Maurice Fogel, A Mindreading Chicken and Me!
Maurice Fogel, A Mindreading Chicken and Me.
(This is re-produced from a series of my six articles that appeared in December 2005 in "Abracadabra", the U.K. Magic Magazine.)
In January 2005, I received a letter from Christopher Woodward informing me that he was writing a biography of his late father-in-law, mentalist Maurice Fogel. He recalled that in the latter part of the 1960s there had been controversy between Maurice and me over the presentation of a 'Mind-reading Chicken', but didn't know the details. He was writing to ask me if I could help him.
I was delighted to send my recollections and surprised myself at the clarity with which it all came back. I know that I sent him far more than he was likely to use in his book. It then occurred to me that the story might be of interest to those who were around at the time, and also interest younger magicians to whom 'The Amazing Fogel' is just a name.
When Christopher's book is available, I hope you ALL will buy a copy. Maurice strode the British Music Hall stage with a presence unequalled even today.
The publishers (Hermetic Press) expect the Fogel book - "The Search for the Sensational - The Secrets of Maurice Fogel" - to be released in June 2007.
I first came to know Maurice Fogel in 1960, while employed at Butlin's Holiday Camp in Clacton as a Redcoat 'Junior Camper's Organizer', running the weekly children's entertainment programme. This included presenting competitions and magic shows.
Veteran radio and variety comedian Leon Cortez was also at Clacton that year. He was engaged to run 'The People National Talent Contest'. He also produced an Old Time Music Hall in the Beachcomber Bar. This was a once a week presentation in which assisted by my wife, I performed a 'cod' magic act.
Maurice was resident at Clacton for the season and presented two one-hour shows each week. The first was on Sunday, in the Playhouse Theatre, when he performed his dramatic 'Houdini Seance'. At the conclusion of this show, he recruited about half a dozen men from the audience, one of whom, following a selection process which took place during the week. would be the marksman at the Thursday performance in the Gaiety Theatre of the dangerous 'Bullet Catch' presentation, for which Maurice was famous.
In addition, each week Maurice would also take names and birth-dates from holiday campers (in 1960 they were still called Holiday Camps and 'Holiday Campers'. Holiday 'Centres' and Holiday 'Villages' etc. came later!) and for half-a-crown (twelve and a half pence today) would present them with a personal horoscope later in the week.
I particularly remember an amusing feature placed prominently on the desk where he took the names of those wanting horoscopes. It was a large goldfish bowl, filled with water. It contained sand and gravel, plus a few plants and ornaments, but no fish. At the side of the bowl was a printed notice, which read: Invisible Fish from the Fiji Isles - Please Do Not Feed! Many were the people who stopped and peered into the bowl, looking for the 'invisible fish'! Maurice and I got on quite well and spent lots of time during that summer chatting about magic. Me the young enthusiastic 'tyro' and he the established 'pro'.
The following year, 1961, I was transferred to the new camp at Bognor Regis and elevated to the rank of Assistant Entertainments Manager. For this season, Maurice was engaged to tour several of the Butlin camps and we only met once a week, usually in the entertainments office, to check performing schedules etc.
In 1961 he introduced his 'Cheating The Gallows' presentation. I may even have witnessed its first-ever public outing. He arrived at the office and in the ensuing conversation, asked me to be in the theatre that night to see his new creation. He said he was quite excited about it and wanted to know what I thought.
It was pretty awful!
The gallows stood barely six feet high, and when he stood on the chair from which he was going to jump, it was obvious that even if he had the wrong rope around his neck, he would be in no danger as there would still be slack in the rope! Not only that, since the gallows post was not fixed to the stage floor, even with a shorter rope, his weight would only pull the whole contraption over! As a death defying dramatic piece (which was his original intention), it was a flop!
He didn't need my observations after the show, although I suggested that the gallows post needed to be longer. He already knew that. The following week he returned having added an additional three-foot section to the post and a larger, heavier base into which he screwed the feet. He exaggerated the dramatic presentation and played it for laughs, introducing a disclaimer certificate, which he presented to the assisting spectator, absolving him of any blame, should the trick go wrong! It was very, very funny and having since seen it performed by others, I have to say that no one has ever extracted the entertainment value from 'Cheating The Gallows' that Maurice did.
