Magic Biography of William Rauscher
WILLIAM V. RAUSCHER has been a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians since 1949. He is also a member of the Society of American Magicians, and has served as Chaplain for both organizations. He also belongs to England’s famous Magic Circle, and in the United States is a long-time member of the Episcopal Actors’ Guild.
Rauscher has received five writing awards from the International Brotherhood of Magicians. In 1985 he was honored by the Magic Collectors’ Association of America with an award for his written works on the history of magic and his many years of interest in stage magic.
His seven books on various subjects include John Calvert: Magic and Adventures Around the World; The Great Raymond: Entertainer of Kings - King of Entertainers; a biographical account of Servais LeRoy: Monarch of Mystery; and The Houdini Code Mystery: A Spirit Secret Solved. He has also written a number of monographs on magic, including: The Wand In Story and Symbol; Marco the Magi: Wise Man of Magic; Edd Patterson: The Art of Magic, The Magic of Art; and E.S.P. or Trickery? He is a collector of magic memorabilia, and has lectured on various personalities in the field of magic history including Houdini, Thurston, Calvert, Kalanag, and LeRoy.
In 1988 William Rauscher received the Society of American Magicians’ Hall of Fame Scholarship Award, and in 1991 The Milbourne Christopher Foundation Award for notable contributions to the art of magic in keeping with his performing and writing tradition. In 1991 he was elected to the Society of American Magicians’ Hall of Fame, where he took his place with others, including notables such as Houdini, Thurston and Blackstone. In 1996 he was the honored guest at the Yankee Gathering VI of the New England Magic Collectors’ Association. During the time of this award he appeared on stage at the Larcom Theater in Beverly, Massachusetts as part of the famous resident Le Grand David Magic Company.
As a boy Rauscher was inspired by a Gilbert Mysto Magic Set, and by seeing magicians Edd Patterson, Blackstone Sr., and John Calvert. He presented his first public magic show at age thirteen. As an adult performer, he has staged his full evening show Rauscher’s Magical Wonders for various groups, and has taken part in magic organization events.
In 1989 his act closed the popular 49th Annual Boston Magicale at New England Life Hall. His presentations of Houdini’s clock trick The Flight of Time, Spirit Paintings, and other classic magic effects are well remembered by collectors and magic fans.
Article on the life and published works of William V. Rauscher, reprinted from The Linking Ring (Official Publication of The International Brotherhood of Magicians) Volume 74, Nos. 5 and 6 May and June 1994
Memoirs Of A Magician’s Ghost
The Autobiography of John Booth
He is the only person I have known who has convinced a top-notch professional Spiritualist/Psychic Reader to go straight and give up his lucrative practice of deception. The psychic was LaMar Keene.
He officiated at the funeral of Walter B. Gibson, creator of the legendary Shadow, stalker of evil men; and whose writings and books on magic fill shelves. At the graveside of historian Milbourne Christopher, this gentleman conducted the last ritual for that productive life.
A well-known collector has said that the subject of this article performed the Flying Clocks, associated with Harry Houdini, better than anyone he had ever seen present the feat.
He is a suave, classical performer whose own writings on legerdemain touch depths of insight seldom found in such literature.
These are just a few facets of the unusual events that have surrounded William Vernon Rauscher’s progress through life. As a long-time friend, he is both difficult and easy to interview, so overflowing is he concerning the mystical/cultural side of conjuring that it is hard to stop his flow of thoughts in order to challenge or expand certain fine points. Covering him is more like listening to a lecture than engaging in an interview.
On the other hand, one’s job is less arduous because, with such an articulate thinker, there is no end to the material he gives out for an examination of his inner and outer life. Fortunately, I am able to dig into some of his published writings and supplement what 90 minutes of taped interview-time still hadn’t produced.
As the definitive biographer of illusionist John Calvert, he wrote the 300-plus, heavily illustrated volume John Calvert, Magic and Adventures Around the World, which Claitor’s Publishing Division issued in 1987. In it, he has captured the excitement of this intrepid dare devil, movie actor, and magical star during whose tours his airplane has crashed and his million-dollar yacht was lost.
Rauscher has recently reached the final stages in a book about the career and inventions of Servais LeRoy, one of the most creative geniuses in the history of illusion. So many of this Big Time performer’s inventions are basic elements in today’s stage conjurian’s shows, and yet no adequate literary work has been put together until now about him. Norm Neilsen has prepared a fine introduction for it.
