“The Empress of Magic”
If you read through the first 25 years of The Linking Ring, you’ll see that one of the grand old men of magic during that time was “Uncle” Ed Reno of Kankakee, Illinois. His real name was Edward Munn Burdick (1861-1949), and he was born in New York during the Civil War. He had been a magician at least since 1880, pulling eggs out of the mouth of a partner in a minstrel show. He then worked in a travelling circus for several years at the turn of the century, and, according to magic historian David Price, during those tours Reno inspired a young T. Nelson Downs to take up magic as a hobby, with impressive results. Reno finally found his calling in the Lyceum and Chautauqua bureaus—a form of entertainment that brought both showbiz and culture in huge tents to small-town America. In 1912 he became a star of the Redpath Chautauqua circuit and continued dazzling audiences under canvas for the next twenty years.
Reno’s career lasted a long time, and his well-worn props and sometimes unkempt appearance were part of a homey style that contrasted sharply with colleagues like Eugene Laurant. In fact, bureau agents were often surprised to see a dishevelled man arrive at the venue to perform. David Meyer shares a story from a friend who saw Reno’s act in his later years, and after the show the aging magician set his suitcase on the floor and simply raked the props off the table into the case. No careful packing for Uncle Ed. Yet audiences loved him, and he put on a fantastic show. When asked how his magic was done, Reno always pointed to his wand—which looked suspiciously like a chair rung. That’s when he’d say, “It’s in the stick.” He revelled in doing impromptu shows for children on the street corner. I once met a man from Kankakee who remembered as a child going up to Ed Reno and asking to see a trick. When asked what he would like to see, the boy replied, “Make a buckeye appear.” The old magician reached behind his young friend’s ear and produced a nut from the state tree of Ohio. Needless to say, the boy never forgot that encounter.
When Ed Reno married Emma Austin in 1886, he wasted no time teaching her magic. She was nineteen, having been born in Pittsburgh on August 31, 1867, to a house-painter named William Austin and his wife Mary. Emma grew up without theatrical training in Omaha, Nebraska. She married Ed in Atchinson, Kansas, and the couple lived there until 1900, when they moved to Kankakee. Emma proved an able student and soon went beyond simply assisting her husband onstage. As early as 1891, H. J. Burlingame wrote in Leaves from Conjurers’ Scrap Books that “Prof. Reno is ably assisted by his amiable and esteemed wife, who is one of the best lady magicians on the stage in our country. She is exceedingly careful in her work, and never attempts a trick before the public until certain of success.” Emma not only performed magic in those early days, but also did routines with trained birds. By 1908, the Renos became one of the few couples in magic to have successful separate acts. Emma started out in the lowbrow dime museums, but soon moved into Chautauqua. Eventually both were under contract with Redpath.
Unlike some women in the field, Madame Reno consistently received acclaim from her colleagues and was often mentioned in the same breath with the legendary Adelaide Herrmann. One reviewer said in 1908 that “Madame Reno is the best magician of her sex that I have ever seen, except Madame Herrmann, and it is no disparagement to either lady to say that they are equally skillful, graceful, and handsome.” Yet another said that she “is no less skillfull than her talented husband Ed Reno, and being aided by a graceful and charming stage presence, her act is one that will not soon be forgotten.” Dr. Wilson agreed, writing in The Sphinx that she “never lacks for profitable dates.” A 1910 program lists her repertoire as follows, and I can’t help but wonder what effects audiences saw with these titles: “Hindoo Mysteries, The Turtle Dove’s Dream, The Fairy Flower Garden, The Magic Rifle, A Comedy of Errors, A Temperance Lesson, The Unlucky Watch, Our National Emblem, A Worried Rabbit, and Electricity Annihilated: A Lesson from Mars.”
Emma Reno billed herself as “The Empress of Magic” and a full-color lithograph poster shows her reclining lazily in an ornately carved chair, wearing a flowing pink dress. No depictions of effects from her act were necessary to convey her status. She made the cover of The Sphinx in February 1912 and was praised as a “woman of distinguished presence and graceful bearing,” whose magic is “modern and executed with all the skill and grace that her many years upon the stage have developed.” The writer went on to say that Madame Reno’s “equal among lady magicians would be hard to find, for her experience is wider and of longer duration than any other, with the sole exception of Mme. Adelaide Herrmann.” By that time a stout woman with white hair, Emma Reno had a matronly appearance, and children loved her effects with live rabbits and ducks.
