McDonald Birch: Master Magician

Sometimes, especially in the case of magicians, I learn about an artist first from stumbling across their ephemera. Thus was the case with McDonald Birch (1902-1992).

Birch was born in McConnelsville, Ohio, where today the auditorium at the local opera house is named in his honor. He began learning magic in his tweens and went professional at age 17, working Chautauqua, Lyceum and small time vaudeville circuits. By 1926 he was touring with a full length evening of magic. In 1931 he married his assistant Mabel Sperry, who livened his stage shows with xylophone and marimba playing between illusions. (We can think of them as “the other Mack and Mabel” — Birch’s natural nickname was “Mac”). As the poster indicates he was known for a trick called the Vanishing Pony. He was also associated with the Silk Mirage (producing endless amounts of silk fabric), Scimitar (in which he cut a girl into four sections), Card Throwing, and the Challenge Box Escape a.k.a, the 5 Second Packing Box Escape (adapted from Houdini), which he is said to have performed without mussing up his fancy clothes. Thurston was among his admirers.

In 1964, Birch retired to Malta, Ohio, across the Muskingum River from his hometown of McConnelsville. A great resource for this post was this thread on the Genii Magazine forum, where some old timers share memories of having seen Birch perform live. If you are a hardcore magic buff, you may also consider acquiring the book Birch the Master Magician: The story of McDonald and Mabel Birch by Tom Ewing, which is pricey, but no doubt worth it to Those Who Must Know.

To learn more about the history of variety entertainment, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.