Abbotts 50th Get Together 1987
by Frances Marshall & Karrell Fox
When the news of an opening of a magic shop in Colon, Michigan reached Chicago in 1934, our people were surprised! Who could they sell to? Who could they get to work there in such a tiny town? It will never last! It provided opinionated gossip for weeks, but soon the Abbott Magic Company was “paying the postage”, coming out with new tricks and showing the magic world they meant business. We, as magic dealers and direct competition, were a little uneasy at the rapid growth of this country cousin. A few years passed, everything settled down and we were doing business with one another – no problems.
Then the Get-togethers began. Small to begin with, aided and abetted by the beautiful countryside, the low cost of bed and board, the dynamic prowess of Percy (Abbott), and the general love of magicians for being “together”. Looking back over the years, certain memories stand out like ornaments on a Christmas tree. There were the years Monk Watson led the orchestra on stage – a comic interlude no one ever tired of. The antics of Duke Stern, calling out (after vanishing a bouquet), “Come flower! Come flower!” at which point somebody overhead emptied a sack of flour on his head. Another time he placed a shallow basket of eggs on a kitchen chair (the kind with holes punched through the wooden seat). Minutes later, forgetting ( ?) where he had put the eggs he sat down on the chair. Long strands of yellow yolk and egg white streamed down through the holes while the audience wept with laughter! There was only one Dukie!
One year Edgar Bergen, then famous nationwide, arrived with other Californians and Jim Sherman as interlocutor. Chic Schoke and friends had rented a house where they entertained all these celebrities. Percy had discovered early on that one of the attractions of the Colon convention was the chance to rub shoulders with the big shots, so he wasn’t about to have his “bait” locked away behind closed doors. He made a public announcement about it, inviting Mr. Schoke to go away and stay away and leave his guests alone. Chic Schoke’ had sold insurance for decades – he had a skin like a walrus – no way could you insult him. The conventioneers were delighted with the fracas and the weekend ended with a draw.
A little later in time, there was the year of the British visitors (the flying sorcerors) – a year that was duplicated a number of times, with different overseas visitors each time. The conventioneers could get them aside and actually visit with these magicians from far away, then watch them work at night – with their different accents and different kinds of magic. The fun was on both sides and, as the years went by, Americans began to go to England to try out their conventions, and the magic went round and round.
One misguided year, the feature was a crucifixion. On a much better note, one year brought a wedding – right in the heart of the Get-together. Cardini’s brother and his bride. Another lovely moment on the big stage, in another year, was the appearance of the Abbott family, all who were left, to take a bow and say goodbye. Tears and smiles mingled again. One year, Dell O’Dell brought her big trailer home to Colon, to show how show business moves about in New York. She invited friends in for little suppers she cooked herself and won even more Dell O’Dell fans. What a woman! Another year, the famous John Mulholland was on the bill and was our houseguest. We had a different house every year and this one leaked. In fact, it must have leaked for years because all the walls were clammy and tomb-like. It was very tiny, so we put John upstairs in the bigger of the two bedrooms. He had to come downstairs for the bathroom and scared us to death by dropping a book as he descended the stairs, as we thought he had fallen. I believe John performed his act in Chinese robes on that occasion.
One year, the Chicago magicians urged Ed Marlo to come with them. He was very hesitant as Ed was a Chicago boy and country life was something he had never tried. Farmers in those days rented space in their houses for a dollar or two a night and Ed won the priority spot on a mattress laid on a wide landing on the stairs. Like all true farmhouse it had outdoor plumbing. One day before the Get-together officially ended, Ed Marlo returned to his Chicago home by bus, green around the gills and very anxious to eat “regular” again. I don’t think Ed has been back to Colon since. (Editor’s note: Since that time, however, Colon has made the quantum leap forward and most houses have electricity, running water and interior plumbing! ).
Doc Mahendra and Anne brought their motor home one year and Doc made crepe suzettes for guests. I adored them but I never learned how to make them. Old timers will remember the year. Stewart James told the tale of Mrs. Astor’s horse – the year Jack Gwynne did a levitation act in the middle of the street – Gus Rapp delighting everyone with his talk and fun. One year, bags of candy, with prizes or numbers were sold, but the candy was a vitriolic shade of blue and hard as a rock. We still had the bag when we got out on the street so we tried to give a piece to a local dog. He took one smell and vanished. Another year, much more recently , there was much consternation when a water torture cell was wheeled out on stage. Everyone was convinced it was going t o crash right through t o t h e cellar. The same kind of audience fear showed up when Franz Harary (and before him Joe Eddie & Betty) waltzed about with a monster boa constrictor. Again, just another moment of excitement at Colon. In some of the other early years, Jesse Thornton (or his labors) showed up in the shows. His specialty was a clock act, very well received. His last days were spent in this magic atmosphere, with a drive through the town for a last look at the magic factory and a handshake with his friends before going to the hospital for an operation. He never returned.
