Durham County

Life Stories: Magician Phil Willmarth kept his craft from disappearing

Philip Willmarth demonstrates a “Ring and Rope Routine” at a magicians meeting circa 1960.
Philip Willmarth demonstrates a “Ring and Rope Routine” at a magicians meeting circa 1960. COURTESY OF ROBBIE WILLMARTH

Phil Willmarth didn’t walk around with a cape, or offer to make things disappear, but he was one of the best-known magicians of his time, at least among the conjuring community.

Though his day job was in advertising, he had been a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians since 1969. He spent nearly 30 years editing the group’s monthly magazine, The Linking Ring, and served one year as international president.

Willmarth, of Durham, died last month at 83.

He had not only performed a specialty trick, the ring and rope, before countless audiences, but had also amassed one of the most expansive magic libraries around. It consists of some 6,000 books on the craft, along with hundreds of photographs and posters of his magical colleagues – many of them autographed, most of them old friends.

More than a few of those books were written and/or published by Willmarth.

“There are rings in 88 countries right now, so it’s quite large,” said Mike Gorman, a Raleigh resident and former international president. The word “ring” signifies a chapter within the brotherhood. Raleigh’s ring is No. 199 of about 250 worldwide, Gorman said.

“When you’re in the brotherhood of magicians, it’s a close-knit group. He was very well known. He was the glue, you know, that kept everything together.”

By the book

Born in New Castle, Pa., a young Willmarth first fell in love with magic through a book his father gave him, “A Bag of Tricks” by Will Lindhorst. He soon spotted an ad for the Douglas Magicland catalog in Dallas, and mailed in 10 cents for a copy.

For years the only way he learned tricks was through books. While in college he earned extra money by performing at parties, said his wife, Robbie Willmarth. But performing held more for him than some extra income.

“It just occurred to me that in overcoming stuttering, the magic was a piece of that,” she said. His childhood speech impediment came as a surprise to colleagues, but the experience of being brought out of one’s shell rang true. For many, that experience becomes the real magic.

“I was a very shy, extremely introverted child, and a lot of magicians have the same story,” said Shaun Jay, 23, a magician for whom Willmarth was a mentor.

Willmarth, an encyclopedic resource for fellow magicians, devoured the history of the craft, became expert on just about every trick in the book and edited the magician brotherhood’s monthly magazine for 30 years. His last performance was in 2007 at the “Le Grand David and his Own Spectacular Magic Co.” show in Beverly, Mass.

His wife said it was among his best.

Did her husband let her in on his secrets? Robbie Willmarth answers quickly with a firm “no.”

“I didn’t want to know. I wanted the magic to be real. There’s a beauty in the mystery. Every magician wants that moment.”