“De Yip Loo was a Chinese magician who created the famous “Shang Po Magic Show,” not too long after several seasons of touring the world with the Great Blackstone and, later, the Great Dante. However, Loo never would have become a professional magician if he hadn’t been a lousy busboy.”
De Yip Loo became a successful professional magician because he was a lousy busboy.
When he came to America as a young teenager from his native China, he spent the first few year on a farm in Minnesota. However, it was not long before he was drawn to the excitement and employment opportunities of the big city of Chicago. He got a job at the Nanking Chinese Restaurant in the Chicago Loop, across the street from the Oriental Theatre, Louie - that’s what everyone calls him - remembers that he was a terrible busboy. He set records breaking more dishes than any of his co-workers at the Nanking. He was about to be canned when, a distinguished looking gentleman with white hair started coming in for lunch.
The man was Harry Blackstone and he was appearing at the Oriental. As was Harry’s way, he would often pause to entertain the restaurant’s staff and customers. Apparently, Blackstone knew a little Chinese and coded the names of cards, making Loo his impromptu accomplice. Louie was fascinated by Blackstone. He decided to attend the show.
“It was a beautiful show,” Loo says. “I remember the Enchanted Garden, the Dancing Handkerchief, and the Floating Light Bulb. I wanted to be a part of all that.” He asked Harry for a job and, to the relief of the Nanking management, soon hit the road.
De Yip Loo was the junior-most person on the show of 19 (rather than the “Company of 50 Mostly Gorgeous Girls,” as proclaimed on Blackstone’s posters). Because of his age, Loo was assigned some of the least desirable jobs on the show. “Harry was concerned about other magicians sneaking in and stealing the secrets of his illusions,” Louie remembers, “so I had to sleep in the theater every night.” Louie also had to unpack, set-up, and maintain the many large illusions. It was not glamorous, but he loved. He was unconsciously soaking up the details associated with illusion design. Ad he didn’t know it at the time, but his knowledge would serve him well in year to come.
Occasionally, Blackstone requested that Loo help onstage, but it made him a little anxious. “With my history of breaking dishes at the Nanking, I was really nervous that I would drop something like the Sand Canisters.” He never did. As the youngest member of the cast, Louie was the butt of many pranks and jokes played by other troupers on the show. He was a teenager learning to be an adult, so he tolerated much of this. But sometimes he fought back. Fellow cast member, George Johnstone, was among the most aggressive pranksters and Loo remembers at least one backstage knock-down-drag-out fight. There was permanent damage to either of the tricksters, and George and Louie remain close friends to this day. Yet Louie did want to set the record straight on one of George’s stories. He says, “George always told people that I would put on Harry’s tails and walk through the entire show in the empty theatre. He even said that I would Blackstone’s patter, half in English and half in Chinese, and that Harry sneaked I one night and secretly watched.” Of this tall tale, which also appeared in an article about Loo that George Johnstone contributed to The New Tops in 1973, Loo says, “It never happened.” Louie recalls that his Asian descent caused him a bit of trouble, both on and off the show. There was o political correctness. He was often picked on and, once, in Keokuk, Iowa he was arrested as a Japanese spy. Blackstone bailed him out. “He was good to everyone he employed.” But as war clouds brewed and show business declined, Blackstone was forced to downsize. After a year with the master, De Yip Loo was forced to head back to Chicago and his old job at the Nanking Restaurant.
The timing was perfect. Shortly after Loo’s return, Dante played the Oriental Theater. So he went across the street and introduced himself. The Danish illusionist was having a hard time finding male assistants, because World War II was underway. Most of the eligible young men were being drafted, and in walks a young man who had magic show experience. Before he could break another dish, Loo found himself on the road with the Dante show. This time, the assistant job lasted four years, and Loo traveled throughout the United States with another grand master.
While many magicians found Dante to be aloof, Louie says he does not agree. “Blackstone liked to socialize with magicians. He would hang out with them at restaurants and go to the magic club meetings.” but Dante preferred his privacy. He was a simple man “who like saloons with sawdust floors, and his show was his family.” The show touring the United States during those war years was a small, tight knit group - Dante, his wife, two boys , and Moi Yo Miller.
“Dante was a talker,” Louie says. He chatted with the audience throughout his show, and his program consisted of sketches, with the illusions serving as vehicles for his comedic stories. Dante’s show would soon become Loo’s inspiration.
Loo also had more of an onstage role in Dante production. He participated in several of the illusions. He recalls the Magician’s Rehearsal, an elaborate sketch involving two Modern Cabinets. His favorite effect that he took part in was an illusion known as Black and White, where two assistants wrapped in simple cloths changed places on a bare stage.
Over the years, as Loo took on increasing responsibility with Dante, he had a job that today gives him reason to offer a warning to collectors. One of his between-show duties was signing Dante’s autograph to stacks of black-and-white publicity photos. Loo says that there are fair number of Dante autographed photos that he signed.
Loo left the Dante show when he was drafted. He worked as a baker in the quarter-master’s corps in Korea and the Philippines. He says, “I did nothing much as far as magic was concerned while in the army.” He learned some hypnosis after seeing Chicago amateur magician, attorney, and collector Gene Bernstein (who also served four years as IBM President) do a few stunts. It caused Louie to send away for some books and learn the fundamentals. He entertained his army buddies with some hypnotic demonstrations, but never did it on stage.
After the war ended, Loo returned to Chicago as an out-of-work veteran. He put together a lecture on China for schools and universities. Werner “Dorny” Dornfield chided Loo, saying that he knew nothing academic about China. Louie responded to Dorny , saying, “At least I looked the part.” His authentic demeanor led to a little bit of work as a model and at least one television commercial.
It was his friend Frances Ireland Marshall who suggested he consider a career as a professional magician. After all, she reasoned, “so many people believe that China was the birthplace of magic and De Yip Loo is a real Chinese.” Frances encouraged him to visit the famed Chicago Roundtable and get to know magic dealer and prop builder Ed Miller. Loo took her advice and a magical career was underway.
From those years on the road with Blackstone and Dante, Louie knew what he liked as far as tricks and illusions. He scoured magic catalogs for other ideas, decided on the effects that fit his style, and then worked with Miller to build props for his first act. They built a collection of smaller tricks and, since Loo wanted a big finish, they constructed a Blade Box. He knew that he wanted to do a comedic talking act and he wanted to wear traditional Chinese costumes.
De Yip Loo signed up with Barnes & Carrothers, a very prestigious booking agency in Chicago. When the theatrical agency felt that his name didn’t sound “Chinese enough,” he chose the stage name of Chan Loo. (Chan was his mother’s maiden name; Loo is his given last name.) He set out on a grueling schedule of shows for schools - up to 12 performances per week for ten years. A typical program included classics such as the Egg Bag, Die Box, Confetti to Goldfish, Head Chopper, and the Serpent silk (still his favorite trick today, especially after Jay Marshall showed him how to “do it right”). After finding a large, beautiful copper vase in a antique store, Loo built his own version of the Kuma Tubes. This classic effect featured the production of an enormous quantity of silk, followed by the production and vanish of the huge water-filled vase. It became the feature of his larger shows. Some time later, when Okito was writing Okito on Magic, he admitted that he’d forgotten how this effect worked. Louie was the one who had to show him, allowing the secret to be recorded properly.
He changed his show occasionally, but two elements remained constant: Loo always performed in traditional Chinese robes and the show was filled with humor. He became convinced that tricks with livestock were audience pleasers. Influenced by the Mexican dove worker, Cantu, Loo developed an act that allowed him to produce doves while wearing traditional Chinese robes.
Performing as Chan Loo, he was likely the first magician to use colored doves in his act. He got the idea after working on a show with a trained bird act that featured a colored pigeon. “I figured out a way to use detergent colors, and it got a great audience reaction,” Louie says. He eventually sold the right to the idea to Chicago ice-show magician Ron Urban for $25. Chickens became another trademark for Loo. He was working a county fair and struck up a conversation with a poultry vendor. The dealer encouraged him to use a breed of Chinese chickens in his act. They were smaller than more common chickens and, according to Louie, easier to tame than the traditional rabbit.
After 12 busy years of school shows, Loo found the constant life on the road very lonely. He decided to visit family and relative in Hong Kong. With the help of a creative travel agent, turned the tip into a six-month, round-the-world tour. He visited virtually every major city in Europe, Africa, and the Far East, including India. Of his visit to Benares, Louie muses, “It’s funny. They had no Temple there.”