The Mindreading Chicken
Another pseudo-dramatic (but ultimately funny) feature of Maurice Fogel's remains in my memory. This was a presentation that involved several days of advance publicity announcing that: On Thursday (the whatever), at 8.30 pm on the stage of The Gaiety Theatre. The Amazing Fogel will Eat a Spectator Alive! This was of course another comedy spoof that Maurice played with lots of humour.
These outrageous comedy presentations were hits in Maurice's hands because he knew how to build up his audience's expectations. They knew that he could perform amazing feats of mentalism and magic. His 'Bullet Catch' presentation (which has never been bettered) was a sensation. So if The Amazing Fogel said he was going to eat a man alive, then who would dare to doubt him? They just wanted to be there to see it! When it turned out to be a Joke, Maurice had made the experience so entertaining that they were delighted to be fooled by him and happy to forgive him!
The Clairvoyant Chicken Rears Its Head!
My next significant meeting with Maurice was early in 1968. I had left Butlin's in 1964 and gone back home to Blackpool. I was now working cabaret and social club circuits with a magic and mindreading act. I featured the Loose Change in Pocket Prediction, Egg Bag, a Triple Prediction effect (based on a Peter Warlock idea using three small blackboards), and I closed with The Giant Memory. Other tricks were variously introduced but these were the mainstay presentations.
I received a letter from Maurice, saying that he had been booked to perform at a private function in Blackpool held in The Baronial Hall of The Winter Gardens and could I recommend suitable 'digs' for two nights. My wife and I were delighted to offer him accommodation in our home. While he was with us, Maurice and I talked magic and he was naturally interested in what I was doing.
I told him about my act and that I was trying to negotiate a summer season at Pontin's Holiday Camp, located at Squire's Gate, just outside Blackpool. I was planning to open a trick and joke stall in the camp and part of the deal would be a free magic show each week.
Maurice thought it a good idea and wished me well. He then told me about his publicity stunt with the Clairvoyant Hen. He had used it as an occasional one-off at Butlin's. He often performed on a Sunday and when he did, he was frequently asked to judge the 'Holiday Princess Competition', a sponsored bathing beauty contest, which usually took place around the swimming pool in the afternoon.
It was then that he would introduce, along with a basket of eggs, 'Clara The Clairvoyant Chicken'. He told his audience that she had laid the eggs during the past week. He would give the hen and the eggs into the safe keeping of a spectator, with the request that the spectator should bring them to the Gaiety Theatre that evening when he. The Amazing Fogel, would demonstrate the chicken's extraordinary powers of clairvoyance. This advance promotional publicity ensured a full house that night when Maurice would present the trick in his show.
Maurice kindly offered the idea to me, suggesting that I use it as a once a week publicity stunt. He said that he would send me the gimmick that Gil Leaney had made for him, as he was unlikely to use the stunt again!
I should mention at this point that while Maurice was with us, I had shown him some of the books in my collection. One of them, Sensational Predictions written by the American mentalist and author Robert Nelson, described an effect in which the performer displays a box or basket of eggs. He explains that a chicken, living on his uncle's farm laid the eggs. This chicken has amazing powers of prophecy and many of its eggs contain predictions. He then goes on to have an egg selected in which a prediction is discovered.
I had read the effect and liked it. Any unlikely object found inside an unbroken egg has to be good magic. However, I felt that without the chicken, the impact would not be so strong and I therefore discarded the idea.
It was perhaps on seeing this book in my collection, that Maurice was reminded of his own presentation. Or could it be that maybe years before, this book was in fact Maurice's own original inspiration? We shall never know.
True to his word, on returning home Maurice duly sent the gimmick (still in my possession). He also sent me a billet pencil. In the accompanying letter, he thanked my wife for her hospitality and then berated me for using in my act the Loose Change Prediction, with which, he said, he had been opening his act for years. He had made no indication of his annoyance while he was with us and it must have been festering away in his mind after he left. I wrote back, thanking him for the props and telling him that since it upset him, I would discontinue performing the effect. At the time I knew of several performers who were using it. including Roy Lester, a well-known comedian of the day! Nevertheless. I took the effect out of my act. In the event, the Pontin's job failed to materialise and I carried on working club dates. It was some six months later when working in Liverpool that I resolved to present the Clairvoyant Chicken in my own act.
