MONMOUTH, Ill. — The devastation of war can be far-reaching, and for Monmouth magician Will Nicol — the Great Nicola — it brought his remarkable career to a crashing halt.
Nicola was at the height of his fame in October 1938 when he decided to embark on his eighth world tour with a company of 10 performers. Led by the 57-year-old master illusionist, the troupe sailed from Vancouver to New Zealand to begin what they believed would be a four-year itinerary.
Nicola imagined it to be the beginning of a grand farewell tour before retirement that would conclude with a triumphal tour of the United States. He did not imagine the tour and his career would abruptly end just 12 months later.
After five months in New Zealand and another five months in Australia, the company performed a brief tour of Java. As they were preparing to leave that island, cables from Europe informed them that Poland had been invaded, while at the same time there were rumors of heightened conflict between Japan and China. The company reluctantly decided to proceed with a planned set of performances in the Malay States, then return to the United States in early November.
Audiences in Singapore would be the last to witness Nicola’s epic show — a three-hour spectacle that he had built over a career of more than 50 years. It required 50 tons of equipment and 54 sets of lines from which to fly draperies, curtains and scenery. In addition to his own illusions, Nicola portrayed four different magicians — a Chinese necromancer, a Hindu fakir, an Egyptian sorcerer, an Argentinian burlesque conjurer — showcasing tricks he had learned during his extensive world travels.
Newly added was a dramatic performance titled “the Wizard’s Dream,” in which he acted out a story of how he fell asleep while working in his studio and dreamed of how to perform several mysteries that magicians had previously considered impossible.
Also on the bill were Edwin and Lucille Gaillard, a mind-reading act known as Eddie and Lucille Roberts; Al DeClerq, a comedian; and Chuck Vance, a young magician from Peoria. Nicola’s wife, Marion, served as his stage assistant. Others in the traveling party included Nicola’s longtime manager, Charles Hugo, and his wife, Josephine (the sister of the actor who portrayed Fibber McGee); and Mary Camp, a niece of Dr. Harold Camp of Monmouth, who was married to Nicola’s niece Doris Holt.
On Nov. 13, Nicola’s party and equipment were loaded onto the British-India steamship Sirdhana and embarked from Singapore, en route to Hawaii. Three miles out, Nicola was on the top deck looking through binoculars when he felt a terrific explosion on the port side of the ship. Marion, who was in bed with a headache, was thrown to the floor. Suddenly, as the ship began to list, panic ensued and passengers started jumping into lifeboats, some of which capsized in the water.
A policeman, also on the top deck, was been in charge of 130 Chinese deportees, who had been locked in the hold of the ship. He rushed below and fired his service rifle into the lock, saving the prisoners from drowning.
Hugo told Nicola that an officer told him there was no danger, as the ship would be run onto the beach. Nicola went back to his cabin with Marion to get some valuables, but water started rushing in and they couldn’t even retrieve a money belt. The Hugos had gotten on earlier lifeboats, but the rest of Nicola’s party was able to climb onto a crowded boat. Eddie Gaillard and Chuck Vance, however, refused to board and instead helped throw tables and objects into the water for passengers to cling to.
Within 20 minutes, the ship went under, taking with it $100,000 worth of Nicola’s equipment, much of which had been purchased in Paris and London two years before. Gaillard and Vance were strong swimmers and got to shore, so all were safe, but penniless.
An amateur photographer, Gaillard managed to take photos of the ship going down. He immediately went to a newspaper office where his water-soaked film was developed, and he sold the first set of prints for $25. The couple started working in local clubs and proceeded to Hong Kong, where they were able to earn enough money for a return trip to the United States.
Meanwhile, it was determined that the Sirdhana had struck a British mine. In a letter to his brother, Charles, in Monmouth, Nicola wrote: “It was surely a tough break for us as we had debated the best way to get home and to go by this boat seemed best. We figured that the British navy would have these waters under control and they would have the real information on everything, so it looked fine. Who would ever have dreamed that a British ship with a British Captain, would be sunk by a British mine in a British harbor! It is almost inconceivable, and they are now having an investigation which I am attending to see how it all came about.”
An investigation would determine that the ship’s captain was aware of two mine fields, but had failed to learn of a third field, through which he navigated. A battery stationed at a fort overlooking the harbor could have fired a warning shot, but did not do so because the commander said that would have required special permission.
While the rest of his party returned home, Nicola remained in Singapore, hopeful of reclaiming his property or settlement money. He wrote in a letter to a friend in New Zealand:
“We had no insurance… It is terrible to work all one’s life building up a show like this to have it suddenly swept away … It isn’t quite as bad as though it had happened when I was starting my career, but it is bad enough.”
There were, however, a number of things that money could not replace — among them photographs, motion pictures of his shows and scrapbooks.
“Those were the things I wanted to look at when I arrived at the carpet-slipper stage and had retired from active showing,” he wrote, “But that is all gone. Gone too is the possibility of making another tour. I dislike that thought also — so much so that I won’t accept it as a fact. I hate to think I shall never show in New Zealand again. It doesn’t seem right. I had such an enjoyable time there last time, just as I always had — and the people liked me and my show. It just doesn’t seem possible that it is a thing of the past. My friends from all over the world, and magic fans from many places, are writing to me to take courage and rebuild the show. But at present I am so helpless ‘magically’ that I am still staggered.
“Everything in the ship would no doubt be spoiled by this time, but measurements could be taken from which duplicates could be made. Without these measurements it would take years of experimenting, and I could not think of that. So whether I ever work again is a problem that is in the hands of those shipping people and the underwriters in London.”
Unsuccessful in his efforts for a settlement, Nicola returned to the United States in July 1940. He attended occasional magic conventions, but for months was too distraught to do much else. Fifteen years earlier, a warehouse fire in New York City had wiped out equipment he had laboriously assembled for a trip to the Far East, but he was younger then and had the time and energy to recover.
In February 1942, with World War II in full swing, the Kewanee Star-Courier ran a story about Nicola’s efforts for a comeback. He had workmen rebuilding some of his complicated effects and had offered to tour the country on behalf of the USO. He and his brother, Charles, had conducted a similar tour during World War I, entertaining in France through the YMCA.
Although Charles soon became active on the USO circuit in California, Nicola seems to have only occasionally made appearances at shows for service personnel and army hospital patients. In October 1942, Billboard magazine wrote that Nicola had “entered the scrap drive with a vengeance.” In addition to handcuffs, chains and a heavy milk can used in his escapes, he donated a 300-pound mechanism from his levitation act. The article noted that he had used that apparatus in both Tokyo and Berlin, and hoped “that the metal will return there in the form of bombs and shells to send Hitler and Hirohito floating thru the air.”
Nicola also contributed to the war effort the apparatus he had used to make his dwarf elephant, Nizie, disappear a decade earlier.
Nicola’s hope for a return to the stage would, alas, be only a “Wizard’s Dream,” and his time for enjoying the “carpet-slipper” stage of life would be brief. He died in his Monmouth home on Feb. 1, 1946, at the age of 63.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian at Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.