Montague Chadbourne on Jack Adams
The late founder of the American Museum of Magic, Robert Lund of Marshall Michigan, sagely declared: “the small-time journeyman-magicians” were perhaps, the truer heroes within the ongoing saga of stage magic performance practice.
So many of these adamantine idealists who trod the boards in the American theater and show business, themselves, heralded or otherwise, represent and uphold a continuing tradition of “enormous human significance” in the estimation of high culture critic Lionel Trilling in his perhaps unexpected affirmation of the skill sets distinguishing the practice of much of the popular arts including that of the art of magic.
Jack Adams, (1937-1994), the son of a bookshop owner and of Huguenot descent, was just such a journeyman magician of illimitable merit and imagination. Well-liked among his professional peers, and wherever he exhibited his magicianship in at least 30 countries, he was foremost of all the object of various measures of thankful public acclaim.
Adams did forge links between theatrical mastery and the ardent strictures defining his own advanced execution of prestidigitation.
Jack said he’d studied the observation of Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, (the 19th century “Father of modern magic”), that “the magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” To this end our subject entered upon the task of mastering so many of the aspects of the magician-actor’s craft – – mime, makeup expertise, storytelling, quick-change artistry and other important myriad facets of the art of acting, from Stanislavsky to Grotowski’s Polish Laboratory Theatre, along with Jack’s passion for dissecting the physical humor techniques gleaned from the silent screen era geniuses like Chaplin and the later work of W.C. Fields, and circus clowning of the level of Emmett Kelly.
Born in Oklahoma, Jack Adams invariably endowed most of his magic roles with the sunshine openness of styles of public address perhaps associated with those good-hearted people of that region, this informing his sparkling admixture of winning personality and captivating personae onstage. In aspect, Jack bore a bit of the look of Brad Pitt, though he was decidedly shorter.
Adams recalled that at the age of 9 he saw his first magician. He once told his friend and magic scholar Robert Reiss, that among Jack’s formative influences in boyhood, was having seen the mercurial King of the Western tent show extravaganzas, Harry Willard, of the dynastic Willard the Wizards. Jack related he’d “walked miles on dusty roads” to enter that tent-show and to marvel as Willard dazzled all with a show comprised of old-style large-scale illusions framed by the performance of a riveting cascade of medium-scaled magic sequences, all bound together by Willard’s compelling stage persona.
Jack later shared that “this was my inspiration” for his much later full-length Merlin, among his other formidable projects for the stage.
To make Jack’s dream show a reality, he sought out excellent tutelage from the theater department at college, Northwestern University. Trained by the experts at that place and time he was, he said on many occasions, mentored by Alvina Kraus, and, elsewhere in Chicago came into professional contact with Viola Spolin, the Improv doyenne, and story theater inspirer. Adams in his student period performed non-magic dramatic roles in Krauss productions at Eagles Mere Playhouse and at the school. Decades afterward Jack contemplated the wonder of it: “We did nine drama classics in all of ten weeks! – Ibsen to Chekhov.”
As a young man, Jack Adams appeared in over sixty roles on and Off-Broadway, in emergent television, and film. When he arrived from the Middle West to Manhattan, the post-war Off-Broadway movement remained in its fertile efflorescent phase, and young Jack was cast in a raft of vehicles during this high tide.
Jack Adams’ magic, too, attracted the attention of casting directors and booker’s, significantly for children’s television programming on local stations in the Northeast as well as in the Middle West.
For at that time these TV stations still created weekend and after-school programs of original content for televisions’ moppet set. When this scribe first personally encountered Adams in the 1960’s at Al Flosso’s Magic Shop in New York City, that now, as then, legendary place of rendezvous for hocus-pocus people, Jack said he was then commuting to Philadelphia to do his original routines of magic as guest on one such local TV show for kids; he averred the following: the station manager and producers were so delighted by Jack’s many gifts, personal and magical, which had gained Jack a local following of kid home viewers, that they wanted Jack to say yes to the idea of Jack’s hosting his own weekly TV hour!
Jack Adams – beloved by trusting kids – said he’d demurred, as his on-air duties would include, as host, having to personally endorse and pitch products and foods of dubious value to his juvenile followers; he said he “could never betray innocent children,” his TV fan base, in such a déclassé fashion, just as his own vegetarianism bade him not to betray animals (which he also sometimes worked with so tenderly as a magician.) Indeed, if I may note the fact in this context, Adams’ favorite – non-magic – book of this general period was the idealistic Markings by Dag Hammarskjold, the perhaps martyred United Nations leader.
