Obituary: John Shearer, Scottish magician with worldwide appeal

Magician John Shearer with his popular wooden duck, Dippy
Magician John Shearer with his popular wooden duck, Dippy
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John Shearer: Magician, comedian and entertainer. Born 12 August 1931 in Bonnybridge; died 4 July 2017 at Tullibody in Scotland

John Shearer, who was Scotland’s greatest internationally renowned magician, has died aged 85. He passed away at orchard House Nursing Home in Tullibody on 4 July.

John’s smiling outgoing personality and humorous approach to magic belied the fact that he was a highly skilled conjurer. He often joked that the best disappearing trick he ever did was at his first professional gig at a club in Kilsyth. Prior to appearing on stage, he set up his props and tricks on a table behind the stage curtains, and when the compere announced him, the curtains swept back, taking the table and props with him.

John was equally at ease whether performing in sophisticated cabaret venues, working men’s clubs, in theatres at home and overseas, or at children’s parties. The Magic Circle recognised his abilities and awarded him a gold medal and, in recognition of being the first professional British magician to tour the Soviet Union, he was made an Honorary Member of the Inner Magic Circle in London.

As a youngster, he became aware of his dexterity with playing cards when he would join his parents in card games. He later joked that he could cheat without them knowing – adding, that as a future magician, he considered it bad practice but good practise.

Other magic skills were developed during his two and a half years national service with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in Tofanau in Wales. One of the officers was Bernard Ramussen, an amateur magician, who recognised young Shearer’s interest in magic and showed him a number of tricks. The officer also gave John free reign to his library of books on magic on the occasions John babysat at his superior’s home on the base. By the time he was demobbed, John had developed an act comprising close-up magic, card tricks and illusions.

Back in Scotland, he would travel by bus from his parents’ home in Denny carrying a suitcase full of props to take his magic to concert parties, local gala days, church halls and hospitals, and on Sundays he would play the interval spot at Falkirk’s Roxy Theatre. Payment for these appearances took the form of a box of chocolates or pair of hand-knitted socks - it wasn’t until he made his first appearance at a working men’s club in Kilsyth that he received cash. A later performance at Stirling’s Little Theatre was his introduction to working with an established Scottish showbiz act, the Alexander Brothers.

John Shearer was born in Bonnybridge in Central Scotland, the only child of professional golfer Hugh Shearer and his wife Margaret. On leaving school he began work as a car mechanic, but on realising that his salary was insufficient to buy his own car, he became a travelling salesman. A car came with the job, allowing him to take his magic further afield in the evenings with his props in the car boot.

In the mid-1950s he met Eleanor, when she came to work in the same company as John. In 1960 they wed and he continued juggling two careers. As his popularity as a magician increased, so did the pressures as a salesman and when his employer offered him an ultimatum – concentrate on your job or go – John decided to become a full-time professional conjurer; a decision he never regretted.

He began working six days a week in clubs in the north of England and the Midlands, where he quickly learned what worked with some audiences and what didn’t, dropping some tricks and introducing others. One new trick was Dippy the Duck, a wooden duck which John manipulated, causing its beak to dip into a pack of cards and bring out a card that had previously been selected by a member of the audience. Often members of the audience would shout “It can see” and on those occasions, he woud put a blindfold over its painted eyes to demonstrate that Dippy couldn’t see. The duck was extremely popular and became a regular feature of his act.

A tour of Ireland supporting singer Sydney Devine gave John wide exposure. He also played at Belfast’s Grove Theatre with pop star Dicky Valentine where he was delighted to see his name on the bill for the first time, although he remarked: “The printer who printed the bills had bigger lettering than mine”.

Summer seasons in Dunoon, Rothesay and Glasgow came next, leading to appearances in theatres and cabarets all over Britain, where his name was now appearing larger in the billing. John’s outgoing personality made him friendly to audiences and fellow artistes alike. Bruce Forsyth, Max Bygraves and Valentine became firm friends.

In the early 1960s John performed at many of the Russian clubs in Glasgow and also aboard Russian cruise ships which berthed in Grangemouth. This led to an invitation in 1965 from a cultural exchange group, the Silk Thread Club, to appear in the USSR. His act had to be changed to suit non-English-speaking audiences. He dropped the jokes and, introducing Eleanor as his stage assistant, produced a visual act using Chinese rings, silk handkerchiefs and Dippy the Duck. He often recalled the outdoor event at Moscow’s Gorky Park where the stage was located within a vast natural amphitheatre with an audience of around 10,000 sitting on the grass. “I often wondered how anyone could see me, let alone know I was showing the two of diamonds. And on another occasion I was taken to a radio station where an interviewer asked me to perform. Can you imagine? … a magician on the radio.”

John went on to do five overseas tours with Andy Stewart’s White Heather Show, performing across the USA and Canada. He was also included in five tours which Andy took to Australia and New Zealand. In all these shows, performers had to wear the kilt and John would jokingly comment that kilts are difficult for a magician because you can’t use your pockets … and it’s uncomfortable for the doves.

Andy Stewart also booked John on cruises billed as Scotland Goes to Sea using P&O ships sailing out of Miami. His popularity with audiences was noted by agents of the Princess Line and the Norwegian Lines whose ongoing offers of work allowed him to spend 15 years cruising the world.

Between tours and cruises, he continued working in Britain. He also performed in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Denmark, Malta and Madeira, and regularly played at St Andrews’ Nights and Burns’ Suppers in Hong Kong.

Following 64 years in the magic business, John’s last professional appearance was in 2008. Looking back, he remarked “It’s been a great life. Travelling the world and cruising the oceans with world-famous acts and meeting all the nice folks who made up the audiences. Often, I just couldn’t believe my luck … all that happening to a fellow from Denny with a wooden duck that was blindfolded.”

John is survived by Eleanor, children Keith and Gill and five grandchildren.

Norman Christie