by wjw on September 27, 2012

I’m sure some of you know that I used to be a stage magician.  Not a particularly brilliant one, it must be admitted, but I did get up in front of numerous audiences and did an actual act in which things dis-apparated and re-apparated and odd shiny objects floated through the air.  (In fact, I once sliced Teresa Nielsen-Hayden in half with a Black & Decker saber saw.  She claimed she survived because she wrote “STET” on her abdomen.)

I don’t do stage magic any longer, because I realized that I completely lacked the obsessive drive necessary to become really good at it.  But I’m still very interested in stage magic and its history, and if Glen David Gold hadn’t already written Carter Beats the Devil (and brilliantly, too, I should add) I might have written something along those lines.

All of which is a rather elaborate way of introducing the movie I saw the other night.  I was channel-flipping late the other night, bouncing around between reruns of Three’s Company and ads for the Aah Bra, and ended on the Documentary Channel, with something called John Calvert— His Magic and Adventures.  Which might not mean much to you, but which had me right from the title.

John Calvert is a legendary stage magician.  He just turned 101 and so far as I know is still touring with a large act.  He was probably the first to fly his act over the country in an aircraft (till it crashed), and is almost certainly the only person to sail his act around the world in a 100-foot sailing yacht.

Because he’s a completely self-taught magician— he never read a book on magic or took a class— he has an original approach to illusions.  I don’t think anyone else has ever done the Flying Organ, in which a pipe organ, complete with organist, is not only levitated, but flies out over the audience.  I assume Calvert is the only person to do this trick because no one else has worked out how it’s done.  (Big levitation illusions require a lot of apparatus, which is lit onstage so as not to be visible to the audience.  If the levitated subject flies out over the audience, the apparatus should be visible to them, but when Calvert does the trick, it’s not.)

Calvert also had a career in Hollywood (he replaced George Sanders in the Falcon mysteries), and once owned a big-top circus.  And seems to have had an absolutely wonderful life full of magic and adventure.

Onstage, Calvert comes across as an amiable older gentleman who moves with a little care.  But give him a machete or a buzz saw and he turns at once into a commanding, masterful presence intent on inflicting bloody mayhem.  (I hope that I gave off a similar aura when I was waving around that Black & Decker saber saw.)

Unfortunately I saw only the second half of the documentary.  Possibly Calvert made the first half disappear.  But if he did, it’s clear that Calvert will make it re-apparate, presumably at the most surprising moment.

You know, when I started this post, I must admit I had no idea where I was going.  It’s just kind of an, Ooh, wow, John Calvert, look at that.  But when you consider that this is exactly the reaction he’s been hoping from his audience for the last eighty-odd years, perhaps it’s appropriate.

grs1961 September 27, 2012 at 2:26 am

You can buy the DVD from his website:

grs1961 September 27, 2012 at 2:27 am

Forgot about the antispam magic: johncalvertmagic dot com has DVDs…

Mark Finn September 27, 2012 at 2:54 am

I did not know that, Walter. I’m a lifelong amateur myself, and I’m earnestly trying to make the jump into a semi-pro career. Thanks for the Calvert rec. I’ll look for it. We should talk magic history and what-not sometime.

John Appel September 27, 2012 at 3:27 am

So I take it this is where the inspiration for Fiona & Kira being conjurers in Ambassador of Progress came from?

wjw September 27, 2012 at 4:49 am

Very likely, though stage magic was also very well suited to the plot.

Dave Bishop September 27, 2012 at 7:21 pm

So, Walter, what other amazing former careers have you had?!

wjw September 28, 2012 at 12:07 am

Dave, the magic wasn’t a career. It was a weird obsessive little hobby.

But let’s add them up: clerk, academic, court reporter, clerk, game designer, sailing instructor, author. Not a lot, actually, and nothing like the “tiger wrangler,” “short-order cook,” and “merchant seaman” occupations that are supposed to decorate the resumes of =real= authors.

Dave Bishop September 28, 2012 at 8:04 am

Thanks Walter. I, for one, am certainly glad that you finally settled on (most definitely real) author!

Patricia Rogers September 28, 2012 at 3:57 pm

My dear friend Rob Thomas is a close friend of John Calvert and has worked John’s assistant. Rob even assisted John on the flying pipe organ trick. I called Rob about your posting and he called John and Tammy last night and told them about what you wrote. Rob, also, sent the link to your posting to John & Tammy, and Fred Calvert (Johns nephew), the producer of “John Calvert – His Magic and Adventures.”

Rob said John is doing well, other than being a little hard of hearing. John is getting ready to attend a magic event in Oakland, during which there will be another 101 birthday party celebration. He is also going to be attending an event in Arizona soon. I asked Rob to get me more info on that show. If there is any way I can go – I’ll make the drive to see John.

John still performs at these shows. Rob says that John usually does his “Casper the Ghost Trick” with a handkerchief, his “Lazy Magician Trick” which involves John laying down while a bevy of beautiful ladies do much of the work, and a rope trick. Go John!

Rob said that The Documentary Channel schedule has the show on John listed again on October 29th. Best to check the local listings for times.

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