British Columbia

World-renowned Mandrake the Magician star of new exhibition at Surrey museum

The legendary career of the late Leon Mandrake, who hailed from New Westminster, B.C., is honoured in a show at the Museum of Surrey that runs until mid-May.

Legendary career of the late entertainer is focus of show on until May

Leon Mandrake, or "Mandrake the Magician", was a famous entertainer in the vaudeville-era and beyond. He died in Surrey, B.C. in 1993. (CBC Archives)

When Lon Mandrake was in university he met a nice girl and brought her home to Surrey, B.C., to meet his dad, who, at the time, was practicing making a skull levitate off the living room mantle. When the excited suitor went to the kitchen to make his date some coffee, she fled the house.

"I guess I forgot to explain to her that my dad was a magician," Mandrake told CBC's The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn with a chuckle.

Lon is the son of the late Leon Mandrake, a world-renowned magician, escapologist, ventriloquist, and stunt performer who was born Leon Giglio in Washington. He grew up in New Westminster in the 1920s and started his magic career at the age of 11.

Lon Mandrake has teamed up with Museum of Surrey staff to pay tribute to his famed father, who died in 1993, in a new exhibition that is open to the public until May 16.

In this still from a CBC documentary, Leon Mandrake performs an illusion in which he makes a skull float in the air, much like he did in front of his son's unsuspecting date years ago. (CBC Archives)

Visitors will have the opportunity to see magical tools of the trade like Leon's decks of cards and magic wand, posters from performances, comics from that era and costumes belonging to Mandrake the Magician and his assistant, Lon's mom Velvet.

"My dad's philosophy of life was really interesting. It made for a very happy, very happy family," said Mandrake. "He always said, you know, magic could stimulate a sense of wonder about the world... that sense of excitement of the unknown leads you to find, you know, life more interesting."

Mandrake the Magician

6 years ago
Duration 3:20
From the archives: A CBC documentary about late B.C. magician Leon Mandrake

Mandrake said his father was first drawn to the world of magic by watching vaudeville performances at theatres in New Westminster and Vancouver as a child. Leon learned his first tricks of the trade from magicians in these shows in exchange for looking after the rabbits and doves they used in their routines.

"He just sort of fell in love with the performing and the magic and the sense of wonder," said his son.

Diana Lofstom performed with Mandrake and his wife in 1954, when she was just 14-years-old. Lofstom was a dancer at The Cave Supper Club but also assisted Mandrake during a five-week stint at the club. 

"There was a sword trick with Velvet in the box. We would walk in with the swords on our arms, very officially, and he would take them and brandish them and shove them in the box with Velvet inside," Lofstom said. 

For the big finale of his performance, Lofstom recalls, Mandrake would climb into a trunk in a red tuxedo and be locked inside, and an audience member would be given the key. Then, he would pop out wearing a new outfit and smoking a cigarette.

But one night, a spectator ran off with the key, frightening his wife and the assistants. 

Luckily, Velvet was able to find a spare key and let her husband out.

"Boy, that was kind of scary, I'll tell you," Lofstom said.

She knew the secrets behind Mandrake's tricks, but to this day, she hasn't revealed them. She hasn't even told her husband, who was her boyfriend back when she was working with Mandrake. 

"My husband has never forgiven me for not telling him," she said. 

Leon Mandrake was affected by adversity throughout his career, including some of the same challenges families face with the COVID-19 pandemic today.

"Magicians were like rock stars in the 1930s and 1940s, filling stadiums with crowds of fans," said Jessie McLean, Assistant Curator. "But the poliovirus epidemic of the 1950s, which mainly affected children, meant that playgrounds, gatherings, and live shows were cancelled."

The Museum of Surrey is following a COVID-19 safety plan and anyone wanting to check out the exhibit is asked to call 604.592.6956 or email to register for your visit. 

 A maximum of 34 registered visitors are allowed in the museum at a time and masks are mandatory.

LISTEN | Lon Mandrake talks about life growing up with a famous magician for a father.

With files from The Early Edition


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