Articles

The magic world of Johnny Giordmaine

He began by hawking iron sandwiches and trick telescopes. Now he’s king of Canadian magicians, who can bamboozle with belly laughs at the drop of his rabbit-filled hat

McKENZIE PORTER July 6 1957
Articles

The magic world of Johnny Giordmaine

He began by hawking iron sandwiches and trick telescopes. Now he’s king of Canadian magicians, who can bamboozle with belly laughs at the drop of his rabbit-filled hat

McKENZIE PORTER July 6 1957

The magic world of Johnny Giordmaine

He began by hawking iron sandwiches and trick telescopes. Now he’s king of Canadian magicians, who can bamboozle with belly laughs at the drop of his rabbit-filled hat

McKENZIE PORTER

JOHNNY Giordmaine, Canada’s leading magician, began to develop the distinctive nature of his act when he got a job, thirty years ago, in the old Arcade Novelty Shop on Yonge Street in Toronto, and started selling such items as Whammy Eyes. "You turn your back on the guests,” said the instructions, "and slip on these hideously bulging false optics as easily as a pair of glasses. When you swing round suddenly everybody shrieks. Get a set now and give your pals the Double Whammy.”

Giordmaine also traded in imitation ink blots, solid iron sandwiches, squirting boutonnieres, rubber worms, dribbling cups, distorting mirrors and a telescope that offered a view of “A Naughty Lady” and left the user with a neat black eye. The only article he handled that had pretensions to a serious function was the Automobile Protective Alarm. “This gadget," said the instructions, "is fixed to a spark plug. When the motor is started it will howl, whistle, smoke and explode vith a stunning report. The thieves will taint at the wheel. It’s a genuine squealaroo! Buy one now and get a laugh out of the crime wave.”

Ever since those days Giordmaine has blended his mystery wfith hilarity and billed himself as the Gay Magician or the Little Lcgerdemaniac.

The allusion to his stature is apt. for he resembles closely the average person's conception of a pixie or hobgoblin. Now fifty-eight, he is a fraction under five feet tall, weighs about a hundred and ten pounds and exudes a mingled aura of mischief and clairvoyance. He has grizzled grey hair that was once blue-black, a dark olive complexion wreathed with rubbery, ever-changing expressions, and big, brow'n mesmeric eyes full of mirth and monkcyshinc. He casts a spell over everybody he meets by twisting his body into an endless routine of theatrical poses, by a perpetual stream of double talk in a funny foreign accent, and by the practical jokes and conjuring tricks he pulls off in restaurants, stores, elevators or on the street.

Giordmaine is the prodigy of Doctor Harlan Tarbell. of Chicago, who advertises himself as an expert in "Mysteries of the Mind, Mentalism. Magic of the East, and Eyeless Vision,” and who. in spite of the bunkum, is still recognized as one of the world’s foremost teachers of professional sorcerers. It took Giordmaine two years to absorb Tarbell’s mail-order course of six volumes of lessons and five thousand illustrations. By the time he received his graduation certificate from the Tarbell Academy, in 1930, he could make a horse disappear inside a Union Jack, summon the ghost of John A. Macdonald. shuttle a mummy between two coffins, and create many other illusions whose principles have been known to tricksters since the days of the Pharaohs. His early specialty, always a wow at smokers, was the production from thin air of a six-foot blonde in spangles.

Tarbell, who has never forgotten Giordmaine, said recently, "He was the best pupil 1 ever had. He reminded me of a prankish little brownie.”

Giordmaine’s elfin spirit has carried him to the top of his vocation in Canada. When the International Brotherhood of Magicians, the world's biggest fraternity of wizards, last year staged in England the acts of its top-flight members from ten countries, it invited Giordmaine to come as the representative from Canada.

Giordmaine makes a handsome parttime living performing for charity shows, banquets, clubs, conventions, children's parties and TV. Most of the time he appears in and around southern Ontario and adjacent U. S. cities, but occasionally he receives engagements from as far afield as Miami and Los Angeles. In the last few months he's made TV appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, Paul Winchell's Circus Time, and CBC's Howdy Doody.

Giordmaine has made three European trips, playing London, Paris and Rome. In Ottawa he performed for the late Prime Minister Mackenzie King and former Governor-General Viscount Alexander. and at Hyde Park. New York, for Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt.