Four of his seven monographs, issued in modestly typescript form, all on conjuring are The Wand: In Story and Symbol (the best interpretation in print of its usages and meanings); Marco the Magi: Wise Man of Magic (in which he nourishes the symbolism and influence of The Grand David show); Walter B. Gibson: Man of Letters and Literature (a tribute to his friend); and I Sold My Linking Rings (an account of his early years in magic. I have thoroughly and especially enjoyed these well-crafted contributions to our understanding of how magic has been affected in its growth and upon us as its lovers.
William V. Rauscher, Jr., was born during the Great Depression in Highlands, New Jersey, a state that has claimed his residence ever since. Receiving the gift of a defective Gilbert microscope set for his tenth birthday, he spied a Gilbert Magic Set in the toy store when he returned the microscope. He had to have it as the replacement.
The bug had bitten. Ten cents were dispatched to Douglas Magicland in Dallas for its magic catalogue, and to Johnson-Smith for its offerings. A Walter Gibson book and Hoffmann’s Modern Magic, that classic of classics superseded only by The Tarbell Course in Magic, followed quickly thereafter. He subscribed to Gibson’s monthly Conjuror’s Magazine.
In I Sold My Linking Rings, he tells of the magicians who inspired him in those formative years: Edd Patterson and his school show par excellence, the professional lecture-show of John Mulholland, Bill Neff with his Madhouse of Mystery spook show, John Calvert and Harry Blackstone, who both were the incarnation of mystery and mystique to him.
New York City was not far away. Bill’s grandfather took the lad to Al Flosso’s magic shop with its disorganized accumulation of used and new apparatus, Lou Tannen’s shop where he was thrilled to see the wife of The Great Raymond (carrying her pet chicken in a bag), and Stuart Robson’s emporium high up in yet another office building. Philadelphia’s leading store, Kanter’s, received a visit where he not only met the apronned Mike Kanter himself, but saw Brema who, at a bench there, turned out his high quality metal pocket tricks for magicians. This was heady, inspiring stuff for a youngster, living so close to one of the world’s centers of magic.
At age 13 he gave his first magic show. An American Legion Post provided the venue. He bussed into New York City to take two lessons from the blacksuited Professor Jack Miller, now sure that he wanted to become a professional magician. A habitue of Tannen’s show, the strapped Miller tried to sell the boy one of his hold-outs. But Bill had his doubts about its practicality when he noticed that Miller always tilted to one side when a secret move was made.
The boys first inkling that magic might not earn him a proper living arose when his grandfather later spoke of Miller’s worn coat and cuffs. In spite of being skillful, kind and apparently happy, Miller’s financial condition helped young Rauscher’s relative advise him to keep magic as a hobby. It was hard advice, he has written, to take as a teenager after receiving money for birthday party shows.
Nevertheless, the fledgling magician did respond to the call of learning. He attended Glassboro State College in New Jersey, 1950-1954, continuing magic as a hobby. He had always felt a religious bent, a leaning toward the mysteries of existence. In a way, magic is an imitation of human aspirations, a religious quest to find the meaning, experience, and purpose of life at its highest level.
In my 1993 interview with Rauscher, he expanded on this concept: The conjurer is always creating, changing and vanishing things. We destroy and yet we resurrect. The cremation illusion, under water escapes, decapitations, and the sword box all appeal to our desire to survive in the face of the potential destruction of our very existence.
The thrill is in the fact that the performer might not succeed. The magic is in our wish to overcome death and defy pain. This leads one toward the paranormal, that which is beyond the normal. These are ties between magic and religion although we must always remember that the one does not replace the other.
Knowing this, we can understand why the Glassboro graduate enrolled in the Philadelphia Divinity School of the Episcopal church, from which he was graduated in 1957, and was immediately ordained to the Priesthood. Vicar of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Florence, New Jersey, 1957-1960, he then rose to become Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Woodbury, New Jersey, where he has now served with distinction for over 33 years. In 1971 he was made Honorary Canon of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Trenton, New Jersey.
The story of the Rev. Canon William V. Rauscher as magician, author, and friend of so many unusual personalities is entrancing. His friendship with Arthur Ford, The Houdini Medium, and what he learned about him through become executor of his estate and inheriting all his scrapbooks and papers; rescuing a wealthy psychic from suicide, and becoming privy to the inside operations of the psychic network; but that is for the next segment of these memoirs.
