Ross Bertram: Master Magician


Although Ross had gained a reputation as a close up magician who performed innovative coin work, he was accomplished in all branches of magic. He made his living as an all-round magician.

Ross appeared on stage, both solo and with an assistant, performing such effects as the Milk in Light Bulb, The Miser’s Dream, The Linking Rings and the Substitution Trunk. He still performed close up, but usually as a teaser for obtaining more stage work. He told me that, often the person who booked him for a stage event was so busy that they did not have the opportunity of watching his stage performance. Ross would take the time to perform a close up effect for the organizer before leaving an event just to make sure that the organizer or the committee saw some of his magic. They would say to themselves, “If he was that good close up, imagine what he must have been like on stage.”

Ross believed that performing close up magic was a good way of generating business. He soon became a favorite of certain agents and establishments. The Royal York Hotel in Toronto, still regarded as one of Canada’s flagship hotels, booked Ross for nineteen years as the sole magical entertainer at their annual Christmas dinner. There, Ross would perform both close up and on stage.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Ross was also known and respected as a gambling expert and a professional gambling investigator. He created a variety of lectures and gambling exposé demonstrations. It was a popular program; and in 1963, Ross wrote an article for Liberty, a Canadian family magazine, on “How Gamblers Cheat You at Cards,” an extensive piece explaining a variety of cheating techniques.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​His private work monopolized his time and removed him from magic conventions and gatherings. He gained the reputation among magicians of being aloof and distant. In reality, he kept close contact with a circle of friends, both in Toronto and abroad, but spent most of his time trying to obtain work as a professional magician. Professional dates came first; convention work or attendance came second. 

​​​​​​​The professional landscape changed over time. Stand up performances at garden parties transformed into walk around magic at cocktail parties and special events. The special events themselves became more targeted. The era of the trade show was born. Trade shows and customized magic became a lucrative outlet for his talents. Ross, for example, would be costumed as a riverboat gambler and entertain the crowd with Three Card Monte, or the Shell Game on board a ferry that steamed about Toronto harbour.

PreviewRoss Bertram

​​​​​​​Ross also built his trade show table. It was made of beautiful rosewood and had a baize top. The table had legs that would break apart for easy storage and transportation. It accommodated an overhead mirror so that people across the aisle could see Ross and his hands in action. The table also had several “bugs7 and a special tray that would facilitate the fast and certain pick up of six large loads to finish his performance of the cups and balls.​​

PreviewRoss Bertram

​​​​​​​Ross would develop custom presentations for each client and often create a “give away” in the form of a product, trick or souvenir. One such give away, his “spinner coin,” is now a sought after piece for token collectors. Ross developed these trade show presentations in association with Norm Houghton. They shared a similar sense of humour and love for sleight of hand. Norm, however, was good with language, a fine writer and editor. Even though Ross constantly tried to improve himself through course work and home study, he was very self-conscious about his lack of formal education. It was a fine match. 

Although Ross tried to maintain a busy professional life, magic certainly had its ups and downs as a profession. He weathered the good and bad times, however, and maintained a career as a full-time magician. He was married in the late 1940’s for a brief period of time to a schoolteacher, but irreconcilable differences—she was a Baptist Fundamentalist who disapproved of entertainers—quickly drove the marriage apart. Ross maintained a steadfast devotion to his mother and she provided him with emotional support. 

PreviewRoss Bertram
Ross with the performing troupe in Korea, 1954.

In 1954, Ross was asked to join the Korean War effort as part of a unit entertaining Commonwealth troops stationed there. Ross was very reluctant to go because of his mother. She was getting on in years and had recently had a leg amputated because of diabetes. His mother, however, insisted that he go. She even fabricated some egg bags for him to take on his journey. Ross traveled with a troupe of four other performers. He acted as the Master of Ceremonies and did a turn as a magician performing in over sixty shows and countless impromptu appearances. Near the end of the Korean tour, Ross received a cable that his mother was dying. He finished the next show and then commenced the journey homeward. He arrived some eight days later, too late to be present when she passed away. It was a tremendous personal loss for Ross.


READ the 1963 VARIETY article


7—A metal armature in the shape of wings that served as a hold out for cards.