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Roy Benson By Starlight – excerpt

Psychopathic Suite for Piano and Triangle

By Todd Karr

           An excerpt from Roy Benson By Starlight by Levent and Todd Karr.

Roy Benson in the 1930s

Roy Benson in the 1930s

On a cold day, January 17, 1914, the man we now know as Roy Benson made his debut in Paris. His mother, dancer Dora Ford, had been on the road touring European music halls with her sister Mabel and living on Rue Buffault in the working-class Belleville district of the French capital during the last days of her pregnancy.

Since her teenage years in the 1890s, Dora had danced onstage in a duo with her younger sister Mabel, and later with his brothers Max and Edwin in their acclaimed song-and-dance quartet, the Four Fords. But since 1905 she had been in love with Eddie Emerson, a comedic juggler and magician who romanced the popular dancer with occasional trysts and frequent letters, phone calls, and telegrams. Now they were in Europe together welcoming their new son.

Eddie Emerson

Edward William McQuaid was born around 1883 and began using the stage name of Eddie Emerson as early as 1903. He was about thirty when he married Dora Ford on March 31, 1913 in a rushed ceremony in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, squeezed between Emerson’s multiple performances at the Le Roy Orpheum. A local newspaper reported the next day:

The marriage was to have been pulled off on the quiet, but the artist who can handle a dozen things at once on the stage had to call on Ed Keane, proprietor of the Le Roy, for assistance and it leaked out.

At 4:55 Miss Ford, in company with her mother, arrived here from Pittsburgh. The office of the prothonotory at Hollidaysburg closes at five o’clock, but here the assistance of Mr. Keane was valuable. He hustled to Hollidaysburg and had the license filled out before the couple arrived there.

Mamma Ford raised strenuous objections to such a hurried arrangement, but the near-groom, whose face still showed some of the black cork used in the Orpheum act, unceremoniously hustled her and her charming daughter into the taxicab, and after a fifteen-minute run, they arrived at Hollidaysburg, had the license, and were on their way to the home of the Reverend Boggs, the “marrying parson” of Hollidaysburg.

Without any frills, they were joined in wedlock and returned to the Le Roy, where a wedding dinner was served. After dinner, Mamma Ford, seeing that her presence wasn’t of monumental importance, returned to Pittsburgh, the groom went to the theater to do his stunts, and his bride of an hour perched herself on a trunk back of the stage and beamed at her “hubby.”

If truth must be told, Emerson, whose real name is Eddie McQuaid, was a mighty poor juggler last evening, but the management excused his fumbling when he declared that he would have his nerve back in time for the shows today.

Roy Benson as a baby with his parents, Dora Ford and Eddie Emerson

Roy Benson as a baby with his parents, Dora Ford and Eddie Emerson

Slightly more than nine months later, Dora gave birth to their son. His lengthy name was recorded a few days later at the Courbevoie city hall: Edward Ford Emerson McQuaid.

The family paused for a photo in Birmingham, England with baby Edward in his father’s arms before returning to America around July and more tour dates. The infant was often left in the care of Dora’s mother in the Bensonhurst area of Brooklyn when the dancer was performing around the country.

The marriage of Dora and Eddie Emerson must have been difficult with both parents on the road. Until the end of her life, Dora preserved a 1918 telegram from Emerson: “Darling Dora…glad to forget our quarrel and start again. Am working in Brooklyn and also feeling lots better now. Glad baby is well. Lovingly, Eddie.”

As early as 1907, Emerson had been touring vaudeville houses with partner Jerry Baldwin in an act of burlesque magic and juggling, a partnership that lasted over 25 years. In The Sphinx in 1919, Dorny called them “one of the finest non-exposé comedy magic acts.”

Their humorous slogans included “Emerson and Baldwin: Vaudeville with a Vengeance,” “Interestingly Idiotic,” “Grotesque Dexterity,” and “Baron Emerson and Count Baldwin: The No-Ability of Vaudeville,” but the self-deprecating billings were deceiving. They came onstage like comedians and played for broad laughs but also presented skillful magic and club juggling. Years later, Roy would brilliantly mirror this tactic, opening with gags and ending up a master magician in the eyes of his audience.

In a review of a 1912 run at the Tivoli Theatre in Melbourne, Australia, Charles Waller reports in Magical Nights at the Theatre (1977): “Into their act of excellent juggling, they introduced several conjuring tricks. A plate shattered in consequence of a juggling disaster, was crammed into a blunderbuss, and fired into the heart of a picture frame; there, it appeared intact. They also showed the running comedy effect known at that time as the Australian Wonder Plant. A large plant of the sunflower variety grew with each successive watering until finally it reached proportions of Jack’s fabled beanstalk.”

