O'CONNELL, Sheldon

Author Tags: Music

Former CBC announcer, professional Bing Crosby-sound-alike and manager of radio stations in the Northwest Territories and Yukon, Sheldon O'Connell has prepared the definitive biography of New Westminster-raised Mandrake the Magician [See below].

O'Connell was born in Brantford, Ontario on August 23, 1923. As a young singer he was hired by Pocket Songs Karaoke of New York to record two albums as a demo track singer imitating Crosby. O'Connell spent much of his working life employed by CBC as an announcer and station manager. While working for CBC in Montreal, O'Connell gained a B.A. from the Thomas More Institute for Adult Education, then acquired an M.A. in Educational Technology from Concordia University. His thesis concerned the impact of television on the Inuit, leading to his address to the Learned Societies Conference. An Explorations grant enabled him to expand his knowledge of the Inuit for an attempt to write a situation comedy about the Inuit. Upon his retirement he wrote his biography of B.C. native son Leon Mandrake who became a world famous magician. His biography entitled Hollywood Lip Prints recalls the life and times of Canadian-born Clay Campbell who became successful as a make-up artist for Hollywood studios. O'Connell's biography of Dick Todd profiles a Canadian pop star of yesteryear. O'Connell came to live in British Columbia in the late 1980s.

Author of:

Mandrake Incomparable (Calgary: Hades, 1998) $27.50 1-894069-00-5
Hollywood Lip Prints (Ironwood Press, 1989)
Dick Todd: King of the Jukebox (Self-published, 1987)
Bing: A Voice for all Seasons (Ireland, Kerryman Publishers, 1984)

[BCBW 2006] "Music"

Mandrake Incomparable (Hades $27.50)

Born “on the road” on April 11, 1911, in a small town in Washington State, Leon Mandrake was the son of two vaudeville entertainers. When his parents divorced two years later, his mother brought him to New Westminster to live with his aunt, Mildred Wagner, who worked at the post office and lived nearby at 307 Carnarvon Street in a house designed by Samuel Maclure in 1887 (and still one of the oldest heritage homes in New Westminster).

After his aunt gave him the Mysto Magic Kit, Mandrake practiced in a backyard shed, borrowed books from the library, watched magicians at the local Edison Theatre and attended circus shows at the Pacific National Exhibition. One year he was given the props and costumes of a magician who had left the show. He first performed on stage at the Edison Theatre at age eleven in 1922.

For the next three five years the young illusionist appeared at the PNE as Mandrake the Magician. His mentors included Howard Thurston, Claude Alexander, Doc Verge, Bannister and Ralph Richards “The Wizard” who gave him his first out-of-town work in 1927: a six-month tour that ended in Winnipeg.

Mandrake was twice married to his on-stage assistants; first Narda Mandrake from 1939 to 1946, then Velvet Mandrake or “Miss Velvet.” The latter couple honed a two-hour magic show for nightclubs during the 1940s and 1950s.

Called ‘the best-loved magician who ever sawed a woman in half,’ the tuxedoed illusionist and ventriloquist was the inspiration for an unaffiliated comic strip, Mandrake, that ran for decades. Drawn by cartoonist Phil Davis and written by Lee Falk, this strip was created in 1934, in St. Louis, without Mandrake’s prior consent or knowledge.

According to Mandrake’s son Lon Mandrake, a science teacher in Delta, B.C. who also performs magic tricks, Falk claimed he had invented with name Mandrake the Magician coincidentally. When fact met fiction, Phil Davis drew their character to resemble the real Mandrake. Both parties verbally agreed to cross-promote each other with the result that Mandrake the Magician became recognized throughout North America.

During his long career Mandrake entertained royalty and was compared to Houdini. Other Mandrake spin-offs included a television show, a movie and a novel. The ventriloquist Edgar Bergen made Mandrake three dummies for his stage shows.

Mandrake’s publicity stunts were as notorious as his act. He was known for driving a car while blindfolded, hypnotizing a girl in a department store window, making great escapes from boxes and mind reading on the street. Leon and Velvet Mandrake retired to White Rock, B.C. after they quit performing in 1984, ending a 62-year showbiz career.

Mandrake Incomparable (Hades $27.50) by Sheldon O’Connell is a wandering but appreciative biography that culminates in Leon Mandrake’s death at Surrey Hospital on January 27, 1993. A wake was held at the old Edison Theatre in New Westminster, now the Paramount Theatre, the first place Mandrake worked his magic.

[BCBW 2005]

Dick Todd: King of the Jukebox (Milestone)

After writing a biography of Bing Crosby that was published in Ireland, Vancouver's Sheldon O'Connell has self-published a biography of the once famous Canadian-born singer who for a time outsold Crosby and Perry Como. Dick Todd: King of the Jukebox ($7.95 Milestone distributing) also provides a complete discography for the singer who recorded over 250 songs for RCA Victor and then ended up working as a labourer. "It's a little like being an unfrocked priest in some people's minds," says O'Connell, "but I'm glad I've gone the self-publishing route. I've earned back three-quarters of my investment in just a few months."

[BCBW Summer 1988]