All filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming really knew about her great-grandfather was that he was a vaudeville magician, and that he could make coins appear from behind your ears.
When she inherited some old 16-millimeter films, she saw her great-grandfather's name light up on theater marquees all over the world. She realized that her father had been one of vaudeville's biggest names from the 1920s through the early 1950s. He had traveled the world several times over, a Chinese peasant who married an Austrian shop girl, headlining stage shows from Shanghai to New York.
But unlike his vaudeville contemporaries of Laurel and Hardy, Harry Houdini, and Orson Welles (who referred to "The Great Long Tack Sam" as one of his early teachers on the circuit), Sam's story has been largely lost to time, and lives on only in the memory of long-time students of magic. Sam was world famous for his linking rings trick and his "Goldfish Bowl Trick" where he magically made a bowl containing a goldfish appear from thin air.
Fleming traveled the world in her great-grandfather's footsteps in an effort to understand who Long Tack Sam was, and why his story remains untold. In 2003, she released a documentary of her search called "The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam." This graphic novel, billed as an illustrated memoir, is a companion piece, narrated by Fleming's cartoon alter-ego, Stick Girl, a pigtailed stick figure who acts as a Greek chorus.
"The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam" is a sweet and charming story of one man's incredible rags-to-riches story. It shows how political upheaval can dramatically affect a man and his family, as Sam and his Austrian wife are buffeted about by the outbreak of World War II and the Communist Revolution in China.
On stage, Sam and his young daughters Mi-Na and and Nee-Sa delighted crowds with displays of acrobatics, magic, dance, and song. But, behind the scenes, they were battling prejudice, expiring work visas, and constantly shifting political landscapes. The most poignant aspect of the book is Sam's decision to eschew Hollywood. After his daughters are deemed "too pretty" to play Chinese girls by a studio casting agent, Sam made a stand against movies that put an early end to his career.
"The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam" is a whirlwind tour from country to country, weaving the myths of Long Tack Sam's childhood with as many facts as one could really expect to discover about a magician who died nearly 50 years ago. But, while Stick Girl's unorthodox narration and the book's pastiche of photos and illustrations is engaging, the book is constantly in danger of unraveling. Fleming jumps around chronologically, bouncing between Sam's story and her own challenges in completing her film and this graphic novel. As a result, you never seem to learn as much about this incredible magician and his family as you would like. A more traditional structure would be more satisfying.
Fleming's book is a sweet and inspiring story, but it would probably be best if packaged with a DVD of Fleming's documentary of the same name. On its own, the graphic novel gives just a taste of a fantastic story -- like finishing a wonderful appetizer only to find out you're not getting an entree.
Dan Murphy is a Buffalo freelance writer.
The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam
By Ann Marie Fleming
Riverhead Trade Paperback
176 pages, $14