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story.lead_photo.caption Don’t Fool Yourself: The Magical Life of Dell O’Dell

Women don't appear much in the history of magic except as the magician's lovely assistant -- the one so often sawed in half.

Photo by from Don’t Fool Yourself, courtesy Michael Claxton
Magician Dell O’Dell poses for husband Charlie’s camera. The “queen of magic” was a rarity 60 years ago, a woman in a mostly male profession.
Author Michael Claxton wrote Don't Fool Yourself the biography of magician Dell O'Dell.
Photo by from Don’t Fool Yourself, courtesy Michael Claxton
Dell O’Dell’s entertainment career included an early start as a burlesque performer.

Dell O'Dell was so much the exception that Harding University English teacher Michael Claxton devoted eight years to his biography of her.

"I saw a great story," Claxton, 42, says. An associate professor at Harding in Searcy, he lifts the curtain on the life of one of magic's forgotten founders.

"I called every magician I could find who might have known or seen Dell," he says. "I traveled to places she lived, and searched through the literature of magic."

Don't Fool Yourself: The Magical Life of Dell O'Dell (Squash Publishing, $45) includes one of O'Dell's giveaway souvenirs -- a dancing doll.

The chubby-cheeked paper doll looks something like O'Dell as a burlesque performer in the 1920s. "Cut out and thrust fingers through holes in card," where the dancer's legs should be, the instructions read. "The rest is up to you."

O'Dell tricked her way coast-to-coast from vaudeville to television -- by way of Arkansas.

"Dell toured Arkansas with her circus, the Della O'Dell Society Circus," Claxton says. The rarity of a woman's name on a wagon show would have made people look in 1926.

Her arrival "came in the midst of a drought," the author says. Hard times "hit the strawberry farmers badly, so business was sometimes slow." O'Dell -- born Odella Newton -- was circus man "Lucky Bill" Newton's daughter, and the show went on.

"Lucky Bill" had taught her to make the most of not much -- in his case, a show business career based on the freak birth of a calf with multiple tails. So much for the tedious lot of a Midwestern cattle rancher; Bill hit the road with his weird exhibit.

O'Dell's mother ran away with a circus strongman. O'Dell knew how to proceed in spite of setbacks that don't happen to just anybody.

She made a specialty of comedy magic as "The Dippy Mad Magicianess," and seriously encouraged housewives to keep fit by juggling potatoes.

Dell not only juggled, she married a juggler, Charles Carrer. She could balance a sofa on her chin, Claxton records, and Charlie could slice an apple in the air with a knife on a 12-foot pole -- on his chin.

Like a juggler, too, Claxton found himself in a go-round of more and more details of O'Dell's life. He took a sabbatical from teaching to finish the 332-page book.

"What kept me going was the desire to tell her story, to preserve it," he says. "What also kept me going were the new discoveries."

O'Dell voiced a similar thought as part of her act. She pattered in rhyme as she produced endless wisps of silk and lace out of an empty-looking box:

How this little trunk

Held all this junk,

Well, only Dell can tell.

PRESTO! CHANGE-O!

Claxton grew up in Georgia, wanting to be a magician from the time he received a deck of conjurer's playing cards on his eighth birthday. A magic shop opened next to the beauty parlor that his mother frequented.

Poof! -- he was set for a life of hocus-pocus, only not quite.

"Stage jitters got the best of me," he says. "Basically, I feel the best way I can serve the art of magic is to stay off the stage. Besides, teaching and writing are my passions."

He collected old magic props and photos as a hobby, and so knew about O'Dell. She made him curious about minorities in magic. And fate pulled a rabbit out of the hat -- a chance to pore through O'Dell's voluminous scrapbooks that were about to be sold.

"My publisher had access to these scrapbooks," he says, "and, knowing my interest in female magicians, suggested I come to Chicago to study them before they went on the auction block. So I spent a week with the scrapbooks and realized that Dell had a far more amazing and extensive career than I had ever realized."

"Women in magic are still reaping the benefits of her legacy," he writes. But her trendsetting accomplishments have faded away like a vanishing vase of roses.

"She's forgotten by the general public, as she died in 1962," Claxton says. She is best remembered in magic for the cheesiest part of her act, the singsong patter.

"She was raking in top engagements" including New York's trendiest nightclubs of the 1940s, Claxton writes. But the rhymes wore thin as smoke among some of her fellow prestidigitators. They joined in a pact to ban rhymes from their own acts.

To judge from the verses that Claxton quotes, their gripe was no illusion. Here she is, reciting through the bit where she transformed glasses of water into a variety of cocktails:

Yes, just plain water

From the kitchen sink.

Would you, sir,

Care to try a drink?

But the rhymes weren't meant to be read flat on paper, Claxton notes in the lady's defense. She winked and feigned blushes. She teased the audience. She timed the delivery just right.

Only one performer could make the material work -- or maybe two.

If O'Dell's story were to be told as a movie, he says, "I've always thought Bette Midler would be perfect as Dell. She's a huge fan of vaudeville history, and she has the high-energy brassiness that Dell had." The O'Dell in his book "is a role model for anyone who has an unlikely dream and the grit to see it through."

Or as the magician liked to say at the end of her performance:

Thank you, folks --

You've been nice to me.

I hope you've enjoyed

My mystery.

Style on 03/15/2015

Print Headline: Magician Dell O'Dell: A girl with grit, dreams

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