Peers bid farewell to magical performer

Illusionist remembered at theater he helped open

July 13, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

A spotlight played over the gleaming gray casket on stage at the 1930s art deco theater in Westminster, as one-time magician Scott Albin stepped to the microphone to address the coffin's occupant.

"Compeer Ray-Mond, when you were initiated into the Society of American Magicians, you were presented with a wand, ancient emblem of mystery," Albin intoned as 14 fellow magicians formed a horseshoe around the coffin.

"It symbolized the magic power that was yours as you used your knowledge of magic's secrets. Now, its power is gone. It is a mere stick, devoid of all meaning and authority, useless without your hand to wield it."

And with that - the magician's equivalent of a 21-gun salute - Albin snapped the wand in half and placed the pieces beside the body of master illusionist Raymond M. Corbin.

Corbin, who started as an 8-year-old backyard magician, who took his act to theaters, nightclubs and movie houses around the country, who played the White House and Buckingham Palace, died July 4 of complications from a broken hip at St. Luke's Mayo Clinic Hospital in Jacksonville, Fla., where he kept a home. He was 86.

The Westminster resident and local legend returned for one last appearance yesterday - a memorial service at the Carroll Arts Center billed on the marquee as "Ray-Mond, The Final Curtain."

An audience of more than 100 friends, family members, admirers and fellow magicians looked on as two pastors and a past president of the Society of American Magicians remembered Corbin as a gentleman, a family man, a consummate entertainer and a master conjurer who inspired generations of children to try their hand at magic.

A special venue

The service was held at the theater where Corbin performed during its grand opening nearly 66 years ago, when he warmed up the theater's first movie audience. The building, which served primarily as a movie house until it closed 15 years ago, was recently restored and reopened in April as the Carroll Arts Center.

"I'm so glad we're having the memorial service here," Sandy Oxx said yesterday, as mourners filtered into the theater, past framed posters advertising Ray-Mond's "midnite spook show" and "horrifying show of 1001 horrors," which, according to the poster, "makes Frankenstein look like a sissy."

Oxx, director of the Carroll County Arts Council, which has its headquarters at the theater, said she did not hesitate when the Corbin family asked to hold the funeral there.

"The stage and the theater meant so much to him. No other place would have been appropriate," Oxx said.

"He's not Raymond. He's Ray-Mond," Oxx added, pronouncing Corbin's stage name with the hyphen and accented second syllable that the magician adopted in high school as an exotic touch.

With a slide show set to the piano music of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer," funeral-goers recalled Ray-Mond's long career.

There were black-and-white photos of the magician, head wrapped in a turban, doing his psychic act. There were snapshots of Corbin in an Army uniform with the "Yankee Doodlers," an Army Air Forces team that entertained Allied troops during World War II in Europe. And there were photos of the performer in tuxedo, pulling playing cards out of the air, levitating a young woman, mysteriously filling a stage with silk flowers and driving an open-air car blindfolded.

Memories of Ray-Mond

The Rev. Charles E. Wolfe told the crowd that he had seen Corbin perform only once - at a Ruby Tuesday's restaurant table last year where, over lunch, the magician made a rubber ball disappear from Wolfe's tightly clasped hand and reappear in his own.

"I have no idea how he did it, but the point is that he was 85 years old and he could still mystify," Wolfe recalled. "He spent a couple hours a day practicing his card tricks just to keep his fingers in shape. ... He never quit, even when he did not feel good, and he was constantly keeping his mind active."

Bill Andrews, 83, of Stamford, Conn., a former president of the Society of American Magicians, closed yesterday's memorial service by inviting "members of the magic fraternity" onstage for the sacred broken wand ritual. Reserved for the most influential illusionists, the ceremony was first performed Oct. 31, 1926, at Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale, N.Y. - at the funeral of Harry Houdini.

With 14 magicians onstage yesterday - from as near as Westminster and as far away as Las Vegas - Andrews began:

"None of us can say what waits for [Ray-Mond] on the other side of the footlights as the curtain closes and earthly plaudits die away," Andrews said. "Let us not grieve too much, for ... we who have faith believe that the effect now witnessed is merely the end of an act in the drama of life, and that the actor has received his cue to take a nobler part in a greater and better scene."

Magical inspiration

Andrews, Albin and Las Vegas performers Scott and Jenny Alexander said they intended to join fellow magicians late last night at Corbin's gravesite for a midnight toast.

Scott Alexander was 10 years old when he first saw Corbin perform at what was then Western Maryland College.

"I was sitting in the audience and he was pulling cards out of the air, flowers out of the air, and at the end of the show, he opened up a tiny box and an alive woman came out. I knew that's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life," Scott Alexander recalled.

The youngster, now 33, became the first president of Corbin's Young Magicians Society and went on to become a headliner at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas with his wife, Jenny.

"It's all because of Ray-Mond," he said. "So, of course, we had to be here."

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