The Penultimate Ultimate Sphinx (Part 3)

LePaulOnce more (see here and here for previous installments), we take a wild gallop through The Sphinx. We’re riding on twenty years further from last time, arriving at 1937. Paul LePaul is on the cover, and John Mulholland is now the editor. Though the Sphinx is still closely associated with the SAM, they declare themselves “An Independent Magazine for Magicians.” There are still reports from SAM assemblies across the country, but there are also reports from IBM as well; and the heads of the SAM Parent Assembly have a conspicuous notice that their listing in the Sphinx is a paid advertisement.

Mindreading is all the rage, and with the advent of somewhat portable electronics, ads like this from Nelson and others begin to show up:

nelson short waveThe ad says that they are offering “the magical and mental profession the first ultra short wave sending and receiving set for mindreading purposes that can be completely and logically concealed under ordinary wearing apparel.” A later ad prices the unit at $150. The inflation calculator at calculates that $150 then was worth about $2400 today.

The format of the magazine now includes a lead trick explained by a famous magician of the day, and there are some really excellent ones. There is a nice Copper-Silver routine from S. Leo Horowitz; a Disappearing Bird Cage (with live bird), complete with lightening flash, from Keith Clark; and an Invisible Inky Liquid Transportation effect from Al Baker. Baker’s contributions over the year are all highly ingenious—here’s an intriguing diagram illustrating the ink effect:

al bakerThe Bambergs are still a force with which to be reckoned, with an article by son David (Fu Manchu) explaining his magic apprenticeship conducted at his mentor’s knee—i.e. his father, Theo Bamberg (Okito). The article is illustrated by a lovely photo of the two of them in costume:

bambergsLater, there is a truly wonderful explanation by David Bamberg of The Growth of Flowers. The effect is this: the magician briefly puts a cloth in front of an empty flower pot and a small green bush appears; he covers it again briefly and the bush grows larger; once more and still larger. Finally, the pot is covered one more time, and the bush is discovered to be filled with blooming roses. The magician takes one or two, cuts them from the plant, and tosses the fresh live roses into the audience. The method is perfectly practical, and it’s a wonder more magicians today don’t do this.

While Chinese conjurers both real and faux were fixtures on the American stage, African-American magicians were not as prevalent. The minstrel show, which dated back to pre-Civil War days, was still a popular form of entertainment in 1937, and it pretty much determined how African Americans would be depicted on the contemporary stage and in popular magazines. For example, this was how Ralph Hull’s “Goofy Dice” trick was pitched in an ad in The Sphinx:

goofy diceIn a Christmas greetings section in the December 1937 issue, many famous magicians took out ads to express their Christmas sentiments. One that stands out is this one:

joganWhether Jogan’s tagline was strictly true is debatable, but it was evidently credible enough that Jogan would claim it.

Perusing the books  and manuscripts that were advertised is instructive—lots of cigarette and nightclub material, and the big sensation was Keith Clark’s Encyclopedia of Cigarette Magic. Another blockbuster was Glenn Gravatt’s Encyclopedia of Card Tricks. Both of those books went for $5, which the inflation calculator estimates to be about $80 in today’s currency. There is no account of what the ebooks sold for…

One surprise to me was the listing of the following book:

fitzkeeWhile I was well aware of the Fitzkee trilogy, I had never come across the mention of the above book. Does anyone know if this is an easily available book presently? The contents look like it’s full of useful material.

And magic continues, in the late 30s to be, as in all ages, a tough, heart-beaking business. This ad from The Great Leon says it all:

leonThe ad states that The Great Leon, who used to make from $1000 to $2000 a week in vaudeville, is forced, due to ill health, to sell his complete act—over $30,000 worth of illusions—for a mere $1000. How fickle fortune can be! “Three tons of beautiful show.”

Finally, wrapping up this week’s look at The Sphinx, we turn to the Halloween issue. Of course, Halloween is special to magicians for many reasons, but, famously, it was the day that Houdini died. And Bess, after 11 years, was now reconciled to his final vanish:


Next time, I’ll finish up this series by looking at the final year of The Sphinx‘s publication in 1952-1953. I hope you’ll join me.

(Th next installment is here: )

The Ultimate Sphinx (Part 2)

bamberg cover

In the first part of this series, I talked about the quality and usability of the excellent Ultimate Sphinx CD collection—all fifty years of a landmark magic periodical. I also dipped into the contents of the first volume published in 1902.  In this new installment, I’m going to jump fifteen years later, to 1917, and take a look at what the magazine looked  like then.

On perusing the later volume, two things immediately jump out: the first thing to notice is the new editor, A. M. Wilson, replacing William Hilliar. Wilson replaced Hilliar early on in the run and went on to steward The Sphinx for decades afterwards. The second is how the magazine has entrenched itself as the official organ of the Society of American Magicians. There are many reports from around the SAM locals around the country, many filled with descriptions of famous magicians of the era.

The ads as always, are entertaining and instructive. Who would have thought to find this fellow at such an early juncture:


And here’s a large ad for a new book which illustrates some of the contemporary wonders inside:

collinsBut lest these wonders and announcements make you think the life of a magician is an easy one, take a look at this plea from the famous Theo Bamberg, better known as Okito:

bamberg opportunity

For all the prior notices about his successes, Bamberg still needed to rustle up the capital to take his act on tour. Perhaps he was frustrated with his role at the time making shadows in the Thurston show.

Bamberg was a frequent contributor to The Sphinx during this period with some excellent tricks. In The Bewitched Blocks, a series of eight alphabet blocks are placed in cabinet in random order; with the firing of a gun at the blocks, the blocks are revealed to have re-arranged themselves magically to spell a spectator’s randomly chosen word. In Bamberg’s Envelope Mystery, another effect inspired by the Spiritualist craze of the day, a signed envelope, visibly suspended onstage by two narrow ribbons, is opened to reveal both the answer to a spectator’s previously asked question—and a handkerchief of a previously chosen color.

The prolific Walter Gibson writes about Dye Tubes, a Bow Tie that magically changes into a Four in Hand Tie, and a very efficient Card to Pocket. Ovette contributes a Wine and Water change, a Disappearing Egg, and a Silks to Flag stunt. And again, in line with the growing fascination of the time with all things to do with Spiritualism, David P. Abbott writes about the The Mystic Oracle of the Swinging Pendulum or Mind Over Matter.

But if there is anything that holds a magic organization robust, it’s the anti-exposure stance, and the SAM was certainly that. Here’s a limerick printed in The Sphinx that expressed that view:

There was an exposer named Rue

Who exposed the tricks that he knew;

He’s not here to blame

For he’s out of the game,

And the tricks that he knew were so few.

Next installment, I’ll jump ahead another fifteen years, and see what changes have been wrought.

(The next installment is here: )