Saturday, December 24, 2022



Analyzing 150,000+ Hits on Propelled Pasteboards' 6th Anniversary

Our own promotional throwout card  
out of print and now a collectible!

This month, Propelled Pasteboards marked its six year anniversary, having racked up more than 150,000 visits in that time.  So, it's time for our version of the "People's Choice Awards," finding out which posts attracted the most interest.  Some magicians who made our "Top Ten" list prove quite predictable, while others might just surprise you.  And you'll never guess who ranked #1.

The four writers who regularly contribute to Propelled Pasteboards - Tom Ewing, Gary Frank, Jay Hunter and me - have offered an astonishingly broad array of posts - 250 listings which encompass some of history's best known magicians to performers so obscure that they nearly defy our investigative research efforts.  And these listing have drawn well over 150,000 hits (some of our early data was lost to a conversion from http:// to https://).  In this post, I'll be examining those posts that have attracted the most hits.

Perhaps most predictably, Gary Frank's feature on Harry Houdini made the top ten list, with well over 1,000 visits.  Shockingly, however, Houdini did not place first!  More on that in a moment.  Other superstars closely connected with card throwing - like Jeff McBride & Juliana Chen - predictably placed on our top ten list.  (Ricky Jay did not make the cut, though several posts dedicated to him made the top 20 list.)  David Kwong, also placed high on the list, perhaps we used the opportunity to highlight his then-popular show, The Enigmatist.  Our salute to women in magic also proved quite popular, with both the "Women in Magic Month" post and articles on Melinda and Ms. Chen taking three of the spots.  Visitors also showed interest in the production of throwout cards, with posts spotlighting Fox Lake Playing Cards also making the cut, while a post about DeLand made the top twenty.  (Relatedly, we have two static pages on throwing cards and throwing card backs that racked up similar numbers, but don't get ranked on the top ten list as they're not "posts.")

Other posts that proved popular are more puzzling, as they feature lesser known magicians.  Jay Hunter's feature on Ben Franklin IV ranked third (with more visitors than Houdini), while Tom Ewing's terrific feature on Colta & Colta came in seventh.   But perhaps the biggest surprise is our top contender.  The number one, most visited Propelled Pasteboards blog post, indeed, the only post with more than 2,000 visits is . . .  [drum roll] . . . Leslie Guest!  This unanticipated placement remains unchanged from our analysis of hits when the site marked 100,000 hits.  Please don't misunderstand, at Propelled Pasteboards we pride ourselves on featuring magicians of all kinds, often celebrating obscure, mysterious and even unsuccessful performers that you won't find anywhere else.  Furthermore, Gary Frank's feature on Mr. Guest is thorough and interesting.   But that Guest would best Houdini, Thurston, Kellar and some of the other historic greats we've featured is something no mentalist could have predicted!  

But for the record, at this writing, this is . . .

Propelled Pasteboard's Most Popular Posts

The Top Ten List with Official Hit Counts


When you have time, check out these posts and some of our less popular pieces.  You won't be disappointed.

Monday, August 29, 2022

The Tall Tales of Eddie "Tex" McGuire

When researching magicians, it's always hard to know what to believe, But the subject of this post - Eddie "Tex" McGuire -- is in a league of his own when it comes to tall tales.

Here's what I can assemble from a number of magic publications:
He was born in or around 1891, and by 1910, persuaded his father to use money that had been saved for college to study magic, eventually performing under the names The Great Gilland, Don Cortex and Tex McGuire. His favorite trick consisted of driving a Cadillac, with seven passengers, on stage and making the car and its occupants disappear. By age 19, he began traveling with a show headed by Mrs. Tom Thumb. He served in WWI, wounded and subject to gas attacks. In the 1920s, he returned to Europe. And here's where the legends begin.

According to various sources -- principally McGuire -- he created a "mathematical system" whichpermitted him to "break the bank" at Monte Carlo on three occasions. While that's an exciting thing to say, it's more interesting once one knows what it means. According to Wikipedia:
The expression "breaking the bank" is used when a gambler wins more money than the reserve held at that particular table in the casino. At the start of each day, every table was funded with a cash reserve of 100,000 francs – known as "the bank". If this reserve was insufficient to pay the winnings, play at that table was suspended while extra funds were brought out from the casino's vaults.

