Fetaque Sanders: A Remembrance
By Samuel Patrick Smith
It was mid-morning and the neighborhood was quiet as we turned down side streets and took the back way to 1601 Heiman Street. My wife and I were driving to the former home of Fetaque Sanders, the most successful black magician of his day. I made this pilgrimage anytime I happened to be in Nashville, Tennessee, and this route was best because it wound through the neighborhood where this great entertainer grew up in the 1920s.
We passed the library where Fetaque (pronounced FEE-take) pored over magic books as a child. His hobby eventually became his profession, and he toured for twenty-five years entertaining African American children with a show of magic and comedy, the likes of which they had never seen before. It was an amazing career launched during the Depression—a black man doing assembly shows in the South for poor audiences at segregated schools with no money. This was a venture that even a high-risk speculator would have refused to bet on, but Fetaque Sanders had a consuming desire to perform and tour with a show, and somehow he made it work.
His home base for all those years, 1601 Heiman Street, had been deserted. Fetaque had died five years earlier on June 2, 1992, and he had not lived in the house for several years before his death. But once it was the center of his life. He was born in the front bedroom on May 12, 1915, and as an adult lived in the house with his parents every summer when schools were closed and he wasn’t touring. After their deaths, it remained his homestead until ill health shuffled him off to a nursing home late in 1989. As Fetaque’s health declined the house seemed to go with him. A leaky roof did a lot of damage but when Fetaque died, the house hung on as if waiting for him to return.
“One of these days,” I said to my wife as we took the final turn onto Heiman Street and drove slowly toward 1601, “I’ll go by to look at Fetaque’s house and they will have torn it down.” As I looked for the familiar red brick front porch, I suddenly realized that my prediction had come to pass. Not a trace remained. Evidently the owners had foreseen too many expenses in maintaining the old house.
I parked on the street and walked over to the middle of the empty lot, noticing how small it seemed compared to the thirteen-room structure that had stood there for eighty-two years. Although the house had vanished, the memories and influence of Fetaque Sanders’ career had not. It was on this very site that Fetaque gave some of his earliest magic shows as a child.
Magic turned out to be more than a passing interest. Enamored by his hobby, Fetaque quickly devoured the handful of magic books at the library. Then he discovered a private collection on the other side of town. Hidden in the back room of Cerruti’s Tailoring Shop at 236½ Fourth Avenue North was the library of an exclusive magic club, Nashville’s Cercle Magique. Founded in 1922—the same year as the founding of the International Brotherhood of Magicians—Cercle Magique was the brainchild of V. A. Cerruti, J. Pink Lawrence, and T. J. Crawford, future editor of The Linking Ring.
Fetaque was not a member, but the kindly Italian tailor allowed him to peruse the library after school—and at least once during school, when he also received a lecture from Cerruti on the value of getting a good education. Paging through magic magazines—including The Linking Ring and The Sphinx—in that musty back room, Fetaque became acquainted with the names of leading magicians of the day. He systematically began writing letters seeking advice on becoming a professional magician. In 1930, at age fifteen, he received a reply from Frederick Eugene Powell, one of the most famous magicians of the past half-century.
In two typewritten pages, Powell attempted to discourage Fetaque from pursuing magic as a profession. Magic is a great hobby, Powell maintained, but going into it as a career is difficult and heartbreaking. “I am now 74 years old,” he wrote, “and I worked at least fifty years at the profession before I achieved any real success. Harry Kellar only acquired financial success after long years of sorrow and trials. . . . Herrmann paid the same dear price for his success.
“Today it is much harder to achieve success than in former years, as there are so many wonderful things science has contributed to our daily life, that people are not astonished now as they used to be, and it is much more difficult to arouse the enthusiasm of the public.
“If you like magic and want to study, do so, but I would surely advise you to do it as an abstraction and for the amusement of yourself and friends only. As a paying business, I am confident you would find it a long, hard road to travel with very doubtful success at the end.”
Nevertheless, as an indication of the depth and sincerity of Fetaque’s love of the art, he took Powell’s letter as a challenge to succeed, rather than an admonition not to try. By age sixteen he was playing professional engagements at churches and private parties. He saw performances by Gene Gordon, Eugene Laurant, and Harry Blackstone, and his enthusiasm continued to grow.
In 1933 Fetaque landed a job at the World’s Fair in Chicago in the Enchanted Island Children’s Theatre. He considered this his first major break in show business, and he played it for all it was worth. “Direct from the Chicago World’s Fair,” his posters proclaimed, and after his return in 1934, “Two Years at the Chicago World’s Fair.”
It was there that Fetaque met Guy Jarrett, Thurston’s disgruntled illusion builder. Jarrett told Fetaque that he could make him the world’s greatest magician, an offer—Fetaque later learned—Jarrett made to every magician he met. But Fetaque declined. “He had no credibility with me,” Fetaque later commented. “He was walking, while I drove a car, and I was only a teenager.” In 1937, however, when Guy Jarrett ran magazine ads threatening to burn the remaining stock of his famous and controversial magic book, Fetaque wrote and asked if he would hold a copy until he could afford one. He must have touched a soft spot in Jarrett’s heart, for an autographed copy arrived in the mail with his compliments.
From the World’s Fair it was an easy step to join a circus, which he did in 1935 on the advice of another black magician, Leon Long (Leon DeLeon), who told him the circus would round out his show business education. Fetaque’s father, a dignified community leader, was appalled. The management of Mighty Haag Circus put a turban on the light-skinned youth, set him atop a camel, and billed him as Feta Sajii. This was the last time Fetaque disguised his race.
After one season, he left the circus and began playing segregated schools and churches in an ever-broadening territory. In summer, he performed tableside magic at the leading “sepia” nightclubs in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and New York City, working in clubs with Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, and other musical greats.
Big city life appealed to Fetaque, but it caused a rift with his girlfriend and childhood sweetheart, Irene Kennedy, who worked—and wanted to keep working—in Tuskegee, Alabama. After a doctor discovered alarmingly high blood pressure, plus an enlarged heart, and gave him three years to live, Fetaque agreed to settle down. Irene and Fetaque were married in 1942, but less than a year later she died of pneumonia, leaving him stunned.
The same week, he received a call to manage a new USO Camp Show, Tabloid Troupe No. 65. John Mulholland—editor of the prominent magic periodical The Sphinx—had seen Fetaque work in Magic on Broadway and recommended him for the job. Confused and grieving, Fetaque accepted the position and reported for duty.
Fetaque spent the next three years traveling the country by train and entertaining more than three million soldiers across the country. Others in the show included Pearl Bailey and Eubie Blake, known for his hit song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”
While with the USO he met and married Mildred Reed. The birth of their daughter Carolyn, Fetaque said, was “the happiest day of my life.”
When World War II ended Fetaque left the USO and struck out on his own again, booking segregated schools and colleges in Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Texas, Louisiana, and anywhere else in the country he wanted to go. His reputation and advertising kept him working, and he played an average of two hundred cities a year.
A talented artist and craftsman, Fetaque built many of his props. He airbrushed them with unusual but professional designs, often with an African motif. He also created his own advertising materials and hand-lettered posters with the skill of an accomplished sign painter. His artistic mind thought in pictures, and when he made a grocery list, instead of writing, “milk, eggs, bread,” he drew quick sketches of each item.
Fetaque also wrote and rewrote his patter word-for-word until he arrived at a polished script. He read extensively and picked up ideas from many sources—including publications on magic, comedy, hypnotism, religion, and philosophy—and ran them through his unique filter.
What made Fetaque Sanders a great performer, however, was not equipment or patter but personality. He had the knack of engaging the spectators by making them feel they were part of the show. Dave Price, son of the curator of the Egyptian Hall Museum of Magic, saw many of his performances. What most impressed him was Fetaque’s complete rapport with the audience. Others who witnessed his performances made similar reports.
Fetaque’s personal magnetism is also evident in the only known recording of his school show, a reel-to-reel tape that reveals the near-hysteria to which he could drive his audiences. “Magic is mystery, and mystery’s confusin’—but watch out, now, I’m gonna make it amusin’!” began his school show spiel. He brought down the house with vocal mannerisms, hilarious facial expressions, and an impeccable sense of timing.
With comic exaggeration, Fetaque created images that made it almost impossible for students and teachers not to laugh. For example, he claimed he would offer a full refund to anyone who wasn’t satisfied with the performance. His show built up to the featured routine in which he brought a popular student on stage for the guillotine illusion. Fetaque dramatized it until spectators were on the edges of their seats. Then he stopped. “This is the point in the program when I will begin making the refunds, and those who want their money back may exit through that door,” he said. “Please—no pushing. Let’s do this in an orderly fashion. You may begin forming a line on that side of the room,” he said, gesturing broadly to indicate that he anticipated a large crowd demanding their money. There were, of course, no takers—but there was plenty of laughter about the timing and drama of his offer.
The Fetaque Sanders Magic Show appeared at thousands of schools, many of them impoverished, and brought wonder and delight to children who had never before seen a professional stage show. He charged a modest admission and worked his shows as fundraisers for the schools. In later years he referred to himself, tongue-in-cheek, as a pseudo-philanthropist.