Giordmaine could have made a fulltime living on the stage but he dislikes what he calls “the unpleasant nomadic life of the variety artist.” For the last twenty-seven years he's found a sheet anchor in a daily job behind the Magic Counter in the T. Eaton Company’s headquarters store in Toronto. He is allowed as much time off as he wishes for outside work because he is now widely known as "that funny little man from Eaton's” and is therefore good promotion for the company. Every Christmas for twenty-five years he’s performed for a family party at Lady Eaton's mansion. In her recent autobiography she described his tricks as "marvellous.”

Giordmaine made his early appearances dressed in a mandarin’s robe, and went in for large-scale illusions that required mystery music and elaborate equipment. He soon discovered he went over better if he wore evening clothes, performed intimate sleight-of-hand tricks and played for laughs by making fun of his peewee dimensions.

In every show he pulls out huge fountain pens, cigarette lighters, key rings, wallets and other personal paraphernalia to emphasize by contrast how small he is. He stuck to this rule on the Ed Sullivan Show last January when he received five hundred dollars for a ninety-second appearance. In this brief bewildering period he exchanged half a dozen wisecracks with Sullivan, shook the polka dots out of Sullivan's handkerchief, squared a steel ring, produced a twelve-inch length of hose pipe from a doll’s purse and tied a slip knot that slid clean oil' the rope. Then, as he consulted a w'atch as big as a dinner plate,

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A maid fainted, another screamed. All he had to do was explain away the rabbits in the bathtub

announced that he must hurry away to a parade and hauled out of his vest pocket an eight-foot pole with a flag on the top.

Afterward Sullivan told him. “I have seen better magicians, better comics and smaller performers but I have never seen one man combine the appeal of all these elements with such weird and wacky effect. As an Irishman I strongly suspect you of being a leprechaun.”

Some other famous artists have noted the hint of demonology that Giordmaine injects into his fun and deception. Thurston, one of the world’s greatest illusionists, gave him a note that read: "I like you. I like your act. And there is something special about your eyes.”

I ike other conjurors Giordmaine conceals the movements of his tricks by a form of patter and posture that is hypnotic. A simple example is provided when he turns his right side to an audience, raises his right hand dramatically, looks upward toward the hand and invites the audience to agree that it is empty. When he feels sure that the audience is staring at his right hand his left hand slips into his left pocket with the small bird that vanished in his preceding trick.

When playing before children Giordmaine likes to deceive them into thinking that he’s made a clumsy mistake. He does a disappearing-nickel trick apparently so badly that one small boy invariably pipes up, “I saw you. You put it in your pocket.” With a crestfallen expression Giordmaine then pulls out of his pocket a jumbo-sized nickel weighing half a pound.

Milbourne Christopher, the famous New York illusionist, who last May staged ninety minutes of wizardry on the prestige TV program Producers’ Showcase, says that “as a children’s magician Giordmaine is among the best in the world.” With the small fry Giordmaine certainly shows exemplary patience. He says, for instance, that he is “sick and tired of pulling rabbits out of hats,” but goes on doing it at kiddies' shows because “they insist.” In about thirty years of magic he figures he’s employed and retired more than two hundred rabbits.

Giordmaine once was asked by a boy why conjurors always use a rabbit. Why not a puppy, or a kitten, or a baby monkey? Giordmaine replied, “A puppy would bark and a kitten would mew and give the whole show away. And a monkey? Well, a monkey would steal my act.”

Yet even the silent docile rabbit once got Giordmaine into hot water. He left three rabbits in his empty bathtub when he went down to dinner one night in a hotel at Fort Erie, Ont. When he returned to his room he found a chambermaid in a faint at his bathroom door. As he tried to revive her another chambermaid appeared and began to scream. A hostile crowd gathered on the landing. After long and delicate explanations Giordmaine was told by the management to keep his rabbits hidden. An hour later he was out on the hotel lawn cutting grass with a pair of nail scissors to provide his rabbits with some supper.

Whereupon he was questioned by a policeman who thought he was deranged.

Giordmaine knows he looks a little zany and capitalizes on it. When he is walking about downtown Toronto he is often a perambulating entertainment. Through appearing at so many functions he is widely known and constantly hailed with a “Hi, Johnny! How’s tricks?" In response he will raise a silver-knobbed cane, which immediately vanishes from his hand or. if the day is windy enough for good effects, he’ll tip his hat and release a fluttering swarm of paper butterflies.

