks in a cage. Orson said, "All right, let's try this routine with the ducks." Bill said, "Okay, do you want a quacker or a non- quacker?" And Orson said, "What kind of a stupid question is that?!" Bill's thinking, "Uh-oh, here's the legendary Orson Welles temper." But Bill kept his cool and said, "Well, if you've got a live microphone, you may want to hear the duck quack or you may not want to hear the duck quack. So I can give you whatever you want." And Orson said, "Hmm, I see what you mean. That's a very good point. Bring me a quacker." [Laughs] But I wasn't really involved in that.

Welles the Director

PT: Do you think that in some ways that even as a film or radio director, Welles thought of himself as an illusionist?

MC: I think that that's absolutely true. In performing magic, the illusion is right out there in front of everybody. It's more disguised in film and radio, but I think you're absolutely right. When he was doing "The War of the Worlds," I think he was probably thinking, "This is going to be one of the greatest tricks that I'll ever perform." And of course, it was.

PT: Jim mentioned to me how interesting it was to compare Welles the filmmaker with Welles the magician in that so many of his films--particularly the later films--were shot in a very unconventional manner. In Othello, for instance, a single scene would be shot across countries and edited together later. But it works because it's all about making it feel authentic, making the spectator believe what they're seeing—like a magic trick.

MC: Perhaps it was magic that taught Orson that it was possible to make an audience think exactly what you wanted them to think. It seems that in many cases he made things much more difficult than he needed to. Of course it wasn't always his doing.

I spoke to a friend of mine this morning and he reminded me of another story. This guy was a movie producer named Bill Self. Back in the '50s and '60s, Bill produced more television shows than I think anybody in the business. Around 1957, he was producing a TV series for Frank Sinatra. One day Sinatra said, "Bill, would you like to meet Orson Welles?" Bill said, "Boy, I would love to meet Orson Welles." Sinatra said, "He's got a film project that he's sort of shopping around. If you want, I'll set up a meeting." Bill said, "That'd be great."

So Orson came in and said, "I'd like to shoot a thirty-minute version of Don Quixote in Mexico." Bill said, "Well, it seems amazing, but I would love to see a script and maybe we can do something." Orson said, "Fine," and left. Well, a week went by and Bill hadn't heard anything. So he called Orson's home and the maid answered the phone. Bill said he was calling for Orson Welles. And she said, "He's not here. He's in Mexico shooting a movie." [Laughs] Bill said, "What?" So he went back to Frank and said, "I never got the script because Orson went to Mexico and he's shooting! What are we supposed to do?" Frank said, "Well, I guess we tell him that we're not going to pay for it." So they sent a message to Mexico and said, "I'm sorry, but we can't pay for whatever you're doing down there." That got Orson's attention and he flew back--not to talk to Bill Self, but to talk to Frank Sinatra. He said, "Hey, I talked to your friend and he seemed interested. So I'm shooting it." Orson went back to Mexico and Frank talked to Bill and said, "Look, he's down there shooting and it's not costing that much money." So they decided to pay some bills and get some rushes to see what it looked like. After seeing a few scenes they decided to back away from the whole project which put Orson in the familiar mess of having a film underway with no money. (3)

That was the great tragedy with Orson. He was so interested in actually doing the project and so uninterested in the financing and the business end. He was an artist and not a business man.

I remember Orson would say--and this was so sad to hear –he said, "Everybody wants to give me an award, but nobody wants to hire me to make a film." And it was absolutely true. They would line up to give him lifetime achievement awards and anything else they could create, but when Orson would say, "Well, thanks, but now let's make a movie," they'd say, "Wellll... we don't know..."

PT: And that's why so much of the time he had to come up with the money himself and do it on a real independent level. If others weren't going to give him the money, he was still going to try to get the projects done.

MC: That is amazing that he couldn't get the right people behind him that would have faith in him. And I guess that's because of a reputation that preceded him. Because of how I met him--Orson calling me and saying, "Hey, come over to my house"--ours was really a warm relationship. He was a great guy and I loved to talk to him.