Eddie Emerson and Jerry Baldwin

Eddie Emerson and Jerry Baldwin

A 1915 review mentioned that Emerson performed in blackface (although this tactic was eventually dropped) and took slapstick blows to his head. Their skill and humor took them far, and in 1920, they played the big-time Palace (as Roy Benson also did years later). Felsman’s Magical Review called the act “screamingly funny.”

Emerson’s partner, Jerry Baldwin, was apparently an ace manipulator, and in one sequence performed card effects. As Billboard noted in 1925, “Baldwin’s work with the pasteboards attracted many of the local magis to the theater.” A Sphinx review said, “Jerry is one clever boy with the pasteboards. One time, when the baggage failed to arrive, in place of their regular number he presented a fifteen-minute card act….” Baldwin must have made at least a small impression on young Edward McQuaid, soon to be Roy Benson.


Eddie Emerson in costume

Eddie Emerson in costume

The challenging show-business marriage between Dora and Eddie did not last and the couple was divorced. By 1921, Dora remarried; her new husband, Gustav Schirmer, was the wealthy head of G. Schirmer, the sheet-music publishing giant. This marriage was also short-lived, lasting until 1929. Dora received a hefty $150,000 settlement from Schirmer, who later good-naturedly wrote to his ex-wife: “It was indeed an expensive marriage.”
Emerson remarried around 1927 and continued touring with Baldwin. In 1932, he appeared with his second wife as “Baron and Baroness Emerson” but also continued performing with his longtime partner Baldwin as late as 1935.

As movies gained prominence, Emerson played smaller and smaller venues. In 1933, he was living at the Continental Hotel in Los Angeles, a favorite of show-business acts, and recalled to the Los Angeles Times how vaudeville performers initially disdained movies, which soon swept many of them out of their careers. He recounted visiting his friend Harry Cohn in his little bungalow and mocking his early movie productions. Cohn was soon the mogul at the head of Columbia Pictures and Emerson was working small-time clubs.
Emerson died in Hollywood in 1969, with no notice in Variety or any major newspaper. The show-business world seemed to have forgotten this clever performer, who had given the world one of its greatest magicians. His former wife Dora died in 1978 at age 92.

The Young Magician

Little Edward Ford Emerson McQuaid, the future Roy Benson, grew up surrounded by show business. Decades later, when he created magic effects for the musical Carnival!, the program noted: “For generations on both sides, all the members of Roy Benson’s family have been of the theater: actors, comedians, dancers, and, if you go back far enough, a proprietor of a circus. He is the first member of the family to become a magician and he doesn’t know why except that magic has always been fascinating to him.”

Among the audiotapes of Benson we found during our research, we were lucky enough to uncover one in which Benson describes the beginnings of his magic career in the early 1920s:

Roy Benson as a young man at military school

Roy Benson as a young man at military school

My interest in magic was first aroused during my early grammar-school days. I would put myself at approximately the age of seven. I was given a box of tricks, which utterly fascinated me, and I remember it as well as if I had just received it yesterday.

My interests were further increased by watching a magician perform in the local public school, and at the time the magician performed, to me at least, he seemed to be all things to all men. As soon as I saw these tricks, it was more than an aroused interest; it became an almost total obsession.

There were times when I thought of nothing but tricks. I visited magic shops, pored over magic catalogs, read a few books on the subject, and by the age of ten I had acquired a number of tricks, some of which were of professional quality, and was actually performing tricks for fellow students in grade school at the age of ten.

During those early years, I would perform magic without much persuasion. I would perform before the Boy Scouts, the Fourth of July celebration, usually at no fee, but whenever there was the least possibility of performing magic.

Around 1924, at age ten, young Edward added a set of one-inch billiard balls to his horde of effects. Fascinated, he practiced constantly with the tiny props until a disapproving schoolteacher confiscated them. “I managed to palm the ball and shell, but she got away with the remaining two,” Benson recalled years later, adding with cutting wit: “It was probably the first time in her life that she had ever been that close to two such objects. She refused to give them back to me, which was further proof of my Freudian suspicions, so I decided to buy a new set.”

The youngster visited Bob Sherman’s magic shop in New York’s Grand Central Station. He recounted his story to Sherman, who sold Benson his first proper set of 1 ¾-inch billiard balls at the bargain price of 75 cents. Sherman instructed Benson in a few moves, which the boy diligently rehearsed, even at the cinema.

Soon afterward, Benson witnessed his first real billiard game when his uncle took him to a pool room. Struck by the impressive look of the balls, Benson decided to move up to two-inch billiard balls, forcing him to alter his sleights and in the process finding more effective moves.

By this time, Edward’s parents had divorced and Dora had remarried. Edward was sent to military school, but his passion for magic nonetheless grew and led to his first real stage performance in the annual show of the Garden Players, a local theatrical group in Forest Hills, New York. As he later recalled in one of his tapes:

It was the first time I appeared before a really large audience with a real spotlight on me. I worked in one and did the same act, slightly improved, from my grammar-school days. I would exactly describe it as a completely rotten act, but I think it would be best to describe it as a reasonably mediocre performance.