This might be the moment to mention the local cemetery. Over the years it has become the resting place for a number of “name” magicians, with such luminaries as Karrell Fox measuring off desirable space for future use. One midnight a large assembly of the aging and semi-aging went out in a group. It was a night for Houdini, if he was paying attention to publicity at the moment. He was a no-show.
There was the year Jerry Spurlock drove up in a huge trailer, creating great expectations – which didn’t get fulfilled. Always, even until today, the old joke gets repeated. Somebody gets hired for a Get-together show, doesn’t quite create a success, and gets hung with the label that they must have been a good customer. The acts are NOT hired by how much a man spends, but the joke lives on.
The Foxy Follies lived for a number of years, with a troupe of clowns in crazy outfits. The script is by Karrell Fox and Duke Stern (until his death), Abb Dickson and any other member of the troupe who had an idea. Essentially it was a burlesque of what had happened all week. Sometimes it was great, usually quite funny, sometimes a little repetitive, and always a lot of work by the participants (who would have killed if you tried to remove them from the fray) . The Follies, as of 1987, became history.
The funniest thing I ever saw on one of the Get-together shows took place when Percy was doing some illusions of his own make. It was one of those rod through boxes type things. The box turned on rollers. A girl was inside. An assistant, who was behind the upright cabinet, was to insert a short length of rod at the right point, as Percy was shoving rods through from the front. The box was spun about to show all rods through the holes. On another spin, the assistant, now out of sight, was supposed to remove the short rod, He must have gotten talking to someone and, as the box came past him in it’s whirl, he just barely remembered his job. He did a ballet move in the air, grabbed the short length of rod and then realized that both he and the length of rod were by now in full view of the audience. Percy was glaring at him – people were screaming with laughter – and the poor guy reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe his brow! You had to see
Those readers who were present at a Get-together of a few years ago will add this other great moment of magical history – “the kid and Mike Calawell saga!” It seems that Mike, a veteran comedy act, asked for the use of a kid, A little boy came on stage and – took over! He topped (or Mike let him top) everything that was said. He dashed madly in and out of the curtains. He threatened to bodily assault Mike (who was at least ten times his size). Mike kept coming up with lines that slayed the audience. If ever a bit belonged on film, this one did. It is moments like this that cause people to travel hundreds of miles to get to Colon each summer – “Let’s see what goes on THIS year!”
Fifty years ago, Blackstone (Senior) owned island property in Colon and used the place to build tricks, rehab the show, rest and whatever, assisted by his brother Pete and others. He decided to use his widely-known name to found a magician’s supply company and he hired a newcomer from Australia, Percy Abbott, to act as general manager. Percy had all the requirements. He knew magic, was a forceful and dynamic operator and was interested in settling into something with permanence in the United States.
Rumor has it that Blackstone came back from the road, demanded accountings and an altercation broke out, followed by a fist fight. Somebody called the cops. Blackstone, ever the actor, stepped into the next room when he heard the approach of the “fuzz”. As they came into the house, he rushed forward with an outstretched hand to Abbott and said, -“Percy! When did you get back in town”?
Thus the Abbott Magic Company was born in pain and anguish, high hope and resolve, headed by Percy Abbott – sole owner. That he did a hell of a job is attested to by this recent celebration of over fifty years in business and fifty annual conventions.
The Bordner family came into the scene because Recil Bordner had become, early on, the partner of Percy. The passage of time brought everything down to the person of Greg Bordner, President of the Abbott Magic Company and the genial host of the annual Get-togethers. The decision to have a pictorial history via photographic slides of a few of the people figuring in the last fifty years was a perfect way to start off the 50th Anniversary event. The audience was fascinated and alive with whispers as they recalled the names, the times and the magic delivered by all those folks. No way could it have been a comprehensive survey – no one knows how many people must have figured in those fifty conventions. But David Linsell , the photographer, outdid himself with the presentation. Congratulations on a great job.
