by Michael Claxton
It’s an interesting bit of historical symmetry: When Odella Newton was born in 1897 in Lemonweir, Wisconsin, that was the same year the former Adelaide Scarcez took the reins of the Herrmann the Great Company, as Adelaide Herrmann, “Queen of Magic.” Adelaide had already spent two decades touring with her husband, Alexander Herrmann—undoubtedly American’s most famous magician. But when he died suddenly of a heart attack—in middle age and in the middle of the 1896 season—his widow fulfilled the remaining engagements, little dreaming that she was embarking on a three-decade career as the “Queen of Magic.”
Then, in 1929, a year after Adelaide Herrmann retired at age seventy-five, Dell O’Dell debuted her comedy magic act. And Dell, too, would call herself the “Queen of Magic.”
The two magic monarchs likely never met, though they shared an assistant. As a white-haired, retired, stage illusionist helping Dell in the Forties, Roland Travers would regale his new boss with tales of working for the old one, having assisted Madame Herrmann thirty years prior. The role reversal was lost on no one. By Dell’s era, the male magician, surrounded onstage with lovey female assistants, was already a theatrical staple, much ballyhooed by performers like Harry Blackstone, who advertised his “Company of 30—Mostly Gorgeous Girls!” So, it no doubt gave Dell great satisfaction to be the star of her own show, with the man handing her props and wheeling them away.
Unlike Adelaide, Dell grew up in a show business family. Her father, Lucky Bill Newton, owned a small travelling circus based in Kansas. He didn’t want his daughter involved in the tent-show life, so he shuffled her off to a Catholic boarding school in Nebraska at the start of each season. Whether or not he actively discouraged her interest in sleight-of-hand—as she later claimed—by saying, “Girls can’t do magic,” Dell would eventually trade her sawdust training ground for the glamorous world of the night clubs, doing three shows a night filled with comedy magic.
But, not before she tried out other branches of show business: During the Twenties, she left her father’s troupe and performed as an acrobat with several other circuses. Her signature feat would be climbing a ladder while balancing a sofa—a sofa!—on her forehead. It was an act she did in vaudeville and burlesque, while at the same time also exploring a career as a physical culture expert. Dell sold her own line of exercise equipment and touted the benefits of juggling as a means of keeping fit, especially for women. She even worked with the Coca Cola company as a spokesperson, giving away bottles of “The Drink that Refreshes” at her lectures.
Sometime in 1929, she acquired the rights to the act of the late Frank Van Hoven, who had reduced audiences to helpless hysterics during his vaudeville career, mostly with slapstick magic. In his show, the tricks were never the point—it was the pandemonium he caused onstage with two stooges who were each asked to hold a block of ice on their lap. The act was impossible to capture in print, but in Frank’s madcap hands, it killed show after show. Dell could never quite be Van Hoven, but the few years she spent making his act her own were essential training. The education helped her develop a brash, take-no-prisoners persona that propelled her into the world of comedy magic.
Dell would be a master at changing with the times. She was a flapper in burlesque in the Twenties. She was a zany comedian in the age of the Marx Brothers and Fanny Brice. And when magic moved from vaudeville to the night clubs in the Thirties, she found her ideal medium. Witty, charming, and flirty, Dell loved entertaining audiences in the glittering big-city night spots. She took standard tricks available from magic dealers and created snappy routines for them, using rhyming patter and rapid-fire delivery. After the show, she went into the crowd with a rolling cart, giving away souvenirs, telling jokes, and doing tricks at the tables of all the folks out for a night on the town. “Gregarious as hell,” one friend recalled, Dell schmoozed with her audiences well into the late evening hours—sometimes working multiple clubs in an evening.
Her regular assistant was another man—her husband, Charlie Carrer. They met at a vaudeville theatre in 1931, when Dell was mistress of ceremonies and Charlie was on the bill as an internationally known Swiss juggler. When Dell used her own juggling skills to parody his act, the suave entertainer was smitten. They married a month later and worked together for thirty years. Like Dell, Charlie’s persona was perfectly suited for the age. He was a kind of juggling bartender, using bottles and plates and trays filled with shot glasses to work his own form of magic. Night club managers loved to book both performers, and that enabled Charlie to be there to bring out Dell’s props, many of which he had improved in his elaborate workshop.
For two decades, Dell played an exhausting array of club shows, school programs, department store events, and birthday parties (some for swanky clients—she once entertained the Duke and Duchess of Windsor), all working from her home base in Queens, New York. She lived in a house filled with animals and practical jokes and constantly hosted parties for her magician friends and for the neighborhood children. She loved to cook and promoted the image of herself as the ideal modern woman, both domestic and theatrical. The cover of her souvenir program—“Dell O’Dell on Both Sides of the Footlights”—showed her in an apron making dinner and then producing a rabbit onstage in a sparkling black gown.
During the Fifties, she and Charlie moved to the West Coast and kept up her touring, while also filming her own television show. Her live, half-hour, magic show aired weekly in Los Angeles for two years, and in 1953, she became the first female magician nominated for an Emmy. Alas, she lost—to Betty White! Having toned down her glamorous outfits and brassy style for more conservative business suits and a gentler, favorite-aunt persona, Dell charmed viewers of all ages. Meanwhile, she was encouraging the next generation of magicians by running a retail magic shop on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.
By the end of the decade, she was in her late fifties and fighting cancer, but she kept up an unrelenting performance schedule that now included outdoor fairs throughout Southern California. Still, they found time to host friends at their home, always making merry. See Dell and Charlie relaxed and entertaining friends in this compliation from rare home movies in Magicana’s The Screening Room.
When Dell O’Dell died in 1962 at the age of sixty-four, she was lauded as one of the most successful magicians—male or female—of the era. She opened doors for many female magicians to follow, especially by proving that they could make it on their own, without having to ride the coattails of a father or husband who performed magic.
Learn more about Dell O’Dell’s life in magic
Don't Fool Yourself: The Magical Life of Dell O'Dell
This is a Lunar Tribute by Michael Claxton and part of A Celestial Celebration