Walton's Mr Magic - Len Blease Remembered

 

Len Blease on BBC TV’s Bygones

Len Blease’s career successfully spanned the live variety shows of post-war (WW2) entertainment and the arrival of TV with its potential for huge audiences. Magic – and especially Close-up Magic – was well suited to the new medium. The baffling illusions and sleight-of-hand of the magician’s art and his teasing ‘patter’ made Len’s acts popular at a time when other entertainment was becoming more ‘riskee’. The whole family could enjoy Len Blease’s shows – and they did! He remained in demand as a well-loved entertainer and highly respected magician to the end of his life as indicated by the following remarks in Cyril Read’s 2001 report of Len Blease’s presentation to the Merlin Magical Society:

“Len, a man who can talk ‘magic’ forever – never boring – and can also ‘do’ magic forever, with an amusing flair, that is rare in magic.”

And the review continued…

“A man who lives and breathes Magic, who brings excitement and laughter not just to magicians but to everyone he meets.”

Len was revered by his peers winning cups and trophies – some of them many times over –  culminating in the Inner Magic Circle’s rarely awarded Gold Star in recognition of his extraordinary performance skills.

Len Blease (1932-2002) was a native of Walton and lived there all his life.  He was a modest man and never wanted the high-life of fame, fortune and flashy goods. He was not attracted to the offers of cruise ships’ engagements or the ‘glitz’ of Las Vegas.  Pat, Len’s wife, says, ‘He never went on holiday except to IBM* Conventions.’  Len’s life was totally taken up with magic. He would devise and perfect his tricks in his garden shed though he was always happy to help other entertainers offering advice to advance their performance techniques. Len was extremely well-liked. His versatility and genial personality made him a popular act in any show. Bob Young – a friend and fellow-professional of more than 50 years – said of Len Blease, “I think he was one of the best. He was a terrific magician, a wonderful ideas man and a very funny man. I have worked with pros and semi-pros and I think he was one of the best.”  (*IBM = International Brotherhood of Magic)

Early Days 1943-1964: Stage struck

Len’s Punch & Judy puppets

Len, aged 11, joined the Frinton Boy Scouts, “When I went into the scouts, I did a show to get my Entertainers’ Badge. The scoutmaster gave me half a crown, so that was my first paid show!”

As a teenager he played washboard in a skiffle band and aged 18 he was in the YMCA Drama Club’s The Poltergeist at the Red Triangle. It was reported in the 21 February 1950 review that ‘the supernatural effects, contributing to the success of the production, were excellent.’

Len did his National Service with the RAF in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) but much of his time was spent with the Services’ Concert Parties. (As reported in the Gweilo Times, Rhodesia August 1953.)

Back in the UK, Len combined his magic at Clacton’s Savoy Theatre, the RAFA, the British Legion, the W.I. and other local organisations. His Punch & Judy shows, with his own hand-made puppets, were especially popular so in 1964 Len applied for a permit to perform on Walton’s Central Beach. It became a regular seaside show – with a 10 year run.

Magical Rides

Len Blease firing it up!

Seaside entertainment is a seasonal job and Len needed part-time work to supplement it. Initially Len was a Bus Conductor on the 105 and 107 routes. The 107 was the Walton-Clacton school bus and schoolchildren got a regular tease with Len’s bus ticket and disappearing/reappearing money tricks. Punch & Judy were regulars but magic rabbits and fire-eating were ‘specials.

Mr Fixit

Len worked for Frinton Ironmongers Blowers & Cooper – on and off – for twenty years (1976-96).  He was valued for his workshop skills where he made and repaired items. He also cut keys. His humorous and teasing personality made it a pleasure to have him there but he had other assets! Len was a fixer. It seemed he could solve any problem and he became well-known for that. Frinton residents who had locked themselves out called on Len’s help, and some even had trouble opening their own safes. He opened the case of the New Zealand Croquet Shield that the British Team had just won – but lost the key!

Joking at work!

Len’s many show-biz friends would call into the shop. It was always fun. And encouraged the public too on the off-chance of meeting a celebrity – and that was good for business. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Blowers and Cooper accepted Len’s part-time input so he could perform at his magic shows.

