Preview Gwen Voltaire

A Celestial Celebration


“A Feathered Fantasy”

Gwendie was the stage name of Gwen Voltaire, a Canadian dancer whose career in magic began around 1948 when she met an eccentric Englishman who had a flair for lighting things up. William Jean Arrendoff had been into hocus-pocus since the age of twelve and had played every type of venue, from telling fortunes in restaurants to touring with a medicine show and its boxing bear. As Bobby Voltaire, his act featured a range of magic and stunts, one of which was stopping a motorcycle engine with a space gun. His specialty, though, was electric wizardry. One of his most popular effects was lighting a 500-Watt bulb onstage with his bare hands. The Voltaires featured this act throughout Europe and later passed it on to Marvyn and Carol Roy, who expanded it and took it to even greater heights on the international cabaret circuit.

Bobby and Gwen had married in Alberta, Canada, where they raised three children. As an insurance salesman, Bobby attended a convention in Toronto and wowed his colleagues with a coin trick. One thing led to another, and the salesman found himself taking high-paying gigs as a magician. Eventually the couple moved to England (where Bobby had been born in 1909), and that’s where they developed their famous electrical act. Among their signature feats, Voltaire lit a bulb under water and also floated fully lit bulbs over the stage and over the audience, with the bulbs changing colors in response to audience requests. Gwen added glamour as his assistant, dressed in a valet’s uniform with a pillbox hat and short skirt.

She was such a natural on the stage that in the late 1950s, Bobby helped her create her own bird act, which she called “A Feathered Fantasy.” Using the setting of a lady’s boudoir, Gwen produced and vanished brightly colored parakeets–one favorite item was to produce a white parakeet from a glass of milk and then vanish the glass. She also produced silks and flowers, performed a version of the egg bag, and demonstrated a bending glass penetration using a lady’s hand mirror, as well as a number of other effects.

PreviewGwen Voltaire
Color photo of Gwendie

John Young, editor of The Magic Circular, praised the act: “Here was a graceful and assured magicienne show which to our way of thinking avoided the customary pitfall into which too many lady performers fall. Too many will use effects which are primarily adapted for the male of the species, but here was a preeminently feminine performance for which the setting was that of a lady’s boudoir, with dressing table and mirror . . . altogether an ideal cabaret act and a wonderful show.”

Gwendie played a number of posh venues with her act, including The Savoy, The Dorchester, and Grosvenor House, and she often received glowing reviews in the magic journals. Goodliffe raved about her turn at a Magic Circle banquet in 1958: “She looked wonderful, was delightfully gowned, and moved around the floor gracefully and with the polish born of long experience . . . Gwendie retired to a very big hand indeed.” She concluded her act there with the production of a Bush Baby (also called a galago) from a bunch of flowers. The tiny primate always got a big reaction. She also appeared in The Magic Circle Festival show at the Scala Theatre in 1960, along with such luminaries as David Nixon, The Septembres, Paul Potassy, and Gil Leaney.

For that appearance, she even received notice from the always irreverent Punch magazine. In a short article in 1960 titled “The Maskelyne Sex,” Punch had a bit of fun at the expense of female magicians: “For all their miracles of making things—especially their faces and figures—look different from reality, women have been so inept at professional conjuring that the appearance of a female illusionist called Gwendie at the Magic Circle Festival was hailed as a phenomenon. Yet they can saw an argument in half and send an inflationary spiral soaring higher than an Indian Rope. Circe had some success at turning men into swine (there have never been any patent rights in that trick), but she was a bit unreliable when it came to sending the invitees back into the auditorium at the end of the show.” Of course one can’t take Punch all that seriously, and Gwendie certainly was neither the first nor the last to endure snide remarks about female conjuring.

Though Gwendie only performed as a solo act for a few years, she had a full calendar of cabaret and banquet dates. After a long career of playing night clubs, Gwen and Bobby retired around 1970 to the Bedfordshire countryside to breed dogs and cats and provide pet accommodations, having literally hewn a niche in the hillside for the kennels. In his marvelous book Mr. Electric Unplugged, Marvyn Roy recalls visiting them living in a small home with a sign on the gate that read, “Suppliers of Chinchilla Kittens to the Royal Palace Saudi Arabia.” One of their dogs was an Alsatian named Guido who could apparently read minds and do card tricks.

PreviewGwen and Bobby
Bobby and Gwendie Voltaire onstage

Bobby Voltaire died in 1986 at age 76, still working on an autobiography titled Things Are Not What They Seem. Gwen Voltaire was last mentioned in The Magic Circular in 2000 as having helped make arrangements for the care of her husband’s grave in Northamptonshire. Can someone fill me in on what has happened to Gwendie? For much of the material in this profile, I’m especially indebted to Amy Dawes and her extensive chapter on British performers in Those Beautiful Dames, edited by the late Frances Marshall. I also used the resources available on Ask Alexander.  

An earlier version of this article appeared in the December 2006 issue of The Linking Ring and is reused here with permission. 




What other women in magic start with the letter “G”?  Josephine Giradelli dazzled audiences as a fire-proof woman in 1814. A woman named Millie Gloo styled herself the “Empress of Magic” and played Worth’s Museum in New York around 1893. As the wife of noted English dealer/publisher Will Goldston, Leah Goldston (1872-1955) performed a solo act as La Devo from 1902 until around 1910, featuring DeKolta’s Expanding Die. Madame Gilbert called herself the “American Jail Breaker” in 1912. Little Goldie Dingman (1905-1941) was a magicienne for 25 years in Pennsylvania, despite suffering from infantile paralysis. Zorika Gronowska was a Polish illusioniste, while teen Betty Grey performed as “The Winsome Witch” in Melbourne, Australia. The Irish magician Rosy Gibb (1942-1997) worked in London. Contemporary performers would include Silvia Gaffurini of Italy, Galina Strutinskaya of Ukraine, and Maria Gara (aka “Snake Babe”), whose adult act is called “Venom Magic.”

Other first ladies of magic should be mentioned. Litzka Raymond Gibson (1901-1996) married two prominent magicians and was a skilled solo conjurer and musician. Tess Graham (1900-1982) was a partner to her husband Max Holden as “Holden and Graham.” Roberta Griffin (1916-1996) assisted her husband Ken, while the lively Anne Gwynne (1896-1979) served as the indispensable partner for Jack and a hostess for countless magical soirees. Kalanag’s glamorous wife and partner Gloria de Vos (1918-1985) deserves mention as well. Not only did she assist her husband in illusions such as the levitation, Seeing Through a Woman, Shooting Through a Woman, and more, but she also performed an impressive telephone book test in multiple languages. Ann Goulet (1928-2022) worked with her husband Ray in their act “The Raymonds” and helped Ray maintain his famous “Mini Museum of Magic.” Joanne Gustafson (1931-2019) was one half of the wonderful “Magic by Candlelight” act with her husband Richard. Jann Goodsell served the SAM as its National President in 2000-2001 and has also directed the Society of Young Magicians. And we cannot leave out the lovely Helene Grabel (1924-2017), who gracefully assisted her husband Lee for many decades.


A Celestial Celebration Index