While working on The Coney Island Fakir: The Magical Life of Al Flosso, I came across scads of photos of magicians' conventions and banquets in which Flosso appeared along with dozens of other tuxedo-clad tricksters. In many of them, though, appeared a tall, spectacularly dressed woman, who invariably caught the viewer's eye: Dell O'Dell, born Odella Newton (1897-1962). I also acquired lots of material - show bills, puzzles, giveaways and even a Dancing Dell Doll (with cutout holes that allowed you to use your fingers as her dancing legs) - featuring this stylish performer. And I even had the pleasure of interviewing a number of magicians who had seen O’Dell (who once worked as a circus strongwoman and was among the first magicians to have a regular television show) weave her magic spell, regaling her audiences with clever banter, strong nightclub-style magic and rhyming patter. I had long thought that someone should write a biography about her and was pleased when my friend, magic historian Michael Claxton, did just that. Don't Fool Yourself: The Magical Life of Dell O'Dell, which consistently receives five-star ratings, is a beautiful hardcover that's becoming increasingly hard to find. (Michael advises that you can still get copies from Gabe Fajuri, the publisher, at www.squashpublishing.com).
It would be pretty cheeky to rank Dell O’Dell alongside John Henry Anderson, Houdini, Thurston, Blackstone, and Sorcar—that is, unless we’re listing the great masters of publicity among magicians. I’ve always known that the Queen of Magic could sell herself with style, but while writing her biography, Don’t Fool Yourself, I came to appreciate just how savvy Dell was at promotion, and just how well that talent paid off. She worked virtually non-stop for nearly three decades, even during the 1950s, when opportunities for magicians tapered off. In one week alone she once did 47 shows. Dell’s success rested on a potent combination: her ability to deliver lively entertainment to just about any conceivable audience, her love of socializing with patrons to build rapport, and her tireless marketing machine. She was a driven, determined woman who thrived on applause, and her career in magic was nothing short of a whirlwind.
Fortunately for collectors, that whirlwind left behind quite a bit of tangible debris. Knowing full well that her quirky giveaways would be saved and remembered long after the show was over, Dell handed out pitch-books, loop pencils, paper dolls, puzzles, and other novelties by the tens of thousands. Her circle of creative magician friends included printers, writers, and artists, who all kept the advertising ideas coming. Together, their output was impressive. Even after twenty years of seeking mementoes of Dell’s career, I still come across swag I’ve never seen before. For instance, I didn’t know there was such a thing as “Dell O’Dell’s Solitare Peg Game” in the 1950s until I discovered one last year. And at the last LA Magic History Conference, my publisher gave me a small matchbox that rattles when shaken. Its label reads, “Presented with the compliments of Dell O’Dell, World’s Leading Lady Magician.” But the sliding box has a hole in the bottom, so when an unsuspecting person slides it open, dried beans spill everywhere. There may still be some beans in the carpet at the Beverly Garland Hotel, where I fell for this gag myself.
Martin Gardner, famed for his monumental contributions to both magic and recreational mathematics, made similar observations, noting that "Dell O'Dell found . . . small, inexpensive items of a trick nature which can be given away as souvenirs . . . a novel and profitable form of advertising."
I’ve yet to find a throwing card featuring O’Dell, nor has Mr. Claxton seen one, but would not be surprised if one exists somewhere out there among the vast quantum of material she employed. But what I’ve featured here is a piece that is quite nifty, a membership card for “Dell O’Dell’s Friends of Magic Club,” which was, at one time, the largest fan club for any magician in the world. It sports a lovely image of the performer clutching a pair of rabbits on the reverse, while the face contains the membership data. Based on Claxton’s work, it seems that the signature is likely hers, making the piece an autographed keepsake. A notable memento of a notable career in magic.