Take Two #42: Tom Mullica
Tom Mullica was one of the most extraordinary performers I’ve ever known, and amid magicians of my generation, he had few equals and no better. Growing up in Wisconsin and becoming interested in magic at an early age, following a stint in the military he relocated to Colon, Michigan, where he worked as a demonstrator and builder at the famed magic emporium, Abbott’s Magic. Two years later he would relocate to Atlanta, Georgia, where he attended bartending school and went to work as a bartender and eventual bar manager. Regularly performing magic at an upscale restaurant called The Abby would then serve as the laboratory where his background and experience reached critical mass, and he would develop and refine much of what was destined to become many of this trademark routines.
Finally in 1976, Mullica opened the Tom Foolery Magic Bar & Theater, with the help of his friend J.C. Doty, a talented and creative builder who would customize much of the bar to serve as elements in Tom’s show. Tom would perform lengthy shows of comedy magic from behind the bar nightly, for a mostly formally seated audience, innovatively incorporating lighting and music as part of the intimate show. The place earned him a reputation among a devoted public in Atlanta, and in the magic world from coast to coast by the time of its closure in 1987.
Tom Mullica became famous in the magic world for multiple reasons. Notoriously, it was for an extraordinary routine with lit cigarettes and paper napkins that was simultaneously hilarious, mystifying, and bizarre. But he was also one of the finest sleight-of-hand magicians I’ve ever known, with a remarkably extensive repertoire of card and general sleight-of-hand magic, all of which was extraordinarily entertaining. Much of that material was essentially close-up magic, but Mullica had a huge personality and was able to put plenty of that material across be it in close-up conditions, Magic Bar, or parlor and platform conditions. And eventually, he would also re-adapt and re-conceive some of that material in order to create an award-winning silent stage act that would be a resident feature for more than two years at the world famous Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris.
As if that weren’t enough, following that successful run, Mullica would then take the dramatic if not downright inconceivable step and quit magic altogether, in order to create a one-man show that was a tribute to an influential idol, the great comedian, Red Skelton. Skelton had been a distinct influence on Mullica, which could be recognized in their similar rubber-faced expressions and characterizations—they were both clowns of a sort as well as comedians. Mullica got to know Skelton personally late in the legendary performer’s life, and it was Skelton, among other friends, who suggested to Tom that he create a silent act that would be performable internationally.
Mullica created a show that recreated a number of Skelton’s trademark routines, such as his “Guzzler’s Gin” TV commercial, and even including a question-and-answer segment in which Tom would take questions and offer spontaneous answers in Skelton’s character. The characterization was uncanny—I attended the very first public performance in Las Vegas—and while many among younger audiences had already sadly forgotten Red Skelton’s profound presence on American television, the show eventually took Mullica to Branson, Missouri, where it was a hit among older audiences, and where it became a resident production.
So Tom Mullica became famous for many reasons, including as a magician, ventriloquist, and actor/impressionist. But above all, Tom was funny. Indescribably funny. He was one of those performers who would leave you gasping for breath, and your face aching from the smiles. He was—much like Bob Read, another mutual friend and colleague now gone—as memorable for the laughter as for the magic, and as a fellow performer, they were the two names that I least wanted to have to follow in a show. He was also a tremendously fun friend and companion, and the countless times we spent together were filled with uproarious laughter. When I think of the last several instances I spent time with Tom, I mostly think of laughing together. Indeed, in my 2016 memorial piece about Tom in M.U.M. magazine (the journal of the Society of American Magicians), I tell the tale of what was assuredly and unquestionably the “time I laughed the hardest in my life.” And Tom lay at the heart of that story.
Tom Mullica faced a life-and-death challenge when he was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2010. Thanks to a successful stem cell transplant, Tom remarkably survived, and eventually returned to performing. He then decided to leave the Red Skelton show behind him and, after many years’ absence, return to magic, and to Las Vegas, with his partner Steven, where they had in the past lived for many years. Tom was excited about returning to magic and was working on a project to create a Tom Foolery in Las Vegas with the help of interested backers, an intention he had publicly announced.
But sadly, it was not to be. Undergoing a routine hernia surgery (unrelated to his cancer which was in remission), the surgery was apparently botched, and despite multiple surgeries and an induced coma, a series of strokes left him incapacitated, and within days he was taken off life support, and left us on February 18, 2016. His family, friends, and admirers were left shocked and heartbroken.