On these talk shows, every star in Hollywood would do them. There would always be other guests--movie stars or whoever--on the shows that we worked. Everybody treated everyone else like old friends. "Hi Bob, how are you?" "Hey Joe, good to see you." And then when Orson would come in, it was completely different, "Hello Mr. Welles," "Yes, Mr. Welles," "Can I get you something, Mr. Welles?" They knew that this wasn’t just some celebrity of the week. This was Orson Welles. This was the guy who had achieved everything that everyone in this business hoped to achieve. Whether they wanted to be a movie director--this was a guy that made the greatest movie in history. Whether they wanted to be in radio—hey, this is a guy that made the greatest radio show in history. They were clearly in complete awe of him. I thought that was great. Of course, they all wanted to talk to him about movies and he wasn't the slightest bit interested in that. We were there to perform magic.

Welles the Magician

MC: I remember we would always see Oja at the house but she didn't seem to have any interest in magic. She was a really great person for Orson to have around. I always liked her.

PT: Yes, and Jim also told me that she wasn't too interested in magic!

MC: Yeah, I mean, Orson truly loved to just sit around and... we would have a trick that we were working on, but sometimes I would bring a trick over that I was fooling around with. I'd show it to him because Orson just loved watching magic. I'm telling you, he would turn into a 12-year-old kid when you'd show him a trick. Sometimes it would fool him and sometimes it wouldn't, but you could just see it took him back and reminded him of why he got interested in magic and why he loved it.

Orson would read about a new trick or somehow get a hold of a new trick. He'd say, "This is a great trick. I want to do this trick. Now, how can I improve this trick?" And the answer was, "Orson, this trick doesn't need any improving." But no, Orson wanted to make it twice as amazing. I don't know if he was trying to fool the magicians or what. But he would start adding more and more layers until it was very complicated. One of the reasons most great magic tricks are great is because they're simple, because the effect can be described in just a few words.

PT: That's what Jim told me. Welles would complicate a trick and sometimes his setup would be so grand, he couldn't find a way to get out of it.

MC: There were some absolute horror stories. I mean, Orson was just asking for it because these things were getting so complicated. One time, he called to say he wanted to do a new trick that was on the market that involved a little electric clock. One of the first little digital clocks. A magic company had put it out. It was a clock that allowed someone to set the time on, and the magician could predict the time. Well, that's a good trick, but not good enough for Orson. So he said, "We're going to change this. Tina is going to be an usher in the theatre. We'll get her an usher's coat at the Merv Griffin theatre. And she will be the one that does the dirty work. We'll select a spectator by having names in a fish bowl." And I'm like, "Can't you just point to somebody?" "No, they'll think he's a stooge! And this is how we'll get the names in the fish bowl, etc., etc.."

The other problem was that during the years I knew Orson, he was huge. When we would go to his house to work on a trick, he'd be sitting in his big chair in the living room with his little tiny dog in his massive lap. The dog looked like a period. (4) And then Orson would start directing. He would say, "Okay, Mike, you stand there and be me. And, Tina, you're the assistant, so you stand there..." He would walk us through the routine. During the course of it, I or Tina would say, "Well, wait a minute, what about this, where's this prop going to come from? And when you're done with it, who’s going to take it? All of those details that help make a magic routine flow smoothly. You do it a hundred times and every prop is right where you need it when you need. And when you are only going to perform a trick once, you try to anticipate every detail. Sometimes we got ninety percent of it right, but it was that last ten percent that looked clumsy.

So Tina and I, under the direction of Orson Welles, would rehearse the routine in Orson’s living room. Well, after an hour or two, Tina and I could do it competently. But Orson had never tried it. He would say, "That's it! That's perfect! All right. It's 4 o'clock in the afternoon. I'll meet you at the studio at 7." We would leave and we're thinking, "God, Orson's never even tried this." And the reason why he hadn’t was because he couldn't have stood on his feet for two hours. As he was sitting in his chair, directing, he was getting the routine set in his mind. But what we would be talking about between 4 o'clock and 7 is, "What is Tina going to do if Orson forgets to reach back to take this prop? What if Orson reaches back with his left hand instead of his right hand? What are you going to do if he forgets to hand it back to you and sticks it in his pocket? Be ready for anything." So it was always us trying to organize plan B, plan C, and plan D, just so that no matter what happened he could successfully conclude the trick.

Two Alberts

MC: There was another time when Orson wanted a stooge. This was for another Merv Griffin show. We're going to have a plant in the audience, a guy who's set up. So Tina lined up a friend. We called Orson and said, "It's all set. We have a guy, he's going to be there, his name is Albert. Do you want to meet him?" "No, no, no, I don't want to meet him. Because that way I can say, 'Have we ever met before?' and he can honestly say, 'No, we haven't.'" The key point was that the stooge was supposed to have a girlfriend in Australia. That's all Albert needed to know--he had a girlfriend in Australia. Which was funny, because Albert was gay. But that's beside the point. So everything is set. We're at the studio, they're taping the show, Albert's in the audience, and he's excited that he's going to be on TV with Orson. Orson starts the routine and says, "Now I'm going to pull a name out of the fish bowl..." And the fish bowl falls over and breaks. There's broken glass everywhere. This is the kind of thing that we'd always worry about. We hadn’t thought, "What if he breaks the fish bowl?"

So, to us, this was already a disaster. But nothing fazed Orson. He would roll right along and he would say something amusing about the fish bowl to explain why it happened. He said, "Now the name is Albert. Can Albert stand up?" Well, unbelievably, some complete stranger stands up right where Orson is looking. He asks his name and the guy says, “Albert.” We panic. Albert the stooge is also standing but Orson doesn’t see him. So now Orson's talking to the wrong guy named Albert. He's not a stooge and has no idea what's going on. Orson says, "Albert, do you have a girlfriend from Australia?" The guy says, "No." It went from bad to worse but in the end, Orson, with his wit and unflappability, managed to arrive at a semi-successful conclusion.

PT: You and Tina must have been going crazy backstage.

MC: We were going crazy.

A Favorite Memory

MC: My favorite memory, though, is this. Sometimes, when Johnny Carson took the night off, he would get a guest host and a few times it was Orson. On one occasion Orson said, "We're going to open The Tonight Show with an illusion." This sounded like more fun to me than doing some electronic clock trick. It was going to be a big stage illusion, like Orson used to perform in his USO show during WWII with Marlene Dietrich. So he rented a Sedan Chair and a Tip-Over Trunk. The trick is that a big throne chair is wheeled out on stage with a girl sitting in it. She is placed into a cloth bag which is tied closed and then lifted into a small wooden box that sits on a table. The top of the bag is stuck out through a whole in the top of the box. Then a big cloth is wrapped around the empty throne chair. Orson would fire a gun and pull the bag through this little hole in the top of the box. The bag was now completely empty and the box would be tipped over so everyone could see that it was empty. Then the big cloth around the sedan chair would be pulled away and the girl was discovered back in the chair.

It was a good trick and Orson called me in to help with it. Orson said, "You'll be dressed as a Hindu boy." And the girls will be dressed as Hindu girls. Orson wrote some patter to go with the trick. I’m thinking, "This is going to be great." First of all, it's on The Tonight Show and Doc Severinsen's going to be playing the music. We rehearsed until the whole thing could be done at break-neck speed. I wasn't sure what the patter was going to be, but I had high hopes for this spot.

I didn't know that Orson had added something to the opening. He had a metal strong box that looked like it had been pulled up off the bottom of the ocean. It was frozen into a huge block of ice. I had no idea what he was going to do with it. So at the rehearsal, he pushed it out and said, "200 years ago Cagliostro locked a prediction in this chest and tonight we're going to open it. But not right now. We'll have to do it at another time." And with that, he pushed the table off stage. This was Orson's idea of a joke. He had done the same thing on other shows and the joke was that he never opens it! For all I know, that chest is still frozen in that block of ice.

So I'm dressed as a Hindu boy with no shoes, big blue pants, and a turban. That night I got to hear Orson’s patter for the first time. And it was stupendous. You had the presence of Orson, you had the voice, and he told this story which was just a bunch of hooey about some kingdom that had always been ruled by men and now, for the first time, a woman rose to the throne, Leila Queen of the East. Anybody else telling this story would have been laughed off the stage but when Orson delivered it, it was fantastic.

