Mum Magazine June 2008 Review:
I saw William Neff’s Madhouse of Mystery midnight show at the Texas Theatre in San Antonio in 1954. A big show focusing on the macabre, but not without comedy, it was a fine performance. I remember the Sarcophagus illusion, the funny Passe Passe Bottles routine and stabbing the ice pick in the stage floor before plunging it into the boy’s head, as well as a well-produced blackout. I didn’t realize how well-produced until I saw (and, in some cases, participated in) later, cheesier ones.
Now a well-researched biography of Neff and his show has been produced by William V. Rauscher. This is a big book, 9 by 11 inches and 316 pages, with pictorial cover and illustrations on almost every page, photographs as well as advertising material. The book reveals just how grueling it is to troupe a big show — and it was a big show with several illusions, each with its own drop, costumes, scenery and several assistants, usually all girls. There are two detailed descriptions of Neff’s show, one by Arnold Furst and the other by Chuck Windley. Neff was a perfectionist and there is much information on operating the show in Neff’s own words, such as detailed instructions to the theatre’s staff on how to promote the show and 12 pages on the importance of — and how to obtain — a complete blackout for the finale.
Bill Neff was a product of small-town America, growing up in Indiana, Pennsylvania. While recovering from a bout of flu, a friend showed him some card tricks and he became absorbed with conjuring for the rest of his life. His closest chum growing up was future screen legend Jimmy Stewart.
The two boys built and performed a show together, with Jimmy as the assistant. Even after he became a Hollywood star, he kept in touch with Neff and was always willing to lend his name for publicity purposes. Jimmy actually was the nice, decent, generous guy that he often portrayed in his films.
Neff, on the other hand, was not. Perhaps it was the strain of performing and the constant travel that cause him to seek comfort in drink. He became an alcoholic. The accounts of his behavior at this time are hard to read about and the author does not sugarcoat them. Neff was always a driven man, consumed with the show and success. He had time for nothing else. When his first wife, Virginia, became pregnant, he arranged an abortion, an illegal procedure at the time,but she refused. When Virginia went into labor, he drove her to the hospital and left. After the baby arrived, Neff had to be tracked down and told he had a son. He made no time for his new family, either ignoring or abusing them.
Virginia traveled with the show, enduring humiliation and abuse from Bill, trying to keep the marriage together. However, a young assistant was now on the show, Evelyn Mack (Evelyn McAfoos) — the assistant/mistress/wife from Hell. With a take-charge personality, Evelyn had become Neff’s chief assistant and was, in fact, running the show. She also became his lover. Virginia finally gave up and left the show. Having nowhere to turn, she and her young child went to live with Bill’s father, in Pennsylvania.
Evelyn took over Neff’s life, becoming both a conduit and a barrier between him and the rest of the world until his death. With Evelyn as an enabler, Neff’s drinking accelerated. He sometimes performed while inebriated but, amazingly, he was usually able to conceal the fact and gave a good performance. Most magicians who met him at this time were unaware of his drinking and found Neff to be educated, serious, well spoken and always immaculately dressed. While the show business climate changed and bookings declined, Neff and Evelyn (now his wife) continued to live in New York, feeling this was where the bookings were. Ill health, however, forced Neff to return to Pennsylvania where he died in 1967.
The book also contains a chapter on the several comic books, now collectors’ items that featured Neff, and an account of Bela Lugosi’s brief stint with the Madhouse of Mystery show. While his portrayal of Dracula on the stage and in the movies had made him a star, Lugosi was now an unreliable drug addict and had to be used more as a prop than a performer. Long John Nebel, well-known in the 1950s and ’60s for his late-night call-in radio show in New York, provides a rather verbose account, reprinted from his 1961 book, of two miracles that he claims to have seen Neff do, one involving Neff becoming transparent and then invisible during a performance at the New York Paramount Theater. There are also discussions, but not explanations, of Neff’s two marketed tricks, his Miracle Rope and his Cut and Restored Tie. The lecture notes he prepared for Abbott’s Get-Together in 1961 are also reprinted. While some of the information is dated, much of it is still of interest.
The book concludes with a substantial interview with Neff’s son, James T. Neff, now 65. James provides further insights into Neff’s psyche, but no absolution. Still considering his father to be “everything I never wanted to be,” he retains no bitterness. Despite the inevitable scars of his upbringing, he has simply moved on to lead a successful and productive life and this provides a note of optimism to this story.
Perhaps, as Chuck Windley once observed, “Dr. Neff spent a career torturing women on stage. One girl would be sliced into thirteen pieces, while another was burned alive. But in the end, it was Neff who was the most tortured of all.”