The list of bank breakers -- though admittedly incomplete, does not include McGuire's name. Another myth swirling around McGuire was whether he (like so many others) was the author of The Phantom of the Card Table. That McGuire might be Erdnase is further undermined by a second rumor associating him with Walter Scott, an individual who is claimed by some to be that elusive writer.

Fuel was poured on the tall tale fire by the release of a five dollar book about McGuire authored by Edward S. Cannon and produced by Lee Jacobs in 1953. The ad copy consisted of a series of provocative questions about McGuire, including whether he broke the bank, was actually Erdnase, was the subject of superlative quotes by Houdini and Thurston, and was a star of the Roy Rogers Rodeo. The ad copy concludes that "Tex McGuire was all of these and much, much more." So maybe it wasn't the most accurate historical portrait....

One of McGuire's most important contributions to magic occurred, in a sense, posthumously. Beginning in 1922, he entered into a long, detailed correspondence with the famed T. Nelson Downs. The two men wrote a series of letter that were meticulously cataloged over several years, exchanging trick ideas, moves, handlings and stories. In 1971, John Braun compiled these ideas into a special Linking Ring parade which is quite interesting.

I originally picked up this oversized, two-color, single-sided business card because I knew of McGuire as Max Malini's manager (and I have a copy of what seemed to be McGuire's manager card). After researching this subject, though, I no longer know what to believe.

Monday, May 2, 2022

Whitey Roberts – The Man with the Cheshire Cat Smile

           Alston Whitey Peterson was born on November 17, 1902, in Butte, Montana. Whitey’s family moved near San Francisco, California, just before the 1906 Earthquake. After the dust had settled and the city started to rebuild, entertainment became a way for the residents to bring their lives back to normal. Whitey tried out at a few talent contests and got noticed. He learned a little tap dancing and that was enough to get him a small part in a show. He watched and learned and developed his own act that included more than just a few dance steps. He was quickly a top performer. One of the earliest publicized advertisements for Whitey was in 1926, while he was performing at the Bakersfield Nile Theater in a vaudeville troupe as one of the five acts billed.

            Whitey was billed as Whitey Roberts – Personality Boy. He sang a few songs, told funny stories, and filled in with a little juggling. At the Defiance Theatre, in Defiance, Ohio, in 1928, Whitey was performing his same act, but added in songs that were popular for the day. He was between two acts, Georgia Peaches and her “Banjo Oddity” and Bud Boomer’s Orchestra. The audience liked to watch Whitey, who was tall, blonde, and always smiling. His personality and performance stowed the audience’s cares away while he was on stage. In 1928, Whitey stepped into the role of master of ceremonies when necessary and in the latter part of the same year, Whitey was billed as the “America’s Foremost Rope-Skipping Dancer” at the Marlow Theatre in Helena, Montana. From Montana to Missouri and then onto Indiana.
            In the 1930’s, Whitey was still on the road traveling from Indiana to Wisconsin, Montana, and even made his way to Washington D.C. with his act. The juggling portion seemed to be what the audience enjoyed the best. In 1933, Whitey was booked again in Bakersfield, California, at the Fox Theatre. The variety act would keep the audience’s attention as they waited for the evening movie, which was Midnight Club starring Clive Brook and rough guy George Raft. Whitey completed his contacts in Bakersfield and appeared at the Orpheum in Salt Lake City, Utah, with NBC Radio singing star, Grace Hicks, the balancing act, The Three Zechos, and the dancing artistry of the Sunshine Beauties. Whitey packed his bags and was on his way to the next engagement, from Chicago, Illinois to Oakland, California, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and many other locations booked throughout the 1930’s. In 1936, Whitey was publicized as “The Laugh Insurance Man,” with his plate juggling, rope skipping dancing, and singing. In 1939, Whitey was on the playbill with magician Jack Gwynne and four other acts to give the theater audience a well-rounded vaudeville show before the movie 20,000 Men a Year at the Paramount Theater in North Adams, Massachusetts.

Leave it to Whitey to get a 'friend' from the audience to play catch!

