A few days ago, I made the one-hour trek up I-35 from Austin to check out the old Santa Fe depot and train museum, and also to revisit the Czech Heritage Museum & Genealogy Center, the latter a repository of fascinating and strange stuff (everything from century-old marionettes to stamp collections) donated to the museum by Texans with Czech heritage.
I had heard that the Czech Museum would soon be moving from its cramped home in the basement of the SPJST insurance building to new digs in a restored historic building nearby, great news, as the museum will finally be able to properly highlight its collection. But I wanted to see one particular item, known as The Magic Gambler, before the museum became fancified.
What is The Magic Gambler, you ask? First of all, know that has that curious, creepy-appealing quality of old dolls and circus freak shows. Covered by an oblong dome some two feet high, a doll that looks vaguely like a monkey, dressed in a black pointed hat and a faded red-and gold cape, holds what appears to be a brass cake dome in his hands. A faded garland of leaves and flowers adds a Hansel-and-Gretel-ish, woodland touch to the display. But the magic starts when you place a key into a slot, turn it a few times to wind a mechanism in a music box, and step back. The doll's wizened head starts to bob, its eyes open and close, and its teeth start to chatter. Then one, two, three, The Magic Gambler's century-old, bony hand lifts the cake dome to reveal two tiny dice.
Curator Don Mears tells me this whole production was probably a bar gimmick; you and a group of your 19th Century, Czech friends would order a round of beers, pick a number, and the mysterious caped gent with the chattering teeth and the cake dome would determine who paid the bar tab. I'd like a Pilsner Urquell right about now, come to think of it. Join me: This round's on me.