Recently, in the elevators at Eaton’s, Giordmaine carried out an experiment in misdirection, the magician’s art of drawing an audience’s attention to one point to cover up some action elsewhere. He twisted a bird call hidden in his pocket. The elevator operators, who were in on the gag. then said, “it's a chicken,” or, “It’s a bird.” If they said. “It’s a chicken,” everybody in the car looked downward. If they said, “It’s a bird," the passengers looked up. Giordmaine tried it scores of times and on every occasion the reaction of the passengers was identical.

The horrible hands of Mr. Hyde

This was the only time he has ever played a joke involving Eaton’s customers. Among the girls of the staff, however, he’s regarded as a holy terror. On accepting from Giordmaine a tin of cookies they are apt. on opening the lid, to release a six-foot rubber snake. Giordmaine also uses the girls as guinea pigs to test the shock effect of repellent bits of imitation human anatomy which he sells at the Magic Counter. Recent developments in plastics have given these articles a crawly realism. Johnny will pop up behind the scenes of the lingeriedepartment wearing a plastic bald scalp adorned with one of those highly inflamed bumps that comic-strip characters develop after something has struck their craniums with a “wham.” Or he suddenly will confront the counter clerks wearing a pair of pebble-eye glasses, a huge Roman nose, or a set of king Kong fangs. One of his latest stunners is a pair of appalling plastic gloves that provide the wearer with the sort of scrofulous, simian hands that Dr. Jekyll used to develop when he turned into Mr. Hyde.

Among Giordmaine’s regular customers for these items or for the simple conjuring tricks he sells to amateurs, are doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, a policeman. a wide assortment of small boys, and his boss, John David Eaton.

Giordmaine performs his tricks all day long in Eaton's, standing on a box behind his counter, and invariably surrounded by a small crowd. Once, when he was demonstrating how to get eggs out of an empty top hat. a man in his audience sneezed. The sneeze shot the man’s false teeth into the top hat and Giordmaine, of course, made a production gag of it. The man was furious. “You did that on purpose." he raved. “I'll teach you to make a fool of me.

I'll report you to the management.” The management refused to share the man's conviction that Giordmaine can extract other people's false teeth with a magnetic glance.

The magician was born, fittingly, on the enchanted Mediterranean island of Malta, the British naval base. The Maltese are descended from the Phoenicians, the race that built Tyre, and are steeped in the jumbled myths of Greece, Rome, Babylon and Egypt. Giordmaine grew up speaking English with the accents of a native tongue that is a riotous confusion of Greek, Latin and Arabic, and a tongue in which many strange stories are told by swarthy old women in black calico.

Giordmaine was one of twelve children. His father was a government roadconstruction superintendent and well known as an amateur reciter. From his dad Giordmaine picked up the gift of the gab. His first job was in the telephone repair shop at the Royal Navy dockyards. While working at this he won a scholarship provided for “intelligent and worthy young men” by a wealthy Maltese named PapafTy. The idea of the bursary was to enable the winner to emigrate to Canada.

Within two years the thrifty Giordmaine had bought himself a lot in I oronto's teeming west end and on it built a small frame cottage. He worked tor his first nine years in Canada as an electrician at Swift Canadian Co. l td., a packing house. The first day he walked into the plant everybody laughed at his diminutive figure and curious accent.

Though at first the laughter was cruel it eventually became affectionate for Giordmaine had engaging ways and some of the qualities of the Pied Piper. Every week end a gang of young single men and women from Swift’s knocked at his cottage door. They came to hear him “call fiends and spectres from the yawning deep." And Giordmaine did this with technical efficiency. He rigged up in the cottage a diabolical maze of mechanical and electrical equipment that produced ghastly climaxes to his spooky stories.

One story he used to tell illustrates the grotesquerie that swirled through his imagination. He said he met in Paris a wild-looking man in a long black cloak who inveigled him into an apartment high among the dormer windows and gargoyles of the Notre Dame district. While the man went out of the room to get him a drink Giordmaine said he saw a second man lying under the table.

“What's the matter with you?” Giordmaine asked.

“I am dead.” said the prone one. “I've been dead for forty years. Our host killed me. as he will kill you if you remain here for long. And then you too will live forever in this apartment as a eorpse.”

At this point in his narrative Giordmaine pressed a button hidden under a rug and there were sounds of creaking doors and low moans from his concealed apparatus. By now. his audience was usually rigid.

Giordmaine went on to relate how he looked frantically for a means of escape but failed to find one, and how, to his horror, he saw his sinister host returning to the room with a goblet full of smoking liquid. The cadaver under the table, he said, vented a long piercing shriek. And the host, cackling horribly, forced the goblet to Giordmainc's lips.

