Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

November 1, 2013

Entertainers' magic began in Franklin County

Diane Raver The Herald-Tribune
The Batesville Herald-Tribune

---- — BROOKVILLE – Lester Lake and John Calvert had tremendous influence on the magic entertainment business, and both were from the small Franklin County town of New Trenton.

However, “when you ask most people in the county if they know anything about them, they say, ‘Who?’” pointed out Julie Schlesselman, Franklin County Public Library District local history and genealogy department manager, during the Oct. 16 Hooked on History program at the Brookville Library.

“They were two very unusual men, but very unique. They may be forgotten names in Franklin County, but in the magic industry they are very well known,” she revealed.

Calvert passed away Sept. 27 at the age of 102 and is survived by his wife of over 30 years. “He enjoyed a career that spanned 80 years and was an actor as well as a magician. He had some of the most elaborate magic shows ever staged .... (and) at the age of 100, he appeared onstage at the London Palladium.”

She announced, “He became interested in magic when his father took him to Cincinnati to see Howard Thurston. He also credits Lester Lake for influencing him .... John and his outgoing personality were noticed at college, where he performed tricks for students.” His big break came when an agent saw his show and offered to pay him $300 a week for 10 weeks.

Calvert “always had lovely ladies in his shows,” including Florence Bogar, a former Miss Philadelphia.

“He also had a movie career beginning in 1941, when he was the hand double for Clark Gable in ‘Honky Tonk,’ when he did the fancy card work .... He was also the technical adviser on ‘The Silver Chalice,’ Paul Newman’s film debut.” He also played Michael Watling, “The Falcon,” in three pictures, “Devil’s Cargo,” “Appointment with Murder” and “Search for Danger.” In those movies, he would perform a little bit of magic.

“When ‘Devil’s Cargo’ premiered in 1948 in Harrison, Ohio, it was a double billing. “Lester (Lake) did the stage magic and then they showed John’s movie.”

Schlesselman also talked about Lake’s southeastern Indiana roots. “Lester attended a one-room school in New Trenton. Registration records show he did finish eighth grade. Then he was self-instructed and self-taught, and he read and read and read.

“He started in photography about age 14 and had a small section in his father’s store in which he worked.” In 1923, he purchased a photography studio and started working there on his 19th birthday. Lake Studios were located at what is now the corner of 6th and Main streets in Brookville.

“Lake took thousands of photos. He took pictures of Franklin County and when he went on trips .... (and) was the first to take aerial views of Brookville.

“It’s a shame his photos didn’t survive through the years because that would document the history of Franklin County,” she said.

“In 1927, Lester was making home movies, which was almost unheard of at that time. He tried trick or spirit photography. By the 1930s, he was showing movies of outside performances and death-defying feats .... He was friendly and personable and enjoyed entertaining people.”

Lake developed new and unusual acts. He was shackled and escaped from chains. He was boiled alive, but his burned alive act “was what he did best. He invented it and never told anyone how he did it .... The mystery of how he survived the flames was probably what made him popular.”

He was well-known for the perfection of the guillotine illusion, and he invented numerous tricks for Abbott’s Magic Co., some of which are still used today.

The genealogist reported, “In the early 1940s, John Calvert sent quite a few letters to Lester, suggesting he come to California to make it big. John thought Lester’s talent was going to waste because he wasn’t doing big shows. He probably stayed in this area because of his parents (who lived there) and he felt comfortable here.

“During World War II, he supported the war effort. His later years in Franklin County were relatively quiet. He performed at children’s parties, nightclubs and at the Cincinnati Zoo and did small magic shows for small parties, charity events and just for fun to impress those around him.”

Lake died in 1977. He never married and was buried next to his grandmother in Maple Grove Cemetery, Brookville, Schlesselman revealed. At the service, there was a broken wand ceremony, where the wand was broken, signifying that at the magician’s death, the wand has lost its magic.

Diane Raver can be contacted at diane.raver@batesvilleheraldtribune.com or 812-934-4343, Ext. 114.