             As Whitey eased into the 1940’s, he was back in California. One of his jobs was to help work out the dance steps for Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in the movie The Road to Zanzibar. Although California had its attractions, Whitey still continued to perform in Utah, Idaho, and Indiana to keep his booking attraction alive. In 1942, Whitey was on the playbill with Jack Gwynne and Company at the Paramount in Waterloo, Iowa, as well as Southington, Connecticut. This time, Whitey was a headliner and billed as “Insurance Wonder.” (Whitey said he got the name because the theater managers said he was a guaranteed success whenever he performed his act.) In 1949, Whitey finally made it to Broadway. He was one of the featured acts who headlined with Buddy Ebsen, the Reis Brothers, and a number of other performers. It’s important to know at that time of Vaudeville, other performers who were featured in movies were also performing these one-night stands. Charles Laughton, Nelson Eddy, and others were ‘in between’ performances. At this time of theater’s transition, it was important for actors to be in the public’s eye and be employed. In August of 1950, Whitey was part of the Cumberland Fair in Cumberland, Maryland where he was the Master of Ceremonies. The variety show included The Flying Hartzells, a trapeze act, The Two Adams, a bicycle act, while the feature act of the performance was “The Banana Man.” This act is available online; watch it and be prepared to laugh. The performer was Adolf Proper (November 27, 1886 – December 17, 1950) and he presented an act that never was copied (borrowed from a few times) because it was just too much work. He would appear on stage and begin producing everything from a large magnet, to a clarinet, or a violin. He didn’t stop at just producing musical instruments, though. He would then produce watermelons and then there was that first banana. Then, there was another and another. Each time he produced a banana, he would say in a falsetto voice, “Wow!” The audience was roaring in laughter almost from the beginning of the act to the closing.
            Also in 1950, Whitey was cast in a long-lost movie titled
Chained for Life, in which he performs a short juggling act. As the 1950’s continued, Whitey kept his bags packed, always prepared to travel to his next performance, whether bound for Indiana, Illinois, or Montana. In the 1950’s, Auto Shows were becoming popular, hosted by the leading auto manufacturing companies. Whitey was the perfect person for those types of shows. He was a story telling, and entertainer, and after all of his time on the road, it gave him a chance to stay in a town for up to two or three days.

From a Emcee to a guest performer, Whitey was there.
            The bookings kept coming in and Whitey filled the billing as either a variety act or the master of ceremonies (or both, on several occasions). Whitey accepted bookings for fair dates, specialty clubs, private engagements, or corporation gatherings and he even added a bell-ringing portion to round out his act. Any engagement that kept him busy was the perfect for this special performer. As the 1970’s ended, Whitey was booked on a daytime variety show called The Mike Douglas Show. Douglas’s show would feature celebrities and occasionally a specialty act or two. That was the case for the July 1979 show that aired on a Thursday afternoon. The show included singer Lou Rawls, the Saunders Troupe performing teeterboard acrobatic routines and other feats, and Whitey. Douglas had Whitey return a few more times before the year ended. The audience thoroughly enjoyed watching Whitey skip rope and combine his ending with juggling and plate spinning. One of the highlights of Whitey’s life in the 1970’s was his performance on NBC’s new program called The Gong Show. He was on the pilot and he won first place performing a little rope work and a bit of dancing.

What a smile!

            In his lifetime, Whitey was a member of the Masons, The S.A.M., I.B.M., The Masquers Club and The Academy of Magical Arts. He continued to help younger performers in entertainment whenever he had the opportunity. He worked all the showrooms at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California. He would sit all the way in the back of the showroom and enjoy the show any chance he could. He would go up to the performer after the act and give out words of encouragement and, before the conversation was over, he would ask if the performer wanted to work “next week.” He knew all of the local agents and if Whitey helped someone get a booking, he was in seventh heaven.

Whitey was "one of America's Foremost Entertainers a good friend.

            After all that Whitey accomplished on stage and off, time and age caught up to him. He died on September 21, 1999, in Los Angeles, California. He left behind a record of performances that few performers could even come close to today. The dedication to his love for his art shown through with every performance and with anyone who crossed paths with him. He was so enthralled with life that if someone met him on the street and looked into his eyes, Whitey’s smile, personality, and lust for life would have rubbed off on them.

Monday, January 17, 2022

 Colta & Colta - The Merry Magicians 

Many magicians have claimed to be descendants of great conjurors of the past, and the subject of this post is no exception. However, unlike most of those who capitalized on another’s name, Colta the magician had a long and varied career of his own.

