Fu Manchu – David Bamberg – last magician of the Bamberg dynasty
David Tobias “Theodore” Bamberg (aka Fu Manchu) (1904-1974) was an itinerant magician that traveled with his full evening magic show from the early to mid part of the 20th century. In Bamberg’s autobiography, Robert Parrish wrote in the introduction that no other great illusionist could match David’s skill. The Fu Manchu show was known for comedy, drama, and a plethora of color.
David was the sixth and final member of the Bamberg Magical Dynasty. They were a Dutch family of conjurers whose magical lineage was passed from each of the first born sons. His father was Tobias “Theo” Leendert Bamberg (Okito), son of David Tobias Bamberg (1843-1914). Okito was a headliner in European variety. He was a skilled mechanic and one of the most artistic magicians.
David Bamberg’s early life
Okito had two sons and one daughter. David was Okito’s elder son. During Okito’s European tour, Lily, his wife, became pregnant. She continued to assist him, hiding her pregnancy through her Chinese robe. While in Russia, Lily feared that she would give birth there. They cancelled their contracts in Russia and returned to England. On February 19, 1904, Lily gave birth to their first son, David. His mother was Lillian Poole, whose father was Charles William Poole, one of the brothers who ran the famous Poole’s Myriorama traveling Diaroma show in England.
He stayed with his grandfather for a year, but was reunited with Okito when Okito fulfilled the postponed contracts in Russia. It was there that David first appeared on the stage in Russia, when a tot of four, as a little Chinese boy being produced from a cloth. It was on their way to Norway that Julius and Agnes Zancig made over the new baby. Agnes predicted accurately that he would follow in her footsteps, although no one else believed it at the time.
After his European contract was through, Okito was approached by American vaudeville agent Martin Beck. Okito signed a six-month contract to play the Orpheum Circuit in the United States. He brought Lily and David to America to fulfill the dates. With the money he made in Europe and America, he decided to quit show business and settle in New York. He opened up a magic shop on the corner of Broadway and 28th Street called Bamberg Magic and Novelty Company with Joe Klein. Okito constructed exclusive magic tricks to magicians such as Harry Kellar, Frederick Eugene Powell, Bernard M.L. Ernst, Samuel Leo Horowitz, and many other leading magicians residing in the United States.
Fu Manchu’s Early years as an illusionist
David did his first trick in public when he was five years old at the Society of American Magicians meeting. He did a card trick asking club president Harry Houdini to assist him. David later said that, “I venture to say that very few magicians ever had such a famous assistant.” David said that he never went through the fireman/cowboy/aviator phase that most children his age went through. He constructed a toy theater and envisioned being the world’s greatest magician doing his big illusion show.
Business the magic shop was bad and ready to close. Harry Kellar convinced Okito to build illusions for the Howard Thurston show, and David traveled with them. In one point in the show, Thurston asked for the assistant of a boy and a girl. This was David’s cue to jump up on stage. Here Thurston did David Devant’s trick, “Eggs From A Hat”.
Howard Thurston taught young David his first card sleight. It was during this tour that Thurston presented David as his future successor. Thurston promised this to many magicians including Harry August Jansen aka Dante. David had no doubt that one day he would be an illusionist with his own show. Through his father’s connections, he met Harry Houdini, Harry Kellar, Horace Goldin, and the other leading magicians of the turn of the 20th century. In 1911, Okito’s daughter, Dorothy, was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan and she was known as the Grand Rapid Baby—Howard Thurston was her godfather. The Bamberg family left the Thurston show shortly afterward and settled in Brooklyn, New York. It was there that David would sneak into his father’s magic den by sliding under a bookcase. While there he soaked up all of the books and magic tricks in what he called, “…this magical paradise”.
Syko the Psychic
In public school, he was known as the white-haired boy because of his travels around the world. In the summer of 1917, 13-year old David became one of The Zancigs. He joined Julius Zancig, the world-famous telepathist and worked in partnership with him after Zancig’s wife, Agnes, died. Zancig and his wife had been the most famous stage mentalists of their age. David Bamberg, as Syko the Psychic, learned their famous code and played the part of the blindfolded medium divining articles from the audience, solving mathematical problems, and ending with an impressive book test. He completed his education in America and went to England to further his studies. This did not pan out. But the kind of studies he did complete was that of a professional magician. He attended performances at the Maskelyne family magic theatre at St. Georges Hall and watched all of the magicians who played there at the time.
Struggles for Fu Manchu
In 1921, he returned to America and appeared in various magical acts. He worked as an assistant to a Professor Seward who was a board walk astrologer in Atlantic City. When the Sawing a Woman in Half illusion craze hit, he found a broken down P.T. Selbit. David Bamberg traveled with one of Selbit’s Divided Woman company in vaudeville. He worked as an extra in Hollywood.
