Everyone has heard of Mandrake the Magician. Well, this week I thought I’d tell you the story of Velvet Mandrake, his lead assistant. You will get a feel for the adventurous life of a magician’s assistant. This information was told by Lon Mandrake, her son. In fact if you want to, you can compare her adventures with another assistant’s memoirs, those of my wife Elena.
Velvet was born in Chicago, Illinois, and was brought up in a show business background. Her mother and father were a vaudeville team in Chicago, and she was one of Mandrake’s best assistants. Velvet had acting and dancing lessons and performed with dance lines at the Chicago Theatre and in plays, including touring plays such as “Maid in the Ozarks.” For a change of pace, in 1946, she joined Harry Blackstone’s magic show as an assistant for a season. You can read about Blackstone’s main assistant Arial Freed in this article.
It turned out to be great fun as there were several young women on the show and they got along splendidly. They traveled by train to many major cities in North America. Velvet remembers Harry Blackstone Junior at age nine visiting his father and being given candy by the young assistants after each show. Coincidentally, they also performed in Vancouver, British Columbia this particular season which many years later would become her home.
On returning to Chicago, she decided to continue with her acting career. Leon Mandrake had just performed at the Chicago Opera House for M.C.A. and was looking for a new assistant to complete his M.C.A. tour south. An agent by the name of Paul Satmders, was asked to find a new assistant for the Mandrake show. Paul happened to be Velvet’s agent. Mandrake was looking for a tall blonde assistant and Velvet was looking for a touring play. Paul talked both of them into making compromises (Velvet being only 5 feet tall, dark haired and looking 16 years old without makeup). Mandrake stored his larger illusions in a hotel basement in Chicago and set off with a smaller show of five, including Velvet. They performed first in Oklahoma City and then into Louisiana. Soon they were married in Kansas City, Missouri and had their first son in Chicago in 1948. Velvet decided that they would keep their children with them on tour as long as possible. This meant being glamorous during the evening shows and then washing diapers after changing out of elaborate costumes and removing eyelashes. Sometimes I think this is what’s next in store for Elena and me.
A year later they were in Miami, Florida where Mandrake had escaped from a prison with electronic locks, to help promote his show. Later, in Silver Springs, Florida he did an underwater escape from a locked trunk. He was handcuffed, tied with 100 feet of rope, locked in a trunk and dropped into the Springs. Velvet, eight months pregnant, was very anxious about this type of escape as it was Leon’s first underwater escape. Things didn’t go as rehearsed and Leon didn’t come up as scheduled. There had been a problem with the rope in the water and it had tangled him while he was still in the trunk. Somehow he managed to emerge and came up, short of breath and with his life having passed before his eyes. The cameraman for the movie newsreel asked if he could do it again for a better camera angle! that was the last time Mandrake did an underwater escape.
After their second son, she was performing again as Mandrake’s chief assistant. She was sawn in half with a buzz saw, shot through the middle with a steel bullet, beheaded with a guillotine, floated in mid air, ‘and was the chief distracter on the show. In contrast, she would take her two small boys to a local park to play during the afternoon. In Dayton, Ohio after performing at the Van Cleve Hotel for five months she had their third son, in 1951. Later in addition to performing and looking after 3 young boys during the day, the problem of schooling came up. Mandrake and Velvet extended their stays in cities and used them as bases. Even so, her daughter Lon attended 9 schools in the first four grades, with schools in San Francisco, Seattle, Sacramento, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Chicago, Honolulu, Portland, and Surrey.
In 1955 the Mandrakes used Portland, Oregon as a base and performed as Alexander the Great on television. No relation to me. Actually these were mind reading performances, using Claude Alexander’s name and apparatus, bought through Bob Nelson, years earlier. Velvet now had even a more demanding role as assistant because with weekly television and mentalism much of the performance had to be spontaneous and unrehearsed. The show depended a great deal on the audience and how you read them. They also performed the night club circuits as both Mandrake and Velvet and as Alexander, the Man Who Knows.
In 1955 the Mandrake’s had their only daughter. Eighteen months later they took the whole family to Honolulu, Hawaii where they performed in clubs, fairs, and the Kaiser Dome. Just prior to the trip to Hawaii, Leon and Velvet were performing in Anchorage, Alaska at the Idle Hour Club. A fire broke out in the club and the Mandrake’s complete show was destroyed except for his linking rings. Velvet lost 18 complete costumes. They were separated in the fire and Leon had suffered minor burns. The magic club of Anchorage came to their aid and lent them enough props to perform for the next couple of weeks at another club in Anchorage. I can just imagine this having performed in Anchorage for nine consecutive summers. Their children were in Chicago with their grandmother during this time and interestingly enough, Lon says he had a dream of his parents in a fire the night it actually happened. Velvet flew to Chicago to pick up we children and then flew to Seattle to meet Leon and from there were bound for Honolulu. In 1957 they flew to Vancouver, British Columbia. Once there, they used Vancouver as a base and performed up and down the West Coast while the children settled down to one school system (all four children graduated from high school and two went on to attain degrees from University.)
The “on the road” life continued for the family, but only during school holidays and summer vacations. House keepers were employed for the lengthy engagements during the school year. After extensive performances in the Orient in 1967, Velvet retired from the show except to work occasionally until 1974 when they worked as a team for the University circuit until Mandrake retired in 1985. Velvet was a magician’s assistant from 1946 till 1985 with only a few interruptions (some of which were the births of her children). Later she acted as Lon’s assistant for a show at Beth Israel, in Vancouver when his wife and partner, Linda, was having their third child in 1988.