Canadian magician Celeste Evans, a headstrong entertainer whose trailblazing career took her around the world during an era that largely discouraged such female independence, has died.
The B.C.-born illusionist was largely self-taught and loved to perform, despite facing huge hurdles in an industry dominated by men, said her daughter Evanna Brening from her home in North Carolina.
Brening said her mother died of old age on July 25 in Charlotte, N.C. She was 85.
“She was completely something different,” said the 47-year-old Brening, who joined her mother onstage once she learned to juggle at age seven.
“When we would go to the conventions we would tell the young kids: ‘Find your niche, don’t be somebody else, find out who you are and create a character around that.’ And that’s what my mother did, she created a character around what God gave her.”
A curvy brunette with Jane Russell looks, Evans offered a uniquely feminine take on a craft that generally relegated women to the sidelines. She began seriously training in the late ’40s and performing in the early ’50s.
And it didn’t take long to establish a globe-trotting career that was in part, Brening admitted, fuelled by her good looks and penchant for racy Rockette-style costumes.
“The women before her were more (often) wearing men’s suit jackets or these big dresses where they can still hide things. Then my mom comes along and the magicians to this day do not know where she hid her birds. She produced eight to 12 doves wearing a strapless, sleeveless gown.”
Toronto-based magician Julie Eng said she grew up hearing about Evans as a kid in Victoria, B.C. She met her for the first time in 2010 at a magic conference in Chicago.
Eng was ushered into performing by her magician father, but said she couldn’t help but be inspired by Evans.
“She was astounding to me. She’s a stunning lady and she was very confident, very feminine, very strong and yet incredibly elegant and really held her own,” said Eng, also executive director of the arts organization Magicana.
“Women in magic today is nothing like it was for her. She cut the path.”
Evans was born in White Rock, B.C. on Dec. 31, 1931.
She caught the magic bug at age nine when she came across a couple of boys doing tricks at the beach. They were throwing knots into silks that would then disappear and she immediately wanted to try it herself. But they dismissed her.
“So she said to them, ‘I will learn magic and I will become famous for this,’” said Brening.
“For years (afterwards) they had always tried to get her to be their assistant and she vowed at that time, ‘I will never be your assistant, I will never be anybody’s assistant.’ And she never was.”
Evans bought a magic book by selling berries to tourists. She made her own props and mastered the knot trick. It would become her opening trick for some 60 years, said Brening.
“She still could do that trick even days before she died,” Brening added.
As her career grew Evans moved to Vancouver, then Montreal, then Toronto and then New York. It was there she reinvented herself as a svelte performer that would mix glamour with magic, shedding 40 pounds so she could shimmy into dazzling costumes for a stage show unlike any other, said Brening.
Over the course of her career she would entertain logging camps in Alaska, Canadian troops in Korea, Playboy clubs in Chicago, and tour throughout Asia. Brening said she performed for kings and queens and headlined her own Las Vegas show in 1962.
It wasn’t easy. Discrimination came from fellow male magicians, some of whom resented her success, added Brening.
“So the rumours started flying about her, just nasty, nasty rumours. She had to overcome that.”
Evans wed her booking agent in December 1962 but married life did not slow her down, said Brening.
She continued performing during her first pregnancy and was onstage the day before she went into premature labour.
Brening arrived a year later via caesarean section, and just two weeks later, Evans was back performing, a girdle holding in staples that ran down her stomach.
Brening credited her mother with instilling in her a confidence to tackle anything she desires.
“If somebody told her, ‘You can’t do it,’ she’d prove them wrong,” said Brening, who became a nurse who performs the odd magic trick for her patients.
“She changed the face of magic for women today. There were women magicians before her but none like her.”
Evans is predeceased by Harry Breyn and Herbert E. Mitchell. She leaves behind Brening, son Evan Breyn, and two grandchildren.