The Birth of Madame Charmaine
The act I was doing was 'OK', not 'pulling up trees' but neither was I being booed off the stage. Most social club audiences were fairly responsive. There weren't many acts like mine working these venues and I had a certain novelty value. In addition, mine was a fairly light-hearted approach. Bearing in mind that the act was largely based on an, 'I can read your mind!' premise, I didn't take myself too seriously. If I had any problems at all, it was in the nightclubs.
Sometimes an agent would book you for a week or more in the same area (the North-East, South Wales, Birmingham etc.), to play social clubs each night. These shows usually ran from 8pm until 11pm. Once you were in the area, they would ask you to perform a l.00am spot in some late-night 'drinking den' for the week. The payment for these additional shows was relatively small, but you took them because you didn't want to upset the agent and in any case, the additional cash usually paid for your digs!
My occasional problems in these places came because of the lateness of the hour and the heavy consumption of alcohol by the patrons! The type of act I was doing i.e. asking questions which required a considered response etc., was not altogether conducive to the performing environment. There was also an occasional air of anger and hostility, e.g. Rodney, who had borrowed daddy's Porsche and was trying to impress his girl-friend, felt irritated when he couldn't explain to her how I had managed to 'read' the last three figures of the serial number of a banknote held by someone in the audience! He didn't believe that I had genuinely achieved the result through mind reading, but neither could he explain it. Consequently, I would sometimes receive some quite nasty heckling!
I felt that I needed something to take the heat out of these situations. I still wanted to perform 'miracles' but needed to defuse the atmosphere and allow my audience to relax. The mind- reading chicken came to my rescue. When I walked on stage with a live hen under my arm and announced that she could lay eggs containing predictions, audiences didn't take me seriously. How could they? Nevertheless, the sight of a live chicken made them smile and they waited for the gags. When the miracles actually did occur, I gave her all the credit. Stretching my arm in the direction of the hen and in true ring-masterly fashion, I would demand their applause with, "Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you - Madame Charmaine!" The audience, while never believing that the chicken was responsible for the magic, responded more favourably towards me than previously. I was no longer 'talking down' to them or, in their eyes, trying to claim abilities they knew full well I didn't have!
The Light-bulb Moment!
The precise date I don't remember, but clearly remember the circumstances that brought it about. It was a Saturday night and I had been working in a Liverpool social club. Two friends of mine, Lester & Smart, a comedy double-act, were performing at The Shakespeare, a city centre cabaret club. I decided to go over to see them after my show.
The Shakespeare was a popular variety theatre converted into a cabaret venue. A bar had been added and seats in the auditorium replaced with tables and chairs. The proscenium arch was retained intact, as was the stage and dressing rooms etc. So the theatre atmosphere remained. It was one of the conversions from theatre to nightclub that actually worked.
I knew Wally and Keith (Lester & Smart) from my Butlin days, they also being ex- redcoats. I arrived to see the end of their act and waited for them to come from backstage to say Hello. Another performer, Mitch Mitchell, was also there. He was a ballad singer and piano player who had recently split from an Irish show-band in order to go solo.
When the two boys emerged, we all sat at a table and talked about where we had been and with whom we had worked. The conversation drifted around the usual inconsequential gossip of itinerant performers when they get together. Lester & Smart were quite excited about a west-end theatre agent who had expressed an interest in offering them a long summer-season and Mitch Mitchell was currently hoping to negotiate a recording contract. I had little to contribute to this conversation in the way of impending fame and riches and was feeling left out. That was when the light came on. Seemingly from nowhere, I suddenly announced, "Well. I'm going to start working with a Clairvoyant Hen!"
The night was late and we were all tired. The others had downed a couple of drinks or three and this announcement from me obviously amused them. They started to laugh and began to suggest appropriate patter for this act.
At one point, Wally Lester said that the idea was far too funny for a magic act and that he and Keith were going to do it. He would dress up as a chicken and they would build it into a comedy routine! The conversation went on for another twenty minutes or so, with a lot more gag lines thrown. Eventually it was time for us all to go our respective ways. Arriving home I decided to go ahead with the presentation as I couldn't be sure if Lester & Smart were serious about using the idea themselves. I wasn't prepared to take that chance!
