Illusionist performer, builder & inventor Fred Van Buren toured the world with his magic & illusion shows, performing with his wife Connie Greta as the magic illusion act Van Buren & Greta. Magic inventions include the Vanishing Motorbike & Rider completely surrounded, Fluorescent Light Tubes Penetration, Substitution Trunk to Fountain Finale amongst many others.
Fred Van Buren's original interest in showbusiness started when he was a young child, he got the shock of his life when he walked into the local butcher’s shop one day in the 1930s, meat was scarce and it seemed that the butcher had decided that desperate times called for desperate measures the butcher was selling elephant meat! Clearly displayed on the shop wall in the historic market town of Sandbach in Cheshire was a large picture of an elephant. The poster was not offering pachyderm delights but was actually advertising a circus!
It turned out to be Chapman’s Circus and that visit to the butchers changed young Fred’s life. He went to the circus and was so enthralled by the magic of it all he was immediately bitten by the show business bug.
From that day on whenever there was a circus in the area young Fred would be in the audience. One open air circus was Bob Gandey's circus which Fred began regularly visiting Gandey’s Circus in their winter quarters. During these visits he gained a great deal of knowledge about circus life and show business in general, listening to the old performers and showmen’s anecdotes which strengthened his resolve to be a part of this magical area of entertainment.
Fred went on to become an apprentice cabinet maker and French polisher as well as doing show’s. He was often employed in making vehicle bodies, coffins and other boxes so it turned out to be a useful grounding for the making of magical apparatus in later years.
Towards the end of the Second World War the family began holidaying in Blackpool and it was here that the magic flame really ignited, thanks to a visit to Paul Clive’s Magic Shop on the North Pier.
Another great influence on Fred’s career occurred when he saw a performance by Ali Bey in Blackpool in 1948. Ali Bey did much of this performance on ice but for some illusions he retired to a theatrical backdrop because the particular items could not be performed surrounded. It was then that Fred decided that the future lay in illusions that could be performed anywhere, with the audience on all sides and with no possibility of effects being accomplished by the aid of trapdoors.
It was not long before he was putting on his own concert party shows and even when called up for National Service (compulsory military service required of all young men in the United Kingdom between 1939 and 1960) magic did not take a back burner for his natural ability as a performer was spotted immediately and he was enlisted to perform in the pantomime Aladdin at the Garrison theatre in Aldershot. Throughout his service career he maintained his interest and connections with show business as well as producing and presenting his own shows.
Following his demob in 1953 Fred took the plunge and devoted himself to full time professional entertainment, working in Gandey’s circus, for Joe Gandey (son of his mentor Bob Gandey) as a clown, doing magic, trapeze and he even trained and presented a dog and monkey act!
Fred met Constance Greta, it was not long before she was part of the act! They were married at Smallwood Methodist Church on 13th May 1961 and before the reception was over they dashed off to Leeds to star in cabaret. Two days later they were in Llandudno at the start of a 17 week season.
With the introduction of Connie into the act and the fact that they were now in demand for theatre and variety as the Yoxanis, Fred began concentrating more on magic and illusions & worked under the name of Van Buren. Here his cabinet making skills came into play as he built all his own apparatus including a fabulous vanishing radio , described by Bayard Grimshaw in The World’s Fair as “the best ever” and his version of the substitution trunk with a surprise finish when the trunk transforms into a garden scene with flowers and real fountains.
A major change occurred in 1962 when they received a contract for a tour starting at Brighton Hippodrome with Dorothy Squires.
This was followed by a season in Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” on ice at the Empire Pool Wembley, then a tour of the show. Walt Disney asked Fred to perform a trick with fire and for this he devised a superb illusion which he called “Creation”. In this a bowl of fire is transformed into a bouquet of flowers. The flowers are placed on a pedestal and after pulling a curtain around them they transform into his lovely assistant Greta!
Thanks to his career in the circus ring and his apprenticeship as a cabinet maker Fred soon began developing illusions that could be performed completely surrounded often in the London cabaret banquet scene and even in an open arena if need be.
In 1974 Fred invented & built an advancement on his friend Robert Harbin’s Experiment 13 illusion, this involved 13 wooden rods passing through an assistant. Fred took it a step further, replacing the wooden rods with a bank of fluorescent light tubes. This Fred performed on one of his many appearances on the David Nixon TV shows.
Possibly his most famous illusion in this genre is his fantastic vanish of a motorcycle and rider which has since been presented for the amazements of audiences all over the world. This idea came to Fred in 1976 during a summer season with Windsor Davies & Don Estelle at the Pavilion Theatre in Felixstowe.
The Magic Circle heard about the illusion and even before it was finished booked Fred to perform in their 1976 Christmas Show at the Collegiate Theatre in London.
The first televised performance of this new unique illusion was in a Magic Circle show at Caesar’s Palace Luton, in January 1977, a performance that created newspaper headlines. To lay people and magician alike the illusion is a baffling impossibility.
After extensively touring ice arenas in Sweden with Circus Svennson Fred was invited to perform his vanishing motorbike illusion at the Grand Palace, Brussels as part of the 1979 FISM Congress of Magic, another occasion that received worldwide television coverage. Returning to Britain Fred and Greta were mobbed by customs officers at Ostende. “We thought we were in big trouble.” Say’s Fred “But it turned out that they had seen us on television and wanted our autographs!”
In the 1984 tour of Fossett’s Circus, in which the Van Buren’s were starring, the big top was totally destroyed in a violent storm that raged through Dublin in the early hours of 18th October. Several members of the company were injured as they tried to rescue props and equipment, Fred received an arm injury and had to have three stitches in a cut above his eye, a few days later however all was repaired and replaced so that the show could go on.
Following many years captivating audiences in variety and circuses (including performances for Bob Gandey’s grandson Phillip), on cruises cabarets worldwide & performing before royalty, the Van Buren’s toured with their own full illusion show with a 3,000 seater circus tent until 1992.
Christmas of 1992 Fred took the illusion show into Wembley arena in conjunction with fellow showman Gerry Cottle’s circus & indoor fun fair.
Then came an unusual act entitled “Ancient and Modern” at Blackpool Tower Circus.
In this Fred and Connie acted as old magicians who were constantly interrupted by a young whizz kid illusionist, their son Andrew on roller skates, unicycle and finally a motorbike - but the old performers finally got the upper hand by making rider and motorcycle vanish completely!
Five years later Fred and Connie retired from performing. Their last full performance was for their friend George Kovari at Rhyl Pavillion. But they have not completely retired from the business, for they still take an active part in the ever growing Van Buren organisation, constantly making and repairing props and devising new and ingenious illusions.
The performance mantle has, however been passed on to their son Andrew Van Buren, a consistently booked and multi-talented performer who keeps the Van Buren flag flying high over entertainment venues all over the world.