Magical Mystery Lore: The secret origin of the world’s first superhero

Superman is widely considered to be the world’s first comic book superhero and Canadians get a lot of mileage out of the fact that co-creator Joe Shuster was born in Toronto. Despite Superman famously standing for “truth, justice and the American way” and Shuster having moved to Cleveland when he was only 10 years old, the CBC made a Heritage Minute video to remind us of our Kryptonian connection while Canada Post even put his image on a stamp.

It may come as a surprise, then, that not only was there another cape-wearing character with superpowers to hit the funny pages well before him, but this one was based on an actual Canadian citizen.

April 11, 2011 would have been the 100th birthday of the late Leon Giglio, who later changed his name to Leon Mandrake but is better known by his stage name, Mandrake the Magician.

An accomplished illusionist, mentalist, ventriloquist, escape artist and fire-eater, Mandrake was once one of the most famous magicians in the world and also known for being one of the nicest guys to ever saw a woman in half.

Along with dazzling countless crowds around the world over a career spanning seven decades, he also found the time to inspire a comic book character of the same name that debuted a good four years before a certain strongman from outer space pulled on his first pair of tights.

Mandrake the Magician

The syndicated comic strip Mandrake the Magician, written by Lee Falk and illustrated by Phil Davis about a dapper crimefighter who could alter reality by “gesturing hypnotically,” first appeared in King Features newspapers in 1934.

There is, perhaps appropriately, still a bit of mystery as to how the two magicians first came together.

“From my understanding, they were both independent of each other, but the comic book character took on a close resemblance to my father,” said Lon Mandrake, Leon Mandrake’s oldest son, a retired science teacher and an accomplished stage magician in his own right. “I believe the one who wrote the comic already had the idea of a character who is a magician, but the person who did the drawings was familiar with my father’s act.”

Along with sharing the same name, the fictional Mandrake the Magician also sported the same trademark pencil moustache, cape and top hat, but copyright and intellectual property laws weren’t quite as stringent back in those days.

In any case, as Lon Mandrake points out, the matchup became mutually beneficial to both parties.

“They promoted each other. I’ve got letters from Phil Davis saying how there couldn’t be a greater character representation and vice-versa. It was a gentlemen’s agreement; nothing was ever written down or signing contracts or anything like that. This was back in the 30s, they did things differently then.”

Leon Mandrake first became interested in magic as a young boy. His parents were both vaudeville performers, but after the magic went out of their marriage, Leon and his mother moved to New Westminster to live with her sister in a house on Carnarvon Street known today as the Maria Keary Cottage.

Mandrake Roots: Leon Mandrake grew up in this house in New Westminster, B.C.

His aunt, a postal worker named Mildred Wagner, gave him his first magic set for his seventh or eighth birthday and he was soon disappearing regularly into the backyard shed to practise his act.

Mandrake hit the stage for the very first time under the name “The Wiz” at age 11, filling in between vaudeville acts at the Edison Theatre (now the Paramount Gentleman’s Club). He soon began working for free backstage at the PNE, where visiting magicians would sometimes share some of the tricks of the trade and give him unwanted props or costumes. Having mastered fire-breathing before kissing his first girl, Mandrake joined a travelling magic company at age 16 and left home to tour the continent.

He soon became known for stunts such as mindreading, driving a car while blindfolded, hypnotizing people from department store windows, and making daring escapes and elaborate costume changes from tiny boxes.

He and his second wife and stage partner, Velvet (Lon’s mother, who also became a character in the comic strip), are also credited with being the first people to introduce magic acts with audience participation into nightclub settings after live theatres began turning into movie houses.

The comic itself, now written by Fred Fredericks, continues to live on today. When this story went to print, the stylish sorcerer was busy battling “dangerous hologram vampires,” the sort of tough crowd the performer himself certainly never had to deal with. The likeness to Leon Mandrake, however, is no longer as pronounced under the new artist.

“Everything was fine until King Features, who owned the strip, became worried about royalty rights and wanted to disassociate from having a direct relation,” said his son. “My dad and the cartoonist were good friends though. Right up until he died (in 1964), the character basically had my dad’s features, and then afterward they tried to change the character a little bit.”

But Mandrake’s legacy lives on in other ways as well. Some of his magic acts can still be enjoyed today on YouTube, and Roberston Davies even modelled the character Magnus Eisengrim from his book World of Wonders on him. Mandrake the Magician has also appeared in radio shows, television series, plays, musicals and movies (including a cameo in The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine). Hayden Christensen, another B.C. performer (and, given that he is most famous for playing a Jedi, someone who should know a thing or two about gesturing hypnotically), is said to currently be in talks to star in a new Mandrake movie.

But his real legacy is continuing to inspire performers. Coquitlam resident Shawn Farquhar is one of them.

“As you can see from the photos, clearly I wanted to be just like Mandrake the Magician,” said the two-time world champion of magic over the phone from a tour in Florida. “He was just an awesome magician and such a wonderful person. He had the childlike sense right to the very end, he tried to create the magic in everything he did.”

Magician Shawn Farquar began his career trying to copy the look of his friend and mentor.

Farquhar, 48, said he first met his idol after a disastrous early magic show of his own in Surrey. He said Mandrake’s warmth and encouragement played a big part in convincing him to continue performing.

Leon Mandrake passed away Jan. 27, 1993 at Surrey Memorial Hospital, and – coming full circle – the memorial was held at the same New Westminster theatre where his career first began.

Exotic dancers have long since replaced vaudeville acts at the entertainment at the old Edison, but Farquhar said the sendoff was a fitting final curtain.

“We took out all the posters and all the pictures of the girls,” he said with a laugh. “We changed the marquee to ‘The Last Appearance of Mandrake.’ During Velvet’s speech, she said we probably thought we hid everything from her so she wouldn’t know what the club is used for now, but she said it was really good to come back here and that Leon would like to know they are still doing tricks here.”

(This story was first published April 13, 2011. © Copyright (c) New Westminster Record)
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