State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 74 Spring 2004

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Frances Awcock
Will Alma, Master Magician

Reminiscences of Will Alma the man

Will Alma (1905-1993) has been described in The Linking Ring, the journal of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, as ‘Australia's most famous magician’ and ‘a successful club and vaudeville magician, manufacturer and dealer, teacher of magic, editor and publisher of conjuring periodicals, a writer and outstanding collector of magicana’ (vol.67, no.3, March 1987).
What kind of person was he? The following reflections are based on my own close contact with Will Alma, dating from 1983 when, as the newly appointed Director of Technical Services, I was introduced to him by the State Librarian, Warren Morton. We had driven for an early morning appointment with Will Alma at his house in Sebastapol St, North Caulfield. As the person primarily responsible for the collections of the State Library of Victoria, I was about to ‘inherit’ responsibility not only for the Will Alma collection but for the man whose life work it had become!
Previous staff had acted as liaison librarians, with varying levels of involvement and commitment, for there were many occasions when their patience was sorely tried. At least on the surface, Alma could appear disconcertingly gruff and sometimes impatient. He had little inclination to understand the limitations placed on them, relating either to their time or the acquisitions budget and their accountability for it. He certainly expected them to show the same passion for the collection that he did. I always felt that this was unrealistic, so took it upon myself to try and see things from his more limited perspective. There was absolutely nothing in his life-experience that could have facilitated any experience or understanding of, or even sympathy for, organizations related to the Public Service as it was then known.
What appeared to work for me in the early days of our association was to focus first on his own experiences (most people like talking about themselves!), thereby getting to know him better, and then moving onto his current collection work, including new acquisitions and recent correspondence.
The majority of my visits were at night in my own time, since my working day proscribed lengthy day-time visits. After returning home from my own daily work, family dinners had first to be prepared and served before setting out, usually fortnightly, from Surrey Hills and driving to Caulfield where the Almas lived in their simple three-bedroom cottage, painted apple-green. Only the front bedroom served its original purpose, with one given over to functioning as his workshop, a veritable Aladdin's Cave of tools and apparatus, all meticulously stored, and the other as his library, crammed with journals, books, small apparatus and filing cabinets of indexed articles and correspondence. Even the living room was used to display his treasures.
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On the stage the amazing Alma. Poster: colour lithograph, [ca. 1925–1929] ALMA 93.2/216. Will Alma Conjuring Collection.

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Almost all our conversations for the first half hour or thereabouts took place in the Alma's bedroom where Eileen Alma lay as an invalid, but with a shared passion for her husband's work and an astonishing alertness despite years of infirmity. She was devoted to him and he to her.
I would take my seat on the only available chair – a commode – and Mr Alma would sit on his bed, with Mrs Alma in hers, and eventually with my husband Chris present also, perched on Mr Alma's bed! We both came to admire and enjoy their company, as their confidence in us grew and we became a kind of surrogate family to them. Mr Alma's great delight was to share a sweet sherry with Chris and to give me a brandy and dry ginger before we ‘got down to business’, as he used to say with a gleam in his eye. Only then would we move to other parts of the house, most of which had been given over to the collection. The first item on his agenda was to show me his most recent correspondence and then any new materials he had acquired since my last visit. He would then show me the latest catalogues which he had studied avidly in readiness for what he hoped would be a forthcoming purchase! He always had an eye to a bargain if it filled what he considered a gap in the collection, and reluctantly accepted my insistence that the budget we assigned to him for the collection could not be exceeded. Yet I know he always hoped I would be more generous with our limited public funds. Having initiated and directed the Library's first Selection Policy for the collections, I could hardly give in to his heartfelt desires.
These visits took place right through till 1988 when I left the State Library and continued, albeit less frequently, up to the time of my departure for Adelaide in April 1991. Each one was about two hours in duration. We maintained more limited contact by telephone and visited him on most trips home to Melbourne until his death in 1993.
Although he had intended visiting us in Adelaide, his health precluded it. Jane La Scala, then the State Librarian, had taken on the task of maintaining personal contact with him. Jane also assumed responsibility as a generous ‘Volunteer’ for indexing much of the collection with him in accord with prevailing conventions.
Like many elderly people, Will Alma loved to reminisce yet he was always alert to news from other people and places. He maintained voluminous correspondence with conjurers around the English-speaking world, and with secondhand and antiquarian book dealers, primarily in the United States and England as well as Australia.
It was my view that, ultimately, Will Alma's need for friendship and companionable collegiality came ahead of his passion for the collection he had built and cherished. This was especially true following the death of his wife Eileen. What he sought was some understanding of him as a person and then as a collector. In return he was to bequeath to the State Library a collection built over forty years and a small trust fund to support its enhancement and preservation.
When Mrs Alma died in 1988 Mr Alma asked me to give the eulogy at her funeral, a first such experience for me but one I was honoured to undertake for him. Others who participated in the ceremony were associates from their shared interest in conjuring. Although people in
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public office were not officially able to accept large gifts, I became the happy recipient of their old, aluminium jam pan, following a discussion with her on the merits of jam making! It is perfect for that purpose. I treasure it still as a reminder of the many hours spent in their presence during the 1980s.
When Will Alma himself died, Chris and I were genuinely sad, especially as, it being weeks before anyone from the Library thought to telephone us with the news, we were unable to attend his funeral.

