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September 30, 2014

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obituary:

Actor and magician John Calvert, who performed in Las Vegas for decades, dies at 102

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Magician John Calvert

Magician John Calvert in 2012

Magician John Calvert in 2012

In June 1988, veteran magician and actor John Calvert was in the audience at the old Frontier when illusionists Siegfried and Roy ended their 6 ½-year run headlining that venerable Strip showroom.

Calvert, regarded as the first magician to bring a large-scale magic show to both Las Vegas and Broadway, was a guest of Siegfried and Roy. Backstage after the show, the duo asked Calvert if he had any advice about improving their show.

“I said what you're doing at the end of your show you should be doing at the beginning of your show — warm up to the audience,” Calvert said in a 1998 interview with the Society of Young Magicians that was published online. “It is so important to let the audience get acquainted with you. Let them feel like they know you.”

Siegfried and Roy took that advice, incorporated it into their new show in 1990 at the Mirage and over the next 13 years became what many show business experts say was the most successful magic act in history. In subsequent interviews, Siegfried and Roy called Calvert “an inspiration.”

Madren Elbern “John” Calvert, a handsome showman with a pencil-thin mustache who served as one of the last shining beacons from both the Golden Age of Magic and the Golden Age of Hollywood, died Friday in Lancaster, Calif. He was 102.

Harry Houdini’s widow, Bess Houdini, once said, "Calvert plays the part of a magician better than any actor I have ever seen, except for Harry, of course."

Calvert’s stage production “Magicarama” has been dubbed the longest world-touring magical extravaganza in theatrical history. It has been estimated that Calvert made 20,000-plus stage appearances between 1919 and 2013.

He played several Las Vegas showroom stages from the early 1950s through his final performances in the desert gaming oasis at Boomers in 2007 and Gary Darwin’s Magic Club in 2008, when Calvert was 97.

In 2007, Calvert was honored as the International Brotherhood of Magicians Magician of the Year at the organization’s annual convention in Las Vegas. Calvert insisted on closing the magic show that culminated the gathering.

Calvert may best be remembered for such illusions as using a buzz saw to chop off the heads of volunteers from the audience; seemingly producing a string of lit cigarettes out of thin air from the tips of his fingers; and the “Casper the Friendly Ghost” magical floating handkerchief.

As an actor who bore a striking resemblance to Clark Gable, Calvert appeared in at least 13 films between 1943 and 1956. His most famous role was as the suave sleuth Michael Watling (aka “The Falcon”) in three movies: “Devil's Cargo” and “Appointment with Murder,” both in 1948, and “Search for Danger” in 1949.

Calvert got his start in films as a hand double, performing sly and speedy card tricks for Clark Gable’s con-man character in the 1941 film “Honky Tonk.”

Having made his first appearance as a magician at age 8, making an egg disappear for his Sunday school class’ show-and-tell, Calvert was a contemporary of Howard “Prince of Magic” Thurston and Harry Blackstone Sr. He became interested in magic after attending a Thurston show in Cincinnati in 1919.

Calvert once said for a magician to be successful, he should “never play down to (an) audience. Never give them the impression that you're better than they are. You are an actor playing the part of a magician. Be suave and elegant and likable.”

In 2007, Calvert gave a career-highlight performance before an audience mostly of fellow magicians at The Magic Castle in Hollywood.

In addition to his work as a magician and actor, Calvert also was a filmmaker who developed, wrote, directed and starred in “Dark Venture” in 1956.

Calvert never retired from show business. He performed illusions at London’s Palladium at age 100 and gave his final magic show performance a few weeks ago.

Born Aug. 5, 1911, in Trenton, Ind., Calvert began touring as a magician at age 18.

Calvert was a one-time boyfriend of newspaper gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.

His early act included firing a woman from a cannon into a box suspended overhead on stage.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Calvert’s show was so popular, Hollywood luminaries made guest appearances on stage with him. Among them were ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and actors Gary Cooper, Cary Grant and Danny Kaye. On several occasions, Kaye volunteered for the head chopping trick.

Calvert appeared on “The Red Skelton Show” in 1954.

A true-life adventurer, Calvert was a pilot who survived crashing his DC-2 at the Lockheed Air Terminal runway in Burbank, Calif., in 1948. He also was a skilled yachtsman, who in October 2005 rode out Hurricane Wilma on his 67-foot boat off the shore of Florida before being rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Calvert’s wife of 31 years, Tammy, accompanied John during his performances by playing background music on the organ and was at his side when he died Friday. Calvert’s other survivors include a daughter, Madrian.

Ed Koch is a retired longtime Sun reporter.

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