The First 100 Years


 A Chronology of a Century


by George Schindler

On May 10, 2002, the Society of American Magicians will celebrate its 100th birthday. From a small group of two dozen members, the organization has now grown to more than 7,000 active members in over 260 Assemblies with Associate Members in the United States, along with International members in 49 countries around the world. It is the oldest Magic Society in the world.

Were there magic clubs before the Society of American Magicians? On January 14, 1896, W.D. LeRoy, well-known Boston magic dealer, received a corporate charter for “The Magic Mystic Fraternity.” The aims of the organization were to “unite fraternally acceptable men who are recognized performers of ability in the art of magic or sleight of hand, or who possess some skill in legerdemain. ” It received a charter but never came to fruition, although LeRoy did interest others in forming a society. Dr. Henry Ridgely Evans founded a small group known as “The Society of the Sphinx” on January 1, 1901. The purpose was to battle the “exposure” nuisance facing performers of the day. Members pledged not to expose even the “simplest trick or illusion on the public stage.” There was a lack of enthusiasm and the organization was short lived.

Magicians, both professional and amateur, always gathered at the magic shops. The most popular shop at the turn of the century in New York City was Martinka’s Palace of Magic, an establishment under the shadow of the old Sixth Avenue “El.” The shop was located at 493 Sixth Avenue in the flower district in New York (Chelsea). The Martinka brothers, Antonio and Francis, came from Essen, Germany. They opened their shop in the late 1800s. The area was of concern to New Yorkers, as a notorious night club, the Haymarket, was located across the street.

The Martinkas modernized the facility and space was added to the two-story building for storage and a workshop. A small dusty window displayed a few pieces of equipment. Magicians would select items from a catalog, pay for it, and receive a wrapped parcel. Demonstrations were very few and never included lessons on how to perform the effects.

At the rear of the shop was an arched doorway leading into several storerooms and a shipping room. The large backroom was equipped with a stage. Only the “initiates” were allowed into the rooms in the rear. Friends of the Martinkas would gather in the back room on Saturday nights. You may recognize some of the names: Harold Brown, Frank Ducrot (T. Francis Fritz), Dr. Seram Ellison, Henry Ridgely Evans, Imro Fox, Henry Hatton, Alexander Herrmann, Carl Hertz, Harry Kellar, Nate Leipzig, Dr. W. Golden Mortimer, Adrian Plate, Elmer P. Ransom, William Robinson (Chung Ling Soo), John Sargent, Frank Werner, Zancig, and other performers of the day. The regulars, spurred on by Dr. Ellison and Francis Martinka, in what they called “the little back room,” decided to form a Society of American Magicians. On April 26 in 1902, 13 men assembled to put together a set of by-laws. By May 3, the number had grown to 23 and the following week, on May 10, the Society was formed. (The Society was incorporated on April 3, 1908.)

The aims were stated as follows: “To promote harmony among those interested in magic, and to further the elevation of the art.”  As reported by Oscar S. Teale, the Society’s focus was “to Promote a Fraternal Fellowship among magicians and it’s allied Arts & Sciences; to advance the ethical standing of the Society; to promote and safeguard, so far as possible, against clandestine and willful exposure of mystical secrets; to encourage legitimate invention; and to foster the production of a higher type of magical entertainment.”

There were 12 “Fellows” and 12 “Associates.” New members were classified as Associates. Dues were set at $2, payable in advance. The motto was established as M-UM — Those who love Magic will, through Unity, gain Might.

  1. Each member was given a number in the order of his or her joining the Society. This rule is still in effect today. At this writing, the number is over 39,000. Dr. Saram Ellison received number “One,” Dr. W. Golden Mortimer, who became the first President, received number “Two.” Dr. Mortimer drew up the first Constitution, wrote a ritual, and designed, the emblem and seal.

The officers were as follows: President W. Golden Mortimer, First Vice President P.H. Cannon, Second Vice President Elmer P. Ransom, Treasurer J.W. Sargent, Secretary Francis J. Werner, and Admissions Dr. Saram Ellison.

Membership increased the following month when the Secretary reported almost 40 members. Mahatma, published by T. Francis Fritz, began an Official Column of the Society in July 1902, which continued until 1906. After that date, reports of the Society appeared in The Sphinx edited by William Hilliar.

In 1904, the Society, originally intended as a national organization, was expanding. It was deemed it should become international in scope and a worldwide organization, the only one of its kind in existence. Later, societies sprang up in England, Germany, and Australia. (The Magic Circle in London was formed in 1904.)

