When Dell O’Dell, the self-proclaimed “queen of magic,” set out to make a name for herself in the 1930s, she often received the same response: “A woman wizard? Preposterous! You’ll never make a go of it!” By 1942, however, Good Housekeeping reported that O’Dell was “booked weeks in advance,” performing the “more than a hundred new tricks up her sleeve” at nightclubs, army camps, theaters, private homes, hospitals and hotels.
Alternatively described as a wrestle-them-to-the-floor type of performer and a force of nature on stage, O’Dell was one of the first magicians to host their own television show. A woman magician in a field dominated by men both then and today, she took center stage while her husband, a renowned juggler in his own right, served as her assistant.
In a short clip provided to Smithsonian magazine by Magicana, an organization dedicated to the exploration and advancement of magic, O’Dell wears a jeweled dress, a turban and an exultant grin. The footage, captured during a performance at a 1949 convention in Chicago, shows her grappling with her microphone and props, including a mysteriously blooming rosebush and a live rabbit. Wherever O’Dell performed, one thing remained constant: She loved the stage as much as she dominated it—no small feat for any magician, much less a “funsational femagician,” as she also called herself.
“She knew what worked in her era,” says Michael Claxton, author of Don’t Fool Yourself: The Magical Life of Dell O’Dell. “This is a woman who adapted [to] at least ten different venues for performance in her career, from the circus all the way up to television. She knew how to capture the moments and adjust her repertoire and her approach to what audiences liked.”
Born Odella Newton in Lemonweir, Wisconsin, in October 1897, O’Dell grew up in a family of performers. Her father ran a traveling circus, and she was drawn to the arts from a young age, taking up juggling as a hobby during her schoolyard years. In 1919, she and her first husband, Karl Larkin, left the family business and launched a show of their own; O’Dell performed an acrobatic trick in which she balanced a sofa lounge chair on her forehead. After a few years in the circus, O’Dell took her juggling and strongwoman act to a new venue: the vaudeville stage. As Claxton writes in his book, vaudeville “was an extension (perhaps a co-opting) of the American circus, bringing it indoors and under the watchful eye of a group of increasingly powerful magnates.” But the entertainment form was on its way out, leaving a void that would eventually be filled by television.
In 1929, O’Dell—by then divorced from Larkin—moved away from her furniture juggling routine and started embracing magic. The following year, she met her second husband, the juggler Charlie Carrer. By 1935, she had established herself as “the queen of magic,” taking her rhyming patter act to nightclubs and beyond.
O’Dell’s shift in focus was aptly timed. By the early 1930s, three of the most famous female magicians of the era—Adelaide Herrmann, Emma Reno and Mercedes Talma—had stopped performing. O’Dell undoubtedly noticed that void and looked to fill it. Her act did surprisingly well in nightclubs, most likely because her lines in verse were full of innuendo, but her success also stemmed from her ability to adapt to smaller stages with difficult sightlines and angles for many magic tricks. O’Dell adapted to the space and thrived—as she would later do with television.
By the 1950s, O’Dell’s performing schedule was relentless. A seemingly tireless magician who could perform multiple shows in a single day, she was known for her versatility. O’Dell could wow everyone at kid-friendly events and win over often-inebriated audiences at nightclubs.
“She had a brand,” says Julie Eng, a practicing magician and the executive director of Magicana. “She understood that each demographic has a market, so children’s festivals, corporate audiences, family audiences—they’re all specific, and they’re all different. She understood how to speak to those brands. She didn’t have a different show for everyone, but she had a different personality … for each of them, which made her really popular.”
After working on the East Coast and the Midwest for two decades, O’Dell and Carrer began working in the Los Angeles area in 1950. There, she launched her own weekly magic show, connecting with audiences through a rapidly growing, experimental medium: television.
“There’s this kind of groovy thing that happens with new media, where sometimes some of the most interesting material is really playing with the conventions of the medium and drawing attention to its artifice in strange and weird ways,” says Michael Kackman, a television historian at the University of Notre Dame. “The idea of a magician doing a TV show seems really interesting, because a lot of what they’re doing can’t really be experienced through TV. It’s only experienced vicariously [by] imagining what it’s like to be there.”
She wasn’t the first magician to host her own television show. In 1949, Geri Larsen debuted a kids’ program called “The Magic Lady,” which magic historian Connie Boyd describes as “almost like a spoof of Glinda the Good Witch.” But O’Dell was no stranger to the small screen. She’d previously appeared on “The Ina Ray Hutton Show,” “The Spade Cooley Show” and “The Morey Amsterdam Show,” among others. But “The Dell O’Dell Show,” which premiered in 1951 on KECA-TV, a local affiliate of ABC, was entirely her own. Marketed as an “audience-participation program” for children, it aired beyond the Los Angeles area, too, appearing on TV screens in New York City and beyond.
