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Memorable Manitobans: Melvin Justus Given McMullen “Len Vintus” (1903-1999)

Click to enlargeMagician.

Born in 1903, Melvin McMullen, who went by the stage name Len Vintus, was a founding member and the first president of the International Brotherhood of Magicians (IBM), the world’s largest organization for professional and amateur magicians, with approximately 50,000 past and present members worldwide. David Copperfield is a member and so are Siegfried and Roy. Fellow Winnipegger Dean Gunnarson holds membership No. 37,469. McMullen held membership No. 1 until his death in 1999.

McMullen was seduced by the world of magic at the age of 13, when the Show of Wonders pitched its tents in a vacant lot by the RCMP headquarters on Portage Avenue. The young McMullen was fascinated by the levitation act and the “severed” head of Princess Karmac, kept in a box, winking at spectators. He paid a dime for a mail order catalogue of magic tricks and stayed up at night in bed, studying it.

McMullen at the Manitoba Chamber of Commerce’s “Mel McMullen Night”, 20 March 1958.
Source: Manitoba Legislative Library

By the time he was 20, he had formed the Winnipeg Wizards and in 1922, along with fellow magicians Gene Gordon of New York and Ernest Schielidge of Connecticut, he organized the IBM. Its headquarters, now in St. Louis, Missouri, were originally in Winnipeg, in the old Union Bank Building beside city hall. When the great Houdini visited Winnipeg to wow locals with his stunts in 1925, the ambitious McMullen couldn’t resist trying to sell him a membership to the IBM, but the results were less than successful.

Friends say the meeting went poorly, with the egocentric Houdini becoming abusive. Houdini was already president of the Society of American Magicians (SAM) and had a reputation as someone who didn’t like to be crossed. But McMullen argued the SAM was too centred on American magicians, and his vision was for an organization that embraced magicians around the world. Houdini refused to sign. But his rival, Harry Blackstone Sr., did, and became member No. 12. Winnipeg Free Press, 31 May 1998

McMullen and his ventriloquist dummy, Jerry, in 1928.
Source: Manitoba Legislative Library

While clerking in a lumber yard by day paid the bills, McMullen forged on in search of his big break, hitting the stage at night, donning his black cape and top hat to entertain the crowds. He was often joined by Jerry, his ventriloquist dummy, who was created in Chicago in 1923 by Alex Cameron, the same artist who made Charlie McCarthy, sidekick to the famous ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.

McMullen in his home in the 1990s.
Source: Transcona Historical Museum

McMullen ended up managing that lumber yard and in 1939 he married Helen Cargill of Transcona. He continued to perform through the years, authored several books, and served as a Transcona councillor, a Transcona school trustee, provincial manager of the Manitoba Chamber of Commerce, and deputy minister of Manitoba’s Department of Industry and Commerce. As busy as he was, his “associate” Jerry was never far away, nor was his sense of humour. In 1980, he received an honour from The Academy of Magical Arts in Hollywood:

“It was a great honour,” Mel says, “but not as much fun as Helen’s and my 40th anniversary last August. The party was at the Masonic Temple here and we had over 100 friends. Jerry got up and did his act. Said some terrible things. Everything I couldn’t say in polite company. He’s a cheeky boy, you know, cheeky boy.” Winnipeg Free Press, 27 March 1980

McMullen with magician Doug Henning, at a ceremony unveiling a plaque on the Union Bank Building (first site of the offices of the International Brotherhood of Magicians), 1986.
Source: Transcona Historical Museum

McMullen passed away at St. Boniface General Hospital in 1999, following a stroke. He was 95.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Union Bank Building (504 Main Street, Winnipeg)

Sources:

Source: River East Transcona School Division newsletter, The Torch, submitted by Cheryl Moore (cmoore2@retsd.mb.ca).

This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 24 October 2015

Memorable Manitobans

Memorable Manitobans

This is a collection of noteworthy Manitobans from the past, compiled by the Manitoba Historical Society.

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