The New York scene was very active. New members included David Devant, Howard Thurston, Houdini, T. Nelson Downs, Frederick Eugene Powell, and Madame Ellinor Redan (first woman member). Adelaide Herrmann became a member later. Trips were arranged to visit magic shows such as De Kolta and Servais Le Roy. In 1903 when De Kolta died in New Orleans, the Society raised money to send his body back to England.

The first annual banquet was announced and held on May 27, 1905 at the Hotel Vendome. There were decorations, gifts for the ladies, and speakers such as W.D. LeRoy and humorist Marshall Wilder, and a show featuring Emil Close (“Chapeaugraphy”), Francis Fritz, Charles Roltare, and ventriloquist Hal Merton. The surprise guest was Professor Krieger, manipulating “Cups and Balls.” Over the following years special Ladies Night shows and after-meeting events featured new members like Max Holden and regular members Francis Werner, T. Nelson Downs, and Oscar Teale. In 1906, Houdini started his Conjuror’s Monthly magazine and tried to establish it as the official organ of the Society, in place of Mahatma. His efforts were defeated. Piqued by the rebuff, he resigned from the Society. Ironically, he returned as an Honorary Member in 1912, four years after his magazine was no longer being published.

On April 15, 1909, the SAM produced its first public show at the Berkeley Theater on Fifth Avenue at 44th Street. It was entitled Magic Vaudeville and was the forerunner of the Salute to Magic show, which is still in existence and is the oldest continuing magic show in the U.S. The original show featured Mildred &  v

In 1910, Harry Kellar was elected the first Dean of the SAM. In October of 1911, the first newsletter, edited by Charles Roltare, was published. The motto “Magic, Unity, Might” was the tentative title. However, it became “M-U-M” due to a misunderstanding by the printer, using only the first letter of the words of the motto. The newsletter was solely a report of the meetings.

Many small magic clubs were forming around the country and, in 1916, the Society finally invited them to join the organization. The first group that joined as a “Branch” (later called “Assembly”) was the Buffalo Magicians Club, whom Houdini wooed with a banquet he personally sponsored. The smaller groups were afraid of losing their own identities. Houdini, aided by his secretary Oscar S. Teale, assured them otherwise and arranged for all the details such as charters, franchises, and application blanks. On November 24, 1916, the San Francisco based Pacific Coast Society of Magicians voted to be designated as the Golden Gate Assembly.

The New York body resolved itself into an Assembly, to be known as Parent Assembly #1, on June 2, 1917, the same date as Houdini was elected President. There was a great deal of enthusiasm as Houdini and Teale set out to inaugurate other groups in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Rochester, Kansas City, Columbus, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Toledo, all of which had been contacted earlier. It wasn’t until 1918, after World War I, that the other Assemblies would be chartered. In August 1918, Chicago became Assembly #3, Philadelphia #4, Detroit #5, and Baltimore #6. A great deal of the credit for the national spread of the SAM also belongs to Dr. A.M. Wilson, Editor of The Sphinx, who promoted the Society’s early growth. Sphinx founder William Hilliar, now a columnist for the show business newspaper Billboard, also publicized the activities of the Society and sought out new members and magic clubs around the country.

On April I, 1918, the annual New York Parent Assembly show was staged at The Hippodrome for the Showmen’s Hospital Benefit, in conjunction with the Showman’s League of America. The proceeds provided a small nucleus for a fund to assist those in need. This money was the nucleus  for the Hospital Benefit Fund

The 1920’s produced many magic exposures in newspapers and magazines, and an Exposure Committee was formed with member number 999, Servais Le Roy, as its chairman. He was very active and proposed changes in the constitution to cover the misappropriation of material and the public exposure of what Thurston called “simple pocket tricks. ” Thurston had published many of these as “Lessons in Magic” in the Philadelphia Ledger and Brooklyn Eagle. Magazines such as Popular Science and Science & Invention had effects authored by Dunninger. President Houdini gained a great deal of publicity by condemning such exposures.

The death of Harry Houdini on October 31, 1926 was a great blow to the Society, and to the magic world. He was interred on November 4th at the Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale, New York. Bess Houdini added $1,000 to the $1,000 that Houdini bequeathed to the benefit fund, which was then renamed the Houdini Hospital Benefit Fund.

On May 25, 1927, the Society was incorporated with a National Council having headquarters in New York City, and consisting of delegates and appointed or elected representatives from each Assembly. The Parent Assembly sacrificed its Board of Control and substituted an Executive Committee for its individual management. Houdini’s lawyer, Bernard M. Ernst, became the National President and, by October, he reported growth to a total of 17 Assemblies. Ernst remained president of the Parent Assembly until 1935. Howard Thurston followed him as National President.

