by Walter Blaney

As it appeared in Magicol Magazine, May issue, 2010
Reprinted with permission of THE MAGIC COLLECTORS ASSOCIATION

This long-awaited issue of the Magic Collector's Assn. MAGICOL MAGAZINE features the history of the world-famous Ladder Levitation by Walter "Zaney" Blaney. Walter recounts his inspiration for creating this wondrous illusion, who he has performed this illusion for, and who else has featured it in their shows and television specials. The story is a rich one full of laughs and loving memories.

The date was January 25, 1973. I was standing in the wings of the NBC Studio in Burbank, California and I heard Johnny Carson say, “Would you please welcome the Texas Ambassador of Good Will, Walter Zaney Blaney.” As Doc Severinsen’s NBC Orchestra struck up a rousing “Deep In The Heart of Texas,” I took a deep breath and walked onto The Tonight Show stage. Now 20 million Americans would soon see what I could do in the eight-minute spot I was given. First, a few minutes of comedy with my Vanishing Birdcage helped win over the studio audience of about 300. Then I invited a charming young lady up from the audience, Miss Irene Kay, who happened to be Johnny Carson’s secretary. I proceeded to levitate her on my “Anti-Gravity Board,” my original magic invention that Johnny had heard about through the magic grapevine.


While Doc and his orchestra played an upbeat version of “That Old Black Magic” I succeeded in baffling everyone. After I took my bows, Johnny turned to Ed McMahon and said, “That was Walter Zaney Blaney. Now wasn’t that a great illusion?” Ed replied, “Sensational, sensational, the best I’ve ever seen.” It was one of the brightest moments in my sixty-year career in show business.

As most magicians know, Johnny started his showbiz career as a magician in Omaha, Nebraska. After the show Johnny came over to chat with me and say he had been completely fooled. He told me his first illusion was the “Grant Chair Suspension”, and I said, “Me too.” Then he bought an “Abbott's Super-X Levitation”. I again said, “Me too, but I changed things around and it eventually led to my levitation you just saw.” Since I knew he would keep my secret, I offered to show it to him backstage. Johnny was delighted with the offer. He had the curtains closed so I could privately show him the prop and the hoop. He was absolutely intrigued. Needless to say it was a thrill for me, as Johnny was one of two of my favorite show business idols.

The Tonight Show success made it easy for me to get booked on the other TV talk shows: The Merv Griffin Show, then floating Dinah Shore on Dinah!, Kitty Carlisle on To Tell The Truth, and magician Chen Kai's wife, Carmelita, on the big Siempre En Domingo program in Mexico City, which aired all over Latin America.

Another highlight with my Ladder Levitation was opening for Bob Hope, my other main idol in show business. I did two nights with him at the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium, packed with 5,000 people at each show. As a kid I grew up loving Bob Hope on radio, in movies and on TV. You can imagine how it felt to walk off stage after my act and levitation, and hear the offstage emcee say, simply, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Bob Hope.” The big orchestra played him on to “Thanks for the Memories.” Bob's first words were, “How about that Zaney Blaney from Texas? I’m watching backstage and I don’t see how he did all those things.” They were nights to remember, and all because of my favorite trick, the “Zaney Blaney Ladder Levitation.” Here's the story of how it all began.

I was born on Thomas Edison’s birthday, February 11, in 1928. In my childhood years Edison became my idol; I wanted to be an inventor when I grew up. Then at age nine I saw Harry Blackstone Sr. at the Majestic Theater in Dallas, Texas with his show of 1001 Wonders, and from then on I wanted to be a magician. As it turned out, I became both.

In 1945 Blackstone returned to Dallas to present his two-hour concert show, complete with a live orchestra in the pit, at the Texas State Fair Auditorium. He featured the “The Dream of Princess Karnac”, and it was the most beautiful illusion I had ever seen. It made me fall in love with magic, and the levitation effect in particular, for the rest of my life.

For my first stage illusion I saved my money and spent two dollars on the plans for the “Grant Chair Suspension”. I couldn't afford the $15 price for the prop itself. But with some scrap lumber and two old wooden folding chairs, I was able to construct the apparatus myself. It was a good trick, and I used it all through my high school shows and on into my college years.

