The story of Olavi Airaksinen

Olavi Airaksinen. The winner of The Young Magician of the Year competition in 1963 in London.

This is written as information to Dr. Michael Colley (The Magic Circle, London) for his forthcoming book about the winners of “The Young Magician of the Year“ competition.

Olavi Airaksinen was born into a middle class family on 20 February 1945 at Lapinlahti, a country village north of Kuopio in Finland. He became interested in magic at the age of 15, inspired by his elder brothers Arto and Jorma. 

Olavi began to practice with cards and solid, 45 mm billiard balls that Arto had ordered for him from Janos Bartl magic company in Hamburg. It was soon obvious that practicing manipulation was to Olavi´s liking. He was in middle school but used the rest of his time to practice. It became a regular habit and eight hours daily practice was common. He did not read any magic books; Arto did the reading, so he could only practice. 

The hard core practicing would not have been possible, if Olavi had not felt that he had extremely sensitive, long fingers, that he had an aptitude for it, and that he made progress all the time. 

At the time there was only a middle school at Lapinlahti. Arto, the eldest of the brothers, had finished it in May 1957 and went to Imatra, a town in the south east of Finland, close to the Russian border, to go high school. His uncle lived there and had three photo shops. He paid school fees for Arto, who on his part worked the summers in his photo shops. 

At the same time as Arto finished high school, in May 1960, his brother Jorma and sister Paula finished middle school at Lapinlahti, in the middle of Finland. Arto began to work in the main office of a big company, hired a small apartment and gave Jorma and Paula a possibility to come to Imatra and go to the same high school as he had attended himself.  

Arto did not any longer think of becoming a magician himself, but began to train Jorma, who came to Imatra as soon school was finished and worked over the summer as an assistant to dynamiters at a big factory building site. 

Getting started in magic in Finland at that time was very hard. Magic was a guarded, almost a hidden art. There were only a few professional magicians who guarded their secrets, only one magic club in Helsinki, which was closed to young hobbyists. Only two books on magic were available and they did not include any tricks for professional use.

Magic had a very limited place in entertainment in Finland. Television was in its beginning and could be watched only in the Helsinki area. Contacts with other countries were far from what they are now. No charter vacations either. 

However, Arto managed to get in touch with the Janos Bartl magic company in Hamburg and, with the help of distant relatives in the USA, with two small American magic companies. Later, he also got in contact with Mike Kanter, the famous magic company in Philadelphia. This and Arto´s income opened totally new possibilities. 

There was one very big obstacle to buying magic tricks from abroad, because the customs duties were in the same category as for Christmas tinsel (!), and that meant 200% on top of the value. Arto could not afford that. However, he found a way to get around it without violating the law. 

Now, in the summer 1960 things began to happen and it was also the starting point of Olavi´s magic career. Professional tricks were ordered from the USA and Hamburg, as well as the best available magic books. Greater Magic and the three volumes of Rice´s Encyclopedia of Silk Magic were among the first books. 

Now Arto had the opportunity to put together a magic act on a professional level for Jorma. He practiced it all leisure time and soon the results began to show. 

Olavi came to Imatra and became very interested in magic, and began to practice with cards. In August he went back to Lapinlahti to his middle school. The billiard balls were ordered for him from Janos Bartl, and he started to practice with them alone at home. 

 

 Later the same autumn Jorma performed in his high school´s banquet before 500 students, and it was not only a great success, but a sensation. Blendo was the opening trick and The Vanishing Bird Cage the closing trick. When the cage vanished Jorma opened his jacket to show nothing there and turned around, and when he turned back to face the audience, he had a very big flower bouquet in his hand. 

 Both those tricks were from Janos Bartl and of very fine quality. Nobody, it appeared later, had any idea what had happened. It was like real magic for them. The visiting students from the other big school (Imatra Lyceum) did not believe that Jorma was a student of his school, but a hired professional magician from Helsinki. 

When Christmas was approaching Arto contacted companies and social clubs through sales letters and telephone calls, offering Jorma´s act for their Xmas banquets. Most of them wanted to have that kind of entertainment, which had been seldom seen in Imatra. Here began the professional career of ”The Airaksinen Magic Brothers” as they liked to call themselves. 

Olavi came back to Imatra as soon as school had finished in the beginning of June 1961, and Arto and Jorma were struck with amazement when they saw Olavi´s pure skill with billiard balls and card stunts and flourishes. Of course they encouraged Olavi, and now he had possibility to practice the whole time during this summer. The progress of his skill was easily visible. 

Now Arto got in contact with Harry Stanley´s Unique magic studio in London, and also started subscribing to The Gen and Abracadabra magazines. New tricks and magic books were purchased. The book that had very great influence on Olavi´s career was Geoffrey Buckingham´s ”It´s easier than you think”. There was his most famous trick, a routine with 12 billiard balls.  Geoffrey Buckingham  was FISM world champion in manipulation both 1949 and 1951. He was awarded Grand Prix in 1951. 

Olavi practiced mainly manipulation, but also learnt presentation and other aspects of magic, and could soon do Jorma´s act. At the end of August he went back home for the last year of middle school. Now he had the more concrete target of becoming a professional magician, and went on to hard core practicing with billiard balls and cards. Probably Olavi had the Buckingham´s billiard ball routine at the back of his head. 

During the summer Olavi had learnt some sleight of hand card tricks, but they were not his main concern. During this autumn and winter he practiced more than ever with billiard balls, and now he developed his skill to a level that was later to amaze the international magic world. He did not have a routine to practice, so he could concentrate on handling those 45 mm solid balls. He could hold six or seven of them between his fingers, rolling and tossing them without any effort between his hands, in the process palming one or two of them, then tossing back to the empty space where there was, between his fingers. It was beautiful to see that pure skill. 

Olavi learnt that ”balls do not like dropping” and felt that he must develop 100% security in handling the balls and that inspired him to practice so hard. 

Jorma and sister Paula were in their second year of high school and with Christmas approaching the banquet performances came along and thus some money for new purchases of books, and some new tricks. Arto felt that Jorma must have a new act for a new season. He developed this with new tricks, many of them from the purchased books, like e.g. Slydini´s Paper tear. 

Olavi finished middle school in May 1962 and came to Imatra to start in the same high school in September that Jorma and Paula were still attending. Now began the work on the development of the 12 balls routine for Olavi. 

In July, during his vacation Arto hitchhiked to London where, due to toy department store Hamley´s ad in Abracadabra, he knew that a magician by the name of Ali Bongo was selling magic at Hamley´s. Arto went to meet him and he, a young magic enthusiast from Finland, was given a very friendly reception by Ali Bongo, who also told Arto that there was a magic show two days later at King George´s Hall and arranged for Arto to see it as his guest. He himself performed in a “three-man-act “. 

Tonny Van Dommelen, the Dutch Grand Prix winner at FISM in 1958 performed in the show. He was the first great magician Arto saw. It is certainly quite unbelievable that Arto, who had seen only a few medium level magicians in Finland, was not impressed and as a matter of fact thought to himself, “We will soon be better.” 

Arto also visited Harry Stanley´s Magic Studio in Frith Street in Soho, bought some books and saw a table, which he ordered later. It turned out to be very practical. It was a chromium-plate construction on four wheels, but could be folded flat. Arto had a professional-looking velvet case made for it. 

Later the brothers saw the film “Europe by Night “and Channing Pollock became the great idol. 

During this summer, 1962, the work continued for Olavi with the development of the routine with 12 billiard balls. It was based on the routine from Geoffrey Buckingham´s book “It is easier than you think“. Olavi´s amazing skills provided totally new possibilities for a new, improved routine. But not only that; also the “the technical side“ of the trick was developed to a higher level. When Buckingham used two methods Arto created a third, also based on Olavi´s unique skill, and it made practically invisible steals possible. 

 No wonder that Graham P. Jolley,  “recognized as one of the most outstanding mind readers of modern times“ says in “Magicseen“ magazine (issue No.9, 2006, a long article about him, and with him on the cover) “ … the winner was a quite brilliant act from Finland. He was so good that it was clear we would never hear of him again! I seem to remember he produced about 12 billiard balls without turning sideways“. 

Arto understood the special class of Olavi´s skill and did not hesitate to offer Olavi´s act to the program chief of the Finnish television Stig Törnroos. Olavi was allowed a test performance and got an opportunity to perform in the popular TV show “Papukaija Sirkus“ (Circus Parrot). In the same show was also “Onni, the clown“ (Onni Gideon). 

This performance was a most important factor for the later competition in London. It was not a good performance, but Olavi learnt what it was to perform in strong lights and how his hands got sweaty, which made the handling of billiard balls uncertain. The routine was technically so demanding that this would be fatal. Olavi understood also how to avoid it. 

Also the nervousness Olavi felt in this performance did not occur in the competition in London. 

Now Olavi had performed on TV and it was a step forward, and sounded fine. 

Olavi had performed twice in a school banquet and once on a PR-circuit for a local retail chain in a village near Imatra. Jorma had been doing these engagements for two years. Olavi did the same act that Jorma had been doing.

These were all the performances Olavi had done before his trip to London. 

The knowledge about the Young Magician of the Year competition was read in an ad in Abracadabra, and the decision was taken that Olavi would compete in London. 

The financial situation of the brothers was poor because Arto was doing military service. It appeared that the cheapest way to travel to London was by flight, but this cheap flight was on the condition that the stay in London lasted two weeks. 

Olavi was in his first year in high school and to be away from school for two weeks was not possible. However, a friend of the headmaster’s, who had worked at Canada´s biggest hotel, and seen famous magicians, also knew the brothers and understood Olavi´s skill. He managed to convince the headmaster that Olavi had possibilities to win that competition. As a matter of fact, he was quite sure that Olavi would win. 

At that time there were magic competitions in Scandinavia, but the brothers did not know other magicians and had no knowledge about foreign magic associations. They did not know about other competitions. 

Eventually the headmaster became convinced and allowed the trip and wished good luck. Money (110GBP) was borrowed for the trip. 

So far, so good, but new difficulties appeared. The general strike began in Finland and no letters could be sent or received. The answer from The Magic Circle was no idea to wait for. This was Olavi´s luck. If the situation had not been like this, The Magic Circle probably would not have allowed Olavi to get into to the Final, unknown as he was. 

The situation was extremely uncertain for a young Finnish country boy, who had never been abroad, travelled by flight or stayed at a hotel. 

However, Olavi flew to London and knew only one address there – Harry Stanley´s Magic Studio. He found the place though his English was limited. 

Olavi told Harry Stanley that he had come to London to compete in The Young Magician of the Year competition – arranged by the world´s most famous magic association The Magic Circle. 

By a fluke a young boy stepped in the studio. His name was Tom and he knew some Finnish because his mother was from Finland. He wanted to help Olavi in all possible ways. He took Olavi to his home for the first night. It was a diplomat family and Tom´s parents were kind and fine people. 

Next day Tom helped Olavi to find a cheap hotel, and also showed him how to heat the room by dropping coins into the heater. Tom had to go to the northern part of England next day, so Olavi was without his support until the competition day. 

Olavi had one week to go before the competition, and he spent that time practising his act and going out to see London´s sights with the help of a map. 

Olavi had heard at Harry Stanley´s about the meeting of The Magic Circle, and managed to find the place. It was a totally new experience for him. For the first time in his life he met other magicians. Also the President of The Magic Circle, Francis White was there. 

After the show, which was also a new experience, there was an inofficial meeting of magicians. Olavi saw many close-up tricks performed and was amazed, because his knowledge of close-up magic was very limited. He felt he was an outsider in this company. 

Then Francis White asked Olavi to show something. Olavi had a deck of cards with him, and soon the other magicians were amazed at Olavi´s pure skill. Francis White shouted; “Photographer, photographer”. Soon a whole series of photos were taken of Olavi with cards, and the photos were later published in The Magic Circular – the magazine of The Magic Circle. 

Olavi had hardly anything to show that was new to the others, but everything he did was presented in a way that showed Olavi´s incredible skill. For example he did “card cascade“, and the cards flying from one hand to the other at a distance that those present had never seen before. In their eyes this quiet, unknown young boy became a world class magician in five minutes. 

This performance gave Olavi self-confidence he never had felt earlier. The famous Alan Alan was present and at the end of the evening he took Olavi to his hotel. This was altogether a very great experience for Olavi. 

The competition was held on April 6, 1963 at King George Hall. The secretary of The Magic Circle came to fetch Olavi from his hotel with his suitcase, which held the tail coat and other things needed in his act. Also the suitcase was borrowed from the same friend who persuaded the headmaster to allow the trip. 

At the theatre other competitors had people around to help with make-up, to make sure everything was perfect, to test the sound equipment etc. Olavi felt he had no chance in this company. All others had ready-made music to give to the orchestra. Olavi only asked them to play “something rather fast“. Ali Bongo, who remembered Arto from the previous summer, helped Olavi to get the table he needed.

At this stage Olavi looked at others´ rehearsals, got dressed, and when waiting his turn thought; “Nobody knows me here, so it is not a big shame if the people present do not like my act”. 

The competition began. The heat at back stage got Olavi´s hands sweaty. Now he knew two things he should do. One was that he must be out of doors to cool down his hands. He had noticed that at the back of the stage there was a door leading to stairs that were outside of the building. He explained later that if that door had not existed his fingers would have been unable to handle the billiard balls in the way that was necessary, and the whole performance would have been a failure. 

Olavi was the fourth performer, and because he knew the music of the performer before him, he could stand on the stairs and cool down his hands in the fresh air until it was his turn. 

Just before Olavi had to be on stage he saw that one little part had got loose from The Vanishing Birdcage, which was his closing trick.

He was announced and the spectators had begun to applaud. It was necessary for Olavi to get the cage right. He managed to fix it up, but the time needed was like an eternity. The spectators began applauding again. What a relief when he could step between the curtains and on to the stage. 

Olavi began with Blendo (Rice´s USA flag). Then the billiard ball routine followed. First one ball appeared between his empty hands, then more balls, that were bigger than normally seen, began to appear between his fingers. As long as he had empty space between his fingers he tossed balls between his hands and a new ball appeared literally from nowhere. When new balls appeared the applause got louder and louder. 

Soon Olavi had between his fingers and hands twelve billiard balls – all solid and in different colors, and the whole trick was presented seemingly without the least effort and with a skill the spectators had never seen before. The balls just appeared between his fingers. Olavi was surprised at the fantastic impression the routine made on the audience. 

Then followed The Multiplying Candles, some skillfully done stunts with cards, The Newspaper Tear and, as the closing trick, The Vanishing Birdcage. 

The audience liked Olavi´s act and he was the only finalist who was applauded back to the stage. Still, it never occurred to him that he would have any possibility in this competition. He thought Keith Cooper would be the winner. 

When the competition was over all the finalists stood on the stage in the same order as they had performed, waiting for the results. All of them got The Gen magazine for one year as a present. Olavi was satisfied with his performance, because all went well without any mishaps. However, that was one thing. To be the winner was quite different and the thought did not cross his mind. On the contrary, he thought that it was good that nobody here knew him. 

At last the jury was ready to announce the results. David Nixon, the famous TV personality, first mentioned the second place winner, then “The young Magician of the Year 1963 is Olavi Airaksinen“. The name was pronounced in the English way and Olavi thought rapidly, “did I understand it right that I am the winner?” The win was a complete surprise to him. 

Olavi received the first prize and was interviewed by David Nixon. Tom, who had helped Olavi earlier, was the interpreter when Olavi answered the questions about his magic career and how he had been able to develop his skill. Then congratulators rushed to the stage and the totally surprised winner had to write autographs, and did not know what to think in this situation. 

The secretary of The Magic Circle gave Olavi a lift in his car back to the hotel. Also this trip was memorable, for that very same evening England had met Scotland in football and there were riots in the streets. Many cars were stopped and overturned. The Finnish schoolboy could only be surprised at how things are “in the big world “.Fortunately they arrived unharmed at the hotel. The secretary said that obviously hooligans saved this car because there was a winner inside. 

Finally at the hotel, Olavi had time to think through all that happened that day. It was, to say the least, the most extraordinary day in Olavi´s young life. 

Olavi had several days to go in London before the flight home. The press, the radio and the TV told the Londoners that an unknown schoolboy from Finland had won the final competition of The Magic Circle with a sensational skill. Reuters cabled the news around the world. The Magic Circle arranged a performance for the press and Olavi did his act again. 

It was obvious that the journalists liked Olavi´s act, and soon there were photos of Olavi in London newspapers. Due to that it happened that people recognized Olavi when he was on the underground. 

Then followed the TV performance in BBC´s “To-night“ program. Radio interviews were made by The Finnish and the Canadian radio. In Finland it was broadcast on the “Actual Studio“ program. Thus the news of Olavi´s win became known in Finland, and the correspondent of the biggest Finnish newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, Olavi Aarrejärvi, wrote a big article for his paper. He also spent some time on showing Olavi many of London´s sights. Olavi was very grateful for his kindness. 

David Nixon promised to arrange a performance in the American Ed Sullivan show that was the leading TV show, not only in the USA, but in the world. Also the famous Embassy Club in London offered an engagement. 

All this was new to Olavi so he felt most unsure and dared not sign a contract. The agent of Embassy Club, Joe Collins Ltd. later wrote six (6) letters to Olavi to get him to perform. In the last letter they asked Olavi to contact them immediately if he were to come to London. 

The return to Finland was a big happening. At the airport in Helsinki the press, photographers and lots of ordinary people were waiting for the new celebrity. 

At the railway station in Imatra the local press were waiting and a Cadillac to transport Olavi home. 

The next day at school the headmaster made a speech and the whole school congratulated with songs and flowers. 

The mass media in Finland made a big thing out of Olavi´s surprising success in London, and Olavi was soon a well known person in Finland. This was partly due to the fact that at the time there were very few Finnish variety artists on the international level. More TV performances were to come. 

A reception for the mass media was arranged at the Palace Hotel in Helsinki, and among others Ms. Sara Ekelund, the program director of Linnanmäki amusement park, was there. The following day there were articles and photos of Olavi in the newspapers. 

Offers for performances at restaurants and banquets of big companies began to pour in. Olavi and Jorma had difficulties in handling this new situation. Arto was still doing military service with no possibility to take care of it. 

Olavi had become a big star in the Finnish entertainment business. Letters from young admirers came in such numbers that they soon filled a big box. 

Beside his school work Olavi became a professional magician. Many times when Olavi returned from a performance by a night train he asked the conductor to wake him up in the sleeping car in the morning, when the train arrived at Imatra. Then took a taxi direct to school. 

The three siblings, brother Jorma and sister Paula, all attended the same school and lived well together in that small apartment in Koivurinne, though Paula felt she needed more peace and often did her homework in an apartment that a family friend had nearby. Olavi had become the bread-winner for them all.

When Arto finished his military service he moved to Stockholm to live. 

During the next six years Olavi worked as a professional magician in Finland and won several Scandinavian championships. After one of them in Oslo, Norway, in February 1967 the well-known Central European agent Sime Gospic wanted to arrange a world tour for Olavi. The contract was written by a lawyer who had his office in Karl Johan, the main street in Oslo. Olavi again felt unsure and did not sign the contract.

Earlier a Swedish agent wanted to arrange a circuit in Sweden´s Folkets park (small amusement parks in most towns in Sweden) lasting the whole summer. It would have been economically a very good engagement, but Olavi wanted to perform only in Finland. 

Olavi never went to London again after the competition in 1963, but it is amazing to notice how great an impression his skill made then on all those who saw his performance. When this writer was sitting in the Magic Circle Theatre in November 2003 before the show, invited by the Magic Circle as their guest, a gentleman sat down in the seat next to his. He introduced himself and when some other, older members of The Magic Circle told him that this is Olavi´s brother, he was greatly amazed and repeated loudly “Olavi´s brother, Olavi´s brother!“ He said that he saw Olavi´s performance and repeated every trick Olavi did in his act. 

This is quite unbelievable because that was more than 40 years ago and it is certain that this magician had seen hundreds of magic acts in the meantime. This gentleman was Graham Jolley, very well-known magician in England, (mentioned earlier in this article). 

Also in July 2005, in connection with The Magic Circle´s Centenary Celebration, it appeared that Olavi´s name had still the same appreciation as it had in 1963. The main organizer of The Young Magician of the Year competition, Derrick Speight told to this writer that it was important that the first winners, Johnny Hart in 1961 and Olavi in 1963 were so high class magicians. Thus the competition, thanks to them, got the status it otherwise could not have got. 

Mr. Speight also mentioned that “we talked about Olavi the other night, and one of us said that Olavi was the greatest of all the winners“. 

Olavi´s active professional career lasted for six years. Then, in the long run, he felt that it was not what he preferred in life. He married a most wonderful girl, Tuula, and got a post office education. After working for a couple of years in a post office he became the postmaster in a small countryside post office in the middle of Finland. He and Tuula also built a fine villa by a lake in the same village, and later a very fine summer house on an island near the Airaksinen family´s summer house at Nilsiä. 

Olavi still liked magic and practised with billiard balls every day to keep his long, sensitive fingers in shape. The coin magic became his main concern and he has liked performing with coins ever since in a close-up situation. He still performs a parlor act now and then for small audiences, but not for money. 

The Finnish Magic Circle made Olavi their Honorary Member in 2005. The Ministry of Culture of  Finland gave him the artist pension from 2007. 

For charity Olavi has been performing to this day to small audiences in Finland, Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

Olavi has helped young magic enthusiasts privately and in circus training camps in Finland. The most famous of his students is Marko Karvo, the star of Lido de Paris, in Paris for more than six years, and still one of the best stage magicians in the world, nowadays with a family and home in Frankfurt, Germany. 

Olavi´s brother Jorma has been a professional magician all his life and is still performing. Three times he won the Scandinavian championship in stage magic, and at FISM in Vienna 1976 the third prize, also in stage magic. In 2006 he built a very nice magic theatre with 40 seats in his villa at Nilsiä, which is a well known ski resort in the middle of Finland. He and his wife Aino have regular performances, thanks to the visitors to that tourist place. 

Arto Airaksinen

Photos from The Swedish Magic Archives and from Arto Airaksinen

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