Mark Wilson’s Hall of Magic Story 4

The Second Year of the Fair, 1965!

Mark Wilson's ID PASS 1965 Front

Mark Wilson's ID PASS 1965 Front

My parents had told me that at the end of the second season all the buildings would be torn down, everything destroyed. Immediately, a brilliant thought flashed through my 14-year old brain. If the fair was to be destroyed, why not make arrangements to “pick up” the illusions from the Hall of Magic before the destruction occurred. I could just picture having our neighbor help out with his station wagon. You know, back up to General Cigar building and load up the show. I’d have to work on these arrangements during the second season.

The Fair under construction in 1963, Photo by Irving Desfor

I only went to the fair that one time during the first year. It was closed for the late fall and winter months, and during this period many changes were made. Just as in 1939, fair attendance was lower than had been hoped for. In its January 1965 report, the New York World’s Fair 1964-1965 Corporation noted many of these changes. A section on General Cigar stated that the “Hall of Magic show, which played to 91% capacity last year, will have a completely revamped presentation by magician Mark Wilson.” According to Mark, however, this was just hype. He had signed a contract to produce the same show for the 1964 and the 1965 seasons.

The Fair under construction in 1963, Photo by Irving Desfor

All the responsibility for show, the props, and the performers rested with Mark. Before the fair opened, difficulties between the unions and the exhibitors were often reported. Stories of exhibitors having to pay $150 to have a plumber repair a leaky faucet made the news. Mark Wilson also experienced union problems.

Although the music in the show was on tape, it was necessary for him to pay five standby musicians every week. Would they have filled in if the tape broke? Not likely. Mark never even saw them, but did find out that one of these standby musicians was in Los Angeles!

While Mark had signed a two-year deal for the performers and assistants with the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA), weeks before the beginning of the second season, the union demanded more money. Mark insisted that he had signed a two year deal and did not feel he was obligated to raise the already agreed upon wages. After all, Mark had signed a two-year deal with General Cigar, and certainly could not go back to them with increased expenses. No matter, if wage demands weren’t met and non-AGVA performers used, the exhibit would be picketed. After exploring his legal options, Mark decided to get in touch with AGVA directly. At that time, the AGVA Secretary Treasurer was magician Russell Swann. Swann, who had also worked at the fair its first season, promised to help. As a result, AGVA honored its original contract with Magical Productions and the show went on as scheduled — without pickets!

Composition of photos by Irving Desfor

It was during this second year that I was able to attend the fair on a regular basis. My grandmother lived only five minutes from the site, so I’d stay with her and take the bus. On my first trip back, I returned to the Hall of Magic. The show had not changed, but I enjoyed it just as much. I introduced myself to the General Cigar manager and, with the naïveté of a 14-year-old, asked if I could tape record the show, providing me with a permanent record of the show. He advised me to write directly to General Cigar corporate offices. In the mean time, the manager did allow me to enter the show from the guest entrance, thus avoiding the wait in line. This allowed me to see the show many more times. I returned several times during the second season and took advantage of this VIP treatment. In all, I saw the show 35 times. General Cigar answered my letter requesting permission to tape the show, explaining that their contract with the show’s producer (Mark Wilson) specifically prohibited such recording. I was disappointed, but continued to visit the show. Eventually, I had the show memorized and dreamed of the day when the performer didn’t show up and I would gladly volunteer to fill in.

Mark Wilson, Photo by Irving Desfor

Eventually, I had the show memorized and dreamed of the day when the performer didn’t show up and I would gladly volunteer to fill in.

Although that opportunity never arose, that’s not to say that nothing ever went wrong.  I learned years later of some of the mishaps that occurred during the two-year run of the show.

Laura Lee Norton recalls one particular accident when the “Appearing Cane,” which was kept in the magician’s breast pocket till the end of the show, opened prematurely. The expanding cane struck Randi in the eye, and he collapsed to the stage floor unconscious. Of course, the tape continued to play. As the audience filed out, Laura Lee went out, picked up Randi and brought him backstage. 

Mark Wilson proof sheet of him performing in show, Photos by Irving Desfor

The first place she found to lay him down was on the “Asrah” table. An ambulance was called, but when the attendants arrived, Randi was no longer on the table. He was quickly discovered _ still out cold — inside the prop. He was rushed away for treatment. Mark Wilson was there and filled in.  When Randi did return, he performed for several days with a patch over his injured eye.

Before another show, it was realized that the blades for the divided were missing. There was no spare set and the trick couldn’t be done without them. Security was alerted. After all, they were too large to be easily concealed. Finally, the blades were discovered behind some bushes on the fair grounds and returned in time for the next show.

Mark Wilson Sawing, Photo by Irving Desfor

Randi and Laura Lee also recalled the day that a turbaned man appeared at the stage door saying, “I am commanded to tell you that the world’s greatest magician wants to be admitted to the show.” Randi, surprised by the request, comically replied, “The world’s greatest magician is already here.” The man represented P.C.Sorcar and his son, so Randi arranged VIP seating in the front row. After each illusion, Sorcar would turn toward the audience and announce, “The great Sorcar invented this illusion!” or “This is the creation of Sorcar!” Randi later received a note from Sorcar’s son apologizing for his father’s irresponsibility.

