Take Two #43: Jay Marshall

September 25, 2017

The trouble with writing about Jay Marshall is that I know, before I even begin to type, that I cannot do proper justice here to my subject. And what’s more, there are insufficient video resources to carry the task for me.

Jay Marshall is not the only name on my list about which I feel the weight of such a challenge. There are a few such names that I keep looking at, and putting off, because of the fear of doing a disservice, and failing to be up to the task.

Finally, however, the solution dawned on me, at least in this case. I just have to accept the fact that I simply cannot succeed. There’s just no way. I will not only accept the possibility of failure, but I shall embrace the certainty of it.

There. Now I’m free to just take a stab, try my best, and what will be, will be. Sorry, Jay. But here I go, anyway.

Jay Marshall was one of the most important, influential, and successful American magicians of the twentieth century. I know, you’ve never heard of him, but when it comes to magic, an unarguably fringe art, that’s a measure that carries very little weight. (No offense intended. To you, or to magic.)

As a performer, few of his era could match his success. Just a few quick credits would include his appearances at the famed New York Palace theater, Radio City Music Hall, appearances in Broadway shows (including sawing Nanette Fabray in half in the Broadway show "Love Life" in 1949), repeat appearances at the London Palladium, nightclub and Las Vegas appearances with the likes of Jackie Gleason and Milton Berle, performances for two sitting presidents, and he was the opening act for Frank Sinatra in Sinatra’s Las Vegas debut. Need more? He appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show no less than fourteen times, more than any other magician.

In the excellent biography about Jay, Beating a Dead Horse, written posthumously by his son, Sandy Marshall, Sandy writes in the prologue that, “If you were alive in America in the 1950s it was a good bet you saw Jay Marshall on television.” This is not an overstatement.

Sandy also quotes Jay’s friend, Robert Lund (founder of the American Museum of Magic) as saying that the fact that Jay Marshall was celebrated mostly as a magician was “like honoring Joe DiMaggio because he was once married to Marilyn Monroe.” This was certainly an apt analogy, because as Sandy goes on to list, “Jay was also, among other things, a ventriloquist, puppeteer, musician, writer, magazine editor, publisher, historian, inventory, joke smith, paleontologist, fabulist, bibliophile, juggler, wit, Punch & Judy performer, origami aficionado, chapeaugrapher, storyteller and comedian.”

I assure you: all of this is true.

One simply cannot exaggerate Jay Marshall’s success as a performer, and the lengthy list of top venues he performed at over many decades. But it’s also true that this is only a part of his story. He was also one of the most important magic dealers of his time. After his first marriage ended in divorce (his first wife was the daughter of a legendary magician himself, Al Baker), Jay eventually married Frances Ireland, the widow of Laurie Ireland, the longstanding Chicago magic dealer, and Frances had continued operating Ireland Magic after her husband’s death. When time eventually permitted, in the midst of Marshall’s demanding performing schedule, he packed up and moved to Chicago.

While Jay remained a busy and successful performer, touring the U.S. as well as Europe, and continuing to make numerous television appearances, he also was becoming increasingly involved with running the magic business with Frances, and in 1963, they purchased a building, moved the business, and renamed it “Magic, Inc.,” by which it is still known today. Magic, Inc., at the Lincoln Avenue location, became the center of Chicago magic, long an historically magic-oriented city. But over time, as the performing world changed, Jay became increasingly focused on the business, which extended beyond retail into publishing, and also becoming one of the biggest magic mail-order firms of the time.

Marshall was a compulsive bibliophile and collector—rumor had it that he never threw anything away. When, in the late 1980s, I crashed one night in the upstairs of Magic, Inc. in the course of a lecture tour, the setting consisted of a bed that was seemingly randomly located in the midst of an entire floor filled with shelves and boxes and piles of books, along with a riotous mishmash of magic props, rare posters, showbiz memorabilia, and goodness know what else. Poking through the titles, the subjects reflected the seemingly infinite range of Marshall’s obsessive interests.

