ALLENTOWN, Pennsylvania – When it comes to magic in Allentown, you could say that the Miller Symphony Hall has been something of a catalyst.
In the early 1900s, The Lyric, as it was known then, was a local hotspot.
Willard Warmkessel, 16, was an usher at the Lyric. Inspired by the spectacle of the stage, he spends much of his time dreaming of magic.
Willard was hooked. Magic quickly became his full-time focus under the stage name Willard the Great.
He traveled the country performing on the fairground circuit and even became good friends with Harry Houdini.
Ultimately, Willard made his number one family affair, with regular shows at the Lyric.
“My mother was the floating lady, my aunt was sawed in half, my aunt Jean the youngest of them was shot from a cannon in a box at the back of the theatre,” said Maryellen Iobst, the Willard’s granddaughter.
Iobst was also part of the act.
“I was put in a dollhouse with my mom, and then my grandfather put swords through the dollhouse,” Iobst said.
After decades of dazzling audiences with illusions, Willard died in 1966.
Willard’s widow wanted her magic to continue, so she gave some of her stuff to Tom Yurasits.
Yurasits is also a full time magician and part of the International Brotherhood of Magicians Ring 32.
“I was the youngest, now I’m the oldest,” Yurasits said.
While Willard was a member of the more modern Ring 32, he was also the founder of Allentown’s first magic club two decades prior.
Yurasits says that even though he has never met Willard, he feels connected to him every time he uses one of his props.
“I try to think like Willard, I try to think like he has this, what would he do,” Yurasits said.
55 years after his passing, Willard the Great continues to inspire generations of magicians, perhaps his greatest achievement of all.