Neither Randi nor Norton were among the performers who worked the second year. Coe was forced to leave the show because of the opening effect, the large cabinet with a wooden Indian in its center. The performer was hidden behind a mirror in the rear of the cabinet. In performance, the box was turned, and the magician had to slide his feet and nudge the cabinet around. Coe had a back problem and this movement became very painful for him. He eventually needed surgery to remove a disc from his spine. Randi went on that year to host a night time radio show. Another of the actors who played the magician in the show went on to achieve some fame years later as the announcer on a popular television show, “The People’s Court.” Yes, early in his career, Doug Llewellyn performed in the Hall of Magic.

Doug Llewelyn 1965 Resume Page 1

Doug Llewelyn 1965 Resume Page 2

Doug Llewelyn 1965 Resume Page 3

Mark also mentioned a third magician who performed at the exhibit, a young man who had applied for the part of the performer in the show.  Mark felt he was not right for that part, but offered him another job at the exhibit. And so, the magician, later to be known as“ Kamar, the Discount Magician,” was offered the job of operating the “Magic Hands” machine, which he accepted.

Credit for the success of the show rests squarely on Marks shoulders, but he’s quick to acknowledge the help he had from so many well qualified people. Among those previously mentioned was a young John Gaughan, just beginning his career as an illusion builder.

Although General Cigar’s Hall of Magic was the largest magic exhibit at the fair, it was not the only one. Later, while strolling the grounds, I saw a sign for the Heinz Magic Show of Food. The line wasn’t too long and who could pass any exhibit with the word magic in its title. This show was not listed in the official guide, so I had no idea what to expect. As it turned out, I was pleasantly surprised.  The theater was small and there were no chairs, but the audience section was stepped, and cushions allowed for comfortable seating. On stage was a kitchen setting. The show began with a short film featuring Charlie the Tuna. Suddenly there was a shot, as a chef fired a blank wand and said, “Sorry Charlie,” mimicking a current advertising theme familiar to all. The chef and his lady assistant then continued with an excellent show featuring vanishing tomato juice, magically baking an apple pie, and “Paper Balls Over The Head.” I’m sure there was more, but those are the tricks that stick in my mind.

I didn’t know who the magician was, but I was very impressed with his comedy presentation. The show was filled with laughs and good magic. Virtually every line the magician uttered was a laugh line, and the audience had a great time. I later learned that the magician was Russell Swann, with his assistant Michael Ann Abbott. Interestingly, Swann was not the only performer for the Heinz show.  Scalzo alternated daily with Swann. As the season went on, they would alternate weeks instead of days. The show performed by each of them was completely different.

Other magic at the fair included John Moehring performing nightly at the Texas Pavilion in the amusement area, and Peter Pit working daily at the RCA Pavilion. James Randi also performed occasionally at the RCA Pavilion. I had no idea that the other shows were there, since General Cigar was the only exhibitor to widely publicize magic.

John Moehring [right] performed a guest spot on one of the daily color television broadcasts hosted by Peter Pit [left] at the RCA Pavilion.

Those who had attended the 1939 World’s Fair, remember it with great fondness, and I’ve met no one who attended both fairs and thought the 1964 version to be the better. Time magazine, in a review written just after opening day, expressed the difference by saying, “The 1939 World’s Fair was a promise. The 1964 fair is a boast.” My own recollections have none of these shortcomings. I have only fond memories of the 1964 fair, and I’d love to go back and visit it all one more time. Where would I go first? Surely you know the answer. I’d bring my viewing total to 36.

If someone had told that 14-year-old boy in 1964 that he would become personally acquainted with some of the celebrities of that fair, he’d have been quite surprised. Yet, that is exactly what happened. Although I was never asked to fill in and never did pick up of those props, I did come to know Mark Wilson. Wilson, with this show and other industrial shows, paved a road that many others would travel.

Russell Swann was in the twilight of his magic career, but continued as Secretary-Treasurer of AGVA. His office was at 1540 Broadway. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, I worked at Tannen’s Magic. Their new address was also 1540 Broadway, and I spent many a lunch hour on the eight floor in Swann’s office. He became a close friend and someone I grew to admire.

Click on the image above to see the video.  Both Streaming and DVD options.

The magic of the 1964 World’s Fair is long gone, yet there is a way you can see the General Cigar show. Mark Wilson has put out a video of the show, available on this website,  Mark Wilson first introduced this video at the Chicago collector’s convention and guess who bought the first one? After 30 years, I finally got a copy of the show and can continue to visit the Hall of Magic.

Bill Schmeelk owns and operates Wellington Enterprises, creators of custom magic and illusions, in Garnerville, New York.

Thank you, I hope you enjoyed this series of stories by Bill Schmeelk. 

Happy Magic, Greg Wilson


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