A CELESTIAL CELEBRATION
A Tribute to Women in Magic by Michael Claxton
It was a Saturday afternoon in 1986 when my father and I stumbled upon a used bookstore in Atlanta and there, we found a faded, 1950s broadside of Ellen E. Armstrong. I was fourteen years old and had no idea that Ellen was a pioneering African American magician, or that she was part of a dynasty of Black performers from South Carolina. I just knew that I had become obsessed with collecting magic memorabilia—a hobby my friends never understood. I also knew that I had to have that poster.
Fast forward to 2006. I was in graduate school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and had become friends with Phil Willmarth, a recent transplant to Durham from Chicago. He happened to be the editor of The Linking Ring, the journal of the International Brotherhood of Magicians (IBM). He and his wife, Robbie, became like a second set of parents to me, and I was over at their house all the time, poking around in Phil’s library, enjoying Robbie’s magnificent hospitality and marveling over her amazing artwork, and, occasionally, proofreading for the journal.
Phil was kind enough to listen to me ramble on about what had become a mania for gathering material on female magicians, and he asked if I would like to write a series for The Linking Ring on the subject. “Yes!” I would indeed. And, “Women in Magic A to Z” was born.
It lasted twenty-eight issues: an introduction, a two-part bibliography, and twenty-five articles that profiled a performer for each letter of the alphabet. When you get to X and Y, you’ll see why my math doesn’t add up. Naturally, for the letter “A,” I started with Ellen Armstrong.
Phil published the first half of my series before he retired as editor in 2007 to begin a year as the IBM’s national president. Samuel Patrick Smith took over editorial reins of The Linking Ring, and I sent the balance of columns to him. Without these two champions, this series would never have seen print. Phil passed away in 2014, the same year I published the biography Don’t Fool Yourself: The Magical Life of Dell O’Dell, after eight years of research.
With Sammy Smith’s blessing, and with the unfailing support of Julie Eng, I am delighted that Magicana has turned the series into an online exhibition, “A Celestial Celebration.” With increased space available, I have updated each article, added more photographs, and expanded the “Stargazing” section. That’s the place at the end of each article that lists many other performers who could have been profiled for that letter. While these lists are certainly not exhaustive, they give a strong indication of the many women, past and present, who have brought magic to the stage. Some were and are featured performers, some partners, some assistants, and some creators. A few are mindreaders, a handful are mediums, and several are escape artists. All have my respect and admiration.
The exhibit is meant to be interactive and evolving. As fresh information emerges about past performers, and as new ones join the profession, we hope to make continual updates and corrections. To that end, we need your help. If you spot an error or see something missing, please contact us.
In addition to the profiles, you will find a bibliography. It is the result of thirty-five years of studying the subject and contains over nine hundred entries of books, monographs, and magic magazine feature stories on female magicians. To our knowledge, it is the largest bibliography on the subject ever published. And it is still woefully incomplete. So, again, please let us know what we missed.
It’s an exciting time for women in magic. In the concluding remarks for this exhibition, I’ll share a summary of some of the things that have happened in the field since my original series ended in 2008. Way back in 1877, Punch magazine wondered where the female performers in magic were. The question lingered for well over a century, but now it is easy to answer. They are everywhere. And I’m proud to feature many of them here.
You can get started beginning with the letter “A,” or use the alphabetical index to look a specific name. Either way, thank you for visiting our exhibition, and for joining us on this interesting and exciting look back at some of magic’s brightest stars.