In my third year of college, in 1948 at the University of Texas in Austin, a group of fellow magician-students created a magic club we called the “Texas University Magicians Assn.” Together, we presented a big stage show in Hogg Auditorium on campus. I had just thought of a new method of doing something similar to the “Abbotts Super-X Levitation”, and this would be the perfect place to try it out. I built the prop out of used water pipe and some discarded plywood. In one week I had my “pipe dream” completed at a cost of less than ten dollars. It was a big improvement, I thought, as it allowed me to walk away from the floating lady and all around her. My new version duped magicians and lay people alike, and I successfully featured it in my shows for the next fifteen years.

Then, one night in 1954, while performing my suspension I was struck by a thunderbolt of inspiration that would make the trick completely different. What if I did this instead of that? I knew that good ideas are sometimes born during the heat of a performance, and at the end of my show, I might not be able to remember what idea I’d had. Luckily, I was closing with the suspension. I literally ran off stage to get a paper and pencil and draw out my idea.

The next month was spent making a small balsa wood working model of my new suspension. I built a small stage platform, two tiny stepladders and used a rather ugly little 8-inch tall, 12-ounce, plastic doll for the volunteer. Barbie Dolls wouldn’t come on the scene for another five years.

My wife, Joyce, and I often hosted parties for professional magicians appearing in Houston. Word on my “doll illusion” had gotten around among magicians and they all wanted to see it in action. I would roll out my table and set the props on it in full view and then make the doll float. To a person, they were always amazed. Among the believers I made were Mark Wilson, Tom Palmer, Aldo Richiardi, Celeste Evans, and Don Alan to name just a few. The inevitable question was, “When are you going to build the real thing?” My answer was that I was working all the time, on the road flying to shows across the country, and didn’t have the time or the money then to engineer the life-size illusion.

Ten years later, in 1964 I thought I had saved enough money to start the serious work of building my invention. That project turned into a year-long series of experiments. Starting over and over, without success, I soon found that my “dream illusion” was probably not to be. It was a lot harder to make a 120-pound lady float in the air than a 12-ounce plastic doll. I made so many wrong decisions. But I kept going, night and day. Sitting in restaurants, flying on airplanes, I always had my pen and tablet in hand trying to solve the impossible. After each trip home, my newest solutions were put to the test. I only had my garage as a workshop, and no electric tools save one battery powered screwdriver. But as soon as I solved one problem, it seemed to create two more. But the illusion became my “magnificent obsession”. I learned it had to be perfect, or it wouldn’t work at all. Finally one bright and beautiful day in April 1965, it was finished. All the problems had been solved. I fine-tuned everything and knew it would from then on always work perfectly. I had spent nearly all of my spare time for twelve months, and most of my savings— $13,000 in cash. That would be $88,000 in today's dollars.

I want to thank my daughter Becky Blaney who laid upon “that darn board” over and over as I was inventing it. She would often ask, “Oh daddy, do I have to?” I always smiled and said, “Only if you want to eat.” My younger daughter Carol also was a guinea pig on the board when Becky was unavailable. If neither was at home, I used my set of Encyclopedia Britannica. I used to joke it was probably the smartest “floatee” I would ever have.

Immediately my new illusion was booked to premiere at the July 1965 IBM convention in Des Moines. I was anxious to debut the suspension in front of a live audience.

At the “Magic Roundtable” lunch we had every Saturday noon in Houston, I asked the dozen or so magic friends attending if they had heard of some sort of trick levitation hoop. No one had. So it was back to the “invention mode” again, and I soon figured out a possible solution. Plans were drawn up and I went to a huge corporation that built a “lot of stuff ” for NASA. In two months time we finally got a hoop that worked perfectly. There was just enough time to stick it in my car along with my illusion and head for Iowa.

At the convention I was lucky to see the first night’s gala show in the hotel ballroom. The stage was only two feet high, and no one but the front few rows could see any illusion on stage. I spent the whole next day searching the hotel for an additional foot high platform to add to the existing one, and it saved the day. Everyone could now see my illusion clearly. The response was electrifying. I got five curtain calls. There was cheering and whistles like a Pavarotti appearance at the Met. I whispered to the emcee, Jack Chanin, that I thought they were “putting me on”, a gag to make me think my new trick was something special. I finally realized that everyone had been astounded. It was for real. It was one of the biggest thrills of my life.

The following month, Abbott’s booked me for their Get-Together in Colon, Michigan. Again there was the same response as before. It was the main topic of conversation among the magicians late into the night. By then I knew I had a good trick for public shows. It frankly
astonished me that magicians would all actually be totally perplexed as well.

I learned years later that after that performance at Abbott’s a teenage magician from Canada named Doug Henning sat for hours with his friend Dennis Loomis in the Colon, Michigan laundromat until 3AM trying to reverse-engineer the suspension. Coincidentally, at that same time just two blocks away, I was showing the apparatus to my friend and magic idol, Jack Gwynne. We drove away from the crowd and set up the props under the streetlight by the Colon post office. Jack loved it and played with it like a kid with a new toy. He was the first person, and the last, that I showed my method to for many years to come. The decision was made to keep the modus operandi from everyone. At magic conventions the rule was adopted that no one could view my illusion from backstage. If another act on the bill wanted to see my trick, they had to view it from the audience. And there were many audiences that saw it. I performed the suspension at about fifty magic conventions over the next dozen years.

In September 1965, the annual TAOM was staged in Dallas. The Dallas Daily Times Herald sent a reporter and a photographer to see me perform my new illusion. The following morning there was a feature story with a three-column photo of my levitation on the top half of the front page in the Sunday edition. It got the top spot because I had made friends with a passenger on a recent cruise ship where I had entertained. He loved my act, and as it turned out, he was the editor of the Times Herald. I’d been a carrier for his paper all through my high school years, a fact he remembered. It’s sometimes not just what you know but who you know.

The next year, I worked the PCAM Convention in Santa Rosa, California. By then it seemed the whole magic world knew of my original levitation through magazine coverage, and PCAM attendees were waiting in anticipation to see it.

(As an aside, I hope you will forgive a Texan his right to brag a little here. That’s what Texans do.)

That night was the very best response I had received to date, and I got all the curtain calls I was almost coming to expect. After the crowd quieted down, British emcee Harold Taylor said, “That, ladies and gentlemen, for my money is the most amazing illusion I have ever seen in my life.” The crowd was on its feet again and erupted a second time. I remember this night in particular because years later I secured an audiotape of that appearance made by show producer Dick Zimmerman. Dick ran across it in his files and sent me a copy, for which I am ever grateful. Sometimes if I feel a bit blue, I can listen to that audience responding to my “baby” that night in Santa Rosa, and I can be reminded that at least one night things went off in grand style.

In 1970 at FISM in Amsterdam I levitated the beautiful Magic Castle princess, Irene Larsen, another great moment. Magicians from around the world told me they had come to FISM specifically to see my illusion that they had read so much about.

NASA had opened in Houston, and several of the brass saw my levitation at a convention where I appeared, and were stunned by it. They arranged a special showing of my trick for all the space scientists and astronauts. I levitated Pat Collins, wife of Mike Collins, the pilot of the first moon landing. Afterward, I overheard astronauts Jim Lovell and Thomas Stafford say to each other, “There's no such thing as an Anti-Gravity Board.” Then Frank Borman said, “But Walter has one, and it works.” They all wanted to just touch the board to see if it was real. Many asked if it were something that could be used in the U.S. space effort.

Twenty-five years later, Admiral Alan Shepard asked me to appear for a reunion party of the original seven Mercury astronauts, the “Right Stuff ” guys, and their wives. It was an intimate party of just eighteen, and I floated Scott Carpenter's wife Maria just five feet from the group. They invited me to stay after the show and just be “family” with them the rest of the evening. It was another unforgettable night for me, sharing it with those brave American heroes, and all because of my “Blaney Anti-Gravity Board.”

