Goebel the illusionist, escape artist and magician is subject of new book

My object is to mystify and entertain. I wouldn't deceive you for the world. — Howard Thurston

If Central Casting were looking for an archetypical prestidigitator, it could do no better than George Goebel, the veteran Baltimore magician and Houdini expert who also owns A.T. Jones & Sons, the Howard Street costume shop.

"In our day, magicians looked like magicians. Today, they wear jeans and other outfits," Goebel said in an interview the other day.

"A magician should wear a full dress suit, pique vest, turban and have a beard. I remember one time a little boy looked at me and said, 'You have the magic suit on,'" Goebel said with a laugh.

With a head of thick, wavy hair, once dark but now silver, a mustache and goatee, also silver, and dark penetrating eyes, Goebel is still the embodiment of the magician of legend.

Goebel's lifelong love affair with the conjuring arts began when he was a 10-year-old growing up in the city's Evergreen neighborhood.

In 1942, a cousin gave him a Christmas gift that changed his life: a Mysto magic set made by the A.C. Gilbert Co. of New Haven, Conn., better known perhaps for its American Flyer electric trains.

Suddenly, the elementary school student who became known as "Goebel the Magician" discovered he liked performing tricks for his classmates.

"Magicians are like children, and I never outgrew my fantasy," Goebel told the Rev. V. Rauscher, whose biography of the Baltimore magician, "Goebel: The Man With the Magical Mind," was recently published. "Entertainment is what makes a magician; tricks are at the bottom of it."

"My Aunt Dora worked at Ford's [Theatre] and she got me a ticket for an end seat in the orchestra where I saw [Harry] Blackstone many, many times. I also saw him at the Hippodrome. He was a great, great influence on me," Goebel said in a recent telephone interview.

"Baltimore has a wonderful magic history. Many of the legendary magicians such as Blackstone, [Howard] Thurston and [Harry] Kellar would come to the city and perform each year," he said. "Baltimore was really a hotbed of magicians in those years."

Another powerful influence on Goebel was Baltimore-born and -raised Milbourne Christopher, who was known as "America's Foremost Magician."

Christopher, who was born in 1914 and raised on Elmora Avenue, died in 1984 and is buried in Moreland Memorial Park Cemetery in Northeast Baltimore.

Goebel would often spend hours on end with Christopher sitting around the kitchen table discussing magic.

"I consider Chris a major influence and mentor. He was always very kind to me and unbelievably gracious," Goebel said in the interview. "He would show you things and share things."

By the mid-1940s, Goebel was president of the Pyramid Magic Club, and while a student at Polytechnic Institute, performed his magic in the annual "Poly Follies" talent shows.

After graduating from Poly in 1950, Goebel went to work for A.T. Jones, the venerable costumer that was established in 1868 and has been in the 700 block of N. Howard St. for years.

After serving in the Army, he returned to the costume company in 1955, where he managed the company and went on the road performing magic.

By the mid-1950s, Goebel was developing a reputation and a devoted following.

Rauscher writes that in 1956, Goebel was "presenting escape effects in schools, churches, public exhibitions, and was also doing Houdini's needle-swallowing trick, but using razor blades instead of needles.

"He realized, as others had, that Houdini was a name everyone would recognize, and when his publicity was linked with the escape artist, it drew a crowd," wrote the author.

Goebel earned elaborate news coverage in 1958, when he escaped from a straitjacket while suspended upside down from a crane at the Kent Island Fair.

In May 1963, a crowd gathered outside the newly opened Convention Center to watch Goebel successfully re-create a classic Houdini escape that had last been performed in Baltimore in 1916. Goebel, whose arms were tightly bound in a straitjacket and whose legs were bound in rope, was suspended 50 feet upside down from a McDade Rigging Corp. crane.

He married Carole Busby, a social worker, in 1957, who worked onstage as his assistant.

Goebel assembled the George Goebel Magic Show in 1968, which had a cast of 30. His inventory of 15 doves, nine rabbits, five ducks, two chickens, a goat and 60 crates of illusions traveled aboard a 22-foot truck.

Goebel eventually came to national attention when his friend Milbourne Christopher invited him and his wife to appear with him on Jackie Gleason's 1962 Christmas special, which was televised nationally on CBS.

The couple later appeared again with Christopher on a subsequent Gleason show as well as on "The Garry Moore Show" and in a Houdini documentary.

Despite elaborate illusions, Goebel said, a traditional magic show must have three elements: "They are pulling a rabbit from a hat, floating a lady and sawing someone in half," he said.

"With magic, you don't try and fool anybody, you entertain them," Goebel said, explaining his performance philosophy. "You want them to go away having had a nice time."

Goebel is a major collector of vintage magic tricks and other memorabilia related to the craft.

He stopped performing in the 1980s, yet works 12-hour days, seven days a week, providing costumes for many of the country's major opera companies.

He was sanguine when addressing the issue of no longer performing professionally.

"I don't perform any more because you need to know when it's time to quit. The worst thing is for an audience to come and see you and you're not able to perform they way they remember it," he said.

Rauscher, the author, who lives in Woodbury, N.J., near Philadelphia, described Goebel as being a "classicist."

"George does old-style, classic magic, and he was always very good," Rauscher said in a telephone interview the other day. "I wrote the book because I felt he deserved a niche in the magic world after all these years."

Goebel's Aunt Helen, 88, who works for him as a seamstress, had a different idea about her nephew's life.

"When she heard about the book, she said, 'Why in the world would anyone want to write about you? You've never done anything important,' " Goebel said with a laugh.

"I agree. I have no idea why he wrote it," he said.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

MPT seeks Bay Bridge memories

Maryland Public Television is producing a program about the Bay Bridge that will air next spring. It's looking for people with anecdotes, photos or home movies about the bridge. If you have any you'd be willing to share, contact Mike English at 410-581-4334 or menglish@mpt.org.

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