Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Shade on a Sunny Day

If you’re a magician looking for an intriguing stage name, “Shade” works very well. In literature and poetry, a shade is often taken to mean a spirit or ghost from the underworld. In the case of this month’s featured performer, it is both the stage and birth name of George W. Shade, an innovative illusionist, enthusiastic supporter of magic organizations, and all around fan of conjuring. Shade was born in 1891 and spent the majority of his life in the central Pennsylvania town of Shamokin.

There is no account of how he first became interested in magic, but by the mid to late 1920s his name starts appearing in The Billboard, the leading entertainment magazine in the country, with references to him taking out his own illusion show. Prior to this he and his wife appeared in vaudeville on the Keith circuit. He also had a scaling card featuring his image as well as an ink-stamped invitation to contact him to book a show. 

I have been unable to find any program listing illusions he performed, but I discovered some tantalizing clues. Reports in the magic magazines always reference his outstanding performance of the Spirit Cabinet. In this effect, Shade was tied to a chair and placed in a curtained enclosure on stage. On a chair next to him sat a tambourine, a hand bell, metal dinner plates, and a horn. No sooner were the curtains closed than the spirits rang the bell, shook the tambourine, tossed the plates over the top of the enclosure, and caused a great ruckus. When the curtains were thrown open Shade was found still securely bound.

A volunteer was then selected and, after being blindfolded, was placed in the cabinet on a chair next to Shade. The curtains were closed, another ruckus of noise took place, and upon the curtains being opened, the spectator was found with his pant legs pushed up and a bucket on his head, with the still tightly tied Shade sitting next to him.

He can also be included among the very short list of magicians who performed the Bullet Catch that killed or maimed so many magicians over the years. In the 1920s when Sawing a Woman in Two was the rage, Shade also presented his version. It was built by Dave Swift but apparently Shade improved the method. Leslie Guest, a former editor of M-U-M visited Shade and recalled that his version had “…no room for an extra girl or dummy feet either, but he gets all the effects.” At that time Shade was also performing The Man Who Walks Away From His Shadow and an entirely automated Spirit Paintings routine. Guest observed fourteen illusion crates in Shade’s garage and said the house was filled with magic.

Shade was very involved in the I.B.M. and attended every annual convention from the very first in Kenton, Ohio, in 1926. He was one of those who first voted to approve the constitution of the organization, held various offices in Ring 20 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and also served on the Expose Committee. Most magic organizations of that period fought furious battles over the exposure of even the simplest magic effect to the general public. Many of these appeared in newspapers or magazines. In the case of Thurston, these exposures came in his “Magic Box of Candy.”

Shade took a sanguine approach to such matters, telling fellow magicians, “Advertising that reveals secrets of magicians is not objectionable. This form of advertising helps the professional sell entertainment and does just as much good as Thurston does when he reveals magic; only the amateur who tries to sell tricks is affected.”

Co-blogger Gary Frank recently came across this 1945 advertisement from Lebanon, Pennsylvania where Shade was appearing at Mount Gretna Park. Amazingly, Shade was performing the deadly bullet catch. His promotion notes that a number of magicians had died doing this stunt and that "Anything may happen." Luckily he survived.

Eventually Shade retired from both vaudeville and presenting his illusion show and, as the saying goes, “got a real job.” For many years he operated a drug store and also served as the mayor or “burgess” of his hometown. And he took the job seriously. A brief article in the Gettysburg Times for April 27, 1940, reports Shade giving himself a ticket and paying a fine for illegal parking.

One last item before we conclude this article. The town of Shamokin had another famous son, Will B. Wood, an extremely talented magician who created a levitation called Edna. Wood was on tour in Mexico when he and his wife and family were killed by pirates off the coast of Yucatan. Eventually Frederick Eugene Powell obtained the illusion and presented it throughout South America.

In closing, Shade’s close friend Edwin Bloom writing his obituary said of him, “He was genial, generous, ever ready to help the young magic enthusiast, a fine showman, and an accomplished magician. Our art has lost a great booster.”

Tom Ewing

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