A seemingly ordinary block passes effortlessly through glass. Billiard balls change colors and multiply with a flick of the wrist. An assistant climbs into a box where steel rods are forced through each side, yet somehow miraculously survives. These are all well-known illusions today, but during the 20th century these magic tricks stunned audiences and became hallmarks of the performative art.
But what many magicians today don’t realize is these illusions – and many more – were either created or perfected by a single man. His name was Floyd Thayer, and not only was he an expert magician, but a craftsman without peer. In the early 20th Century, Thayer’s workshops crafted stunning props, tools, and apparatus that helped usher in a new renaissance for California’s magical communities.
Floyd Thayer was born in Jacksonville, Vermont on July 18, 1877. His love of magic began at age eight, when he obtained a magic cabinet through a subscription to The Youth’s Companion, a Boston-based magazine of the time. This device opened his eyes to the world of magical illusions and the physical mechanics that made them possible, which quickly became his most beloved interest. By the time he was ten, he was performing magic shows for friends and family in his attic, using bed sheets for curtains and recruiting his brother to act as a magical assistant.
Thayer’s father was connected to both a mill and a chair stock manufacturing company, and Thayer learned about each trade during the summer months away from school. In 1891, his family moved to Southern California, where Thayer found work constructing orangewood novelties that were immensely popular with visiting tourists. He ultimately apprenticed under an immigrant wood-turner from Germany, and quickly became an expert in the craft.
During this time, Thayer never forgot about magic. Instead, he found ways to apply his woodworking skills to the illusions he’d loved as a child. Among his props and apparatus were the first versions on his high-quality, orangewood billiard balls he would later be renowned for. Thayer would even use these items in live performances, leading magic shows for various private clubs and local charities.
Magic would occasionally take a back seat in Thayer’s life, albeit briefly. In 1898, following the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana, American declared war on Spain. Thayer was one of 220,000 men to join the army, where he served as a lieutenant in Company I of the 7th California Volunteer Infantry. The war lasted ten weeks, and after ending his service Thayer quickly moved into the next chapter of his life – reorienting his entire career around magical illusions.
In the December 1905 issue of Mahatma, Floyd Thayer published an advertisement for his first store: “The Wand of the West.” This store was where Thayer would design, craft, and sell devices for professional and amateur magicians alike. Thayer also began publishing catalogues – initially no more than a few pages – to generate interest among the magical community, and his company’s slogan, “Quality Magic”, embodied the philosophy behind his work. Needless to say, Thayer achieved that goal.
Take the Silk Cabby, which had appeared to be a simple box with two holes on either side. A performer would show the interior of the box to an audience before closing it, stuffing silk fabric into one side, and then removing different colored fabric through the other side. This magical effect is possible thanks to a hidden extra chamber, one that Thayer’s design kept invisible to almost any observer.
Another popular Thayer illusion was transferring seemingly solid objects through glass. One such item attributed to Thayer was the U-235, a prop designed to mimic newly developed reactors. After a performer explains that modern science allows for “atomic restructuring”, they can prove their point by dropping a steel ball through the reactors and past a quarter-inch glass sheet. This trick is so engaging that replicas directly based on Thayer’s work are being sold even today.
The appeal of Thayer’s illusions wasn’t just the quality of his craftsmanship, but also the practical nature of each design. Thayer ensured each item was built with the performer in mind. Every apparatus could be taken apart and easily fit into the smallest travel space, and quickly reassembled by a magician while behind a curtain. Visual appearance was also taken into account, with equipment decorated to maximize its atmospheric effect on the public. Building a prop table is one thing – but coloring it in black and gold paints strikes a different chord under the stage lights.
Thayer’s craftsmanship was noticed by Hollywood’s magical community, which quickly embraced his work. His clients included such luminaries as Houdini, Howard Thurston, and Harry Cooke. Dai Vernon even used billiard balls that had been crafted in Thayer’s workshop for his own performances.
Yet of all magicians, Thayer’s greatest personal influence was Harry Kellar, the legendary performer who directly inspired Harry Houdini. In his day, Kellar was renowned as a meticulous magician who emphasized not only a wide variety of tricks, but also the importance of magical presentation in his performances. Kellar had watched Thayer’s work early in the craftsman’s career, and advised him to invest all of his efforts into magic. One phrase of Kellar’s stayed with Thayer for his entire life: “Thayer, whatever you do, do it just a little better than any other fellow can do it.”
Thayer went on to call Kellar one of his first and closest acquaintances, even taking work from the magician before his retirement in 1908. He even worked on one of Kellar’s final illusions, “the Levitation of Princess Karmac”. For this trick, an assistant was placed in an apparent hypnotic sleep on a couch, before gracefully lifting into the air. A hoop was then passed through and spun around the assistant in each direction to show that she wasn’t being carried by any visible or obvious means of support.
On the business end, Thayer’s operations were expanding rapidly. He began by opening new shop locations, starting with a counter display of magic in Los Angeles. By his height in the 1930s, Thayer Magic Manufacturing Company controlled a property that acted as Thayer’s business and a social gathering place for the magical community. The second floor of this building included a factory, a finish room, metal department, stock rooms, and a fully equipped stage in its 10,000 square foot space.