Upon his return to Chicago he began performing in a variety of venues. It was the era of club dates and one-nighters, and Louie performed an act that today might be considered stand-up comedy. It was mostly monologue based on his Chinese heritage, his family, and his travels. He did lots of magic, but the act was driven by his wit and personality. It wasn’t long before he part of another comedy magic act with his Blackstone-show mate, an act billed as “George Johnstone & Timothy O’Rourke.” Louie played the character of O’Rourke, a Chinese/Celtic conjuror.
Louie has always been a dedicated hunter and fisherman. His fascination with the outdoors, which continues even to this day, led him to develop an act for sports shows and fairs. It was one of the very few times in his career that his costume varied from the traditional robes. Instead, he wore hip waders and fishing vests.
He soon hooked up with Chicago talent agent Howard Schultz, who kept him extremely busy with not only club dates, but also corporate events, private parties, and banquet shows. The relationship with Schultz led to a booking on Chicago’s famed Bozo Circus on WGN-TV. Loo was the first magician to appear on the show. Marshall Brodien, a star of that show for 34 years, recalls that Louie became one of the producers’ favorite variety acts, and he was booked back numerous times during the program’s 40 years on the air. On the air. In fact, when the show ended in 2000, Marshall located a clip of Louie’s first appearance on the show and it was included in the special, Bozo! Forty Years of Fun!
Loo had the opportunity to work as the opening act for the legendary Red Skelton at Chicago’s posh Chez Paree nightclub. Louie says, “It was a big-time engagement for me, but it was also a wonderful experience. Skelton was a very humble man.” Louie remembers how Skelton would remove his expensive wristwatch before going on stage, because he did not want the audience to perceive him as being “different.” When the engagement ended in Chicago, Loo was offered the opening-act spot with the rest of Skelton’s tour, but he decided to stay put. He’d had enough of the road.
Ever since Loo became a fixture in the Chicago magic community, he continued to be influenced by Okito. The style and the beauty of the Dutch master’s act impressed him and, over the years, they became close friends. When Okito was thinking about retirement, he decided to sell some of his robes. “They were beautiful,” Louie recalls. “They were originally made for the Peking Opera.” He wanted to buy one, but could not afford it. Eventually, Okito presented Loo with one of the exquisite robes and an embroidered table drape, which today hangs above the mantle of the his fireplace.
Jack Gwynne was another of Loo’s friends and he would often help Gwynne with his larger shows. He recalls assisting the great showman with a performance in the center ring of a circus. Another friend, magician and puppeteer John Shirley, suggested that Loo returned to his real name. De Yip Loo took John’s advice - Chan Loo disappeared.
In the 1960’s and ‘70s, Louie’s supplemented his income by working for Jay and Frances Marshall at Magic Inc. He made thousands - “At least it seemed that many!” he says - of Magic Inc.’s top-selling Match to Flower. He also made a very realistic looking Bang Gun, a prop that is still sought after by collectors. Louie was far from being a craftsman, but he quickly picked up a variety of skills working at Magic, Inc.’s backroom workshop. This experience, along with the knowledge he assimilated while on the road with the Blackstone and Dante shows, eventually made him an in-demand prop and illusion builder.
It was during his stint as Magic, Inc.’s prop maker that Louie decided to recreate Blackstone’s Light Bulb Cabinet, a startling illusion where two dozen brilliantly lighted electric light bulbs penetrated the body of a beautiful assistant. Benefiting from having virtually rebuilt Harry’s illusion, he understood its construction and had ideas regarding improvements using higher-tech materials. He always thought of the illusion as a mondernization of Nicola’s Spike Cabinet. Loo sold the first cabinet he construction to Peter Reveen for $1,000. “He got a bargain,” Louie laughs. “I didn’t know what to charge back then.” Interestingly, that first cabinet he built for Reveen recently popped up for sale on an Internet site for $6,600.
Over the next few years, Louie made seven Light Bulb Cabinets, and they were mostly built in his kitchen. The illusion never really became part of Loo’s show. “I couldn’t hold onto one long enough.” Some other lucky owners of his Light Bulb illusion have been Mark Wilson, Harry Blackstone, Jr., Dick Williams, and Doug Henning, who bought one for his Spellbound show. Louie was thrilled when Orson Welles decided to perform it on a network television special in 1978.
