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Mandrake the Magician

Performance ticket, 1958, Lon Mandrake collection. Courtesy of the Surrey Archives, 2019.0028.

A series of 1958 flyers and tickets promote a man known as “The Monarch of Modern Magic”, the “Last of the Famous Illusionists”. Bold print and exclamation points proclaim him to be in the class of Houdini and Blackstone. Audiences are urged not to miss a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the incomparable showman undertake such acts as “Mental Mystics” and “The Weird Simula Seance.”

He looked the part too. Flyer photos show him dressed in tuxedos and capes, his hair slicked back, a thin dark mustache over his lip. He dons top hats and, at times, a white flower is pinned to his lapel. He is what comes to mind when picturing a magician. An archetype of a man who takes rabbits out of hats and saws assistants in two.

For a time, Mandrake the Magician was considered one of the greatest acts in the world. He dedicated his life to the ancient art of magic and performed for decades, thrilling and boggling his viewers. Though his appearances took him to the United States, Europe and Asia, it was here in British Columbia that his story began. 

He was born Leon Giglio in April of 1911 in Washington state. Not long after his birth, his mother would move him to New Westminster, B.C. to live with his aunt. At seven years old, he would have his first encounter with a magician, an experience that would undoubtedly influence his life’s path. Captivated by the practice, he took in as many of the Vaudevillian magic shows as possible. At the age of 11, he was taking the stage, himself and by 16, had joined a travelling troupe. Eventually he would change his last name to Mandrake--a moniker fit for a magician.

The years would see him perform throughout the province and country, as well as internationally. He became well known for his daring feats, including challenging the public to build boxes he couldn’t break out of and driving blindfolded, as he did through the streets of New West. He had sheriffs confine him to jail cells; some particularly sly lawmen even changed the locks after the magician’s initial inspection of the pens. But Mandrake was never outsmarted. He escaped from every box and lockup and made driving with a kerchief over his eyes look easy.

Mandrake the Magician mailer, 1958, Lon Mandrake collection. Courtesy of the Surrey Archives, 2019.0028.

Aside from his stunts, he practiced mind reading, levitation and ventriloquism among other specialities, but it was the old magic standards that he was perhaps most revered for. Footage of an older, silvered Mandrake shows him performing an act known as the “Katy King”, a take on the classic dancing handkerchief. In it, viewers watch as he takes a limp, white handkerchief, ties a knot towards the top and states that it is the spirit of a woman known as Katy King. He places “Katy” in a glass jug--not before tapping all sides to ward off any doubt or suspicion of trickery--and proceeds to top the jug with a cork. The cork comes loose, falling to the side and, for a moment, there is a certain tension, worry that something is going wrong, but it’s all a part of the act. Mandrake, the master that he is, has played on the emotions between an audience and its performer.

What follows is “Katy”, a rather mischievous rag, popping the cork off numerous times before moving in and out of the jug, across the table the jug sits on and in a comedic back and forth with Mandrake, himself. It is funny and smart and completely inexplicable how the magician, standing quite still, can make the once-lifeless handkerchief move with such speed, variance and personality. 

In an interview with CBC’s The Fifth Estate, the journalist, rightfully awed and curious to understand the logistics of Mandrake’s acts, comments on the magician’s escapes from safes, stating the irony of them being designed to keep thieves out. An amused Mandrake responds, “That’s right! Keep him out! Not keep him in. Keep him out. You have the answer right there.” The journalist is clearly still puzzled--perhaps as all non-magicians may be--, but Mandrake’s answer provides an example of how the magical mind might work: seeing and thinking in unordinary ways.

The culture of magicians has long been one marked by secrecy and mystery. Take for instance, The Magic Castle in Hollywood, an iconic magician’s clubhouse that only allows members or their designated guests to partake in its magic. The visiting page of its website even states, “We trust you can keep a secret.” Furthermore, the International Brotherhood of Magicians touts itself as “The World’s Largest Magical Organization.” Founded nearly 100 years ago, it boasts thousands of members from over 80 countries, who upon applying to join the Brotherhood must pledge to a code of ethics that inhibits sharing trade secrets with the public. 

Mandrake the Magician mailer, 1958, Lon Mandrake collection. Courtesy of the Surrey Archives, 2019.0028.

This safeguarding seems to be less about exclusion and more about maintaining the integrity of the artform. Magic is about entertaining people, amazing audiences and that would be much harder to do if the explanations behind acts were not protected. Still, Mandrake, on more than one occasion when asked about his methods, credited the bulk of his knowledge to the New Westminster Public Library. He spoke about being a jack-of-all-trades and knowing at least something about a lot.

Mandrake’s dedication to his craft took him on the road for great lengths of time. As previously stated, he travelled around the world performing. Earlier in his career, he wed his stage assistant, Narda, but by the mid-40s they would divorce. Later, he would meet Velvet, an assistant who had previously worked for Blackstone. She would ultimately join Mandrake and the two would marry. They would have four children together--three sons and a daughter--and raise them while they worked, going from town to town. After several years, they would settle back in British Columbia, purchasing a house in Surrey, which, years later, his son would say contained secret rooms and passages.

Though the family now had a more fixed home base, Mandrake and Velvet continued to work. He performed for a time as Alexander the Great and appeared as himself in the Sunshine Coast shot TV show, The Beachcombers. They had two television series and he even gave university lectures. In these talks he gave “complete expose[s] of the age old class pseudo priests of the occult” and “[stood] ready with an offer of $5,000.00 to be given to anyone who can demonstrate to him any action or happening that he cannot duplicate or explain by natural means.” 

Mandrake the Magician mailer, 1958, Lon Mandrake collection. Courtesy of the Surrey Archives, 2019.0028.

In a New Westminster Archives interview, resident Dean Johnson recalls the first time he saw Mandrake the Magician. Johnson, who grew up next to Mandrake’s aunt, saw a limousine pull up and stated that the magician looked just like the comic strip character of the same name (purportedly the two are not associated in any official way). He recounts an instance in his living room in which Mandrake instructed Johnson’s sister to get a potato and then throw it to her brother. She threw the potato and Dean caught a rubber ball. He threw the rubber ball back and she caught a potato. On another occasion, an ill Dean, walking down his back alley, sneezed. Mandrake, who was standing some distance away talking to Dean’s father, asked the boy if he was sneezing up money. Dean looked into his handkerchief to find a fifty cent piece. 

Leon Mandrake passed away in Surrey in 1993. In his 81 years, he maintained a fascinating career, even being honoured by The Magic Castle in the late 70s. He enjoyed a decades long marriage to Velvet and a rich family life, with two of his sons (Lon and Ron) going on to practice magic themselves. In an interview, when reflecting on where his passion and dedication had taken him over the years, he stated, “I always enjoyed life immensely. I never lost the magic in it.”


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