Richard Cardini, a preeminent prestidigitator, stepped onto the showroom floor of the Empire Room at Chicago’s Palmer House Hotel just as the Nazi’s were dropping bombs on Poland triggering the beginning of World War II. Within a little over twelve months the Nazi’s would launch a bombing blitz on Cardini’s hometown back in Wales.
Yet, true to his stage character, a dapper debonair but slightly tipsy “gentleman about town”, Cardini remained cool and collected and executed each insanely difficult sleight-of-hand move with aplomb. Cardini couldn’t be rattled or thrown off his game. He’d seen bombs-a-plenty crouched in the trenches of both the first and second Battle of the Somme where he was injured and gassed (the effects of which he never quite shook).
He grew up in South Wales as the son of (as he once confided at to a fellow magician) “a violinist at a local music hall who separated from his mother when he was five,” whereupon, she opened a theatrical boarding house. It was at this boarding house that Cardini met an assortment of show business types who showed him “pocket tricks” that mesmerized him.
Cardini was a stage name. Cardini gave his “real” name as Richard Pitchford, however, it’s been uncovered by historians that his birth name was Richard Valentine Thomas. Pitchford was a gentleman whom his mother had married. Tragically, Pitchford committed suicide shortly after one of their twin toddlers died of laryngitis. Cardnini was seven when this drama unfolded.
The theater would prove to be his salvation: “My father and mother were the backbone of a sort of stock company. Visiting players supplemented the cast and they used to stay at our home. The success of the play depended on the amount of hisses aroused by the villian.”
One thespian taught a young Cardini the cut and restored rope trick as well as how to bite a button off someone’s coat and restore it. “The wonder of this encounter captured his imagination forever.” And thus, a star was born and a boy was saved.
What set Cardini apart from other stage manipulators was is adoption of a very strong character in a very plausible situation. He played a tipsy gentleman to whom many wondrous things occured. This dramatic set of circumstances lifted the magic from mere sleight-of-hand tricks and put it into the realm of an enchanting surreal dream.
This dream also lifted Cardini from his troubled childhood to a celebrated career in which he would, in turn, enchant thousands at a moment of great global anxiety.
Fisher, J. (2007). Cardini, the suave deceiver. [Seattle]: Miracle Factory.