Among the performing arts there is none so directly Platonic in spirit as illusionism and stage magic. It is the business of the magician to remind the audience, again and again, that what one sees is not reality, that the evidence of one's senses cannot be trusted. It is a lesson that Plato wants to impress upon his readers through such examples as the stick that bends in water and other such optical illusions. Similarly, the stage illusionist lets us know that the eyes cannot be trusted. It may look as if the woman has been sawn in half, but we know she hasn't. The whole reason this constitutes a form of entertainment is that we delight in the dissonance between what our senses perceive and what our mind tells us must be the case to the contrary. It is a distinctly Platonic delight, and thus stage magic is a distinctly Platonic form of entertainment. Herein lies the present author's fascination with magicians.
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"The closer you look, the less you see."
- John Calvert, Devil's Cargo
"The closer you look, the less you see."
- John Calvert, Devil's Cargo
There have been many great stage magicians, but surely none so dedicated as John Calvert - born Madren Elbern Calvert in New Trenton, Indiana, 1911. A legend of the theatre, a hero of the International Brotherhood of Magicians (yes, there is such an organisation, see here), he died only several years ago (2013) at the age of 102 and spent a remarkable eight decades performing tricks and illusions for audiences far and wide, on top of a life of adventure and Houdini-like escapes that won him a reputation as a real-life Indiana Jones.
He flew planes, sailed the seven seas and performed dare-devil stunts. He was a man with fast fingers and exceptional physical dexterity. He was, as well, a conman, a rake, an impossibly handsome smooth-talker who excelled in all the arts of sleight of hand. He first started practising magic when he was barely ten years old after seeing the great Howard “Prince of Magic” Thurston perform in Cincinatti and made a profession of it when barely twenty. He was still performing feats of prestidigitation, touring and lecturing eighty years later. He performed his show at the London Palladium, aged 100.
He also had a career in film. Most notably, he appeared in the role of the dashing freelance sleuth 'The Falcon' in three of the Falcon crime mystery series in the late 1940s, a reprise of the role originally made famous by George Sanders. There is a wonderful scene in Devil's Cargo (1948) when a (supposed) murderer seeks the help of the Falcon by calling at his apartment. The stranger picks up a portrait from the dresser and says to the Falcon, "This is a good likeness of you." "That's not me," says the Falcon. "That's John Calvert, the magician." He then holds up an identical portrait and says to the stranger, "This is me." After this, he dazzles the stranger with some demonstrations of the principle the hand is faster than the eye. It is a very funny moment. We have Calvert playing the Falcon referring to Calvert the magician and both being and not being Calvert at the same time. In many ways it is a moment that defines him.
His real life adventures were often as remarkable as his stage performances. In 1959 his yacht was shipwrecked just off Arnhem Land in northern Australia. He escaped from the shipwreck accompanied by a chain-smoking, beer-drinking chimpanzee who he claimed was none other than 'Cheetah', Johnny Weissmuller's co-star in the Tarzan films, and a young Philipino singing beauty named Pilita who was clad in a tantalizing swim suit. The Australian media was nonplussed. Cheetah ran rings around the aborigines, Pilita wowed the gentlemen and Calvert, sporting his trademark pencil moustache and his hypnotist routine, swept the ladies off their feet. The media were scandalized by the exploits of this married man and went to the lengths of radio-phoning his wife in the USA.
But his escape from Australia was even more daring than his escape from the sinking yacht. He convinced a financier in Tasmania to advance nearly £30,000 to make a film about the shipwreck. The film was to be called 'Port of Escape'. Shortly afterwards, though, Mr. Calvert departed from Down Under and no film of that description has ever appeared. The gullible antipodians were left holding the chimp (which died in Perth Zoo in 1968).
John Calvert with Pilita (right) in Australia, 1959.
In a parallel incident in 1963 a yacht being captained by Mr. Calvert - and named the Golden Falcon - was shipwrecked off the coast of Madras in western India. The handsome dare-devil made it ashore on that occasion accompanied by not one but four beautiful young women in bathing suits and dazzled the hapless Indians in much the same way he had the Australians. In 2005, at the age of 97, he was still sailing and rode out Hurricane Wilma in a yacht off the coast of Florida, on that occasion being rescued by the US coast guard, but still making it to shore unscathed.
Some of his adventures in the air were equally remarkable. In 1948 he crashed his DC-2 at the Lockheed Air Terminal in Burbank California and walked away without a scratch.
As a stage magician he was known for his warm rapport with the audience and for pioneering such standard tricks as the 'Casper-the-friendly-ghost floating handkerchief' and the 'lit cigarettes on every finger' illusions. More spectacular were big ticket stunts such as firing a woman from a cannon into a basket above the stage and, his signature trick, cutting off the head of a volunteer from the audience with a buzz saw. This latter stunt often attracted famous guests to his shows such as Cary Grant, Danny Kaye and Gary Cooper. Danny Kaye, in fact, would sometimes appear in this role dressed as Hitler and as a grisly climax to the trick Calvert would place the dismembered Hitler head in a meat grinder and turn it into German weiners! As well as the stock-in-trade card tricks and rabbits from hats, at which he was unsurpassed, Mr. Calvert had, if nothing else, a strong sense of large-scale theatrics.
The thing about such characters as John Calvert is that they are, as the saying goes, 'larger than life', which is to say that, beyond the confines of a single individuality, they embody, as it were, an archetype. In the case of the magician, the archetype is both Platonic and Hermetic - the archetype of the trickster. Calvert was a trickster, writ large. He was able to live a long and full life in that role, entertaining and bringing joy to audiences throughout almost the entire duration of the XXth century. At the age of eight he made an egg disappear before his school mates at 'Show and Tell'. Thereafter he never got over the thrill of confounding an audience with a trick. The magician's joy is the look of discombobulation on the face of the audience as they try to figure out how the trick was done, in what way their senses have been deceived. It is an essentially intellectual art. The very nature of the "trick" is a battle of minds. It is estimated that John Calvert performed over 20,000 live shows, out-smarting audiences, in his 'trickster' role throughout his lifetime, an extraordinary achievement.
Harper McAlpine Black