The Amazing Fogel
1911 – 1981
Born in London’s East End of Jewish Polish parents, Nathan and Malka, on 7th July 1911, Fogel was the eldest of seven children. His parents had come over to England in 1910 and settled in London alongside a small group of Polish immigrants. His father worked as a baker before learning pattern design and becoming a tailor. The family had a humble lifestyle.
Whilst at school, and not having much money, Maurice would spend his free time in his local library and he became an avid reader; it was here that he first came across a book by Professor Hoffman and as happens to many a young lad, the flame was lighted and the addiction took hold.
He became quite competent and enjoyed the popularity magic gave him by being able to perform and entertain friends and at school he was asked to perform an act at the end of each term. It was also during this time he read about the bullet catch, and the fact that Houdini was too afraid to attempt it; this both surprised and incentivized him to want to do the effect, even though it would be 1940 before he ever handled a rifle, when he was called up to the army. He left school at 14, after coming top in his final exams and joined Oxford and St George’s Boy’s & Girl’s Club. He credits this experience for both helping develop new material and increasing his repertoire (he was performing loads to the same people), and just as importantly, if not more so, for the opportunity it gave of facing and entertaining an audience.
At the time his mum wanted him to become a rabbi and his father wanted him to follow him into the tailoring business, but being aware of his passion for magic, and knowing a magician personally (Albert Marchinski a.k.a. Rameses, The Eastern Mystic) Nathan set out to try and help his son chose the best path in his quest to make magic his career. After setting up a meeting with Marchinski, Nathan ended up investing in the Rameses show and young Maurice was offered a role. This proved another invaluable experience as it was working with Rameses that Fogel first learned the art of street performance, inclluding learning how to attract and use a crowd and building engaging audiences who would in turn attract more people. Fogel would start by attracting people, and then build an audience by doing some magic, including hypnotising a goose! The people were then encouraged to pay to enter to see the Rameses show. ‘There is nothing like working a sideshow’, he once said, ‘because you knew that unless you could get people to pay to come in you did not eat!’ His education in magic was being fast tracked by all these experiences. Another big lesson Fogel also learned was how to turn small magic effects into something that could be used in a large stage act by, for example, utilizing members of the audience (the wine and water effect being one such example). It was working with Ramases that Fogel also used lead boots in an hypnosis effect whereby the weight of the boots counterbalanced an hypnotized Fogel leaning forward (ala Dynamo street performance). In essence his work with Rameses was invaluable. It taught him how to be a showman, a marketer and a serious composer of effective stage magic. His work on the show ended when Marchinski died in July 1930.
In 1937 (aged 26) he entered and won a talent competition at Collins Music Hall. The prize was £10 and a week’s engagement at each of two music halls; one in Brighton and the other on Wigan. That was really the beginning of Fogel’s professional career and he went on to work many music halls before they gradually started closing down. During this time he was doing a ‘standard’ magic act and as with the Great Alexander many years before when he arrived at a town without his equipment and was forced to do a show which consisted of mind reading effects which received a better and bigger reaction to his regular show, fate and lack of props would have a similar effect on Fogel’s career. Whilst working at the Theatre Royale Blyth, Northumberland, in a variety show, the producers were desperate for the show to be extended. As Fogel’s slot was one of the more popular ones with the audience, the producers pleaded with him to extend it.
The lack of any new props forced him to devise something else. He had had an interest in psychic experienced and had experimented with some mind-reading effects at previous close-up engagements with more ‘intelligent’ audiences. His curiosity had come from his father ‘s own interest in 1spiritualism. Although many of the attempts had failed, the subject matter and small successes had generated much intrigue and audience engagement and Fogel had made notes on the effects in one of his many notebooks filled with ideas and stunts. Following the request to extend his act he went straight home to read his notes and stayed up most of the night devising his first stage routine. The first performance was poor to say the least. Fogel was dreadfully nervous and forgot most of the lines; he never felt comfortable at all. Following a discussion with three other cast members (actors who had attended RADA), they suggested some tips to improve his presentation and reduce the nerves of doing a new act. He took the advice on board, the act improved quickly with every presentation and by the end of the week the audience loved it. When the show moved to another theatre the producers insisted that he drop the magic part of the act and focus on the mind-reading – “We want the mind-reading act only! It is much better than bits of rope and handkerchiefs!” they said.
