The Magic Of Baltimore

In 1729, Baltimore was an unincorporated town composed of less than 3,000 buildings and 12,000 residents. By 1791 the big-shouldered boom town was bustling with ship riggers, barrel makers, carpenters, and flour merchants. It wasn’t until December 31, 1796 that the 67-year-old town of Baltimore was officially converted into Baltimore City.  In his booklet, “Magic in Early Baltimore,” Milbourne Christopher noted that the first conjuror to perform in a Baltimore theater was Signior Falconi. During the 1780s, the Italian illusionist dazzled the locals with his amazing feats of legerdemain. One of his most impressive wonders was a Turkish-garbed automaton, which answered questions by way of signs, and predicted the numbers on dice rolled by volunteers from the audience. While Christopher noted that other nameless traveling sleight-of-hand artists had no doubt performed in homes and at the local taverns prior to Falconi’s appearance at the Old Theatre, local magicians were a rarity between the years 1700-1900.

Even in the History of Conjuring and Magic, the internationally known Baltimore magic historian, Dr. Henry Ridgely Evans, conceded that by the early 1880s local amateur conjurors were still “as scarce as hen’s teeth.” At that time there were only two or three wielders of the magic wand, including Evans himself. May 16, 1908 became a landmark event in magic history.  On that date, at Baltimore’s Ford’s Opera House, illusionist Harry Kellar handed over his wand to Howard Thurston, naming him as his successor. From that moment onward Baltimore would become known as the “Magic City.” 

From the 1900s to the late 1960s numerous magic organizations would be formed. There were such groups as the Society of Baltimore Magicians, the Order of the Wand, the Pyramid Magic Club, the Magicians Club of Baltimore, the Phantom Magic Club, and the Yogi Magic Club. Early in this period, two of America’s most unique conjuring groups would also be formed: theDemons Club of Baltimore Magicians and the Society of Osiris. These two clubs were created no doubt in response to the stage performances of magicians Harry Kellar and Howard Thurston, both of whom took active and inactive roles in the organizations.

What separated the Demons Club from all other Maryland magic clubs was that it was the only group to posses its own headquarters. Although the group was formed on the evening of December 7, 1911, at the home of Arthur D. Gans, they didn’t move in to their own club house until September 17, 1917.

It wasn’t long before the walls of the Demons’ clapboard bungalow were crowded with handbills and autographed portraits of famous prestidigitators. At the far end of the small building, next to an upright piano, was a fully equipped stage, complete with scenery, curtains, and footlights. The construction of this theater was quite an undertaking, with all of the work being completed by its members. In honor of the close association between the Demons and illusionists Kellar and Thurston, two miniature private boxes were erected on opposite ends of the proscenium arch, in which hung large photographs of those great artists.

Famed magicians attended some of the Demons’ banquets, ladies night programs, charity functions, and magic shows, and they were invited as special guests to perform on the small stage. Among those who accepted were: Carl Alexander, Theodore Bamberg(Okito), Harry Blackstone, John Calvert, Dante, Harry Houdini, Chester Morris, Bill Neff, and Howard Thurston.

Ever since its founding, Thurston had more than a zealous interest in the Demons Club. In 1912, he was elected honorary president of the fraternal organization and, starting on March 26, 1914, the Demons held annual banquets in honor of America’s foremost illusionist.

At a banquet held at Kernan Hotel on January 31,1917, Thurston told the crowd that there were three days each year to which he looked forward to with special interest: when his show started on another tour, when his daughter returned home from school, and when he was a guest of the local Demons. After that dinner, the guests went to the Auditorium Theatre to enjoy Thurston’s performance.

On December 13, 1923, Howard W Jackson, Mayor of Baltimore City, and other state and municipal officials graced the most unique Thurston banquet. Arthur D. Gans, who was dubbed “The Official Baltimore Ohio Magician, “arranged with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad officials to have their new Martha Washington dining and club car sidetracked at Baltimore’s Mount Royal Station. When the Demons party arrived with Thurston, the ticket agent presented Thurston with a ticket to KELTHURMA, a destination derivative of the names Kellar/Thurston/Magic.

