TV magicianMark Wilson

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At the age of 8, Wilson saw a live variety show. “I don’t remember anything about what any of the other performers did,” Wilson said later, “but I do remember just about everything in the seven or eight minutes Tommy Martin was on stage.” He decided right then and there he wanted to be a magician too, and started practicing. When his family moved to Dallas, Texas, he got a job at a magic shop, figuring he could try out any of the tricks they sold and learn a lot quickly. He was right, and occasionally got to perform in small shows, using tricks he bought at the shop — he spent almost all of his wages there. After high school he attended Southern Methodist University for a marketing degree, figuring he could learn how to promote himself. He was right!

Wilson, Nani Darnell, and Bev Bergeron as Rebo the Clown, a proxy for the audience at home. (Photo: Publicity shot c1960 for Allakazam, CBS)

His timing was good: in 1955 television was rapidly gaining traction, so he pitched a magic show to a station in Dallas. He did his homework first: he signed up a sponsor: the local Dr. Pepper plant. The station manager couldn’t resist, and Time for Magic became the first live magic TV series ever. It was thought magic wouldn’t work on TV, but Wilson had some rules to help: there should always be a live audience, the camera should never cut away during the trick, and viewers should always be told that they are seeing exactly the same thing the studio audience is seeing. It worked well enough that CBS Television signed Wilson for a network slot, but with a more mysterious title. The Magic Land of Allakazam debuted on October 1, 1960, in a Saturday morning time slot, still with his lovely assistant Nani Darnell — his wife. Wilson was able to keep it fresh through 98 episodes by performing new illusions every week, learning so much in the process that he became a technical advisor for later magic shows. His 1975 textbook Mark Wilson’s Complete Course In Magic is still in print, and considered a classic. After two years the show moved to ABC, where it ran another two years, and then went into international syndication. A DVD edition is in the works. James ‘Mark’ Wilson died January 19, at 91.

From This is True for 24 January 2021