I had, however, one saving grace — my youth — and audiences will forgive youth for such indiscretions, which only goes to prove one thing: If you get a bunch of tricks and learn how to do them, and follow a patter book and use (jokes) line-for-line right out of the book, you, too, can enjoy that complacent state of mediocrity which I enjoyed for many a year to come.
Of course, the big show was once a year, but I didn’t have to wait a year because they would frequently allow me to perform at the monthly meetings. During this period, I emulated the greats, the near-greats, and the not-so-greats.

Benson's teacher, the great Nate Leipzig

Benson’s teacher, the great Nate Leipzig

Nate Leipzig and Eddie Emerson had performed on the same bill in 1918 and remained friends. When Benson was 14 in 1925, his father went to see Leipzig’s opening show in Los Angeles, accompanied by his partner Jerry Baldwin, magician Werner “Dorny” Dornfield, and vaudevillian Joe Keaton, film star Buster’s father. When Leipzig called for a committee of volunteers, the quartet of entertainers arose and strode onstage.
A few years later, Emerson’s son became one of the few lucky pupils of the gentlemanly sleight-of-hand master.

As Roy Benson recalled:

Because of the fact that I came from a theatrical family, I got the break of a lifetime. Through them, I met the great Nate Leipzig. The first time I met him was at Beechhurst, Long Island. At the time, I was about seventeen…during that period I would see Nate as often as three or four times a week, and frequently we would spend the weekend together.

As one newspaper reported a few years later, “Leipzig suggested certain tricks and Benson perfected them.”

Roy Benson Begins

By 1932, eighteen-year-old Edward McQuaid had decided he needed a catchier billing and had begun performing under the stage name Roy Benson. Although he never recorded the origins of his assumed name, Benson may have been influenced by a pianist for the Ford show named Roy Barton, and Charles Reynolds has told us that “Benson” came from the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn where the former Edward McQuaid grew up.

A teenage Roy Benson in an early publicity photo

A teenage Roy Benson in an early publicity photo

The newly dubbed Roy Benson started working his way up the show business ladder. In an audiotape, he later remembered:

I continued my early career by playing what might best be considered the middle ground of the entertainment world. By that I mean small nightclubs where the fees are usually low, and small theaters where the format of the bill consisted of a feature picture and about five acts of vaudeville.

Benson was slowly developing his style. His teacher Nate Leipzig had inspired him to learn flawless sleight-of-hand, and he began combining his manipulative effects with his collection of apparatus magic — including the Chinese Sticks and the Vanishing Birdcage — into a commercial act.

But he had also learned the value of comedy from his father, Eddie Emerson. As he developed his persona, Benson gradually found that his sly sense of humor had great charm onstage.

The wry, urbane delivery of comedian Frank Fay had a major influence on his style, too. Fay had inspired another of Leipzig’s students, Fred Keating, who since 1929 had been making a name around New York by combining magic — such as his featured effect, De Kolta’s Vanishing Birdcage — with his version of Frank Fay’s slightly sarcastic style. Like many New York magicians, Benson was inspired by Keating’s persona and created his own form of the quick-witted-yet-elegant approach.

The mix of skill, magic, and comedy became Benson’s angle and set him apart from his colleagues. As Sphinx editor John Mulholland concisely described it later, Benson had “discovered his real forte in the art, which is the presentation of adept manipulation to the accompaniment of clever, very humorous patter.”

Fred Keating, pioneer comedy magician and film actor

Fred Keating, pioneer comedy magician and film actor

In September 1932, Benson was featured in his first large-scale show, a showcase for young performers called Belmont Varieties at the Belmont Theatre in New York City. Despite his polish, however, reviewers quickly pointed out how much Benson’s witty style reminded them of Fred Keating, especially since Benson was performing the Vanishing Birdcage in his act. On September 29, 1932, the New York Times gave Benson a less-than-flattering review: “A magician by the name of Roy Benson unabashedly borrows not only Fred Keating’s tricks but also Mr. Keating’s patter. He does the tricks well enough, but his attempts at bland comedy are, to put it mildly, terrible.”

In The Sphinx, Bernard Ernst agreed when he mentioned “…a young performer, Ray (sic) Benson by name, who unfortu-nately used many of Fred Keating’s effects and some of his patter.”

But Roy Benson worked hard on his act and a few weeks later, featured in Manhattan Varieties at the Cosmopolitan Theatre, the New York Times gave him a begrudgingly higher grade: “The young magician by the name of Roy Benson again imitates Fred Keating, and this time gets away with it a shade better.”

