Carlton the Human Hairpin

I have to start by saying this is not the post I set out to write, and if you’re not fond of clowns, you should immediately shut the page down and move on to something less frightening.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


I’ve written before about appropriateness in clothing and a little about appropriateness in a cardigan.

And my plan was to write about appropriate makeup. Maybe throwing in a bit about going incognito too.

So I did a search for lipstick and makeup images, and along the way came across Carlton (the Human Hairpin), and got sucked down a magical rabbit hole of a similar nature.

These pictures all come from the collection of William George Alma (1904 – 1993), who was a magician, collector and manufacturer of magic apparatus. So we have to believe that Carlton was a fairly significant showman of the period.

And after a little research, I discovered that he was famous enough to have written an illustrated autobiography Twenty Years of Spoof and Bluff, published by Herbert Jenkins Ltd (London) in 1920.

Carlton the Human Hairpin
Carlton (Arthur Philps) From the W. G. Alma conjuring collection Via STate Library Victoria
From LEft Via Portrait (c. 1920) • Stage Makeup (pre-1942) • Comic Magician (c. 1907) • Die box (c. 1907)

Carlton was the stage name of Arthur Philps (1881 – 1942), a comedic magician. He adopted the name early in his life, but I haven’t been able to find out when or why (so annoying).

Nor can I tell you when he transitioned from “Carlton Philps, the World’s Premier Card Manipulator” to “Carlton, the Human Hairpin,” or “Carlton, the World’s Famous Comic Conjuror,” or what other descriptors were applied.

Aside from card and conjuring tricks, he also performed some escapology, “sham” hypnotism, and a bit of mind-reading. While he didn’t publicly perform it, he was capable of stretching his body out to increase his height by as much as six inches, a feat he likens to being stretched out on a rack.

According to Magicpedia, he is best known for his presentation of the “Die Box” trick (see image right above). Essentially, there’s a box with two compartments. You take it and a die from your hat. You put the die in one side of the box and tilt it so the die slides from one end to the other, then open the compartment door to show that it’s gone. Then you close the door, tilt the box back and open the second door to show the die isn’t there either. The audience calls out that you’ve just slid it from side to side, so you open both compartments and pull the die from your hat.

When he started out, audiences believed magicians wore evening dress so they could hide things up their sleeves (nothing up my sleeves!). So Carlton chose to wear a costume consisting of tights and leotards – perfectly apparent he was not concealing anything. And adopted his stage makeup at the same time.

When he first wore this costume, the audience howled with laughter and perhaps it was this that gave him his comedic magician moniker. The following week he was top-billing at £3/week.

One time he was invited to a fancy dress ball, and not having time to change from his stage costume, attended as a “Carlton” impersonation and won first prize in the comedic costume category, stunning other guests with his likeness.

Following his early UK successes, he followed some vaudeville friends to Europe. At the time, it was common to perform “dumb acts” (in silence) if you didn’t speak the language. As his shows relied heavily on the spoken word, Carlton made friends with hotel staff and learned phonetic translations of his stage patter. His talking shows earned him reasonable success in Paris, Milan and other European cities. He also toured America, Africa and India.

He was 6′ 2.5″ (1.9 m) tall, and with the addition of elevator shoes and a padded wig, appeared taller than seven. He was also slightly built at around nine and a half stone (65 kg/133 lbs). Going by some of the (still Copyright protected) images I’ve seen, the nickname “Human Hairpin” comes from seemingly bending in half as part of his act.

He toured Australia in 1907, and according to his autobiography, he looked back on his time here with great fondness.

He arrived aboard the Ortona. During the passage, he got up to a bit of mischief and found himself dragged before the Captain and threatened with leg irons. Though given I heard about it from his autobiography, perhaps not seriously, or at all. But no doubt, being a bit famous, he got away with hijinks.

His first child was born while he was travelling, and so he named her after the boat. I haven’t found any corroborating evidence for this, though I’m not at all sure why he might lie about that.

After arriving in Melbourne, he made some friends at a Bourke Street pub called “Under the Earth” (which I haven’t been able to locate). They took him rabbit hunting, and among other things, shot a “laughing jackass” or “cuckaburro” partly because he felt it was laughing at him. (Something I’ve heard from other people (including my father) who perhaps take themselves a little too seriously.)

Word got around, and he found himself in Court facing charges (it is still illegal to kill kookaburras here). When complaining the bird had laughed at him, the “magistrate asked blandly whether I wasn’t used to being laughed at?” And let him off with a fine of ten shillings.

While he was here, he helped set up the Australian Vaudeville Association (now known as the Australian Variety Artists Association).

There’s a bit of name dropping in the book, though of course, I have no idea who any of them are. Then again, I had no idea who Carlton was until I started looking into it either. But with his name, I’ve been able to find out more about him.

All in all, the book is amusing, though it is very much a product of its time. He reads like he would have fitted in here fine.

I was not able to discover what the Carlton Football Club (the Blues) (est. 1864) thought about a comedian called Carlton.

21st June 2020

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