Imagine the shock in 1929 when residents opened the local papers to news of an Easton home filled with the “Devil’s Disciples.” Running in the Bridgeport Telegram and the Hartford Courant, these articles were referring to the monthly gatherings at the home of Royal Lee Vilas for the Society of American Magicians. Famous practitioners from around the world descended on Easton to rehearse their craft, taught to them-supposedly, by imps and demons. Vilas is probably not familiar to many here, except for a murky photo in our Town Hall identifying him as our first selectman from 1930 to 1931. Even back then, he was a bit of a mysterious figure who appeared “magically” in town one night in 1926. Living here for only a few years, he brought celebrity and a good dose of scandal before just as suddenly, disappearing.
Born in Brooklyn in 1873, Royal was the son of an accountant who was not keen on following in his father’s profession. With a penchant for adventure, he travelled at an early age out west to seek his fortune in mining. Mostly what he found was boredom with hardly anything to do at night except sitting around a campfire. By his own admission, he could neither sing nor tell stories well, so he passed the time picking-up magic tricks to entertain his companions. From these early days, he developed a particular skill with sleight of hand card tricks that would become his hallmark for the rest of his life.
Towards the end of the 19th century, he was in Cincinnati employed as a salesman for the Globe-Wernicke furniture company. While there, he patented inventions for locking mechanisms and expandable travel carriages that show his creativity and ambition. In a short time, he was head of sales for their European division and his travels brought him to all the major cosmopolitan cities where magicians reigned with sold out shows and hugely popular followings.
Magic at the turn of the 20th century had been transforming from a world of mysticism to an art form that could be mastered through science. Rather than dressing in Merlin-like robes, professional conjurers presented themselves as distinguished gentlemen in evening formal wear, and they performed in theaters for a new, burgeoning middle class audience eager for entertainment. Through slow and deliberate motions these artists choreographed elaborate dramas that kept their viewers on the edge of their seats. And while puritanical views in previous centuries might have condemned them, spectators at this time were far more tolerant as technological innovations produced “spellbinding” effects. Floating ghost-like apparitions were achieved through lantern slide projection, assistants reappeared unharmed from flames through protective asbestos coverings and elaborate mechanical devices allowed bodies to levitate and even vanish.
This was the golden age of magic and vaudeville where performers like Keller, Thurston, Devant, Seldon and of course, the great Houdini found incredible success not only through their performances but through their astute use of newspaper, photography, film and radio communication for marketing. Vilas’ interest in magic led him to attend shows across Europe and the United States. Not only did he befriend many of these celebrities, but he also collected their show posters and paraphernalia that included historic “magical” artifacts going back to the 17th century.
By the time the first World War broke out, Vilas was stateside and living in East Orange, New Jersey with his wife Bonnie and two children. He continued to work as a traveling salesman though now for the DuPont Company’s Duco paint division. Royal used magic to attract customers with great success and he became a regional manager in New England. It was during this time that he was inducted into the Society of American Magicians. (S.A.M.) Founded in New York in 1902, this organization aimed to elevate magic to a performing art and promote harmony amongst its members all while limiting public exposure of trade secrets. Vilas was so devoted to this cause that he would later found the National Council of Magicians through which he compiled the first comprehensive file and clearinghouse for magical tricks thereby helping to eliminate pirating.
Along with his work for DuPont, Vilas began performing at small local venues mystifying his audiences. His travel itinerary allowed him to visit cities and town’s all along the northeast where he promoted membership in the society. As a testament to his charismatic salesmanship, it is said that he single-handedly recruited scores of amateur and professional magicians. And it was precisely on one of these tours that Royal Vilas entered the spotlight in Easton.
