Ray-Mond Corbin, 86, Carroll magician

July 08, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen and Jennifer McMenamin | Frederick N. Rasmussen and Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Magician Ray-Mond Corbin was the first performer to appear at an art deco theater that opened in 1930s Westminster. He went on to play before the queen of England, Baltimore nightclub crowds and, having made his reputation in the world of illusion, generations of Carroll County schoolchildren.

Mr. Corbin died Friday of complications from a broken hip at St. Luke's Mayo Clinic Hospital in Jacksonville, Fla., where he kept a home. The Westminster resident was 86.

A memorial service Saturday at the renovated art deco Carroll Theater is expected to draw admirers from across the county and a contingent of magicians flying from a national convention in Las Vegas.

"He was one of the all-time great magicians and one of the last of the old-style magicians. He really made magic wonderful, and the world of theater has lost one of its all-time great performers," said John Sweers, president of the Society of American Magicians Hall of Fame and Magic Museum Inc.

With a long, thin face and a perfectly groomed goatee, Mr. Corbin looked the part. When performing, he always dressed in a carefully pressed black tuxedo, starched white shirt and knotted silk bow tie.

Born Raymond Monroe Corbin, in Westminster, by the time he was in high school he preferred the more exotic-sounding Ray-Mond (with a heavily accented second syllable). He would bill himself as the "Aristocrat of Deception" after seeing a Hellmann's Mayonnaise truck advertising its product as the "Aristocrat of Mayonnaise."

His interest in magic began at age 6, when his mother gave him a 49-cent book of magic tricks for his birthday. With tricks learned from the Thayer Magic Catalog, Mr. Corbin's earliest performances included backyard gigs where he charged neighbors 2 cents for ground seats and a nickel for folding chairs. The highlight of his professional debut at age 8 came when he thrilled the audience at Westminster's United Methodist Church by levitating his sister Ruth and making her disappear.

To the chagrin of his parents, Mr. Corbin left for Florida in 1934 after graduating from Westminster High School to join Dr. Miles' Medicine Show, which traveled the countryside selling a bunion remover. Paid $15 a week and a 5-cent commission for every bottle sold, Mr. Corbin worked to attract a crowd to the medicine wagon by promising to decapitate someone.

He later joined a roving vaudeville troupe of dancers, jugglers and comedians before returning to Baltimore. In 1937, he opened the inaugural show at the Carroll Theater. He remains one of few acts booked at the Westminster showplace, which primarily served as a movie house until it closed 15 years ago. The decaying relic recently was restored, reopening in April as the Carroll Arts Center.

Drafted into the Army in 1942, Mr. Corbin served in Europe with the "Yankee Doodlers," a 9th Army Air Forces team of performers that entertained Allied troops. He was one of four entertainers selected to perform for Queen Elizabeth, wife of King George VI, at Buckingham Palace. While in England, he married Doris May Broom, who became his stage manager and assistant. She died in 1972.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Mr. Corbin began a late-night "ghost show" in theaters, including Baltimore's Hippodrome, that combined a horror movie with gruesome illusions.

Most memorable was his "decapitating" of a hooded volunteer with a spinning circular saw. The head was carried through the audience by Ray-Mond before being restored to its owner.

Bill Andrews, a former president of the Society of American Magicians, recalled sharing a drink with Mr. Corbin, who blithely asked the bartender for a glass of water. "He covered it with a cloth, and when he removed it, a goldfish was swimming around inside the glass," Mr. Andrews said. "He was truly a magical person."

Mr. Corbin retired from the road in the 1980s and limited himself to local appearances. He was elected president of the Society of American Magicians in 1984 and was inducted into the Magicians Hall of Fame in 1990.

Four years later, hundreds gathered in Westminster to honor Mr. Corbin for a lifetime of community service. On that occasion, Colorado magician Edward A. Schuman characterized Mr. Corbin in an interview with The Sun as a "walking encyclopedia" and suggested that someone should work with Mr. Corbin to document magic tricks that otherwise would be lost with his death.

The Society of American Magicians did just that a few years ago, recording a joint interview with Mr. Corbin and Mr. Schuman - exclusively for the organization's members and archived in its film library.

In addition, Mr. Corbin schooled his son, David B. Corbin of Westminster, in magic and passed along simpler magic tricks to his grandchildren.

"He'd just pull them out and say, `Look, this is how it looks like it works, and this is how it really works,'" David Corbin said of his father's mini-magic lessons with his own sons.

David Corbin is sure that some magical secrets have gone to the grave with his father.

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