Amedeo Vacca was born in Cantalupo new Sannio Italy on June 30th 1890, this according to Ancestry.com. Many magic periodicals give his birthplace as Campobasso Italy. Apparently, he was enthralled with magic ever since a young boy. He would catch every performance of magic that he could. He absorbed magic. Clearly, this young man was destined to become a magician. Every traveling magician that came to his town was sure to find young Amedeo in the audience. And then when he had witnessed enough magic, he put on his own show for the neighborhood children. You had to have a ticket to attend his shows, even at this early age. But fortunately the cost of a ticket was a mere button. Amedeo would later sell these buttons to his father who worked as a tailor. That is a bit of marketing and business genius. He knew the children had no money, but they surely had buttons. And he knew his father needed buttons. Win win! (1)
His older sister had moved to America and at one point sent for Amedeo to move there too.
He came to America in 1906. He lived in Bridgeport Connetticut, and quickly began to witness the American brand of magic with such notables as Blackstone, Jarrow, Hardeen, and more. I’m sure this gave young Amedeo a feeling of confidence that he made the right move coming to the US. He was working on various factories around Bridgeport during the week, and saving his money to invest in his future career in magic.
He would purchase props from Martkinas and others to build his show. Eventually, he was loaded with equipment, a rabbit, and more. He tested his material out at the local talent contests. And then he made that difficult decision, he decided it was time to turn pro. What he soon discovered was the amount of props he was traveling with, required an assistant. Between the rabbit, the props and the assistant, Amedeo’s income was decreasing constantly. So the quick solution was to downsize the props and he was able to drop the assistant and eventually the rabbit. (2)
His talents brought him to Chicago and to the offices of The Western Vaudeville Managers Association. With the boldness and brashness that might even make Harry Houdini jealous, Amedeo went straight to the head booker and proclaimed, “ I’m VACCA the worlds GREATEST magician, and if you can get me my price, I may consider permitting you the honor of booking me.” And just like that, they booked him. Granted it was a trial booking but he got in. And his performance at the Allstate theatre was a success, he received good reviews which meant he was on his way. HIs price by the way was $75 a week. He continued to work on his act. He even downsized it again. But that didn’t mean he downsized the overall impact of the magic. He introduced all sorts of wonderful effects, they just didn’t require massive props. And with each successive change, his act improved and so did his weekly income. Before long he was working the top spots and bringing home $200 a week! (3)
His act was unique at this point: fire eating, paper tearing, 20th Century silks and more. It was small enough to carry very easily but large enough to be seen throughout a theatre. He was the epitome of packs small plays big. His act was so big at one point he followed Eva Tanguay as the headliner of a theatre. And then he began to headline everywhere. He went on the road, and again, top of the bill. Amedeo was riding high.
THEN something happened. A visit to a magic shop would become a life changing event. The thought of this makes me chuckle. How many a young person’s life is changed after their first
visit to a magic shop? At least there was a time for that. And here is a seasoned professional and it happens to him as well. He went to August Roterberg’s shop. It was not his first time here by any stretch. It’s just that this day, there was someone else in the shop. Now, think about this, here is Vacca, playing top of the bill everywhere he went, but he walks into this magic shop and he is dumbstruck. He can’t hardly speak. There a few feet in front of him is
August Roterberg introduced the young man….I say young man, he was at least 30 years old at the time. Houdini greeted Amedeo pleasantly and then showed him a trick. I do not know what trick it was he showed, likely something simple. And then Amedeo, who moments before was as shy as a church mouse, suddenly proclaimed that he could do that trick and do it better than Houdini. This caused much laughter among Houdini and Roterberg, but the young man proceeded to do the trick for them and Houdini was impressed.
I have to stop there for a moment. We are always bombarded with these tales of Houdini’s huge ego and yet here he is standing in front of a much younger performer and acknowledging his skill. And I know this was the fact, because Houdini then invited him to visit him at his home the next time he was in NYC.
It would take Amedeo Vacca two years before he would show up at Houdini’s doorstep, but show up he did. The year was 1923. Little did Vacca know, his life was really going to change now. Houdini and Vacca really hit it off. Houdini recognized the brilliance and intelligence of Vacca and put him to work. Literally, he put him on the payroll and put him to work. But his was to be a secretive work. Houdini didn’t want anyone to know of their relationship. In truth he hid Amedeo in plain site, by setting him up in his own barbershop not far from Houdini’s home. Vacca would be the head barber. Not knowing anything about being a barber, Houdini sent Vacca to night school to learn the trade. The two would meet almost daily for a shave, and to discuss their various plans (4). And in the magic trade magazines, Amadeo is often referred to as ‘The Magic Barber’. And it’s that little tip that makes me believe that he possibly continued to perform in some manner or another. After all, he was a headliner back in Chicago and areas of the US. So he could easily continue his engagements without ever exposing his relationship with Houdini.
Now before I get too far into this. Vacca was NOT Houdini’s secret barber. That was an alias. Amedeo Vacca did a lot of things for Houdini, but it was all behind the scenes. He worked as an advance man when Houdini was touring with his show. Again, a secret advance man. What’s funny is, he was mostly secret from Houdini’s own staff. Hardeen didn’t know about Vacca, Bess didn’t know about Vacca. But often theatre management would know. And here is why.
Check out this letter fromBF Keith Vaudeville Exchange-Edward Albee President, to Managers of the Alhambra Theatre and the Regent theaters in NYC.
“Dear Sirs, This will introduce you to Mr. A Vacca, who is connected with Mr. Harry Houdini’s act. We have agreed with Mr. Houdini that Mr. Vacca is to be permitted to make certain experiments on the stage of either of your theatre at night, after the show is out. These experiments are necessary in order to have new things in Houdini’s act, and they are to be conducted in absolute secrecy. No one should be in the house except the watchman. They will need one small light on the stage. When Mr. Vacca presents this letter to you, will you please arrange so that he can gain access to the stage at night, by applying to the watchman. Very truly yours….”(5)
Houdini apparently said to Amedeo Vacca, “Now I have placed myself, my entire life and salvation, in your hands.” This was in reference to their upcoming war on the mediums that would play out in Houdini’s 3-in-1 Shows.
One of Amedeo Vacca’s jobs was to set-up the theater with all the needed ‘secret’ things in order for Houdini to do his show. Another one of his jobs was to help Houdini with his magic.
And he was tasked with creating and building items for the show, mostly in the spiritualist category.
Amedeo went so far as to rewire Houdini’s house for sound. The original work had been done by one of Houdini’s nephews Louis C. Kraus, who worked for the Treasury Department. The idea was to wire the house with a sort of dictaphone system so that people talking in one room could be heard in another and then the information could be translated to Houdini. Vacca had an uncanny inventive ability and he rewired the house making the system even better. Houdini used it, not to spy on friends, but as part of an elaborate ESP/Mind Reading routine. It never failed to astound the attendees. Fast forward to current times. The new owners of Houdini’s house recently had done some drywall work and found that the house was filled with these unusual wires that they had no idea what they were for!!!! (6)
One specific point of interest is that Houdini shared with Vacca his work on the Needle Trick.
And Vacca later showed Houdini a special twist to the ending. Houdini loved this twist and was going to include it in his performances but he died before he was able to do so. (7) After Houdini died and Amedeo Vacca went back on the road performing, he became known for a time as The Needle King.
Now, I believe this next thing is going to be a major revelation, at least I’ve not seen in print but in one place. Amedeo Vacca created the underwater breath-taking coffin that Houdini used to great affect. Now, let’s back track a bit. The actual coffin came from the Boyertown Casket Company. In the book, Houdini, His Life and Art by Randi and Sugar, they say the casket was made according to Jim Collins design. On the day that Houdini used it at the Shelton Hotel Pool, Jim Collins was there in charge of all proceedings. There is a photograph of the Shelton Pool Stunt with Amedeo Vacca in the background as well (see above), though technically he was undercover. So if I read the paragraph correctly, Vacca created the stunt, but that doesn’t mean he built the prop, only that the idea for the stunt was his idea. (8)
For those unfamiliar, it all started when Hereward Carrington started touring with Rahman Bey, a so called ‘Egyptian Fakir’. Bey claimed among other things he could survive for long periods of time in an air tight coffin by going into a cataleptic trance. This got under Houdini’s skin. And if the story is accurate, Vacca came to Houdini with the idea of the challenge in the submergible coffin. On August 5th, 1926, after a great deal of testing and rehearsal, and weight loss on Houdini’s part, he prepared to do the stunt at the Shelton Hotel Swimming Pool in NYC. After being checked by a physician, Houdini climbed inside the metal coffin and was the lid was then sealed in place. It took 8 swimmers to stand on top of the casket in order for it to be submerged.