Because of his race, he sometimes had difficulty finding a motel that would rent him a room. So Fetaque pulled a trailer where he and his family slept. When he toured Florida in the 1940s, he passed as a tourist who had enjoyed plenty of sunshine. “When I went to Florida,” he quipped, “I took my trailer and a suntan with me.”
His father was biracial and his mother part-Native American, producing an unusual skin color in Fetaque. He claimed this came in handy when ordering coffee with cream. “Make it the color of my skin,” he would say with a grin.
Although he had a sense of humor about his color, he endured many hardships during his career—dealing with suspicion (he was arrested during World War II by an officer who thought he looked like a spy) and prejudice (being turned away from restaurants who “didn’t serve colored”) and occasionally scorned by blacks who didn’t think he was “black enough.”
The sting of these offenses lasted decades. When I invited him to visit me in Florida in 1988, he said, “I haven’t left Nashville in twenty-five years.” But he ventured, “If I did come, could you and I—a white man and a black man—walk down the street or eat in a restaurant together?” I told him we could. “The last time I was in Florida, that would have been a problem,” he said. He seldom talked about his experiences as a black man in the South. When the conversation turned to his mistreatment he usually concealed his hurt with a smile or a joke.
“Do you see that the hair on the back of my head is curly? That’s from my black heritage. And the hair in front is straight—from my white background,” he told me. He paused, then said, “Do you see a bald spot on top? I guess that’s some kind of a battleground for racial segregation.”
Among magicians, however, he found little prejudice. Tommy Windsor, John Mulholland, Bruce Elliott, and other respected leaders in magic recognized Fetaque as one of the top showmen and sleight-of-hand artists in the country.
Fetaque toured the country for twenty-five years. In 1958 he suffered a stroke which impaired his peripheral vision. He retired from extensive touring but performed at nearby schools into the early 1960s. In retirement, Fetaque continued to plan new magic routines and act as advisor to a number of up-and-coming magicians, both black and white. Sometimes he volunteered to perform magic with a message at his local church, First Baptist, Capitol Hill, which he had attended since childhood. His minister there, beginning in the early 1950s, was Kelly Miller Smith, a prominent activist in the American Civil Rights Movement.
Fetaque always had a new project or the perfection of an old one in mind. He produced a trick called The Magician’s Christmas Gift in 1977, offering it to members of the I.B.M. at cost. He also wrote a monograph in 1982 called Coin Fold Secret...to Vanish a Half Dollar by Skill, based on a coin vanish Hardeen suggested he master as a teenager. But most magicians knew about him through his ads in The Linking Ring, offering publicity materials left over from an early and unexpected retirement.
These and other projects kept him busy, but what happens to a man who retires at age forty-three and lives the rest of his life in the house he was born in, surrounded by souvenirs of a career cut short? Like many creative people, Fetaque had his share of eccentricities. Perhaps the stroke or living alone so many years contributed to his quirks.
In retirement, Fetaque became completely identified with his house. It held his most treasured material possessions—memorabilia from his career. He referred to his home as “my archives,” “the treasure house,” or “the morgue.”
He allowed few people inside, partly from being secretive and partly from its cluttered state. There was literally no place to seat a guest. The only place he himself could sit was on the edge of his bed, surrounded by books, memorabilia, props, and the makings of props which he planned for some future time when he might emerge from retirement and again know the thrill of making an audience scream with delight.
Meanwhile, he visited Goodwill stores and consignment shops and bought scores of suitcases, portfolios, and briefcases to help organize his papers. Almost every day he brought home a new book, piece of fabric, container, or other item from a secondhand shop. He had a plan for each one, but his active and creative mind outpaced his body, and these materials began to pile up.
Besides dealing with the confusion of clutter, he suffered from mild paranoia. He saved every scrap of paper in case he would ever need it again, refused to let anyone clean his house, recorded phone calls, and when the phone rang would sometimes answer in a disguised voice. He hid token amounts of money in secret locations. His neighborhood gradually deteriorated, so perhaps this wasn’t paranoia after all. Once he was robbed at gunpoint in his home and on another occasion knocked unconscious in front of his house.
Nevertheless, he loved 1601 Heiman Street and was still living there when I first met him. I was twenty-three years old when I noticed his name and address on the Sick and Convalescent list in the November 1984 issue of The Linking Ring. I had just been to Nashville, his hometown, and was planning a return trip.
