Cover Portrait Of Jack Gwynne
From Abbott’s TOPS Magazine, August 1961; by Robert Parrish:
”The best general magic act in the last decades of American vaudeville was that of Jack Gwynne and Company. Other top magic acts of the period who consistently played the big theatres were primarily manipulation artists who or built their acts around a particular theme. Gwynne served up livestock, fish bowls, and illusions in a rapid style that was uniquely his own.
Technically, one of the outstanding characteristics of Gwynne’s act was the perfect coordination between the performer and his assistants. This was what made the rabbit box, the rooster vanish, and the stack of bowls production such masterpieces of deception. This is also one of the things that imitators of the act couldn’t reproduce – and Gwynne has probably had more imitators than Cardini. The misdirection on the stack of bowls was so perfect that the observer had no idea of where the load could even have come from, to say nothing of when the steal was made. I have had laymen tell me that the materialization of these bowls of water in the middle of a night club floor was the most impossible feat of magic he had ever witnessed or expected to.
The transition of the Gwynne act of “big magic” to nightclub conditions was historical. Until the recent advent of Richiardi, no one else has been able to achieve much of a commercial success in this country with a large-scale magic show in the confines of a nightclub floor.
Gwynne played virtually around the world on U.S.O. in World War II, and thereafter set out with his own full-evening show. One day the Gwynne troupe pulled into a south-western suburb of Chicago, saw a house they liked, bought it, ran their truck up behind the nearest Sears store, loaded it with furniture, and that night, for the first time since the middle 20’s (when Jack had decided to leave Pittsburgh and take a chance on vaudeville), the Gwynne family slept in their own home.
Much of Gwynne’s success, of course, has been due to his Royal Family of Magic; Anne and the Gwynne children, Buddy and Peggy, along with the latters’ spouses, Helen Gwynne and Frank Cole, and flocks of grandchildren. Peggy has commented that as soon as a Gwynne child was able to walk, he or she went into the act. You quickly learned that if you failed in your responsibility, father was going to be standing there in a fix in front of perhaps thousands of people, and you didn’t make that mistake again.
This brief sketch on Gwynne and Company has been written in the past tense, but of course there is nothing past about their activities or accomplishments. No sooner had the Royal Family “settled down” than the development of commercial TV presented a new challenge to magical showmanship. Gwynne pioneered in presenting illusions week after week on the long-run SuperCircus show. Jack also became virtually the trademark for Zenith Radio and a frequent performer in TV commercials.
It remained until last year, however, for him to realize the ultimate dream for very magician or aspiring magician. As a feature attraction of one of the big Shrine circus shows, he was presented as a magician really should be, entering astride an elephant and being received on a red carpet by a harem of dancing girls, one of whom he thereupon caused to vanish from the top of the arena.
Jack Gwynne is not only a successful magician, but also a kind and generous man. I learned this when I first met him, over 25 years ago, as a lad in high school, visiting in Detroit, where Gwynne and Co. were playing at a top night spot. When the maitre de barred my entrance to the establishment, I asked for Mr. Gwynne, who promptly appeared. He took me down into the basement amid the mysterious array of illusion boxes and sat me down. I told him about myself and he said, “I’m sorry you are leaving tomorrow. I like to talk magic and I’d like you to meet my son, Buddy. If this weren’t Saturday night, I could find a place for you where you could see the show. However, it happens that I am playing a midnight benefit at the Fox Theatre, and I shall call them up and see if we can get a ticket for you. Just go over and ask at the box office.” I did, and the ticket was there.”
Jack Gwynne (1895-1969) was one of the superstars of American magic, Jack (born Joseph McCloud Gwynne*) was the illusionist who created the Temple of Benares illusion as a variation of Culpitt‘s Doll House illusion. Jack often had to make his own props because the nearest magic dealer was 300 miles from where he lived. He also made props for other magicians, including Houdini and Thurston. He also invented the Flipover Box, Atomic Dove Vanish, Box-Tray and Screen. He appeared at Abbott’s Get Together in 1961, 1962, 1965, and 1969. He is buried at Colon’s Lakeside Cemetery.