Milo & Roger: A Magical Life by Arthur Brandon
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 1999)
The literature of magic can provide a textured and varied landscape of not only the community and culture of conjuring, but of the times and worlds that it inhabits. Whether reading Pinchbeck's The Expositor or Wilmarth's Magic of Matt Schulien, one gains insights beyond the methodology of described magic tricks. While a sense of time, place, and person can be elicited from such works concerning conjuring technique, of course historical texts and biographies can greatly enlarge one's under-standing of the context in which particular performers and their tricks lived. To read Eddie Dawes' biography of Charles Bertram is to dramatically expand one's understanding of the performer and his tricks that were long before portrayed in C. Lang Neil's The Modern Conjuror.
Perhaps no books do a better job of such evocative instruction than the autobiography, a form that only occasionally appears in substantive dress in the world of conjuring. Of course, all magic books by authors describing their own work are autobiographical to some degree, but more often than not, authors restrict themselves dramatically to their technical subject matter, or may perhaps include anecdotes of the sort found in Magic and Methods of Ross Bertram, or in Gene Gordon's Magical Legacy. On the other end of the scale is a truly outstanding work that virtually stands alone in our field, namely Illusion Show by Theo Bamberg. This is arguably the finest autobiography in the annals of conjuring; it is the story of a great magician, his life in magic, and, with humor and insight, recounts the ups and downs that seem inescapably universal elements of the show business life. No magician should deny him or herself the pleasure of reading this fine book.
The latest autobiographical entry is this new book from Hermetic Press, concerning the life and times of the late Arthur Brandon, better known as Milo of Milo and Roger fame, one of the most successful and funniest duo magic acts of the 20th century. I recall seeing Milo and Roger on what was probably Hollywood Palace, a variety television show in the tradition of Ed Sullivan that thrived in the 1960s. Frankly, I don't recall many details, beyond the two distinctively oddball characters, Milo's ridiculously oversized and incessantly bouncing turban, and a truly amazing and comical running version of the Lota Bowl. But Milo and Roger made an impression on me, and it's a shame that most readers under 40 or thereabouts will not recall this delightfully wacky stage partnership. (They also made an impression on Johnny Carson, although not mentioned in the book, Milo's outsized turban appears to have been the inspiration for "The Great Karnac's" signature costume accessory.)
Arthur Brandon grew up in Alliance, Ohio, population 22,000, and his depiction of small-town mid-American life in the 1920s is richly evocative, told with wry wit and loving tenderness. This segment of his narrative was indeed my favorite section of the book, as the author describes his childhood interest in magic, against a background of all sorts of eccentric midwest characters including shopkeepers, gossips, proselytizers, and madams. The stars of this period are, not surprisingly, Mr. Brandon's parents, a hard-working couple who loved their son, nurtured his interests and creativity, and possessed a great deal of smart insight concerning the lives they led and the world in which they lived.
A note to parents: This book should probably come with a PG rating, as Arthur's family was not beyond uttering what can most appropriately be described as the occasional saucy turn of phrase. It's all in good humor, however, as Arthur's parents poke affectionate fun at the foibles of the folks who invariably drop by the house from time to time to chat or share a meal. Mr. Brandon's memory is superb and his descriptive skills even better, and both are brought to bear to render this section of the book a price-less read.
Suffice to say, eventually Arthur Brandon met Roger Coker, who convinced Arthur that he should join the elder and more experienced Brandon to create a magic act. Eventually Arthur became Milo and the two became Milo and Roger. The evolution of their unique brand of comic magic was slow, filled with the fits and starts of so many show business careers, which only seem to make sense in hindsight—if at all. Along the way, in order to pay the bills for their constant construction of props and development of new ideas, Brandon often worked as an astrologer and fortune teller. While it is sometimes interesting to read his accounts of performing readings, at one point in their lives, for the famous and glamorous in Hollywood, nevertheless this subject becomes a wearisome one throughout much of the second half of the book. Brandon's relentless and lifelong insistence on all manner of interpretation of signs, coincidences, and other mystical nonsense is a portrait of the credulous mind unclouded by the slightest pause of critical or rational thought.
Nevertheless, if one can overlook this not insignificant distraction, one will also delight in Milo and Roger's adventures and successes, both nationally and eventually around the world. The duo eventually spent most of the later portion of their lives working in the Far East, and living in Thailand. Their considerable success provided them with no shortage of new and unexpected experiences, and as Brandon recounts these tales, he never allows his eye for the humane detail to drift, and neither does he lose his childlike delight. This was a gentle man who loved life and people, and his naiveté, while bordering on the incredible at times, was also clearly a part of his unmistakable charm.
Brandon uses magic more as a backdrop than as a foreground subject; although he clearly had a passion for magic, one does get the impression that it was the adventure and the people of his world—including of course those laughing audiences—that maintained his lifelong appetite for the form. And so, unlike Bamberg's Illusion Show, there is little to be found here in the way of details about magic except for occasional snippets of description, in the most general terms, of some of the tricks upon which Milo and Roger built their act.
There is absolutely no discussion of method, as the book is clearly intended for a non-magic readership, which in some ways it may well deserve. Given the minimal description, I think the conjuring readership might have benefited from an appended, more detailed description of Milo and Roger's act, which would certainly have served valuably for the historical record. Nonetheless, this is a unique first-person narrative of a life (or two) in magic, and will repay its readers with a fair share of humanity, insight, and the occasional belly laugh.