Skip to main content

Leon Mandrake was a magician from New Westminster who "amazed and mystified two generations on three continents."Handout

Lon Mandrake, a retired science teacher, had a peripatetic childhood. He attended six schools - and that was just in Grade One. In summer, Lon swept stages and ran spotlights, focusing the beam on his parents, the Lovely Miss Velvet and Mandrake the Magician.

His father was a man of a thousand wonders, a master of prestidigitation, possessor of the fastest hands in the world. The promotions for his show offered the promise of an unforgettable entertainment: "An evening to see! A lifetime to remember!"

In a week filled by dates heavy with history, from the anniversary of the start of Terry Fox's brave run to the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight, a family will take a moment to reflect this week on the centennial of the birth of British Columbia's greatest magician.

Mandrake the Magician, who "amazed and mystified two generations on three continents," has been gone now for 18 years. The magus of the large illusion show succumbed to the emphysema that was his reward for a lifetime spent in smoky joints.

During a long career, he encouraged the notion that the star of a popular comic strip had been named in honour of him. After all, did not he, too, wear a cape and a top hat?

Mandrake the Magician was devilishly handsome. He had a waxed mustache and spectacular green eyes. His stare hypnotized. At department stores, he sent shoppers scurrying along the aisles as they pretended to ride bicycles. At outdoor events, he drove a car blindfolded.

Mandrake sawed women in half, chopped off heads in a stage guillotine, caused a menagerie of rabbits and pigeons to vanish. He read minds and pickpocketed wallets. For a 1949 newsreel, he escaped after being restrained by leg irons and handcuffs, tied by ropes, and nailed inside a packing crate - while under water.

One of his most spectacular illusions involved being tied up and imprisoned inside a large bag. Moments later, he emerges - having swapped his black tie and tails for a white Palm Beach suit, insouciantly puffing on a cigarette.

Mandrake's story was a simple one. He had been raised in New Westminster, where he attended vaudeville shows at the Edison Theatre on Columbia Street. Enraptured by the magicians, he received a birthday gift of a magic set, soon after preparing shows for neighbourhood children in the garage of his home. By 11, he was on stage at the Edison himself. Three years later, he was performing as a sideshow attraction at the provincial agricultural exhibition.

He dropped out of school to join a troupe of travelling musicians. In time, he had a show of his own, crisscrossing the continent. He married his assistant, who took the name Narda, the same as the heroine of the popular Mandrake comic strip. After their collaboration ended, on stage and in private, Mandrake hired as his assistant an actress and dancer who was the only daughter of a vaudeville couple. They married on the road in Kansas City, the nuptials earning a mention in Billboard magazine.

The couple's wanderlust resulted in children joining the family troupe in rapid succession, each hailing from a different state - Lon in Illinois, Ron in Florida, Kim in Ohio, and Geelia, known as Jill, in Oregon. The family moved into a home on Grosvenor Road in the Port Mann neighbourhood of Surrey. Mandrake built secret doors in the house, which became a haunt for visiting magicians, who tested new tricks on the jaundiced eyes of the discerning brood.

"My father taught us all to perform," said Lon Mandrake, 63, who maintains a stage show of his own and has performed at Science World in Vancouver.

One of Lon's specialties is to rest on a bed of sharpened nails. His father's lengthy list included dancing handkerchiefs and other routines so popular - and so imitated - that they now seem hackneyed.

The son says his father's secret was in conjuring a story to go with his legerdemain.

"People think of the tricks. He had such a warm and embracing personality that he took you out of this world and into a world of fantasy and magic. He was a bit of a philosopher, as well, in his shows, so there were life lessons along with the magic. He made you feel good."

One newspaper review described his show as "prestidigitation mixes with pulchritude to provide a peppy revue."

Mandrake needed to constantly reinvent himself and his performance. Vaudeville gave way to a nightclub act that gave way to campus lectures on the occult and extrasensory perception. He also altered his act from the big stage to the more compact theatre of the television screen.

When Mandrake died in a Surrey hospital in 1993, he took with him some of the secrets of his background.

These were later revealed in a 2001 documentary, titled Mandrake: A Magical Life. The filmmaker Mary Ungerleider went through dusty school records to uncover Mandrake's real name - Leon Giglio, born in Oak Harbor, Wash. His stage name, later legally changed in California, had been inspired by the success of the comic strip.

"He was dashing looking," she said. "He had the right appearance that he could get away with saying he was the model for Mandrake."

It was the ultimate sleight-of-hand, a bit of ballyhoo as wondrous as any of his amazing escapes.

Special to The Globe and Mail