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The International Brotherhood of Magicians

04 Nov

Chavez Sparkles on Diamond Anniversary

Category: News   Posted by: I.B.M. Website Editor

 By Robert W. Gibson

For much of its seventy-five years, the legendary Chavez Studio of Magic has been noted for its distinguished alumni, from historic maestros Neil Foster, Channing Pollock, and Norm Nielsen to contemporary stars Danny Cole, the late Tom Mullica, and Tim Wright. Now adding luster to the Chavez legend is an entirely new kind of client: The nation of China. 

As part of its program to become the “world’s capital of magic,” the Asian power is spending millions of dollars on a “magic city” on the outskirts of Beijing. It also is enrolling students in Chavez classes. And it regularly brings Dale Salwak, owner and operator of Chavez, to China to consult with magicians and government functionaries on the national, provincial, and municipal levels, and to judge major magic contests.

The Chavez Studio of Magic, then known as the Chavez College of Manual Dexterity and Prestidigitation, opened in December 1941, the month of the attack on Pearl Harbor. With America’s youth off to war for the duration, it was not a good time to own a college. But at war’s end, Chavez won the distinction of becoming the first and only school of magic authorized to enroll students under the G.I. Bill of Rights. 

Thus the Chavez legend began.

Back from war, ex-servicemen with tuition and books paid by Uncle Sam (plus a monthly stipend) were knocking on the door. Although Chavez had attracted a small wartime Hollywood clientele, the number of students were so few that a family garage sufficed to accommodate them. The student body grew dramatically; so did classroom space. Chavez was on the national map. 

Among applicants was Neil Foster, a young man from Illinois then searching for a life path to pursue. The future maestro did so well that Chavez hired him as an instructor. From that point, Foster’s extraordinary skills propelled him onto the national scene and into magic’s history books. In Foster’s footsteps, followed Channing Pollock and Norm Nielsen.

When the GI’s in time stopped coming, the momentum continued on the steam of its glowing reputation. Then and now, Chavez was in a class by itself. Salwak, director of Chavez since 1978, gets rave notices from former students around the world and from experts who have watched him work, including Lance Burton. 

In an interview for this article, Burton said: “I saw it with my own eyes. Dale is a gifted teacher, absolutely extraordinary. I could hardly believe his success with some of the youngsters in my program for teens [at this year’s I.B.M. Convention].” 

Burton went on to describe how Salwak within minutes coached three youngsters at different skill levels, teaching each a short routine with billiard balls. “After very brief coaching the improvement for each was like night and day, most dramatic, and I don’t know how he did it. He got immediate results and it was astonishing.”

Echoing Burton is Danny Cole, a Salwak scholarship student at the age of fourteen (with his mother acting as chauffeur). “I owe so much to Dale. He taught me how to develop my own tricks,” Cole said. “He taught me how to stand, how to hold my hands correctly – essential foundational stuff that I still use today. He’s an amazing teacher.”

While Chavez has had shining moments, it is rooted in tragedy. 

Its founder, Ben Chavez, a handsome and charming Filipino, had come to the United States in 1920 at the age of nineteen. He learned magic in California, developed an act by age twenty-one, and began touring the country as a single until 1932. That year he met a Nebraskan, Marian Cleary, who dropped plans of becoming a schoolteacher to marry Chavez and join him on the road as part of his act. They toured overseas.

One night in 1938, in Australia, while they were on stage, a fire started by a defective gas lamp destroyed their house trailer, which had been parked behind the nightclub. The fire killed their five-year-old daughter, Ruth. 

Distraught and sick at heart, Ben and Marian Chavez terminated their tour, returned to California, and contemplated their future. Touring was out. They decided to start a school unlike anything that existed. 

Over a period of eight months to a year, a course would inculcate upon students the theories that Ben had developed in his years on the road. Emphasis would be on showmanship and continuous practice. For aspiring magicians too far away for class work, Ben and Marian offered a home-study correspondence course that took years to assemble.

While awaiting the war’s end with a classroom nearly empty, Ben and Marian found work serving Hollywood studios as hand doubles for close-up shots of card and coin manipulation. Orson Welles, Chester Morris, and Bud Abbott and Lou Costello sought them out for personal lessons.

When the war ended, the influx of veterans had an explosive effect. Morning and evening classes of thirty and more students required hiring additional faculty and moving to a facility on Sunset Boulevard equipped with stages and classrooms. A loft allowed Ben Chavez to oversee the entire operation. It became the most famous school in magic.

With Ben’s death in 1962, Marian took over and ran Chavez from her studio in Panorama City in the San Fernando Valley. When she died in 1978, ownership passed, under an arrangement Marian had devised, to Dale Salwak and Neil Foster. Until his death in 1988, Foster ran a Midwest course from Michigan, independently of Salwak’s and autonomously. Chris Jakway, later assisted by instructor Larry Wirtz, continued Foster’s operation after his death, taking on a limited number of students.

Salwak’s operation, based in La Verne, a Los Angeles suburb that is Salwak’s home, attracts from twenty to twenty-five students a year. They come from all corners of the United States, from Latin America, Europe, and Asia; length of stay depends on the individual. Each contract is negotiated to accommodate the student’s specific needs. The baseline price is $2,850, though tuition can range higher. If housing is required, it is available near the Salwak studio with meals and transportation provided if desired.

An award-winning magician with superb manipulative skills, Salwak performs regularly including twice a year at the Magic Castle and on occasion at The Magic Circle in London. To help keep fingers nimble, he starts each day playing the piano. 

He also produces blockbuster shows, including those next year at the I.B.M.-S.A.M. Combined Convention in Louisville and, for the second year in a row, at the annual Academy of Magical Arts awards ceremony in Los Angeles. 

Ever a diplomat, Salwak with the State Department’s knowledge, has worked for years to establish a cultural exchange of magicians with North Korea. Four years ago, Salwak led to Pyongyang, the capital, a delegation of American magicians including Danny and Stacey Cole, Rich Bloch, and Salwak’s son, Ryan. Rising tensions between our countries have stymied a return visit by North Koreans. 

Outside magic, Salwak is a popular professor of English literature who has lectured for forty-four years at Citrus College, a leading community college in Southern California with 20,000 students. He teaches five courses a semester: Shakespeare, English Literature, Literature of the Bible, Advanced Rhetoric, and Fiction and Research Principles. In a semester, he instructs a total of about two hundred twenty students. 

A prolific author, Salwak has written twenty-four books (only three in the magic realm). He is working on the twenty-fifth. Salwak also writes a monthly column for the (London) Times Educational Supplement.

The son of an educator who retired as the president of the University of Maine after serving at Purdue and the University of Massachusetts, Salwak graduated from Purdue, then moved to Los Angeles for his master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Southern California. 

In part he chose USC, he said, to be near the Magic Castle where he began performing. His immersion in magic began well before that. In junior high school in Indiana he published a monthly magazine for young magicians called Magic Carpet. His magazine had a circulation of two hundred and ran for seven years. 

While still in high school, young Salwak subscribed to and completed the Chavez home- study correspondence course. That was his introduction to the Chavez Studio of Magic. 

And now he owns it.



Robert W. Gibson, along with his wife Esme, is an active member of the Academy of Magical Arts and a frequent visitor to magic conventions with a lifelong interest in the art. Former foreign correspondent for the Associated Press and Business Week, he served nineteen years as foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times, his award-winning staff capturing two Pulitzer Prizes.



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