Bill Neff: Pleasant Nightmares

A few words about illusionist Bill Neff (1905-1967), whose career started out on an interesting note and only grew more so.

Neff began doing magic as a teenager in Indiana, reportedly taught by the art by Jack Gwynne. Neff’s high school friend and magic assistant was none other than future movie star Jimmy Stewart. He joined the Society of American Magicians in 1929 shortly after finishing college, although he worked selling life insurance for a number of years while continuing to develop his skills as a magician. By the 1940s Neff was a full time professional, with a repertoire of illusions that included levitation, the Spirit Cabinet and Burned Alive. He performed Houdini-style escapes and also mind reading and hypnosis routines. He is also said to have invented a number of now classic tricks, including the Cut and Restored Necktie, the Miracle Rope, and the Frame of Life and Death. His assistant in the act was his wife Virginia. He once collaborated on a stunt with Clyde Beatty, pulling a rabbit from amidst his cage of big cats.

Neff levitates Virginia — and, given her state of undress, probably a good deal else

Neff is best remembered today however for his large scale midnight spook shows, in particular his “Madhouse of Mystery”, with which he began touring in 1945. The two ton act employed 13 assistants and was presented in cinemas around the screenings of horror movies, much like the Ghost Shows of Dr. Silkini. Neff’s sign-off at the end of his shows was “Pleasant Nightmares”, which became the title of his 2008 biography, written William V. Rauscher, Pleasant Nightmares – Dr. Neff and His Madhouse of Mystery, available here.