Then the big throne chair came rolling out and the girl stepped off of it. We put her in the bag and hoisted her up into the box. Like most illusions, the assistants did all the work. Orson just kind of stood there and directed traffic, holding onto this pistol. He finished the story and then shot the gun—but the blank didn't fire. He pulled the trigger again and the blank didn't fire again. So he bellowed out some magic words and we pulled the bag out and the girl was gone. We tipped the box over and it was empty. I pulled the cloth off the chair and there was the girl. Well, the audience went crazy. They just went nuts for this thing. Now I'm standing behind Orson so I really can't see his face at this point. But that night when I got home and watched the show, it was fantastic. The camera zoomed in on Orson and it's my favorite image of him. The applause increased and Orson has a big smile on his face. And the applause increased more and Orson starts to laugh. And then the applause is just deafening and they won't stop clapping. And Orson is just beaming. He is absolutely beaming. In the few years that I knew him, I never saw him happier than that moment.

PT: That's a wonderful story.

MC: It was really great. And he had the presence, when the applause finally subsided, he said something to the effect of, "I think it's worth noting that the mysteries of ancient Egypt still hold true, but modern technology is not quite as reliable. I had a feeling that gun wouldn't work!" And it got a huge laugh.

I remember when we were doing these talk shows that Orson wasn't held in very high esteem in the magic world. Because he would do tricks that they had just read about in a magazine and he had complicated them beyond recognition. Those were the days of "Drink no wine before it's time" and his main presence on TV was doing wine commercials and then an occasional magic trick on TV. All the magicians--the people that I hung out with--would say, "Oh, Orson did some stupid thing on TV again." I always found myself defending Orson. I always wanted to sit them down and say, "You know something? You have no idea what a great magician Orson was and is and how much he knows about magic. When you put him in front of an audience—like what I saw on The Tonight Show--he puts everyone to shame.” He deserves a lot more credit than he gets in the magic world.


(1) Caveney's date book indicates that he rehearsed the Gypsy Thread at Welles' house on August 22, 1981 for 2 hours; August 24 for 4 hours; and August 26 for 3 hours.

(2) Again according to Caveney's date book, the shooting of the Gypsy Thread for The Magic Show took place on August 27 and lasted from 7:15 PM until 2:15 AM the following morning. This footage can be seen in the Munich Filmmuseum’s assembly of The Magic Show, recently shown publicly in Los Angeles and New York as part of Welles retrospectives. The assembly includes 30 minutes of footage intended for The Magic Show which was fully shot and edited by Welles.

(3) After Sinatra withdrew his financing for Welles' short film of Don Quixote, the director continued to shoot it with his own money. At the time of his death in 1985, he was still working on it; over the course of its nearly 30 years of on-and-off production, his intentions for the project had mutated many times over. Towards the end of his life he toyed with calling the film—and by this point he conceived of it as an essay film similar to F for Fake and Filming OthelloWhen Are You Going To Finish Don Quixote?

(4) This was Welles’ black poodle, Kiki.

Photo Caption #1: Welles and Caveney on the set during the shooting of The Gypsy Thread for The Magic Show.

Photo Caption #2: A still from Welles’ triumphant Tonight Show appearance described by Caveney in the interview. To Caveney’s dismay, the NBC photographer neglected to take any photos of Welles and Caveney together. As he tells the story, “The next time I was at Orson's house, I asked him to autograph it for me. He looked at it and said, ‘But you're not even in it. This won't do. You'll pick it up next time I see you.’ I begged him to just sign his name on it but he refused. I feared that I would never see the photo again. Next time I was summoned to his house, Orson handed me the photo and it had much more than a signature. He had carefully hand painted me into the scene in full Hindu costume. The inscription says, "For Michael the Mysterious, from Orson with gratitude and admiration." There could not be a better souvenir of my association with Orson.”

                                                                  © THE FILM JOURNAL 2004