Looking Up to Magic: Memories of Magic’s Greatest Educator, Mark Wilson

(1929 – 2021)

My father said “Joe, we are going to stop by Douglas Magicland.” These simple words opened a magic door for an eight year old boy in Dallas, Texas. Papa was collecting new merchandise from Huey and Philp wholesale hardware company and I went along for the ride. As we pulled out of their parking lot on Elm Street in 1960, I wondered what Papa had up his sleeve when he mentioned our next mysterious destination.

Huey and Philp Hardware Company

We soon arrived at our final destination which was a small shop on Ervay street in downtown Dallas and Papa parked his truck directly across the street. My eyes widened as we crossed the busy street and walked into what would become a new and important world for me.

Unlike many of the the other pre – adolescent boys in my age group, I was not interested in sports. Sports, in Texas, was a golden door that opened to many opportunities for male bonding, friendship and respect from others. I, however, had few physical skills and was more interested in bringing people together for fun, merriment and a common purpose rather than focusing upon competition and conflict.

Papa opened the door, ushered me inside and I immediately and magnetically was drawn across the small show room to a tall, thin and handsome young man with perfectly coiffed hair in his late teens who was standing behind the counter and in front of colourful props with dramatic names such as The Guillotine, the Square Circle and others. I noticed there were also several boys a few years older than myself watching this young magic demonstrator perform wonders and miracles such as producing an wooden egg from an empty bag, making a fifty cent coin squeeze inside the narrow neck a Coke bottle and clink upon falling to the bottom, turn a red silk handkerchief into a green one, and link several solid silver rings together.

I remember that without any encouragement from Papa, I uncrontollably moved to the edge of the counter and strained my neck to look way up at the young man and watched as he wiggled his long fingers to perform these impossible feats. That young man was Mark Wilson, who would during the next seventy years, become one of the world’s most respected and influential magical innovators, performers and educators.

Douglas MagicLand was in business for over sixty years and they were one of the first magic dealers to offer an intriguing catalogue featuring 500 tricks that I could learn to perform.

Douglas MagicLand Catalogue Circa 1960

While this handsome, suave and friendly young man performed one trick after another, my eyes darted around the store and I became more and more aware that indeed this was a remarkable magic land filled with whoopee cushions, hand buzzers, red clown noses, and many more diversions that would ultimately lead me into the world of live entertainment. While other boys of my age would find their fulfilment in sport, I would enjoy a different form of success by bringing others together to witness mysteries and experience wonder and laughter.

My father once told me that the secret to raising children is to simply find what they do best and then nourish those achievements so that they feel proud, confident and unique. Magic was my gateway drug to that euphoric feeling of finding something that really mattered to me and brought joy to others.

One of the reasons I believe that Mark Wilson was so influential to me at such a tender age was his ability to gently and with a soft voice explain the complexities of his magical effects whilst never giving away the ultimate secret. He would gently draw his long fingers in front of his chest, wiggle them slowly and those of us that watched in amazement knew that his magic hands were truly capable of making the impossible, possible. Years later he would be responsible for teaching millions of others how to wiggle their fingers so that they also possessed magic hands.

Papa and I paid for our purchases of an egg bag that made wooden eggs appear and disappear before finally turning inside out to reveal a replica of a chicken, a black and white magic wand that would suddenly and hilariously collapse, a deck of playing cards connected by string and known as the electric deck, and those remarkable individual Chinese rings that would soon link with one another to form beautiful geometric patterns. As we departed the store, I inhaled one last time as if to permanently take with me the musty, dusty smell of this place of wonders to inspire the remaining days of my life.

Upon arriving home, I went straight to my bedroom and began reading the instructions that accompanied each trick and then pouring through the catalogue to see which of the 500 tricks I would purchase next. Within a few days, I was performing magic for my parents and their friends whilst standing upon the small step above the sun room in our home. A couple of years later, Papa had created a magic act for me and my younger sister featuring large illusions that he had designed and built at his hardware store. This act, impossibly triumphed over piano players, dancers and other more traditional amateur talent contestants to win the First Prize at a major local talent show.

My Sister and I winning First Prize for our Magic Act that was inspired by Mark Wilson

In the sun room of our home, a small black and white television dominated one end of the narrow space and I noticed that a new programme was airing on Saturday morning. The man on the screen, almost as if by magic, was the same young man in top hat and tails, who first performed for me at Douglas MagicLand. Mark Wilson and his wife, whom he always referred to as “my lovely assistant Nani Darnell”, had created the world’s first nationally broadcasted magic show entitled The Magical Land of Alakazam. Here, Mark and Nani would each week for four years perform larger illusions such as placing her within a prop that looked like an old fashioned choo choo train and with the help of Rebo the clown, Nani would soon be miraculously seperated into two parts. Millions of young people faithfully tuned in week after week to see, pardon the pun, what was up Mark’s never endling sleeve of miraculous surprises.

Mark Wilson and Nani Darnell Circa 1962
Nani Darnell and Mark Wilson in later life

The partnership of Mark and Nani as husband and wife not only produced thousands of shows seen by millions of fans, they also produced two fine sons, Greg and Mike, who joined their mother at their father’s bedside when Mark, at 91, may have tried this week to disappear one final time. However, I am not so sure that this disappearance was indeed final.

During his seventy year career, he will perhaps be best known as the world’s first ever internationally prominent magic educator. He created the Mark Wilson Complete Course in Magic that has instructed millions of young people in how to make objects appear, disappear, divide, multiply, change colour, levitate and much more. As a beloved teacher who passed along his passion for magic to many others, he cannot and will not disappear, thereby proving that within every trick their may indeed be a surprise ending.

As a young father, I performed magic for my two sons and one of them has become a successful professional magician. Even more recently, I was performing magic for my four year old grandson and he asked me to please show him my magic break away wand. As I carefully placed the erect wand into his small hands, it broke into several pieces that were connected by a string. He howled with laughter and at that very moment, I knew that the enduring magic of Mark Wilson was indeed immortal. He shall not ever disappear.

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University. He performed magic for many years and included magic in his University classroom to illustrate the key principals of planned (and often) unplanned events.

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