Magician, acrobat, and vaudeville headliner Long Tack Sam (1885-1961) was one of the first Chinese entertainers to achieve international celebrity. His peers and colleagues included Harry Houdini, the Marx Brothers, George Burns, Jack Benny, Laurel and Hardy, and many others.
Long’s stage illusions and acrobatic skills were esteemed on five continents. His Austrian wife, Leopoldine (Poldi), and two young daughters joined his troupe after World War I, and for over a decade the Long Tack Sam show traveled the world as the epitome of a “class act,” much like Cirque du Soleil today.
Early photo of the Long Tack Sam troupe. Long is 4th from the right.
Why has the world forgotten him? Finding the answer to this question led his great-granddaughter Ann Marie Fleming on a quest to document the life of her illustrious but elusive relative. The results of her research can be found in the charming documentary THE MAGICAL LIFE OF LONG TACK SAM (2004), available on DVD from the National Film Board of Canada. Fleming tracked down long-lost family members, interviewed experts on stage magic and vaudeville history, and unearthed a marvelous archive of posters, playbills, and photos. Sam and his daughters, stage-named Mi-na (Fleming’s grandmother) and Nee-sa, rode the wave of vaudeville stardom right up to the door of Hollywood. There they encountered a pervasive racism and stereotyping that Long called “despicable…I won’t play those roles.”
Long Tack Sam (left) with Poldi (center) and daughters (front).
Retirement on the eve of World War II followed, but was far from restful. The interracial couple first settled in Austria, where the rise of Hitler forced them to flee. Turned away from the US on the grounds that Poldi was an enemy alien, the family sought refuge in Shanghai, where Long Tack Sam owned several theaters, only to be trapped there by the Japanese occupation. After the war, the Longs were able to return to New York. Long Tack Sam was revered by the local stage magic community, and he periodically came out of retirement to perform through the 1950s. He died in Austria in 1961 while recuperating from injuries resulting from a car accident.
Long demonstrates the flexibility that made him a vaudeville star.
Long Tack Sam was not, strictly speaking, a martial artist. Surviving documentation of his act indicates that he was an extremely talented acrobat and had the jaw-dropping flexibility of a contortionist. Had he lived a hundred years later, he would have made an outstanding stuntman. One of his routines involved diving through a ring of swords, points angled inward, just slightly larger than his body. In his most famous routine, he displayed a silk scarf to the audience, draped it over his shoulder, then executed a forward roll, coming up from the roll with scarf in hand, then whipping it away to reveal a large bowl of water with goldfish swimming in it.
THE MAGICAL LIFE OF LONG TACK SAM is a truly magical film, melding family and history and cross-cultural pop entertainment into a delightful package. Fleming’s innovative use of animation to bring old photos and posters to life takes us right into Long Tack Sam’s life and times. For a sample of the film, visit the Long Tack Sam website.
To learn more about another Chinese magician from the same era, Zhang Huichong, see this article in The Chinese Mirror.
Long Tack Sam