The SAM planned for it’s first “Conference” to be held in 1929 at the Hotel McAlpin in New York. Its main purpose was a meeting of the first National Council; however, it was the forerunner of the modern-day SAM Conventions.

Once again, the specter of exposure threatened the magic fraternity. In 1933, the Reynolds Tobacco Company had created a nationwide advertising campaign themed “It’s Fun to be Fooled… It’s More Fun to Know,” in which they exposed major effects such as the “Vanishing Bird Cage,” “Thumb Tie,” “Cut-and-Restored Rope,” among others. Meetings by the SAM Committee and Reynolds’ ad agency, the Estey Co., failed to stop the exposures.

In November of 1941, Leslie Guest announced the annual meeting to be held at the Barbizon Plaza in New York on May 24, 1942. In less than three weeks, on December 7, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and our country was at war. The troubled world of the 1940s saw many SAM members go off to war. The SAM civilian members around the country performed for the USO (United Service Organization). Others in the military were assigned to Special Services units, traveling and entertaining the troops around the world. Well known performers such as Lt. Leith Loder, Ronny Cortes, Del Cartier, Milbourne Christopher, and Ray-Mond were active.

In 1942, the National Council reported 1,000 members and a treasury of $4,500 ($1,000 of which was to be invested in a war bond), The War Time Conference drew 500 registrants. A Friday night blackout failed to stop the Annual Show, which was moved from the Roof Garden to the Barbizon’s theater. At $2 admission, the show still made a profit.

Although Conferences for 1943, 1944, and 1945 were out of the question, the National Council continued their annual meetings in New York. It was appropriate that the first post-war Conference in 1946 be held in the nation’s capital. This 18th National Conference was sponsored by the Washington Assembly #23. It was customary for an Assembly to sponsor the meeting. This practice continued until 1981 when the National Organization took over the task of producing each convention. It is also interesting to note that the meetings were given consecutive numbers in order to preserve continuity. Therefore, although three years were missed, the 2002 Convention will be the 74th. The first convention held west of the Mississippi was held in Denver on May 16-19 in 1949. The following year, an historic Joint IBM/SAM convention was held in Chicago. A second joint convention of the two great organizations was held in New York City in 1951. Combined conventions were repeated: 1959 in Chicago, 1960 in Boston.

In June of 1951, M-U-M became a magazine. Milbourne Christopher was elected Editor and set the pace for all future editors. In 1968, Leslie Guest changed the size of the magazine from 5 x 8-1/4 to the current size and edited the publication for nine years, his record surpassed by editor, David Goodsell (over 25 years).

In 1956, the Constitution was changed to allow Associate Membership for those magicians not able to join local Assemblies for geographical or personal reasons.

Television was blossoming and was a great venue for magic and magicians. The first network TV special was created for NBC in 1957 by Milbourne Christopher, who was the SAM National President until 1958. The Festival of Magic special opened the door for many other magicians to be seen on TV by millions of people.

The 1964 New York World’s Fair featured Mark Wilson. Members of the SAM were honored by a Magic Day at the fair that garnered a great deal of publicity. “National Magic Week” was established as a function of the Society in 1967. The origins date from 1927 when Bess Houdini presented a trophy in memory of her late husband on October 31, declaring it “Houdini Day.” There had been other Houdini Days, but in 1938, Les Sholty of Chicago Assembly #3 sought an official “SAM Houdini Day,” during which there would be free performances for shut-ins and handicapped people. The week was finally put in place in 1966 with a Proclamation by President John Zweers. During October 25-31, local Assemblies and members would perform for VA hospitals, senior citizen groups, and day care centers, and offer displays of magic Ill libraries and in store windows to commemorate the anniversary of Houdini’s death. Each year the Broken Wand ceremony is performed at the Houdini grave at 1:26 p.m., the exact time of his death. The breaking of the wand symbolizes that without the magician to wield it, the wand is merely a “stick” and has no power. The Ceremony is one that was originally written by Francis Werner for Houdini’s funeral and is still performed at a member’s passing.

The subject of honoring the magicians of the past had come up as early as 1963. A number of Council members determined that the SAM should make some provision for this, but it did not come about until 1967, when the Constitution was revised to authorize a Hall of Fame Library and Museum. A Historian’s Committee was formed, and John Zweers headed the search for a site. A bank in Hollywood was willing to donate the space, and a facility was built to specifications and at no cost to the Society. The Hall was situated in the basement of the bank and it housed the records and photos of 200 men and women in magic. There was a small theater, a card room, a close-up gallery, a research library, and loads of exhibits. There was no charge for admission to the Hall of Fame, but tours had to be arranged in advance. The Hall of Fame was opened in 1971 during National Magic Week and finally incorporated in the State of California in 1979. The museum is managed by a volunteer committee whose leaders are John Zweers, John Engman, Ronny Cortes, and Edward Thomas.