In the summer of the next year, in July 1933, Benson traveled to London and performed at the Leicester Square Theatre in a show called  Dark Doings, a mostly black revue now remembered for introducing the classic Harold Arlen song “Stormy Weather.” The British press gave Benson a positive review: “Roy Benson, hailing from America, scored with nonchalant conjuring and neat billiard-ball manipulation.”

After one show, the great English magician Arnold De Biere came backstage and complimented Benson’s ball routine. Benson later said in one of his tapes, “It was an honor that I shall always cherish. It felt like a burst of applause, coming from a master manipulator whose skill, especially with the billiards, was famous all over the world.”

A 1930s portrait of Roy Benson

A 1930s portrait of Roy Benson

With such encouragement, the thin, young magician steadily grew more polished. Over the next few years, he worked around New York and neighboring states in nightclubs as both a magician and emcee, evidence of his blossoming stage presence. By February 1935, Frank Lane wrote in The Linking Ring:“This Roy Benson, who everyone is talking about, is a clever talker and does an interesting act.”

In May that year, he played the Cocoanut Grove Roof Garden at New York’s Park Central Hotel as both performer and master of ceremonies and earned a pleasant mention in the New York Times as “a personable young magician known as Roy Benson.”

But after a few years, his career was not advancing beyond these club engagements. As Max Holden later recalled in The Linking Ring, Benson “was around in New York City doing well with his magic and emcee and always wanted to play one of the top spots, but somehow he just could not make them.”

Benson in the Movies

Roy Benson’s creativity had expanded into other disciplines. He played piano, studied acting, and became fascinated with photography, taking artistically stylish still lifes and portraits. After purchasing a basic movie camera, he began to explore the world of cinematography.

In 1935, Benson’s mother, Dora Ford, was visiting Hollywood and suggested that Roy might find work there as a cameraman. When Benson arrived in California, he applied for a job behind the camera but also shot a screen test as an extra for an advertising film.

The movie world ignored Benson. He managed to perform his magic act at the Ambassador Hotel, but after two months of waiting for any kind of film-related job, he returned to New York for a nightclub engagement at the Riviera.
Two weeks later, his mother gleefully came to the theater with a telegram from Hollywood. As Max Holden reported the story in The Linking Ring:

The test that he made was really for an advertising picture, but it just happened that when the test was being shown, a picture scout was there and he immediately saw (such) possibilities in the appearance of Roy Benson that he bought out the rights from the advertising picture to put him as a feature player in moving pictures, and no doubt Roy won’t want a job as a cameraman after all.

Several years prior, Fred Keating had begun his own Hollywood career, co-starring in several minor movies. His sarcasm made him perfect for humorous roles, and he often performed magic as an added touch. Columbia Studios apparently saw equal potential in Roy Benson.

Benson and Lanny Ross in "The Lady Objects"

Benson and Lanny Ross in “The Lady Objects”

Benson’s first movie role was the comic-relief wise guy in The Lady Objects, a dramatic musical produced by Columbia, eventually released in 1938, starring Gloria Stuart in the then-novel role of a female attorney.

As George Martin, a bandleader and amateur magician, Benson was charming and believable in moments of both drama and comedy. His film career appeared to be off to a promising debut.

The role also gave Benson the chance to perform some of his magic onscreen. His two magic sequences are humorous and a good contrast to the film’s music and dramatic plot. In one scene in a nightclub, he takes a break from conducting the band to perform the Chinese Sticks, allowing us to see the original two-stick version of his routine. In another scene, he performs a few billiard-ball manipulations, including his ball roll, as well as his complete Hugard Newspaper Tear, the only record of his routine for this effect.

While he awaited the film’s eventual release in 1938, Benson kept busy with nightclub and revue shows, notably a brief stay on Broadway at the Vanderbilt Theatre in New Faces of 1936, starring comedienne Imogene Coca.

His press reviews kept getting stronger. A Los Angeles Times article in 1938 reported: “Laughing at himself all through his magic stunts, Roy Benson has a slick line of talk as well as of sleight-of-hand. His tricks aren’t new, but his humor is, and his manipulation of props is especially smooth.”

Benson’s movie career did not advance. In fact, it would be six years until he was again seen on screen. His increasing dependence on alcohol may have been a factor, and his failure to succeed in the film industry undoubtedly worsened the situation.

Whatever the case, he continued performing in nightclubs around the country. In 1939, he emceed for Benny Goodman’s appearance at the Victor Hugo in Los Angeles.

As World War II neared its end, Benson went on tour in 1944 to promote the opening of the film Wilson with other movie actors, including Carmen Miranda and Roddy McDowell. But he remained in the shadows until 1944, when he had a secondary role, again as smart-aleck comic relief, in Sweet and Low-Down, produced by Fox. In this vehicle for popular bandleader Benny Goodman, Benson plays saxophonist Skeets McCormick. Benson mimes playing the sax perfectly and has a number of funny lines. At one point, the female lead rolls her eyes after a Benson wisecrack and sighs, “Oh, you and that off-beat comedy!”
On the heels of this performance, the magic press announced that Benson was filming an M-G-M musical, Diamond Horseshoe. It looked like his luck had changed. But when the film was released in 1945, Benson’s role turned out to be a single scene at the end of the movie, and he wasn’t even billed in the credits.

At the climax of Diamond Horseshoe, Benson’s character is backstage when he is recruited to pretend to be gravely ill in a ploy to save the show. After the ruse succeeds, he reveals that his supposed rescuers have stretched him out on a pile of tacks, which protrude painfully from his posterior. The scene was an undistinguished end to a promising career.

Master of the Stage

Roy Benson, master of the billiards

Roy Benson, master of the billiards

Roy Benson nonetheless continued to rise in the world of live stage shows. He performed in bigger and classier venues around the country, including the Latin Quarter in New York, the Empire Room in Chicago, the Casino Nationale in Havana, and the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco. These nightclub years brought Benson experience and many adventures. Benson’s friend Bruce Elliott recalled two outstanding incidents:

Roy was working in a gambling hall out west for two or three weeks and in due course of time became friendly with the light operator. Said operator took Roy upstairs to see his lights. Roy saw the spotlight, which was, as is usual, mounted on a universal joint. The only unusual thing was that directly below the spot was a chopper — machine gun, that is. When Roy quaveringly asked how come, the light man proudly pointed out the advantage if a gunman was to hold up the joint. All that would be needful would be to center said bad boy in the spotlight — and pull the trigger.

Roy went back downstairs and for the remainder of his stay did his billiard-ball roll knowing that he was in the sights of a machine gun

Or the time Roy was working in Havana and a drummer in a rumba band became intrigued with the American magician, became so intrigued that he began to give drum rolls whenever Roy made a ball appear or vanish.
This, of course, is a kind of corn that went out with George M. Cohan and the flag-waving finale, so Roy asked through an interpreter if the drummer would mind not doing it. Somehow it got garbled in the translation. The drummer continued to make with the sound effects as Roy did his vanishes and reproductions. Roy finally gave in to the inevitable and figured there was no way to stop all this.

Then it got worse. The drummer, being behind Roy, began to get hip to where Roy was making the steals from — so the drum roll would sound off at just the point where Roy wanted no suspicion aroused.
Very salutary, Roy says it was. Says he doped out more new ball sleights on that engagement — trying to fool the drummer so as to avoid the giveaway drum roll — than on any other occasion.

Benson was rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the greats in the art and an intimate of experts like Cardini and Vernon. Ted Annemann, an enthusiastic fan, wrote in aJinx review of one 1941 show:

Streamlined, ultra-sophisticated comedy magic. If you are a straight-faced, old-hat hocus-pocus man, don’t — if you value your life — ever follow Roy on. You’ll get laughs in all the wrong places. His incisive burlesque neatly extracts the excelsior from all the stuffed-shirt magicians you ever saw and leaves them as limp as so many discarded egg bags. He leaves his audience limp, too — with laughter. Benson works on the radical assumption that present-day audiences are halfway intelligent. Some of you boys had better pick up the cue, because it begins to look as if maybe he’s right! This audience didn’t want to let him go at all.

Roy Benson and the Chinese Sticks

Roy Benson and the Chinese Sticks

After a 1942 dinner in honor of Orson Welles at the Hotel Henry Hudson in New York, Stuart Robson wrote in The Linking Ring that “Roy Benson, emcee, presented the most beautiful routine with balls this reviewer had ever seen.”

The nightclub owners and their customers appreciated his work, too. As Mike Kanter reported in The Linking Ring in 1942, “Roy Benson has become a ‘habit’ at the Walton Roof, continuing his run into many weeks and still going strong with added duties as emcee besides his own magical presentations. He is constantly adding new items and keeps the patrons coming back for more.”

In 1943, when he was held over at the Troika in Washington D.C., the Washington Post reported: “It’s a pleasure to be baffled when the baffling’s done by such an ingratiating young scamp as Roy Benson, magico at the Troika. His tricks are swell…but his chatter is a panic.”

In his spare time, Benson continued taking photos and playing piano. In a few intriguing 1946 news items, Benson was reported to be collaborating with screenwriter-director Rodney Amateau on a musical revue to be produced at the Blis-Hayden Theatre in Los Angeles, though we have found no trace of it having been completed or produced.

Hugard’s stated:

Most of us think of Benson as a magician, yet a top-ranking Coast musician listened to musical works composed by Benson and urged him to hide away and finish the works in progress, claiming that Benson’s work is reminiscent of Debussy. Benson, in Hollywood until recently, has sold a musical to Fox Experimental Theatre.

Bruce Elliott also noted: “Must say we agree with a paragraph of Fred Braue’s a while ago about Roy’s piano and composing ability. Quite a kid at the 88 is Roy. We particularly like his ‘Psychopathic Suite for Piano and Triangle.’”

