The Baffling Mr. Baker

Photo by Guyton Nunnally

I was puttering around in the Lauderdale Mansion attic last night, searching for a whetstone so I could polish my swordcane, when I came across a box of old photos that we had run years ago in Memphis magazine. I don't know how these things end up in my possession, but it was quite thrilling to dig through it — especially when I turned up this fine photograph of Harmon Baker, a gentleman who gained considerable fame as "the world's oldest magician."

Space (and, let's face it, an almost fatal case of ennui) prevent me from telling the whole story of this extraordinary gentleman. Let's just say that his claim was probably correct. After all, he was still performing shortly before his death — at the age of 106!

Many things are still unknown (to me, anyway) about Harmon E. Baker, who was (so the story goes) born in Memphis in 1897 and first began practicing magic at the age of 12. Baker liked to change his life story whenever it pleased him, and some accounts had him winning an Olympic gold medal for wrestling, piloting fighter plants in World War I (Yes, One — not Two), and even studying judo in Japan. It's eerie, in a way, how his life paralleled my own!

None of that really mattered, though, as impressive as it may be, for he spent his entire life performing, and he was actually very good at it — good enough to be featured on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Late Show with David Letterman, and at the 1981 grand reopning of The Peabody.

Standing barely five feet tall, Baker cut a remarkable figure, and a profile published years in Memphis magazine noted, "Baker is a study in perpetual motion. He darts back and forth, fluttering handkerchiefs and flapping ropes; his malleable face forms itself into expressive shapes. He bears a certain resemblance to Jimmy Durante, and sounds somewhat like him as well."

By all accounts, he was a nice fellow, who enjoyed performing for children. "I don't talk down to them," he told one writer. "I like to emphasize the fact that my work is educational, and show the children that all I do is tricks to deceive the five senses."

Towards the end of his amazingly long life, Baker began writing books about magic, working out of the home on Carrington that he shared with his wife, Ruth. But I really don't know if he ever finished them. He passed away in 1993 and is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery.

Reader Comments:
Apr 13, 2011 03:18 pm
 Posted by  warbirdali

I remember seeing him probably in the late 80s when I came to Memphis and he seemed like a nice geniune person! I think he was at moist festibals like the Crafts Fair and Arts in the park tyope events. As a side note I Must say that I appreciate/notice there seem to be a lot of women in swimsuits or leotards in your recent blogs.
And what kind of "plants" did they fight with in WWI? Really mean and hungry Venus Flytraps?

Apr 13, 2011 03:20 pm
 Posted by  warbirdali

Darn, if I am going to make comments about typos I really MUST proofread my comment before hitting the "Submit" button!

Apr 13, 2011 03:38 pm
 Posted by  MaristMom

I'm no mathematician and I definitely struggled through Sr. Mary Catherine's Algebra class at IC, but it seems to me that if he was born in 1897 and died in 1993, that he wasn't 106 after all. Unless there was a little sleight of hand in those figures, as well.

Apr 13, 2011 04:29 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Mr. Baker lived in my neighborhood and used to come into Berl Olswanger Music on Highland, where I worked. Berl had a talent agency upstairs and would book Mr. Baker on occasion. He was quite a character and was strong as an ox, as he would demonstrate to us when he visited the store. He used the "hey baby, would you like to be in show business" on more women than I can count. He was always looking for his next magic assistant. He was a sweet man and liked by all. The last time I saw him, he was literally driving the wrong way on the interstate. Somehow he got off of it without an accident or injury, which was quite baffling to me.

Apr 13, 2011 04:47 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Mr. Baker appeared in the Theatre Memphis production of Anne of the Thousand Days back in, I think, 1980 or '81. He was, I understand 96 at the time, and was playing a character who was aged 72. In early rehearsals, Harmon would stoop very low and shake almost as if palsied and use a shaky, quivering voice. Sherwood Lohrey asked him why he was doing those things and Harmon replied that he was doing it because he was playing an old man.

Apr 13, 2011 11:07 pm
 Posted by  Vance Lauderdale

Harmon Baker flew in PLANES, not PLANTS, warbirdali, and his death certificate says he died in 1993 at the age of 106, so that wasn't any sleight of hand with the age, maristmom — just a slip of the fingers while I was typing this in a frenzy.

No wait: I meant to say, while my stupid clumsy assistant was typing.

AND while she was munching on Lazy Cakes brownies and swigging a bottle of cheap gin.

Yes, that is EXACTLY what happened.

Oct 15, 2013 10:21 am
 Posted by  Carla Reaves McAuliffe

I'm the girl in the picture & I can tell you - HE WAS A REAL HOOT. We had a lot of fun and I have never told his magic secrets (not even to my children). I think we all should believe in magic! He was a good man, a lady's man even at 95. I will miss him but always cherish his memory! With love, Carla

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and MBQ: Inside Memphis Business.  Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

You can find him from time to time in the pages of the Memphis Flyer and MBQ, on WKNO television, and on Facebook. When he is not exploring the highways and byways of Memphis, he spends his time sleeping, napping, and dozing.

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