Gordon Miller was the M.C. for the Wednesday night opening show that followed the showing of the pictorial history. Acts included Bob Little, being his own crazy self with his own brand of magic – a real audience pleaser; Franz Harary presenting many illusions, including the Disembodied Princess, Light Bulb Cabinet, Mike Stand Suspension, Assistant’s Revenge, Guillotine, etc, It was Franz who performed a trick that caught everybody. A girl is put into a box which is divided by blades into eight pieces. Franz then took hold of one end and an assistant took hold of the other end. The box is divided or slid apart, like an accordion at every point where a blade had been placed. There were wide-open spaces between the sections of the box where once there was a living girl! The sections are slid back together, the cabinet opened and there she was! Nobody topped that one! Chris Jakway followed, working in the attractive Chavez style. Chris is a co-partner to Neil Foster in the midwest branch of that famous magic school. Airjazz followed – that beautiful choreographed juggling material done by two boys and a girl with rhythm, style and applause creating the fun. They are unique among jugglers. Also on this evening’s show were special presentations to Little Johnny Jones and Greg Bordner – both awards presented by the outgoing and. current Presidents of The International Brotherhood of Magicians, Karrell Fox and June Horowitz.
Harry Blackstone closed this first show as only Harry, a lifetime professional, could. Regulars at the Get-together expect to see Harry Blackstone at least once during the weekend, even if it is only a cameo appearance.
That very first Get-together show, decades ago, had an M.C. worthy of any show, any place – Sid Lorraine. He has made other appearances through the years and he was again the emcee for the Thursday night show. Ward Thomas, cruise ship performer, got rounds of applause with his colorful flash act of umbrellas, silks and other objects. A fine example of “magic to look at”. A dandy opening act for any spot in any show.
John Salisse is one of those British imports we mentioned earlier and he was very welcome with his droll, take-apart ventriloquist figure. Airjazz returned – to surpass themselves and again delight the audience. Howard Flint managed to get more people in costume on stage at one time than anyone had in the history of the Get-togethers. When they all began to perform “Snowstorm in China” in unison, it took over the stage – the orchestra pit – the front rows, etc. It also laid the groundwork for a little vignette I will tell you about later. Howard did other things on stage that night but he will be remembered for the “snow”.
The next-to-closing act was Jay Marshall, who dug deeper for “something different”. This time it was of World War II vintage, the mop routine, fleshed out with other numbers from his repertoire. If General MacArthur liked the mop routine as much as this audience did, Jay could have come out of the service with three stars! Jay still had another surprise up his sleeve. His signature closing is almost always “Lefty” and so it was this night – coupled with “Righty”! Comment the rest of the week centered about the fact that everybody had heard of these legendary numbers, but almost nobody had ever seen them. (Since YOU didn’t, I will tell you that Righty looks just like Lefty but he has a different voice and the song is “We Three” )
Closing this show were The Barans, international trophy winners and veterans of thousands of miles afloat with Norwegian American cruise ships. No wonder they’re good .. . they have so much time to rehearse while their ship is spinning off the miles. Jennifer Baran dazzled the audience with seventeen costume changes – one lovely evening gown after another – all adorning one lovely body. These young marrieds, from suburban Chicago, have had phenomenal success doing what they like doing best – performing. They’ve seen the world at somebody else’s expense and have groomed and honed their act until it shines. And, they are still young, handsome adults with delightful manners, pleasant dispositions and no bad .. habits. They have the world in front of them and I wish them the greatest. The audience showed that it agreed. When the show was over, the children in the front rows began to grab up handfulls of paper (from Flint’s act) and toss them about, just horsing around in general.
Then, tears and chagrin. One child said she had had a gift five-dollar bill folded in her hand and during the grabbing and tossing of the paper it had vanished. It was just about hopeless to try and look for it, but the kids all tried. Harry Blackstone was observing, standing nearby with friends, and he very kindly dropped a bill onto the floor, pushed it into a pile of paper with his foot and did a “There it is!” to the group of kids. It brought a lot of joy and, after all, that’s Harry’s main business, isn’t it? Keep spreading the joy, Harry. You’re a nice and classy guy.