In 1968, President Vynn Boyar authorized the expansion of a film library. Bob J. Gunther became the chairman of the Film Library Committee project and began to assemble and duplicate historical recordings of members of the Society on film, wire or magnetic tape. The first seven 16mm SAM library films (now videotapes) were offered on loan to Assemblies by 1970. In 1976, Pete Petrashek took over and, in 18 years, streamlined and cataloged the entire collection. Today, librarian Jay Gorham reports that the collection numbers more than 1,300 videotapes (early films were transferred) and 60 audiotapes. Plans are being made to include DVDs to the collection when available.

The seeds for several important programs were planted in 1983. Jim Zachary proposed to re-establish a life membership program for additional income. He suggested that the money be deposited in high yield accounts. A committee with Brad Jacobs, Warren Kaps, and Dick Laneau was formed, and Zachary was named chairman. In order for the contributions to be tax deductible, Warren Kaps suggested that the Society establish a separate organization, which would qualify as a charitable organization. A group of trustees was elected, a Constitution and By-Laws were written, and on May 20, 1987, the  Society of American Magicians Magic Endowment Fund was recognized as a public charitable foundation. On November 19, 1998, final notification arrived making the fund exempt from Federal Income Tax.  (501c(10). The Fund covers the Life Membership program, but its main function is to advance the art of magic in the field of education, preserving the history, and granting funds for assistance programs and fellowships. It sponsors lectures, publications, and special programs. The Society of  American  Magicians Endowment Fund offers grants to the Magic Hall of Fame Library and Museum and supports the Society Young Member program.

“Magic: Past & Present “was the title of the largest magic exhibit in New York City. It opened at Lincoln Center on October 31, 1984 and ran for two months. Parent Assembly #1 created the display that filled the space of a football field. Visitors followed the early history of magic with posters, prints, several illusions on display, and video monitors showed continuous films of Houdini, Mark Wilson, and Le Grand David performances. The famous Le Grand David Broomstick Sculpture, created by David Bull’s father, was unveiled on opening day. Curators Nina and George Schindler and Dr. Stephen Gross worked with collectors such as Stanley Palm, Larry Weeks, Mario Carrandi, Sidney Radner, and Joel Miller.

By the end of 1983, Wendell Gibson, Dan Rodney (Rodriguez), and Dick Laneau proposed an SAM youth program. While there was a junior member category, not enough young people were applying. Gibson had been teaching and working with youngsters at his magic shop and at Arts Centers in New Hampshire. Laneau worked with youngsters in Florida, and Rodney, a full-time school show performer, offered his help. The three gentlemen set up a youth program, formed the organization, started a newsletter called The SYMbol, and brought it to the Society in 1984. It was approved and encouraged by President Ray Corbin. William Andrews was an early coordinator, and later, Margaret Dailey, the first woman elected National President, took over the reins, secured grants for the group, and oversaw its growth. Today, more than 1,500 boys and girls, ages 7-17, around the world, and participate in the Society of  Young Magicians program. (SYM).

The Cold War was not yet over in 1988 when a small group of SAM members visited the Soviet Union to meet Alexander Vorobiev, with whom Bill Ilson has been corresponding. The group comprised of New Yorkers Ilson, Joe Infranca, Bill Doerflinger, and Jim McGrath, along with Pete Petrashek, took off on May 20. They met with the Moscow Magic Society and were off on a non-stop magic tour. This small step toward friendship opened the door for a later trip bringing Russian magicians to the 1989 Convention in Tampa, Florida.

In 1991, there were only seven SAM members in Japan. Ambassador Jimmy Yoshida arranged a meeting with Ton Onosaka, Shintaro Fujiyama and President Michael Douglass, Pres. Elect George Schindler, and Fr. Cyprian Murray. A plan was formulated to increase membership in Japan and, once Assemblies were in place, arrange for a Convention in Tokyo. Within a few months, there were 500 members in Assemblies throughout Japan. In August of 1992, President George Schindler, First VP Dan Garrett and Fr. Cyprian flew to Japan to present the charters and attend the first SAM-Japan convention.

