Jack Lillico has been a member of the Vancouver Magic Circle for 70 years. His life was filled with magic; but he also had other pursuits like a career as a Denturist and two cross-Canada tours in his homebuilt Model T Ford. This article reflects some of his story as a magician in Vancouver, British Columbia.
I interviewed 89-year old Jack Lillico at the home of legendary magician and author Ray Roch and his wife Pat on April 14th 2016. These are my notes of the Interview. – John Smithman
Born in 1927, Jack started magic when he was 8 years old. Pretty soon he had ‘a burning desire to learn more about it.’ “I did garden parties and church events. Then, I met Rolf Blackstaad. We called ourselves The Black Jack Magic Club and had a blackjack as our insignia In 1937.
After we saw WC Shelly’s magic show at our school, Rolf and I rode our bikes from Point Grey to Shelly’s Shaugnessy home and rang the doorbell. Mr. Shelly ushered us in to show us his wonderful basement magic workshop and his 4th floor home theatre, complete with stage and tiered seating. We were absolutely amazed. It was like Magic Land! Shelly eventually sold this house and moved to Wallace Crescent in Point Grey, practically across the street from our house. We saw lots of magic at Shelley’s house.”
William C Shelly owned Vancouver’s 4X Bakery chain and was BC’s minister of Finance, but he loved magic and would perform really good 90-minute magic shows free for schools and hospitals in the Vancouver area. He and Charles Howard formed Vancouver Magic Club in 1942. Shelly did a lot of shows free. They were really good shows, 90 minutes at least, for schools, hospitals and organizations that needed them.
When I was 15, my dad asked me, “Do you want to join the Magic Circle?” I was very excited about that. Thornton Poole, the current club president, belonged to the same Masonic Lodge as my dad. The magic club was two years old when I joined in November 1944. Thornton invited me down to the Devonshire Hotel where they were meeting at the time. I met CKWX broadcaster Ken Hughes and we joined the club together. Ken Hughes and I produced the club bulletin for 4 or 5 years on an old Gestetner at the radio station. There will be copies of those in the archives.
THE VANCOUVER MAGIC CIRCLE in the 1940s
My first meeting was the club’s last meeting at the Devonshire. We moved into the Vancouver Hotel. You couldn’t even get into that meeting if you didn’t have a suit and tie on. It was a classy club. We met on the last Thursday of each month and the club had about 45-50 members at that time. It was a kind of exclusive club until we opened the gates. When George Abray became president in the 1950s, they opened the doors and the membership swelled to about 125 members… but half of these guys couldn’t even shuffle a deck of cards. It weakened the club’s prestige.
I met Wilf Hooper at the first meeting I went to. He was a short guy with tiny hands and he could really handle cards. I took a box of my tricks to that first meeting, but I didn’t have the guts to open it after seeing Wilf Hooper perform. I saw stuff there that was amazing, you know? This guy, Hooper, took us into his home at Broadway and Main. Every Friday night, Ken Hughes and I went to his place to learn card magic. I remember him only for the first two months because he quit the club over some beef and he never came back. Most of my magic growth, though, was at WC Shelly’s house. Every once in a while I would go up there and get a real education!
The club put on a packed show once a year at the Vancouver Hotel and we carried it out to UBC (The University of British Columbia) with a big stage production… Guys came up from Seattle and Portland to do magic acts. There was a nice dinner, partly open to the public (by invitation). We held dinners at the Vancouver Hotel and then went out to a theatre at UBC for the big production.
THE TRIP TO LOS ANGELES
I remember Francis Martineau joined in 1946. Martineau was a great magician and an excellent illustrator. I was 19 and I wanted to be a cartoonist.
I dreamed of being an apprentice at Disney. I could go to the Pacific Coast Association of Magicians conference, who were meeting close to Disney Studios in Los Angeles and drop by, maybe. So, at 19, I sold my sailboat for $250 to get some money to work with. I swapped a bottle of Rye for a Seaforth Highlanders’ outfit and joined two military friends hitchhiking to Los Angeles in our kilts. Jack is on the right in both pictures.
We had a very good time in Los Angeles. I went to the PCAM, but only for one day because I wanted to go over to MGM where I got autographs from some of their stars, like Kathryn Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Agnes Moorehead, Gene Kelly, Kathryn Grayson, and Arthur Lake.
Although I intended to go to Disney and work as a cartooning apprenticeship, I never got there because one of the guys got homesick. He was a big guy and he was crying on a streetcar one day. I said, “What are you crying about?” He said, “Well, I’m homesick.” So we hitchhiked back up to San Francisco.
Ed Gwynne was in a stage play that we got tickets for. When it was over, we were in the lobby when a woman came over and said, “I would like to buy one of your Glengarry hats. Well, we said we couldn’t sell her the hat. So, we promised to send her one when we got home. Which we did. She owned the Regal Pale Brewing Company and invited us for lunch the next day. After a morning taste testing her ales and then lunch, she asked me, “Where are you going next?” I said we want to hitchhike to Oakland to catch a ride on an Army transport plane up to Seattle. So she offered to drive us over there and we had a nice, chauffeured limousine ride to Oakland Airport. Within 15 minutes we got a DC4 ride up to Seattle and came home.
