Having just released my new book, “Birch the Master Magician: The story of McDonald and Mabel Birch,” it seems fitting that I do a little post on his scaling card. It is of the “good luck” variety and features the back designed by the legendary trick card genius Theodore Deland.
George McDonald Birch’s story begins in Columbus, Ohio, where he first saw the light of day January 28, 1902. That was the hometown of Howard Thurston, who was then only six years away from assuming the mantle “America’s Favorite Magician” from the retiring Harry Kellar.
When the magic bug bit young Birch hard, the first performer he saw on stage, and whom he most admired, was Thurston. This happened in 1912 when he heard that Thurston was bringing his Wonder Show of the Universe to the Hartman Theater in Columbus. Birch determined he would see that show and so began an extended series of negotiations with his parents. Incredibly, they agreed to allow their 10-year-old son to travel alone by train 80-some miles from McConnelsville north to Zanesville and west to Columbus to witness the show.
At the end of high school Birch was offered his first Chautauqua contract for a four-day run at the Quimby Theater in Zanesville. He appeared in the first part, doing a silent act in Oriental robes with a bald forehead and pigtail down his back. By his own admission, he performed silently because he didn’t have enough patter to accompany the tricks he was doing. His show included the production flowers, magically transforming red, white and blue silk handkerchiefs into an American flag, production and vanish of livestock, mind-reading, and spiritualistic effects such as the Talking Skull and Rapping Hand.
For the second half of his show he appeared in dress tuxedo. Although he was now speaking, he admitted later in life that without stage presence or training he was, “mostly talking to the floor.”
Birch likely attended college for the 1919-1920 academic year, but when that ended, he was faced with a choice—continue his studies in college next fall or become a full time magician. Not surprisingly, magic won out, and in the summer of 1920, he left college behind to mount the Chautauqua platforms in spring and summer and Lyceum stages in the fall and winter. He was a natural.
In 1924, he came to the attention of Thurston who was always on the lookout for talented magicians who might be induced to take out one of his road units. In August, Thurston invited Birch to be his guest and perform at the magician’s estate. Around town window cards heralded “Thurston Presents Birch and his Artistic Magic.” Attending the show with Thurston were Horace Goldin, Dante and Carl Rosini. So delighted was Thurston with the show and with Birch’s warm personality, that he proposed to have Birch take out one of his units underwritten and promoted by Thurston, just as he had with Dante. Birch had his step-father, a lawyer, look over the contract. His opinion was that it was a much better deal for Thurston than Birch. And so, Birch declined Thurston’s overture.
In the summer of 1929, Birch was all prepared to undertake a world tour using Felix Blei as his advance man. Before he did so, he gave several farewell performances in his hometown of McConnelsville. Thurston was in attendance and after witnessing the full evening illusion show, made the following remarks from the stage: “This is the first time I have seen a magic show from out front since I first saw Kellar, and I have only words of praise for him and his work, and see in him the one man fitted to take my place as America’s foremost magician.” News accounts reported Thurston saying: “Someday, before many years have passed, you will be immensely proud of your young fellow townsman when he occupies the position I now hold after thirty-five years of arduous labor.” Unfortunately, the media took this to mean that Thurston had announced his successor, which was definitely NOT the case. Ultimately Thurston convinced Birch not to undertake a world tour but rather focus on making a name for himself in the U.S. and Canada.
In 1931, he hired a lovely young musician named Mabel Sperry who agreed to join him on the road performing a musical interlude on her xylophone and also serving as his onstage assistant. They fell in love almost immediately and were married in Mexico that same year. From that point onward for the next four decades, Mack and Mabel toured and revisited every state in the nation delighting audiences with their show.
In later years the Birches were honored by the Academy of Magical Arts and Sciences, the Magic Collectors’ Association, the Cincinnati Academy of Magic and Allied Sciences and other organizations. On May 6, 1985, at the age of 78, Mabel passed away from cancer and both her extended family and the worldwide magic community mourned. Eventually Mack could no longer manage living alone at Birchwood, their hilltop estate, and he entered a local retirement home. Birch died April 28, 1992, and was laid to rest beside his beloved wife on May 1, 1992. At his funeral, the organist played “There’s No Business like Show Business,” and mourners gave him a standing ovation.
“Birch the Master Magician: The Story of McDonald and Mabel Birch,” is available for $65 from www.1878press.com or directly from the author.