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Levante: His Life, No Illusion by Kent Blackmore

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 1997)


Les Levante was the most famous performing magician to come out of Australia and also probably the last of the great post-vaudeville road-show magicians, still touring well into the 1950s. Kent Blackmore has provided an interesting and readable account of this worthy subject in a decidedly unusual format.

Between 1969 and 1973 Levante dictated a series of audiotapes for a planned autobiography, with the intended title of My Life, No Illusion. The project was eventually abandoned. After Levante's death in 1978 at the age of 85, Kent Blackmore came upon transcripts of those tapes. While the material was far from complete, Levante was very good on dates and other kinds of details, and his personality was clearly reflected in the first-person material. Hence, Mr. Blackmore devised an interesting solution to the problem of how best to use this material along with his own writing: not so much to combine them as to intersperse them. He has lightly edited the material for readability, and broken it into segments according to timeline. He has then alternated Levante's material with his own, following each segment of first-person narrative with additional material uncovered by Mr. Blackmore. The result is quite effective, and clearly seems the best possible solution; it would have been a shame to have excessively altered Levante's own contributions to the point of obscuring his distinctive voice.

What comes across is a portrait of a man who was adaptable, hard-working, good- natured, and with a clear talent for business. Levante did whatever was necessary, and sometimes whatever came along, to make a living in and out of show business. In his twenties he was doing magic, spiritualist exposes and escapes. He did publicity and advance work for a small theater company along with occasional stints as an actor therein, and was procuring and touring early silent films (this circa 1916). For a ten- month period in the midst of all this he paused to establish and operate a fruit store which he eventually sold! Levante was nothing if not resourceful.

These early experiences were to serve him well throughout his life, and even though Levante became known primarily as a magician, he remained an entrepreneur for most of his career, assembling revue shows with a diverse array of artists which he would book and promote all over the world, with his illusion show, How's Tricks?, generally comprising the second half of the evening. Although magic was ever present in Levante's life and remains so throughout this account, often it seems to take a back seat to other matters. There are, from time to time, interesting magical effects and anecdotes, as when the Selbit Sawing is discussed at length— "one of the best things I have ever seen or done in magic"—or a version of the Substitution Trunk, done with a "steel trunk" But the bulk of Levante's first-person narrative focuses on the business side, recalling dates, fees, booking arrangements and the like. Clearly he had as much if not more talent for business than for magic, and likely took as much or more pleasure in the commerce side as well. In 1931 he wrote to a friend, "[A]fter twenty years of [show business] I have realised that the same time devoted to a commercial business would have been far more profitable, but not nearly as interesting..."

And it was an interesting life. On tour in the Far East, Levante met up with Will Rogers in Singapore. The two showmen spent a few hours chatting about the business. Levante picks up the tale: "'Will, will you kindly tell me how it is that you can fire all your gags so beautifully and have the sting of the gag right in the last few words?' He told me this, 'I write in long-hand the whole of the story I want to tell, then I take out all the cliches, things like 'as you were', 'I was saying', 'by the way'—and having done that I eliminate any word that might give the hearer any inkling as to what the tag might be, because the ear can transfer to the brain quicker than the voice can speak.' And do you know, that is very sound logic and, in after-years, I used that in my stage presentation. I was a glib speaker and it was Rogers who made that possible." As it no doubt would for anybody careful enough to put such valuable advice into action today.

Again and again, it is Levante's unflappable nature and amiable opportunism that come to define him. "Another profitable sideline during [World War Two] was to locate and purchase grand pianos from all over the state and to sell them to the well-heeled American troops. ... It was apparently not unknown, at times, for Les to pack his illusions with cigarettes and alcohol, relying on his charm to bluff his way through customs..." But it would be wrong to conclude from this that Levante was a miser or harsh taskmaster. John Newman, who joined the Levante revue as an up and coming comic recalls that "Les was great with his assistants; you got to love him and wanted to help him all the time." Newman recounts being semi-stranded one night in a town in which he and his wife were unable to locate proper accommodations, stuck in frigid weather in a station wagon. "Les walked over and said, 'My dears, come and join us for dinner tonight.' We... hardly had money to eat, so we went into this lovely warm caravan and Gladys [Levante's wife] had cooked a lovely roast duckling dinner... and at the end, Les said, 'What are you doing tomorrow, John? Will you come down with me to the market, I want to get a couple of new ducks for the show—those others got a bit too fat,' We'd just eaten the act!"

A fortunate exception to the unfortunate rule that too many professional magicians sadly wind up in dire financial condition (the biography of The Great Raymond [page 266 ] is merely one recently recorded example), Levante retired with his wife in comfortable circumstances. But one is tickled to learn that "Les' definition of retirement, however, seems to have been entirely flexible, his workload simply becoming intermittent rather than continuous." And so it was that at the age of eighty Levante drove from Sydney to Perth, a distance in excess of 2000 miles, "for what amounted to one week's work!" And three years later he worked a four-week theater run; you have to admire and delight in the man. Portions of the book make for less than lively reading, but by the final chapters Levante comes alive, often in third-person anecdotes from people who knew and worked with him, and we come to care about and appreciate the man and his successes. The book concludes with a section of magic reprinted from various journals to which Levante had contributed material that in most cases comprised elements of his active working repertoire. Included here are plans for a remarkable illusion which Levante was never able to construct in his lifetime, but that presaged by many decades the now popular Impaled illusion.

Levante: His Life, No Illusion is part of the publisher's "Magic Pro-Files," a series of biographies that has previously included books profiling Walter Jeans, the Great Leon, P T Selbit, David Devant, Buatier de Kolta and most recently, Carter the Great. Proposed future titles include works on Robert Harbin and Servais Le Roy. Across the series these books have been consistently well produced, and the Levante volume is no exception with glossy paper, a generous supply of well-reproduced illustrations and photographs, illustrated endpapers and a tipped-in color reproduction of a 1937 poster from the publisher's collection. A classy and pleasing job all around, as befits the life it portrays.

8 - 1/2" X 11" hardbound with dustjacket; 240 pages; over 100 photographs plus line drawings and tipped in color poster reproduction; 1997; Publisher; Mike Caveney's Magic Words