In 1946 and 47, I worked for Jon Kirby (real name Jon Whitlock), who made magic props on 41st, 2300 block. Kirby paid me in trade… you know, tables and stuff. He created a lot of my equipment.
Kirby also trained the first female member of our club, Celeste Evans. She paid him two bucks a lesson to teach her magic. Jon died in the late 1940s.
As a magician I performed rope tricks, egg bag, clippo (cut-and-restored newspaper clippings), Linking Rings, Billiard Balls, card tricks and Lux Soft Soap. About performing, Jack said, “You know you have to do certain magic for kids and drunks and church crowds. You can’t just do willy nilly.”
A nice wand and card box was given to me by the father of a girl I was going around with to encourage me to marry his daughter in the early 40s. Jack chuckles, “I didn’t. But I still have the P&L wand and card box”. Jack is on the left, with a clown face. The ‘girl he didn’t marry’ is on his left.
Meanwhile, I practiced magic for about 5-6 years in the 1950s. As a magician, I used to have about 55 or 60 tricks that I could do on stage. I did two one-hour shows in my career. I thought it was too much so I shortened them to 20 minutes. I was doing a show up in Shaughnessy, in a home like WC Shelly’s, when one of my tricks involved swallowing needles. After the act, I counted the needles and was missing one. They took me to the hospital where I was x-rayed; but they couldn’t see the needle. So, they sent me home with orders to eat rolled oats and drink castor oil. Jack chuckled, “I took the oats, but not the castor oil. They never found the needle! It may work its way and come out my toe someday…”
JACK’s CAREER ALTERNATED between MAGIC, DENTURES and ANTIQUE CARS. About magic, Jack said, “I was really into it for many years. I subsidized my living with magic shows.
I also learned to make dentures in our basement for my dad’s friends. I got $80 for a set of teeth. This experience prepared me for my later career as a Denturist. But my dad was concerned that I could run into trouble with the law for selling teeth. So, he came to me one day and said, “I don’t want to see your name in the paper for bootlegging false teeth. So I had to quit that. In 1946, I worked as a dental technician for $6 a week, gradually climbing to $18 a week after a few years. Denturism was legalized in 1957. Meanwhile, I worked as a fabric manufacturer’s sales agent for nearly 30 years.
In 1983, I got certified as a denturist and worked legitimately for 30 years before taking down my shingle in 2010 to look after my ailing wife until she passed away a couple of years ago.
Jack showed us some of his keepsakes from a large gym bag that he brought to our interview. He showed the beautifully-made magic wand and wooden card box that were given to him by the father of a girl he was dating. “I think he wanted me to marry his daughter… I didn’t, but I still have the P&L Wand and cardbox!” Here’s my first magic book. There’s a really good trick in there about “the Pulse”. Jack had 1946 and 1947 Roster books, pictures of Ken Hughes and others, an article from the Vancouver Courier. He shows us a beautiful set of Linking Rings and a homemade Die Box. He remembered doing Rope tricks, egg bag, Clippo, and Lux Soft Soap tricks. “You have to do magic for kids, drunks and for church groups, all kinds of audiences.”
Jack Lillico was president of the Optimists Club when he obtained and rebuilt an old Model T car. He decided to celebrate Expo 67 in Montreal by driving there in his Model T and visiting other Optimist Clubs enroute. He repeated his trip in 1986 when Vancouver hosted the World’s Fair by travelling across The Rockies once again in his Model T. This trip was covered by CTV reporter Gloria Macarenko. Jack shared a video of the later tour where he ended up at a Model Ts Tour in Stettler, Alberta.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE VANCOUVER MAGIC CIRCLE THEN AND NOW
I asked Jack, “Can you compare the differences between the club in 1947 and the magic club today?”
Jack paused as if to reflect carefully and then he said, “You’re meeting in a community centre, we met in a hotel. In those days, the club had prestige. You couldn’t just walk in and attend a meeting. Today everything seems to be different. But the World has changed. Back then, I was not computer savvy. I never did get into computers, but I saw my friend Ken Hughes drop into the computer and I lost him. Today, I go to my doctor’s office and everyone in the waiting room is punching their computers. It’s a double-edged sword. But then, there was more privacy in magic in those days. If somebody came down and did his own trick, it would be done by everybody the next day. Back then club members were doctors, business owners and professionals. There was more secrecy in those days. People were reluctant to share their secrets. Although there were a few good mentors like WC Shelly, Thornton Poole, and Wilf Hooper who were quick to help young people learn magic. Thank God that they did.”
I thanked Jack for sharing his memories with us, “You gave us excellent stories and examples of magic life in the 40s. The information you’re sharing will be enjoyed and honoured by our club members. We will make this video available to them.”
Membership Chair and Club Photographer
The Vancouver Magic Circle.