“Van Buren – one of the biggest names in British illusionists”
Editor – The Magic Circle Secrets Magazine
Andrew Van Buren was, as the saying goes “born in a trunk”, in other words he was born into a theatrical family who toured the world as grand scale illusionists, his parents were known as Fred Van Buren and Greta.
Andrew’s childhood was spent both backstage and on stage, touring in theatre shows, with circus, on film sets and TV studios before launching his own career, that took him around the world.
The Van Buren Family history and the story of how all of this began and the adventures along the way is too big to recount here! A lot has been included into the Van Buren Story Documentary – which is worth a look – however as a basic timeline, it all started with Andrew’s father Fred, who was born in the Cheshire Town Sandbach.
Fred’s journey into showbusiness started from when he was four years old, he was sent along to the local butcher’s shop, returning home he told his mum that “the butcher is selling elephant meat!” but his mum explained that no he wasn’t, it was a poster advertising a circus.
Fred was taken to see Chapman’s circus, which made a lasting impression on him “From that moment on I was bitten by the show business bug!” he explained.
Annually the family would visit the amazing Blackpool Tower Circus, then there was a chance meeting with the locally based circus proprietor Bob Gandey, who took young Freddie under his wing and started teaching him about showbusiness and its history, which is where he first heard about the man who created the circus Philip Astley.
Fred started learning various skills including trapeze, clowning and magic as well as the art of showmanship. Fred went on to produced and put on his own concert party shows whilst developing his various talents further.
Then after leaving school Fred began working his apprenticeship as a cabinet maker and French Polisher. With these new skills he started to invent, and build his first original tricks and illusions. Soon he saw the potential of big stage illusions, but he was very aware of one important fact, if he was going to be successful he needed to be able to perform his effects anywhere, without luxuries such as curtains and trap-doors. As Fred himself said, “Everything I do has to be performed anywhere, even in the middle of a football field – anywhere” He started working with this rule from the early 1950’s.
During all of this Fred eventually served his National Service, still keeping an interest and connection to show business whilst in the army. Then he finally took the plunge and turned completely professional working on Gandey’s circus in 1953 and 1954 for Bob’s son Joe Gandey.
The Van Buren family history continues – in 1955 Fred met Connie Greta, who started assisting him in the shows. Then in 1956 they started concentrating more on the magic and illusions – working as The Yoxani’s. The act really started going places. They re-popularised the Houdini illusion Metamorphosis, (substitution trunk) with their breath taking speed and created many new illusions for their themed Mystic Baggage act.
Working more in Theatre and Variety with their “Mystic Baggage” and “Dutch Deceptions” acts, at this time their Agents were Don Ross (Music Hall singer Gertie Gitana’s Husband) and Pauline Marks (Aunty to Joan and Jackie Collins) in London. Later during the 1970s they were managed by Albert Saveen – the famous ventriloquist who was assisted by Daisy May.
Through the 1960’s they carved a great career, even billed second top to comedy star Jimmy James and regularly topping the bill at the Hull Palace continental. The newspaper press loved the act with its “fresh new approach”.
The Van Buren family history moves onto the 60s. 1961 was a momentous year, Fred and Connie Greta were married, just prior to a summer season in Llandudno Wales, which was to be with comedy musical film Star George Formby, who sadly died a couple of months before the season, replaced by his brother Frank Formby. November 1961 they appeared on their first television show which was the BBC’s “The Good Old Days”, broadcast live from the City Varieties Theatre in Leeds. Going on to perform at Brighton Hippodrome with singing star Dorothy Squires as top of bill. Then in 1962 the Amazing Yoxani’s became Van Buren and Greta.
1964 they performed their “Whirlwind of Magic” act in summer season at the Palace Theatre in Douglas Isle of Man with the Dickie Valentine show.
During the 1960’s Fred and Connie Greta were carving a great career on the London Banquet cabaret scene working regularly in London Hotels including Grosvenor house, Dorchester, Edmundo Ros club, Savoy and many more. There was great demand for appearances on television too, amongst which was the Tricks ‘N’ Nixon TV show which lead the way to several future appearances with David Nixon. Then in 1965 they worked with comedian Roy Hudd in summer season at Clacton.
A massive turning point was when Fred was invited to a meeting with Walt Disney and Tom Arnold, from this Fred was commissioned to create special illusions, which they performed in the Disney production of “Snow White on Ice”, in Wembley Empire Pool Arena in London, then going on to tour for a further year with the show.
Also Fred Van Buren and Greta worked the celebration dinner for New Scotland Yard’s achievement of catching the Great Train Robbers.
1967 Fred and Connie moved out of London to Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire, where they established workshops and storerooms for the bigger props that they were creating, which allowed Fred to invent even larger effects. This took Van Buren and Greta into and through the Summer seasons of the 1970’s.
During this period of time their son Andrew was born.
