Female, black magicians: Still a rarity
After auction this week, I was going through a tray of small items and came across what innocently looked like a No. 2 pencil. Yellow with narrow red bands, unsharpened and inscribed.
A gold coiled string hung from a metal cap at the eraser end. I realized it wasn’t a pencil for writing because there was no lead inside. On the outside was this inscription:
Sensational Lady Magician
Seven years bad luck to untie, cut, burn or break the string or the pencil. Easiest way, cut the button hole.
Available for Banquets. Private Residences. 5040-61st Street, Woodside, Long Island, N.Y. Havemeyer 9-7043.
I wasn’t sure what to do with the pencil or how to decipher the instructions, especially the part about the button hole. Until I came across the answer later (see below). I was much more interested in who Dell O’Dell was.
I found out that O’Dell was one of the country’s most famous magicians during the 1940s, at a time when male magicians were better known and women were their “lovely assistants.” We’ve all seen them on early TV shows or in the movies: The women who were sawed in half or shut up in boxes and made to disappear. But some of them, like O’Dell, were able to break out. She was called “The World’s Leading Lady Magician” and “The Queen of Magic.”
O’Dell played the International Brotherhood of Magicians convention with some top performers. She had her own fan club. She was credited with being the first magician with her own weekly half-hour TV show, “The Dell O’Dell Show,” in California in 1951. She wrote a column “Dell-lightfully” for a magician’s magazine, and penned books on magic tricks and stage routines. According to a 2008 article in Bust magazine, her face was on dolls, hand cream, puzzles, novelties and more.
She was born Nell Newton in 1902 to a father who worked in a carnival and taught her how to make magic. During her career, she became a popular night-club act in New York and other cities. She died in 1962.
Female magicians like O’Dell didn’t always get their due and many still don’t. How many female magicians can you name? How many male? The DVD “Vintage Magic Films” of legendary magicians from the 1920s to the 1940s does not include her (was her act not recorded?). One woman does appear: Okinu (Ishida), a Japanese female magician who performed with her husband Tenkai (Teijiro Ishida).
Researching O’Dell got me to wondering about black magicians. I easily came across the names of a few men, and finally found one woman, Ellen Armstrong, who came from a family of performers from Spartanburg, SC. On one poster, she was billed as a magician and cartoonist. I could find little else on her.
Most of the black performers exist only as names on old playbills or in newspaper advertisements, according to the book “Conjure Times: Black Magicians in America.” The book appears to have a list of them.
The first black magician – and said to be the country’s first successful magician, hypnotist and ventriloquist – was Richard Potter. He was born in Massachusetts in 1783 to a slave woman and her owner, whom he lived with. He learned his magic from a Scottish magician. Potter performed in New York, New England and Canada. Later, in the early 1900s, Houdini apparently mentioned him in his Conjurers Monthly publication.
Potter’s performances included crawling through a log, frying eggs in a hat, dancing on eggs without breaking them and climbing into an oven with raw meat and staying there until it was done. He did so well that he and his wife lived on a 175-acre farm in Andover, NH, and held lavish parties. He died in 1835.
Another was Benjamin Rucker, who performed during the early 1900s as Black Herman. According to the Magic Tricks website, he was a separatist and politically miltitant. As for magic, he was renowned for his trick called “Buried Alive.” (Photo at right is from the website Magic: The Science of Illusion.)
“People paid to see his ‘corpse,’ feel that he had no pulse, and watch his coffin be buried,” according to the website Magic: The Science of Illusion. “Days later, Herman would rise from the dug-up coffin and lead the audience into the theater. One night in 1934, Black Herman collapsed on stage and died. But the audience wouldn’t leave. Huge crowds gathered outside the funeral home to see the end of the ‘trick.’ Herman’s assistant finally said, ‘Let’s charge admission. That’s what he would have done.’ So they did.”
Herman had actually died of a heart attack on stage.
Finally, I came across Alonzo Moore, who did magic in minstrel shows in the early 1900s, and Fetaque Sanders, born in Nashville, TN, in 1915 (died in 1992). One website was selling posters and flyers promoting Sanders’ “spook show.” His career spanned more than 25 years from, from 1931 to 1958.
As for the pencil I got at auction, I came across a 2006 guest-book entry at kewgardenhistory.com of a man reminiscing about how O’Dell used it: She would attach it to a buttonhole in a boy’s shirt and the child apparently could not remove it. The man said he saw her perform the trick in 1943 or 1944 when his mother, a PTA president who had known O’Dell since vaudeville, invited her to town to do a show.
I’m still not sure how it worked – but “that’s magic.” You go girl.