His only foray into cinema was an early 1930s film short entitled "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century". He directed the production and starred as Doctor Huer.
Tarbell was born in the Illinois town of Delavan, but spent his childhood in Groveland. Tarbell created cartoons for a newspaper in Morton when he was 12 years old. It was at this time that Tarbell received one of his earliest introductions to professional magic, when he hiked five miles along the railroad tracks to watch magician Harry August Jansen, aka Dante, perform at the Morton Town Hall.
In 1911, Tarbell moved to Chicago in order to pursue a professional career in illustration. His efforts attracted the attention of the magic company Read and Covert, which hired Tarbell to work on their Illustrated Catalogue of Superior Magical Apparatus. Tarbell continued to produce illustrations for Read and Covert until 1941.
During World War I, Tarbell served with the 24th Air Company in France, working with the medical department. He found time during his service to illustrate a military atlas and study with French impressionist Claude Monet.
In 1921, five years before he began working on his Tarbell Course, he did some illustrations for a publication called "Lessons in Magic". Offered by Magic Products Co., Department of Correspondence Instruction, Chicago, the lessons took the form of 6" x 9" booklets, one for each trick. Twelve lessons were written by Arthur Buckley were advertised. A full-page ad can be seen in the May 1921 issue of the Sphinx (Vol. 20, No. 3).
Publishers T. Grant Cooke and Walter A. Jordan developed an interest in producing a correspondence course in magic in the mid-1920s. Cook and Jordan hired Tarbell and Walter Baker, another Chicago-area magician, to work on the project, but Baker dropped out of the project in its early stages to concentrate on his performances. A few months before his death, Harry Houdini was approached to author the course, but Houdini declined but recommended Tarbell. The publishers agreed, allotting Tarbell $50,000 for the course. Tarbell finished the course in 1928, producing 60 correspondence lessons with at least 3,100 illustrations.
Tarbell lived in Elmhurst for the last 34 years of his life. He suffered a fatal cardiac arrest, dying at the age of 70.
- Tarbell's Chalk Talk Book (1920)
- Here's Power (1923)
- How to Chalk Talk (1924)
- The Original Tarbell Course in Magic (1926)
- Chalk Talk Stunts (1926)
- Chalk Talks for Sunday Schools (1928)
- Crazy Stunts for Comedy Occasions (1929)
- Tarbell Post-Graduate Service in Magic (1930)
- Mississippi Minstrel First-Part (1930)
- "Comedy is, of course, closely associated with eggs." - Tarbell Course in Magic, Vol. 2, page 269
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