The Lawrenceville Boy Who Became the Great Thurston’s Partner
    Ray Sugden

    Ray Sugden, alias Tampa, as he appears on the cover of the book Sugden the Magician: The Wonder Show of the Century by Gary R. Frank—whose other book is Tampa, England’s Court Magician, reflecting the two names by which the Lawrenceville performer was known.

    Ray Sugden, alias Tampa, as he appears on the cover of the book
    Sugden the Magician: The Wonder Show of the Century by Gary R. Frank—whose other book is Tampa, England’s Court Magician, reflecting the two names by which the Lawrenceville performer was known.

    Although he is largely forgotten, in 1894 six-year-old Ray Stanley Sugden thrilled Lawrenceville children with card and mind-reading tricks.  Little did they know that the boy they were watching would become one of America’s greatest magicians.

    Sugden’s family lived at 221 40th Street. He was born on November 3, 1887.

    The first professional magician that Sugden met was Harry Kellar. Kellar showed him how to make a handkerchief vanish and gave him a photograph inscribed, “To a future magician.”

    One of Sugden’s earliest jobs was doing a stunt on a bicycle at a carnival at the old Allegheny Arsenal across the street from his home. It was here that he met a magician that gave him very sound advice. The magician told the youngster to always do his tricks in front of a mirror. That magician further advised Sugden, after becoming adept, to do them in front of children. The idea was this: If it’s a good trick, children will let you know. If it’s not, they’ll tell you. Adults are too polite and won’t tell you if the trick is bad.

    In college Ray focused on chemistry and electricity as they might be applied to magic. He went to work for the M. Melachrino Company selling cigars and cigarettes. Knowing that people like to be surprised and laugh, his sales presentations always included magic and humor. He would produce his company’s products during his magic tricks. Also, in the interest of increasing his bookings, he joined various beneficial societies.

    Sugden as Tampa poster

    He married Helen Marguerite Campbell and had two sons, Ray and Edmonds. His new family lived at 28 Chapman Street. In 1917, he quit his job to become a professional magician, teaming up with fellow magician Ray Hartman. The duo performed as Chinese magicians, calling their show the Chau Tung Mysteries. After Hartman got drafted to serve in World War I, Sugden incorporated his wife and sons into the act.

    In 1918 Sugden staged a three-night performance in Washington, Pennsylvania, raising thousands of dollars for a playground. The town’s officials were so grateful they held a parade to honor him and his staff. The local newspaper praised his shows, and his business took off from there.

    Sugden was in constant demand throughout Western Pennsylvania. He would book shows with theaters, the Elks, the Moose, school auditoriums, and other venues. He was billed as “The Wonder Show of the Century” and “The Inventive Genius of the Hour.” Such billings got him more attention. Sometimes he would be hired by a new store owner to draw crowds. Everywhere he went he received laughter, applause, and praise. People loved the costumes, the tricks, and the reasonable, 10-cent ticket price. His shows would include raffles and toys for every child in the audience.

    Ray Sugden's Pittsburgh Society of Magicians membership card

    Ray Sugden’s Pittsburgh Society of Magicians membership card

    Magic shows were popular in those days. One of the top magicians of the era was Howard Thurston. In 1922, he hired magician Harry Jensen to work on his large illusions. In 1923, Jansen accepted a position handling Thurston’s second touring show under the name of Dante the Magician. Thurston provided the props and posters, while Jansen shared the profits and performed in his own style.

    By 1925, Thurston felt that he needed another partner and signed Sugden to handle a third touring show. Thurston gave Sugden the stage name Tampa, England’s Court Magician. Thurston’s publicity claimed that he had searched the world over for a magician that was worthy to be partnered with and sponsored by himself. The name was chosen because Thurston liked Tampa, Florida, and Sugden was already performing under the name Sugden, England’s Court Magician.

    In the same year, the great Harry Houdini sent Sugden a letter of encouragement, praising him on his abilities.

    Soon Sugden was performing in all the major American cities. Wherever he went he drew crowds and praise from newspapers, theater owners, and audiences. During this time, he became friends with Houdini. Houdini’s untimely death in 1926 catapulted Thurston into the place of America’s favorite magician. In the late 1920s, the popularity of magic shows was replaced with talking movies. The length of magic shows was reduced from 45 to 20 minutes, and eventually they were discontinued in most theaters.

    Ray Sugden's Tampa poster

    Due to disagreements among the trio, Thurston began to scale down the number of Sugden’s bookings, and as a result Sugden lost income.

    By August 1931, Sugden put the Tampa show in storage and turned to radio for his employment. During his radio years he is believed to have produced more radio-show sound effects than anyone else. Sugden gave out “mystery bucks” that listeners could redeem for magic tricks. He also exposed “bunco” artists and spoke on such topics as palmistry.

    In 1936, Sugden wrote to Thurston demanding $23,519.70 for unpaid portions of their partnership. Thurston died that same year, leaving the debt unsettled; so Sugden sued his estate for almost $600,000. Upon settlement, he received $1,000, the Tampa name, and all the magic equipment he had placed in storage.

    Ray Sugden was living in his childhood home at 221 40th Street when he died on July 30, 1939, from congestive heart failure in St. Francis Hospital. Although the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph mentioned that he performed for King George V of England, Sugden’s biographer, Gary R. Frank, has indicated that there is no evidence Sugden ever performed for any royalty. Ray was serving as president of the International Brotherhood of Magicians’ Golden Triangle Ring 13 when he passed away. Five magicians served as pall-bearers at his funeral.

    After his death his fellow magicians voted to change the name of their ring to Tampa Ring 13. Ray Sugden is buried in Allegheny Cemetery, where in 1955 Blackstone the Magician laid a wreath on his grave. His magical apparatuses were auctioned off in 1972.

    Tampa Ring 13 still exists today. They meet at Ritter’s Diner (5221 Baum Blvd. in Pittsburgh) on the first Thursday of every month. Everyone is welcome.

    Jude Wudarczyk is coauthor of three books on Lawrenceville history. He has also written for various local newsletters, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and international journals. He can be found every year, top hat and all, at Lawrenceville’s Stephen Foster festival. His works have been used as references by writers in America, England, Japan, and Vietnam.
    Images courtesy of Gary R. Frank