Biography: Fetaque Sanders
By Samuel Patrick Smith
It was midmorning 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 time. I made this pilgrimage anytime I happened to be in Nashville, Tennessee, and taking the back way was best because it wound through the neighborhood where this great entertainer grew up in the 1920s.
We passed the Carnegie library where Fetaque (pronounced FEE-take) pored over magic books as a child. His childhood hobby eventually become his profession, and he toured this country for 25 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 an overly optimistic 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 it had once been 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, the house went to him and 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 of the old house remained. Evidently the owners had foreseen too many expenses in restoring the home and decided to start from scratch.
I parked on the street and walked over to the middle of the empty lot, noticing how small it seemed compared to the 13-room structure which had stood there for 82 years. But though 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, and by age 16 he was playing professional engagements at churches and private parties.
Two years later 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 at the fair 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 which—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." But in 1937 when Guy Jarrett ran ads in magic magazines 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 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. But this was the last time Fetaque disguised his race identity.
He left the circus and began playing segregated schools and churches in an ever-broadening territory. During the summertime, 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. This caused a serious rift with his girlfriend and childhood sweetheart, Irene Kennedy, who worked—and wanted to keep working—in Tuskeegee, 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 Irene died of pneumonia, leaving Fetaque stunned.
The same week, he received a call to manage a new USO Camp Show, Tabloid Troupe No. 65. John Mulholland, who had seen Fetaque work in "Magic on Broadway," recommended him for the job. Confused and grieving for Irene, Fetaque accepted the position and reported for duty.
During the next three years, traveling by train, Fetaque entertained three million soldiers across the country. Working with him were Pearl Bailey and Eubie Blake, later known for his musical hit, "I'm Just Wild About Harry."
While with USO Camp Shows, Inc., Fetaque married Mildred Reed, by whom he had his only child, Carolyn. The birth of his daughter was "the happiest day of my life," Fetaque said. He left USO Camp Shows in 1945 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 200 cities a year.
He was a talented artist and craftsman, building many of his show 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.
In addition to creating his props and promotional materials, his commitment to professionalism led him to write and rewrite his patter word for word until he arrived at a polished script. He read extensively and picked up ideas from many sources, running them through his unique filter.
But what made Fetaque Sanders a great performer was not equipment or patter but personality. He had the knack of completely engaging the audience. Dave Price, a friend of Fetaque Sanders and former curator of 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 Fetaque's performances made similar reports. His personal magnetism is also evident in the only known recording of Fetaque's school show, a reel-to-reel tape which reveals the near-hysteria to which he could drive his audiences.
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 fund-raisers for the schools. In later years he referred to himself, tongue-in-cheek, as a pseudo-philanthropist.
Because it was sometimes difficult for "colored" to find a hotel room, 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 mulatto 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 grin.
He once asked me, "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 paused. "Do you see a bald spot on top? I guess that's some kind of a battleground for racial segregation."
Though 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 25 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 without any problems?" I said that we could—there would be no problem at all. "The last time I was in Florida, that would have been a problem," he said. The scars from this unfair treatment of 42 years prior, which he seldom mentioned, were usually concealed with a smile or a joke.
But among magicians he found little discrimination. He was recognized as one of the top showmen and sleight-of-hand artists in the country by Tommy Windsor, John Mulholland, Bruce Elliott, and other magic authorities. He became acquainted with Elliott after a comment appeared in The Phoenix telling how to polish a silver coin "till it shines like a nigger's heel." Fetaque wrote to Elliott and said his heel wasn't any shinier than a white man's. Elliott, recognizing his error, apologized profusely, and they became good friends.
Fetaque continued touring the country for 25 years, but in 1958 he suffered a stroke which impaired his peripheral vision. Although he retired from extensive touring, he performed at nearby schools into the early 1960s. During his retirement years, Fetaque continued to plan new magic routines and act as advisor to a number of up-and-coming magicians, both black and white. He occasionally volunteered to perform magic with a message at his local church, First Baptist, Capitol Hill, where he had attended since childhood.
He always had a new project or the perfection of an old project in mind. He produced a trick called "The Magician's Christmas Gift" in 1977 which he offered to IBM members 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 seemed to keep him busy, but what happens to a man who retires at age 43 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.
For one thing, Fetaque became completely identified with his house. It held his most treasured material possessions—memorabilia from his career—and around it he began to build up a secrecy and mystique. He variously referred to his home as "my archives," "the treasure house," or "the morgue."
He allowed very few people inside the house, which was partly from being secretive and partly from distress over the unbelievable clutter which had accumulated through the years. As he explained to me early on, there was literally no place to sit in the house. 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 secondhand shop purchase. He had a plan for each item, but his extremely 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 ever needed 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 by the time I met him he was still living there. I was 23 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, he began going to most of my performances in the area and eventually survived more of them than anyone else has yet managed. In fun 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.
He enjoyed reminiscing about his heyday over a cup of coffee between shows. 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 100—in his unique scrawl complete with original spelling. These letters 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'd venture. Fetaque would grin. "Hugard—that's right."
Later he might say, "...the name of the magician who worked on clocks..."
"Robert-Houdin," I'd reply. Fetaque would smile broadly and say, "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, and 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 were able to visit him together in a 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, 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 two-year project which uncovered 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, and 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, and I realized that after devoting much of his time trying to make me successful, his own career was greater that 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 that the house were the good times Fetaque and I spent together. I remembered one magical moment which 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 with a sense of poignancy.
"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 the coins in shaking hands for a moment. Then, something deep inside him clicked into place. To our amazement, his hands suddenly steadied. Without a tremor, he performed a series of perfectly executed sleights.
Carolyn squealed with delight. He hadn't lost the magic.