Born Charles Joseph Jones in 1890, like many, his interest in trickery started at adolescence. He joined a church club in 1904, and one of the hobby courses included basic magic. He was hooked, and within a year, young Charlie was putting on shows in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania as “Colta the Merry Magician” (a name drived from esteemed conjuror Buatier De Kolta, who was supposedly a distant relative). 

In 1908, he donned Asian makeup and created a new stage act to coincide with screenings of movies such as “Prince Ko-Ko, Oriental Conjuror”. Then, just one year later in 1909, Colta removed the makeup and entered vaudeville, touring on prominent circuits including the Ed Mozart Circuit, Gus Sun Time, Sullivan-Considine, Butterfield, and finally, Keith Family Time. 

In 1911, though ‘hanging up’ his vaudevillian ‘coat,’ he kept his wand and continued performing magic alongside a Philadelphia entertainer named of Christi, and presenting a mechanical doll called “La-Atta.” He returned home to Harrisburg a year later. Back home, he married Minnie “Mimi” Engle and worked as a projectionist, a passion that originated from his 1908 act. 

During World War I, Colta was employed at the Shell Mill of Bethlehem Steel by day, and continued his projection career at night, far too busy to do magic. After the war, he managed Harrisburg’s Colonial Theater for a short while, where he frequently booked other magicians to perform. He then decided to turn back to magic, this time joining vaudeville’s Artists Revels unit. Unlike his first stint on the circuit though, he was not alone. Colta now shared the stage with Mimi as “Colta and Colta the Merry Magicians.” 

                                    Bethlehem Shell Plant 

Together, they featured attractions such as Shooting Through a Woman and Rag Pictures. After traversing several more circuits with new and unique acts such as Mimi playing a “Living Marionette” and a linking ring routine that included rings being hurled 20 feet across the stage, the couple returned home to Harrisburg in 1930 and performed local bookings. 

Colonial Theater, Harrisburg 

I believe this card originates from around that time:

Longer than a typical pasteboard, one side advertises a few of the novel entertainments the Coltas could provide, and the other features Charlie pulling a fake rabbit out of a hat. He really appears to be a Merry Magician! In the 40s, during World War II, Charlie devoted over 500 hours to entertaining servicemen in camps and hospitals. 

Tom Ewing discovered two cards for the Colta's in his collection. They show that Colta's wife Mimi also performed magic and was adept at billiard ball manipulation. Her scaling or business card shows her with those billiard balls. The back of the card identifies her as one of the Magigals - an organization of female magicians who had members nationwide. 

Colta's card shows him with fez and dove and a double fan of cards with birds on them. The back of his card also identifies him as a Shriner from the Zembo Temple in Harrisburg. Both cards appear to be from later in their careers. 

He was also active in magic societies, becoming the first president of The Magicians Alliance of Eastern States (MAES), and was a co-founder and first president of both The Society of American Magicians Assembly 22 and The International Brotherhood of Magicians Ring 20.

Charlie and Mimi appeared in an advertisement for Martin’s Magic Shop, featured in the August 1952 issue of 
Genii Magazine, with Charlie performing Dell O’Dell’s "Apple Tubes" trick. The couple moved to California in 1957, where Charlie was active in The Society of American Magicians assembly 22, and was awarded an honorary life membership from the Pasadena Magicians Guild. In 1971 the Coltas moved back to Harrisburg, where Charlie passed away in 1973 and Mimi in 1978.


Here are several additional images of the Colta's. One is s a nice image of the their suitcase that they carried parts of their show in for many years. 

The other image shows their marionette act with Mimi worked the Hula Girl figure and Charlie working a clown. Both images are provided thanks to Sal Perrotta. 

With the exception of this last photo above, most of the images of Colta thus far have been from later in his career. Through the kindness of Mike Caveney and his Egyptian Hall Museum, we offer these additional very nice images of him in younger years. 

