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Winter 2002
Volume 39, No. 2
Issue Home

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PCMOnline Editor
Sarah Dolinar


The Literature of Magic

Profile of Pomona alumnus and magician Richard Buffum '43

When Richard Buffum ’43 was fifteen years old, he began to watch magic card shows outside of a small gift shop on Catalina Island that sold cacti, clocks, and candles. Jose Riojas, the magician who owned the store, noticed the curious young man who seemed so intrigued by the different faces of the red and black cards. He began to teach Buffum the swift moves of card tricks and illusions.

Today, Buffum sits in his office surrounded by photographs and memoirs from prominent magicians and influential figures that he has encountered throughout his life—letters from Harry Houdini and Edgar Bergen; a thank you letter from Orson Welles, who purchased some trick coins from Richard; tape-recorded interviews with Dai Vernon, one of the most famous magicians of natural movement, stretched into seven miles of tape.

Soon after Buffum’s first magic lessons, he bought his first magic trick at Thayer’s Studio of Magic, now Owen’s Magic Supreme, and became fascinated with the styles and forms of magic. While Buffum performed at small venues, he also became interested in the history and biographies of well-known magicians. He began to self-publish monographs about the lives and stories of magicians and conjurers on his own letterpress to sell them at local conventions. In his first project, for which he wrote the introduction, he edited and printed Stuart Cramer’s Germain the Wizard and his Legerdemain (1966), telling the story of the famous magician Carl Germain. Buffum has now written over a dozen monographs and three books, including Brema Brasses and Keep the Wheels Turning.

In his career, Buffum was elevated in the magic circle in London and became a Gold Star member of the Inner Magic Circle, the highest honor of the organization. He is also a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. This April, 65 years after those first card tricks on Catalina Island, Buffum received the Literary Fellowship Award at the 33rd Academy of Magical Arts Awards show at the Wishire-Ebell Theater in Los Angeles.

"It was a very big honor for me to receive that award, I was very pleased. I had no idea I was going to get anything like that."

When asked what attracts him to the arena of magic, Buffum pauses for a moment. "It’s hard to say really. I find it challenging and interesting to not only invent tricks, but to perform and learn them, to make and manufacture them. It’s a matter of skill and maybe I like the limelight. It’s like an actor doing a show. Robert-Houdin once said, ‘The good magician is an actor playing the part of a magician’."

In addition to his contributions to magic, Buffum has always been recognized as a gifted writer. He attributes his strong foundation in writing to his years at Pomona College, where he majored in English and acted in various plays, such as the Gentle People and Our Town.

"I did a lot of studying and memorizing of lines and, of course, I was doing magic at this point, mostly small shows at parties," Buffum laughs. "I feel very proud to have graduated from Pomona, I made a lot of good friends there."

Although Buffum was part of the class of 1943 at Pomona College, he graduated early in 1942 to join the Coast Guard in Long Beach as a combat correspondent during World War II. Richard’s ability to draw creativity from the midst of everyday life led him to interview and write short stories on fellow members of the Coast Guard.

"That’s how I spent most of the war," Buffum remembers. "Interviewing and writing."

He worked with Los Angeles Times photographer, Coy Watson, who took pictures of every person Buffum interviewed. After the war, Buffum worked for the Long Beach Independent as a crime reporter. In 1968, he went to work for the Los Angeles Times as a general feature writer, later retiring from the Orange County edition in 1987, where he wrote three to four columns a week.

Aside from the mysterious and highly renowned world of magic, Buffum holds a fondness for boats and the ebbs and flows of the ocean. He recently donated his boat that he owned for twenty-eight years, the Herald Bird, to the sailing center of Orange Coast College. He spends a great deal of his free time researching the history behind the harbors of Santa Catalina Island, a place with which he identifies closely from his childhood. He is currently in the final stages of proofreading the printed pages of his book, Catalina Saga, which he researched and wrote with his wife, Marjorie Buffum, who was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

At eighty-one years old, Buffum still lives near the ocean on Balboa Island with Marjorie. Though he rarely performs anymore, his work continues to foster the creativity that flourished in both his career and his avocation.

—Jennifer Palmer is a freelance writer living in Pasadena, California.