The Houdini grave was vandalized again in 1994 and Parent Assembly #1 sent out a plea for help to replace the bust and several benches that were destroyed. The Society members rose to the occasion and donated funds for the repairs. David Copperfield gave a large donation to get the project started, and the restoration was completed in 1996.

The 1990s closed with the first SAM Convention to be held in Europe, by Austrian Assembly #187. In 1999, in the town of Eisenstaadt, they hosted over 600 magicians from Europe and the U.S.

The Masked Magician TV exposures brought all the magic organizations together. Members of the Society were asked to write letters to the sponsors and their ad agencies. M-U-M published tear-out postcards and listed the names and addresses of the advertisers. Several major companies replied favorably to the SAM. The Internet proved very valuable as both an information source and a way of spreading news. The Society’s web site, also known as SAM-Online, provided news both for the public and for members. Special member pages required a password to access magic tricks, video clips, and photos. This was updated every few weeks by the capable Richard Robinson, who kept the site up-to-the-minute. The website is currently    Members may also access the SAMtalk chat room, ably moderated by Bruce Kalver, where all sorts of magic and club related topics are discussed.

In approaching the new millennium, the Society of American Magicians continued to explore ways and means to advance the art of magic. The  S.A.M. Magic Endowment Fund experimented with booking lectures provided at no cost to the assemblies. Both East and West Coast tours were successful. Harry and Trudi Monti, working with Tom Stone, setting  up a five point program to use magic as a teaching tool for special education. The Society approved the idea and special assemblies were set up for disabled individuals. Initial funding for this came from the S.A.M  Magic Endowment Fund.

2002 was the time to celebrate a century of growth and development. During the weekend of May 10-11, 2002, designated as Founder’s Weekend, many Assemblies planned dinners, shows, magic exhibits, and parties to recognize the 100th anniversary.

The 2002 Centennial Convention was held July 3-6, in New York City, where it all began, at the Hilton Hotel in the heart of the theater district. Plans for this extravaganza have been under way for several years. In addition to bringing magic’s newest acts to New York, many of our favorites will be on hand to celebrate. The accent is on history and, in addition to archival exhibits such as part of the Christopher Collection and a display of the Ellison Wand Collection, there will were classic magic lectures, a Coney Island retrospective, a talk by Houdini’s niece Marie Blood, and souvenirs — plus the usual excitement of magic dealers, close-up performers, junior and senior contests, and a Stars of Tomorrow show. A multi-media retrospective, a magic collectors meeting, plus more souvenirs and a closing night birthday party. The Society of American Magicians is had  a party atmosphere and two special gala shows at the City Center and the public helped us  celebrate. Each registrant received a First Day Cover of the already revealed [October 29, 2001 in Las Vegas] Houdini postage stamp, which was officially issued by the United States Postal Service on July 3. The souvenir program of over 100 pages became the first collectible of the 21st century.




George Schindler, a Past National President (1992-93)) is an author, lecturer, corporate entertainer, and the current Public Relations Chair of the Society.  He was elected to the SAM Hall of Fame and serves on their Historians Committee. He was made the 9th  Dean  in 2005. The following people are thanked for assistance in the preparation of this overview: Ted Bogusta, David Goodsell, Bruce Lish, Philip Marshall, Nina Schindler, and John Zweers, plus the help of the S.A.M Magic Hall of Fame, M-U-M Magazine, and  Parent Assembly # 1 Archives. With special thanks to the memory of Milbourne Christopher.




The Emblem the Society of American Magicians

In the center of this respected emblem, emblazoned in red and white, are the initials S.A.M on a red field. The letters are arranged so that whether Upright or inverted they read the same. The monogram is surrounded by two serpents, each holding the other’s tail in its mouth. The heads are on either side of the monogram. They also appear the same, vertically or inverted. The serpent biting its tail was seen as early as 1600 BC and is called the ouroboros, which means “devouring its tail.” This symbolizes the cyclical nature of the universe. The ouroboros eats its own tail to sustain life, in an eternal cycle of renewal. It sheds its old skin and offers perpetual life to show us that magic will never die.

Surrounding the serpents, in the border, the block letters, The Society of American Magicians, New York, indicates the city in which the Society was founded in 1902. Around the edge of the border there is a radiation of flame. It symbolizes the blazing sun, the flow of consuming flame, emblematic of life and force. The red color has been associated with magic from earliest times.

When the constitution and by-laws of the Society were established, the it was voted that the emblem with the flame was only to be used by the National Council. Assemblies may vary the seal only with approval of the Council, but in no case shall the flame be used. Only members in good standing may use the emblem. The motto M-U-M (Magic Unity Might) is represented in three places within the mystic design.

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial