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Den of illusion

Former Watertown magician hides trove of memorabilia in plain sight

Retired magician Ray Goulet, 81, is surrounded by the tricks of the trade at his Magic Art Studio in Watertown, where his collection includes a pistol (below, left) and “talking hands’’ (right) used by 19th-century performer Alexander Herrmann, as well as a gag gun. Retired magician Ray Goulet, 81, is surrounded by the tricks of the trade at his Magic Art Studio in Watertown, where his collection includes a pistol (below, left) and “talking hands’’ (right) used by 19th-century performer Alexander Herrmann, as well as a gag gun. (Photos by Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / December 4, 2011
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F or 40 years, Ray Goulet was the master of card tricks and illusions, vanishing and reappearing eggs, and a snake in a basket that could find a card chosen by an audience member.

With his wife, Ann, he created a traveling show and performed on 22 trans-Atlantic voyages, including once for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He made eggs disappear at the White House during the annual Easter Egg Roll in 1984.

But since he retired 20 years ago, Goulet, 81, has devoted himself to his Magic Art Studio, a brick building at 137 Spring St. in Watertown that houses a public museum and shop, as well as a theater and meeting place for local magicians. David Copperfield stops by when he’s in town. Both halves of Penn & Teller, the Las Vegas-based pair of magicians and comedians, have dropped in.

Now, the normally self-effacing Goulet is preparing to share his stories from a lifetime in magic in “Recollections of a Renaissance Man,’’ scheduled for publication this winter.

Coauthored by Goulet’s wife and a magic aficionado, Frank Dudgeon, the book will detail how Goulet dabbled in all areas of magic, including card tricks, mentalism, illusions, and disappearing objects.

It will be published by the Magic Art Book Co., another arm of Goulet’s business.

Fascinated by the history of his craft, Goulet started collecting memorabilia after he retired; his trove now fills rooms in his building. That doesn’t count the 10,000 books about magic he keeps at home.

Goulet’s treasures include a straitjacket worn by Harry Houdini during his daring escapes, and a costume worn in a show by Houdini’s wife and stage assistant, Bess. Goulet owns one of the largest collections of die boxes - containers used to hold dice that magically disappear and reappear - in the world. And he has a voluminous array of sheet music for tunes played during magic shows.

“I’ve seen so many well-known collectors come in and their jaws drop,’’ Dudgeon said. “Some of the stuff he has is just remarkable.’’

Goulet didn’t have an easy start in the world. His parents divorced when he was young, and he grew up with his aunt’s family in Watertown.

“I was sort of an outsider, but they did give me a roof over my head,’’ he said.

His mother lived in Cambridge, and his father in Wellesley, but Goulet was on his own a lot. He started taking on jobs when he was in elementary school, delivering newspapers and magazines, and sweeping floors in local shops.

Goulet first saw magic when he was a teenager and wandered into Jack and Jill’s Joke Shop in Boston. “The man behind the counter vanished a handkerchief, and that started it,’’ he said.

He began reading everything he could find. “I was not a very good reader in school, but I always had a magic book with me,’’ Goulet said. “I became very adept at reading magic. That helped me a lot with the English language.’’

He later skipped school to watch John Calvert, a famous magician, perform in Boston. After each show, a movie of Calvert playing the Falcon, a fictitious detective, would run, and Goulet spent the whole day watching repetitions of Calvert’s act and his movie.

Decades later, Goulet and Calvert would become close friends.

Goulet got his own professional start performing in the USO in his early teens, three shows a night. When he turned 18, he started performing in nightclubs in Boston’s Scollay Square. Although he was treated well, Goulet said, the clubs were “upholstered sewers.’’

Once he married Ann, a young woman from Watertown he met at a party, she began to assist him on stage. But he didn’t want her performing in the Scollay Square clubs.

So after Goulet returned from the Korean War, the couple first toured with an illusion show and then created a club act, which they continued for decades. They called themselves “The Raymonds,’’ and a poster advertised their show as “a colorful blend of exciting chicanery.’’

They performed on 22 trans-Atlantic cruises, including the one with the British royalty on board. The Duchess of Windsor, Goulet recalled, asked the couple to perform at a private cocktail party.

The couple, now married 62 years, retired about 20 years ago. “I just felt, we’re getting older and it’s a young person’s work more than anything,’’ he said.

So Goulet concentrated on his Magic Art Studio. Several magic groups, including the International Brotherhood of Magicians, still gather in its theater room, which can seat 50.

Goulet, not one to pine over the past, says that living in Watertown was a gift because he met Mel Robbins, a local magician who became a mentor.

“I always consider myself a very lucky boy because I was very shy as a youngster,’’ he said. “I just decided I wanted to be a magician as a hobby, and it turned into a profession.’’

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