On Friday night another overseas personality came to the fore as M.C. – Terry Seabrooke. That is, he started out as an overseas visitor but now he is in the U.S. of A. more than in Britain. Like Jay, he dug deep into his cache of tricks in deference t o the many folks who have seen him often. The Seabrooke delivery pattern always wins out, no matter what the tricks are. He introduced Mark Zwartz who presents a new idea as a robotic magician. Abel and Marina Pabon, visitors from Puerto Rico, showed pretty material with silks and doves, etc. Tom Ogden , busy California pro, strives for comedy situations and succeeds, as evidenced here with his kid in the Hindu Basket illusion. (As it turned out, Franz Harary’s boa was also in the basket!) Tom also presented the Sword Thru Neck and other Ogden jollies. David Seebach, Wisconsin illusionist, who has a good reputation for presenting big shows sponsored by automobile manufacturers, did a few numbers from those shows – Bow Sawing, a new Stretcher illusion, Mismade Girl, Crystal Box and Broom Suspension and others. He’s a pro and it shows. Speaking of pros, so is Lucy Smalley who, some years ago may have done one of her first full stage acts on the Colon stage. She has now reached a peak in her work. Every inch a class act. A good looking girl who knows what she is doing. Someone said she was a feminine version of a Chavez act and so she is, with innovations strictly her own and every move a picture. She did a costume change with a Full Light Seance routine that would take a first in any contest. Just beautiful. Lucy also has auto show experience under her belt, plus many other good jobs. I do want to see her on T.V. one day.
If anybody reading this hasn’t seen Kohl and Company – they should be ashamed – and should be sure to catch them the next time they get the chance. The act is indescribable, hilarious, ridiculous, funny and clever and belongs on convention shows nationwide. Nobody has tried to copy them. There is no way you could because this acting troupe have built in comedy material that simply could not be done by anybody else. Something very special.
By Saturday night everyone at the Get-together is pretty beat, what with late nights, early programs and contests, too much laughter, too much emotion, etc. But every seat was filled and ready for the show emceed by Mike Caldwell, who is funny, fat and stage-wise. As a special treat he introduced Cindy Conklin’s daughter, Stacy, who presented a brief and charming magic act just perfect for her age, size and appearance. Stage Manager Cindy must have been bursting with pride.
Mike then brought on James Dimmere and Lisa (she is the daughter of Shimada). This young engaged couple, with marriage in the offing, have been working nice spots and building a reputation. Dimmere is an excellent magician (in the Lance Burton tradition). He has developed a number of personal effects uniquely his own that make him unlike anyone else. Lisa is an important part of the act because they planned it that way. They work with birds and cages and silks and the same things other acts use but it is all based on a network of precision and timing and surprise, unlike others, He leaves you gasping when he shrinks a cage full of birds down to a small size cage and then vanishes it. Great things should be in this couple’s future.
John Salisse came back again with his wonderful, coy duck figure who enchants everyone. When the duck loses his eye and John finds it and slaps it back on again sideways and the poor little duck twists his head all around trying to see, it is a picture of tragedy and comedy all mixed up. We almost hate ourselves for laughing. This polished English gentleman was quickly supplanted by a riotous carnival atmosphere featuring Senor Rai and Company. (He sent me a bouquet at the beginning of the show for which I thank him. I was one of a dozen or so women so favored, so it was nothing personal.) Senor Rai also donated a wild looking fur coat to Marshall’s American Museum of Magic for an exhibit. He advised Bob Lund to fluff it up a little now and then.
Senor Rai has an extensive battery of pyrotechnical pieces which explode and flare out and keep you on the edge of your seat. Among his effects he presented a number of illusions, including Palanquin, a fishbowl effect with a girl in a mermaid outfit, the Stack of Bowls, etc. He works with a slap dash fervor, surrounds himself with pretty women and, in general, maintains the kind of act nobody can copy – nobody has the adrenalin for it.
Fukai and Kimika, from Japan, followed with a pretty act built around parasols and umbrellas. Very, very Japanese. The evening ended with the last edition of The Foxy Follies, headed by Karrell Fox and backed up by many of the former Follies’ “girls”.
And that was only the evening activities! Daytime lectures were given by Abel Pabon, Terry Seabrooke, Karrell Fox and Sid Lorraine. The Magic Talent Contests were held a t t h e high school on several mornings and the winners are: Junior Contest – Third Prize: Dave Sutherland, First Prize: (Tie) : Joe Spiller, Stacey & Steven (Smolinski) . Senior Contest – Third Prize: David Gower, Second Prize: Richard Aimes and First Prize: David Peck. David Peck’s performance also earned him a spot on Saturday’s evening show – a thrill for him and a treat for that night’s audience.
Howard Olson supplies the following report on .the ventriloquist’s activities. “The Vent-o-Rama was held in conjunction with Abbott’s 50th Magic Get-together this year, as usual. Winners of the Olson trophies were Eddie Adams of Metairie, LA. in first place. Second place went to ‘Great’ Scott Dietrich of Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. The Originality Trophy was earned by Mike Y avorsky of Toledo, OH.
