Summer 2007

Currencies of Wonder

Magicians make money

Tim Reed

Magicians have traditionally been fiercely competitive, sometimes spending small fortunes on publicity material to distinguish themselves from their rivals. Whether in the form of souvenir photographs, posters, or self-promoting “pitchbooks,” magicians have always been in the business of making money. And what better way to set yourself apart from others than to print your own money, providing a self-mocking sense of personal wealth and superiority? One of the earliest examples, printed in 1855 by magician Signor Alfred Bosco, was a fifty-pound note on which appeared the text, “Bank of the Great Wizard of the World … Temple of Natural Magic and Ventriloquism.” Bosco died in poverty. In the modern period, with the United States dominating the economies both within and outside the magic world, the American dollar bill has emerged as the standard design for magicians’ publicity currency.

Edgar Bergen, 1903–1978, USA. As practitioners of one of magic’s “allied arts,” ventriloquists often appeared on performance bills alongside magicians. Bergen was a professional ventriloquist from the 1920s onwards, most famous for his Charlie McCarthy doll, and for his surprising use of ventriloquism on radio.
Tampa, 1888–1939, USA. Born Raymond Sugden, Tampa turned professional in 1918, and toured with headlining magician Howard Thurston’s third touring show from 1926 to 1930, under the banner “Howard Thurston Presents Tampa.” An unsuccessful performer, he retired from magic to become a radio presenter. (Note the left-facing swastika, a highly popular symbol in the US before its appropriation by the Nazis.)
Dell O’Dell, 1902–1962, USA. From the 1930s through the 1950s, O’Dell was America’s most successful professional comedy magicienne, even commanding her own TV show in Southern California in the early 1950s.
Johnny Platt, 1903–1990, USA. World-touring professional closeup magician, most famous for his Cups & Balls routine. Nearly two decades after his death, Platt’s ornate gilt cups were sold in 2007 at auction in London for $1,300.
George Johnstone, 1919–2004, USA. Johnstone, once a stage assistant to the legendary American illusionist Harry Blackstone, Sr., subsequently toured his own comedy magic act, performing with his wife, Betty.

Tim Reed is a collector of magic memorabilia, including the world’s largest collection of material relating to the 1980s British television magician, Paul Daniels. He is assistant editor of The Magic Circular, the internal publication of The Magic Circle, London.

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