Maurice Rooklyn, The Human Target
This is the story of a short period in the life of an Australian magician, Maurice Rooklyn, who, in the formative years of his career, found it both desirable and necessary to stare down the wrong end of a .303 rifle.
1934 was in the midst of the Depression years, grim times for performers and public alike. Rooklyn recalled, in later years , "It was a depression year, so you had to come up with something sensational to pack a theatre, and the night after I was wounded onstage you couldn't buy a seat in the theatre... people came to see me get killed!"
On March 1, 1934, newspapers announced the appearance "direct from overseas" of The Human Target, commencing Friday March 2 at the New Tivoli Theatre (Haymarket, Sydney), along with the Jim Gerald Company.
According to the programme buildup,
The Bullet-catching stunt, documented back as far as the mid-1700s, is renowned for being a risky and sometimes fatal trick, wounding or killing multiple magicians over the years, of whom the most famous was Chung Ling Soo (William Ellsworth Robinson) shot at the Wood Green Empire in 1918 (4). Australian magician, Jean Hugard, featured the routine using modern rifles from 1906 and, while his method was clever, he nevertheless suffered injury when a mischievous assistant slipped some shot pellets into the gun. Despite any number of cunning methods used to effect the trick, the Bullet Catch was never a completely safe act.
From Maurice Rooklyn's own description (1) his routine was seen by the audience as this:-
During the season starting Friday March 2, Rooklyn's act proceeded with apparent smoothness every performance, newspapers commenting "it is some time since an act which thrills and holds an audience spellbound, as does 'The Human Target' at the Tivoli, has been seen..." Wearing a metal breastplate as his only protection, Rooklyn faced the marksman, Bernard Caplan, as his young wife, Ettie Rooklyn, assisted on stage.
On the evening of March 8, so it was reported by the papers, Rooklyn stood his ground in front of the rifle but, as it fired, he lurched back and, barely managing to keep his balance and composure, staggered into the wings having been hit in the shoulder by a sliver of bullet casing. "I knew he had been shot" said Bernard Caplan, "but somehow I could not run to him, as it would have spoilt the great effort he was making." After fainting briefly, Rooklyn was given first aid at the theatre then taken to Sydney hospital, where he was later allowed to leave.
Rooklyn was billed for May 3, 4 and 5 at the Hoyts Olympic No.2 Theatre in Bondi. On Saturday May 5, 1934, onlookers saw what appeared to have been a bullet striking the performer on the scalp. Sagging forward with blood pouring from his face, Rooklyn was assisted off the stage, where a doctor called up from the audience said that the wound appeared to have been caused by a splinter of a shell case which had become embedded in the scalp after abrading Rooklyn's nose.
A single advertisement for Cole's Marquee Theatre in Wollongong shows that Rooklyn presented The Human Target the following year, on Saturday February 9, 1935, and several performances from August 16, 1935 at the Civic Theatre (a.k.a. Barclay Cinema) near the corner of Hay and George Streets, Haymarket, Sydney.
However, it seems that Rooklyn had enough sense to read the warning signs. By 1936 he was appearing at theatres such as the Majestic Newtown on a bill with comedian Roy "Mo" Rene, and at the Sydney Tivoli in "The Spice Of Paris", with a manipulative magic act (under such titles as "Rooklyn, The Gay Deceiver" and "Rooklyn, Master Magician").
In late 1936 he departed Australia for what was to be a successful three-year tour of British theatres, with the act which became his signature masterpiece, the billiards manipulation routine, "A Symphony In Spheres".
The following years would see him perform as both a hypnotist and stage illusionist touring in Australia, New Zealand and Asia, becoming one of Australia's foremost magicians, "The Amazing Mr. Rooklyn". After an extensive career, Maurice Rooklyn died in 1992 at his home in Sydney.
Rooklyn's Bullet Catching Secrets
Even were Rooklyn's method for the bullet catch known, it would hardly be wise to detail it in this story. The fact is that Rooklyn did not share his methods and we are only able to speculate, based on scant evidence and the usual contradictions which arise between descriptions of the trick and the magical techniques required to achieve the result.
Ben Robinson, in his book "Twelve Have Died" (4) states that Rooklyn used the "Meyer" method as used by Theodore Annemann. Unless there is some evidence for this, it seems unlikely that a young performer from Australia, not yet known to the professional world, could have had access to such a method. Annemann himself first performed the stunt in February 1934, barely before Rooklyn's performances, and Meyer's routine would .not be published until 1942 in Genii magazine.
A more likely source of information comes from Kenneth Jaffrey, a life-long friend of Rooklyn's, an amateur magician and naturopath. Shortly after Rooklyn's death, Jaffrey wrote a letter to Connie Rooklyn (Maurice's second wife), saying:-
With one main difficulty, this would suggest that Maurice Rooklyn adopted the routine published as "A Club Version of the Bullet Catching Trick", by Lyn Searles. The difficulty is that the routine was not published in the Sphinx magazine until 1935, a year after Rooklyn had performed, but the method described is a reasonable match to the Rooklyn act.
(1) This and other stories of Rooklyn's early years can be found in his autobiographical book "Spherical Sorcery and Recollections of a 'Pro ", Emmar Investments, Sydney 1973. Photographs for this story are from original Rooklyn images and scrapbooks.
(2) The A.M.C presented "A Night Of Mystery" at Emerson Hall in Liverpool St, Sydney on June 24, 1933, in which Rooklyn was featured with his ventriloquial act, 'Fun In A Police Station'. Also on the bill was "Jafery - magician" (Kenneth Jaffrey)
(3) Television interview, Channel 7 Sydney, August 18, 1986. (4) "Twelve Have Died", Ben Robinson, pub. Ray Goulet's Magic Art Book Co, 1986.
(5) The Magic Circular, November 1984 / Hornsby Advocate March 28, 1984.
(6) Little was initially known of Theodore, but his story has now been told in “Theodore - Crawling Through a Keyhole”. The Sphinx magazine, in an article written by Australian magician Henry 'Rex' Hauptman, says he was "another old timer...his acts consist of illusions, escapes and juggling, but he builds his reputation on his magic kettle and 'Through a Keyhole'.
Thanks to Joe Pecore for assistance in researching this article.