At one point, she even featured illusions in her show. By 1917, she was heading a company of seven, including her son, Edward Austin Reno, Jr. (1894-1963), who bore his mother’s maiden name and had his parents’ penchant for show business. Ed’s wife Sylvia assisted in the Asrah illusion, where she floated in the air under a cloth and then vanished. The show also featured a Glass Box illusion and something called “Fly-Away,” said to be Emma Reno’s own creation. According to Billboard the company traveled in a Franklin luxury car, and Madame Reno was anticipating a good summer season in Chautauqua before signing with the International Lyceum Bureau for the winter months. A broken limb slowed her down some in 1918, but she soon was back on the stage.
In addition to Edward Jr., the Renos had three daughters: Emily (1889-1963), Auline (1892-1966), and Ruth (1896-1969). Edward eventually formed an entertainment company named “Reno’s Funmakers.” It sent multiple units touring through the South. Emma Reno headed up one such group for what was to be her last full season in 1926, spending 42 consecutive weeks traveling through Georgia in 1925 and 1926. During the week spent at each location, Madame Reno featured a change of program each evening. At one point on the tour she was joined by her daughter Emily and her husband Arthur Gilbert (1879-1943), who performed magic as “Argus.” In March 1926, Wallace Lee wrote in The Sphinx: “Not many lady members of the profession have risen to great heights, but Madame Herrmann is the best known, while Madame Reno is also widely popular, filling many engagements in Lyceum, Chautauqua, and theatre.”
At the height of her success, in the summer of 1927, Emma Reno drove her husband to a booking in Aurora, Illinois. Before coming back to Kankakee alone, she ate dinner with Ed, and apparently contracted some form of food poisoning. She fell ill when she got home and was taken to St. Mary’s hospital. For several days Emma was in a coma, from which she never recovered. Her husband abandoned the rest of his Chautauqua schedule and stayed constantly by her bedside. The “Empress of Magic” died on July 26, 1927, about a month shy of her sixtieth birthday. Her body was taken to the Burdick family plot in Riverview Cemetery in Baldwinsville, New York.
The following obituary headline appeared in a Kankakee newspaper:
WELL KNOWN WOMAN DIES LAST NIGHT
Mrs. Emma Reno Passes Away at St. Mary’s Hospital
FAMED AS MAGICIAN
Ed Reno continued performing for Redpath, but by 1930 the Chautauqua circuits were fading from view. So he hired an agent and kept going as an independent showman, working until he was nearly 80, doing two or three shows a week. Every year on his birthday, friends would come to a party and perform for him—constantly amazed that with his shaking hands, the avuncular magician could still reciprocate and perform one of his favorite effects. He also remarried. His second wife, Minnie O. Reno (1881-1963), was a widow twenty years younger, with six children. The end came for Ed Reno in 1949, at the age of 87. In an unpublished letter to magician Clem Magrum, Mrs. Reno described her husband’s last days: “He hadn’t gotten any pleasure out of life recently. Things seemed to close in on him all at once, hearing, seeing, talking, everything. It was pitiful . . . Two weeks from the day he went to bed he was buried.”
He was buried, incidentally, in Kankakee, nearly 700 miles from Emma’s final resting place in New York. And as it turned out, Emma’s passing, as well as the retirements of Adelaide Herrmann and Mercedes Talma, paved the way for the next “Queen of Magic,” a zany comedian named Dell O’Dell.
A version of this article originally appeared in the November 2007 The Linking Ring and appears here by permission.
The list of women who could have been profiled in this article is extensive. Here are many of them—past and present—in alphabetical order. Randi Rain is a Dallas-based performer and creator, selling original products under the name “Raincloud Magic.” Ranee worked in New Zealand as the “Maori Indian Wonder Woman” in the mid twentieth century. Shirley Ray is a magician and balloon artist and only the second woman to serve as President of the British Ring of the IBM (2009-2010). Rayanne (Winifred Martens-Moore, 1918-?) specialized in mentalism and escapology in British variety. Luella Raymond (1885-1974) assisted her famous husband onstage, as did Litzka Raymond (1901-1996), who also played the harp and conjured with a rooster named China Boy. A performer simply called Rebecca had a night club act in the 1970s as the “Mod Girl Magician.”