Everyone boarded the train for the extravaganza. Gans, who had worked for the Baltimore Sun papers as a proofreader, arranged with the newspaper to prepare a special edition for the occasion. The glaring four-column headline to this “fake” edition of The Evening Sun read “Scandal Narrowly Averted at Thurston Banquet of Magicians,” and it contained humorous magic articles to fit the occasion.  Before departing, Thurston joined the group to smoke Baltimore & Ohio Cigars. Earlier that year, Thomas Chew Worthington III, a semi-pro magician and a relative of Henry Ridgley Evans, along with several other local magicians became disenchanted with the Demons Club of Baltimore Magicians, mainly because they were admitting non-magicians into the organization.  And soon March 2, 1923, Worthington held a gathering of fellow conjurors at his home and, acting as chairman, he explained how he wanted to create a new magical society composed “exclusively of magicians.”

Admission into the organization required applicants to pass a rigid magic test. It is interesting to note that Worthington’s good friend, Howard Thurston, thought the exam was too difficult, however, they did not change it. These students were not snobs, they just didn’t welcome casually interested curiosity seekers. Worthington referred to men with a passive interest in conjuring as “the peeping toms of magic,” and the Society of Osiris did not want to saturate itself with mere joiners.

Much like the Demons, the Osirians held annual banquets, many of which paid honor to Thurston when he performed in Baltimore. To show his devotion to the Osirians, Thurston once told Worthington that if the Society of Osiris were located in New York, “he would be an active member and attend regularly when off the road.” Magic historians around the world are familiar with the famed Worthington collection.

Over the years, whenever they played Baltimore, such noted performers as Thurston, Blackstone, John Calvert, Cardini, Jack Gwynne, Doug Henning, Paul LePaul, John Mulholland, Robert Orben, and Mark Wilson visited the shop. Many of these wizards performed for free on the tiny stage that was built from discarded planks of Ford’s Opera House stage, the same stage floor where Kellar handed over his mantle to Thurston.

Where I live, in Las Vegas, we have a beautiful brick and mortar magic store called Denny & Lee Magic.  The owner, Denny Haney has two stores; One in Las Vegas and one in Baltimore.  Denny is extremely helpful and their service is extraordinary. In August 1985, magic hobbyist and lawyer Paul Wolman, owner of P.W. Feats, a party and event planning service, purchased the Yogi Magic Shop. Although the future for the store looked very bright, a series of fires led to the eventual demise of this legendary Maryland establishment. Its founder Phil Thomas died on July 2,1998.

As a youth, Phil Thomas had met fellow conjuror Henry (Hen) Fetsch, as well as another boy magician, Milbourne Christopher, while attending meetings of Boy Scout Troop #42 in Baltimore. Fetsch was a relatively newcomer to the hobby of magic, but by the time he had seen magician Paul Rosini perform, he found his avocation. Henry lived on Crystal Avenue, which was about a mile from the homes of Thomas and Christopher. As Fetsch’s magical career progressed, he became a prolific inventor, writer, and performer of his original magic.  Most of Hen’s conjuring inspirations came about while working his shift as a senior operator in the power transmission department of the Baltimore Gas & Electric Company. Every hour on the hour his sole responsibility was to look up at a clock and, after reading some meters, jot down technical notes. With 55 minutes of idle time between the next meter readings, Fetsch daydreamed about magic and created new tricks. Although he invented numerous conjuring effects, including “Magic Spell” and “Chance of Eternity, “his greatest magic creation was “Mental Epic,” still in wide use today, but rarely ever credited to Hen Fetsch.

Fetsch had a typewriter at the BG & Epower station and when he wasn’t critiquing a new publication for the Yogi Magic Shop, or writing articles for the various magic periodicals, he was working on his own magic publications. Two of his books, Magic with Canes and Milk Pitcher Magic, were extremely successful, despite the fact that he went in to debt financing the latter publication. He also presented magic lectures in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, and Canada. The highlight of his “Who’s Fooling Who” and “Fetsching Magic” lecture tours was a trip to England and Scotland.

