And Now You Know More: The Great Nicola


by Thomas Best

Before I start on today’s topic, I want to wet your appetite’s a bit.  Over the next few weeks, I am working on a series of shows relating to sports in our area.  I will not reveal my secrets, but I want to let you know that I think I will be sharing some topics of which you may know just a little or, as in some cases, knowing nothing at all.

Today’s talk will involve a lucky break on my part.  As some of you may know, the planning is proceeding on this year’s Great Magic Fest at the Warren County Historical Museum, where the magic of Will Nicol, or the Great Nicola, will be remembered. But my interest today relates to something I recently purchased with the idea of donating it to the museum, which I have done.

What I found was a copy of a magazine called “Tops.”  Called the “Magazine of Magic,” this issue of March 25, 1946 was considered a memorial to the Great Nicola.  He was wonderfully remembered in this journal referred to as both a “Magician” and “World Traveler.”  The dates of his life were listed as December 14, 1882 to February 1, 1946. 

As you likely know, William Nicol was not born in Monmouth; but instead, Burlington, Iowa.  However, with his family’s move to the Maple City, led by the head of the family (his father John), Will and his brother Charles learned the skills of a magician. Thus, Monmouth became the Great Nicola’s launching pad to mystery and greatness.

This issue of “Tops” and their memorial to Nicol began with a full-page photograph of the man whom these magicians knew quite well.  Looking like a man from whom you would trust to buy something valuable or share in a conversation with your children, the Great Nicola always had a comforting and relaxing smile about him. 

Percy Abbott, who wrote the memorial as a tribute to his friend, said that he had known Will for over 35 years, beginning when they were both on tour in Australia.  Becoming friends immediately, they would often renew their relationship as they met up with another on a variety of such worldwide extravaganzas.  Abbott noted that Nicola was everything that one might hope for in a fellow magician.  Friendly enough that those who knew him well, lovingly called him “Nick,” Nicola was also respected for his business sense and as a “real down-to-earth, [and] matter-of-fact individual.”  In fact, Abbott claimed that he had never heard anyone ever say a bad word about the man from Monmouth.

Despite losing his entire show when the ship he was traveling on in mine-infested waters blew up and sank in 1939 coming out of Singapore on the eve of World War II, Nicola never gave up his world-wide ambitions and travels.  His business sense, once again shown through.

Abbott’s additional praise was focused on Nicola’s never-ending search for the next great trick to perform before adoring crowds.  For instance, he was said to have made many trips to Europe over the years to search for and purchase new illusions.  For instance, he was in London on one of his many trips when he bought something called “the Doll House, Spike, Man without a middle, and Stretching the Rope.”  Because he sought the best tricks and illusions, it was not surprising that Nicola was considered a successful box office performer whenever he came to his next city. 

Abbott, likewise, honored Nicola for his amazing attention to detail; “a true stickler for detail” were his exact words of praise.   Every aspect of an illusion was practiced and practiced by Nicola until it “moved as smoothly as clockwork.” Furthermore, Nicola was well-known for incorporating local culture into his act.  This frequently included the wearing of unique local clothing worn by Nicola and his assistants.

Therefore, when William Motzart Nicol passed away on February 1, 1946 in Monmouth, he was honored for not only his reputation as a world-wide magician, but also as a loyal member of the local Rotary Club, the Modern Woodman, the Masons, and his Monmouth Presbyterian Church.  As Abbott closed, he stated that magicians around the world knew Nicola as “first in his profession,” and as an honorable member of numerous magical societies across the globe.  Not surprisingly, many of these same magicians came to town for their friend “Nick’s” funeral.  Among those attending were Mr. and Mrs. Jim Sherman, Mr. and Mrs. Waldo Logan, Charles Vance, George Boston, John Booth, and of course, Percy Abbott.   Nicol’s final services were held at the First Presbyterian Church.  Another special ceremony was also held here by the magicians who came to honor him with what was called “the broken wand.”  This event was led by magician John Booth. 

I have not read of the precise details of his funeral in the local Monmouth newspapers, but I am certain that the pews of the church were packed with the leading members of Monmouth, those locals who had seen Nicola perform so magnificently since his days in the local opera house, World War II Veterans who were honored by his many shows performed for troops during the war, and those who called him one of the most skilled magicians ever to appear on stages across the globe.      

Thank you for your interest.  Next week be prepared to start learning about two gentleman whose stories are well worth your time on a Saturday morning. 

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