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George Goebel, magician and Jones costume firm owner, dies

George F. Goebel, owner of A.T. Jones & Sons, began working at the costume company in 1950.
George F. Goebel, owner of A.T. Jones & Sons, began working at the costume company in 1950. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

George F. Goebel, owner of the A.T. Jones theatrical costume firm and a master magician and illusionist, died of pneumonia and cancer complications Monday at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. A resident of Woodbrook in Baltimore County, he was 88.

Among the thousands of costumes Mr. Goebel’s firm built, perhaps the best known is the Baltimore Orioles bird.

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Born in Baltimore and raised in the Evergreen neighborhood of North Baltimore, he was given his first A.C. Gilbert Mysto Magic Set on a Christmas morning. He attended the old Schenley Road public school, Roland Park Public School and Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, where his magic acts were featured in the annual student show, the Poly Follies.

Mr. Goebel was stationed with the Army Security Agency from 1952 to 1955 in Japan. He gained attention in Kyoto, where he picked jail locks and escaped from the newest handcuffs the police had.

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“The trick with handcuff escaping is to get to the type of cuff first and learn how it works. Handcuffs usually work off the same master key,” he said in a 1993 Evening Sun article.

He appeared at an exhibition hall with police officers as his audience and threw off a pair of newly patented Japanese cuffs.

He later said that while the cuffs were new, he had been shown a pair a few weeks earlier at a prison. He used his wits and made an impression of their key using a bar of soap.

“I guessed right that the police chief would bring out that same style of cuff for the show. I was right. I had made up a little pick which worked,” he said.

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While in high school he often visited A.T. Jones & Sons on Howard Street, Baltimore’s oldest theatrical costumers. By September 1950 he had a job with that firm.

In 1972 he purchased it outright and worked six days a week building (a term used in the costuming profession) dozens of peasant girls’ skirts, guardsmen’s tunics and queen’s robes for operas, said the 1993 Evening Sun article.

Other stories called his business “an old-fashioned atelier ... [where] a small but loyal staff scrambles to produce the extensive wardrobes for a new show about every two weeks.“

His shop produced costumes and props for the annual Gridiron Club show in Washington as well as Easter Bunnies and Santas.

“The ... mainstay of the business is theatrical productions, mostly operas,” Mr. Goebel said, “We seldom see the shows. Literally, we don’t have the time.”

J. Scott Watkins, a customer from Reisterstown, recalled a visit to the shop many years ago, “I walked into his place filled with swords and armor, and out appears this kind man, a magical person who took me through the floors of the building and pulled out a 100-year-old jacket and a tricorn hat.

“The place was layered with wigs, brass buttons and silks. He had racks and racks of costumes. It was like a circus exploded in there,” Mr. Watkins said. “George had a rich voice and magic in his eyes. He worked alongside his German shepherd and a parrot in a cage.”

Mr. Goebel retained his love of magic and its history. His collecting interest started as an offshoot of his fascination with Harry Houdini (1874-1926), who was once billed as “the world’s handcuff king and prison breaker.”

“Some people view handcuffs as a military device or piece of police equipment. I see them as props in entertainment,” he said in 1993.

In 1957 he married Carole Buzby. She worked alongside Mr. Goebel as he performed. They also appeared on the Garry Moore and Jackie Gleason television shows with another magician, Milbourne Christopher.

He and his wife made Sunday afternoon drives around the state in search of Bean Giants, Burdicks, Berliners, Bottlenecks, Palmer Irons and Towers — the patented names for handcuffs.

They picked up slave shackles, iron neck collars, waist irons and a ball-and-chain along with many ancient locks. Old locksmith shops were often repositories of Victorian crime-and-punishment equipment.

“People today think that any old handcuff is going to be worth money. That’s not so. Some of the old patents are still being made in England. The value depends on the rarity and scarcity of a set of cuffs,” he said.

One of his most recent acquisitions is an iron prison door with the inscription “John Van Dorn Cleveland Iron Works” on the lock. This century-old door was once the Rolls-Royce of prison safety devices. Picking its lock was one of Houdini’s specialties.

“The history of handcuffs is the history of technology,” Mr. Goebel said.

Mr. Goebel once led a large magic troupe that gave public performances. He was known as a magical classicist who continued to give big, colorful illusion shows after other magicians had stopped doing that style of performing.

He said of the tricks of illusion he created: “Don’t be just a technician who fools your audience. Entertain them. People should leave the theater happy and filled with joy, not just fooled. They need to leave satisfied, with a smile on their faces,” he said.

A life celebration is being planned.

In addition to his wife of 63 years, a retired social worker, survivors include two sons, Ehrich Goebel of Great Red Horn, Scotland, and Daniel Goebel of Edgewater, and three grandchildren.

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