TV exposure and fame:

Len had won a talent contest with his magic, mind-reading, escapology and conjuring act and appeared on TV’s Opportunity Knocks. It helped further his career. In 1977, Len presented a 6-week series of TV shows on Anglia TV. This spread his acclaim across East Anglia and launched his stage career – he was now billed, “as seen on TV” !

Talent contest

Known to own a vast personal collection of props, books and comics and for his deep knowledge of the history of magic, Len was invited to present a special magic show of the BBC TV Show ‘Bygones’. It was broadcast at key family viewing time over Christmas 1978. That slot perhaps indicates the popularity of Len – and magic – at that time.

Talent Contest

Of course Len was a superb performer, not only extremely skilful but with a telegenic personality and appealing humorous style – all perfect for family entertainment over the festive season The show further enhanced his popularity.

Children’s entertainer:

Brownie’s Jamboree

 He was always a favourite entertainer for children’s parties, carnivals, country fairs and brownies’ jamborees. Traditional Punch and Judy puppets remained a part of Len’s performances even as his magic tricks became more sophisticated and as later in his life he was called on to compere ‘light entertainment’ shows.

Balloon magic

The Pier Shows:

The Talented Franklin Sisters

The Clacton Pier Show organiser, Frank Adey, put on summer matinees for children. He brought together Len and the Franklin sisters, Wendy (14yrs), Mandy (12yrs) and Cindy (11yrs) who were already accomplished musicians. It was the start of many of Len’s shows with budding entertainers and a long-standing collaboration with the Franklin Sisters. It was during an audition that Len came across Reg and Bob Young (The Young Brothers). They became lifelong friends and associates in variety shows for over 50 years.

Magic Merlin & Friends

Merlin’s Magic Show

Len’s magic naturally appealed to children. The photos of him entertaining them show them enthralled, laughing and totally engrossed in the performance. His shows also included many young performers – including his son Paul. Len’s programmes – see image – show his meticulous planning down to the last minute. His Merlin’s Magic Show included a talent contest for children and through that Len mentored young magicians who went on to have professional opportunities. In 1986, Len compered the National Talent Contest.

No agent!

Len’s Levitation

Len’s press coverage was enormous. His many cuttings albums indicate how well-publicised he was and that Len always had a good press. He knew the reporters and the cameramen too. He had many friends ‘in the business’ and also amongst the public too. His stories were ‘good news’ and the photos eye-catching. Len did all his own networking and he never had an agent. The extensive coverage was the perfect advertisement! (See image of Steve Painter, reporter on the Evening Star, and his personal experience of Len Blease’s magic with the illusion of his own 12.5 stone levitation!) Steve explained that Len was ‘a quiet and modest man’ and a ‘walking reference library of tricks and stunts for other established names. Len had made lasting ties with Tommy Cooper, David Nixon, Chan Canasta and Al Koran’.

Entertainer, Comedy Advisor and Magic Tricks Designer:

The Frinton Triangle

Len turned professional in 1976. He had a regular spot at the Ipswich Corn Exchange, regular bookings at the Walton Martello Camp and ample private functions and hotel engagements. Len was in demand for charity events, the Chairman of the Council’s shows, Rotary Club, British Legion, and the RAFA. Though not financially ambitious Len boosted his income with advisory and designer roles. When BBC-TV put on the skit of Butlin’s Holiday Camp called Hi-De-Hi, Len was approached to help with the authenticity of the Camp comedian’s ‘magic’.

Hi-de-Hi

Len knew the value of his own tricks and was able to sell his designs to others in the business – including well-known magician celebrities like Tommy Cooper and even Peter Worlock who was Magician of the Year in 1987. Len devised the ‘tie’ props for a Young Brothers sketch  and enhanced Robert Harbin’s Zig-Zag illusion to include a fourth compartment. His own Magic Paintpot trick – that changes the paint to stripes and spots  – is now widely available online.

The Magic Societies:

Len Blease was one of the founders in 1977 of The Magic Triangle. Held originally at the Frinton Triangle it has now relocated to Colchester where it still meets once a month on a Sunday evening. It was set-up as a club for all those interested in magic – Children’s Entertainers, Close-up Magicians, Balloon Modellers, Puppeteers and Mind Readers.

