Since its inception, the Society of American Magicians has been wowing audiences with clever sleights of hand, pulling rabbits from hats and every magic trick hallmark you can imagine. But this year they pulled off their most impressive trick – the organization has been making magic for a full century.
Meeting at the Associated Polish Home on 9150 Academy Road the third Thursday of every month, the 50-member organization was the fourth chapter established nationally by magic legend Harry Houdini himself. Houdini was president of the SAM when he signed a charter that brought the chapter into existence on Jan. 3, 1920.
Since SAM was originally started in New York in 1902, it has established almost 300 assemblies worldwide and attracted more than 50,000 members. Thousands of those members have gone through the Philadelphia chapter, said president Dick Gustafson.
“Basically every famous magician who ever came to Philadelphia came to our club,” said Tom Ewing, the organization’s historian.
Those ranks include many successful magicians like Gustafson and his wife Joanne, who recently passed away. In their prime, the duo were selected by talent scouters to perform their routine Magic By Candlelight on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1967.
The routine features Dick seemingly multiplying lit candles in his hand or making them disappear, and at one point producing an entire lit candelabra from behind some cloths. The three-minute performance launched their magic careers that kept them performing for nearly half a century after that, with Dick walking away from his job as a chemist to become a magician.
“I still have 43 major illusions left in my garage,” Gustafson, now 89, said with a laugh. He constructed more than three dozen of them himself.
The Philadelphia chapter remains one of the largest in the world today. For much of its run it was the second largest behind only New York, winning awards from SAM for its activeness and achievement.
The organization will also send magicians out to nursing homes and hospitals in the area to perform free magic shows during National Magic Week in October. The chapter has been awarded for sending out the most magicians, said secretary Helene Schad.
Each monthly meeting is as magical as it sounds, featuring trick sales, performances and lectures. Last meeting featured Daniel Roy, a 23-year-old University of Pennsylvania student who uses his hands both to practice becoming a neurosurgeon at school and perform sleight-of-hand tricks for awed crowds as a magician.
Among Roy’s bag of tricks is having audiences keep track of a particular card that he calls the “money card” as he shuffles them, always flipping it face up in positions the eye wouldn’t expect.
“Practice like your hands are submerged in pot of honey,” Roy advised young magicians. It helps teach the manual skills while they can work on their presentation.
Interested young magicians can contact Schad at 215-639-8782 to join the club or learn more about membership.
The organization kicked off its 100th year with a big celebration, and plans to continue dazzling audiences as it goes along.
“It was a lot of work, so we’re not going to do it again until the next hundred,” Gustafson said.