In 1981, a young David Copperfield called and asked if I would build and sell him a copy of my “Ladder Levitation” to use on one of his TV Specials. I explained I was flattered that he asked, but it was my signature trick and I preferred to keep it for myself. Undaunted, each succeeding year David called again asking if I might change my mind. When he called in 1985, David was by then the megastar in magic and had taken the art to heights unknown before. That year I finally said, “Okay, David, let’s do it.” I explained I was honored that he liked it so much, that I now felt I had had my fun with it exclusively for over twenty years, and that I would be happy to build and deliver one to him in time for his 1986 China Special.

I got busy and organized a real workshop, this time buying all the necessary power tools. When the first copy was completed David flew me out to his apartment near the Magic Castle in L.A., and I set it up in the small living room after moving the furniture out of the way.
Magician Ray Pierce came over with his wife, and I floated her for Copperfield to see. He looked at me, and having already paid for my illusion, said, “Walter, I own that trick, and I’m still fooled. Now show me how to do it.”

It was such a pleasure teaching him the moves for the next few hours. When his special aired he surprised me, and everyone, when he lip-synched Frank Sinatra's recording of “Come Fly With Me” while he levitated a lady from the audience in the air at the beautiful American Embassy in Beijing. This clever and unique presentation on David’s China Special is the best I’ve ever seen.

David kept my illusion in his road show for the next four years. When he appeared on stage at beautiful Jones Hall in Houston he invited my family and me as his guests, seated front row center. It was a unique experience for me since I had never seen my levitation done live before — from the front. As I watched, I remember whispering to my mother, “Darned if it isn’t a pretty good trick.” David then told the audience that I was the inventor of the trick they had just seen, that I was in the audience, and he asked me to, “Stand up and take a bow, Walter.” I thought this was a very kind thing for him to do. I felt ten feet tall as I stood up in front of my family and friends and David’s packed house.

Another pleasure was getting to show my illusion to some of my boyhood magic idols. One was The Great Virgil. He and Julie had appeared several times during my college days in Austin with a magnificent stage show they had toured the world with. Virgil was an inventor of magic and a great craftsman, so his accolades meant a great deal to me.

Willard the Wizard had a sensational big tent show and made his work seem like “real magic” through sheer force of personality. I never thought I would become close friends with this great man. But he adopted me as part of the Willard family. After retirement he lived in a small home in San Antonio. I set up the “Ladder Levitation” in his living room. He sat and watched me float his daughter Gloria just a few feet away. He chewed on his cigar trying to figure things out. Afterwards I showed him my invention, and he was delighted, playing with it like a kid, just as Jack Gwynne had done years before.

Once my illusion was seen on the various TV shows, kinescopes and video recordings were made and passed around. A few magicians could now watch it over and over, in slow motion, and glean parts of the working. But until that began, no one that I know of ever had the mystery figured out, from 1965 to 1986. That 21 year spread — or so I am told — makes it the stage illusion whose secret remained a secret for the longest of any illusion in magic history. I have no way of knowing this for sure.

When I first introduced my illusion I called it “The Blaney Anti-Gravity Board”. For years I clung to that name. However in the magic community everyone kept referring to it as “The Blaney Ladder Levitation.” There was the natural alliteration of the “L’s” in “Ladder Levitation”. Also, for a long time the magician’s differentiation of the words “suspension” and “levitation” had pretty much vanished since Abbott’s had called their suspension the “Super-X Levitation” since the 1940s. When I am personally performing the illusion I still refer to it as my “Magic Anti-Gravity Board... a board that can float in the air. If you lie upon the board you will be floating too.” Lance Burton still uses that patter as well when he performs my illusion.

