The old showbusiness adage that the movies killed Vaudeville is only partly true. The first motion pictures shown in theatres along with live acts and Vaudevillians were silent so comedians, singers and musicians had time to make the leap from the stage to celluloid. Dancers, acrobats, dog and pony shows and almost anything that was visually entertaining on stage did suffer from the novelty of performers on film who could do the same acts in flashier costumes with better production values but audiences were slow to give up on live performers.
The show business that took the hardest hit from film was probably stage magic and the artistry of illusion. The earliest filmmakers quickly discovered the visual tricks and special effects a movie camera could create and audiences were soon enamored with magic of an entirely different magnitude. In the 1902 French film Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliès, the Jules Verne science fiction story is full
of disappearing objects, floating characters and fantastic illusions that far outmatched the spectacle of pulling a rabbit out of a hat or sawing a lady in a box in half. The jaw dropping magic of the movies stole the mysticism from the puzzling illusions on the live stage and audiences even stopped wondering “How did they do that?”. Stage magic lost its wonder when audiences knew that anything could be faked on film. Even legendary stage magicians like Harry Houdini had a hard time competing with movie magic and as the movies took over theaters in the 1920’s, he moved to the art of escape and death defying feats of endurance. The movies did kill magic.
Meanwhile, in the Pacific Northwest sometime in the late 1920’s, a Tacoma teenager named Coe Norton was given a Gilbert’s Mysto Magic Set by his father who operated a successful chain of drug stores. Coe quickly picked up the sleight of hand card tricks and floating illusions in the beginners kit and began to imagine higher adventures into legerdemain. He joined the Tacoma Magicians Ring and like Harry Potter meeting Dumbledore, he made the acquaintance of Tacoma’s master magician and millionaire Ray Gamble. By the late 1930’s Ray Gamble was famous as a founder of the Pacific Coast Association of Magicians and an world renowned inventor of visually unexplainable illusions. Tacoma became a center for the dwindling world of stage magicians as Ray hosted magic luminaries at his 30th Street mansion. They included Edgar Bergen, Harry Blackstone, Carter and famous enthusiasts Orson Wells, Chester Morris and General Douglas Mac Arthur. Ray passed it all onto to Coe. The story gets better.
After graduating from Stadium High School and beginning the University of Washington as a Drama student Coe Norton was in Hawaii when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He joined the Navy and spent the war on a destroyer in the Pacific retiring as a Lt. Commander. Coe completed his drama degree and began working on the stage in New
York and by 1950 in television in Hollywood. In 1954, just as the superhero comic strips The Adventures of Superman and the Lone Ranger were becoming big TV hits, NBC hired Coe to star in a new series called Mandrake the Magician. Mandrake was created as a comic strip and was successful as a radio program (that ended each program with a simple magic trick) so the network decided to take a risk on beating the movie curse on magic.
In all, nine episodes were made of Mandrake the Magician with Coe Norton starring and serving as the syndicated program’s “magic consultant”. A decade later, in a 1964 interview Norton remembered “multiple directors were used and scripts were often changed, forcing him to come up with
elaborate magic, such as a poolside routine performed in a bathing suit, on short notice.” But the programs disappeared and were never shown. Coe Norton went on to a long and successful careers as an actor and sometimes magician. He and his wife Laura Lee (a fellow actor and magician he met through Carol Channing while in the cast of Auntie Mame) stayed in show business doing commercials and their stage act. In their later years Coe and Laura moved to South Carolina, taught drama and magic and kept in touch with Ray Gamble in Tacoma. Ray passed away in 1972 at 86 years old. Coe Norton died in April 1998.
And the from nowhere about five years ago, through the magic of the internet, one of the Mandrake episodes appeared.
Mandrake the Magician, the lost episode, 1954
Coe Norton in a 1960’s commercial
Trip to the Moon, Georges Méliès 1902
Also see Magician