“I felt the poison burning down my throat,” said Giordmaine, “and I felt myself going . . . going . . . going . . . "

Then he pressed another hidden button. A cupboard door swung open slowly and out toppled, with an abominable crash, a human skeleton. This gave his guests an appetite for a reviving drink.

Giordmaine also conducted experiments in spirit rapping, ouija-board writing, and conversations with the departed, all of whom, by an odd coincidence, spoke with a chi-chi Maltese accent. His most effective communications from the beyond were obtained when he sat in the dark with his friends and asked their deceased relatives to write notes on a pad placed on the floor under the table. It was a long time before the guests found out that Giordmaine can write with a pencil stuck between his toes.

For a period he also told fortunes. One

night he turned up the ace of spades for a superstitious Irish girl and told her rashly that she would receive bad news from home. A week later she heard that her brother in Galway had been kicked to death by a donkey. She came to Giordmaine in tears and. in spite of his protestations that his fortune reading was phony, bitterly reviled him for not preventing the tragedy. After that Giordmaine cut out the blood-curdling stuff and stuck to comedy.

He bought many of his jokes from Joe Whitlam, a droll Yorkshireman who ran.

until its recent demolition, the Novelty Shop in the old Arcade off Yongc Street. During his two years with Whitlam he took the Tarbell course in magic and became so skilled that he was ordered into the store window to demonstrate the conjuring tricks that the Novelty Shop sold as a sideline. Such big crowds used to gather that frequently policemen trundled into the shop and told Giordmaine to desist.

In 1930 Eaton’s invited Giordmaine to open a Magic Counter in its Toy Department. Here he has happily carried

on the Whitlam tradition ever since.

The practical jokes are easily sold but the conjuring tricks are a tricky trade indeed. “As soon as the customers find out how a trick is done." says Giordmaine, “they are disappointed. Many of them bring tricks back and demand a refund. 1 hey half expect something really miraculous and they are not prepared to put in the hours of practice and learn the mumbo-jumbo that is required to put over a simple deception.

“Most tricks are simple. It’s not the equipment that counts so much as the way the magician uses his personality to suggest that he’s done something out of this world. I hat’s one reason why magicians never explain their tricks. They’re not trying to protect themselves. You can find out how all of the classic illusions are done by buying a dozen books that are for sale. Magicians are secretive because they want to save the public from a let-down. Deep in their hearts the people don’t want to know how a trick is done anyway. They want to go on being bamboozled.”

If he wished, Giordmaine could bamboozle an audience for twenty-four hours on end. He has enough equipment for such a marathon in his Magic Den. in the basement of his six-room bungalow in North Toronto. In addition to the assortment of top hats, bird cages, candelabra, little tables, velvet cloths, flags, rubber balls, imitation chickens and dummy whisky bottles, there is one of the finest collections extant of Hoffman Magic. These nineteenth-century museum pieces consist of beautifully turned brass and silver cups designed for the production and vanishment of small articles like eggs and billiard balls, and are dear to the necromantic heart.

For Mrs. Giordmaine. whom Johnny

married in 1930, the collection holds no mystery. In years of dusting it she has learned all its secrets. In mild amusement she accompanies Giordmaine on all his frenetic travels and shares his pride in their only child, a son named Joseph, who is now studying for his master's degree in physics at Columbia University in New York.

The Giordmaines are devout Roman Catholics and this, in Johnny’s opinion, should suffice to rid him of his reputation for wizardry. But people persist in believing him capable of sorcerous acts. About five years ago. after a performance in a hospital a very sick woman asked Giordmaine to lay his wand upon her. “Madam,” he protested, “please, don’t ask me to do that. My act is all a fake. If it weren’t a fake it wouldn’t be any fun.”

But the woman insisted and because she was so ill Giordmaine complied. When he returned home he went down into the Magic Den. raised the wand into the air. and, with a Hick, made it vanish. It collapsed, of course, into its own cunningly fashioned ferrule. Giordmaine has never used it since. It reposes on a shelf, looking rather like a small black thimble. There is about it, perhaps, a hint of the occult, but in reality it is just a simple bit of paper, wood and brass.

After examining it recently a writer took his leave of Giordmaine. When the two shook hands there was a sharp explosion. The writer left with a stinging palm and the nine remaining caps of a novelty item named Personality Plus. “Palm one of these little crackerjacks,” said the instructions, “then take your friends by the hand. They'll never forget you." It is for such moments that Johnny Giordmaine is best remembered, ic