When people think of magic, fictional wizard Harry Potter or real-life illusionist David Copperfield probably come to mind.
But Lorna Monterosso of Flushing, N.Y., thinks of her father, Walter Wilson LeDrew of Change Islands.
He lived on the island until he was 12, when he moved to St. John’s with his family. They relocated there after his older sister Mary decided she wanted to go to business school. It was the late 1920s, at which point it was not considered appropriate for a young girl to live alone in the city.
It was a remarkable gesture of support, but perhaps LeDrew’s parents were searching for an excuse to leave. They had recently lost two teenage sons to meningitis — Wilfred John LeDrew died on Christmas Day, 1926, at age 18, and George Donald LeDrew weeks later on Feb. 17, 1927 at 17.
Mary went to business school as planned, but Walter never attended school after age 11. Instead, he took a most unusual route, educating himself in magic.
Monterosso recently visited her dad’s Change Islands home for the first time and shared details about her father’s fascinating life.
While his sister pursued a career in Ontario, Walter eventually moved to the United States and started performing as a magician in New York.
In addition to magic shows, he tried his hands at a different kinds of performance.
He travelled to Hollywood, and defying all the odds, immediately started working in film. In those days — the early era of the talkies — Hollywood movies were made similar to how theatre is performed today, with one actor often playing many roles.
During a two-year period in the 1940s, LeDrew — who used the surnames Le Drew, with a space, for magic; and Drew for his acting — appeared in approximately 30 films.
In many of those, he played multiple roles, like the 1944 cult classic “Bluebeard,” with John Carradine and Jean Baker, in which LeDrew played six different parts.
“He was in disguise in them all,” Monterosso said. “In the trial, he is a court officer, then he’s on the boat as a rescuer and he also was one of the privateers.”
She referred to them as bit parts, but they were important enough that his face was on some of the film’s playbills.
LeDrew had the opportunity to go on to a big-time acting career, she continued, but he instead chose a different route.
While the details evade Monterosso, she knows there was an actress who went offsite, and he followed her, choosing the actress over a chance to be in a film for which he could be recognized.
In those days the studio hired actors on contract, and it’s not clear who decided not to renew it — LeDrew or the studio — but he soon left his acting career behind.
He went on to become one of three head chefs at the famed Waldorf Astoria in the late ’40s. He also worked as a chef at one of the most popular restaurant in Niagara Falls, Ont.
During the Second World War, and shortly after it ended, he worked as a chef to 300 men, serving them three meals per day. He changed the menu to make it more palatable and often told his family how much the soldiers appreciated that.
Monterosso’s husband, Joe, describes his father-in-law as a resourceful man who could do anything that he set his mind to.
An exemplary salesman, he sold Fuller Brushes, automobiles for Chevrolet, Muntz TVs, and carpets.
But when his daughter Lani was born with Down syndrome, LeDrew wanted to be home more often. He and wife, Margaret Amy McQuaid, had two daughters to raise.
He got involved in a corporate awning business, then a home renovation, venture and next an industrial lubricant company.
“Once he learned something and got really good at it, he moved to something new,” Monterosso explained.
But through whatever kind of work he did, LeDrew always performed magic.
“Oh, he even cut my mother in half,” Monterosso laughed.
LeDrew was always a showman, his daughter and son-in-law said.
He last performed in December 1983, which was an emotional time as he was battling cancer. He died the following April.
Digging for roots
Monterosso travelled to Change Islands this summer to see the place of her father’s birth, to find some of her roots and to connect to the place her father spoke of as home.
His stories of the place, the poverty of the times, the beauty of the community and the people brought her full circle to his beginning.
It was an emotional pilgrimage for the retired science teacher, and that emotion showed when she visited The Old Shoppe Museum.
There on a pillar inside the museum, prominently displayed, was an old poster with announcing Walter LeDrew’s upcoming show on Change Islands.
“He came back to Change Islands in the ’40s and performed a show at the Orange Lodge,” said Ruth Keats, Monterosso’s cousin and a Lewisporte resident.
“When she saw the poster on the wall she started to cry,” Pete Porter, the museum’s proprietor, said.
It was one of several magical moments for the magician’s daughter.
The trip was also magical for Monterosso because she discovered a large family she didn’t realize existed.
“I knew I had one cousin, Ruth (who is daughter of LeDrew’s sister, Mary, the business student), and my daughters, but thought I was from a very small family,” Monterosso said. “I’m related to so many people here.”