Magician, Author, Explorer, Actor and Adventurer... The Last Of A Breed
In the summer of '98, @ the SAM national convention, then President Chris Britt had the pleasure of interviewing John Calvert, our assembly namesake. Today (2010), at the age of 99, Mr. Calvert is still touring the country with a full evening theatre show, as well as teaching and lecturing for magicians around the globe. There are some special events planned for 2001 in celebration of Mr. Calvert's 100th birthday. We'll keep you posted! As you'll read from this old interview, even with all of his fame and fortune, Chris was struck by how genuinely nice Mr. Calvert was. SYM #29 would like to extend special thanks to Ray and Ann Goulet for making this interview possible.
UPDATE: On Sept 27th, 2013, John Calvert passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of 102. (He had continued performing until late into his 101st year. Amazing!) The members, parents and advisors of S.Y.M. #29 offer our sincere condolences to his wife, Tammy. We are also proud to continue to carry on John's memory as our assembly's namesake. Thank You, and Rest in Peace, Mr. Calvert.
Chris: This is an interview with John Calvert, a very famous magician. I've heard you have traveled all around the world with your stage show. I was wondering about how your act grew and how you started in magic.
Calvert: Well, believe it or not I started when I was eight years old, after seeing the famous Howard Thurston show in Cincinnati, Ohio. And for a long time when I was doing tricks that I was able to do, I thought I was faking things that real magicians could actually do. Then I found out I was like all the rest. That I was creating an illusion of magic. My advice to all young magicians is to realize that it is more important to entertain the audience, than it is to fool them. I trick that just fools people is only a puzzle. A trick that entertains people is what we want to go in to. And I find just to do a trick and not entertain the audience is not worth while. So we try to find the illusions or tricks that really entertain the people. And whether they're fooled, or whether they're not, that's not important. But it is important that they go away from the theatre with a smile on their face, and saying they've been entertained. And the most important thing, when a young magician goes out, or any one, if he realizes if the audience doesn't like you, they won't like your magic. No matter what you do. But if the audience likes you, like the performer, virtually everything the performer does, they will like.
Chris: So you mean they have to like you as a person, before they like your magic?
Calvert: Of course. That's most important because if you build a resentment towards your audience, they'll say "What is he doing out here?" you will break your neck (performing and working on magic) and they still won't care for you. They will say"Well he did a good trick but he was a bore" or something like that. So I found that years ago, I had the heaviest show, I carried more props than anybody else in America. I had the biggest, but not the best show. It wasn't until I went out to California and I cut my show down into a smaller show, got rid of a lot of worthless props. I was a demonstrator of illusions, in other words if you didn't like this one, maybe you'll like the next one. But when, I cut the show down to were I had to go out and sell John Calvert and present the illusions and entertain the audience, that's when I became a success.
Chris: Were there any influences, you mentioned Howard Thurston...
Calvert: Oh, yes. Howard Thurston was the one that caused me, my dad to me to the theater in Cincinnati, Ohio when I was eight years old. And I saw the great Howard Thurston and I never forgot it, his music, the presentation and so-forth. When I was a kid we didn't quite t have magic clubs like you have now as a matter of fact I hadn't read a book on magic before I was doing a complete magic show. I had to create a lot of things that I had never even seen another magician do. And I remember Thurston did the Iash where the girl is drawn to the top of the theatre and fires a shot and she vanishes. Twenty-one years later I built one by memory. Now I often wondered whether it was as a little boy that figured how it was done or it was over a period of time as I became an adult that I figured out how it was done. And of course I think it was the latter.
Chris: How does seeing Howard Thurston Compare to anything any magicians you see to today, or is he incomparable?
Calvert: Howard Thurston was the Prince of magic, he was the epitomy of magic. He had beautiful music. When I think of music I think that maybe its a good idea to remember that even though this is the day of rock n' roll, you don't have to have rock music to do magic. Maybe just one number, but you don't want to drive them out of the theatre with loud bang, bang, bang, bang music. It is all right maybe in one or two numbers. But there are so many beautiful numbers that you can get prerecorded that will go with magic as well. Think about that. Think about when you're doing a show, 'Am I doing a rock show, or am I doing a magic show?' Another thing. Some of those magicians are getting risqué and doing vulgar things. It would be a pity if the next generation of magic took magic from a wholesome family entertainment to shows that run in only nightclubs and in the gutter window. Wouldn't that be a shame? And it seems as though magicians are the last of the entertainers that realize that. Some are getting vulgar and I think that is a pity, but I'm sure you'll never do that will ya?