Houdini remained in the casket longer than Rahman Bey. He stayed submerged for more than 1 hour and a half. He was 52 at the time. When he emerged from the casket he was exhausted and his vital signs were: well one source says they were quite normal, and another said they were all over the place. He probably would have killed himself had he stayed under much longer. But one point should be made, he didn’t need to go into any sort of cataleptic trance in order to complete the test, he just used pure will power, as well as controlled breathing and laying perfectly still.
It is impossible to say what other ideas, concepts, or props Amedeo Vacca had a hand in. I must be honest, when I began to look at some of Vacca’s magic creations, one of my earliest thoughts was the Vacca probably built the Bell Box that both Margery and Houdini used, even though I’ve seen it attributed to Dr. Comstock, but where he got it no one knows. (11) Also, there was more than one Bell box, so if Amedeo didn't make the first one, he could have made others....just speculating on my part. It might explain why there were two different designs to the bell boxes. And now I’m pretty certain he had a hand in the creation of the Margie Box. It’s only speculation on my part, but Vacca was working for Houdini during this time period and one of his jobs was the creation of unique items and secretive work. And at that time, the most important work Houdini was doing was the anti-spiritualist work.
Amedeo Vacca created a lot of magic, but some of it involved either electricity or electronics. That Shelton Pool Casket was not electronic, but it did have a phone-line built in that Houdini used to communicate with Collins. That sounds like Vacca. The bell boxes are run off of batteries, again, sounds like Vacca.
ONe note I found interesting. Amedeo swore to Houdini to keep the relationship secret, yet by 1930, if not sooner, the cat was out of the bag, so to speak. In Billboard Magazine Nov 1930, there is an article about Vacca being a secret assistant to Houdini. Though I can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t some theatre manager who first revealed this secret to the press. The theatre managers were some of the few that knew of the secret working relationship between Vacca & Houdini. And yet, the magic world seemed silent on the subject, maybe they missed the article in Billboard. Because it wasn’t until 1947 that the truth of Vacca’s relationship with Houdini was revealed, and even then, much was held back.
After Houdini’s unexpected death in Oct 1926, Amedeo Vacca left the barbershop in pursuit of his magic career. Over the course of his life he would be known by many names. Early on they called him VACCA, later he was Amedeo. But he was also known as the Human Volcano because of a crazy smoke act he created. He would apparently eat cigarettes and matches and produce incredible amounts of smoke from his mouth. Eventually he reproduced the items! Sounds similar in some ways to Tom Mullica’s act.
Here is a write-up from the MUM magazine in 1953. “Amedeo Vacca has been traveling in Europe. He had journeyed to England, France, Germany and Switzerland. Recently, he has been appearing in night clubs in Italy. In September, Compeer Vacca planned to be in Milan to appear on television. After this, Naples was next on his itinerary, then England again for TV and club dates. IN each country he attended as many magic functions as possible and spent much time with the local magicians. He will return to New York in December.”
Another charming creation of Vacca’s was the Acrobatic Matchbox. There is a wonderful story in the MUM that George Schindler shares about going on an early morning TV show with Frank Garcia and Amedeo Vacca. They were there to promote a show for the public and Frank did some amazing card tricks. George gave the details of the show. And 80+ year old Amedeo Vacca presented the Acrobatic Matchbox to a stunned TV crew. Later that morning, according to George, the three of them were going to breakfast in the city when a woman came up to Amedeo saying “didn’t I see you on tv with the matchbox” and she was so excited to meet a ‘real celebrity’, lol. She paid no attention to either Frank or George.
Amadeo performed in 23 countries and was active in magic for 65 years. He headlined in both the united states and in European countries as well. He even performed on the ill-fated Andrea Doria Cruise Liner. He never seemed to loose his ability to perform even into his 80s. One of his last gigs was a magic lecture at Al’s Magic Shop in Washington D.C.. George Schindler drove him down to DC to do the lecture. Though Al’s was my go to magic shop for years, this lecture was before my time.
I was fortunate enough to get a first hand account of Amedeo Vacca from someone who was very close to him in his last years, Ron from Ronjo.com. Ron was just a teen ager when he first met Amedeo. It was at a Tannen’s Jubilee and some magician had just carelessly bumped into Amedeo and it caused him to drop his can. Young Ron, then 14 I believe, picked it up and gave it back to the elder gentleman. And that was it. The two bonded during the course of this convention and became fast friends.
