A self-described loner, Jack Kodell bounced around southern Minnesota as a kid before — presto! — blossoming into a world-renowned magician.

With his first-ever live bird act, Kodell wowed everyone from Queen Elizabeth to Ed Sullivan. He made tiny parakeets appear and vanish from Paris to Las Vegas, where he performed the Strip's first magic act in the 1940s at just 17.

Only a few people today remember Kodell. One of them is Roger Jennings, 80, a Mankato-born former Drug Enforcement Administration agent and lawyer who lives in Simi Valley, Calif. Jennings learned magic from his ninth-grade algebra teacher, Ronald Hibbard, who started a magic club in the 1950s at Lincoln Junior High School in Mankato.

"All of the seven members knew about Jack Kodell and his success in performing magic around the world," said Jennings, a member of various magicians' organizations for nearly 50 years.

Online there is a 5½-minute clip of Kodell's act, recorded in France in 1958 , when he was nearly 30 and wearing his full-tail tuxedo.

But things weren't always so glitzy for Kodell — a stage name for John Koudelka, born in Mankato in 1927.

His father sold Firestone tires in southern Minnesota before World War II, moving every year to open new territory. The lifestyle was tough on young Jack, the only child of Ed and Ida Koudelka, a school teacher.

"We lived throughout the state of Minnesota in a different town every year, Mankato, Albert Lea, Austin and some small towns, too," he wrote in "Kodell: Do Something Different," his 2011 autobiography.

Making friends proved tricky, he said, because "each town held a different school and different kids ... one year really does not cement any solid bonding of lifetime school pal relations."

Kodell said his parents felt sorry for all the uprooting "and made every effort to make up for it in any way they could." Or as a 1952 profile put it in Linking Ring, a magic journal: "His folks catered to his every whim."

That included occasionally driving the family car at age 7 under parental supervision and moving beyond his model airplane hobby to fly real airplanes — logging 79 cockpit hours aloft between ages 8 and 13 (three years before he could get a license).

The turning point for the adventurous kid came in 1941 when Jack won the Soap Box Derby in Minneapolis, prompting a Sunday front-page photo with his trophy and a big grin. He qualified for the international title in Akron, Ohio, but lost in the first heat to a kid from West Virginia.

While in Minneapolis for the derby, Jack stopped at a downtown magic shop and purchased a set of multiplying billiard balls. He mastered the trick "after countless hours and weeks of practice," studying under a Mankato meat merchant who "dabbled in the ancient art" of magic, according to the 1952 profile. "Under the butcher's tutelage Kodell soon developed into Mankato's favorite and busiest young performer."

Jack moved with his parents to Chicago when he was 16, just as he was developing his parakeet trick. By 17 he was performing in Las Vegas, a town that Kodell said "didn't want any association with cheating involving cards or coins," the two staples of magic shows. His bird act changed all that.

Kodell took the stage in several countries, including England where his 1950 marriage in London to popular British singer Mary Naylor landed him on the front page of the tabloids. But after 15 years as a headlining magician, Kodell walked away from magic in 1962 while still in his 30s.

"His type of top-hats-and-tails show, accompanied by a live orchestra, was on the way out, and he was not interested in changing his style," the Orlando Sentinel reported in 2001.

After Jack and Mary moved to Florida in 1991, opening a dinner show theater and managing a hotel, Kodell said: "Now everyone does a bird act."

Kodell died at 84 in Orlando in 2012, two years after a Florida theater honored him as a Legend of Magic. "It feels so good to walk out on stage one more time," he told a magazine writer.

And that magic shop in Minneapolis that got Kodell started in 1941? "I'm 99 percent sure that would have been the Eagle Magic Store," said Larry Kahlow, 74, who has owned the shop since the 1970s and met Kodell about 25 years ago. He says the store, which opened in 1899 in downtown Minneapolis, is the longest-running magic shop in the United States. It's now located in Burnsville.

Kodell returned to Minnesota to perform at the State Fair in 1960. Minneapolis Star columnist Cedric Adams wrote that the former Soap Box Derby winner had visited 18 countries in the nearly two decades since leaving Minnesota, and noted that the Kodells had to fork out 50 cents each to get into the fairgrounds and 75 cents to park their car there. "Neither Mary nor her husband can quite get used to having to pay to go to work," Adams wrote.

Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear every other Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.