In 1933, Thayer divided up portions of his operation into separate businesses. The manufacturing wing was purchased by two of his employees – Carl and Emmett Owen – who managed to spin it into the successful Owen Magic Supreme. Thayer meanwhile renamed his portion of the business “Thayer’s Studio of Magic”, locating everything in a three-story Spanish-style house which acted as his home, studio, and theater.
It’s likely that more magical performance history has been forgotten in Thayer’s properties than were ever fully written down. Thayer’s clients included magicians and conjurers from across the world, many of whom would socialize at his studios while stopping to sample their purchased illusions. Celebrities from across the world rubbed shoulders here, allowing for the most exciting and unexpected of meetings.
Personalities like Dante and Blackstone would have meals at Thayer’s home. During wartime, Oscar Welles would rehearse USO shows on Thayer’s stage with Marlene Dietrich, Joseph Cotton, and Rita Hayworth before leaving to perform for the troops. If a visiting guest expressed interest in Hollywood movie sets, Thayer could call up MGM director Clarence Brown and see if a personal escort could be arranged across the studio lot.
When the magician John Booth stopped by Thayer’s factory to pick up a prop table base, he met Oscar Teale – a fellow illusionist who happened to be a member of President Abraham Lincoln’s honor guard. “Look into my face, young man,” Teale solemnly told Booth. “Your face is now looking into a face that was the last one to look into the face of Abraham Lincoln.” It’s no wonder Booth later referred to Thayer’s home as a “mystic site”.
Thayer didn’t just serve professional magicians – his services were available to amateur illusionists as well. Perhaps the most remarkable of these clients was Asa Candler, an Atlanta multimillionaire and founder of Coca-Cola. Candler was no casual hobbyist – during social events at his mansion home, he would host grand magic shows and personally lead each performance. In fact, he was so dedicated to the craft that he mailed Thayer a $10,000 check asking for “some large illusion” to be designed.
As John Booth recounts in a serial autobiography published through The Linking Ring, Thayer was staggered by Candler’s request but quickly set about his task. Booth never detailed what the finished illusion was, but Candler was so impressed with the results that he mailed another $10,000 check to purchase more “big stuff”.
Beyond his personal contributions in the field, Thayer also did his part to encourage future generations of magical craftsman. Along with his part in the formation of Owen Magic Supreme, Thayer made a personal note of cultivating Kellar’s lessons of self-improvement among his employees and fellow magicians alike, Thayer made a note of publishing the following advice to his potential customers:
“Your continued success in magic depends upon just two things. First, upon your own ability to entertain with magic, and second, upon the beauty and efficient quality of the apparatus you employ. The price you pay for any piece of magic should not be considered in the nature of merely an expense, but rather as an investment – something that will add more class and distinction to your act and enable you to command greater remunerative value.
“Our theory is that no piece of magical equipment, even at its best, is yet as good as it should be. We never have, and never shall, cater to the usual cheaper line of novelty and toy shop magic.”
Thayer finally retired from the magic business in 1942. He sold his operation to fellow magical craftsman William Larsen, even agreeing to an amicable house swap, trading his famed studio for a new home in Pasadena. Alongside his wife Jennie, Thayer enjoyed a much quieter life in retirement, but never fully left magic behind. He continued honing his skills from a small in-house workshop, and maintained a personal library filled with rare books on magic. While taking part in interviews in this period of his life, he would muse on the importance of a “magical personality” even outside of stage work – for example, he noted that figures like Roosevelt and Churchill could have been great magicians if they had pursued the art.
Floyd Thayer passed away in July 29, 1959 at 80 years of age. Or rather, as his obituary at the time described, Thayer “is now among ethereal magicians for whom he created or manufactured mysteries.” His Broken Wand funeral ceremony was attended by many of the magicians and performers he had worked alongside and inspired – his own pallbearers included Carl Owen, William Larsen, Dr. Victor Trask, George Boston, Leo Irby, and Frederick Rickard.
While Thayer had no surviving children or family – save for a lone cousin mentioned in his obituary – his legacy is carried on by countless magicians and craftspeople seeking to bring wonder and joy to an audience. And for any magicians introduced to the world magic when a billiard ball appeared from thin air, it’s a legacy they too are a part of.
Potter & Potter‘s first magic auction of the year will feature the collection of John Daniel, who amassed an impressive array of posters, costumes, ephemera, and apparatus over the course of his life. The items up for auction include rarities from Floyd Thayer (like the Whispering Buddha pictured), ample materials from the Virgil & Julie show (including the Disembodied Princess), and a host of items big and small from Dante.
You can download a PDF of the catalog here, or purchase a physical copy here. Potter & Potter is pleased to announce the ability to bid online via an easy-to-navigate site that breaks down the many, many items up for sale into a handful of genres. You can also bid by phone, or of course go in person to Potter & Potter’s Chicago gallery. The auction begins at 10am on March 3rd.