Magic historian Eddie Dawes still recalls the show.  The Hen Fetsch lecture was one of the finest he ever experienced. Afflicted with heart disease, Hen suffered from a series of heart attacks towards the end of 1960. Conjuring was such a part of his life that he told his only child, Nancy, “If I can’t do magic, I don’t want to live. “Hen Fetsch died on New Year’s Day, 1961, at the youthful age of 48.  Born on March 23, 1914, Milbourne Christopher developed an interest in magic at the age of six when his father taught him a magic trick using a piece of string. From that time forward, magic dominated his life. During his teenage years, Milbourne teamed up with his boyhood friend Phil Thomas, and for sever­ al years, the two performed together and promoted themselves with the slogan:”Mil and Phil Will Fill the Bill.”

Christopher delved deeper into the history of magic as he completed his studies at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and the Maryland Institute. Fresh out of school, Milbourne got his first writing job by convincing the editor of The Baltimore Press to hire him on the strength of a stack of articles on magic history he’d written.

The newspaper folded, and following a series of engagements in the Washington area, Christopher left for Europe, where he performed in nightclubs with comedian Freddie Sanborn. He toured Berlin, Paris, and England, and then in 1937, he began the first of what would be nine tours of South America. By 1954, he made a Broadway debut at the Longacre Theater with a one-man show entitled Now You See It.

On May 27,1957, Christopher put together and performed in the first network television magic special, The Festival of Magic. The NBC show rated six in the Nielsen ratings, and the program was also shown in Europe. The high­ light of his appearance was a much-promoted “Bullet Catch.” It received national attention and Christopher repeated the effect on BBC’s David Nixon Show in England. The Baltimorean who pioneered magic on local TV, with a 26-week with a 26-week run on WAAM in the early’50s, went on to produce and star in eight television specials.

Christopher’s contributions to the literature of magic have not been equaled by any performer. He was the editor of M-U-M, Hugard’s Magic Monthly, and Magical. Although Christopher appeared in more than 70 countries, it was through his writings that he shared his tremendous wealth of knowledge on magic with magicians around the world. He had written more than 24 books on the deceptive arts.  Among them are such classics as Houdini: The Untold StoryPanorama of MagicHoudini a Pictorial Life, and The Illustrated History of Magic.

His many awards included the Silver Wand of the London Magic Circle, a fellowship in the Academy of Magical Arts, the Royal Medallion of the All India Magic Club of Calcutta, the IBM Star of Magic, and SAM Magician of the Year. In 1975 he was elected to the SAM’s Hall of Fame.

Christopher amassed one of the world’s largest collections of magic memorabilia, including prints, paintings, photographs posters, playbills, and books of past greats in the field.  Particularly  well represented is Houdini, and it still stands as one of the largest private collections of Houdini memorabilia. Active in magic till the time of his death, Christopher died on June 17,1984 at Mt. Sinai Hospital, of complications following surgery. Christopher was buried in Baltimore.

During their early years, the three Baltimore youths, Phil Thomas, Hen Fetsch, and Milbourne Christopher, were affectionately called “The Little Demons.”They joined each and every fraternal organization for magicians and rarely missed a gathering, whether it be the those of the Demons Club, the Society of Osiris, the Kellar-Thurston SAM Assembly No 6, or their “very own” Yogi Magic Club. Living and breathing conjuring 24 hours a day, the three youths thought nothing of hitchhiking to far-away New York to catch a magic show, visit the dealers and shops, and attend that city’s magic club meetings. Because the three lads were obviously inseparable, vaudeville veteran George Reuschling (The Great La Follette), also from Baltimore, once labeled them “The Unholy Trio.”

Two of the presentations of the 31st Annual Magic Collectors’ Association Weekend which will be held in Baltimore this April 27 – 28th will address the influence of Christopher, Thomas, and Fetsch on the American magic scene. Other Baltimorean conjurors who will be honored are Dr. Henry Ridgely Evans, Thomas Chew Worthington III, Edgar Heyl, Dantini The Magnificent, and Rob and Johnny Eck. You can read all about Baltimore’s rich magical history here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *