Michael Lauck is a columnist for iTricks. His work appears on Mondays.
Magicians everywhere know Bobo’s Modern Coin Magic, but how many know Bobo’s real name?
JB Bobo’s writings have influenced magic for six decades. His career lasted just as long.
Without a doubt, JB Bobo is best known for his 1952 book Modern Coin Magic. It is almost a disservice to describe it as a classic in the field of magic. It was, and remains, the closest thing to a textbook on coin magic ever written. Although every magician has heard of Modern Coin Magic and a huge number own a copy of the book, many do not realize that there were actually two versions. The original, which is still in print today in an inexpensive Dover edition, was released in 1952. The advertisements for Modern Coin Magic boasted that it was 384 pages long, covering 116 sleights and 236 tricks. 510 illustrations, provided by Nelson C. Hahne, supplemented the text for a clearer understanding of each move and effect. Although Bobo was not a huge star in the world of magic, he was well known among magicians for his coin work and the book was an instant success. Perhaps because of the inexpensive Dover edition, this is the version most magicians know and love.
Fourteen years after the original, though, JB Bobo released an expanded version called New Modern Coin Magic. The update added four new chapters and stretched the statistics to 422 tricks and sleights over 544 pages with 669 illustrations. This version is also still available from Magic, Inc. for about $50. Given the price difference between the original (which retails for about $12 as a paperback) and the hardcover updated version, it is not surprising that many magicians only have the original in their library. No matter the version, Modern Coin Magic has kept the name JB Bobo familiar to magicians. Unfortunately, it seems that the name is about all that they know!
The man known professionally as JB Bobo was actually born JB Bobo in Texarkana, Texas in 1910. It is an oft told story that the family’s name was originally “Beaubeaux,” but it was simplified in the United States. What is not as widely known is that Bobo’s actual given name was JB; they were not initials! Bobo’s family ran a grocery store in Texarkana but his father passed away while JB was very young. His mother eventually remarried and at age 12 Bobo and his family moved to Canada.
After the move, his family owned and operated restaurants. JB seems to have been attracted to the tricks shown to him by traveling salesmen who frequented the family’s business. Touring entertainers visited the restaurant as well. Both Reno and Laurent met and encouraged the young JB. Eventually, the family moved to Windsor, which was close enough to Detroit to allow JB to see big name touring magicians. He even had tickets to see Houdini in Detroit, but Harry passed away before the performance. His exposure to the acts of Dunninger, Thurston and other big names further fueled his interest in magic and he subscribed to the famous Tarbell Course at age 16. Early on, Bobo devoted his studies to sleight of hand because he did not have the means to acquire stage props.
JB Bobo returned to Texarkana when he was 19. Although he worked a series of “day jobs,” including store clerk, carpenter and window display designer, he was looking to perform. For a time he joined in with a group of like minded friends presenting shows in rural towns around Texarkana. The conditions were difficult, often performing in lantern lit school rooms, and pay was meager but it allowed JB Bobo to break into show business. After he married his wife Lillian in 1933, she became his permanent assistant. Lillian took to magic and the couple soon began to travel to the Abbott’s Get Together and other opportunities to meet with magicians. Although Bobo usually performed for adults, Percy Abbott offered the couple a chance to tour the west performing school shows when another magician suddenly cancelled. Mr. and Mrs. Bobo, now full time performers, grabbed the opportunity and found a new speciality in school performances.
In an April 1945 Linking Ring profile Phil Huckabee called Bobo “Clean-cut, good-looking, and blessed with a magnetic personality, a keen sense of humor and a friendly smile.” The piece outlines some of Bobo’s thoughts on performing, including his belief that the audience should always be entertained first and mystified second. This meant that the “Bobo, The Magician, and Company” show concentrated on comedic shows. Bobo also, even when performing for adults, kept his show clean. By this time, though, many readers were familiar with Bobo because he had submitted many effects and articles to magazines. Lillian Bobo, who was probably only known to most readers as JB’s wife adn assistant. was also mentioned quite favorably in Huckabee’s piece.
Lillian Bobo was undoubtedly an essential part of JB’s success. Of course, it always helps to have a supportive spouse. Lillian was more than simply supportive, though. She was a capable and efficient assistant who managed several costume changes in their performances. Even more importantly, she organized the act. Once the trunks were unloaded (often with the help of a couple of students), Lillian allowed almost the entire act to be performed without unpacking. She would retrieve a prop directly from its trunk, take it to Bobo onstage, take the prop he had just used and put it in its trunk. The Bobos literally unpacked and packed as they performed! This allowed them to perform several shows each day. Beyond the actual stage, there was an incredible organization to the act. A five year cycle of shows was designed with a few variants available each year. Every year was a new show with new giveaway cards and posters. When there may be some audience overlap, a different version of the year’s show could be performed.
The efficient, organized approach to the show meant that schools could count on the couple to provide entertainment year after year without becoming stale. It may have taken a bit more paperwork to keep track of which show variant was performed at a location, but it proved worth the effort. Once the Bobos left the large agencies with their multi-state tours and began finding their own shows, they were able to earn a good living while staying almost exclusively in a 200 mile radius of their home in Texarkana. Not only did this eliminate the expenses of most tours, it helped to reduce the fatigue caused by constantly performing. JB Bobo would later estimate that in his 50+ years of school performances he and Lillian probably performed over 15,000 shows.
Bobo was more than just an extremely successful school show performer. He had steadily contributed his tricks and articles to magazines for a number of years before finally deciding to write a book. His first, Watch This One, was released in 1947. Coming in at 128 pages, it featured magic with cards, coins, thimbles and rope with illustrations by Bobo himself. Watch This One was fairly well received (and it is still available as a PDF from the Conjuring Arts Research Center). Bobo would truly become famous among magicians, though, with the 1952 release of Modern Coin Magic and its 1964 expansion. He also authored another book, The Bobo Magic Show, in 1984. It not only included dozens of effects from his shows but also his advice to performers. After the publication of Modern Coin Magic, Bobo was highly sought after for lectures.
In 1989 after over 55 years of marriage, Lillian Bobo suddenly passed away. Bobo continued to perform school shows for a couple of years before retiring in 1993. He continued to lecture and perform for magicians, though, until his death in 1996. He had performed all over North America, from Guatemala to Canada, but his area school had been his mainstay. When he passed away the local paper gave Bobo a three column front page story with multiple photographs. Thanks to his strategy of staying relatively close to home, generations of families throughout the area had seen him perform. It was even reported that he was so well known in the area that letter from all over the world simply addressed “Bobo, Texarkana, USA” would actually make it through the postal system to him. Of course, thanks to Modern Coin Magic, his work will be known by generations of magicians to come as well.