Edgar Wilson Beynon – known professionally as Edgar Benyon – was born on 29 March 1901 in Auckland, the son of William Melville Beynon, a printer, and his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Wilson, a dressmaker. By 1903 the family had moved to Christchurch, where William carried on his trade with Weeks Limited. Edgar was educated at schools in Linwood, Sydenham and New Brighton and eventually took up an apprenticeship as a printer with his father’s company. It was through his father, who received numerous theatrical passes at his work, that Edgar fell in love with the theatre and developed a desire to become a master magician. He began to practise fire-eating and performed a solo magic show at local churches and youth groups. He received a letter of encouragement from the great magician Chung Ling Soo (W. E. Robinson), when he toured New Zealand.
Watching the various entertainers who came to New Zealand, Edgar realised that the leisurely tempo of the older style of presentation was becoming outdated and that to succeed against stiff competition his act would have to be different, so he added juggling, balancing and mimicry. Most of his skills were self-taught, but many cherished secrets came from a genial magician known as Adair (Allan Roberts), who befriended and encouraged him.
In 1918 Beynon met and fell in love with Doris Evelyn Southen, an artist employed at Weeks. He also entered and won a talent competition staged by John Fuller and Sons’ vaudeville. Part of the prize was a week’s paid work with the company, eventually extended to 10. He declined the offer of an Australian tour because of family pressure to stick with a reliable trade.
Beynon continued performing in Christchurch, resigning his apprenticeship when magic and work conflicted. The bookings for his act increased and he added quick-change routines so that each skill was presented in a different costume. He and friends formed a company, which toured the South Island and Manawatu, before he was engaged by Fullers at £14 per week. He gained valuable experience and quickly learned that audiences appreciated his versatility.
By 1922 he had moved to Australia, where he achieved success in Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. Doris Southen joined him and they were married on 17 August 1922 at Newcastle, New South Wales. Doris now became part of the act, since a double act was paid more. Their first daughter, Doris, was born in 1923. They performed in Adelaide and Melbourne, toured South Africa and went on to England with a letter of recommendation from Harry Lauder. Edgar staged a successful show in Worthing and from then he was never without work. The manager of the London Coliseum billed him as Edgar Benyon, a name more memorable than Beynon, and this, or The Great Benyon, became his stage name.
A second daughter, Mavis, was born in 1926 and in 1929 the family toured South Africa and Australia. Their third daughter, Doreen, was born in 1930 in London. Tragedy struck in 1935 when Mavis died of burns received when her dress caught fire while playing.
Edgar and Doris were now regularly touring Britain (including the Channel Islands) and Ireland. Edgar displayed other hidden talents when he wrote the lyrics for several popular songs. When war broke out in 1939 and theatres were closed, the family moved to Ireland. Here the full evening show of magic was named ‘Bam-Boo-Zalem’ with Edgar’s one-man variety act as its cornerstone. By now his daughter Doris was taking part in the show under the stage name Evelyn Talma. In 1943 she married an Irish army officer, Sean O’Hagan, who also became an integral part of the show.
The show was now one of the largest in the world and included 14 separate changes of scene in the course of a performance. Edgar was famed for the inventiveness of his optical illusions, his mind-reading tricks and the skill of his juggling. Perhaps his most famous feat was to spin a billiard cue like a propeller on the tip of another cue held horizontally – something he claimed to have learned from watching Maori stick games.
The family toured Ireland until 1946, and in that year toured England. They returned to New Zealand in 1949, touring the country until the 1960s. As Doris, Sean and Doreen left to settle down and raise their families the show was scaled down.
The theatrical and magic fraternities both recognised Edgar Benyon’s work. The Variety Artists’ Club of New Zealand created the Benny Award in his name to honour the variety artist of the year. He received the first award. The Auckland Brotherhood of Magicians created and conferred on him its ‘Grand Master of Magic’ award. The Benyons eventually retired to Queensland to be with Doris and Sean O’Hagan in Mackay. Edgar died there on 14 September 1978; his wife, Doris, survived him.