Ron told me that as a person Amedeo was extremely kind, extremely generous and was a wonderful storyteller. He told me Amedeo was in Ripliys Believe it or Not for his Human Volcano routine & also for his Swallowing Needle routine. Amedeo was an avid inventor of tricks, as well as gimmicks. He created a belly switch and foot switch before anyone. He created hand flashers, often with the simplest of supplies. Ron carries a couple of Amedeo’s items today in his shop. He was given permission by Amedeo to continue to build and sell them. Items such as Lucky Lite & Sneaky Snake. The former, is a strange monte sort of effect done with a small black box that has a couple switches on it. Totally diabolical.
I had asked Ron about what kind of props Amedeo made for Houdini and he said seance and electrical. Again, that makes me think of the Bell Boxes, even though they are attributed to someone else.
There was one thing Ron said about Amedeo that really made me laugh and also made me admire the man even more. He said, “Amedeo hated card tricks! Wow. Such a creative and inventive man and he avoided card tricks, thats incredible.
In the 1970s Frank Garcia and George Schindler met with Amedeo on a book on his life and magic to be called Amedeo's Continental Magic. They met numerous times at his apartment, putting the text together. I should mention, that Frank and George had written a number of books, Million Dollar Card Secrets, Super Subtle Card Miracles , and In a Nutshell, and there was one thing that made each of those books unique. Each one had a recipe at the end of the book. Yes, a food recipe: there was a Chicken dish, a Meatloaf Dish, and a Baklava dish. When the manuscript for Amedeo’s book was done, they showed it to him and he hated teh book. Why? “It has no recipe!!!!” lol. So they included a recipe by Amedeo! (9) and by the way, young Ron was there too.
Ron and Amedeo spent a lot of time together, sharing magic, building props, enjoying each others company. They had a Grandfather / grandson relationship. There is only one regret that Ron has and that is he was supposed to inherit Amedeo’s scrapbook after he passed. But the book was apparently given to Bill White from Queens by Amedeo’s wife.
Amedeo Vacca, a man who started out in humble beginnings, worked his way up to headliner in Chicago, went to work for the great Houdini in an extremely undercover fashion, then returned to magic and toured the world, performing for Kings and Queens, and playing all the best theaters and hotel venues across the Globe with his own unique brand of magic. He was named Magician of the Year by the SAM in 1972. When you talk to folks who knew him, they light up when talking about him. They were blessed people to have known him.
There is a video online of Tony Spina discussing Amadeo Vacca. He says that at one time, Amedeo manufactured magic effects for Lou Tannen. And by the way, Amedeo also made stuff for Max Holden's Shop as well. He mentions that Amedeo worked as Houdini's 'front runner'. He also mentions that Amedeo would hide secret things in the theater like keys and picks. And that he may have had something to do with Houdini's Jail Escapes. I don't think that part is correct, I don't think Amedeo had anything to do with Houdini's Jail escapes and as far as picks and keys, well, that one we just don't know. I tend to lean towards it's less likely he was hiding keys, because the true emphasis of that show was the spirit stuff in part 3. Houdini's escapes in part 2 were a mixture of his greatest hits, and also routines that were safe. But that's only my opinion. Houdini may have done some handcuff work as well. (10)
Amedeo Vacca passed away on Dec 5th 1974.
Assembly #125 in Suffolk Cty NEW YORK was renamed the Amedeo Vacca Assembly. This was done by Ron, it was a suggestion by his mother. A fitting tribute to his dear friend.
Please go to ronjo.com to check out his site of magic. Ron still sells several of Amedeo's creations. Ron has one of the few brick and mortar buildings left in the US, and it would really be awesome of you could drop by or maybe order something from the shop.
Also, If anyone has any knowledge as to the wereabouts of Amedeo Vacca’s scrapbook, could you contact me and let me know. I will pass the info on to Ron. We know it was in the possession of a Bill White from Queens. No idea if he is still alive or if he still has the scrapbook. So if you know, get in touch please.
(This last photo is from his lecture at Al's Magic Shop. I borrowed from the Alcohenics Facebook page)
- From the Linking Ring Magazine Vol 27 #10 pg 24
- MUM, March 1971, Vol 60, pg 6
3. Liking Ring Magazine Vol 27 #10
4. Houdini’s Final Incredible Secret by Bob Loomis pg 119
5. MUM, July 1982, pg 20
7. The Magic Circular March 2006, pg 76
8. Likning Ring Magazine Vol 27, #10 pg116
9. MUM, Vol 98 Jan 2009, pg 92
11. HOUDINI by Ken Silverman, page 326