Repeat Engagements

As Benson played longer engagements and enjoyed repeat bookings, he expanded his repertoire, trying out many new effects as encores and second-string features. By the late 1940s, he felt he had enough material to begin writing a book, as Bruce Elliott and Milbourne Christopher reported in the magic magazines.

Christopher also published a brief sketch of Benson in The Linking Ring in 1946:

His all-time favorite magician: Nate Leipzig.
His most embarrassing moment (I quote): “Watching Dante doing the billiard balls.”
His present magical idol: Dai Vernon.
His ambition: “I’d like to live in Flosso’s shop. Don’t believe there’d be room for me, though.”

In 1948, Bruce Elliott announced that The Phoenix would soon feature a new Benson routine, one that would eventually become one of his most popular effects: the Benson Bowl Routine: “…a cup-and-ball routine using only one cup. What’s more, it uses a little dream of a sponge-ball sleight that you’ll use for more than this routine. Wait and see.”

His reputation as a knowledgeable magician was growing, and in New York in 1948, Benson gave what was perhaps his first lecture. As Hugard’s reported, Benson “pointed up the foolishness of calling work with 1 ½-inch billiard balls ‘work’; advocated the use of two-inch balls. Deplored, too, hand-washing manipulations. A fine talk, they say.”

Magicians began to consider Benson a top humorist as well, and consistently called on him to emcee their club events. Magic magazines regularly reported his anecdotes, such as this one from The Phoenix: “Roy overheard two magis standing next to the Strand talking and one said, ‘How long have you been laying off?’ The other wand-wielder replied, ‘Three years and four months. If this keeps up, I’m going to have to get out of show business.’”

In December 1948, Benson married an exotic female dove performer, Lola Wilson. She had previously been wed to magician Leon Mandrake, who dubbed her “Narda” to mirror the heroine of his comic book inspiration, Mandrake the Magician.
The marriage was short-lived. Benson found a letter from his wife’s lover and divorce was granted in 1952. The official story released to the newspapers was that she paid more attention to her doves than her husband. An article entitled “Dove-Dancer Wife Cooed Only for Birds, Mate Says” in the Los Angeles Times reported:

Comedian Roy Benson was granted an annulment from his dove-dancer wife Lola Wilson Wednesday after he told a Supreme Court referee that his wife’s billing and cooing was strictly for the birds. He said Lola uses twelve doves in her dance act, all male and all named after an ex-husband or ex-boyfriend. He said she spent their wedding night “billing and cooing with the birds.”
“You have a point that dovetails with the court’s,” the referee said in granting the annulment.

A New Phase

The next year, Benson’s career seemed back on track. In August 1949, he made his first appearance on Ed Sullivan’s important television variety show “Toast of the Town,” performing his comic vanishing-flower gag, the Chinese Sticks, and his six billiard-ball routine.

In September, he finally played the most prestigious vaudeville engagement of all, the RKO Palace in New York City, and his success there led to many repeat engagements. The reviews were uniformly strong.

The Billboard critic, for example, wrote: “Roy Benson got the show into high gear. His magic tricks, mostly standard, including his billiard ball and salt bits, were handled as smoothly as ever. But it was his mad chatter and throwaway effects that really sold him. He got yocks time and again, finishing way ahead.”

In 1951, Benson began formulating plans for a magic school, as various magic magazines reported. He apparently wanted to set up his courses in a studio at Carnegie Hall, where his uncle Max Ford ran a prominent dance school.
Although Benson did not create a formal magic academy, he did give private lessons. Among his lucky students was Ricky Jay, to whom he taught his billiard-ball routine.


The beautiful and flexible Connye Benson

The beautiful and flexible Connye Benson

In 1952, just prior to his final divorce decree from Lola, Benson began dating contortionist Connye Shearer.

Born Constance Ruth Scherrer in 1929, Connye studied dance as a teenager in Pennsylvania. When she saw a contortionist at a local nightclub, she realized that she had the flexible joints required, so she taught herself contortion stunts and developed a nightclub act featuring acrobatics and her twisting poses.

Connye moved to New York City on her own and struggled to make a living. To make ends meet, she took a job assisting magician Bill Neff, worked at trade shows, and assisted a juggling act while wearing roller skates. For six memorable weeks one year, she worked with a traveling carnival; she wrote a long letter about her experience there, which magician and author William Lindsay Gresham published in his book Monster Midway, concealing Connye’s identity.

Connye eventually perfected a nightclub routine in which she dressed as a French maid and performed contortions on her serving cart. She used her toes to pour herself a cup of coffee, add sugar, and stir the beverage, then picked up the cup between her feet and sipped cheerfully.

She was also a talented illustrator and an excellent photographer. In short, Connye was the perfect counterpart for Roy. He was fifteen years her elder, but they fell in love and after a long courtship finally married on July 26, 1955.