He is a man of frank and reasoned opinions, sometimes vividly or poetically expressed. In some female psychics he perceives a menopausal upsurging. One problem for magicians, he stages, has been created by the media, namely, a crescendo mentality in the public. Everything must be done faster and more dramatically than before until now people don’t even remember the magician’s name … or establish any rapport with him.
Magic is to bring enchantment into peoples’ lives. It is to capture their imagination with, say, drawing a rabbit out of an empty hat, as Blackstone once said. He worries a bit about a small trend in conjuring that emerges from the drug culture. It is the bizarre but it is not necessarily beautiful. It is to produce a boa constrictor; affect an appearance as though one is in league with dark forces.
Yes, Kellar and Thurston displayed posters of red imps on their shoulders. But this created a benign sense of mystery. They were men who made enchanting things happen in another realm of wonder.
Walter Gibson did ghostwriting for Blackstone, Houdini and Thurston. He knew each of them and their work well. Gibson said, to me, with deep admiration, ‘But Thurston was THE MAN!’ John Calvert said the same thing. And so have you.
In the early 1930’s, one Sunday afternoon, I went to a local theater in Hamilton, Ontario to hear a one-hour lecture by the handsome, white-suited Arthur Ford. As probably America’s most famous Spiritualist, at a time when that religion was at its peak worldwide, he was lecturing on The Rising Tide of Spiritualism. Admission: fifty cents, $6.00 or more in 1994 currency.
Afterward I asked this youngish gentleman, whom Beatrice Houdini anointed as having actually received a coded message from her late husband, to autograph a playing card for me. During his lecture he had stated that he was tired of being called The Houdini Medium. I looked at his signature. Under it he had written The Houdini Medium.
Arthur Ford lived many years more, achieving various levels of prominence in the press. He was always intriguing, good copy, a relatively thoughtful man. When he died, in one of those anachronisms of life and fate, a magician officiated at his funeral: the Rev. Canon William V. Rauscher. For more details of Ford’s lecture see my memoirs, Linking Ring, May 1964.
I asked my friend to tell something about this controversial public figure, and his relationship to him. He was a complex, enigmatic person, was the response. Anyone who met him liked him. Although I got to know him quite well over a period of time and was co-author of the book Arthur Ford: The Man Who Talked with the Dead, I was not deluded by him, as some magicians thought.
Ford was never a guru, a path of truth for me. I always felt that I was sensible about him. If I had been naïve, I would have protected Ford by not telling of his cheating, or the results of my research into the Houdini Code affair.
Few people knew Arthur Ford like Bill Rauscher. The trance medium left all his papers and scrapbooks to him. He is the literary executor of the Ford estate. Milbourne Christopher’s brief meeting with the Spiritualist was arranged by and with Rauscher. Whether he cheated all or part of the time, and convinced himself of his legitimacy, as Bill says, he sums it up by emphasizing that he was a study in psychology, in troubles tumbling in upon him.
On the other side of the coin, Rauscher became a good friend of the brilliant founder of the Parapsychology Foundation, Eileen J. Garrett. Founder also of the Creative Age publishing house, she was called by her long-time associate, Allan Angoff The greatest medium of the 20th century. Yet she later confessed that she had become the worst skeptic of them all. Indeed, she had always opened up her outstanding library to all researchers. See Psychic Paradoxes by Booth for details of her life/work.
Ms. Garrett sponsored two of Canon Rauscher’s study journeys to Europe in order to question distinguished parapsychologists about the paranormal. His sincere efforts to learn, and be open to investigating all sides of the human survival question, account for the worm reception these leaders accorded him.
In spite of his seeming gullibility to some persons, Rauscher had far more experience and knowledge of frauds than most realized. He collaborated with Allan Spraggett in writing The Psychic Mafia, a revelation of the cheating methods engaged in by a network of mediums exchanging information about their clients around the country.
Rauscher flew to Florida and spent 20 hours in recorded interviews with M. LaMar Keene, reputedly the most celebrated medium at one time in Chesterfield, Indiana, a Spiritualist Mecca. Then he opened a first class church in Florida where, after 13 years, he had become wealthy through it.