The following Monday I placed an advertisement in the Blackpool Evening Gazette in the classifieds, under 'Livestock and Agriculture'. It read: 'Wanted, intelligent chicken to train for clairvoyancy. No experience necessary as full training given.'
When the paper was published, I bought an extra copy, cut out the appropriate section and sent it with a covering letter to James Hartley, the Northwest columnist for The Stage newspaper who had a weekly column titled, 'Lines from Lancs'. He telephoned to ask if I was serious. He thought the idea very funny and asked me to let him know when the act was up and running.
A week later he telephoned again and wanted to know if I had the hen. I said, "Not yet", and he replied, "Well you'd better get one, because I have arranged for a photographer from The People Sunday newspaper to come and take a photograph for publication next week!"
As it happened I knew where I could get a hen. Comedian Dave Butler, (he made several appearances on Granada TVs The Comedians) was another ex-Butlin redcoat friend, who coincidentally had a chicken farm on the outskirts of Blackpool. I telephoned him, told him my problem and he was happy to supply me with a suitable bird. The People photographer came, took the picture and the item duly appeared on an inside page the following Sunday. I was now committed to producing the act!
Madame Charmaine Makes Her Entrance!
It took me about a month to 'cobble' it all together. By this time I had added one of Maurice's marketed effects to the presentation called, The Headline Hunter', an elimination newspaper prediction and perfect for incorporating into the egg routine.
I had a hen's portrait painted on a piece of hardboard about two feet wide and three feet six inches long long. I bought an artist's easel on which the portrait would be displayed. Then I fixed a piece of wood to the top of the easel to act as the perch upon which the hen would sit. 'Madame Charmaine, The World's Greatest Clairvoyant Chicken' was ready to take to the stage!
With the hen under my arm, I made my entrance, introduced her with appropriate gags etc., talked humorously about her ancestry and then lifted her on to the perch, where she usually stayed for the remainder of the act. She 'devined' the last three figures of the serial number on a banknote, and at the time when it was highly topical, would 'bend' a spoon! The climax of the twenty-minute presentation was the egg prediction.
Only one egg was used. I was never impressed with the idea of a box or basket of eggs from which one would be selected. In my opinion this complicates the process and causes confusion. My view ran along the lines – “This hen produces eggs containing amazing predictions. Here is the egg that she laid this morning. I hope it contains tonight's prediction. Let's see if it does!" If it works, then that is magic enough!
I feel it is too much to ask an audience to believe that an assisting spectator would choose from several, the precise egg containing words coinciding with another spectator's random selection. That is another, different trick.
Following the revelation of the prediction from the egg, I often went on to present additional material and by this time, invariably closed with a Thumb-tie routine, involving two male members of the audience. During the whole of this additional time, the chicken would sit quite contentedly on her perch!
It took a little time for the act to 'bed in', but after a few weeks, agents began contacting me and I found myself playing dates that had hitherto not been previously offered. Prestige venues like The Wakefield Theatre Club, Batley Variety Club, The Fiesta Clubs in Stockton and Sheffield and The Bailey Circuit, who owned many cabaret venues around the country. They all came a'calling. At Bailey's 'La Dolce Vita' in Birmingham, Goodliffe, owner and executive editor of Abracadabra, came to see the act and subsequently wrote a very kind review. 'Madame Charmaine' was a success! For the record, I did actually write to Maurice to tell him of my progress and thanked him once again for his help.
The David Frost Show
One particular agent that took an interest in the act was Harry Gunn Associates, a Wythenshawe (Manchester) based agent. Although no contracts had been exchanged. Harry liked to regard me as one of his stable of northern artistes and found me quite a lot of work, particularly around the Manchester nightclub scene.
At this time UK television presenter David Frost was hosting a live, prime time weekly television show. The show was a combination of topical satire and celebrity interviews. It also included each week at least one variety performer. This entertainer was often unknown and performing on television for the first time. At the same time David Frost was hosting a similar live television show in the United States, commuting each week back and forth. This cross-Atlantic travelling in order to present two high profile 'chat' shows every week was thought to be quite an extraordinary feat of endurance and he was at the time, the UK's leading television personality presenter.