Family Background

Of Irish ancestry (county Kildare), Will Alma was named at birth Oswald George William Bishop. He was the son of Oswald Henry Bishop and his wife Rosetta Mary (née Long). Oswald Henry Bishop, a tinsmith by trade, was also a professional magician whose stage names were ‘Pharos, the Australian Mystifier’ for his magic performances and ‘Pharos the Egyptian’ for his vaudeville act! He apparently enjoyed the peripatetic life of a stage performer.
His son, the young Will Bishop, was obviously hugely impressed both with his father's talents and the life of a stage performer since he, on many occasions accompanied by his more reluctant mother, was able to watch performances from the sideline. However, his mother Rose became increasingly disenchanted with this life for herself and her son. Eventually, in 1913, Oswald deserted his wife and son, making his way to American Samoa and thence to America, finally settling in Hawaii where he remained until his death in 1956. He became an American citizen in 1920. Giving up conjuring in 1916, he became the manager of a chain of six theatres until 1918 when he was appointed a manager of the insurance department of the Bank of Hawaii, a position he held until his retirement in 1946.
There is fragmentary evidence (notes made by Will) to suggest that initial hostilities caused by the desertion gave way to some dialogue between father and son on the matter of conjuring, although it is unclear how close they were at the time of Oswald's death.
Will's mother Rosetta married Thomas Eric Smith. Will changed his name, by deed poll, to Will Alma in 1949, apparently not wanting to be associated with the name of his father because of his desertion three decades earlier.

Brief and Partial Biography

His limited schooling was at the Spring Road Primary School in Melbourne and the Armadale State School. His first employment appears to have been as a sweeper-up, at the age of 14, for a wood-turner. This enabled him to learn about timber handling and wood machining. Melbourne was enjoying a boom in property development, with a huge demand for wooden wash troughs made by his employer and others. This new set of skills was to equip him well for the paraphernalia he would come to fabricate during his life as a conjuror.
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Military training was then compulsory but as a result of failing the required medical examination (grounds unknown), he took up juggling and proved to be a juggler of exceptional skill!
His first performance was in 1918 at the Burke Rd Malvern Congregational Church, much to the annoyance of his mother who disliked the idea of her son following in his father's footsteps. Knowing her views, Will had stayed silent on the matter, only for his ‘performance’ to be revealed through family friends! The audience response was the confirmation of his skill that he needed to enable him to pursue his growing passion for the magic of conjuring. To his dying days he rejected absolutely everything to do with black magic and witchcraft, despising all they stood for.
From scant records in the Alma file at the Library it is apparent that he moved to Sydney, probably during the early to mid 1920s. There in 1927 he married his dancing partner, Florence Stemming, at Rockdale. Later, on becoming pregnant, Florence found that she had consumption (tuberculosis) so the foetus was aborted and she was sent to a sanitarium. Eventually they were divorced in 1947.

The Great Pharos the mystic marvel. Poster: photolithograph [1912]. ALMA 93.2/155. Will Alma Conjuring Collection.

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Mr and Mrs Alma. [ca. 1940s] ALMA PC104/B. Will Alma Conjuring Collection.

[Will Alma in his workshop] [n.d] Will Alma Conjuring Collection.

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In 1953 he married the daughter of his next-door neighbour. His second wife, Eileen Margaret Hastings, was born at South Melbourne, 9 February 1908. She remained his beloved wife, his closest friend and ally until her death on 25 August 1988. There were no children of the marriage. Her death followed years of illness, during which she had been confined to bed, with Will seeing to her every need. Her mind, like his, was as sharp as a tack until her death.
Will's early employment was with a variety of engineering firms, then notably with that of R.H. Wagner and Sons, a camera and repairs store where he developed skills leading to his constructing apparatus. Eventually, for use by leading conjurers visiting Australia, he constructed a wide variety of gimmicks, often with an illustrated catalogue to demonstrate their use. Magic shops were very much part of the conjuring scene at the time. Alma associated with the Will Andrade shops in Melbourne and Sydney before finally opening his own shop in Melbourne, known as the Alma Magical Company. His business initially began with a mail order service, expanding to a store and outlet for his manufactured items and imported novelties. He sold it in 1947.
Perusing some of the magazines on file, one learns that a highlight for him was his tour with the famous conjuror, Les Levante, through NZ and parts of Australia as Levante's technician and assistant, yet little else is known about his life throughout this period.
There are more undesirable gaps in this biography than the writer might have hoped, since the bulk of the Alma Collection was unavailable for some months because of moves arising from the Library's redevelopment program. Even so, from my earlier familiarity with the collection, there is only fragmentary information. A proper researcher working on the Alma Collection would doubtless uncover much more than my personal association with him has been able to produce.