Bill met a white-suited, charismatic man who looked like a movie actor. An aura of intrigue about him was interesting. Now mentally fatigued and contemplating suicide, brought on by shame and guilt, the medium poured out the most revealing, dramatic tale the Episcopal clergyman had ever encountered. In doing so, and with Bill’s skilled counseling, Keene conquered his despair, went into a legitimate business, and has remained there ever since.
The former Spiritualist provided our friend with access to all his photos, records, and other pertinent material. So shocking and enlightening was the resulting book that Bill felt it would eventually be made into a motion picture. The hope never materialized. When LaMar Keene’s adopted mother died, he requested that Rauscher officiate at the funeral.
Keene had made some striking hits during his career. One involved telling a woman that she would find her husband’s lost will in a metal box. I would explain it as one of the many inevitable successes any psychic would make in the course of endless readings over time.
Eventually Keene didn’t accept this solution as he couldn’t explain the hit to himself in stressing it.
Bill still retains an open mind on the subject of the paranormal. He has found that his magic background has helped his study of consciousness. However, some conjuring researchers emphasize the negative without coming to grips with the essence of the survival question, he points out. They think that if they can replicate some phenomena then it isn’t true, i.e., that reality is deflated by this proof.
Too often mentalists cross the line from legitimate magic to readings intended to convince others despite disclaimers, or superior personal psychic powers. Even the Zancigs and Houdini, he points out, did readings that verged on affectations of legitimacy. The practice gives a false faith to believers.
I think some mentalists overcome their conscience because of the money element, I remarked, especially if it’s their living.
It’s how you look at yourself, added Bill. ‘I said to Scarne, All your life you have spent time teaching others how to detect cheaters. How did you not succumb to cheating like those you exposed.’ His answer: ‘I had a good mother.’ In other words, he knew the difference between right and wrong. He had a mission in life.
Mentalists like Dunninger had to lead a very closed life, he feels. Wanting to be known as a genius or one with profound mental powers who can really do these things, they have had to guard their associations, their carefully worded statements.
In his monograph, I Sold My Linking Rings, William Rauscher makes a good point: Have you ever considered that magic is the only hobby that is both introverted and extroverted? A good magician must turn inward. He must protect his secrets or he will not be a magician for long. He must also present his mysteries. The urge to show others what you have learned is a factor in expressing personality. Magic helped my shyness as a boy … Magic unfolds personality.
In poignant paragraphs closing his treatise, Bill describes selling all his magic equipment, books, and collection in 1960 for $100.00 in order to purchase a new type camera and avoid mixing ministry and magic. His salary was a low $3,000.00 annually.
The years passed, although he retained his subscriptions to The Linking Ring, Genii and Tops. Then he began to miss those magic items that once had been so much a part of himself. He kept thinking about them. Finally, he found the teacher who had bought them, and was able to repurchase every item. He could put them to work again for his own pleasure and that of others.
His saddest memory in magic, he knows in retrospect, was the day he sold his magic. And the happiest day? When he was able to buy it back. If you are a true magician, he wrote, you are a victim of a strange, benign and wonderful obsession.
He notes that history is woven into objects. The collector is really holding something like a religious relic … if someone notable had held it and worked with it. A museum piece may seem like junk until you learn that it was used by Thurston, Houdini, or someone else … that instills it with a mystique.
I might cite, as an example, the Flying Clocks constructed through the efforts of Houdini. Probably a collaborative creation of the escape magician and his chief mechanic Jimmy Collins, and inspired by similar routines using bells, it consisted of apparently throwing several alarm clocks invisibly through the air and seeing them arrive visibly, hanging on ribbons below a frame across the stage.
This dramatic trick was inherited by Hardeen, Houdini’s brother, who bequeathed them to Douglas Geoffrey (Mackentosh) an associate of Hardeen. Eventually William Rauscher was able to purchase them from Geoffrey through the assistance of Walter B. Gibson. It is said that Geoffrey was also the legal successor to the Houdini and Hardeen show.
Rauscher the Magician featured this trick for some years and put a lot into it. Magicians raved about his presentation. As Houdini had done, he backed it up with the stirring music of Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. Finally, in an altruistic act, he felt that the Ken Klosterman collection would make a fine home for it. There it rests today, one of magic’s finer relics.
In closing, Bill observed: People ask you to sign a book because they feel it puts you into the book --- your hand rested on that page as you wrote it. You lie in that book with your signature.