One of Loo’s Light Bulb illusions facilitated a life-changing event. In April 1971, he attended a local folk dance with Frances Marshall’s brother John. There he met a lady named Arlene, who was a secretary at a large accounting firm. He introduced himself as Louie and when she asked his last name, he responded “Louie.” She and “Louie Louie” fell for each other. They became engaged the following Valentine’s Day, and the money that Mark Wilson paid for his Light Bult Cabinet paid for the engagement ring.
Jay Marshall warned Arlene that the marriage was doomed “because Louie was too much of a hot head.” Notwithstanding Jays advice the couple married in April of 1972. The ceremony was at Chicago’s Chapel in the Sky, where Blackstone married his third wife. The reception was at the Drake Hotel, because the Magician’s Rountable met there. “And we chose the date,” Louie says, “because I had shows in early April in Niagara Falls. That way we could always tell people that we took our Niagara Falls honeymoon before the wedding.” Arlene says that they still call Jay every year on their anniversary to tease him about his admonition.
Unless it was a large show, De Yip Loo seldom used assistants and usually worked alone. But shortly after he and Arlene became a couple she was a regular in the act, which was now known as the Shang-Po Magic Show (“Shang” for the first dynasty in China and the “Po” to celebrate Arlene’s Polish heritage). When their daughter Frances came along, she quickly became part of the show, making her first appearance on stage when she was only ten days old. With all of this new-found talent, Louie decided to scheme-up some new illusions, using techniques he learned from reading Dariel Fitzkee’s Tricks Brain. “I decided what I wanted to do and then worked backwards to figure out how to do it.” He never used blueprints. When he determined that he wanted to perform Harbin’s Zig-Zag Lady and also decided that three-year-old Frances would be assistant, he built a tiny Zig-Zag. However, his clever design and construction allowed him to expand the prop as Frances grew. He built a miniature Temple of Benares in the same ingenious way. He also increased the role of his Chinese chickens in the new show, by building and incorporating several new livestock production and vanishes.
Loo built a Microphone Stand suspension, working only from the aerial Suspension drawings in a Professor Hoffman book. While he was not trained as a machinist or metal worker, he experimented until he was able to fabricate all the necessary parts and apparatus. Loo felt strongly that the illusion should not use a broom. “They belong to the broom closet and not on stage,” he says of the traditional support used in the illusion.
Loo reserved the performance of one illusion just for Arlene. He had been doing the Blade Box since the very beginning of his career, but now built a new one Arlene’s specific size. Since original Blade Box was still in good shape, he traded it (and he admits, along the with some case) for Dante’s Beer Barrel illusion, which was in the collection of his friend, attorney Gene Bernstein. While Loo still has the Dante Beer Barrel, the Blade Box ultimately went to Jay Marshall. Jay performed it for several years, and today it can be seen in Todd Robbins off-Broadway show, Carnival Knowledge, where it still looks and works great.
The Loos spent the next 25 years on the road, performing at schools and fairs and other venues, literally doing thousands of shows. Loo built a customized panel van that transported the show and had a modest living quarters within. They drove the van throughout the United States and even into Canada, where they appeared for four consecutive years at the prestigious Canadian National Exhibition. The 500,000 miles on the odometer of that van gives insight into the busy schedule they maintained.
There were no signs of slowing down, until in 1998. Louie suffered a stroke that brought their professional lives to a screeching halt. While his mind remained sharp, the stroke had a profound effect on his physical health. With the unflinching support of Arlene and Frances, Loo is fighting back. At 78, he is walking and he continues to improve. The Loos live in a suburb northwest of Chicago. The walls of their home are covered with photos and memorabilia related to his career. Arlene still works at a bank, though she think that retirement may not be far off. Frances dedicates herself to taking care of her father, while also developing her own career as a performer and composer of original music.
De Yip Loo has not performed since the stroke. He says that he is too much a perfectionist to do anything less than perfectly, which might lead one to conclude that we’ve seen the last of Louie as a magician. But there is evidence to the contrary. His props are neatly packed and ready to go. The panel truck is parked in the driveway. His coffee table is covered with current catalogs for Chinese chickens and the supplies necessary to raise them. And while Louie isn’t saying anything, Arlene and Frances believe he’s making plans. Given De Yip Loo’s remarkable history, I’m convinced they just might be right.
Mark Holstien, a litigation attorney by day, is an illusionist who performs regularly in the Chicago area. Mark has been the stage manager of Abbott’s Get-Together for 21 years. .