Tom died in the midst of many plans, and I suppose in some ways that is a good thing. He went to sleep on the operating table happy and excited to be back in magic, hopeful of creating his own magic venue in Las Vegas, something he had attempted before and long dreamed of and desired, and also in the midst of working on a new standup pick-pocketing act. One of his early outings with that act had been a disaster of sorts, as he had brought up a spectator on stage at a magic convention who didn’t simply have nothing in his pockets to steal, but in fact, had the pockets of his jacket still stitched up as he had purchased it, without ever opening the stitching. Leave it to Tom to find himself in such a predicament, and when I last saw him, we laughed a lot about the event. I wish I could have seen it.
Tom was truly a beloved figure in magic, a man appreciated and cherished, both onstage and off, by countless admirers in the magic world. It’s still difficult to face the fact that I am writing about him in the past tense, because he was such a vibrant presence, and after his genuinely death-defying encounter with cancer, we were all so confidant that he had new magic to bring to the world, and for a long time to come. It’s not my intent to write another memorial here, albeit it has been challenging not to wax a bit personal in talking about him. But this is intended as yet another installment of art appreciation, about a genuinely great artist. It’s difficult to explain now what a truly fabulous performer he was, but I will try, with the help of some video. He left all who knew him with memories of laughter to savor, and now you get to enjoy Tom Mullica as well. Nothing would have pleased him more than to know that he left you laughing.
Although there are a lot of clips of Tom on YouTube, there are few that really show off his magic beyond the signature cigarette routine, and unfortunately most of those are less than ideal, often in low resolution. What is particularly frustrating to me is that there is nothing significant of his card work, which I would dearly love to share with you. The studio video he shot for Stevens Magic has an excellent version of him doing his four-card routine, in which I recall he manages to screw up the proceedings and then restarts and the results are still fabulous, magical, and hilarious. So while I apologize for starting off by waxing appreciatively over what I cannot show you, I feel it’s a necessity to point out this significant absence.
That said, let’s begin with a montage from “Evening at the Tom Foolery,” a wonderful video that records a full-length performance of Tom’s at his legendary venue. (You can obtain the complete video—performance only, there is no instructional or explanatory content—from Meir Yedid, along with other Mullica performance videos, here.)
When Tom posted this montage, he added, “Please forgive the hair...we all had it back then!” And further down in the comments, about a year ago, he wrote: “I am in the process of opening a new Las Vegas tomfoolery if everything goes well.” Sadly that did not come to pass, but here’s a montage that captures what it was like at the Tom Foolery in Atlanta in 1984. Please do put aside the smart phone, expand the browser, turn up the sound, and enjoy part of an Evening at the Tom Foolery.
Having now introduced you to a bit of Tom’s work, here now is the legendary cigarettes and napkins routine for which he was famous—what he dubbed the Nicotine Nincompoop. There are a number of versions of this online but the quality here is higher than most, and notice that it has over six million views since its original posting in 2010. (You can also find Tom’s appearance on the David Letterman show in 1985 where despite Letterman’s typically distant attitude toward variety acts in those days, he is eventually reduced to grudgingly respectful astonishment.)
In my memorial tribute to Tom in M.U.M., I recount my extraordinary good fortune in seeing this for the very first time in 1981 at the Fechter’s Finger Flicking Frolics convention, where, without any foreknowledge of Tom, I witnessed an impromptu afternoon performance of it, with Tom seated at a table in the bar, a mere four feet or so away from me, for just a few people. It was an unforgettably astounding, shocking, mesmerizing experience.
Again, please do put aside any potential distractions, expand the browser to the max, and, if you’ve never seen this, get ready for what can only be described as an incomparable experience.
Those two pieces are the best I can show you. But if you would like to see more of the range of Tom’s talents, here are some excellent additions.
For starters, Tom was a marvelous ventriloquist. Although he retired the puppets in the midst of his Tom Foolery days because he felt they at times risked overshadowing his own performances as himself, he brought “Duke” out of retirement for this performance.
Red – A Tribute by Tom Mullica
And finally, here is a montage of selections from the Red Skelton show. (You can also find a lengthy clip of Tom performing the complete routine of “Guzzler’s Gin.”)
MORE: TAKE TWO ARCHIVE