In honor of what would have been entertainer-extraordinaire John Calvert’s 109th birthday, this week’s article is dedicated to him.

John Calvert’s publicity photo that was dedicated to his friend and colleague Lester Lake in 1944.

Magician, entertainer, actor, movie director, mentor, John Calvert was regarded by many in the magic industry as its most distinguished elder member when he passed away at the age of 102, in 2013. He had some of the most elaborate magic shows ever staged, and, in addition, had one of the longest-running performance careers in that field, 80 years on stage. He performed across the globe. Even at the age of 100, he was still amazing spectators and appeared at the London Palladium in England performing magic for multiple generations of fans and enthusiasts.

My fascination with magician and illusionist Lester Lake, whom you read about last week, was spurred by a mere mention of him in a short article in the October 13, 1955 Democrat… “John Calvert Returns in Plane to New Trenton.” It said, “Film Actor John Calvert enroute to New York City by private executive plane for the opening of his latest motion picture, ‘Dark Venture,’ piloted the aircraft into Ed Schuck’s clover field at New Trenton to visit with old school mates and remaining relatives in the area. It was Calvert’s life-long ambition to see a plane land in New Trenton since his boyhood days there, and this ambition was finally realized last week when he flew in. Under the motherly guidance of Postmistress Marie Case and with Lester Lake, a noted magician in his own right, the whole village turned out to greet the actor and star of (the) RKO ‘Falcon’ films.”

John Calvert and Lester Lake spent many hours of their formative years together in New Trenton, and remained life-long friends regardless of the distance between them and where they ended up living. Both men went on to have very different types of careers and shows. As you read last week, Lester focused on huge outdoor venues creating large spectacles and death-defying attractions, as well as bewildering and frightening stage magic. John was more into elaborate pageantry and extreme showmanship.

Calvert first became interested in magic when his father took him to Cincinnati to see the renowned magician Howard Thurston, who was presenting “Thurston’s Wonder Show of the Universe.” In addition to Thurston, Calvert said that Lester Lake, who was seven years older, was his main inspiration and reason for becoming a magician. At the age of eight, Calvert performed his first magic trick for his Sunday School class. He made an egg appear from under another boy’s coat.

John, christened Madren Elbern Calvert, was born in New Trenton on August 5, 1911 to Naomi and Elbern Calvert. He was one of four children; his siblings were Kenneth, Anna and Bernard. They lived very near the Methodist church in New Trenton and went there to worship. The family stayed in New Trenton until John was in his mid-teens, then moved to the Harrison, Ohio area.

Calvert attended the Whitewater School until about the age of 16 when he had a falling out with then principal, Ernest Clark. Calvert left school and finished through a series of correspondence courses, and eventually ended up attending Asbury College in Kentucky.

Calvert’s touring van. From Rauscher’s book, Magic and Adventures Around the World.

John and his outgoing personality were noticed at Asbury, and while trying to pay his way through college he worked various jobs, such as waiting on tables and laboring in boiler rooms. Calvert also performed magic tricks for the students, who in turn encouraged him to book shows for high schools and colleges. Calvert did, and since he was majoring in psychology at the time, he transformed his shows into lectures on magic and the psychology of magic.

An agent saw his show and offered him a contract on the Paramount Publix Circuit of Theaters on the East Coast. Calvert was offered $300 a week for ten weeks. His career flourished from that point on.

A window placard advertising John Calvert as the Falcon in the 1948 movie, Appointment with Murder.

Not only did John Calvert perform magic, but he also had a movie career that began in 1941. It all started when he served as a hand-double for Clark Gable in the movie “Honky-Tonk.” Scenes required that Gable’s hands do some clever and tricky maneuvering during a card game, but Gable couldn’t do the moves. So Calvert was hired for $600 a day. Next time you see that movie, check out the hands, they don’t belong to Gable, but to New Trenton’s one-and-only John Calvert.

Calvert was also hired to play himself in the 1943 movie “Bombardier.” The result was a contract with Columbia Pictures, who usually cast him as a villain.

The independent film company, Film Classics, chose him to portray the handsome and debonair fictional sleuth, the "Falcon," in three low-budget whodunits from 1948 to 1949. “Devil’s Cargo” was one of the Falcon movies and premiered in 1948. When the movie was shown in Harrison, Lake performed a special magic show in honor of his friend’s movie premiere.

Lester Lake presenting a special magic performance Harrison, Ohio, in conjunction with the local premier of John Calvert’s 1948 movie, Devil’s Cargo. From Rauscher’s book, Magic and Adventures Around the World.

Calvert’s elaborate stage magic show of the 1940s, the “Egyptian Follies,” was a huge production. Needless to say, at this time, anti-German sentiments were high, and one of the biggest acts in this production was called “Hitler’s Doom.” It was the staged apprehension and decapitation of Adolph Hitler. According to Calvert, “Out in Hollywood many years ago, Danny Kaye was in my show and came out and impersonated Hitler. Then the Marines would come out and grab him and put him in the buzz saw and we’d cut his head off, put his head in a sausage grinder, and out came German wieners!” This act was so popular, and loved by all who saw it, that photos of it appeared in both Life and Look magazines. I have a cast photo for this review, which shows Lester as one of John’s crewmembers. Perhaps Lake helped John devise this decapitating routine, since he had guillotine experience.

By the 1950s, Calvert added to his movie career by serving as technical advisor on Paul Newman's screen debut in the 1954 movie “The Silver Chalice.” Shortly thereafter, in 1955, Calvert produced, directed, and starred in the action-adventure movie, Dark Venture.

Lester Lake presenting a special magic performance Harrison, Ohio, in conjunction with the local premier of John Calvert’s 1948 movie, Devil’s Cargo. From Rauscher’s book, Magic and Adventures Around the World.

Touring vans that transported elaborate and glamourous stage productions around the world, private yachts and private airplanes that did the same, Hollywood, and achieving legendary status and fame amongst his peers - John Calvert’s life was a thrilling and inspiring saga of an extraordinary man.
Siegfried & Roy cited him as a true inspiration. In addition, Bess Houdini, the wife of magician and escape artist Harry Houdini, said that John Calvert was second only to Houdini in playing the part of a magician. The world was Calvert’s stage and he took full advantage of it. Not bad, for a man with a simple, small-town Franklin County upbringing, and how truly rare and unique that Cal-vert and Lake, two men from the same small community, became known around the world in the same profession.

In 1987, William Rauscher of New Jersey wrote John Calvert: Magic and Adventures Around the World, which is, to date, the only biography about John Calvert. You can watch clips of Calvert performing in movies and on stage on YouTube, and his movies are still available for purchase from the classic movie retailers. Fred Calvert has also created a DVD highlighting Calvert’s life and career that has aired numerous times on the cable-satellite station, the Biography Channel.

Julie Schlesselman Local History & Genealogy Department, Manager FCPLD