Melvin Burkhart, who performed magic and stunts since the 1920’s at Dime Museums, Vaudeville Houses, Circuses and Sideshows, has passed away at the age of 94.
The world of Magic lost one of it’s last living links to a vanishing heritage of American showbiz with the passing of Melvin Burkhart on November 8th, 2001 in Riverview, Florida. Mr. Burkhart, born February 14th, 1907 in Lexington, Kentucky, was known throughout the circus and outdoor amusement business as, “The Anatomical Wonder” and “The Human Blockhead.” He was a friend of Al Flosso, Theo. Bamberg (Okito), Gene Gordon, Karrell Fox, Jay Marshall and Hen Fetsch.
“When he first took the stage as a magician at The Wonderland Dime Museum in Chicago in 1931, he was already a seasoned performer,” related Todd Robbins to MagicTimes. Robbins, protégé of Burkhart, will continue to perform the specialties made famous by Burkhart and which he taught to Robbins over the course of their many years of friendship. “He originated the Human Blockhead act, hammering a steel spike up his nose, in 1929. He was still working it up until a month before he died.”
Burkhart was very athletic as a young man and would amuse his friends with self taught stunts such as being able to make it appear that he had an hunch back that he could move around, distending his stomach, and then doing a gut suck. Like many other stage struck youths of the day, Burkhart entered local vaudeville “Amateur Nights.” The big difference was, Burkhart won. A booker offered him employment as a “ringer,” in this case, a hired contestant. Burkhart took the work and gained valuable stage experience as he developed his routines as, ” a kind of contortionist.” Soon, another booker said, “I can get you a job with a circus.” “I believe it was Conroy Brothers, a mud show,” explained Robbins. “The owner of the show, angered at first that the booker had sent him a “first of May” (an unseasoned circus worker) put Melvin to work cleaning the animal cages.” Burkhart’s natural abilities as a performer and talker were soon recognized and he found himself up on the platform where his gifts as a showman stood him in good stead for the next 70 years.”
Melvin Burkhart is certainly a candidate for the designation of “Most Magic Shows Performed.” Although he featured his “stunts,” he had a great Electric Chair routine, and presented a sideshow style Blade Box, he always included magic in his shows. He was particularly associated with his, “Big Dice” trick, but also included card tricks, rope magic and other effects in his performances. “When you add it up, 60 plus years, 6 days a week, 10 to 15 shows a day, that’s a lot of shows and a lot of audiences to have performed magic for!” exclaimed Robbins. Burkhart’s constant touring with Ringling Brothers Circus side show as well as other circuses and amusement concerns made him a great resource for magic dealers to test new effects. “Gene Gordon, Hen Fetsch, Karrell Fox, they all used to give him new effects to try. When he would return to the dealer’s territory the next season having played the circuit once again, Melvin could report on the reception the new items had received. In addition, he would come up with new wrinkles and performance angles, which would enhance the entertainment value of the tricks. These ideas were often incorporated into the instructions and routines that the dealers subsequently provided with the items.”
Although Burkhart had retired from “the road” several years ago, he continued to perform walk around magic featuring card effects, color changing knives and his ubiquitous, “Big Dice” trick. Up until a month before his demise, Burkhart still had the charm, sparkle and endearing good humor that had always been a hallmark of his work. I had seen him over the years with various circuses, and at Dick Zigun’s Sideshows by the Sea Shore in Coney Island. I was privileged to be amongst the audience at the special show preceding the recent wedding ceremony of Todd Robbins and Krista Brown, which took place at The Sullivan St. Playhouse, home of Monday Night Magic in New York City. Burkhart had traveled with his daughter from his home in Florida to share this very special day with Todd and Krista and to be one of the featured performers at the special entertainment given as part of the wedding festivities. The years fell away as Burkhart took the stage and delighted and enchanted a group that included Penn Jillette, Simon Lovell, Charles Reynolds, Jon Stetson and Jamy Ian Swiss with the ease, good humor and fine honed expertise of the veteran, consummate showman. Magic has lost a great friend and “really cool guy” with the passing of master performer and gentleman, Melvin Burkhart.
—Richard Steven Cohn
Photos courtesy of Todd Robbins/ConeyIsland.com
Richard Steven Cohn has written for Genii, Magicol, M.U.M., The Yankee Collector, MAGIC, as well as magic themed articles for Brooklyn Bridge Magazine and Stagebill. He is a magical consultant for television and theater and performs both as a single and with his wife Alexandra.