“Mike McDade and Gerard Dietrich added to the entertainment in the mornings. Host Howie Olson gave demonstrations, routines and lectures on the art of ventriloquism. Many in the audience said they were inspired and were going t o put together an act for next year’s Vent-o-Rama. “Ventriloquism has been enjoying a renewed popularity recently. It is a form of magic that many magicians have added to their presentations. A ventriloquist’s figure is one- of the best ways of using misdirection. Hope to see all of you at the 1988 Vent-o-Rama at Abbottls Magic Get -together!”
The ladies were treated to a Bingo Party on Thursday and on Friday the Senior Citizen’s Party took place at The Magic Carpet lounge. This popular party was well attended by young and old alike. A brunch was included with music by Howard Bamman and Connie Pelham. I (Frances Marshall) served as M.C. and we had a goodly number of short acts making their appearance. Organization was done (by mail) by June Horowitz and the results were well worth it. Other daytime events included visits to the cemetery, the Colon Museum, the Colon Historical Society’s Treasure Chest Sale, performances by street magicians Artie Kidwell, Howard Flint and Todd Karr, the, Magic Ministers Session and, I understand, Franz Harary’s boa constrictor created a little show of his own whenever he was allowed outside to soak up a little sunshine.
The Matinee (held this year on Saturday) sees the benefits from ticket sales going toward the work done by the Colon Lion’s Club to aid the blind and visually impaired. Performer’s on this year’s show were: M.C. Gil Scott, juggler Bruce Block, Barbara Crandall (a ventriloquist and a former Miss Michigan) and Ronald McDonald. Friday’s Close-Up Magic show was entrusted to the capable hands of Tim Wright, Abel Pabon, Cil Scott and Mitch Williams. Events at the Showroom followed all the big evening shows. At the local American Legion Clubhouse, holding forth every night, were such sterling close-up workers as Tommy Edwards, Karl Norman and dozens of others, famous and not-so-famous. Some great magic happens here.
Through the creative talents and good graces of Karrell Fox, we are happy to reprint the special poem he delivered on Wednesday night’s show. It is called : “Colon Memories”. “One night recently … as I sat alone at home . . . I leaned back in my easy chair . . . and let my memories roam to yesterday’s Colon Get-togethers … boy, were they fun . . . and as conventions go . . . Colon was always number one.
“My first was at the Colon Opera House, so many years ago . . . and yet . . . as I close my eyes . . . I can still recall that show. The emcee was Dorny, and he was really funny . . . Lester Lake did his guillotine … and chopped off the head of a ‘honey’ .
“Monk Watson did the orchestra leader . .. at which he had no peer, then Jesse Thornton with his clock act … from vaudeville’s yesteryear. Intermission came next . . . and even it was a dandy, as Percy Abbott himself did a pitch and then . . . he sold the candy.
“Bill Williston did his comedy .. . then Mel with lightning art .. . and a kid named Fox .. . contributing his part. The band had only two members .. . Gladys Abbott at the piano, and later I was to learn … that the fiddler who worked with her .. . had the last name of . . . Stern.
“The memories I have are many … of the Get-togethers past … where hundreds of friendships have been made .. . and all of them will last. The suppers at the churches where the food was always great . . . the local merchant’s sidewalk sales . . . in which we all participate.
“The names of all the Super Stars who appeared in Abbott’s tent . . . Blackstone – Gwynne – Crandall … and Recil Bordner .. . he was quite a gent. For places to visit in Colon . . . the American Legion is number one .. . and there’s never a night there, that isn’t filled with fun.
“To the wonderful people of Colon .. . who have always been so great .. . and who welcome us in their homes … even when we sneak in late. To all the crew at Abbotts . . . and Greg Bordner, who runs the store . . . we Thank You for all the memories, and we’ll be back . . . for Fifty More! “
In an effort not to leave anything out I must add that one night, under the stars, and on the shore of the lake a real Colon Luau was held. It featured burning firebrands throwing flames up high, a roasted pig, plates of fruit and other good edibles, Hawaiian style decorations and a background of a very nice house with a balcony deck on which the musicians and others sat. This was a private party (staged by magicians) to which we were invited. I do thank them for their hospitality. It was certainly a first for Colon. I understand the roast pig came all the way from Chicago,
Finally, it was all over and once again we began the long trek home via the Indiana Turnpike. Another fifty years have begun for the Abbott Magic Get-togethers and we here at Magic Inc., wish them the greatest. One last thought to the folks at Abbott’s – just don’t move to Chicago!