Dolly Reckless danced and conjured in the night clubs and USO in the late 1930s and ‘40s, while Ellinor Redan (1874-1956) was the first female member of the SAM, having joined in 1903. The Reed sisters—Jessica, Shayna, and Mandy—are a young group of magiciennes from Ohio mentored by Kenrick “Ice” McDonald. For 45 years, Carolyn Ann Rees (1948-2022) of Norton, Ohio, performed magic as Mrs. Wiz. The Englishwoman Josephine Reeve had an unusual blend of sleight-of-hand and sharpshooting in the 1920s. One of the first recorded female magicians, Madame Regnault worked the cups and balls in Paris in 1697. Toronto-based Rosemary Reid is a professional magician and a scholar of magic history, having done pioneering research into the life and career of Madame Konorah. Reine de Solange (1869-1953) was the niece of the French magician Cazeneuve with her own act circa 1900, and Zena Relph (1925-2015) did magic and fire-eating in England in the ‘60s.
Rose Resnick (1906-2006) shared her talents of magic, mentalism, and piano with injured soldiers for the USO; the fact that she was blind and used a seeing-eye dog as her assistant made her performances all the more inspiring. Australian Coral Reveen (1937-2023) assisted her illusionist husband Peter with his world-famous show. Renee Revelle was the “Mis-Direction Lady” in the ‘40s. Regina Reynolds collaborated with her late husband Charles on many magic projects, including the famous book 100 Years of Magic Posters. Adele Friel Rhindress assisted Harry Blackstone in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s as the “Elusive Moth” and years later became a beloved presence at magic conventions. British magician Katherine Rhodes serves as Vice President of The Magic Circle and was featured on the cover of The Magic Circular in 2015, while Indonesian Riana Graharani performs a distinctly eerie act as “The Sacred Riana.” Along with her husband Harold, Thelma Rice (1911-1990) was one half of the legendary Silk King Studios.
Sindie Richison has served since 2006 as the International Executive Secretary of the IBM, and Manon Rodriguez has worked as the National Administrator of the SAM since 2008. Phyllis Ritson (1907-1976) assisted Dick Ritson’s character “Wu Ling” as “Suee Sen.” Vera Rivanova performs magic in the Netherlands. Roberta (Roberta Byron Bodley, 1917-2002) and Marion (Marion Byron Durant, 1921-2004) had a hugely popular magic act as teenagers in the 1920s and ‘30s and were still making convention appearances during WWII. Linda Roberts (1950-2004) was “Magic Wanda” in Cincinnati. With her husband Eddie, Lucille Roberts (1909-1977) was part of a second-sight team that flourished in the nightclubs in the 1940s. Myrtle Roberts (1908?-2003) was billed as “Australia’s Foremost Lady of Magic.” Lou Robinson joined the craze for liquid air acts circa 1905, while Olive “Dot” Robinson (1863-1934) was the wife and chief assistant to Chung Ling Soo (William Robinson). Emily Robinson-Hardy currently wows audiences as a British magician, mentalist, actor and model.
Terri Rogers (1937-1999) was an amateur magician but a major ventriloquist in England. Madame Artot Roman played the music halls in 1886. While one performer named Romany did escapes in the English provinces a hundred years ago, the current Romany keeps audiences delighted with her lively brand of comedy as “The Diva of Magic.” Her 2018 memoir, Spun into Gold: the Secret Life of a Female Magician, is a must-read. President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice (1884-1980) tinkered with magic as a hobby, in between making famously acerbic remarks. Evelyn Rose, an ex-ballet dancer and student of Hank Vermeyden, performed an elegant act in the ‘60s. Mildred Rouclere (1869-1938) assisted her husband Harry in a magic and second-sight act, and their daughter Rouclere Junior (Mildred Yull, 1894-1983) carried on the family name as “The Most Closely Watched Girl in America.” Finally, Roxanne of Germany is the wife and partner of Topas and has her own act, Cecelia Rupp does magic and ventriloquism in Idaho, Melissa Russo received the 2016 Milbourne Christopher Award for Promising Young Magician, and who better to end with than Carol Roy (1929-2009), the indispensable better half of Marvyn who lit up his life.