The Frinton Triangle

Len was closely connected to the Magical Society of Ipswich. He was a former chairman and won the Society’s Hickson Cup NINE times (1966, 1970, 1972, 1974, 1979-82 inclusive and 1991.) Len was content with his local context of N.E. Essex, Ipswich and Suffolk. In the late 70’s Len had a regular Show for Children at the newly refurbished Ipswich Corn Exchange. In 1997, Len was awarded the Society’s Magini Shield for his Close-up Magic act.

Len not only performed his magic. In 1997 he was invited to give a lecture (Miscellaneous Magic!!) to the Bristol Society of Magic that included his knowledge of magic’s history.  In 2001, already 68 Len was invited to be the Entertainer at Potters Bar Merlin Magical Society. He was Toastmaster too, combining his naturally humorous style made him the ideal choice for these roles.

Trophies galore

Len’s numerous press cuttings, brochures and tickets refer to his shows at other Magical Societies around the country – Blackpool Magicians’ Club, The Northern Magic Circle in Harrogate, The British Ring Convention in Scarborough, The bristol Society of Magic at Weston-Super-Mare, the Mid-Essex Magical Society, the Ilford Magical Society and the Magic Circle of Stevenage.

Peer recognition:

Back in 1966, Len had been recognised by his peers and elected Associate of the Inner Magic Circle (AIMC). Len was also a member of the British Group (Ring 25) of the International Brotherhood of Magic (I.B.M) and he was frequently invited to present to the 3000+ membership attending the annual IBM Conventions. That was in itself a very high honour.

Yet another award!

In 1988 he was among a very select group invited to perform his skills for the prestigious British Magical Championships. This must have been where he perfected his trick – ‘the most hilarious Cup and Balls you’ll ever see!’

In a report of a meeting (February 1991) of the Ilford Magical Society where Len gave a presentation he was described,

 

“Len Blease – what a character, miniature dynamite!!”

Ten years later, in 2001, Len received a glowing review from the Merlin Magical Society:

“A man who lives and breathes magic, who brings excitement and laughter not just to magicians but to everyone he meets.”

Len had said in 2000, “Now I’m retired I have more time in the shed making tricks for other magicians.” But aged 68, Len was one of 6 magicians invited to compete for the Championship Cup for Children’s Performer of the Year at the IBM. He just could not give up.

In 2002, and almost 70, Len was honoured by his own peers with the rarely awarded Gold Star of the Inner Magic Circle in recognition of his extraordinary performance skills.

It was while he was at the IBM Convention at Eastbourne in 2001 that Len experienced a minor heart attack. He recovered from that, but according to Pat, his wife, it was bowel cancer that resulted in his demise in 2002.

Acknowledgements:

This research was prepared by Josie Close with guidance from Pat Blease, Len’s widow. Pat generously provided Len’s Press Cuttings Albums as its basis. This valuable social history record has been archived for Resorting to the Coast, a Heritage Lottery Fund Project supported by Essex County Council and Tendring District Council.

Background information was learned from conversations with Reg and Bob Young (The Young Brothers) talking about their memories of their 50 year plus professional friendship with Len and also with Robin Cooper, MD of Blowers and Cooper, Len’s indulgent employer for twenty years.

The text and images from the Walton Maritime Museum’s special exhibition for 2018 season ‘Walton’s Mr Magic – Len Blease Remembered’ which ran from Easter to 30 September 2018.

Len’s Gold Star – a rare award of the Inner Magic Circle – was generously loaned by Pat for the exhibition.

The Gold Star had pride of place amongst the display of Magician’s Props kindly loaned by Luke Grint.

The Frinton & Walton Heritage Trust acknowledges the copyright of all the photographers, reporters and newspapers professionals whose work on the various local newspapers has been included. The Trust thanks them all for their courtesy in allowing the press cuttings to be reproduced here.

Walton Maritime Museum is run by volunteers, members of the Frinton & Walton Heritage Trust, Charity No 289885. Registered Office: Thorpe Green House, Colchester Road, Thorpe-le-Soken, Essex CO16 0AB.

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