I have always said, you can tell a lot about a person by the things they hang on their wall.
In our office we have this framed picture of Okito and his tools:
It is a portrait of Okito with a letter that he wrote to Norm along with various woodworking tools. Norm thought enough of Okito to take the time to arrange all these elements in a shadowbox for display.
Okito was one of Norm’s mentors.
In 1961 Norm was booked on a show for the Chicago IBM Ring. After the show, while he was in his dressing room, a gentleman came up to greet him and told him: “I am Theo Bamberg.” Norm was star struck and immediately knew who he was. Theo gave him his card and said: “Come see me anytime.”
Theo Bamberg was part of a great family of magicians from Holland. He was born in 1875, and started magic when he was eleven years old. By the turn of the 20th century, working as an Oriental Act using the name of Okito, Theo had worked almost every theater and venue in Europe. He also had a shadow act, was a builder and an illusion inventor. As a shadowist, he worked with Thurston, Rouclere, Rosini and even with his son David (aka Fu Manchu). As an inventor, he invited tricks like the Vanishing Wand and the Fall Apart Box. He invented the Okito Box in 1909. He also wrote a few books on magic. He toured extensively as a magician up until the late 1930s. In 1947, he moved permanently to the United States and worked as a builder. He worked for Joe Berg in Chicago, and worked with builder Don Redmon in Kentucky. In the early 1950’s he moved and completely retired in Chicago.
Norm lived in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and visited Theo often. They would talk shop all day long. One day, Norm asked him about the footlocker he had by his bed. Theo said: “Those are my tools”. Theo then started showing Norm all the tools he had and how to use them, along with the items he had built with them. Norm asked Theo if he would sell those tools one day. Theo said, “I will sell them to you for $50.” Norm could not believe it, especially because he only had $50 in his pocket that day. Along with the tools, Theo granted Norm the permission to make any of this tricks.
Norm would drag the heavy footlocker on the train back to Kenosha. His wife at the time would say to Norm: “Those are a gift.”
The first effect of Okito that Norm would make was “The Triangular Mystery”, in which three wooden panels would be shown empty, and assembled in a triangular fashion, out of which the magician could make a very large production of silks, flowers and even livestock.
A year later, Theo was ill at a nursing home and Norm brought the effect for him to see it. Theo sat up from his bed and took nearly fifteen minutes to examine it. He asked Norm about the wood, the paint and the decals. After the inspection, he said with his Dutch accent: “That is goot…” Young Norm felt like he had graduated with honors, and really felt proud of his accomplishment.
Theo Bamberg would pass away on June 28, 1963.
Since then Norm has made over thirty different Okito and Okito style effects as part of the Okito-Nielsen line. Many of the early pieces are sought as collectibles, The first Triangular Mysteries Norm made in the 1960s would sell for $37.50. At recent collector’s auction, this effect sold for $1200!
With Norm’s Alzheimers, the only recollections that remain are what I remember of the stories he told me and of the physical items that remain.
There are a few tools around the workshop that we still use to this day.
The straight-edge ruler on the photo is probably the tool Norm and I fought the most for when we were both working in the workshop. It was made out of steel, which gave it a good weight, and it was straight and precise.
Once upon a time, we had a burglary in the workshop. Alas! The thief stole Okito’s tap and die set, and a few other tools of sentimental value.
When I see the framed picture of Okito’s tools in our office, it does bring a smile to my face. Learning magic and learning how to build magic props is still a craft that is passed from mentor to student even to this day. How lucky I am that I am part of that Okito-Nielsen legacy today.
(March 22, 2020)