On November 26th, 1926, Vilas was one of several acts scheduled for an evening’s entertainment at the Easton Grange Hall. Billed as a leader in the profession, he was expected to perform several “magical numbers” for the audience. We don’t have any surviving accounts regarding just how well his show was received, but we do know that Easton bewitched Vilas. He had always been fond of rural areas and the woods. Now at the age of 54, “Little Easton” seemed to be the place where he could live out his days. His desire to find a stable home base came after several years living apart from his family and he and his wife had become estranged. Residing at times in New York, New Haven, and Hartford, he longed to escape the “roar of the cities.” By October of the next year, he purchased a 12-acre tract of land with a rustic home built on Staples Road for 7,500 dollars.
Standing on what was once known as Hard Hill, he christened his new home the “Royal Lodge.” Originally constructed in 1900, the main building was described as a rambling 11-room, rustic log cabin with a thoroughly modernized interior. Surrounded by woodland on all sides, the property included a valley and a running trout stream. Vilas constructed a smaller log cabin near the main house as his office with telephone service, dictaphones and mimeograph machines ostensibly to direct the hundreds of DuPont sales representatives that he oversaw. But it was also where he ran the business side of the Society of American Magicians as its elected secretary. Soon a publicity campaign began with news articles drumming up interest in his “hermitage” as an exclusive resort where he and fellow magicians practiced their craft while relaxing in the countryside. Here, he bragged, there was no need to follow conventions or working hours.
Famous conjurers did gather at his estate. Just some of those on record include: Howard Thurston, the King of Cards and levitation; Harry Blackstone, who awed viewers with his sawing-in-half tricks; Jack Gwynne, the vaudeville impresario who became the first illusionist featured on television; George Mulholland, who would go on to be a CIA agent, writing their official manual on trickery and deception during the Cold War; Frank Durcrot, owner of the famed Martinka Magic Shop in New York City; and Max Holden, master of the art of shadowgraphy.
And while newspaper articles touted these assemblies as a gathering of “Devil’s Disciples,” it was merely a form of sensationalism to drum up attention and attendance at their shows. Interestingly, even though press releases claimed that Harry Houdini was a frequent visitor at the “Royal Lodge,” that would have been impossible since he died in 1926 before Vilas even purchased the property. Houdini’s youngest brother and magical heir, Theo Hardeen, however, was a frequent caller. He posed for a 1929 Christmas card with Vilas in front of a large stone fireplace-a feature that still exists in the house today.
The publicity around Vilas likely earned him a good deal of name recognition in town. By 1930 he resigned from DuPont and was campaigning for the first selectman’s office. A surviving quote from one of his stump speeches claimed, “he didn’t know much about politics, but he could give the town a business administration.” This must have been a convincing selling point for local voters. The Easton town hall would not be built for another seven years and elected officials had to work out of their homes. With public meetings held alternately at the old Staples Academy or the new Staples School, Vilas’ experience overseeing traveling workers must have seemed an ideal administrative background.
When the votes were tallied, Vilas was elected and he presided over his first town meeting along with his fellow selectmen John Beno and Edward Freeborn, on November 15th, 1930. They were immediately faced with two expensive problems: the terrible condition of the town’s dirt roads and the need for firefighting equipment. The estimated cost to address these issues came in just under 12,000 dollars; 4,500 for fire equipment including a Pirsch truck and 7,000 for road improvements. But the town, like the rest of the country, was in the midst of the Great Depression and residents were not eager to take on additional costs or debt. The purchase of fire equipment was essentially postponed through the creation of a special investigative committee. The road improvement costs however, were authorized for the selectmen to spend along with an additional 1,500 to hire some of the local unemployed workers for the “stoning of roads, cleaning culverts, ditching or other needed work for the betterment of Easton.”
By the spring of 1931, concerns were being raised regarding the use of public funds and a motion passed in a town meeting to hire a certified public accountant to review all expenses and holdings. In June, Vilas was directly accused of not fulfilling his duties appropriately. In turn, the first selectman verbally derided George Beers, the town clerk and treasurer. The commotion caused quite the uproar and the respected Dr. William Coon, who was present, went on record as saying that Vilas’ attack was an unjust insult. As it turned out, Vilas’ anger was probably provoked by Beers revealing the first selectman’s financial sleight of hand with town funds. Hundreds of dollars in receipts for gravel, labor, heating oil and gas had gone unpaid, and checks issued by Beers to pay these debts were actually deposited into a bank account held by the Royal L. Vilas Company. In a strange defense, Vilas claimed all debts were paid despite the fact that the contractors were still suing the town for payment.
