“One of the quickest of all mind-readers”
An alphabetical series seems like a great idea until you get to the letters “Q,” “U,” and “X.” I am usually forced to choose among many worthy women in magic for each installment, but as far as I know, there are only three women who qualify for this letter. Tery Ufer married into the famous Uferini family of German magicians, a dynasty dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. She was the wife and assistant of Fredy Ufer (1897-1973) but also performed as a magician in her own right. And although I risk causing Handcuff Harry to turn in his grave, I will also mention Miss Undina, who copied Houdini’s act—specifically his water torture cell escape—and presented it in Europe in 1913. Houdini won a lawsuit against her, so the story goes, and the court ordered all her lithographs destroyed. The one surviving poster used at the trial is now in the David Copperfield collection.
The third woman is Frances Usher, who certainly deserves credit as one half of an extremely successful mind-reading act. She joins a long line of women—Kitty Baldwin, Agnes Zancig, Mary Floyd, Nellie Mercedes, Myra Tree, Leslie Piddington, Liz Tucker, Tessa Evason and others—as indispensable second-sight partners. Just to clarify—these are not assistants. They are partners. Without them—no act.
Frances O’Beirne was born in Mount Vernon, New York, into an Irish family on October 3, 1898. She never advanced beyond the 8th grade but went on to perform an act that required dazzling skill and intelligence. She married English magician Harry T. Usher (1891-1950) in Toronto, Canada, in 1918. It was Harry’s second marriage, but in the quaint language of the day, Frances was listed on her wedding license as a “spinster” at the grand old age of nineteen.
I do not know if Frances had any show business experience before meeting her husband, but it did not take her long to appear onstage. During the previous decade, Harry had performed a Chinese-themed magic act as Ah Foon, using some props from the Chung Ling Soo show. By 1920 Harry and Frances were performing magic and second sight in various five-and-dime stores in New York. A 1929 Linking Ring article reports that during the ‘20s the Ushers played Coney Island and 52 weeks in Philadelphia before moving to California and opening a “Temple of Astrology” on the Venice Pier, where they sold horoscopes and gave private readings.
In 1927 the Ushers broke into the big-time with a show-stopping vaudeville act entitled “Fifty Years from Now.” Here is a description of the turn from David Price’s Magic: A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theater: “The principal prop used was a special backdrop. It was decorated to represent a city with a very tall building at the left of the stage as viewed by the audience. An airplane appeared in the sky at the right side of the backdrop and flew over the buildings to the top of the very tall one at the left. It appeared that a passenger was leaving the plane, and the lights clearly depicted the descent of an elevator. At ground level, the doors opened, and Harry Usher stepped onstage dressed in aviator’s clothing . . . Harry went into a brisk routine of two or three tricks, including the needle-threading-in-mouth trick and the cut-and-restored-turban . . .”
“Then Harry said, ‘You know, I have a friend—well, all I have to do is to think of her and she appears.’ On cue with the word ‘appears,’ another airplane appeared at the right side of the backdrop and flew to the top of the building on the left. Once more a passenger debarked and took the elevator to the ground floor. When the doors opened, Frances Usher stepped out clad in aviatrix togs.” Arthur Brandon, in his memoir Milo & Roger A Magical Life, recalled Frances’s line upon stepping out of the elevator carrying a parachute. “Do these always open?” she asked. To which Harry answered, “Yes, they’re guaranteed. If they don’t open, you get your money back.”
As Price continues his account, “A section of her helmet pulled down to make a blindfold, and Harry went into the audience, taking anything handed him while Frances, blindfolded onstage, described the article. They worked at a remarkable speed with Frances calling, ‘Watch, bracelet, ruby ring, shoe . . .’ There was hardly a pause. None of the old-fashioned ‘Now professor, what I have here’ type of thing. It was really incredible . . . no one could stump the Ushers.”
Max Holden wrote in Programmes of Famous Magicians that their “cueing system defies detection.” He added that at the end of the act, both performers departed by airplane, “but as the plane takes off, a small parachute is seen to leave the plane—presumably Harry is getting a fresh (one).” According to Tony Taylor’s Spotlight on 101 Great Magic Acts, the Ushers also did a slate test in which Frances performed lightning calculations on figures given by audience members. Writing in The Sphinx in 1931, John Mulholland called Frances Usher “one of the quickest of all the mind-readers” and told the story that Harry once asked an audience member to hold out something in his hand. The man spit in his palm, but Frances didn’t miss a beat in calling out “saliva.” She even improvised the routine in the dark once during a power outage, as Harry of course could not see the objects presented to him. The Ushers were major stars in vaudeville during the late ‘20s and ‘30s on the Keith circuit. They were also a big hit in England.
Harry and Frances retired to Los Angeles, where they converted their basement to a printing shop to turn out horoscopes. Their promotional materials promised that through the doors of the House of Usher, customers would find “Health, Success, and Happiness.” Mentalism historian Diego Domingo explains that “Harry Usher was among the first to see the potential of selling horoscopes on magazine racks as well as through direct mail. The Ushers were very well off financially, and Milt Larsen said he thought Harry was a millionaire.” They also marketed a series of twelve brass “Good Luck” tokens in 1936 featuring signs of the Zodiac, and magic token collectors still prize them. In December of 1940, the couple appeared on the cover of Genii, where Bill Larsen praised their routine as “perfectly natural . . . Harry conveys an amazing amount of information to Frances in the most unsuspicious way.” At one point they appeared with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy—the latter wearing a turban and spoofing the act.
During the ‘40s the Ushers often appeared on various West Coast magic shows, even though they had retired from full-time performing. Frances became active in the Magigals organization and became well known for her hospitality. During the 1946 PCAM convention, she hosted a luncheon for all the women in attendance, serving over 100 ladies at her home (and giving each a horoscope, of course).
According to Domingo, they were approached by twentieth Century Fox to be consultants for the 1947 Tyrone Power film Nightmare Alley, based on William Lindsay Gresham’s novel about a tortured man whose rise from a carnival geek to a top night-club mind-reader takes a dark turn. The Ushers declined, so the studio hired Mardoni and Louise. Co-star Colleen Gray recalled that the actors were not taught Mardoni’s code, but they were taught how to behave like second-sight performers.
Frances’ mother, Carolyn, lived with the family for many years until her death in 1949. The following year, Harry Usher died on October 29, 1950, from a heart attack, after performing at a private party. Lloyd Jones remarked in an obituary for The Bat that “the Ushers had the greatest system” for second sight.
Harry was survived by his wife, his twin daughters, Carolyn and Frances—both born in 1920—and a son, Harry, Junior. Frances Usher outlived her husband by over 25 years. The end came for the celebrated mind-reader on September 14, 1976, at the age of 77. Their eccentric daughters, incidentally, seem never to have married and lived for a long time in the old family home. Comedian Billy Crystal later bought that house and mentions in one of his books that he and his wife discovered a hidden compartment in a room that contained two Usher horoscopes. As it so happened, the two zodiac signs on the cards matched their signs. The Usher daughters died within ten days of each other in 2004, at the age of 84.
If Mulholland thought Frances was one of the greats, who am I to argue?
A version of this article appeared in the February 2008 issue of The Linking Ring and appears here by permission. I am grateful to Diego Domingo for his insights into the Ushers and for the generous loan of photographs from his collection.
Tell us if you have some additional female performers to add under “U.”