I have written of some of the highlights of my shows for magic conventions and show business people. But the vast majority of appearances were for lay audiences at hundreds of hotel banquet shows around the country. There are dozens of anecdotes I could relate. At the conclusion of a show for the IEEE, The International Electric and Electronic Engineers Association, for example, I was busy packing up the props from the three-foot high hotel platform. While the big crowd was away dancing to the orchestra, I noticed one man standing close by watching me intensely as I put the props into their cases. He then walked up and said, “You have a great trick there, but I know how you did it.” I told him I was delighted and asked him how he managed to figure it out. He said he was an electrical engineer. I said, “Of course, I should have guessed that. Do you think I am using AC or DC current?” He said he supposed it was AC. I told him I had not left the platform since doing my trick and asked him to look around the area to see if there were any electrical wires. Of course there were none. He said, “You mean you are using DC?” I then asked him how many 12-volt car batteries hooked in series would it take to float a 120 pound lady three feet in the air for two minutes? He agreed it would be a lot. I told him he could look under the platform on the backside that was undraped. There were three one-foot high platforms stacked on top of each other to make the three-foot high stage. He stared into the upper level, then bent down to look in the second level, then lay on the floor to look under the bottom platform. He said, “Hell, there aren’t any batteries there at all.” He was absolutely bewildered.

My early “flash of inspiration” in 1954, fifty-six years ago, has helped make my reputation, and a sixty-year career in show business a lot more fun. Now I have taught my magician daughter Becky Blaney to perform my “Ladder Levitation.” As I mentioned earlier, she was the first to float on “that darned board.” Now it’s her favorite trick too.

Meanwhile I have just retired from performing and am now writing a book on my experiences. I plan to sell my original “Ladder Levitation” to the highest bidder. I’m in no hurry. I consider it almost like a fourth child, and I will make sure it gets a good home. And yes, it still works perfectly, every time, and looks in great condition. I am also selling my original levitation hoop which is also still in perfect condition. They are packed in the original fiber cases that they have traveled in for forty-five years to all parts of the world.

Since 1986 I have built and sold about 200 of my levitations. This past year I taught illusion builder and designer, my friend Dan Summers, how to build my illusion for me and market them. Dan is a great craftsman, and I am pleased to say that they all look and work perfectly too.

My second-last appearance with the original “Zaney Blaney Ladder Levitation” was at the Ft. Worth TAOM Convention in 2008. My friends dedicated that convention to me, for both my long performing career and for the inventions I have shared with the magic world.

There are many friends and people along the way who helped me with my “Ladder Levitation” — on stage, backstage, in the workshop, the ladies who floated in the air for me, and those helping me to appear on so many TV shows. Many of these friends I was able to personally thank. But there is one fellow I never got to say thank you to, and his contribution had a great deal to do with the success I had with the illusion. I never even learned his name. Who was he? An amateur piano player.

I started this story telling of my experience on The Tonight Show. There was a behind-the-scenes preamble to what happened in the studio at the early afternoon camera rehearsal. I had my props all set up in place. I knew there would be no orchestra at that hour, so had a tape recorder on hand to play my music. But no taped music was allowed, not even at camera rehearsal — union rules. But without music, the trick is dead. I looked around and there were now over a hundred technicians, secretaries, NBC employees, the show executives, all gathered to watch me perform “the trick that even fools magicians”. So this was it. This run-through was all-important. If I failed to impress now I could be cut from the show that night. And I had no music.

While lights and cameras were being positioned I overheard a man at the piano playing a few tunes. I approached him and quietly asked if he were a studio musician. No, he was just a technician on coffee break. A few quick questions of desperation, and the answers came back. Yes, he played the piano by ear. Yes, he thought he could play "Lady of Spain". Yes, he’d be glad to play it if I asked, that is, if he were still there on his break.

Just then came the words, “Ready for Blaney!” I asked if any music had been arranged. The answer? “No, just run through it without music for the cameras.” I asked if the gentleman at the piano that was playing during his coffee break could continue, since a bit of noise or any kind of sound would be preferable to silence. After a few scary moments of discussion over union policy, they agreed to let the man continue playing. I was saved.

I smiled at my new friend at the piano, and he burst forth with the most magnificent rendition of "Lady of Spain" I had ever heard. I was so inspired that I waltzed through my levitation routine like a matador. The crowd cheered and awarded me both ears and the tail with their applause and olés. I knew I had won. — Walter Blaney


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