That was the working title suggested by my significant other for the book I was compiling. I was all consumed for many years researching Lester Lake, and spent more time with my “dead friend” than with Jim, hence the amusing, yet all too accurate title.

Therefore, since this issue of the newspaper and the next coincide with the birthdays of Lester Lake and his equally famous counterpart, John Calvert, I feel it only appropriate to be able to introduce a new generation of readers to these natives of Franklin County, Indiana. Lester was born on July 28, 1904 and will be this week’s topic. John was born on August 5, 1911 and will be next week’s topic. Both were born in New Trenton and lived there for many years.

I am sure most of you will say, “How can they be famous when I have never heard of either one?”

At this point in time, we are at least a good three to four generations removed from both, so obviously they are not household names as they once were. However, if you talk with just about anyone in the magic industry, and mention either man –they will know exactly whom you are talking about.

Both Lake and Calvert were extremely well known across the globe in their inner circle of prestidigitators (magicians). Movie and theatergoers, state and county fair attendees, servicemen who saw U.S.O. shows, as well as television viewers, also knew who these men were. Lester’s heyday lasted approximately ten years from about 1928-1938, but he stayed active in magic and performed publically through the 1960s. Many of our older readers may even remember when Lester came back home and performed at the Brookville town ballpark, or when he visited the Whitewater School and performed for the students.

Lester and his family were high profile residents of New Trenton. His grandmother was postmistress for the town, and his dad was partners in the store Greatbatch and Lake, and eventually had an auto repair shop across the street. They lived and entertained their livelihood right in the heart of town –which is currently the location of Sacksteder’s Interiors and the green-space across the street from them.

It’s not difficult to say how Lester got his start in magic, in his own words, he was once shown a magic trick by a stranger, and to put it simply, “was hooked.” He was very personable and outgoing, and made friends anywhere he went. He practiced magic on his own, mingled with the elite members of the Queen City Mystics magic club in Cincinnati, and immersed himself in any type of magic event or get-together. Lester learned from the best and even taught the best.

Eventually Lester was consumed by magic and performing and decided to make it his career. He began professionally by having his very first live stage show at Brookville on December 11, 1925. Many of his illusions and props were rudimentary and even built by some of his friends. He recalled his first full two-hour performance was “full of fun and blundering.” However, positive comments made by his peers in magic who attended this show, only strengthened his determination.

To obtain experience, Lester went on to perform at any venue he could find, and eventually started work on a traveling showboat on the Mississippi River.

While he received positive feedback anywhere he performed, Lester realized that to be simply “good” was not enough. He had to be outstanding and different to be a true showman. His idol was the great escape artist Harry Houdini, and Lester’s goal was to be as famous as he was.

For a time, Lester retired his stage magic and created what was to become known as his great outdoor spectacles. He was the only magician who would be touted as being Buried, Boiled, and Burned Alive. Not all at one time of course - these were three separate huge outdoor illusions.

Magicians before Lester had performed the Buried Alive routine. This illusion is where the magician is buried typically in a coffin, in the ground, for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, or days –depending on the type of secret he used. Lake’s take on this routine was that he was buried in the ground in a coffin and covered with mounds of dirt for about a half an hour to hour. And yes, fairgoers would eagerly stand around and look at a pile of dirt for that long, waiting to see what was going to be revealed, a dead magician or a barely alive one who emerges as a death-defying hero.
Once again, Lester performed this act well, but it wasn’t anything unique.

Lester quickly came up with a new and fabulous illusion called Boiled Alive. In this act thousands of gallons of water were “boiled,” Lake stood on a platform with his hands and legs bound and tied, then the water was set aflame, and Lake was dropped or pushed into the huge vat. Minutes would go by and fairgoers would see nothing but a huge vat of flaming and boiling liquid, when finally the dare devil escape artist emerged just in the nick of time, having freed himself from his shackles and gasping for air.

Lester was proud of this act, as it was totally his unique creation; but there were a few flaws. He had trouble properly entering the vat of boiling liquid. He hit his head a few too many times and realized it was time to invent a better illusion.

It was only years later that Lester decided to reveal his method for this trick. While the illusion looked extremely dangerous, it was more frightening than anything. Lester said that while the water looked like it was boiling because of the huge flame under the vat, to get that amount of water to boil would have taken much longer than the flames were allowed to live. So when he jumped into the “boiling” water, it was only luke-warm at best. As for the flame, it was simply a thin layer of gasoline that was ignited, and floating on top of the water. The real danger was being underwater and trying to free himself from his chains.

Lester Lake, second from the left, wearing bowtie, promoting his grand Burned Alive illusion.

Lester’s pinnacle and most extreme performance was his Burned Alive illusion, which he invented and perfected at the end of the 1920s. In this performance, Lester was placed in a coffin high atop a pyre, for everyone to see. The lid was closed and mounds of excelsior were placed on top of the coffin and the platform. A flaming torch was thrown onto it and a roaring fire set to consume all the flammable material. Eventually the fire was extinguished, the coffin lid pried open and a weary, barely alive, magician emerged with the aid of his assistants. As he stumbled away, applause filled the air, and everyone there told all of their friends that they had to go and see the greatest daredevil escape artist around. As word spread, Lester Lake became one of the most in-demand outdoor magic acts in the Midwest. It was at about this same time, when Lake adopted the performance moniker, “Marvelo,” sometimes also spelled Marvello. Needless to say, the adjective “Great” was added, and a star was born.

Lester Lake never completely gave up his stage magic, he still performed inside during the winter months. Moreover, what Lester is best known for even today, is his Lester Lake Guillotine. The guillotine as a stage illusion had been used for years prior to Lake entering the business, but the illusions were big and awkward, and were best viewed by people in the audience –not by a spectator standing close by. Lester changed all that.
With the invention and perfection of the Lester Lake Guillotine, any magician could easily transport the device and let a curious audience member come on stage to examine the apparatus. This guillotine did not actually sever a head; it seemingly sent a sharp blade through the neck of the assistant, which could be seen in full. For a brief period of time, Lester even manufactured and sold nationwide, his homemade guillotine. The Thayer Magic Company also mass-produced them for a short time. In later years, Lake expanded on this idea and invented similar devices called choppers and disectos.

Lake traveled extensively during his career, but always kept his New Trenton mailing address as a place where his friends and business mangers could reach him. His business stationary from the 1930s highlighted his Burned Alive act and noted that he was the “Operator of the World’s Only Guillotine Factory,” which was right in the heart of New Trenton.

Advertisement for the Lester Lake Guillotine that appeared in the magic magazines and journals of the day.

Over his lifetime, it is said that Lake invented over 300 magic tricks, many of which were manufactured and sold by Abbott’s Magic Company of Colon, Michigan. Lester had appeared on the popular 1950s television show You Asked For It, performing both the Burned Alive and Buried Alive illusions, and a lone newsreel clip that was shown in the movie theaters is available for viewing at http://www.britishpathe.com/video/
cinetopicalities-in-brief-no-128.

Lester Lake died in 1977 and was buried at Maple Grove Cemetery. Two years ago, a historical marker was installed at the north end of New Trenton on US 52, recognizing Lester’s accomplishments and contributions to the magic industry.

Needless to say, if you want to learn more about Lake, or about the book, or if you have any “Marvelo” memorabilia, give me a call at 765-647-4031.

Julie Schlesselman Local History and Genealogy Department Manager, FCPLD