Jay eventually would become Dean of the Society of American Magicians, and whatever that title really meant (Jay said it meant he had a job with no work responsibilities), it represented something deeply true, namely that Jay Marshall would become a living national treasure of American magic. A constant presence, both on stage and off, at magic conventions small and large around the globe, in his advancing years he was always good for a sarcastic aside, between napping in his seat. He amassed one of the largest private collections of vintage magic posters on the planet, but far more importantly, he possessed a depth of knowledge about magic history, and the workings of magic itself, that few if any could match.

I recall getting a phone call one afternoon in the 1990s from Teller, asking if I knew anything about a particular old magic trick. We chatted a few minutes, and then I said, “Well, you should probably call the triumvirate.” At that time, the word needed no further explanation, because he knew I meant that he should—and would indeed—call on Johnny Thompson, Billy McComb, and Jay Marshall. Along with their contemporaries in the United Kingdom—Ali Bongo and Patrick Page—these minds housed much if not most of the magical wisdom of the ages. All of them save one, John Thompson, are gone now. (And I have recorded a small portion of John Thompson’s collected wisdom—about 200,000 words’ worth—in the forthcoming book, The Magic of Johnny Thompson, scheduled for release within the next few months.) If you wanted the “real work” or the true history, Jay was high on your list to call, because there would always be a wealth of information awaiting you. Years ago, when I was researching some controversial history about Dai Vernon and Cardini and the Linking Rings, I called Jay, and he told me an anecdote (that I would report in a book review) about how Dariel Fitzkee had personally inscribed his book on the Linking Rings to Cardini by including a “thank-you,” a subtle acknowledgement that something of Cardini’s had been included in the book but without Cardini’s permission.

And I can't think of Penn & Teller and Jay Marshall without remembering the day, circa 1998, that I answered the phone and the first words on the other end were from Penn Jillette, yelling like an excited schoolboy who had just hit his first Little League home run. "We fooled Jay Marshall! We fooled Jay Marshall!" Earlier that evening, Jay—an early and vocal Penn & Teller fan, back to the days when they were controversial in some magic circles—had attended a Penn & Teller performance in Chicago, and witnessed their then new version of the Bullet Catch. Afterwards he came backstage and told them that the trick had fooled him. This was true, but it was also a great leasson in what it means to fool another magician (see Take Two #12)—because I assure you, only a small portion of the routine had fooled Jay, but the fact that it had was hugely significant, and hence his pronouncement was genuine, and appropriate—as was Penn's delight in the acknowledgement. 

Trying to capture Jay Marshall in a brief sketch is challenging not only because of the range of his interests, but also the complexity of his personality. He was a man known by countless magicians around the world, but he was a man who was hard to know. He was a man loved by countless people, but he was a man who could be hard to like. His son, Sandy Marshall, whose extremely readable book about his dad’s life is part biography and partly autobiography as well, reflects these intricacies and contradictions.

But one cannot talk about Jay Marshall without talking about humor. He possessed a gigantic repertoire of jokes, especially of filthy ones, and he delighted in telling them. To the end of his days, you could always get a new dirty joke out of him. Indeed, Marshall is connected to what is acknowledged to be the filthiest joke of all time, “The Aristocrats.” In fact, he is the first to briefly tell the joke in the marvelous documentary of the same name (produced by Penn Jillette and directed by Paul Provenza).

I first met Jay in 1987 when I lectured at Magic, Inc. in Chicago. Back to the shop the next day and schmoozing with other magicians there, Jay called me over to a counter, where he placed a phone and handed me the handset, saying, “Somebody wants to talk to you.” The voice at the other end said, “This is Ed Marlo …” and, well, that’s a story for magicians and for another day.

I had the chance to spend many more times with Jay over the years, including MC’ing a show at the Gathering For Gardner conference and thus having the privilege of introducing him on stage. But probably the most I saw of him, late in his life, was at a small annual magic gathering in Toronto known as “31 Faces North,” hosted by our benefactors here at Magicana, namely David Ben and Allan Slaight. Through countless events, scheduled and unscheduled, dinner outings and casual conversations, the word that comes to mind when I think of my frequent encounters there with Jay is: sardonic. He never lacked for a quick observation that would garner a laugh from his immediate audience. Like so much great humor, there was often a dark truth beneath the laugh. I recall one year when I was standing out on the sidewalk as Jay’s car pulled up, delivering him from the airport. I walked up to greet him. “Hi, Jay! How are you?” “How am I? I’m old!” One laughed, and at the same time, one nodded in sharing the grim truth. Jay often repeated the Bette Davis observation that “Getting old isn’t for sissies.”

