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.

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Famed Memphis trivia expert Vance Lauderdale answers reader questions weekly here on his blog!

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and 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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