LIFE Goes to a Magicians’ Convention in 1947

At the The Society of American Magicians 2016 national convention, which will take place in Indianapolis this week, professional and amateur magicians following in the footsteps of Harry Houdini and David Copperfield get to see what tricks their favorite magicians have up their sleeves these days.

And there never seems to be a dull moment at these gatherings, based on past coverage of them in TIME and LIFE magazines.

In 1947, LIFE Magazine captured the highlights of what had been the convention’s biggest turnout since its founding on May 10, 1902, at Martinka’s magic shop in New York City. “The postwar boom in magic is largely explained by the fact that many soldiers who had enjoyed watching magic in USO shows are now teaching themselves to do tricks,” explained the magazine. Or maybe there was another reason behind the record attendance: LIFE observed that a lot of doctors attended the Chicago showcase, including a psychiatrist who explained that “many people take up magic because they have an inferiority complex. It gives their egos a lift.”

TIME reported on another growth period in the ’70s, when attendance at the society’s meetings reportedly doubled. That spike was thanks to Doug Henning, star of The Magic Show on Broadway, a “smash” hit that grossed about $60,000 weekly, thus proving “the magic boom is bankable,” according to a July 22, 1974, profile. With Henning at the center of this boom, magicians were becoming TV celebrities, while magic shops boasted record sales.

But some things never change: the “magic” of The Magic Show’s success “lies not with the star but with ourselves,” TIME reported . “In an epoch of uncertainty, people need a fraud they can believe in.”