Magician of the Week #40: June McComb

We selected this week’s magician, June McComb, on the basis of her bibliophilic prop, which appears to be an enormous book on a TV tray table and/or an extra-tall luggage rack.

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June, in her sharp yet seasonally-confusing outfit of fur cape and silky leotard, was, according to a writer from The Ireland Magic Co., “probably the prettiest girl in magic in the whole world.” (Let’s envision, just for a moment, a world where male magicians of the 1950’s were praised for being “perhaps the handsomest man in magic in the whole world,” and/or where they performed in heavily accessorized satin bathing suits.)

The photo above comes from Ireland’s 1955 Year Book, published in Chicago by The Ireland Magic Company. The internet has several videos of June McComb in action, for those who would like to see more of this “glamorous girl magician”.

P.S. Her shoes!

Magician of the Week #39: Sgt. Phil Jay and his Magical Skunk

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Interesting: Phil Jay, NCOIC of the Airmen’s Service Club, Harlingen, TX Air Force Base, was also a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, according to this feature in The Linking Ring (Vol. 32, No. 12).

More interesting: Sgt. Phil Jay was, as of February 1953, training a skunk named Henry, hoping to include him as part of his magic act.

Most interesting: Henry the skunk apparently had had his mercaptan-emitting scent glands removed, and was purchased from an animal dealer in South Carolina. While still shy around humans, Henry was sufficiently domesticated to have developed “a taste for tidbits like sweet rolls and candy”.

I, for one, could happily watch an act that consisted almost entirely of a skunk eating candy on stage. (As for the advisability of feeding candy to a skunk – may I recommend the “Diet” section of the Wikipedia article on “Skunks as pets”? Within a few short paragraphs it includes references to all manner of skunk-centric wonders, including a food mix called Skunkie Delight, a skunk rescue organization called Skunk Haven, and a group called Florida Skunks as Pets.)

Magician of the Week #38: T. Nelson Downs, the Mystic Wonder

This week’s star magician is T. Nelson Downs, who was both a Mystic Wonder and a Celebrated Prestidigitateur.

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The image above is an advertisement from the back pages of Will Goldston’s Secrets of Magic (London: A. W. Gamage, 1903).

Downs was a highly successful self-taught magician, performing in well-known venues across the United States and Europe and prestidigitating (is that a verb?) for royalty. Because of his many well-known and elaborate coin tricks–illustrated by the spooky disembodied hands above–he was known as “The King of Koins”, an epithet that is engraved on his tombstone.

Also, and this seems too good to be true: T. Nelson Downs had two wives over the course of his 71 years, one named Nellie Stone and one named Harriett Rocky.

The internet archive has a digitized version of Downs’s The Art of Magicand Brown University’s Library houses the T. Nelson Downs Collection, which includes correspondence, documentation of tricks, photos, programs, and advertisements.

Magician of the Week #36: Hammo the Great

This week’s wild-eyed magician, “Hammo the Great”, is featured on the cover of the August 1941 issue of Genii.

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(It’s a little hard to see, but that’s definitely glitter lettering spelling out “Hammo”.)

If this magician’s mug looks familiar, it’s because Max Terhune, the man behind Hammo, wore several other (literal) hats: he played Lullaby Joslin (great name!) in the B-movie Western series The Three Mesquiteers, he was a well-known stage ventriloquist (and his dummy, Elmer, roamed the range alongside Terhune in the Mesquiteers), and, in his earlier days, he traveled widely as a competitive whistler and animal imitator.

The editor of Genii colorfully describes Terhune’s “sublime prestidigitatorial skill”, as well as his “careless dress [and] high-heeled boots”. Said editor also notes that it’s “a fact” that Max Terhune has no enemies.

Max Terhune: what a guy!

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Magician of the Week #35: Jesse J. Lybarger

This week’s magician is taken from the cover of the December 1932 issue of The Linking Ring.

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Here’s Jesse Lybarger inside a vignette with playing cards, coins, a bird in a cage, balls, the devil emanating from a radio tower, and the Angel of Death with lightning bolts radiating from the hood of his robe.

The latter’s a little hard to see, so here’s a close-up, enhanced for extra green-ness:

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Lybarger was an Ohio native and sewing machine salesman; his magical claim to fame is that he sold the first known routine involving sponge balls in 1925 (although Al Cohn, known as the “Sponge Ball King”, claimed to have invented the prop nearly 20 years later; Robert A. Nelson invented the “sponge rabbit” in mid-1940s).

Next time you’re enjoying a magic trick involving sponge balls, don’t forget to thank Jesse J. Lybarger.

Magician of the Week #34: Celeste Evans

The award for Most Stunning Magician Eyebrows goes to:

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Celeste Evans! Would you take a look at those amazing arches?

The August 1964 issue of The New TOPS describes her act thusly:

This tall statuesque and beautiful girl makes a stage appearance at the outset which is quite electrifying. As Celeste appears in an evening gown, minus the “sleeves, pockets and concealed hiding places” worn by the men of her profession, the sudden production of eight doves and a real live Toy Poodle adds still more bewilderment to an already baffling act.

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Magician(s) of the Week #33: Milo and Roger

When you look at the cover of this September 1967 newsletter from the Boston chapter of the Society of American Magicians, you may think to yourself (which is to say, I certainly thought to myself), “one of these things is not like the others”.

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Adrift in a sea of slightly mischievous men wearing ties (and the occasional tidy wife), we see this peculiar duo (or trio, if you’re counting the duck):

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Arthur “Milo” Brandon and Roger Coker, both Ohio natives, toured with their comedic magic act from the 1950s until the 1990s, which is a darn impressive run. They performed in nightclubs, theaters, fairs, hotels, and on television, including an appearance on The Tonight Show. An article in the August 1971 issue of Genii refers to them as “the Laurel and Hardy of magic”, describing their slapstick humor and vaudeville style. The same article also notes that, at least in 1971, they traveled with 2,000 pounds of equipment, including 50 pounds of “outlandish maharajah’s outfit”.

Speaking of outlandish maharajah’s outfits, I would be remiss to publish a blog post featuring two white men in fabulously exaggerated and bejeweled turbans without touching–however briefly–on the topic of Orientalism in the stage magic tradition. While it’s rather too complex to condense into a blog post, I do want to note that magicians in the European tradition have been incorporating imagery from the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa since at least the Middle Ages, adding intrigue and allure to their acts by playing off of Western stereotypes of the “exotic” East. Milo seems to be comically riffing off of said intrigue and allure, judging by his bushel-basket-sized headwear, in a multi-layered interplay of cultural signifiers.

Adam Silverstein, a University Research Lecturer in Near and Middle Eastern Studies at The Queen’s College, Oxford, has some interesting observations about the overlap between magic shows, the study of Islamic history, Orientalism, popular preconceptions, and the culture of expertise. For a more in-depth cultural criticism of Western portrayals of Eastern cultures, with a focus on imperialism and power dynamics, I recommend Edward Said’s book Orientalism.

Now, not at all speaking of outlandish maharajah’s outfits: apparently all of Milo and Roger’s ducks (and I imagine there were many in a 40+ year career) were named after Vice Presidents, and lived in the pair’s bathtub wherever their show happened to take them. Yes, these were world-class ducks.