David Daveen t is debatable if there ever was a golden age for magicians, but you could certainly argue that if there was, then it was probably the early 1950s.
Britain was recovering from the austerity of the war years, there was a new mood of optimism, and the people wanted entertainment. Television was still in its infancy, few homes could afford a set, and so the variety halls were packed. And among the top attractions were, of course, magicians!
There were plenty of them, too. A variety directory from 1950 lists more than 40 magicians, all relentlessly working the big circuits like the Moss Empire, Collins Music Halls, the Stoll circuit, the Howard and Wyndham theatre chain, nightclubs, town halls, even circuses. Some were big stars, playing venues like The London Palladium and making Royal Variety appearances.
Others never made the big-time, but were still popular entertainers who could fill halls. Can anyone recall The Great Benyon, Voltaire, Rayanne The World's Wonder Girl, The Amazing Fogel, 'Think-A-Drink' Hoffman , or La Petite Carmo?
Among the big-name magicians popular in Britain in the early 1950s were two legends.
The first was David Deveen, known as 'The Distinguished Deceiver'. Born in London, Deveen conquered America and Australia with his spectacular illusions, usually aided by his beautiful assistants, the New York Blondes. One of the first magicians to appear on television - he demonstrated his skills for John Logie Baird in 1936 - Deveen also appeared in films and wrote several magic textbooks.
Television was still in its infancy, few homes could afford a set, and so the variety halls were packed. And among the top attractions were, of course, magicians!
The other major star of the time was Jasper Maskelyne, whose stunning magic earned him FIVE Royal Command performances while he was still in his 30s. Maskelyne was a clever illusionist whose skills had been utilised by the Government during WW2. With inventive use of lights, he created fake cities in remote areas to deceive German bombers!
The early 1950s also saw a future star of magic in the making - Tommy Cooper. Initially, Tommy wanted to be an impressionist but when an agent saw him perform, he told him he was awful, and to go away and find another act. Tommy opted for magic and comedy, and soon found himself in demand. His first appearance was in 1948, and by the early fifties, he was doing top cabaret venues and major variety tours, though his greatest fame was to come decades later.
One of the most impressive magic acts of the 1940s and 1950s was created by The Great Benyon, born in New Zealand but spending much of his time touring Britain and Ireland. His huge travelling revue involved transporting 30 tons of illusions and scenery!
Another 'great' at that time was The Great Nixon. No, not David Nixon, who was a famous TV magician in the 1960s, but Victor Nixon, born in Berkshire, whose 'Miracles in Mentalism' act packed halls in Europe, India and Japan.
Robert Harbin was another top name of the day, playing major London venues and in 1949, touring Canada as a supporting act to George Formby.
Some artistes used just a single name -among them Verdini, Waldini, and Raydini. Cire (Sydney Burton) was a popular magician with another claim to fame, having invented a walking robot in 1936! Another one-namer was Murray, an Australian with a Houdini-style act which attracted great publicity in Britain. Among his feats was being suspended 100 feet above Piccadilly Circus. And what about Raoul (actually Ralph Chart from Surrey!) who was a member of the Inner Magic Circle, and who performed an entirely silent magic act, billed as 'Wonders Without Words'. And there was the aptly named Voltaire, whose act consisted entirely of electrical illusions.
There were also many other novelty magic acts on the circuit at that time. Clement Minns mixed magic and ventriloquism, so too did Claude Chandler. A certain Donald B. Stuart claimed to be the tallest magician at 6ft 8ins, and always started his act by hanging his hat on a peg almost 10 feet off the ground!
Charles 'Think-A-Drink' Hoffman specialised in instantly creating a variety of different drinks, and billed himself as The Worlds Highest Paid Bartender. The Amazing Fogel (Maurice Fogel from London) had a mind reading act so astonishingly accurate it was officially investigated by The War office.
There were many others too. Who can recall Chris Charlton, from Stoke-on-Trent, who entertained King George V and George VI, who performed his act in 40 countries and in several different languages? Or Jack Le Dair from Devon, who created the vanishing violin bow trick? Or Francis Watts, who claimed he could perform a trick with absolutely any random object handed to him?
There were two notable female magicians on the circuit too. La Petite Carmo (Rita Cameron) staged her own touring magic show after her husband Henry (stage name Carmo) died in 1944. And Rayanne, (real name Winifred Martens-Moore, from Birmingham) who was billed as 'The World's Wonder Girl' and presented a superb mind-reading and escapology act, and wrote several books, including Mind Over Matter.
Oddly enough, the act with the best name in magic - The Mysterious Mysticus -wasn't a magician at all! The title was used by Alan McKelvin from Inverness, who was a quick-change artiste, switching outfits at amazing speed.
The early years of the fifties were a great, busy, colourful period for magicians and other entertainers, but it was to be shortlived. The 1953 Coronation prompted millions of people to buy their first TV set, and that signalled a rapid decline in variety shows. Over the next few years, the trend for stay-at-home entertainment closed many venues and forced many magicians into early retirement, or to take up 'proper' jobs.
In some ways, it seemed a great 'magic spell' had been broken. ms
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