He met Hilda Seagle who joined him in a mind reading act via Zancig; the couple married on November 2, 1923. After working in night clubs during the Prohibition era, David went abroad again to pursue success. He presented his original comedy shadowgraphy act in Vienna, then toured Europe. Theo and David also worked together, where David learned from the Chinese act from the bottom up.
Fu Manchu in South America
David badly wanted to tour with his own show, but his father tried to dissuade him from doing so. He told him to continue with his shadow act and not invite the stress of the big show. With his new wife Hilda, David had to find something steady. He was working as Syko again doing sleight of hand and the shadow act in Bulgaria. It was through Ottokar Fischer in Vienna that David met the Great Raymond. He was asked to be his assistant for his tour through South America. He was asked to bring a mechanic and the Wierner Magic club suggested a German by the name of Edmund Spreer. So the three of them, David, Hilda, and Spreer, left for Bahia, Brazil. When Raymond left South America, David stayed. He tried to work with his shadow act, but to no avail. Then he heard that Harlan Tarbell was offering a course in magic. As David couldn’t afford anything like that, he was sent the lessons free. With those lessons, he built up a nice act and work in around that area.
With the advent of talking pictures, variety suffered. For David, it was either doing a big show or nothing. In 1928, David Bamberg was in Argentina trying to fill dates when Dante brought his show to Buenos Aires. For 120 performances, Dante filled the Casino theater, which impressed a film-distributorship executive named Walter Gaulke. He saw how much money a big illusion could bring in. By chance, he saw David Bamberg hanging around the theater and asked him if he could do such a show as Dante. David agreed and drew up the plans.
With Gaulke’s backing, David toured the world as Fu Manchu. His show was a success from the start. Eventually, his productions became the most extravagant and superb show in the world. He was able to use the Fu Manchu name is places like South and Central America, the West Indies, Spanish Morocco, Portugal, and Spain. But, in March 1937 when he came back to the United States, he had to change his name to avoid a lawsuit. He was billed as Fu Chan when he played the Cervantes theater in New York to a successful run.
Movie career of Fu Manchu
While performing in one of his own productions in Mexico, Fu Manchu was asked to star in three films. When the studio couldn’t come up with a script that satisfied him, he wrote them himself. Eventually, he wrote and starred in three more movies.
Planning on retiring, he was eventually urged to go back to the stage and created a new show called Crazimagicana. It premiered in February 1947 at the Teatro Nacional in Buenos Aires. The performance was a quick moving show using blackouts skits that were similar to vaudeville comedians Olsen and Johnson’s Broadway revue, Hellzapoppin’. Bored with doing the same show every night, David eventually wrote a musical comedy called The Devil’s Daughter. He wove into the script most of his illusions from past shows and reworked them into the plot. He reworked this play, tweaking it here and there, always having trouble with the second act. Then it finally dawned on him how to fix the problem. He started the second act with a few new illusions instead of story and it carried the plot story perfectly.
Last years of Fu Manchu
David Bamberg made and lost many fortunes, always living for the moment and never able to save his money wisely. He did regain much of it by keeping his show running until on March 19, 1966 in Buenos Aires, aged 61, he gave his last full evening show. He retired and opened a magic shop there. In March 1972, David Bamberg was admitted to the hospital for ten days and had to be put on oxygen; he reportedly stopped smoking. In a magic magazine, The New Tops, Argentine magic dealer Vernet wrote that David’s typical day was to walk “at the intersection of Riobamba and Bartolome Mitre streets. There he sat facing north in a position from which he could see his shop and read in English newspaper or magazine while sipping his coffee and milk. Once inside Fu Manchu’s Magic Center, he sat alone at a green-clothed table, leaning on his elbows waiting for someone to come in.” On August 19, 1974, David Bamberg died, aged 70. According to tradition among magical organizations, members of the Argentine Society of Magicians broke a wand at a memorial services for last of the Bamberg dynasty. He had one son, Robert, who did not become a professional magician, ending the Bamberg magical dynasty.
Legacy of Fu Manchu
On February 28, 1965, David Bamberg finished his first draft of his autobiography and sent it to many magician friends. Eventually, the manuscript was divided into two books, Oriental Magic of the Bambergs by Robert Albo, Erick Lewis, and David Bamberg; and Illusion Show by David Bamberg.
A young boy in Cuba named Cesareo Pelaez watched the Fu Manchu and later came to the United States. He formed a magic production in the Bamberg tradition. On February 20, 1977, in Beverley, Massachusetts, Pelaez aka “Marco” presented Le Grand David and his own Spectacular Magic Company for weekend performances. “Marco”, along with Seth the Sensational and David Bull as Le Grand David, presented a spectacular revue in the style of the Fu Manchu show.
Originally published at Wikipedia