Las Vegas Sun

August 18, 2019

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Magician writes an ode to his artistic parents

What: Booksigning of "When I'm Dead All this Will Be Yours" by Teller

When: 2 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Borders Books Music & Cafe, 2190 N. Rainbow Blvd.

Cost: Free.

Information: Call 638-7866.

Teller has penned a book.

The 142-page story is not about magic, the one-name performer's metier. Though, in a sense, it is a form of magic.

Using words -- which he never does on stage in his act with magician Penn Jillette -- Teller transports the reader to a world he recently discovered: the one his artistic parents lived in before he was born.

"When I'm Dead All This Will Be Yours!" (Blast Books, $24.95) is mostly a whimsical sketch of Joe Teller, 87, a retired commercial artist who once aspired to be a cartoonist.

A series of old cartoons drawn by his father was the catalyst for Teller's narrative. More than 50 of them appear prominently in the book, copies of which the author will sign Saturday at Borders Books Music & Cafe.

But the story is more than just a brief biography about an off-beat father by an off-beat son. Where would either of them be without an off-beat wife and mother?

Irene Teller, 92, is small (5 feet tall) but has been a big influence in the lives of her husband and son. Her creative mind is an inspiration to both.

"The sensible solution would be just to take your own life when it's time. But you can't do that if you have a famous son -- it would be bad publicity," she said in the book.

Revealing anecdotes

Teller, 53 and a Las Vegas resident, describes the familial relationship with warmth and humor. His anecdotes allow fans a peek into the family's life, in a three-story row-house in Philadelphia where the comic-magician grew up.

What is seen is a magical world filled with art and unfettered imagination. It is a world where even pancakes become an art form, with one of the cooks pouring batter onto a skillet-easel and creating camels, squatting frogs, cats with boxing gloves and squirrels wearing capes.

At age 21, Pad (Teller's nickname for his father) enrolled in the International Correspondence School's art course and discovered he had artistic talent. Soon after he was admitted to the Graphic Sketch Club in Philadelphia, a free art school sponsored by a local industrialist.

Pad met Mam (Teller's nickname for his mother) at the school and they fell in love. After finishing the course, both were offered scholarships to different schools but turned them down.

"They knew if they went their separate ways they'd lose the romance of it all," Teller wrote.

The Tellers have been married for more than 60 years, and nearly every day of the marriage they have reserved time for painting. The top floor of their home is a studio that has one easel at each end of the long room.

Over the years mountains of paintings have accumulated in the residence. Although they are passionate about the work that fills their lives, they don't sell it. They paint for the love of painting, not money.

Talented parents

"My parents are very talented, serious artists," Teller said during a recent telephone interview. "But (they don't have) the kind of brutal persistence and drive that makes somebody market their work."

Which may be one of the reasons Pad never pursued a career as a cartoonist after his work was rejected by the Philadelphia Enquirer newspaper in 1939. He put away the dozens of cartoons he had drawn and became a commercial artist (his lettering of Zesta saltine crackers is still used, Teller said). Mam sold art supplies at a department store.

About a year ago Pad, on an impulse, revealed his 60-year-old cartoons to his son. Teller was so impressed he sent some to a publisher friend.

"She wrote back immediately and asked if there were more and said they should be published," Teller said.

The book grew out of the cartoons.

"They (the publishers) said the cartoons needed text to put them in context," Teller said.

Putting together the story led to the realization that his parents had lived full lives before he was born.

Teller wrote in the book, "Finding Pad's cartoons was thrilling.

"It was also unsettling.

"In those cartoons I saw images from the decades my parents had lived before I made my late entrance (my mother was near 40 when I was born). As I looked at them I realized I knew nearly nothing about half their lives."

Although the book weaves many characters in and out of the story, much of the tale is about Joe Teller's life between age 16 and 21, during the days of the Depression when he periodically would disappear from home in the middle of the night to ride the rails around the country -- not because he had to, but because he was adventurous.

'Streak of wildness'

"I didn't know that my parents had this streak of wildness in them that I discovered when I started exploring the cartoons," Teller said. "I had no idea Pad spent time as a hobo."

The title of the book, which also contains reproductions of about 20 paintings by the Tellers (mostly Pad's), was inspired when Teller and his father were in the basement looking for a screw to repair an oven door.

The room was a maze of old tools, furniture, broken appliances and other things that had accumulated for half a century. Against one wall was a shelf holding 15 or 20 coffee jars that were filled with unsorted nuts, bolts, screws and washers.

"My father looked around the room, made a grand gesture and said to me, 'Just think, when I'm dead all of this will be yours,' " Teller said.

Now that he has had time to reflect on growing up in a house of artists, Teller said it may not have been as normal an upbringing as he thought at the time.

"I was surrounded by art," he said. "Whenever there was an art project in school I always had expert guidance."

While his parents' talent was in fine art, his was in performance (although he also paints -- for fun).

"They had great influence on me in anything to do with artistic expression," Teller said.

A Howdy Doody magic set they bought for him when he was 5 was the seed from which his career grew.

"When it came, it was in a flat envelope and there were all these cardboard pieces that had to be punched out and folded. There were some card tricks, a magic coin tray and some other things," he said. "From that sprang my interest in theater."

Teller said his book is a small repayment to his parents for all the sacrifices they made for him, and a tribute to their lives.

"They're amazed that the book happened," he said.

Since it began appearing in bookstores recently, Teller said strange things have been happening to his parents.

"People are showing up on the front doorsteps and asking for their autographs," he said. "They're cautiously happy over that."

And, finally, they may start selling those paintings.