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Charles Reynolds: The Unknown Magician

Getty Images / The LIFE Picture Collection / Ray Fisher

A look at one of the greatest magicians you’ve never heard of

That the showmen on stage aren’t always the authors of their most impressive illusions is, like many aspects of magic, shrouded in secrecy. This explains why you’ve probably never heard of Charles Reynolds, whose most famous clients included Doug Henning, Harry Blackstone Jr., and Siegfried & Roy. Among an elite cadre of professional tricksters, Reynolds was known as a magician’s magician.

Born in Toledo in 1932, Reynolds was first exposed to the world of magic at age 7, when he attended a show by the legendary Harry Blackstone, the country’s most popular magician at the time. He later crossed paths with Dr. Carlo, a performer and magic trick dealer credited with inventing the "Balls of Fire" trick and the rubber dove, which he sold from his magic shop in Ohio.

Reyonds studied theater at the University of Michigan and would work as a cameraman for CBS, a job that served him well in his later pursuits as magic moved from the stage to television and film screens. A skilled photographer, he worked for Ziff-Davis magazines and also took on freelance work.

But he never lost his interest in magic, collecting illusions, props, and rare magic books throughout his life. It was while on a magazine assignment to cover popular illusionist Doug Henning that Reynolds’ hobby was transformed into a profession.

Impressed by Reynolds’ knowledge, Henning hired him to be his magic consultant. Hennings already had a Tony Award-winning Broadway show and had been approached by NBC about creating a special for television. First airing in 1975, "Doug Henning’s World of Magic" would attract 50 million viewers and run annually for the next seven years.

In his capacity as a magic consultant specializing in, as he put it, “chaste, charming, weird, wonderful and supernatural illusions,” Reynolds would go on to work behind the scenes on a host of Broadway productions, rock concerts, films, and television shows for the likes of Woody Allen, Jim Henson, and Harry Blackstone Jr. — son of the top-hatted illusionist who’d first inspired the young Reynolds back in Toledo, Ohio. A scholar of magic, he also produced a BBC documentary about the history of the art form, authored books on the subject, and kept a valuable collection of arcane magic memorabilia in his home in Greenwich Village. Like the great Harry Houdini, Reynolds also enjoyed debunking would-be psychics and mediums.

In one of his most famous illusions, designed for Henning's 1983 Broadway musical "Merlin," Reynolds figured out how to make a live horse and rider vanish onstage. He was awarded 2004’s Magician of the Year by a group of his peers, and Magic magazine named him one of the most influential figures in 20th century magic.

Speaking to NPR, magician, actor and kindred soul Ricky Jay said, “Unfortunately, most people get into magic to cover up severe social deficiencies. Fortunately, that was not Charlie's approach and not the approach of the people we admire, those of whom are in magic for a profession.”

Charles Reynolds performed his final disappearing act Nov. 4, 2010, dying after a battle with liver cancer (the same disease that had claimed Henning in 2000).