Chris: Absolutely not. Back to your show, you say you carry a lot of props and had a full stage show?
Calvert: I still have a full stage show.
Chris: Oh, you do, and that you travel around a lot? Can you describe your show, and how it has evolved over the years?
Calvert: Well I first carried my show in a car, in the back of the car. Then I got a trailer put behind the car. And then I thought that if I had a truck, I could have a bigger show. And finally I have a huge semi-trailer truck. And then it came to me that 'If I had an airplane' and I thought maybe in ten years…well it wasn't that long at all that I had an airplane, then a DC-3, a Douglas airline, and well I had about a dozen airplanes in my time. And then Henry Ford built a big yacht for his son Edsel. Edsel died, and I bought this hundred foot sailing vessel. And sailed it to Hawaii with the show on board. From Hawwii and up to Japan and down to Singapore, the Philippines, and Australia. Since that I have had a number of motor yachts. Motor sailors, and now I have a pure triple crew world cruising yacht with a cruising range of three thousand miles. And I've traveled all over the world. We crossed the Atlantic in eleven days with it. I would like to point out that this came for magic.
Chris: You didn't have a side business, this all came from magic?
Calvert: It all came from magic, I've been a magician virtually all my life. However it did get me a film contract out in Hollywood and I've made a number of films. I used to do the falcon detective series. But I would have never worked in the movies if I hadn't first been a magician. I went out to Hollywood and they liked what they saw and I wound up with a contract with Columbia. And since that time I have taken part in forty motion pictures. If you set your sights, aim high, work hard, and don't try to copy all the things you've seen other magicians do, don't try to be a dancer instead of a magician. You don't have to be a dancer to do magic. You don't have to wiggle your hips and tell dirty vulgar stories. You got to go out there and stand tall, with dignity and assurance and practice, practice, practice so when you go out on that stage you don't have to be nervous or worried.
Chris: In your show do you perform many classic effects?
Calvert: In our show we opened with a very fast routine of magic. I've had magicians come back and say " Hello John. You do in the first three minutes in your show (what) I could do in an hour." I said, "where are you working?" (Laughs) So we do a lot of fast magic we call magic variety in the first three minutes. Then we shoot a girl out of a cannon into a space capsule. We cut a man's head of with a buzz saw and put it back on. Out in Hollywood many years ago, Danny Kaye, was in my show and came out and impersonated Hitler. Then the marines would come out and grabbed him, put him in the buzz saw and we'd cut his head off, put his head in a sausage grinder, and out came German Wieners (Laughs). Now we still carry the buzz saw, cutting a man's head off I've done for years. As a matter of fact I originated it. Another thing that is my own and no one else does the flying organ. Tammy, who's my wife, plays the console or the pipe organ, it floats about the stage and then it floats over the heads of the audience
Chris: That sounds pretty interesting. So you create a lot of your magic?
Calvert: Well, like I told you, when I was a kid I never read a book on magic, I never had one to read. I didn't know any other magicians, except Lester Lake, who lived in my hometown. He originated the guillotine. He was six years older than I remember one time Lester Lake drove his father's school bus and all the kids to school blindfolded. Today you'd get arrested for that! But, we have taken the show all over the world, we've probably had a thousand employees in the show. Our show's the longest running show in the history of show business, it's in its 64th year. That is double the length of Howard Thurston and Blackstone Sr.'s tours combined, and I don't intend to quit as long as I can walk out there and do a good show.
Chris: That's very encouraging. So, I assume that you were friends with Harry Blackstone?