In Sandy Marshall’s book, after that list of Jay’s interests that I quoted above, he concludes by saying, “He was a curious mix of rake, jester, and intellectual.” In all I have written, I can’t do better than that. Jay was all those things, and at any given moment if you were around him, you were generally aware of all those things at once. He didn’t so much switch hats, from my vantage, as mostly wore them all at the same time.

I suppose I’ve gotten as far as I’m going to get in this space at trying to capture something of the man, but now it’s time to try to capture something of him as a performer. And the great, the terrible frustration of this is that everything I have to show you is taken from a small show he did in 1996 in the back room (the one I lectured in) at Magic, Inc., when he was 77. While the audience is attentive and enthusiastic, and Jay’s performances are sharp and effortless, these recordings fail to capture what a master he was on a real stage, in front of truly big audiences. He’s really a little too hip for the room in these recordings, and there are no lights, no sound, no live music, which was particularly important to one signature piece. All this is really too bad, and frustrates me immensely, and as with some other notable examples in my Take Two series (such as that on Earl “Presto” Johnson), I am faced with the choice of this, or nothing. So, I choose this. Even to the greats, attention must be paid.

Although all these recordings are taken from the same intimate performance, I’m not certain of the original running order. But I’m going to create a Jay Marshall one-man show of sorts for you. I encourage you to turn off the phone for a little while, expand the browser to the maxim, turn up the sound, and try to take a seat in this room, where this great veteran artists is performing, unknowingly recording some of his repertoire for the ages, performing just for you routines that took him around the world, and brought him repeat bookings and standing ovations at the likes of the London Palladium. Step in, sit down … and enjoy.  

Jay loved words. He was a bibliophile, a wordsmith, a jokesmith, and it’s all part and parcel of that love of, and facility with, words. Two of his signature routines were novelty items that depended on folding paper into a variety of shapes and accompanying the folds with clever commentary. The combination produced a winning result that didn’t deliver amazement or huge laughs, but rather relied on a satisfying impression of cleverness and charm. Here is one of those routines; the other can also be found on YouTube, Jay’s version of “Troublewit.”  


When I wrote about the Linking Rings in Take Two #23, I was tempted to include this version, but figured I would save it. The sleight of hand is effortless and makes it look like he’s doing nothing, but there are countless hands in which this would look far less seamless and mystifying. More importantly, however, is Jay’s ongoing, typically wry accompanying commentary.


The Thumb Tie is a classic piece, and Jay’s original version remains a contemporary standard, that can be seen nightly in the hands of the great contemporary comic magician, Mac King, who stars in his own Las Vegas show at Harrah’s Casino & Hotel. 


In my Take Two about Cardini, I discussed Cardini’s wonderful routine with the handkerchief that unties itself. I’ve always loved this trick, and it was a part of Jay Marshall’s core repertoire for a lifetime. I always love the moment when he says “C’mon!” 


While all these routines are considered signature routines in Jay’s repertoire, his most famous trademark was not a piece of magic, but rather, of ventriloquism. When the military discovered Jay’s performing talents and put him on tour for the troops, he was unable to bring his hefty ventriloquism dummy with him, and necessity became the mother of invention and eventually genius in the creation of his wise-cracking sidekick, Lefty. This is the character that brought Jay back to the Ed Sullivan Show so many times, and invariably brought the house down in live performance—I could not begin to tell you how many standing ovations I saw Jay and Lefty accept together. It really is unfortunate that this is the only version I have to show you, absent musical accompaniment (later in his life, often provided by my friend and colleague, the magician and musician Michael Close), which was in fact a key textural and production element in the routine. But nevertheless, I hope you can get some small sense here of the fabulous interaction between Jay Marshall and Lefty, a duo that traveled the world’s stages, and won over countless audiences throughout Jay’s lifetime. And by the way, Lefty, may he rest in peace, currently resides in The Smithsonian. 

Finally, here is a link to Sandy Marshall’s marvelous book, written for the public, about his amazing dad, Beating a Dead Horse



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