In response, the town immediately motioned and approved the formation of a Board of Finance to oversee all payments and revenue. This board still functions today ensuring Easton’s economic health. Further, under the advisement of auditors, the roles of Town Clerk and Treasurer were separated so that in the following year while Beers continued to serve as clerk, Iverson C. Fanton took over as treasurer.
And what of Royal Vilas himself? Well, the final accountant’s report at the close of the fiscal year in September 1931 politely described his financial irregularities as “not self-explanatory.” At the same time, it became clear that the first selectman was struggling to afford his Easton home and lifestyle. By October, his “Royal Lodge” was in foreclosure. No mention is made in the town records as to what happened to Vilas after October 1931. Without residence, he was not qualified to serve in office and by November, records list the first selectman as Erwin P. Edwards. As far as Easton was concerned, it seems, Vilas had vanished. Nothing is written about him leaving office or the financial irregularities in local papers and perhaps, that was with good reason. Just two decades earlier the town saw the loss of the Staples Academy endowment when it was stolen by the self-appointed trustee Percy Johnson. Perhaps Eastoners didn’t want to dwell or publicize yet another high-profile swindle in the town.
Vilas did not go far though. He stayed in Connecticut, moving to Burr Avenue, now Burr Road in Westport. Living with his long-time assistant, Eva Silber, he set up a new home and headquarters for S.A.M. and most of his small house served as a museum for his collections. Posters of famous magicians from all over the world are said to have covered every wall and he took pride in the many artifacts and the 25 large scrapbook volumes he had compiled of memorabilia.
While some in Easton may have questioned his integrity, Vilas continued to command respect within the magicians’ community. He remained secretary of the Society and National Council while also being a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. He collaborated with 35 foreign magical associations and was granted honorary titles in many. Still performing and rallying for society membership, Vilas hosted gatherings at his home and hobnobbed with famous performers in the craft. And while he was accurately billed as a traveler, inventor, businessman and magician, he also adopted and continued to use the title of “Mayor of Easton,” a position-that as far as I know, has never existed!
Vilas died of heart failure on Christmas Eve, 1935, and magicians, entertainers and society delegates from across the country honored him at his Westport funeral. After he was laid to rest in the historic Willowbrook Cemetery, it was revealed that during those lean years of the Depression when his peers had little work and faced trying times, he gave away his wealth freely to help support them and their families and most of all, to keep their society afloat. Considering all he had done for his friends and for their art, the Bridgeport Chapter of the Society of American Magicians was named in his honor. For decades afterwards, the Royal L. Vilas Assembly presented magic shows in Fairfield County, hosted festivals such as “Houdini Day,” and encouraged the careers of amateur performers through community service events at schools and hospitals. Even Vilas’ extensive collection of magical artifacts and prints continues to serve the public today as the core of the Society of American Magicians’ archive. For all his many contributions, he was also inducted into their Magician’s Hall of Fame.
Vilas’ brief role as a leader in our town may not have been one of his most accomplished moments, but in hindsight, his tenure did, ironically, help the town institute a more business-like administration. And as far as magic is concerned, it still has its place here in Easton. We just try to keep the hocus-pocus out of our governance. Generations of families in our town have enjoyed magic shows for entertainment and that continues this October 27thwith veteran magician and mind reader Greg Dwyer at the Easton Public Library’s Community Room at 7 pm. Mr. Dwyer promises an evening of spine-tingling enchantment where he will read your mind, shatter your beliefs, and push your imagination to the limits. Who knows, with so much promised, maybe he will conjure the spirit of Royal Vilas himself!