Monday, March 6, 2017

Zovello the Magic Clown

What wonderfully euphonic names magicians seem to create for themselves. The name “Zovello” conjures up magic, perhaps ventriloquism, certainly clowning…who knows? Well, for the topic of this present post, Zovello was all of these and more. And, of course, he had scaling cards.

Zovello was a gentleman named Sam Wishner, and references to him appear throughout the 1930s, 40’s and 50’s in the major magic trades. He was born May 11, 1907 and was, by turns, a magician, an instructor in magic, a filmographer, author, radio and television star, a longtime supporter of the New York Knights of Magic and the Parent Assembly of the S.A.M.

He is probably best remembered as “Zovello the Magic Clown,” when he appeared on local New York television beginning Sept. 11, 1949. The show was sponsored by Bonomo Turkish Taffy (editor’s note: I lost many fillings on this wonderful confection as a kid) and ran for 15 minutes every Sunday. 

Probably not Zovello but rather Dick Dubois 
It was done with a live audience of children all wearing fezzes and eating the candy. Wishner appeared in white clown face, much like the character of Pagliacci. Zovello came out, did a magic trick, there was a long commercial for the candy, and then another magic trick closed the show. He was sometimes assisted by a hand puppet named “Laffy.” Kinescope (early forms of recording) spread the show to other markets. 

Eventually Zovello was replaced on this show by Dick DuBois, a former S.A.M. president who had starred in his own show for WOR. Instead of remaining with a clown named Zovello, the sponsors changed it to “Bonomo the Clown.” NBC eventually dropped The Magic Clown in the summer of 1955.

Our guy, Zovello was not done with television when he left NBC. He was soon seen as “The Sultan of Magic” on WPIX-TV and had traded his white-face clown for a turban-wearing magician with a mustache. His sponsor was Joyva Halvah Company, a confection much loved in the Jewish community.

Zovello was president of the Knights of Magic several times in the mid-1940s. The reason for his reelection was because of how the club thrived under his leadership. In 1944 he organized three blood drives for the Red Cross and had coordinated over 200 shows for the USO in camps and hospitals, as well as three annual shows. 
Zovello (center) below the cross with his vent
figure in front at the blood drive. 
Speaking of annual shows, in 1943, the annual show was held at Carnegie Hall and in addition to an all-star cast of magicians performing in the second half, it opened with a murder mystery playlet called “Murder on the Alert.” The murder occurs during a blackout of a meeting of the Board of Ethics of a magic club. The characters are all magicians and the victim is one guilty of exposing.

This theme was prescient because five years later in 1948, Zovello was taken to task for exposing magic to the public. He was featured in the April 27 issue of Look Magazine that featured a series of photographs using mirrors that exposed various palming moves, coin tricks, cigarette sleights, card fans and more. Bill Chaudet who wrote of this in Conjurors Magazine noted Zovello’s involvement with The Knights of Magic and said, “Maybe this organization does not have a Code of Ethics.”

As an author, Zovello wrote and published the 18-page booklet, “The History and Origin of Playing Cards” in the late 1930s. He also produced a series of instructional 16 mm films that taught magic through his company named “Zovello-Richard.” Film one was advanced card manipulation. Film two was for the amateur. Film three was handkerchief magic and bill productions. He also sold “Zovelloscopes,” which were small flipbooks that showed magic tricks when the owners thumb was run over the booklet. A complete set of 16 Zovelloscopes were offered during the Christian Fechner auction with an estimated bid of $350-500.
Sol and Sam Wishner the Zovello Brothers 
Wishner also performed with his brother Sol, who is mentioned occasionally in the magic trades. Sol may have been a ventriloquist judging by the promotional card shown above. Sam died April 14, 1990 at 83 years of age after a long illness. His obituary in M-U-M noted his stint as The Magic Clown, but also mentioned that long before that, as a young man working for the U.S. Postal Service, he was known as the “Magic Mailman.” Quite a guy.


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