To celebrate Black History Month, our Wizard Wednesday series for February will highlight Black magicians of magic’s past. Isaac Willis (1878-1933) was working as a messenger at the White House when the legendary Alexander Herrmann hired the small, spunky seventeen-year-old to play his onstage assistant, Boomsky. Over Herrmann’s long career, Boomsky – the little uniformed page whose slapstick antics always brought down the house – had been played by a dozen African American teens, some of whom had already graduated into their own careers as magicians. For Isaac Willis, playing Boomsky was a sheer delight. At every show the audience howled as Boomsky fell on a borrowed hat and regurgitated a dozen eggs into Herrmann’s hand, all the while never suspecting that Boomsky was also performing numerous secret assistant tasks. Night after night, Isaac stood onstage just a few feet from Herrmann, witnessing the sleight-of-hand prowess and comic timing of the world’s greatest magician. After Alexander Herrmann’s sudden death, Willis continued playing Boomsky with Alexander’s widow, Adelaide Herrmann, and nephew, Leon Herrmann, who helped Isaac Willis develop his own act. The Great Boomsky was an immediate hit at his 1903 debut with Richards & Pringle’s Famous Georgia Minstrels. Willis toured his act throughout the U.S., Canada, and West Indies, culminating with a 1911 run at Harlem’s Crescent Theater. Isaac Willis retired to Truro, Nova Scotia where he worked as a Red Cap for the Canadian National Railway while raising eight children with his wife Blanche. When magicians passed through his station, Willis would show off some of Herrmann’s old apparatus and a wonderful scrapbook of photos and news clippings that, no matter how hard they tried, they “couldn’t buy, beg or steal.”
Contributed by Margaret B. Steele, author of the upcoming book, The Great Boomsky: The African American Apprentices of Herrmann the Great. Promotional card courtesy of the Willis Family collection.