By now Fred was heavily into the inventing and building of new illusions, one newspaper called him “The 21st century magician” with his showmanship and such creations as his ‘Florescent Light Penetration’ – which is the astonishing illusion where a bank of Illuminated fluorescent light tubes visibly pass through a person’s body. Another amongst the most talked about and magical of Fred Van Buren’s illusions is the ‘Houdini Metamorphosis’ (the substitution trunk illusion) visually transforming into a ‘cascading water fountain garden’.
But the ultimate illusion is Van Buren’s famous and unique ‘Vanishing Motorcycle & Rider surrounded’. Invented in 1976 whilst at the Spa Pavilion Felixstowe in summer season with Windsor Davies & Don Estelle of “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum” fame. The Vanishing Motorbike and Rider is still regularly featured by Andrew in his shows today.
During the first week of January 1977 in The Caesars Palace Luton the Vanishing Motorbike illusion was televised for the first time, for the BBC as a close to the Magic Circle Christmas show.
With these incredible “ahead of their time” inventions, the newspapers coined the phrase “Fred Van Buren & Greta – One of the World’s finest and most original illusionists” – “The man whose spectacular illusions have been described as a 21st Century Miracle”.
Summer Season 1977 was a repeat of the Windsor Davies & Don Estelle show, this time at the White Rock Theatre in Hastings where they broke box office records.
Also during 1977 was the Televising of ‘Van Buren’s Vanishing Motorcycle & rider illusion’ on ‘The Seaside Special’ Jubilee show and from Twickenham the last ‘David Nixon show’ presenting the Fluorescent Light penetration, little knowing it would be one of David Nixon’s last television appearances.
The Vanishing Motorbike illusion was now in so much demand that the act had to get bigger, employing a company of girls to work in the act.
Wanting to prove that all of his illusions could be worked surrounded The Van Buren’s then returned to Circus for Christmas 1977 / 78 performed the act with Chipperfields Circus.
In 1978 they appeared in Weston Super Mare for the summer season, then they were booked by Lucas car firm to perform at the first motor show in Birmingham with impressionist Mike Yarwood, & the chart topping Nolan Sisters.
Following this they toured Sweden with circus Svenson, again hitting TV and newspaper news headlines. This led on to more top class work on the continent. Including appearing at the World Congress of Magic “FISM” performing the Vanishing Motorbike illusion in the Grande Place in Brussels, this was televised all around world.
Over these years Fred and Connie Greta appeared on television programmes throughout the world, most memorable in the UK being The Good Old Days, The David Nixon Show, License for Singing & Dancing, Seaside Special, Arrivals, The Magic Circle International Shows, even advising on the Muppet show, to name but a few.
The Van Buren family history sees them working with an endless list of stars and celebrities of the time, including David Frost, Bob Monkhouse, Margery Manners, Tommy Trinder, Ken Dodd, Brotherhood of Man, Morris & Cowley, Little & Large, Roy Castle, Billy Cotton, Donald Peers, The Three Degrees, Dorothy Squires, Vince Hill, the list goes on and on.
Through the 1980s the Van Buren family appeared in France with the famous circus show Le Voix Du Nord, toured South America, performed a season at Chessington Zoo World of Adventures with circus Hassani, in Kelvin Hall Glasgow, Gaiety Theatre, Douglas Isle of Man, toured with Fossett’s National Circus in Ireland, plus seasons with Bob Gandey’s grandson – Philip Gandey’s shows, as well as developing new shows to tour theatre, leisure centre, outdoor gala’s and even in presenting the shows in 3000 seating big top tent.
A proud moment was when Fred appeared in a Royal Gala performance for HRH Duke of Edinburgh Prince Philip.
Amongst Fred’s shows he ran a series of Music Hall shows as President of the North Staffs Music Hall Society. These shows were often performed at the theatre Royal Hanley and amongst the young artists working in his shows were an up and coming talented singer called Robbie Williams.
During this time Fred and Connie Greta’s young son Andrew teamed up with a Hungarian State Circus artist who taught him the art of Unicycling, which lead to learning juggling and then through his friendship with famous plate spinner Bartschelly Andrew developed his plate spinning act, after which there was no looking back.
Andrew developing an act of his own, and moving the Van Buren family history towards the present day, goes on to not only tour with his parents, but also to tour his own act and a second unit of the illusion show.
During the early 1990’s the Van Buren family presented their illusion show in Wembley Arena alongside Gerry Cottles Circus Fun Fair, with TV celebrity Jeremy Beadle.
The Van Buren Family history continues – in 1993 The Van Buren family performed in Blackpool Tower Circus, for this Fred and Andrew put their heads together to create a new act “Ancient & Modern”, Fred and Connie Greta played the part of the old magicians, who were constantly interrupted by Andrew – the young whizz kid illusionist on roller skates, unicycle and finally motorbike, on which Andrew was then made to disappear, the old timers getting the last laugh.
