While Ross’ vocation at the age of fourteen may have been music, his avocation was magic. It had been for many years. Ross saw many magicians during his youth. It was Howard Thurston and his presentation of the Japanese water mystery that first set his mind racing. The year would have been 1920 and Ross would have been about eight years of age. Ross set out to learn the fundamentals of magic. As fortune would have it, he stumbled on to three books that represent the cornerstone of our craft: Robert-Houdin’s Secrets of Conjuring, Professor Hoffmann’s Modern Magic, and S.W. Erdnase’s The Expert at the Card Table. These three texts provide the foundation for sleight of hand. Mesmerized by their contents and not afraid of practice, Ross became proficient in this difficult branch of magic.
Ross soon realized the economic benefits of performing magic. He would receive $5 to perform 15 minutes of magic instead of $5 to play his saxophone with a band for an entire night. The point of congealment occurred, again at the age of fourteen, when Ross was hired to work at the Nipigon River Chalet, a resort in the northern part of Province of Ontario run by the Canadian Pacific Railway near Fort William and Port Arthur, some 744 miles north of Toronto.
The C.P.R. maintained resort hotels at select points linked by their railway across the country. These resorts are still tremendously popular with tourists, particularly from America, who vacation or own property in the vicinity to hunt and fish in the thousands of lakes formed by a glacial retreat in what is called the Canadian Shield—the oldest rock formation in the world. Ross was hired to perform several duties. He would play saxophone in the orchestra, drive the motor launch in the lakes and perform his magic at dance intermissions. Occasionally he would help out in the kitchen.
Ross met many kinds of people at the resort. Wealthy American industrialists and professionals would vacation in the area and many of the older staff were well-seasoned travelers who had their own tales to tell. Ross was an active listener and always tried to accommodate their requests and interests. His musical background and superb understanding of sleight of hand motivated him to improvise much of his magic.
Once a guest produced a deck of cards while Ross was standing on a dock wearing only his bathing trunks. He asked Ross to perform some magic now that he was without his jacket or sleeves. Ross had a card selected, returned to the pack and then had the man throw the deck into the lake. Ross showed that he had nothing up his sleeve, so to speak, dove in the lake and emerged from the water with the card clenched in his teeth.1
The best way to improve at magic is to perform for regular people on a regular basis. Although the resort season was short, extending generally from June to the end of August, Ross performed there for nine consecutive seasons—from 1927-1935. He augmented his income during the off-season by performing at concert parties in and around Toronto and by demonstrating magic at the Japanese Magic and Novelty Company, owned and operated in Toronto by Joe Whitlam in the old Yonge Street Arcade in downtown Toronto.
Working in a magic shop has always been an excellent training ground for budding magicians. Back in the 1920s when magical wares were difficult to come by and every magic shop had a backroom that was off-limits to all but the most esteemed, which usually meant professional magicians, it was even more of an honour to be so employed. Ross had access to secrets and magicians, and even more time to practice by performing and demonstrating magic.
1—For those who are curious: Ross performed a Diagonal Palm Shift to move the card into his left hand. He then moved the card in what is now known as a Tenkai position slipping the end of the card beneath the edge of his swimming trunks as he placed his hands on his legs in preparation for the dive. He paused, rubbed his hands together, showing the audience that his hands were empty, and then made his dive once the deck had been tossed into the water. Once underwater, he simply removed the card from beneath the trunks and placed in his mouth before surfacing.