Performance Highlights

Apart from his illicit childhood performance mentioned above, Mr Alma fondly recalled his appearance at the first State Theatre in Melbourne in July 1932 with a 30-piece orchestra and twin console Wurlitzer (organ). He also performed at the Tivoli Theatres in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne, as well as the Theatre Royal in Hobart. He gave many cabaret performances at the Melbourne Chevron, and at The Scotts and Savoy Plaza Hotels, all well-known venues with purportedly excellent ‘floor shows’ as they were then known.
In 1956 in Korea he entertained the troops in freezing conditions at the 38th Parallel, and then went on to North Borneo, Tokyo, Manila and Hong Kong.
In 1958 Will Alma organized for the International Brotherhood of Magicians the 7th Convention of Magicians in Melbourne. Its program includes him as a featured performer. This convention followed the highly successful Sydney Convention where he received a standing ovation for his performance. In London the same year he won recognition for his skills and was made a Gold Star member of the Inner Circle Magic Club. This was a career pinnacle for him.
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The National Film and Sound Archive has a short film sequence featuring one of his performance acts. Decades later, receiving from them a copy on videotape was a source of joy to him.

Publications and Exhibitions

Will Alma's all-consuming personal and commercial interest meant that he wanted to share it with others and to promote not only conjuring but, I suspect, his own role and business! On almost every page of his self-produced and illustrated (sketches of apparatus) 1937 Catalogue no.6 of The Alma Magical Company of 174 Clarendon Street, South Melbourne (price six pence) are the words ‘always look for the brand Alma’. He was savvy when it came to promotional opportunity. This would explain his active involvement with editing and writing for publications, many of them fairly simple in content and form. He founded and edited Will Andrade's Magical Review. He also published and edited The Magic Circle Mirror through six volumes and wrote for The Sphinx.
He produced A Victorian Chronology 1854–1914; Magicians Recorded in the Victorian Press and left in his collection great lists of references and indexes to journal articles relevant to conjuring, all carefully typed on his electric typewriter.
The State Library has held two exhibitions in Queens Hall, then the home of the Art, Music and Performing Arts Collection: Masters of Magic curated by Jane La Scala in October 1990 and drawn exclusively from the Alma Collection; and in 1992 Conjurers, Spirit-Mediums and Mind-Readers which drew on the W.G.Alma Collection but not exclusively. The first of these was a long overdue event as far as Alma was concerned, for he had always remained hopeful that the Library would exhibit his collection.

The Collection – A Fragmentary Description

What subsequently became known as the W.G.Alma Conjuring Collection began in the 1960s as a purely private assemblage of books and periodicals suited to the passionate interest of a conjuror whose major performing days were largely over.
By the time the Alma Bequest finally came to the Library the collection contained about 4000 monographs, well over 8000 magazine issues, postcards, photographs, posters, scrapbooks, radio programs and cassettes. The collection also included spiritualism cabinets and scale models of conjuring apparatus, one at least of which is to be displayed in the forthcoming Dome Galleries exhibition. The collection has not remained static, with materials being added to it as part of the normal collecting policy and practice.
There are over 400 detailed research files on individual conjurers with many of whom he conducted an amazingly productive correspondence. They, his national and international ‘colleagues’, were in the habit of identifying relevant items for his collection,
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the bulk of which he paid for himself. The State Library, following his pledging of the collection as a bequest to the Library, assigned a modest portion of the annual Book Vote to develop the collection further.

A Final Observation

Many avid collectors and enthusiasts find it difficult to accept that others do not share their passions to the same extent. This was especially true for Will Alma and the Library was often the recipient of his criticism, sometimes fairly but mostly unjustly. Yet his collection bequest demonstrates a degree of generosity as well being testimony to his deep desire to see his life's work in the public domain and recognized as his unique contribution to the life of our nation – his own country – in which he took great pride.

Model of magic machine called ‘The Zig-Zag Lady’. According to Will Alma ‘a lady assistant’ was placed in the cabinet, and the illusion created that she was dissected into three parts. Will Alma Conjuring Collection.