Ooh, Interesting! Fascinating Facts - When Hollywood Stars Put on a Magic Show

July 22, 2016

We here at Sternberg Clarke love hiring a magician for events, but sometimes we do wonder if it might be possible to book a Hollywood star to do a corporate party in London instead. After all, that’s what happened in 1943. And no, they didn’t act. They created a magic and circus show starring themselves in the lead roles.

The above paragraph may seem both ridiculous and brilliant until you discover that it was Orson Welles who was behind ‘The Mercury Wonder Show’. This was a man who was only in his early twenties when he wrote, directed and starred in Citizen Kane and even in death carried a sense of mystery to his grave. His love of magic was well known throughout his career – one could argue F for Fake is more about hoodwinking the audience than an insightful documentary – but what many people don’t realise is that Welles once headlined his own magic show.

It was 1943 and Welles had recently finished recording a couple of radio series’. Both had been created for CBS in order to support the war effort, whilst Welles had also just finished filming his role in Jane Eyre. Using his fee from that film, he again decided to support the war effort by fulfilling a lifelong dream of putting on a part circus, part magic show. Offering up his services as director and magician, Welles put up $40,000 of his own money in order to create The Mercury Wonder Show for Service Men. Members of the armed forces got in free, whilst the general public had to pay. Entertaining more than 1000 people each night, proceeds went to the War Assistance League, a charity for Military Service Personnel.

“It was just like a circus – I would have adored it if I’d been a member of the audience, I know that,” Welles later recalled to Peter Bogdanovich. And no wonder, for it wasn’t just Orson Welles who people were lucky enough to see when they popped along to the theatre. Yes, ‘Orson the Magnificent’ was the main attraction, but Joseph Cotten (one of the leading Hollywood stars of the 1940s) was also on the bill as 'Jo-Jo the Great', whilst the previous year's Oscar nominee Agnes Moorhead appeared as 'Calliope Aggie'. All good magicians need a glamorous assistant too, so Welles selected Rita Hayworth as his. That’s like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie putting on a magic show for Iraq war veterans. Just imagine that! As if to lessen the impact of the stars, Welles also gave a key role to his chauffeur, George (shorty) Chirello, whilst famed French actor Jean Gabin worked backstage as a propman.

After 17 weeks of rehearsals, the show finally opened in a specially created 80 foot by 120 foot tent, which Orson Welles had filled with all manner of wonders. He hired an entire menagerie, which included everything from canaries to lions and had a pricing structure that ensured all celebrities paid top dollar ($400 in today’s money), whilst the public saw the show for $2 ($28 today). What’s more, Welles described the great and the good of Hollywood as ‘suckers’. Not only would they be paying through the roof for a ticket, but they’d also be the ones he picked on for various pranks – Jack Warner of Warner Bros. and Sam Goldwyn of Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) were both humiliated in front of the crowds, “usually by having an egg broken over their heads or something like that. And they had to pretend it was all good fun,” noted Welles, “Because our boys in khaki were there, you know. We really gave it to them.”

The show hit problems after the premiere when it turned out Rita Hayworth may have been in breach of contract for starring, considering she was filming a movie at the time. How do you replace one glamorous Hollywood A-lister? By hiring another one in her place, of course! Welles simply phoned Marlene Dietrich to take her place for the rest of the month long run. "Come teach me the tricks and I do it," she replied.

Thirty years later, Welles looked back on this magnificent circus and magic show, remarking that it was primarily made “for fun” but that it was also “one of our great works.” In truth, the show was also put on because of Welles’ enduring guilt over being declared unfit for military service in early 1943. “I felt guilty about the war,” admitted Welles. “I was guilt-ridden about my civilian status.”

The idea of a magic show being performed by a Hollywood star seems utterly bizarre today, but in truth Welles had been learning magic from an early age; his very first lessons in magic had come from a local man who went by the name of Harry Houdini!

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By Henry Fosdike