So I wrote to Fetaque and a week or two later, to my surprise and delight, he called and asked me to visit him the next time I was in Nashville. I returned in February and invited him to one of my shows. We got along so well that he began going to most of my performances in the area and eventually became my biggest fan. In jest he would say, “I’m just a has-been but you’re getting ready to be the world’s greatest magician!” I’d laugh at his exaggeration.
Once at a daycare center, I introduced Fetaque to the director. She exclaimed with glee, “Fetaque Sanders! I saw your show when I was a little girl!” On a return booking, I asked if he would perform a guest spot. “I haven’t done a show in twenty-five years,” he said. He quickly added, “Do you have some half dollars I can use?”
I introduced Fetaque, and he gave a skillful exhibition of coin magic. Then he invited a boy to assist him. Pretending to rub a coin into the volunteer’s head, Fetaque took him by the jaw to turn his face toward the audience. Under the cover of Fetaque’s hand, the boy’s mouth opened and Fetaque secretly popped in a half dollar. All of this occurred in a matter of seconds, unknown to the audience.
A moment later, the coin on top of the boy’s head vanished. Fetaque commanded, “Open your mouth.” The glistening half dollar tumbled out, and the room erupted in laughter.
Later Fetaque advised me not to duplicate the stunt in my own shows. “That was something I did years ago, but it’s not in good taste.”
Between shows, he enjoyed reminiscing about his heyday, but my own career fascinated him, and he continually offered suggestions and encouragement. He spent most of a summer designing a small piece of scenery for my show, and I still have a box of his letters—over one hundred—in his unique scrawl complete with original spelling. These often contained only one thought or idea, usually about the advancement of my career. They would sometimes carry the postscript, “Written at McDonald’s,” which I already knew because the stationery was a paper placemat with a coffee stain and a smear of syrup.
When we first met, he said that he suspected we were on the same wavelength. “Minds in accord” was his expression. He quizzed me to make sure.
He would say, “Now, when I was in New York, I met the man who edited a monthly….”
“Jean Hugard?” I ventured. Fetaque grinned. “Hugard—that’s right.”
Later he might say, “...the name of the magician who worked on clocks....”
“Robert-Houdin,” I replied. Fetaque smiled broadly and said, “You’re my man!”
Or when I correctly explained the working of an effect or described a routine, he would say enthusiastically, “Yeah, yeah—that’s what it’s all about.”
One day Fetaque said, “We can work together as a team. You can be my attitude doctor, and I’ll be your show doctor.” And that’s the way it worked.
For seven years, we visited, talked on the phone, or exchanged letters every week or two. The longer I knew him and the more I found out about him, the better I liked him. He didn’t always make a good first impression—people sometimes thought he was a garrulous old man—but, I often thought, how much better to be a person of substance than to put up a good front.
In his last months, he was in extremely poor health. His daughter Carolyn and I happened to be in Nashville at the same time and visited him together at his nursing home. It delighted him to no end “to have my daughter and my son with me at the same time.” (He had taken to calling me his son which, he noted with amusement, confused people.)
When he died about a month later, on June 2, 1992, the job of cleaning out 1601 Heiman Street fell to me. Two of Fetaque’s good friends, Dave Price and Scott Humston, assisted me in this enormous task. It turned into a several-year project, uncovering evidence of an even greater career than I had realized. His props were still in professional cases as if ready for him to load into the trunk of his car. His show scripts were intact. Still in the original envelopes were many letters from prominent magicians of sixty years ago.
Equally fascinating were the wonderful examples of Fetaque’s artwork and advertising: hundreds of brochures, letters, flyers, postcards, giveaways, tickets, handbills, and posters surfaced, all created by Fetaque the artist and used by Fetaque the magician. I had never seen or heard about most of this material. I realized that after devoting much of his time trying to make me successful, his own career was greater than he ever got around to telling me about.
Had it really been five years since he died? It hardly seemed that long ago when I last picked up Fetaque from the nursing home and drove him to 1601 so he could see his home. I walked across the empty lot toward my car, saddened that the old house was gone. But, I thought, more important than the house were the good times Fetaque and I spent together. I remembered one magical moment that happened about a month before he died.
Once a strong and capable person, the life of the party, he was now sitting in a wheelchair, a feeble, trembling old man. His daughter and I looked at him poignantly.
“Show me a coin trick,” Carolyn pleaded.
He said he didn’t have his coins with him, but I pulled some half dollars out of my pocket.
He held them in shaking hands for a moment. Then, something deep inside clicked into place. To our amazement, his hands steadied. Without a tremor, he performed a series of perfectly executed sleights.
Carolyn squealed with delight. He hadn’t lost the magic.