The word was out that he was looking for artistes to appear in his UK show who would also have appeal in America. Speciality acts in particular were being sought and Harry Gunn (bless him!) was desperate to get me my chance. Comedian Norman Collier was also one of Harry's acts. He too, was being offered to the David Frost Show researchers. Norman is a well-known U.K. performer who presents mostly visual comedy, including coincidentally, a funny impersonation of a chicken, clucking and scratching around a farmyard! Maybe Harry had a 'thing' about acts with chickens!
According to Harry, negotiations were developing in an encouraging way and progress was being made. Then one Sunday evening in November of 1969, David Nixon, the UK's current television 'Man of Mystery' held up to the camera a chicken and a bowl of eggs, saying, "Tune in next week when my friend, The Amazing Fogel, will demonstrate this chicken's amazing powers of prophecy"!
When Chickens Collide!
Agent Harry Gunn telephoned me the following morning. I had been working in Manchester on the Sunday evening and hadn't seen The David Nixon Show.
There were of course plenty of people who had and happy to tell me about it!
"We'll sue him!" said Harry. "You can't do that", I replied, "It's his trick!” I told him all about Maurice and his visit eighteen months earlier. It was of course all news to Harry. "But even if it is originally his trick, it is your act and you are the one associated with it,” he said. "I don't think there is anything we can do about it," I told him. "It's only a one-off and will soon be forgotten." Harry didn't agree. "Once it's been seen on the David Nixon Show, there will be no chance of David Frost wanting it!” I hadn't thought of that, but I still didn't think there was anything we could do.
Harry Gunn thought differently. A day later I received a telephone call from John Stevenson, a reporter on The Daily Mail. Harry had telephoned the paper with details of the act, which I had now been performing for about fifteen months. He then sent a photographer to my house while he chased down Maurice for his version. The story made ridiculous but entertaining copy. Goodliffe telephoned me and subsequently covered the story in Abracadabra.
However, the incident took on a more serious aspect after it emerged that the Harry Gunn office had telephoned the producer of The David Nixon Show and tried to get the second show (the actual presentation) stopped. ATV (that's Associated Television as was, forerunner of ITV) was concerned and contacted Maurice's agent. He in turn assured them that Maurice had every right to perform the trick and it duly went ahead. Again I was working, so didn't see the presentation. Other magicians told me that it was OK, but quite messy and no great sensation. Maurice would of course have had to use a different method for producing the effect, since he had given the original gimmick to me.
The magical press made a great deal out of the story. Bayard Grimshaw, writing in The World's Fair was particularly critical of me. Maurice was a close friend and he naturally took his side. He wrote two separate articles, accusing me personally of trying to get Maurice's appearance cancelled. Unfortunately, at no time did he pay me the courtesy of writing or telephoning me to ask for my comments. Maurice Fogel was his friend, Maurice was also a well-known and established star. No one had heard of me, therefore I must be the 'bad guy'!
I subsequently received letters from both Maurice and his agent accusing me of plagiarism and unprofessional conduct. In replying to both, I pointed out that as I understood the situation, Maurice had personally given me the idea, sent me the prop with which to perform it, had never asked for it back and had told me that he was unlikely to use it again. I also reminded Maurice that I had written to him several months previously telling him how successful the act was and thanking him for the idea.
There had also been several mentions of the act in Abracadabra and other magical journals. So it was no secret that I was performing with a mind reading chicken. At the time, it seemed inconceivable to me that Maurice didn't know. Some weeks later, Maurice wrote in a subsequent Abracadabra that he didn't know. Having performed the act for over a year, I later discovered that he had been out of the country for most of that time, so I believed him.
To finally put the matter to bed, let me say that at no time has there ever been any dispute about who originated the idea. It was sad that our friendship should end with such acrimony, brought about in the main by misunderstanding and unawareness. Maurice Fogel greatly influenced my early development as a performer and will always be a hero to me.
Footnote: As Harry Gunn predicted, David Frost's researchers were unimpressed by what they saw on The David Nixon Show and decided against inviting me to appear on The David Frost Show. By such things are lives changed!
For those wishing more information on Christopher Woodward's biography of Maurice
Back to Magictales