Calvert: I knew both Harry Sr. and Jr. In fact, I was one of the last persons to talk to Jr. I called him and a voice answered that didn't sound like Harry and I said, "I'd like to speak to Harry." And he said, "this is Harry." I said, "How you feeling?" and he said, "Oh, I'm fine. I'm going into the hospital tomorrow to have my gallbladder removed." So I called after the operation and talked to his mother-in-law. I asked how he was doing and she said they opened him up and he was too infected so they sewed him back up again. So, I said to Tammy (Calvert's wife) I'm afraid he's going and he was dead shortly after. And it's a sad thing, he was a great friend of mine and had a great future ahead of him.
Chris: As for magic in general, are you happy with the direction magic is heading…
Calvert: Not exactly, are you?
Chris: Ummm…maybe I'll have an opinion about that later.
Calvert: Tell me your opinion.
Chris: My opinion? I honestly think for both young and old performers magic is very commercial today. It seems that a lot of people think they can buy magic and become a magician and that's really not true. I also think that more people need to put more thought into their magic and respect their audience.
Calvert: That's exactly right. Now the first thing to become a magician is to remember you're not a magician. You are an actor playing the part of a magician and you have learned to take material things and normal things and create what seems to be magic. If you can do that, then you become a master magician. We all know there's no such thing as true magic. No one can wave a wand and make something happen without some mechanical or electronic aid. So never get to the point where you really believe you're a magician. I co-directed Paul Newman's first picture, which was the Silver Chalice. There's a character named Simon the Magician who believed in his magic so much, he got to the point where he believed he could really fly. And he tried to fly off a tower and killed himself. So what happens when a young magician gets to believe he is too good…sometimes he's no good.
First thing to remember is this: Walk out on the stage with confidence. You must portray confidence. Be polite to the audience and recognize them. Never go out on stage and start performing without first recognizing your audience. And another thing I notice which is a very bad mistake, for a magician to have his audience in pitch black and have the magician with only a spotlight on him. Now how can you have any communication if you can't see your audience? You need to see the audience. I will never perform on a blacked out house, unless I will be doing a piece in dark for a few moments. When an audience is in pitch black, here's what happens. They talk to one another because no one can see who's talking. Instead of feeling like they're watching a live show, they feel like they're watching a movie and you don't get that warmth, in Spanish they say "simpatico", and communication with a blacked out house. And I don't understand why so many magicians work for a blacked out audience. I suppose it's because they practice so much without ever paying attention to their audience and that's a bad thing.
Chris: So I assume that's why it's important to rehearse rather than practice your magic? And isn't it also important to get out and perform in front of people?
Calvert: Of course, to get their reaction. And another thing, it's more important to find a trick the audience loves whether you like it or not. I've been doing some tricks so long, I'm very tired of doing them...in fact, I hardly know I'm doing them. I could do them in my sleep! But, it's a number that warms me up to the audience and I'll never stop doing it.
Chris: In addition to the excellent advice you've given so far, is there anything else you want to say?
Calvert: Out in Las Vegas when Siegfried and Roy were getting ready to close there original show. And Lynette Chappel, their leading lady, I trained her, she was in my show long before she was in their show. Mark Wilson's wife worked with me in the show, before she even knew Mark Wilson. Siegfried and Roy invited me to their show and after the show they invited me back stage. They said, "Now John we are getting ready to open a new show. Do you see anything in the show that we should do or shouldn't do in our new show?" And I said yes, what you're doing at the end of your show you should be doing at the beginning of your show. And they said, "what's that?" And I said, "warm up to the audience." It is so important to get warmed up to the audience, get acquainted with them. Let the audience get acquainted with you. Let them feel like they know you.
Never play down to your audience. Never play down to them. Never give them the impression that you're better than they are. And another thing. Never turn your back to the audience, stand up straight, don't let your shoulders droop, and let people admire you from the way you walk and the way you talk and it's important that you pronounce your words so everyone can understand you. It's important that your grammar is correct, that you speak correct English or some other language correct. And remember, as I said before, you're an actor playing the part of a magician and be suave and elegant and likable.
Chris: Well, I think that is a lot of great advice and I think the members of the John Calvert Assembly of the Society of Young Magicians back in Boston will very much enjoy this conversation.
Calvert: Well I'm glad to know they named that assembly after me. Thank you!
Chris: Thank you very much for your time and it's been a pleasure to meet you.