Ladies and gentlemen, may I present a master of wonder and illusion. One of the legends-in-legerdemain of our day ... and the day before that, and the day before that. A man who has clearly pulled the wool over Father Time's eyes and even now -- at age 101 -- is still alive and tricking.
Please welcome the amazing, the astounding: John Calvert!
Haven't heard of him? Well, you should have. He developed his act in the 1930s and was the first to unveil a big magic stage show in Vegas, going on to perform more than 45,000 shows in the U.S. and around the globe in places like Bombay, Israel, Singapore and London during most of the 20th century and into the 21st.
When he worked in Hollywood in the 1940s and '50s, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Danny Kaye and Edgar Bergen -- with Charlie McCarthy, of course -- often helped out in his act. He appeared on TV with Red Skelton, popping pingpong balls out of the comic's mouth. He knew the great men of magic like Harry Blackstone -- Sr. and Jr. -- and has outlived them both. And Siegfried and Roy have called Calvert an inspiration.
Not only that, he's been an adventurer the likes of Hemingway or Hughes, having owned several airplanes and yachts, occasionally crashing or fending off pirates. And he was in at least 40 movies, although sometimes it was a little hard to tell, like when he was in "Honky Tonk" with Clark Gable in 1941. (He was Gable's hand double for a card-trick scene because Gable was all thumbs.)
These days, as if by magic and with nothing up his glittery purple-velvet sleeve, Calvert can still make handkerchiefs dance on a wire with the ol' Haunted Hanky gimmick. Still lassos an audience with daringly dexterous rope tricks. Still travels the country with his wife, Tammy, performing some of his famous routines and giving inspirational lectures, conjuring a flame of hope in the hearts of aspiring magicians everywhere.
Calvert -- tall, lean with a wave of silver hair -- brought his magical lecture tour to the Oakland Magic Circle a couple of weeks ago, and I was lucky enough to hear him speak at the Sons of Norway Bjornson Hall, the club's regular meeting spot. While his prestidigitation's not quite as presto as it used to be, he walks with a cane and uses Tammy not only as his lovely assistant but also his hearing aid (she shouted every question from the audience into his ear), none of that mattered to the 60 or so magicians in the crowd. They were entranced.
"It's like when George Burns was still performing, and young comedians would go see him to learn," said Alex Ramon, a 27-year-old magic star who toured as a Ringling Bros. ringmaster for two years and now has his own show in Tahoe. "John's absolutely amazing for the history of our art."
Before performing a few tricks, Calvert shared stories from his long career, even about the time he purchased a big-top circus in South Africa, complete with elephants, tigers and more trouble than it was worth. "The happiest day of my life was when I sold that thing," he said.
He admonished young performers to keep their acts clean -- he hates the vulgarity in some current big-name shows. And he kept 'em laughing with his tips for "how to become a magician."
"What you do is, you put marbles in your mouth," he said. "Occasionally you lose one, and when you've lost all your marbles, then you're a full-fledged magician."
Last year, he published a book on "How to Live to be a Hundred." His secret? "Every morning when I wake up, I say, 'The world is my stage, I'm an actor and I'm going to play the part of a young man all day long," he said. "Don't be a pessimist. Expect to live 100 years or more.
"It can be done," he said. "It's not magic."
Share your scare
Halloween photo contest reminder! Scare up a photo of your past or present over-the-top-of-the-coffin, creepy, spooky, oooky, kooky Halloween displays. Winning photo will be printed in the paper Oct. 28, and all others will be available online. Include your name, city and a short blurb about your display. Email it to me, Angela Hill, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail to my attention at the Oakland Tribune, 1970 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612. The dead-as-a-doornail, daisy-pushing, bucket-kicking cutoff date for submissions is Oct. 18. Thanks!