Today we are talking about Tommy Wonder, which was the stage name of Josef Jacabus Maria Bemelman, who also went by the name Jos Bema for a time. He was born November 29th, 1953 in Holland. At the young age of four, Jos saw his first magician. The event is chronicled in the 1994 issue of Magic Magazine. He saw a magician set paper on fire inside a pan and cover it and when the cover came off, the pan was filled with cookies. A prop commonly referred to as a Dove Pan, but frankly is more of a utility device today. His enthusiasm led him to grab a newspaper, some matches, and a frying pan from the kitchen and attempt to create this miracle himself. His results were much the same as mine back when I tried to recreate the vanishing milk from paper cone illusion after having seen Tony Curtis do it in the Houdini movie. Suffice to say, his frustration, led his mother to explain that it was a magic trick. And thus was Jos’s first exposure. His interest would sway back and forth for a number of years, but by aged 10 he found his first magic book. Most of the biographical articles give age 10 as his official interest, but I think we can see it was aged 4. And then by 14 he joined a local magic club and really began to learn and study and grow. He entered contests and was showing himself to be quite the remarkable magician. From early on, Jos had this ability to work on creating his own effects. Yes, he would take things that already existed, but he would put his own ideas and own way of thinking into the routines.
I went to Tommy Wonder’s website for more information on this period of his life. But suffice to say, his site is gone. But because I ‘know things’ I was able to dig it back up from the netherworld. not be be confused with the Netherlands, and was all excited to read his biography page. And sadly, not one word of his formative years. In fact, his biography was quite short.
In an article an article Max Maven wrote for MAGIC Magazine, and which is also in the opening of the Books of Wonder, he reveals that Tommy began to win contests from age 14 through high school. And he developed the famous trait that is the bain of all a performers existences, he began to get cocky, which is an exact quote. But Tommy soon discovered his cockiness and his abilities as a magician did not automatically lead to fame and fortune. That’s generally the lesson the follows cockiness. So he applied and was accepted into the Academic door Podium-vorming in the Hague. This was a performing arts school in which he attended for three years. According to his website, “Then he worked for 2 years with the theater company “De Haagsche Comedy” where his theater experience enlarged.
The MAGIC Magazine article mentions that for a time Tommy Wonder teamed up with fellow Hollander, Dick Kornwinder. Together the two of them pitched a small item based upon the old mouse pitch. It was a bright colored piece of fabric that seemed to come to life and run through and over the performers fingers and hands. I don't seem a mention of them in the magic magazines of the times, other than appearing at conventions together, but no mention of what they are doing or even selling. No doubt one item they could possibly be selling would be the Card Finding Miniature Car that Dick Kornwinder created in the early 1970s and later sold to Ken Brooke. Ken, was the only authorized dealer, but before long they were being sold by many different makers. In the 1980s, Juan Tamariz made a splash on American TV when during a Thanksgiving timed Magic Special called The worlds greatest Magic, he presented the Card Finding Miniature Car. It was a huge hit in Juan’s hands and soon the phones rang off hook again for this amazing tiny car.
IN 1977, Tommy had created a stand up manipulation act. Fortunately for us, this was recorded on and is available to view online. The show was a talent contest called Plankenkaus and it appeared on Dutch TV. The act, highly original material, though still it was still card manipulations, and billiard balls. The thing was, the card manipulations were unlike what anyone had seen. For example, a deck of cards is removed from a box and fanned out. A second later, the card box vanishes. It’s discovered in the other hand, with the cards BACK in the box. This is repeated several times with variations.
Next he does a diminishing card effect, with again, his own original method. After this a ring and rope routine and then the conclusion is a billiard ball routine, where balls appear, change color, multiply, vanish and then a huge giant ball is produced. The methods and techniques during the billiard ball are mostly original with a touch of some standard moves. But the overall impact is amazing. If you watch the video, this appears as if it might be a magic convention, as Fred Kaps is in the front row watching Tommy’s performance. the magic is fantastic, the burlesque stripper music is a tad annoying.
And then he came across Henning Nelms book, Magic and Showmanship. Reading the book and looking at his act, he quickly understood that this type of act was NOT who he was. Further, Tommy was soon to discover, that manipulation magic, as much as he enjoyed it, didn’t have much of a commercial audience, or if there was one, he didn’t know how to sell his act to them. Now, close-up magic, that he could sell and he did. Tommy’s creation for the close-up artist are incredible. In fact, he excels in this area, as much as he did in his stage act.
In 1978, I found the first mention of the name Tommy Wonder. Jos Bema was announcing at the end of his lectures that this would be his new name. And to anyone else, I would say, ‘its a terrible name, too easy to make fun of”. But for jos Bema, aka Tommy Wonder, it was the perfect name.
In February 1979, Tommy appeared in the pages of Pabular with his presentation of Coins Across. By the way, I’m going to put a transcript of this episode on my blog, TheMagicDetective.com and I’ll be posting the various videos that show the effects I’m speaking of. Tommy’s clever take on the Coins Across was his solution to not have to count and recount the coins from hand to hand every single time. With a small change in the plot, and the addition of a ‘magic coin’ unusual things happen. Please check out the video.
By the way, later in 1979, Tommy wrote an article for Pabular magazine about Standing vs. Sitting in a Close-up performance. This was a new way of thinking. If you recall, popular close up artists who came before him: Dai Vernon, Tony Slydini. Ross Bertram, Al Goshman, and others routinely were seated. Even today, Dani DiOrtiz, Juan Tamariz, David Roth have a tendency to sit, though they will stand on occasion. If you watch Tommy Wonders videos, you’ll see that during closeup routines. sometimes he sits, sometimes he stands, whatever works best for the routine. In his Magic Ranch routine that he describes in his Books of Wonder and which is also available online, standing is most important to the routine. In his essay, he makes some brilliant points about standing, one of the most important is the fact that the tallest object in the room gets the eyes. IN his words, “Being higher than the audience bestows a more important appearance and gives you added authority, making it easier to command the situation.”
Sometime in the mid 1980s, Tommy received a request from a restaurant with a medieval theme. They wanted to know if he could create a custom show for their restaurant. Now this was not your typical restaurant gig, where you stroll from table to table doing magic. This was a stage production. It took Tommy six weeks to develop the material. It was so successful that he stayed at that restaurant performing for 5 years. His original contract was for 50 weeks of work. And this material became his new stage act. In 1988, he took time out of his schedule to perform at FISM and won the 2nd place prize for General Magic. And according to Magic Magazine August 2006, he proceeded to throw-up everywhere after the competition. The nerves and the stress got the better of him. He vowed that would be his final FISM entry.
This restaurant gig really forced him to delve deep into his theatrical training.
If you consider his stage act, it is presented as a period piece, quite theatrical in nature. There is a whole story going on there from start to finish if you pay attention. Quite different from what other magicians of the time were doing. It was very standard practice to go from trick to trick, sometimes connected, sometimes not. But in Tommy’s stage act, one magical moment leads to the next, in a logical progression. At the conclusion of a very non-standard cups and balls routine he ends up with a lemon, an egg, and an orange. He then attempts to make them vanish, starting with the egg, but a bird in a cage that is sitting on a high stand on stage, begins to make a commotion when he picks up the egg. This leads to him covering the cage with his cummerbund, and more noise from the bird. The cage rattles around leading to yet another magical moment, and another and another. Brilliant. Tommy is dressed in some sort of colonial period costume, yet his table is very modern and thin and does more to help sell the visual illusion of impossibleness than anything. Clearly nothing is hidden in the table!
One thing I found unusual when I first witnessed his Cups and Balls, the stage version was the fact that two cups were the same size and one was same design but larger. Well, I discovered in the Linking Ring Magazine, Sept 1987, where Tommy mentions that in the medieval times, they used two cups of the same size and one different, this was based upon paintings he had seen of Cups and Balls performers. And from an August 2006 MAGIC Magazine interview with Tommy Wonder, I learned that Richard Ross, the great manipulator, help Tommy with his stage act.
Somewhere among the years, I saw Tommy Wonder present his Vanishing Bird cage. This is a personal favorite of mine. So many performers have used this prop and all with different degrees of success. Probably no one more recognizable with the cage than Harry Blackstone Jr. He would walk out on stage holding the red ribbon covered brass cage. After uttering the line, “IN a moment this cage will vanish from my fingertips and you’ll not see where it goes!” And then, a second later it was gone. He’d go backstage for another cage and ask for more volunteers to help him on-stage. This time the volunteers, all children, put their hands on various sides of the cage and as he is instructing them, their hands collectively fall into each other because the cage vanished.
Next we have Billy McCombs hilarious version with the mouse who EATS the cage whole! He stuns his audiences at how the cage vanishes in slow motion. Unreal.
Then there Jonathan Pendragon, who had his sleeves rolled up and didn’t seem to move and the cage instantly vanished. Finally, there was Tommy Wonder’s. He doesn't start holding the cage. He picks it up and it seemed to be solid, not flexible or moveable. His sleeves rolled up……and without any movement, the cage just vanished!!!! A site to behold..or not behold! as it were.
Tommy now had an award winning stage act, an award winning close-up act, and he wasn’t finished. In 1996, he wrote, along with Stephen Minch, and published through Hermetic Press, his two volume Books of Wonder. I recall when these became available. I went straight to Denny’s Magic Shop to buy my copies. I was most curious about his vanishing birdcage, but then I quickly was caught up in all his articles on the theory of performing, or perhaps it’s better to call them his philosophy of performing. The Books of Wonder recently have been reprinted and are available through various magic shops online. They are a must have.
In May of 1996, Tommy Wonder appeared on the cover of The Linking Ring with a short biographical article. In June 1996, he appeared on the cover the Genii magazine, but this time, a short piece by Jamy Ian Swiss talks about his first exposure to Tommy’s magic and later meeting and getting to know him. This is followed by 4 articles directly from The Books of Wonder.