1997 Fred and Connie officially retired from performing, although they still continued a close involvement with the shows, Fred still building props and creating new effects with Andrew for his shows, Connie Greta keeping her eye on them both.
By now Andrew was very well established with his juggling and plate spinning act, also presenting his magic and illusion act as a second spot.
The theatre tours were coming in fast and furious for Andrew, who after returning from representing Great Britain at World Expo in Seville Spain, before Prince Charles and Princess Diana, embarked on a nine and a half week tour, that ended up three years touring the UK’s top theatres with the Danny La Rue show.
This lead to tours working with veterans of Music Hall, Variety and Theatre including John Inman, Little and Large, Cannon and Ball, Hinge and Bracket, The Nolan Sisters, Jimmy Cricket, Ray Alan and Lord Charles, Paul Daniels, Ken Dodd and more.
These variety shows paved the way for Andrew to develop his own shows to a greater scale and new directions. Realising there were less traditional variety shows and summer season shows, Andrew headed into working on Cruise Liners with his headline show, uniquely combining circus skills, escapology and magic into a complete variety show, mixing the retro variety with 21st Century expectancies and tempo.
Andrew and his partner Allyson, who is an experienced dancer, makeup expert and professional performer, have established themselves into corporate events with their plate spinning, often working for large global companies at their conventions, conferences and meetings.
Another avenue of work is in the Middle East with themed shows developed and working with Gandey Worldwide Productions. These include ‘The Tent of Wonders Show’, ‘Al-Addin’ in Sharjah UAE, the ‘Spiegeltent Cabaret’ Shows in Dubai UAE and bespoke shows in Doha Qatar.
Another highlight for Andrew was creating and performing ‘Van Buren’s Magic Around the World Show’ for a season in the famous Blackpool Tower Circus, which with a cast of 24 performers, 6 technicians and over 30 magical effects, was one of the largest illusion shows to have been worked in the UK for decades, especially completely surrounded by the audience.
Again in partnership with Gandey World Class Productions ‘Van Buren & Gandey’ launched ‘The Victorian Wonders Carnival Show’ at the Brighton Festival. The tented show is “a mixture of Victorian Steampunk wonders mixed with elements of a theatrical play, sideshows and a large-scale magic and illusion show with the showmanship of the fairground”. This show then embarked on an on-going world tour as well as featuring alongside the contemporary touring Cirque Surreal Show.
Andrew has become the recognised go to expert for plate spinning, particularly for TV game shows including The Generation Game, and children’s TV shows including Blue Peter. (See Plate Spinning Page).
Having worked with both the classic performers and the contemporary performers of today including Peter Kay, Mel & Sue, Johnny Vegas and more, Andrew and Allyson still tour the world but also are touring the UK with their Outdoor arena show – “Van Buren’s Victorian Wonders Show”. (See Outdoor Page)
2018 was an amazing year of celebrating the 250th Anniversary of Philip Astley creating the circus. Word spread globally with celebrations overflowing from Newcastle-under-Lyme to London, around the UK, to Monaco, Hungary, Brazil and more.
Andrew was proudly involved in the unveiling of a plaque to Philip Astley in Monte Carlo by HSH Prince Albert and Princess Stephanie. Also within Astley’s birthplace there has been several permanent markers created and over 100 events celebrating Astley’s legacy.
For more details about the Philip Astley Project visit www.philipastley.org.uk
In 2019 Fred Van Buren and Connie Greta were awarded the Freedom of the Borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme for their lifetime in show business and initial work in raising awareness of Philip Astley.
Post Covid-19 Andrew and Allyson are leading the way forward with more projects and shows.
To learn more about the Van Buren Family and to hear stories of their adventures why not take a look at the Van Buren Story Documentary or attend one of Andrew Van Buren’s talks:
They are involved in a number of other projects including the Philip Astley Project.
In 1982 Fred Van Buren advised and devised the first celebration of Philip Astley – the man who created the Circus, who was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme where the Van Buren’s live, yet nobody locally had heard of Astley until Fred raised awareness. This event was in the form of the town’s carnival. Then during the early 1990’s Fred and Andrew devised a series of events to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Philip Astley’s birth, even commissioning and funding the creation of a portable life sized statue of Astley. Sadly although the events went ahead, politics stepped in, and as a career move an official took over and side-lined the Van Buren family during the 1992 celebrations.
Years later in 2009 after the Astley story had again more or less disappeared from public awareness Andrew decided to have a third try. This time not only raising awareness in Astley, but also offering a lifeline to Newcastle-under-Lyme. Realising that shops were closing and towns needed something else to bring people in and raise footfall Andrew embarked on what began as a one man crusade. This resulted in the coming together of a number of Staffordshire based creatives, companies, organisations, individuals, colleges and universities, who together formed ‘The Philip Astley Project’.