Daily photos by Brennen Smith|
Decatur couple Elizabeth and Elmer Newman made a dynamic duo as traveling magicians starting in the 1940s and ’50s. Elmer’s favorite part of those days? “Fooling people,” he said. “Yeah, I got a kick out of that.”
The great Newdini and his lovely assistant relish in the glory days of their traveling magician past
By Danielle Komis Palmer
In a modest home in Decatur lies a treasure many children would ache to see.
Wands, folding boxes and oversized playing cards are stacked on a shelf in a dark room. Sunlight trickles in around the edges of a poster covering the room’s one small window with black velvet curtains.
“In person! Elmer J. Newman — World Famed Wizard of Magic,” the poster proclaims.
The man featured in the poster looks at it, smiles and slowly turns his small frail frame in a circle, gazing at the numerous magician posters and photos he has collected over the years.
Among 100 posters, there are ones of P.C. Sorcar, the great Indian magician; John Reed, a Hartselle magician; and Paul Smith, a Chattanooga magician and ventriloquist. These were the days when live, big-stage magic shows were all the rage, before TV slowly stole audiences away.
Elmer Newman, 89, and his 82-year-old wife, Elizabeth, no longer perform the magic tricks they became so well known for across the Southeast in the ’40s and ’50s. Long ago Elmer’s hands became too shaky, his legs too weak. While he gets around using a walker now, his mischievous glances and devilish grins make him seem like a spry young man.
Many visitors have walked through the Newmans’ magic room and some have offered to buy the collection from him. But Elmer refuses.
“I tell ’em, ‘Nope, this is all I have to look at now,’ ” said the man who nicknamed himself “Newdini” — a combination of his last name and that of famous magician Harry Houdini.
He and his wife may have retired from the business years ago, but they can still escape into their old world of smoke and mirrors as long as their collection lives on, he said.
“I had a record of being one of the best magicians in this part of the country but them days is gone,” he said.
On the road
The magic shows were just part-time work for the couple, who started performing in the 1940s and stopped about 10 years ago. They both had other jobs — she as a cashier at the Decatur Inn, a former hotel and dining room on Sixth Avenue; he at the former Monsanto Co. in Decatur.
A photo of the Newmans in their performing years, which was taken in the same poster-lined room pictured above. While Elmer Newman, aka Newdini, never cut his wife and assistant Elizabeth in half, she was victim to plenty of other horrors. “I used to cut her arm off and drive a spike through her,” he said.
With no children, they had the time to travel the country on the weekends performing magic. He was the moustached magician with a bow tie, she the assistant in a short skirt and pumps.
They performed at banquets, theaters, magic conventions and schools and became a fixture in the magic community. They opened their home to traveling magicians and to members of Huntsville’s chapter of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.
But it is the conventions that stick in their minds the most. They traveled to New Orleans, Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Charlottesville, Va., to conventions and met many interesting people — people whose posters now hang on their wall. But those friends are mostly only memories.
“A whole lot of them are gone now,” Elizabeth said. “They’ve gone and left us behind.”
Today, a few visitors still trickle through their home. The couple rarely leave except to go grocery shopping down the street.
At one time, Elmer was an energetic little boy who fell in love with magic. His Uncle Frank often performed little pocket tricks, and Elmer was quickly intrigued.
“I thought, ‘Well, that looks interesting,’ ” he said.
Over the years, Elmer slowly taught himself more and more tricks until he had put together a whole show.
At performances, he set out all his props on a table and went through them, one by one, performing tricks until all the props were in a trunk. That type of magic style was popular in the 1950s, said Russell Davis, a fellow member of Huntsville’s chapter of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.
“That’s sort of old school,” he said. “But not to say it isn’t effective because everyone is entertained by the appearance of the props.”
Elmer was an adept performer whose personality always came through onstage, said Don Spurrier, another member of the chapter.
“The stuff he did was well rehearsed and practiced,” he said. “He didn’t come across as an amateur.”
The dynamic duo
Elmer and Elizabeth ended up together after they met working together in a flour mill in Virginia, and later married. Soon after, she became his assistant.
Many wives aren’t willing to do that, Davis said. But Elizabeth loved magic, and was always entertained by her husband and his tricks. However, she was nervous the first time she took the stage with him at a big convention, though her job was simple.
“He just said, ‘Go up and bring me things back and forth and smile,’ ” she remembered. She got through that first night, and soon lost her nerves as she got comfortable being onstage.
While Elmer never cut her in half, she later was victim to plenty of other horrors.
“I used to cut her arm off and drive a spike through her,” he remembered, laughing. “Someone once told me, ‘Newman, you’re a good magician but you couldn’t do it without Elizabeth.’ ”
While the Newmans’ magic days are over, they still have each other, as well as their magic collection. And of course, they have their memories of their “glory days” when Elmer was the great Newdini.
His favorite part of those days?
“Fooling people,” he said. “Yeah, I got a kick out of that.”
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