Throughout the 1950s, Benson continued to deliver strong performances at the Palace. Billboard reviewer Bob Francis wrote:

An outstanding contribution is made by Roy Benson, whose legerdemain equals his salesmanship of it. Benson attempts nothing particularly showy, but what he does do is so excellently integrated with comic timing that it makes the slickness of his sleight-of-hand the more of a stand-out. This pew-sitter has never seen the multiplying pool-ball routine more effectively projected.

Later that year, the Billboard critic enthused:

The best news about the current bill is the return of Roy Benson to repeat the solid customer click that he made last summer. Even if Benson wasn’t the helluva good magician that he obviously is, he would still be a good comic. The combination of the two is irresistible. Why he has been spotted in fourth place in a generally weak line-up is something to wonder at. Next-to-closing would seem his logical billing in this week’s show.

His Palace success led to other bookings at top nightspots: the Paradise Room in Atlanta, the Normandie Room in Montreal, and the Olympia Theatre in Miami. Benson played the Flamingo in Las Vegas in 1952.

Roy Benson during the Psychiatrist Routine

Roy Benson during the Psychiatrist Routine

In 1953, Benson began performing a groundbreaking routine in which he stretched out on the stage and talked to the audience as if it was his therapist. This psychiatrist segment was not only daring and funny, it was strikingly cerebral, far ahead of its time in an era in which comedy was still mainly jokes and sight gags.

This progressive routine only enhanced Benson’s act, and the Palace continued to rehire him. In 1954, Billboard again lauded Benson: “Nobody in the business, in this reporter’s opinion, can top Benson’s artistry in manipulating the cue balls, and he has sharpened his patter to draw spontaneous customer chuckles.”

What audiences didn’t know was that Benson had indeed been seeing a psychiatrist. His alcoholism had spiraled horribly, but through treatment, he had managed to get his drinking under control. In its place, however, he became a regular user of sleeping pills for most of the decade. He fell off the wagon for a few years as well before finally getting sober in the early 1960s through Alcoholics Anonymous and staying alcohol-free for the rest of his life.

A sad incident occurred at a magic meeting at the Art Director’s Club in New York in February 1954. Dr. Jacob Daley finished performing one of his expert card feats and sat down in the audience. As Roy Benson began performing his act, Daley slumped over, dead of a heart attack.

In Benson’s stage career, the rave reviews continued. From Billboard, July 1954:

Also repeating — and he must have been practicing assiduously, since he is better than ever — is magician Roy Benson, maestro of the sticks and tassels and best in the business at billiard-ball manipulation. Benson has developed a great sleight act. Comedy projection continues to improve and salt shaker wind-up is sock as always.

In August, Benson again appeared on Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town.” He was also a guest on many other television shows around this time, including the popular “Garry Moore Show,” Paul Tripp’s “It’s Magic,” and Esther Williams’ “Saturday Spectacular” special.

One of Benson’s close friends in New York during this period was Jay Marshall, another Palace performer. One day they visited Cardini, which must have been a fascinating afternoon among three such great magicians (and with two such great ball manipulators present).

Marshall had recently begun publishing The New Phoenix. Benson’s astonishing coin vanish, Banished, was in fact the very first effect in the premier issue. Benson was named “Editor Demeritus,” and when Marshall briefly left for England in 1955, he left Benson and his new wife Connye in charge of the next two issues.

The couple filled these two editions with Connye’s carefully drawn explanatory illustrations and historically accurate Egyptian hieroglyphics and Native American designs. Benson explained the Leipzig Drop, a deck switch, and other gems from his repertoire.

One fiasco during this productive period was an October 1955 booking as a comedy act during the “South Sea Isle” number of Tropicana at Radio City Music Hall, a predictably poor fit. As Hugard’s Magic Monthly reported, “The producer decked him out in an outlandish costume to fit the fiesta scenery. Opening day, the producer saw the extravaganza before an audience and Roy vanished from the bill.”

Vaudeville was on its last legs, overshadowed by movies and then television. Nightclubs were the new venue of choice for live entertainment, and in November, Benson began performing at the very top, the chic Blue Angel.

Variety approved in one Blue Angel review: “Program is opened by Roy Benson, who minimizes the prestidigital facets of his turn in order to lay on some highly rewarding banter. Deft in his timing and smart in use of his comic lines.”

Benson also began diversifying and performing cruise-ship dates to Nassau and South America. Connye accompanied him and probably performed her own act as well.

As the 1950s ended, Victor Sendax asked a mysterious question in The Linking Ring: “What’s all this about Roy Benson and his missus currently building a huge monster for a movie studio?”

Benson in the New World

The 1960s brought Roy Benson into several new domains that took advantage of his multifaceted creativity.

Benson’s cousin Jack Curtis, a film editor and voice-over artist, had decided to try his hand at producing a movie and began work on a low-budget horror film called The Flesh Eaters. He recruited Roy to be director of photography, but Benson soon decided to decline the position and instead help his cousin with special effects.

Roy’s main task on The Flesh Eaters turned out to be a gigantic tentacled sea monster, which he constructed himself, crowning it with a huge eye that looked like a giant white billiard ball. When he had completed construction, Benson loaded the sizable prop into a pickup truck and drove it to the seaside shoot location.

On the way, Benson stopped at a diner for lunch and parked the truck while he was inside eating. When he emerged, a startled crowd had gathered around the back of the truck, thinking a fisherman had caught some horrible sea creature.

The Flesh Eaters starred Martin Kosleck, a German actor known for his roles as Nazi villains. The film finally reached theatres in 1964 and has become a B-movie cult classic. The end credits include “Roy Benson: Special Effects.”

Benson’s magic also went in a new direction as the decade opened. In March, he and Connye debuted a strikingly original routine, later referred to as their Siamese Act, that combined their talents into an amazing new combination of contortions, artistic magic, masks, Asian costumes, and dance, which they presented for the first time at the Brooklyn Academy of Music at the S.A.M.’s annual show on March 18, 1960, billed as “Connye and Roye.”

Connye and Roy Benson in their Siamese Act

Connye and Roy Benson in their Siamese Act

The magic critics recognized how truly innovative this act was. In The Linking Ring, Victor Sendax described their routine:

…Roy, this time assisted by his wife, Connye, presented a startlingly original act to the accompaniment of a taped musical background, utilizing very effectively diverse themes from the scores of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid Ballet, to mention a few of the musical elements.

Appearing as some mystic Oriental species, the pair utilized magical props and tricks as parts of a weird sort of ritual, through which Connye moved serpent-like, performing all manner of strange bodily gyrations and contortions. Here was a creative and challenging act effectively demonstrating magic does not have to be cut-and-dried and hackneyed in its viewpoint. Bravo!

Aside from another performance of the Siamese Act at the combined I.B.M.-S.A.M. convention that summer, however, the act was perhaps too far ahead of its time to be commercial, and Benson and Connye returned to their regular acts. Roy appeared regularly at top nightclubs like the Blue Angel, performing with well-known comedians like Woody Allen and the Smothers Brothers.

Benson also landed a challenging job as “designer and supervisor of magic and illusion” for the musical Carnival! which ran on Broadway from 1961 to 1963, winning two Tony awards. The simple-to-perform magic sequences Benson created for the character Marco the Magnificent included a cigarette vanish and reproduction, a single card production using a backpalm, Match to Flower, Silk to Cane, and a Sword Cabinet routine in which the magician and his assistant sang a duet. When Marco presented his act, he brought three audience members onstage and produced a bowl of goldfish from one lady’s hat, performed a shirt-pull, and produced pastry and sausages from another lady’s purse (along the way, he also magically removed the panties of the actress playing his assistant!). Benson later noted that, like many actors, James Mitchell — who portrayed Marco in the original production — easily mastered the basics of effectively performing magic.

In his autobiography Illusion Show, the great David Bamberg (Fu Manchu) reported that in the 1960s he had been engaged to create magic for a Buenos Aires production of Carnival! but found that Benson “had done such an excellent job and made such a wide selection of tricks that there was nothing for me to do except follow his routine.”

In 1967, Benson appeared on several television shows: a Garry Moore magic special; “The Today Show”; a special called “Monday Morning Magic”; and the new “Mike Douglas” talk show. But Benson was starting to slow down, mainly due to his compulsion for cigarettes.

His good friend Charles Reynolds was head of the photography department at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and hired Benson to teach a basic photo class. To supplement their income, Roy and Connye both became photographers for GAF, taking photos for slides used in the company’s Pana-Vue projector. Roy also photographed subjects for GAF’s Viewmaster three-dimensional viewer, such as scenes from the television vampire soap-opera Dark Shadows.

Although he performed an occasional show in the early 1970s, Benson’s heavy smoking had caught up with him. There is a tape of anti-smoking advice from Leon Mandrake among his personal audiotapes, and in his papers is a 1966 news article on emphysema entitled “The Battle to Breathe,” but nothing had seemed to help him quit. Now it was too late. Benson was so weak that he was housebound for almost three years. Connye was forced to find other work to support them. Her unusually petite feet allowed her to become a foot model. To make ends meet, she also took a job with an encyclopedia company.

In late 1977, Benson’s condition worsened and he was hospitalized. Six weeks later, on December 6, 1977, Roy Benson died of emphysema at age 63.

In 1985, Connye shifted careers again, completed a paralegal course, and began work as an estates and trust paralegal at a law firm. In her spare time, she helped abused and abandoned animals. On March 28, 1996, Connye Benson died at the age of 66.


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