Don Theobald, who performed on 'Bozo's Circus' made magic his life
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Photos, memorabilia and promotional posters decorate a small room in Don Theobald's apartment, each capturing a special moment of his 60-year career as a magician.
One photo shows Theobald with Bozo and Cooky from WGN-TV's "Bozo's Circus," where he performed his act, "T-Bone's Magic Circus," over a 27-year span.
Decks of cards and magic sets — some designed by his good friend Marshall Brodien (Wizzo on "Bozo's Circus") — are stacked on a table.
There's also a photo of a tuxedo-clad Theobald onstage, doing his famous "Death in the Electric Chair" trick, where he'd give his attractive female assistant a 1,400-volt jolt while she held flaming torches.
It was an amazing career. But the 85-year-old insists his performing days are over.
"I can't move as quickly as I used to. My hands don't work the cards like they used to. So I don't want to do shows now. I want people to remember me in the real days," he said. "I've seen so many (magicians) who are so old and try to do a show, and they goof up."
Theobald still attracts an audience, though. He's started teaching magic tricks and clowning to residents in his supportive living community, the Victory Centre at River Woods in Melrose Park. He shows fellow residents how to put on clown makeup, or how to perform a few simple magic tricks they can show their grandkids.
"We get some good crowds," he said. "They really enjoy it."
Magic has been a bigger part of his career than clowning (he combined the two for the Bozo show), but Theobald still likes to joke. At the end of his Daily Herald interview, he pulled out a wad of oversized $5 bills with a clown face on them and, in a deadpan voice said, "Hey, can I pay you off for a good story?"
Theobald discovered magic as a kid when his parents bought him a magic set. He quickly mastered the tricks and sought to learn new ones, adopting the stage name "T-Bone," which came from a teacher who mispronounced his last name.
When T-Bone and his wife moved from their hometown of Flora, Ill., to Chicago, he did small magic shows and opened a magic shop, Treasure Chest, at 19 W. Randolph St. Brodien was one of his regular customers.
"He bought everything. So I said, 'Why don't you come to work with me and be a demonstrator?' He was only 10 years old at the time," Theobald said.
The two have been lifelong friends, and still talk on the phone weekly.
Treasure Chest burned down in the 1960s, forcing Theobald to look for a new job. He went to work for Delta Air Lines at O'Hare International Airport, where he learned engineering and became their chief engineer. He kept doing magic shows on the side, and one day decided to go down to the WGN-TV studio and see if they'd hire him as a clown magician for "Bozo's Circus."
His clown face had a painted frown, which he joked was "because I'm married." (He has been happily married to his high school sweetheart, Wilma, for 64 years).
"They said, 'We don't hire many clowns. But you do quite a few things.' So they decided, 'Let's try it!'" he said. "They started calling me whenever they were short an act, and I'd go."
Throughout the 1960s and '70s, Theobald would tape "Bozo's Circus" on some mornings and then go to his full-time job at Delta afterward. He also did magic shows all over the area, including standing gigs at Colonial Village Mall in Rockford and the lounge of the former Schiller Park auto racetrack, known as O'Hare Stadium.
The TV exposure from "Bozo's Circus" increased demand for "T-Bone's" show. So, along with his puppeteer son Dale, they packed up a 40-foot RV trailer that opened into a stage and took their respective shows on the road. The father-and-son team performed everywhere from local fairs to big shows in Las Vegas.
"(Dale) was my backbone all of these years. I always say he is the star," Theobald said.
At the peak of his career, Theobald mingled with magic's top stars, including David Copperfield and Siegfried and Roy ("their house is incredible"). He was offered a gig at the Circus Circus hotel in Las Vegas, but turned it down, not wanting to move Wilma and their five children out west.
Today, Theobald's trailer and his huge collection of magic kits and memorabilia are in storage. He dreams of turning them into some sort of magic museum, but has no concrete plans. A Michigan magic museum offered to buy the electric chair from his famous trick, but he wouldn't sell it.
Theobald's last show was in 2010 at the Society of American Magicians annual convention. His career will be honored later this year when Theobald is named "Magician of the Year" at the Magic Convention in Colon, Mich.
"I've been doing magic for 60 years now. It started as a hobby, and it paid off," he said. "I miss it. I loved performing for children. Those were fun days. It wasn't like work. It was like going to a party every day."
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