In due course Fogel developed and perfected which
The one-man show of mental magic soon became Fogel’s act and was his basic act to the end of his life; when war broke out it was ideal as it was virtually impossible to gain access to props whilst serving. The act and his reputation went from strength to strength and whilst in the army a fortunate aquaintance with Corporal Henry Lewis led to Fogel being transferred to the ‘Stars in Battledress’ and a lifelong friendship with Henry ensued. During his war service he achieved fame and press publicity with some sensational predictions. Interestingly Fogel temporarily change his name (again) twice toward the end of the war years and performed as Casso and Casandra (the world’s greatest mind reader) to try and add a little more mystic to his billing. In the immediate post-war years he was working steadily in the variety theatres. It was in 1947 that he was at the fine old Grand Theatre at Bolton and his act (which run for 23 minutes) was probably the first real one-man mental act to run in Variety in the UK. The Fogel Road Show was up and running with the incorporation of several specialty acts and the addition of a few illusions a ‘Vanishing Nude’, ‘Through the Eye of a Needle’.Russioan Roulette’ “Cheating the Gallows’, a ‘Bullet- Catch routine’, hypnotism and a clever Spirit Cabinet, the show toured the theatres with considerable success.
Fogel traveled extensively, and fulfilled many cruising engagements. In 1950 Fogel travelled to America, where he befriended the late Richard Himber. He found it difficult to gain work and the following year he returned to England. He provided many sensational pieces of publicity for magical conventions. Constantly searching for new ideas, his genius for presentation and stagecraft produced countless brilliant routines; his breath- catching Russian Roulette, his Cheating the Gallows which he played more for comedy than drama, his impressive Houdini Seance, and many more. Basically his methods were simple, but his presentation transformed them into miracles.
Fogel didn’t perform the bullet catch like any other performer. To begin with he didn’t actually catch the bullet between his teeth or in a plate. He very astutely came up with a plan to take a dramatic effect and make it even more theatrical. Fogel realized that the key to the trick was the danger involved in watching a performer risk his life by having a gun aimed at him and then fired. He upped the odds by using six rifles in his routine. Five rifles contained genuine bullets and one had no bullet in it. The rifles were mixed up and one of them was chosen at random and this rifle was to be fired directly at Fogel’s heart. The remaining rifles were aimed at plates on a rack behind him. The finale of the effect consisted of an earsplitting volley of rifle fire and the destruction of 5 plates clattering onto the stage. Best of all was the way Fogel sold the trick to his audience. Once the effect was set up and the audience was ready to see whether he would survive the ordeal was when the genius of Fogel the showman took over. Just as the rifles were aimed at Fogel and the tension was mounting to a high pitch, he would abruptly stop the action and step forward to address the audience. “Ladies and gentlemen” he would say, “It occurs to me that in a few moments I may be lying dead or dying on the floor, unable to hear your reaction. Would it be presumptuous of me to ask to hear your applause now?” Needless to say the audience responded with a wild round of applause. “Thank You” said Fogel. He returned to the original drama and the firearms were re-aimed at him. After a short countdown the rifles roared into life, plates crashed to the ground and Fogel staggered! He just staggered just long enough to cause the more sensitive spectators to gasp before Maurice recovered and took his applause. Needless to say when the audience realized that Fogel was unharmed their applause raised the roof. That was the kind of brilliant showmanship that put Maurice in a league of his own. No wonder he was known as the Amazing Fogel!
In the latter years he spent most of his time cruising on P&O ships. However, once Variety had come to a halt in the 1950s the majority of his time in show business was working for Butlin’s.
Fogel died of a heart attack on 30th October 1981. He was waiting for a train at Golders Green Underground Station, a few minutes walk from his home. He had his little black case of props in one hand, his blackboard under his arm, and was in his way to do a show for Terry Seabrooke
He will be remembered for his talent and personality, some quite exceptional effects and for being an extremely good performer and perhaps it is this later attribute which distinguishes the successful from the average; in addition he possessed outstanding charm, was always kindly, friendly and was eminently likeable.
* Chris Woodward & Richard Mark. Maurice Fogel. In Search of the Sensational.
* An interview with Fogel appears in Corinda’s 13 Steps to Mentalism along with many of his routines.