In 1996, legendary comedian the late George Burns who entertained audiences from the age of 10 until his 99th year was scheduled to play the Palladium. Unfortunately a fall in his bathtub ended this legend's opportunity to perform as Burns never did recover. He had to cancel his centenary gig at the famous London venue and passed soon after his 100th birthday.
He once joked, "I can't die before my 100th birthday as I'm booked," but his accident robbed him of that farewell performance.
The reason I'm pointing this out is another legendary film actor and magician died last week at the age of 102. John Calvert was born in Indiana and performed for audiences from the age of 18 until past his 100th birthday. Fortunately Calvert was invited to the Palladium and was able to keep the engagement by performing on his birthday there. Calvert started performing magic after his parents took him to see the legendary Howard Thurston when he was eight years old.
Thurston is one of the most famous magicians in the history of modern magic. Inspired by an older legendary magician Alexander Herrmann, Thurston became one of the most well-known magicians of the early Twentieth Century.
He was well-known for his innovations including the Rising Cards, a feat performed ever since by many magi. He also was known for making cards disappear and appear at his fingertips and eventually became known as "The King of Cards". He traveled the world with a three hour spectacular stage show including his version of his mentor, Harry Kellar's "Levitation of Princess Karnac".
Thurston died in 1936 at the age of 67. Not too shabby for a man who started his career as a card manipulator.
Thurston must have made a great impression on Calvert because that one performance he witnessed as an eight year old shaped the next 94 years of his life interesting him in this ancient art and inspiring him to travel the globe to share his talents with the world. Calvert's first performance though was in his Sunday school class where he reportedly produced an egg from a friend's suit coat. At the age of 18, Calvert assembled his first show tour and traveled through Kentucky with an assistant. From that humble start, he became a world famous magician traveling the globe and performing thousands of times for audiences everywhere.
As the decades past, Calvert grew his show and became known for performing death defying stunts to gain publicity for his show. He toured extensively during World War II with a stage show that also featured notable performers including ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and Danny Kaye along with others.
By the 1940s, Calvert found himself in Hollywood where he starred in several movies including three films in the series, "The Falcon" in which he portrayed the title role. Even throughout his film career, Calvert continued to perform his stage show. His frequent travels found him in some dangerous and terrifying circumstances that he always survived. As he got older he started to write about his travels and for several years had a monthly column in a professional magicians' journal. John eventually became known as quite a magic historian and traveler.
I had the good fortune to meet him once about 20 years ago at a magic convention. He was a wonderfully delightful man. He gave a lecture about his experiences as a professional entertainer and talked about his world travels. He was quite a congenial person and was very striking in appearance. He told several stories about his career and memorable performances and answered questions afterwards.
I did not realize at the time he was also a film star and a search of the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) shows that he was an actor in 13 films including the three Falcon movies; however, other sources place his credits at 19 to 20 films. According to the site, he broke into Hollywood by becoming a hand double for Clark Gable in the film "Honky Tonk".
Calvert was booked as he neared his 100th birthday to perform at the London Palladium theater. Fortunately, the master magician was healthy enough to hold a command performance in famous venue and continued to perform after that. This lifetime of performances earned Calvert the highest awards and extensive honors from his peers and others in the entertainment industry.
Last week John Calvert joined his peers in the great beyond. He passed away on September 27th, 2013 at the age of 102 from causes not yet announced. He now belongs to the ages and joins the famous magicians of the past, his idol Thurston, the grand magicians of the Golden era Herrmann, Kellar, Houdini, Blackstone and more modern masters including Doug Henning. Magic lost an icon and many of us lost a true inspiration.
He entertained others for ages and now he will entertain the angels for eternity. Thank you, Mr. Calvert and rest in peace.
Til next time…