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The International Brotherhood of Magicians

14 Aug

Who Was the First Act at the World's First Magic Convention?

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

By David Charvet

Over the past eighty years, hundreds of magicians have appeared on the shows at the annual I.B.M. Conventions. If you really want to stump your friends some time at a Ring meeting, ask them: “Who was the first act on the first show at the first I.B.M Convention in 1926?”

Give up? His name was Jean Foley.

While he is not remembered today, Jean Foley was one of the top acts of his time and a headliner at I.B.M. Conventions for over a decade.

Foley was born August 22, 1903 in Pittsburgh. His first simple tricks were learned from his father. However, a trip to see Howard Thurston’s show in about 1916 convinced Jean that he would seriously follow the art. Impressed by Thurston’s card manipulations, Foley began developing his own card act. It was only a few years later that Thurston saw Foley perform and praised him by saying, “I call myself ‘The King of Cards,’ but you are ‘The Prince.’

Around 1919, Jean began corresponding with a young fellow magician in Lyons, New York. His name was Gene Gordon. Both Foley and Gordon met as members of the Amateur Magicians Correspondence Club, a group started by another teenager, Theodore Brameld, Jr. Foley and Gordon carried on a lengthy series of correspondence over several years. In those days before cheap long-distance phone calls and e-mail, letter writing was the primary form of communication. Foley began taking it as a personal challenge to write longer and longer letters in response to Gordon’s notes. The zenith was reached in 1920, when over a four-month period Foley penned a 190-page, 102,000-word “letter” to Gordon. The stunt was discovered by the famous Robert L. Ripley, who featured Foley’s “World’s Longest Letter” in his syndicated Believe It Or Not! newspaper column.

By 1922, Gene Gordon decided to form the International Brotherhood of Magicians, making many of his pen pals charter members. Gordon gave his Canadian friend, Len Vintus, the honor of becoming member No. 1 to make the group truly international, while Gordon modestly became member No. 2. Jean Foley became member No. 6, right behind Don Rogers (No. 3), Werner “Dorny” Dornfeld (No. 4), and Tom Bowyer (No. 5). Four years after forming the group, their first gathering – the first organized convention of any magical group in the world – was held in Kenton, Ohio.

The first evening show of the Convention was held on Thursday, June 10, 1926 at 8:00 p.m. in Egyptian Hall, the little theater in the back yard of I.B.M. President W.W. Durbin’s home. Billed as a “Grand Magical Entertainment,” the show opener was Jean Foley with his act, “A Trained Pack of Cards.”

Dorny, the master of ceremonies and stage manager for the show, was surprised when Foley demanded that his small card manipulation act be presented on the full stage, rather than “in-one” in front of the curtain, the usual place for an act of his type. Foley saw that the tight quarters at Egyptian Hall would mean that some viewers might catch a glimpse of his methods if the act were done in-one. At the afternoon rehearsal, Dorny begrudgingly relented and allowed Foley to use the full stage for his act that night. This forced Dorny to fill in with extra material after Foley’s act to allow the second performer, “El Barto” (James Barton), time to set his act behind the front curtain. Surprisingly, over fifty years later when I spoke to Dorny and mentioned Jean Foley’s name, his first response was, “He’s the guy who had to do his card act using the full stage at the first I.B.M. Convention!”

However demanding it may have seemed to Dorny, Foley’s insistence in staging his act his way, resulted in an ovation from the audience of nearly two hundred magicians at its conclusion. Jean had made his point.

Over the following twelve years, Foley appeared on the program of every I.B.M. Convention. His act became an annual feature, and Foley added new material and routines for the attendees, many of whom came to the convention every year. Following the 1935 gathering in Lima, Ohio, W.W. Durbin (who had closed that first show in 1926 and was still I.B.M. President) wrote Foley:

“Dear Jean: Your act was superb, and words fail me in which to give it sufficient praise. The audience (was) carried away with your marvelous manipulations, and I congratulate you on your great skill. You were a performer at the first I.B.M. Convention in 1926, and you manipulated the cards then in a masterly way, but you have completely outgrown your first efforts so that your act is now a real masterpiece. I tender my personal thanks and the thanks of the I.B.M. to you for this act which added much to our success at Lima.”

Following a successful career in vaudeville and nightclubs (including a time managing magician/mindreader Rajah Raboid), Jean Foley married Ruth Matteson, an advertising agency account executive, in 1940. The couple moved to Seattle during World War II, where Jean worked in a defense plant. In 1946, Jean opened Foley’s Magic Shop, opposite the Palomar Theater in downtown Seattle, where the top shows appeared. When Harry Blackstone brought his show to the Palomar in 1947, he reminisced with Jean about the first I.B.M. show, on which Blackstone had also appeared.

Jean Foley closed his magic shop in 1958, selling all of his store stock to Syd Brockman. Always a snappy dresser, Jean found a job with a top men’s clothing store in Seattle, where he worked until 1974.

It was shortly after his retirement that I first met Jean Foley. I was just a teenager at the time, working on my own card act. Over the following twenty years Jean became one of my closest friends, regaling me with many stories of his career, including that of his performance at the first I.B.M. Convention. While I never saw Jean’s act in its prime, over the years he did bits and pieces of it for me, along with tutoring me on the nuances of card manipulation and stagecraft. Yes, his manipulative skill and showmanship were still great. He later gifted me his working decks of cards and the scrapbook he kept throughout his career, from which the photos for this story were drawn.

On one of my last visits with Jean, early in 1994, I brought along my friend, Juliana Chen. She performed her card manipulations for Jean in the living room of his apartment. He was like a kid watching his first magician, and after the impromptu show declared her “The greatest I’ve ever seen – and I’ve seen ’em all!” High praise indeed, from one I.B.M. act to another.

Jean Foley died on July 21, 1994, just a few weeks before his ninety-first birthday. He was still I.B.M. member No. 6 -- and still the first act on the first show at the world’s first magic convention.

“The First Act” is reprinted from The Linking Ring, the monthly publication of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.

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