Moi-yo: Magical queen of a golden age

BERLIN 1939: The storm clouds of war are hovering dark and forbidding over Europe. The German capital, long known for its libertine ways, for its raunchy cabarets, is now known as the nerve centre of a Nazi juggernaut making its way across Europe.

For the world’s foremost illusion show, the renowned Dante the Magician’s company – a troupe that’s performed in faraway China, in Stalinist Russia, amid typhoons in Japan – the season might be just one more engagement amid a dubious political regime.

It’s not. War is suddenly declared on the fatherland by England and the show’s over. It’s time to get out. Fast.

For the young Geelong woman who is the show’s star, apart from Dante himself, leaving much of the company’s gear behind is a worrying proposition.

So too is being ushered to the border by Nazi SS troops. She’s not to know Gustav V, the King of Sweden, will invite the entourage into his Scandinavian refuge, from where it’s able to marshall its resources and eventually head to safety – and Broadway – in the US.

The woman, Moi-yo Miller, is as exotic a showstopper as you’ll see sashay on to a stage anywhere in this golden age of entertainment.

At 25 years old, she’s the apogee of elegance and widely considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. Moi-Yo Miller is Dante the Magician’s leading lady, his principal illusionista, and a world-wide sensation in her own right.

A dark, brooding beauty one minute in satin, silk and turban, she’s ethereal magic. Mysterious and stunning. Crowds gasp at her entrance.

A flashing smile and seamless dancer’s glide in the spotlight the next; she’s something between Dietrich and fairy. Beguiling, whimsical, arresting.

Moi-Yo’s name is emblazoned across posters from Peking to New York and helps draw thousands upon thousands to Dante’s magic shows – her high cheekbones and piercing glances the perfect foil to his mind-boggling illusions, his casual chatter and his trademark “Sim Sala Bim’’ exhortations.

Pity she’s about to be sawn in half.

In 1939, she’s still young. Eventually, her supple contortionist’s body is going to be shot, crushed, levitated, evaporated, reconstituted, squeezed into impossibly small boxes to magically vanish and reappear before hundreds upon hundreds of rapturous audiences across Europe, Asia, America and North Africa.

Eventually, she’s going to be sawn in half 11,800 times – everywhere from Hollywood, Broadway and Las Vegas to London, Moscow, Valencia. Dante’s nothing if not brutal, professionally that is.

“Fortunately, I was very acrobatic when I was a child and that played a big part,’’ Moi-Yo recalls.

“Claudia Cassidy, a society writer in England, came to the show I don’t know how many times and in the first write-up she said, `That girl folds up like a piece of Chinese silk’. I thought it was lovely.

Now, at the impressive age of 95, Moi-Yo is even more impressively limber; buzzing and bouncing about the Armadale home where she still lives independently.

She’s tiny, thin, perfectly coiffed and made up. The best part of a century hasn’t sapped her prodigious energy and she whips about the house scouting up scrapbooks, clippings, photos, chattering loudly with an American accent and a hint of the emeritus star.

She’s a great grandmother now, returned in recent years from California after her husband Arturo’s death to be nearer her faraway family. Magic might have made Moi-Yo famous but it kept her from Australia for too many years. She remembers that distant past acutely.

She was born Loretta Miller in 1914, the start of World War 1. But even way back then, a world away, she was someone else – someone known as Miki Miller. The Moi-Yo came later, in Asia where Miller was readily mispronounced. Dante pounced on the exotic tone and she was renamed.

Miki lived in Newtown’s Skene St and later in South Geelong’s Lonsdale St. She was one of four kids: Marnie, Bobbie, brother Frank and Miki. Marnie was actually Marion, Bobbie was really Juanita and Frank was, well, he was Frank. Moi-Yo remembers him dearly.

She still conjures up images of school at St Mary’s and, like many Geelong kids of the 1920s, swimming in the sea baths at Eastern Beach, visiting Johnstone Park, exploring the Barwon River, playing on vanished wooden bridges ….

“Oh, the beach was wonderful,’’ she says of Eastern Beach, years before its art deco masterpiece was built.

“There was this beautiful part of the beach we used to go, I think it’s still there, we used to go diving, a whole bunch of us. Of course I was the ringleader.

“We used to go to Johnstone Park and everybody would be taking pictures because of the glorious, green rolling lawns. At the top was a library of some kind as I remember it.’’

She remembers pies after church on Moorabool St, the hedonism of eating pure butter, and dancing, always dancing.

“Scotch dancing, Irish jigs and strathspey and reels … I can’t remember when I wasn’t dancing.

“We’d go to all the competitions. Mum would sit with the other mothers and they’d all be gossiping until they’d see us come and they’d be, ‘Here come those Miller kids!’ because we were all dancing in the competition and either I’d get first place and Marnie would get second or Marnie would get first prize and I’d get second. It never failed.’’

That dancing became a full-time occupation and Moi Yo was performing in Melbourne in 1933 when she met Dante’s son Bill, when the magic show came to town.

Dante senior pronounced himself smitten by the beauty of Melbourne’s females. He staged a revue looking for the most beautiful woman in Australia. Moi-Yo took out the honours and spent the next year studying the illusions.

She was known thereafter as the Most Beautiful Woman in Australia. She was also advertised for two decades – around the globe – as one of the most beautiful women in the world. She thinks it was an exaggeration but look at the pictures for yourself.

Young Moi-yo took to Dante’s show with a passion – and an eye for smartening up what she still refers to as an “awful’’ staging. She redesigned costumes, sets and music, vetted staff and in quick time become co-star of the largest touring show in the world at the time – the Dante Mystery Revue.

And there was magic. Magic behind China’s closed borders, in Stalin’s tyrannical empire, in Japan, Spain and Europe, Canada, America…

“Oh yes, we travelled all over China, we loved it,’’ Moi-yo smiles.

“Everywhere we went, of course, we had entree into the best of places. But we were not meeting people on the streets, so to speak, unless we met friends in the group and they had friends – then we’d get to meet someone that way.’’

Winning entry to different countries was not always a straightforward affair and often drew on Dante’s formidable renown and his extensive worldwide connections.

“First of all, we had to get the paperwork done, visas with all those countries, and we had to get entree by some very well-known people – the Strasbourgs or someone like that – and then we had a toe in and we had to work our way through.’’

Today, half a century later, the changing nature of touring shows have all consigned Moi-Yo’s star to the past. Yet, even 50 years after retirement forced by Dante’s death, Moi-Yo is still recognised by the magic world’s cognoscenti.

Last year she was subject of a special homage in the movie Women in Boxes – a tribute to magicians assistants cut into pieces, stabbed incessantly, set on fire, crushed, dismembered …

Says director Harry Pallenberg: “Moi-Yo Miller has an interesting position the pantheon of assistants. Every single person we interviewed – both man and woman, magician or assistant, historian or magic fan – saw Moi-Yo as the pinnacle of the art.”

In 1993, she and husband Arturo were presented with a Dragon Award by the J. Marberger Stuart Foundation.

For a woman whose study is wallpapered with photos of her with such luminaries down the ages as a young David Copperfield and George Sanders, not to mention movie posters of Abbott and Costello, it’s perhaps not so remarkable that in the town where she was born, Moi-yo Miller might be largely a forgotten star to all but family and the closest of friends.

We shouldn’t forget. Luckily, the Nazis didn’t.

— Moi-yo Miller died September 18, 2018. She was 104 years old.