Female, black magicians: Still a rarity
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    Auction Finds

    Fetaque Sanders, a consummate African American magician

    The face that stared out at me from the broadside put the man’s time as way before the 1960s. He had wavy black processed hair and a light skin tone that gave him an entry and cache that those of a darker hue weren’t allowed back then.

    What was fascinating about this African American man was both his name and his occupation: Fetaque Sanders, Magician. The name obviously was a stage name; no one would be given such a moniker at birth. I knew, though, that he was certainly a magician.

    I had written about magicians several years ago (and I mentioned him). That’s when I learned that the country’s first successful magician was an African American man named Richard Potter who lived during the 19th century. He was among a number of black magicians, both men and women. They are still few in number, but in 2014, the Society of American Magicians – which bills itself as the world’s oldest organization of magicians, selected its first black president Kenrick “ICE” McDonald.

    Close-up view of the Fetaque Sanders broadside from the auction.

    Close-up view of the Fetaque Sanders broadside from the auction.

    I came across Potter’s name after finding a pencil on a string and learning that it was linked to a white female magician from the 1940s named Dell O’ Dell. It was part of a button-hole trick that I could not figure out on my own but found the answer to on the web.

    Sanders intrigued me. His first name is pronounced “Fe take,” and it was his given name when he was born in Nashville, TN, in 1915. He traveled the South entertaining African Americans with his tricks, and black U.S. soldiers at USO Camps during World War II. He wrote books about magic, and was elected to the Society of American Magicians Hall of Fame and Magic Museum.

    He is considered one of the country’s best magicians and was said to be its most famous black magician during his era. He attended Tennessee State University but dropped out to focus on his magic. He was featured in a 1949 Ebony magazine article about black magicians where he and others talked about how there are so few of them.

    Full view of the Fetaque Sanders poster from the auction.

    Full view of the Fetaque Sanders broadside from the auction.

    He became interested in magic as a child, first developing a love for the theater in Nashville where he attended shows. He later created posters for other theaters so he could see their shows for free. Observing a magician named Tricky Sam Tatum fueled his interest in the field, and soon Sanders got his first magic set, a dime-store kit from a friend.

    By the time he was a teenager Sanders was doing shows at churches and parties. He also performed shows for black schoolchildren that featured both magic and comedy – much of which was said to have been fund-raisers.

    While still in his teens, he got a job at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair in a children’s theater show and never looked back. In his next job, with a circus, he performed with a turban on his head as he sat atop a camel – an image his father was said to have found offensive.

    After the circus, his bookings expanded to nightclubs in such cities as Washington, Chicago and New York. Sanders’ first wife Irene was his assistant in his shows. He also toured colleges in the South. At one point, he performed in USO Camp Shows where more than three million black soldiers were said to have seen him.

    A Fetaque Sanders broadside for one of his shows. He offers the pronunciation of his first name on this poster. From brophisticate.com.

    A Fetaque Sanders broadside for one of his shows. He offers the pronunciation of his first name. From brophisticate.com.

    He was part of what were then called USO circuits that determined who performed and where in vaudeville-type shows (the same practice was used in the professional entertainment field). There were several segregated circuits for African American entertainers – some famous and some not. Sanders was in the first black circuit that performed at U.S. military hospitals; in 1945, the composer and pianist Eubie Blake was among the entertainers.

    Sanders was a consummate magician, reading as much as he could about his craft, building his own sets and props, creating his own ads and posters, and writing his own scripts. He was said to have been a master at connecting with his audience.

    The broadside at auction was used to promote his spook show, as it showed him on the phone while a ghost hovered behind him. A newspaper article that appeared after the show said children in the audience were not amused that he did not summon an actual ghost.

    Broadsides from Fetaque Sanders' shows. These were among a group sold at auction at Hakes auction house in 2008.

    Broadsides from Fetaque Sanders’ shows. These were among a group sold at auction at Hakes Americana and Collectibles in 2008.

    Sanders himself seemingly had a good sense of humor at a time when being black was not fashionable. This is from one of his acquaintances:

    “His father was mulatto and his mother was part Native American, producing an unusual skin color in Fetaque. He claimed this came in handy when ordering coffee with cream. ‘Make it the color of my skin,’ he would grin.

    He once asked me, ‘Do you see that the hair on the back of my head is curly? That’s from my black heritage. And the hair in front is straight – from my white background.’ He paused. ‘Do you see a bald spot on top? I guess that’s some kind of battleground for racial segregation.’

    Sanders’ books appear to be primers on magic. The book ‘Secret Magic Words’ combines both magic and humor:

    “To vanish milk: ‘Let’s see, yes, the words are, KITTY, HERE KITTY KITTY!’

    To produce handkerchiefs: ‘THE WISE OLD MAN SAID THAT, BEFORE WE CAME TO BLOWS, I SHOULD DO SOMETHING ABOUT MY NOSE!’

    To vanish money: ‘MARY, MARY, MARY! You see, Mary is my wife’s name, and she’s great at making money disappear!’

    Sanders suffered a stroke in 1958 that affected his peripheral vision and cut back on his career. He retired in 1962 and died in 1992.

    Some of the broadsides, posters and flyers from his Fetaque Sanders Magic Show, Fetaque Sanders Spook Show and Fetaque Sanders’ Magic Book are housed in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University while a few other documents are at Emory University.

     

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