In 1997, Tommy won the Performers Fellowship award from the Academy of Magical Art
Maybe you are wondering, what was he like? What was Tommy Wonder like in real life? From the research I just did, and from the videos and through a couple interviews I’ve read, I think I can safely say he was a man who truly believed in magic. He felt we all had our own inner magic and needed to discover it for ourselves. Though he wrote 2 of the greatest volumes on magic, he would not consider himself a teacher. He didn’t think people could be taught magic. They had to find it for themselves. That might sound strange, but what Tommy was speaking of was much deeper than knowing how to do a magic trick. You can teach someone to do a trick, sure. But I believe, and he certainly believes, there is much more to magic than just knowing how a trick works and even being able to perform it. There are levels to a magic trick that we cannot even fathom until we have performed it many times. Only then can we begin to understand the magic, and only then can we tweak it and twist it into the ultimate mystery. You’d think with the Books of Wonder that Tommy was satisfied with his magic, that many of the routines in the book were completed works. But the opposite is true. He was always working to improve, perfect, alter his works. A great example is a routine called was a trick called Elizabeth. In the books of Wonder, it’s called Elizabeth III. It began as a dealer item sold by Davenports of England called Elizabeth’s Fantastic Joker. It was a card prediction that used a piece of apparatus to create the magic. In the Pabular magazine, a magician named Wally Boyce published Elizabeth Second, which was his version of the effect, streamlining things. Tommy chose to take things even further and thus the name Elizabeth the Third. But it didn’t stop there. When L&L created the Tommy Wonder videos, Visions of Wonder, it includes a routine called Elizabeth the 4th, so again, Tommy was working to make the magic better and better, even after having published his great two volume set.
This is another trait of his personality. Passion. Clearly he was passionate about magic and about the process of magic. He thought about it on a deeper level than a lot of people do. I recall on the Visions of Wonder videos when Tommy does his Next of Boxes routine and Max Maven is watching and commenting, he is totally blown away by the methods and the thinking that went behind it. For Max to have this opinion speaks volumes.
In November of 2005, Tommy Wonder received a diagnosis from his Doctor that he had lung cancer. Initial treatments seemed promising. But then, things began to take a bad turn. In the September 2006 issue of Genii Magazine, Stephen Minch, co-author of The Books of Wonder, tells the story of traveling to Holland, along with Max Maven, to visit Tommy in his last days. It's a difficult read because he shares his fondness for the man, how their friendship developed, and knowing this trip would likely be the last time they saw Tommy. The visit clearly cheered up Tommy. Visits by other friends would barely last two hours, but on this visit, Tommy was awake alert and engaged for 6 hours. He felt revigorated. They spoke of magic and friends in magic. They avoided the topic of his illness, as there was really nothing more that could be said.
On June 26, 2006, Tommy Wonder, Jos Bemelman, passed away at the young age of 52.
As I worked on this particular piece for the podcast, I feared I wouldn’t find enough material to make a full episode. Besides a couple biographical articles in Magic and the Linking Ring, there wasn’t much out there on his life. But I kept pushing forward, kept watching his magic, kept reading the Books of Wonder.
Then I came across this interesting ‘letter to the editor’ in OPUS Magazine. Tommy was speaking about something he had read in an article by Ian Keeble. It was something he disagreed with and wanted to add his opinion to the discussion. A couple months later, Terry Seabrook wrote a piece in Opus about Tommy’s letter and basically said, “I disagree with everything he had to say.” Let me also say I think they all were entitled to their opinions and I think a case could be made for each opinion being correct...
The basic point of it was Tommy disagreed with the idea that you should do things your audience wants to see. Give them what they want! In other words. Terry Seabrook put it pretty bluntly when he said, ‘Tommy considered himself a magician, while I consider myself an entertainer’. and at the end of the day it is easier to pay the bills as an entertainer because I’m giving my audience what they want, a laugh, a smile, a few minutes to forget about life and be entertained. Yep. that makes sense.
In Tommy’s letter he says, “He has learned that it’s better to do what you love to do. Audiences in the end want to know about You, and by doing what you love it reveals more about you.” A radical way of thinking in the 80s when he wrote that letter. But now, all these many years later, in the 21st Century, I’m reminded of how many people say that we should reveal ourselves in our shows. Let the audience get to know us. Reveal something about us. Hmmm, was Tommy Wonder onto something?
Tommy also points out in his letter that Vincent Van Gogh, could have painted like all the other painters of his time, and likely sold a bunch of paintings. But he had his vision and he painted what he wanted. Sadly, this meant he sold a whopping 1 painting while he was alive. But since his death, his paintings have brought in millions upon millions of dollars. It’s a risk an artist in any field has to be willing to take.
My favorite thing I learned about Tommy Wonder came from an interview he did with carlos Vaquera. Tommy is asked, “If you had to choose a single word that represents magic for you, what would it be?” And Tommy’s response. Beauty.
In that I think we learn all we need to know about Tommy Wonder. A man who truly lived up to his name.
(this is a transcript from Ep 91 of The Magic Detective Podcast)