McDonald Birch: The Master Magician

By Tom Ewing

Feb17 coverI never intended to write a book on McDonald and Mabel Birch. Of course, as someone interested in the history of the conjuring arts, I was aware of Birch and his wife. I even have one of their posters promoting “Princess the Vanishing Pony.” And I knew Charles McCall, a fellow historian, professor of political science at the University of California, Bakersfield, and all-time fan of the Birches. Charles was the one writing the book on the Birches; at collectors’ meeting friends would ask Charles how it was coming. He always replied that he needed to do a little more research and then he’d start writing. His untimely death in 2013 prevented him from writing that book.

Knowing how easily precious research and files can be lost after a person’s death, I reached out to his executor and urged him not to let all of Charles’s research be disbursed or destroyed. Eventually we reached an agreement and he turned over all of it to me with no provision that a book be written. However, once I saw the multiple scrapbooks and six linear feet of hanging files, I knew the book was there to be written. Charles had interviewed everyone who ever worked on the Birch show, friends, relatives, collectors, and other historians; he had extracted every bit of material online or in print. He just hadn’t written a manuscript. But now, the book that Charles planned to write has been published.

What I discovered as I pored over the research is a true magical love story. Birch loved magic and knew in high school that it would be his career. In 1931, he discovered an even stronger love when he met and married Mabel Sperry, a talented musician who played the marimba xylophone; she became a glamorous spot in his show and his heart. Unlike many famous performers whose relationships ended in divorce, the Birches remained in love throughout their lives. Unlike other magicians who lived in rented rooms and ended up penniless, Mack and Mabel lived in “Birchwood,” a beautiful antique-filled home of their own design on a ridge above the Muskingum River in Malta, Ohio. They loved performing and their audiences loved them.

Readers of Birch the Master Magician: The Story of McDonald and Mabel Birch will travel along with Mack and Mabel as they perform across the United States, Canada, and even in England. Along the way Birch meets Houdini, Thurston, Virgil, S.S. Henry, Tommy Windsor, W.W. Durbin, and even Winston Churchill, a friend from the days when they were both on the same Chautauqua platform. To his last days, Churchill performed card tricks for his grandchildren taught to him by Birch.

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