Colta The "Gay Deceiver" on the Redpath Chautauqua Circuit circa 1908-09 
(Courtesy of Egyptian Hall Museum) 

Colta performing the floating ball in the Christi-Colta act 
on the Mozart Circuit 1910. 
(Courtesy of Egyptian Hall Museum) 

Colta with a Flag Vase Production circa 1920. 
(Courtesy of Egyptian Hall Museum) 

Colta with six precision dancer puppets used in his night club act 1930-31. 
(Courtesy of Egyptian Hall Museum) 

Ben Winn 

Friday, January 7, 2022

 Ballas - Europe's Foremost Magician 

This post is devoted to a magician named George Ballas who, despite his scaling card proclaiming him to be "Europe's Foremost Magician" was, in fact, a local Philadelphia magician who likely never strayed further than the city limits. 

His scaling card (circa 1906-7) shows a young Ballas in stiff collar and bow tie using promotional cards supplied by Congress Playing Cards which note that they are "Best for social play." 

A search of Ask Alexander turned up a November 1906 ad offering his services as a magician. His address was listed as 2236 N. Chadwick St., Philadelphia which (after checking Google Maps) is an empty lot on the south side of the city. It had formerly been a row home. 

Other ads appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer in the 1906-7 range offering his services as magician. 

An issue of The Inquirer for Oct. 21, 1906 shows Ballas performing at the 9th and Arch Street Museum where he was sharing the platform with an armless and legless freak, singers, ventriloquists and other small time performers. 

Little more is known about Ballas including when he died and under what circumstances. It's just confirmation that with a blank scaling card and with a printer's local help, evern a 40-miler can use showman's privilege to portray himself as "Europe's Foremost Magician." 


Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Tarbell and the Juvenile Wonder Workers

It’s been some time since I posted last but I hope this item makes up for lost time. The subject line leads with Harlan Tarbell but the real story is about Korman and “Merlin,” both juvenile wonder workers. The promotional item discussed here does not have a conventional playing card back but rather features photos of two young magicians.

So, who exactly were Korman and the mysterious Merlin? Korman is much easier to identify as being Louis H. Korman, born around 1906, a resident of Chicago and longtime member of S.A.M. Assembly #3. Korman doesn’t really start appearing in conjuring literature until the early 1920s.

 At that time the assembly was holding its meetings in a club room with a small stage. Korman’s first appearance on stage came as a surprise to a fellow magician and to the delight of the audience. According to Dorny (Werner Dornfield), during a club show a magician was doing the Rising Card effect with Korman off stage pulling the thread. When the performer took his bow, the curtains parted at the side of the stage and Korman stepped through and took a bow as well. “The laughter was dynamic. The magician was robbed of his glory, but inasmuch as the show was for magicians only I do not think that Korman’s conduct was too improper,” Dorny wrote. Korman was remorseful afterward and admitted he shouldn’t have done it.

The Juvenile Wonder Workers first started performing locally very early in the year 1922. A notice in the February 4, 1921 Billboard reported, “Korman and Merlin `The Juvenile Wonder Workers’ recently introduced their act at neighborhood theaters in Chicago, their home city, and registered so good that it is safe to predict a good name for them in magic.”

By September of that year, Korman was working at Arthur P. Felsman’s magic shop at the Windsor-Clifton Hotel. And then in the October 1922 issue of The Sphinx, we learn that “Merlin” is none other than Johnny Platt.

Platt was born in Chicago October 15, 1903 and started his interest in magic with a Gilbert Mysto Magic set. By 18 he was working with Korman but eventually left that gig to work in the publicity department of Middle West Utilities Co. in Chicago. He jumped back into show business at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair appearing as Hadji Baba, Indian Magician in the Oriental Theater in the Oriental Village. Platt was an early I.B.M. member holding number 109.

That wasn’t the end of the juvenile wonder workers though as another young Chicago magician George Boston stepped in to fill the role of Merlin.

Boston was born January 6, 1905 and first became interested in magic after seeing Thurston at age 10. He then started buying magic from Roterberg's magic shop and then over his career was an assistant to the Duval brothers, McDonald Birch, Howard Thurston, Harry Thurston, Carter, Mel-Roy, Virgil, Will Rock and Nicola. 

And so, when Boston left the act, was that the end of the juvenile wonder workers? No! The next Merlin was none other than Victor Torsberg, another Chicago stalwart and all-around talented magician.


He was born in 1906 and served as president of Assembly #3 three times, was president of The Wizard’s Club and president of I.B.M. Ring 43. He was best remembered as a demonstrator at Jim Sherman’s National Magic Shop. He was very close friends with George Boston.


On February 9, 1923, the juvenile wonder workers appeared on the first annual Assembly #3 magic show at Kimball Hall. With them that night on the show were Herman Homar performing “Spirit Paintings.” Prince Rajbar “Master Mystic;” Jim Sherman “Magicprestoignoracy;” Elmer Gylleck assisted by Chester Gump;” The Marvelous Jossefy presenting Balsamo, his amazing talking skull;” Arthur and Helena Buckley presenting telepathy; with Korman and Platt closing the show.


In December 1923, Korman accompanied a group of magicians who traveled to Michigan City to catch the Blackstone Sr. show. Accompanying Korman were Mr. and Mrs. Felsman, and Homar Woulffe. Earlier that month the wonder workers had a stage mishap. One of their big effects was the Pagoda Trick combined with the Tabouret production of four large ducks from a tub on the tabouret. When it came time to produce the ducks one had died. It was not for improper packing as the ducks apparently had lots of room in their hidden state.


All of the various Merlin’s went on to full lives of magic but it appears that Korman eventually dropped out of performing. A report on the 1940 Abbott’s Get Together act of Boston was reported with a note that all of his boyhood friends were still performing except for Korman. The May 1966 issue of The Linking Ring announced Korman’s death at 59 and referenced his early partnership with Boston and Platt. Boston died March 14, 1975. Platt passed away in 1990.


And so we return to Harlan Tarbell and finally disclose his relationship to the Juvenile Wonder Workers. Well, at the very bottom of their promotional card on each side you find “Harlan Tarbell” and according to experts, it was the very magic card designed by Tarbell. I hope you’ve enjoyed this look back at the vibrant Chicago magic scene and the intricate threads that wove these conjurors together especially Tarbell who played such a creatively and artistically important role in the history of magic. .


Tom Ewing

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Mac King, Kentucky and the World

Our Friend Bill Mullins has submitted this fine guest post:

When I first got interested in magic, Gary Oullet’s “World’s Greatest Magic” specials were still in production, and Mac King would teach a simple trick on them. So I’ve known of him, and been a fan, for as long as I’ve enjoyed magic. In the intervening years, I’ve gotten to see him perform live a

few times, and even have dinner with him occasionally. In addition to being one of the best comedy

magicians, he’s a great guy to hang out with.

Recently, the Frazier History Museum in Louisville hosted Mac and fellow Kentuckian/magician Lance Burton for a panel discussion about growing up in Louisville as magicians, working at the Tombstone Junction amusement park during summers, and their careers since. And of course, afterward they each did some magic. My son has been asking to accompany me to a magic show recently, and it was a great opportunity for him to see two pros at the top of their craft.

Afterwards, we stopped in the gift shop of the museum. There on the display tables they had for sale a deck of playing cards titled “Kentucky to the World,” featuring drawings of prominent people

from the Bluegrass State. One of the Kentuckians pictured was Mac King. I’m not sure it’s the best

likeness, but it is a magician on a playing card (and he’s the only one it the set – somehow, Lance

Burton wasn’t chosen).

The deck is available for sale, if you are so inclined:


Thanks for that, Bill!  

Collectors might also be interested in tracking down some of Mac King's effects.  Though sold in pharmacies and toy stores, they are well made effects with novel twists on conventional magic apparatus.  The one pictured (which I owned at one time, and was a favorite), the "Mesmerizing Monkey Brain" is a ball and vase-type effect with a monkey brain substituted for the ball, and it includes a bonus card prediction!  

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Melinda, The First Lady Of Magic

Our tribute to women in magic would not be complete without a mention of Melinda Saxe, frequently billed as "The First Lady of Magic."   Make no mistake: her showgirl stage persona and synthesis of dance and magic was not to everyone's taste, but there is no arguing with success:  Melinda was the first female magician to headline in Las Vegas,  she became a regular on the now-classic World's Greatest Magicians specials (a holiday tradition for several years produced by Gary Ouellette), and starred in her own network special Disney's Melinda: First Lady of Magic.    

Most of the magic periodical coverage available about Melinda focused on her high-profile if short-lived marriage to magic superstar Lance Burton.

You can see Melinda at the peak of her career, as a featured guest on Oprah.

My job here has been facilitated by the bounty of articles and sites describing Melinda's career.  But nothing, in my estimation, matches this lovely tribute to her posted on The Little Egypt Gazette, one of the pioneer venues for online magic reporting. 

I had occasion to see Melinda perform live just one time - in 1995, at the ill-fated "World's Greatest Magicians Live OnStage" tour.  A press release photo associated with that tour appears here on the left.  I refer to the tour as "ill-fated" because, though billed as a national tour, the show, beset with difficulties,  played only a few performances before closing down.  (A bootleg video of that performance can be found on YouTube with some effort).  The gremlins that besieged that tour were certainly evident at the performance I witnessed: Melinda's motorcycle vanish had a significant performance problem, and her signature piece, the Drill of Death, malfunctioned badly that evening.  On the other hand, she did a quite charming firefly production, similar to one offered by my friend Peter Maloney.
Melinda's card, seen above, features a striking full-color image of the performer.  It is part of a promotional playing card deck -- all the backs of which are as seen here -- which is still widely available.  

Friday, May 21, 2021

Mary Milam Chaudet Brigance – A Life of Music, Song, and Magic

From the Gary Brown Collection

      Mary Ruth Milam was born on October 7, 1920 in Hartford, Arkansas and from an early age she had the gift of song. Her parents, Walter and Margarette hired a coach throughout her early school years that paid off when she won the Arkansas statewide vocal competition. When Mary was just entering high school, her family moved to Chicago, Illinois just a few years before the Great Depression in 1929. Finding jobs was tight and the whole Milam family pitched in to put money home. Mary and her brother Bob, and sister Patti did what they could to help out by selling wooden produce crates. In 1935, Mary and Bob put together a song and dance act and tried out at one of the local talent shows in town. They won the top prize and that opened the door more bookings at the local theaters and small time vaudeville shows. Mary and her brother were booked for a three-month tour with Sid Page’s “Stars of Tomorrow” revue. Included in the troupe was a young magician billed as “Tung Pin Soo”. His offstage name was Al Wheatley (1901 – 1964). 

      Mary and Bob completed their tour and Bob went back home. Mary continued to sing with popular group singers of the day and then had a big break when the trio she was working with performed on NBC network’s featured radio program. Mary’s singing career continued to flourish in the 1940’s and then she decided it was time to hone her talents as a single act. About the same time Mary’s family moved to Hollywood, California. Not long after, Mary’s brother Bob enlisted in the Army. Mary was still finding venues to sing and when she wasn’t performing, she would participate at the U.S.O.’s Hollywood Canteen. More opportunities continued for Mary as she found herself singing with Benny Goodman’s band in 1943. After leaving the Goodman booking, Mary eventually went back to working with the U.S.O. full time. If you were in almost anyone of Mary’s audiences at the time, you would have seen her ‘multitasking’. One performance she was a singer, dancer, or an emcee and then another show would have being a straight man for a comedy team. While Mary was in New York with the U.S.O. tour, she auditioned and was hired to perform with Broadway’s comedy team’s John Olsen and Harold Johnson’s musical revue “Sons o’ Fun”. The show had a good run on “The Great White Way”, but war effort needed them to support the troops in Europe. An added part to Mary’s employment was that she was going to Europe to sing and be bestowed the uniform and rank of captain in the Woman’s Army Corps (WAC). The show’s cast left New York and toured France, Belgium, and safe areas of Germany. The tour ended in Southern France where the military troops were being transported to be cared for and to be shipped out back to America. The show continued to perform for the troops, but this time they were working in one of the remaining viable theaters instead of under gunfire and one night stands. 

      As luck would have it, Mary was offered to go back to New York to work in a new Broadway musical. Just a few months before, Mary’s interest in her career took a detour in Milan, Italy with a young man who was working in Special Services as a magician and producer of the shows. His name was Louis William Chaudet II or “Bill”. As odds would have, both Mary and Bill were almost neighbors from Hollywood, California. Mary and Bill returned home to California. Mary was a featured performer on the "Hedda Hopper Show Case" in Hollywood over CBS. And when the time was right, Mary and Bill were married on June 29, 1946. Bill’s best man was none other than magician Harry Blackstone. Bill was Blackstone’s protégé and they were good friends. Before the year was up Bill and Mary became a part of Blackstone’s traveling show.

     As one of the Blackstone Show’s assistants, Mary was taught a number of illusions and tricks that involved working with everything from canaries to swords. During a hiatus of Blackstone’s full evening show, Bill and Mary took out their own two-person show. 

      “The Chaudets” presented a variety show of magic and song. Bill’s knowledge of magic worked well along the singing talents of Mary. Together, they were able to work in local nightclubs throughout the Los Angeles area presenting illusions, magic, and feature Mary’s beautiful singing. They continued to perform together and developed a persona that agents were scrambling to book for their clients. Upon their return to the Blackstone Show, the thrills never ended. One particular performance nearly ended in disaster. While Mary was “floating” it broke! Thank goodness for fast thinking of Blackstone. He caught Mary before she dropped to the stage floor. What kind of man was Harry Blackstone? While he was performing the levitation with his assistant Mary, he would tell her a funny joke knowing she couldn’t laugh, because she was in a trance. Being a part of The Great Blackstone show had its thrills and opportunities too (just ask Adele Friel Rhindress!). 

      Being able to work for someone who dedicated his life for the love of magic was the greatest privilege. The Chaudets continued to perform at magic conventions, Las Vegas, Honolulu, Hawaii, and finished off their touring by continuing to perform at upscale nightclubs and dinner clubs. The act wasn’t limited to small venues. They did perform at fairs and some trade shows too. Mary performed small magic effects like the Linking Rings, silk effects, along with being Bill’s assistant. In 1964, while performing at the S.A.M. National Convention in New York, The Chaudets closed the show with a version of the broom levitation that brought the audience to their feet. Bill enhanced the original idea of two brooms and made them microphones. As Mary was singing the Wright and Forrest song, “Stranger in Paradise”, Bill lifted Mary to the effect’s apex as she sang the words, “…I hang suspended…” 

      They appeared at the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, California in 1955 and just a few months later, they could be seen on television show the Mickey Mouse Club. They would return for the next three years to entertain the Mouseketeers and the television audience with their wonderful presentation of magic and illusion. 

      Bill and Mary also appeared on the Art Linkletter show and Lawrence Welk television shows. In 1965, co-wrote a song entitled, “Big Nobody” that was sung by Pearl Bailey. The song was included in Ms. Bailey’s record album, “For Women Only”. In August of 1967, Bill and Mary divorced. Mary concentrated on her singing career and continued with her interest in magic. She was bestowed a lifetime membership in the magic club in Honolulu, a member of the famed Magic Castle in Hollywood, California, and Mary was a past president of the Hollywood Assembly of the Magigals. Along with pianist friend, Joyce Wellington Bramberg (1924 - 2014), Mary composed, published, and wrote songs for commercials and professional acts. In 1975, Leon Leon, the son of The Great Leon presented an illusion at the P.C.A.M. convention in Santa Rosa, California that stopped the show. The show was set outdoors. Leon had two members from the audience assist him. Mary was one of the two who volunteered. Leon told the audience he was going hypnotize them at one time. The two onstage volunteers were there to act as witness to Leon’s claim. Leon instructed Mary to lie down on a secured long board on the stage and hold onto it. Leon stepped off the stage and walked where the audience seated. He told the audience that since they were hypnotized, they would think they see Mary levitating. With a wave of Leon’s hands, the magic began. Instead of Mary floating, the entire stage began to rise. After it rose to a few feet in the air, it finally slowly dropped back to the ground. The audience loved the entertainment, Mary and her fellow volunteer had a good time, and the fellow behind the scenes with “secret method” went on to make other deliveries. 
S.A.M. National President 1954 - 1955

      Mary served as Vice President of Assembly 22 and became the first lady to be on the S.A.M. National Council. She won a number of performance trophies from her local S.A.M. Assembly 22, including the 1979 Best Comedy award. Mary became the first lady to be on the S.A.M. National Council. She married real estate broker Clyde Richard Brigance Jr. (1921 – 2011) in May 28,1970. Mary was the first to volunteer for the S.A.M. Hall of Fame Board. Mary passed away August 27, 1980. She was elected posthumously into the S.A.M. Hall of Fame in 1996. The little girl named Mary from Hartford, Arkansas made her mark collectively with her fellow performers as well as singularly. Mary’s bright personality, willingness to accept all sorts of challenges, and her devotion to her multiple professions was proof she was a remarkable person.