MAGICIAN JOHN LOVICK, who goes by the stage name “Handsome Jack,” guesses he has seen thousands of magic shows.

A magic fan since childhood, he’s been in the business for more than 30 years and used to book talent for The Magic Castle — a private club for magicians and magic lovers housed in a Hollywood château, where he’s also been a regular performer.

What’s up with all these rabbits everywhere?

One thing he’s almost never seen over the decades: a magician making a rabbit appear, and disappear, from a hat.

“The interesting thing about that becoming the iconic magic trick for a couple hundred years — it’s never been that popular,” he says. “There are dozens if not hundreds of tricks that have always been performed by many, many magicians. I think I’ve only seen two pull a rabbit out of a hat. Why that one became the iconic image, I don’t know.”

This week’s magazine cover story attempts to answer a few questions about those little cottontails running around Seattle these days: Where did they come from? How many are there? Can you eat them? How do professionals keep them away from the Swiss chard? But one crucial rabbit-related question went unaddressed: When did we, as coexisting mammals, begin pulling them out of hats for our amusement?

Lovick, who is also a historian of magic, has an educated guess: sometime in the early 1800s, when Geneva-born magician Louis Apollinaire Christien Emmanuel Comte (aka “The King’s Conjurer”) began producing rabbits for the rich and powerful. There’s another contender (John Henry Anderson, “The Great Wizard of the North,” who was born in Scotland in 1814), but Lovick suspects Comte was first.


The trick is rare because it’s tough. “Getting a good deceptive method is difficult,” he says. “Producing a bird magically and deceptively is way easier than a rabbit, which is much bigger — although taking care of birds is a pain.”

As mammals go, producing a rabbit is still easier than, say, a cat. Once acclimated, a docile rabbit will sit quietly for a long time, and its fur makes it look much bigger than it is. That’s especially true of a white rabbit against a dark background, which still reads to the cheap seats in the back. (The same principle explains the stage popularity of white doves.) In the old days, parlor magicians sometimes gave the rabbit to a child in the household, which made an adorable, fuzzy calling card.

Though Lovick isn’t sure how rabbit-hat became a universal icon, I ventured a theory: The trick originated in the 1800s, when top hats symbolized wealth, power, a certain distingué. Rabbits, on the other hand, are silly and cute.

In theaters, rich people sit up front. If a magician like Comte borrowed a nice top hat from a gentleman in the first row (perhaps a senator, judge or local coal magnate), it produced a tension: What’s he going to do with the prime minister’s hat?

The incongruity of the symbols (hat = power, bunny = powerlessness), plus the release of the dramatic tension (rich man’s accessory meets harmless fuzzball), made it a potent, memorable stage image.

Lovick is lukewarm about the idea. “There’s probably some truth to it,” he says. “But with magic tricks, practical considerations almost always trump philosophical or artistic ones.” Still, he allows, the rabbit-hat image is simple, direct, graphically powerful — it looked good on posters, the visual language of that era.

Of all the possible tricks, which would Lovick choose as the international symbol for his trade?

“I wish levitations (e.g. the Floating Lady) were the touchstone/cliché magic trick instead of vanishes or the rabbit-from-hat. It’s a much cooler effect, and we would get many fewer ‘Can you make that disappear?’ jokes.”