So, Jack Adams flourished as a television guest. In the metropolitan area of New York, he ubiquitously popped up on local shows, such as the Sunny Fox hosted era of the Sunday morning viewing marathon, Wonderama. Here he was booked with a favored group of the talented, such as the still youthful The Amazing Randi, and the mime Tony Montanaro.
On camera Jack was especially effective in his live-televised renditions of his character-driven creations, such as Jack in the role of Yoko, an Asian rice farmer contending with the vicissitudes of rain and famine in the rice paddy: this, Jack’s virtuoso turn from his stage show invoking all of his earlier dramatic training as described above featuring Jack’s lapidary mastery of mime, StoryTheatre technique, makeup panache, and his fluency for all of the forms of classic magicianship. It was his outstanding theater piece and, alas, does not appear to have been preserved on tape or film.
Educators took note of these high-quality presentations of Jack Adams and he soon became a recurring guest attraction at that (1960s and on) era’s premier N.Y.C. venues for worthy Children’s Theater. Adams was annually at, variously, The 92nd Street Y, Kaufman Concert Hall, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, TheaterWorks U.S.A., Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and museums of all kinds, seemingly.
On these stages before huge 1000-plus audiences of children and parents, Jack immediately captivated all especially with his authentically warm vocal timbre and diction. He radiated his distinctive assurance and poise, engendering an actor/audience friendship and enchantment that many can still taste in the memory, these decades later.
I might further adumbrate the constitutive elements of the comic and dramatic sequences comprising this singular stage work, but, rather, I’d now prompt the reader to review the accompanying visuals on this website for further edification and all of the pleasing surprises orbed therein. Behold Jack Adams’ gracious art which he advanced with his rosette presence and verve.
Al Cohen, the proprietor of a storied, now-defunct, magic shop in Washington, D.C., where journeyman-magician Jack Adams once also plyed his thespic-magico trade, said “Jack Adams – now – he was an artist! and it’s why I referred important clients to him for shows.”
Milbourne Christopher, the late historian/magician and universally regarded as ”Americas’ foremost magician” said to Adams “Jack, Macy’s wanted me to prepare a magic float for their annual parade – I unreservedly told them to call you,” Reiss recalled the encounter between Christopher and Adams.
Al Flosso, (the late owner of Americas’ oldest magic shop and legend in his own right) in 1969 at his store, amidst a flow of colorful show-biz kibbitzing, wherein he paused to, as it were, soliloquize and expostulate with vehement admiration, said, “Talk about a ton of clever touches,” he spoke as he moved about his haywire showroom with resolute gesticulations.
“I count dozens of his own when I watch Jack on stage — Y’ see – as God as my witness! – and I’ll say this loud and clear – Jack’s show is – Y’hear what I’m telling you! – a masterpiece of originality! Jack’s in a class by himself…OOOh, is he ever! Brother, Y’ hear what I’m saying!”
“You guys should all of you, go study Jack’s show – It’s a master class – boys – Y’ hear! it is! and what you can learn from him…and let me now tell you something else: For my money – for an all-around magic show – with nothing left out – ooh! is Jack the best! I ought to know, brother! And if what I’m saying ain’t true Sonny Boy! – then just call me Mendel Beilis!, and I’ll bail out of here for good!”
These vivid and voluble Flosso utterances let loose on the subject of Jack Adams were exhumed by Reiss, and are, of course, characteristic of Al Flosso’s unforgettable and fervent, vinegar besotted badinage with fond sentiment at the core. Flosso was himself sui-generis among the figures in magic.
In conclusion, it would perhaps simplify matters to quote directly from the late Joseph Dunninger, (1892-1975), who was upon his death the last link in the chain of America’s unexampled Master Magicians, commencing from the mid-19th century, a continuum which did terminate with Dunninger’s death in 1975.
Before he died Dunninger compiled an exceedingly select list of those other magicians he most esteemed, and Jack Adams was among the top two he paid tribute.
Of Jack Adams and the elect others, Dunninger declared in his stentorian and powerful voice, “they are the names of the famous conjurers of the 20th century…they are the ones who have contributed their talents to building the ‘Monument to Magic,’ thereby adding their personalities to the foundation [of Magic’s] Hall of Fame.”
Thus Trilling is indeed correct, these journeyman-magicians are of “enormous human significance,” and indelibly among them is Jack Adams.
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Jack Adams Promo Tape transferred from VHS.
Interview with magician Peter Samelson
Interview with magician Bradley Fields
Interview with Pat and Jen Adams
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Printer Materials from Jack Adams Archives
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Bradley Fields assisting Jack Admas in Promo shot in Tompkins Square Park.
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Bradley Fields and Jack Adams doing Promo shoot with kids in Tompkins Square Park.
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Jack Adams performing as Aladin with doves.
Jack Adams as Merlin.
Jack Adams as Dantene.
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