Remembering John Calvert
Last Friday the world became a little less magical.
Mr. Calvert – despite our friendship, I could never bring myself remotely close to calling him “John” – was legendary in the magic community. He had an enormous illusion show that toured the world repeatedly in the 1940s and 50s. Mr. Calvert would fly the show on his own plane, transport it on his own yacht, and perform it for thousands of people in venues literally spanning the globe.
In addition to magic, he was a Hollywood film star. He played “The Falcon” in a number of films, later producing and directing his own movie, “Dark Venture,” set in Africa.
His biography, John Calvert – Magic and Adventures Around the World, is the true story of his life and career. If you track down a copy and read it, you’ll realize why I considered him the closest thing to a real-world superhero I ever knew.
In July 2002, I booked the then 90-year-old John Calvert to lecture for IBM Ring 9 – The Georgia Magic Club. The lecture venue was the fellowship hall of First Baptist Church of Tucker, a suburb of Atlanta. He and his wife Tammy would arrive at the venue several hours early to load in and set up. I planned to meet them there to assist. As they traveled in a large RV, the plan was for them to simply stay in the parking lot that night before driving off to their next engagement.
As was Mr. Calvert’s nature, he arrived a bit early. By the time I got to the venue, he was already in the church office charming the staff with coin tricks and his captivating personality. Nearly 91, Mr. Calvert had driven and parked that giant RV perfectly, and together we unloaded the show and loaded it into the hall.
He was a racehorse of a man – tall, broad, muscular, statuesque. He seemed to lift and move heavy loads not just easily but in fact gracefully, doing it without a bit of strain, never getting a hair out of place or wrinkling his clothing. It was almost as if his mere touch caused the curtains and tables and cases and carts and boxes to get out of the RV and move themselves inside by themselves.
Once inside, he and Tammy set up the curtains and other pieces of the show. Mr. Calvert took me aside and showed me a case containing about two dozen cassette tapes, each of which was cued to the next piece of music in his show. He explained how I was to play the cue, eject the tape, insert the next one, and play it on the next cue as indicated in his script. He was admittedly not an early adopter of new technology in his later years.
After the show and the lecture – during which he mesmerized laymen and magicians alike – he broke down the show and we loaded out. With everything replaced in the RV, we began to settle them in for the night.
Except that the power to that outlet wasn’t working.
Whether it was a blown fuse or some other problem, I don’t know. But there was no way to power their air conditioner in that parking lot. In July in Atlanta, that’s a significant problem.
No worries. I suggested they drive to my home and we’d plug them in there.
He drove the RV into my neighborhood, parked it in front of my house, and… that wasn’t working either. The extension cords I had weren’t rated high enough to power what he needed, apparently. It powered some of the things in the RV, but not the air conditioner. So I invited them inside while I worked on a solution.
It was rather late, but it was not so late that Mr. Calvert didn’t want to talk about magic. We went down into the basement where my books and props were stored. We talked about performing and traveling. We talked about the business and the art of magic. We talked about relating to audiences and interacting with people. He gifted me with notes and pictures and wisdom from his rich career.
By now it was late enough that the idea of driving to a hotel was not appealing to anyone. My wife was out of town, so I suggested that the Calverts take the master suite. I would be honored to have them stay there. We had no guest room furniture at the time, so I planned to take the hide-a-bed in the sofa in our family room.
Mr. Calvert, the Hollywood star and globetrotting magic legend, looked me in the eye and flatly refused. I was afraid I had offended him, but that wasn’t the case. To my amazement, he said that he and Tammy would sleep on that couch and I would sleep in my own bed.
This was not an acceptable solution to me. John and Tammy Calvert… on our hide-a-bed? It seemed insulting and beneath the level of hospitality that I was determined to show them. I strenuously argued my case, but it was like arguing with a mountain. The decision was made and the subsequent conversation was nothing more than Mr. Calvert’s exercise in seeing how long it would take for me to accept it. Tammy and I made the bed in that fold-out sofa, and there they slept until morning.
The next day, I resolved to overcome the previous night’s travesty and take them out to breakfast somewhere nice to give them a great send-off. It was not to be. Tammy had risen before me and had plugged in the extension cord. The power was now working, including the RV’s air conditioner. Who knows why, but everything was now in order. I came downstairs and Tammy was entering the house. She asked me if she could use some of the eggs in our refrigerator. I objected, saying I was taking them to breakfast, but it was too late. She had already begun cooking breakfast out in her kitchen in the RV, and all she needed was a few eggs to complete the meal.
So Mr. Calvert and Tammy and I sat in the RV and ate breakfast together in front of my house that morning. The conversations and stories continued, and it became clear that Mr. Calvert and I had many things in common in terms of faith, world view, and so on. When breakfast was done and dishes were put away, that 90-year-old man and his beautiful wife drove away in a giant RV, winding out of my little neighborhood and off to their next adventure.
Mr. Calvert returned to Atlanta twice more, and remembered our time together fondly each time I saw him. My last interactions with him were when he was 100 years old and we were both at the London Palladium. I was a close-up performer in the cast of a giant show in which he was, of course, a headliner. He had been booked at the Palladium decades before but couldn’t do the engagement because of a schedule interruption at the beginning of World War II. Somehow his subsequent travels always landed at other London theatres. He ultimately fulfilled his goal of performing at the Palladium on that night in 2011. It was a happy circumstance that I was able to be present and part of that wonderful evening.
Mr. Calvert, thank you for your impact on the art of magic. Thank you for being one of the world’s great performers, but more than that, thank you for being one of the world’s greatest gentlemen.