After about seven months at KECA, O’Dell moved to KTLA, the first commercially licensed station west of the Mississippi River, with a new show called “It’s Magic With Dell O’Dell.” In total, she was on the air for a little over two years, with her last episode airing almost 70 years ago, in late fall 1953.
At the time, television was still evolving and gaining popularity, meaning it was more avant-garde than it’s considered today.
KTLA was particularly experimental, though the station’s manager, Klaus Landsberg, also wanted his programs to appeal to everyone. “Landsberg was really a stickler for making sure that this was family entertainment,” says Mark Williams, a film historian at Dartmouth College and the author of the forthcoming book Remote Possibilities: A History of Early Television in Los Angeles, 1930-1952. “You’re welcoming people into your home. He really built a stable of very important entertainers.”
The early 1950s were a crucial time for television in Southern California. “1952 is a huge turning of the tide,” Williams adds. “It’s no longer going to be New York as the source of all these network programs. It’s increasingly going to be Los Angeles.”
It’s in this window—when television was on the cusp of becoming a fixture in every American household (for a more contemporary example, think of the internet circa 1995)—that O’Dell was on the air.
Footage of O’Dell performing onstage survives today, but nothing from her television programs has surfaced so far—a sadly common occurrence given that most TV during this era aired live. Still, Claxton’s biography offers a sense of what O’Dell’s TV audiences saw. Both of her shows were geared toward families. They took place in a faux living room setting and found her bantering with audience members, children and adults alike. Her husband sometimes served as her assistant; during her KECA stint, announcer Wally Sherwin also helped out from time to time.
Show notes reveal some of the tricks up O’Dell’s sleeves. She transformed a fake rabbit into a real one, sent coins bursting out of the tip of a magic wand, made silk handkerchiefs vanish and then reappear, and even sawed a woman in half.
Some in the magic community were unimpressed by O’Dell’s screen presence. Magician Milbourne Christopher said her first show included a “bugaboo of unprepared patter.” But the program performed well, with tickets to attend sold out up to three weeks in advance. Even Christopher eventually fell under O’Dell’s spell, praising her “seemingly inexhaustible bag of tricks for TV” and finding a routine she did with birds and four canary cages “especially amusing.”
And she received increasing recognition for her work, including a nomination for a local Los Angeles Emmy Award in 1953. Ultimately, Betty White walked away with the Outstanding Feminine Personality Award for her work on “Life With Elizabeth,” defeating both O’Dell and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Why O’Dell’s television stint ended remains unclear, but Claxton suspects that money played a role in the decision. “She needed the live work,” he theorizes. “I mean, $1,000 a week at a nightclub is just going to do better than even TV.”
Television also posed the challenge of having to come up with new material every week. “The early days of TV sucked up material that magicians had been using for years for their vaudeville audiences,” says Claxton. “In one night, millions of people would see the act that you’ve been doing for decades.”
O’Dell did better than most magicians on this front. Her repertoire was vast, in part because she had previously performed multiple shows at the same venue every day and would try to mix things up, though her signature rhyming patter was a constant. But pulling together a new television performance every week must have taken its toll. Adding to the pressure was the number of television networks moving to Los Angeles in the early 1950s. “KTLA, which had clearly been the leader of this extraordinarily powerful, independent television market, is slowly going to be eclipsed because [it] can’t compete with network dollars,” says Williams.
In 1955, O’Dell courted the idea of hosting her own talk show in Cincinnati. As she wrote in a letter, the production would showcase her “talk, charm and personality” rather than her magic.
That project never came to fruition, but O’Dell stayed busy by performing at theaters, clubs and fairs. “She was in constant movement, and that is one of the finest qualities … of a creative person,” says Eng. “She just never got stagnant, like a shark.”
Cancer finally slowed O’Dell down. In February 1962, at age 64 (or 59, if one goes by her doctored birth certificate), she died of cervical carcinoma. “Dell O’Dell had many, many titles heaped upon her during her spectacular career, but we doubt if any are more appropriate than ‘champion,’” read her obituary in the March 1962 issue of Genii magazine.
O’Dell was indeed a champion of magic, a performer who worked tirelessly to promote the art and her place in it at a time when female magicians were far from common. She worked hard to become one of the most popular magicians of her time, and she earned the praise she received. As the Los Angeles Times concluded in a 1956 review of one of her theater shows, “She takes second place to no man in the legerdemain league.”