Memories of Billie Blackstone
TOPs magazine, June, 1992, by George Johnstone: “It is hard to comprehend that Billie is no longer with us. That’s Billie Gillick. When I was with the Blackstone show she was Billie Blackstone, the wife of Harry, Sr., and the mother of Harry, Jr. She would have been 84 years old in May of 1992. After a series of strokes, all within two weeks, she died April 14, 1992. Her husband, Mr. Gillick, had died just a year before her.
After she left Blackstone, Sr. and the show, we never saw her again but we have fond memories. She was tall and willowy. In fact, she was the tallest girl in the show. As the boss’s wife she never threw her weight around. She shared the same dressing rooms with the other gals on the show and was fun to be around and had a great sense of humor.
Of course, she had duties on the show, like seeing that the girls on the show kept their costumes in repair. On the show programs, Millie Bouton, Harry’s brother’s wife was listed as “wardrobe mistress”. It was just program padding. At no time did we ever see Millie lift a needle or touch a costume. Each girl on the show took care of their own costumes and each was assigned a male assistant on the show to take care of his uniform rips and tears. Occasionally, one of the girls would plump out a bit, which led Billie to hint that new costumes would have to be made. It was a gentle nudge to the gal to get on a diet and lose some weight.
Betty joined the show when she was sixteen, a few months short of her seventeenth birthday. The Blackstone show had come into Chicago shy one girl. After two days of touring the modeling agencies found Betty – pretty, shapely and just the right size to fit the costumes on hand … but too young. Her mother would love to have her in show business but thought she was too young to tour. Maybe next year.
Harry and Billie put the pressure on Mom. They would watch over her and treat her like a daughter and if Betty wasn’t happy with life on the road they’d ship her back to Chicago, safe and sound. Mom reluctantly gave in.
They did treat Betty wonderfully. They’d take her to parties thrown in different cities by the local magic groups. Frequently, Harry would introduce Betty as their daughter. Billie soon put an end to that. “Dammit, Harry, I’m not old enough to be her mother!” She was – but like all women she fought the age bit, tooth and nail.
At the end of my first season on the show (long before Betty), I had planned to go back to Boston for the summer months. Harry insisted that I come up to Blackstone Island and spend the summer in Colon, Michigan. I had kept in touch with my mom by mail but I hadn’t seen her in six months. I was in a quandary and afraid that if I went back home to Boston Harry wouldn’t call me back when the show reopened in September. I opted for Blackstone Island.
The animal man on the show, Eddie Wykoff, also came up to Colon for the summer. He had to take care of the “vanishing” horse and the ducks during the summer hiatus. Once we were in Colon, Billie laid down the house rules. She hated doing dishes so she would do the cooking and Eddie and I would wash and wipe the dishes. Not a bad deal. (There were no dish washing machines in those days.) Since Harry would keep us busy with groundwork around the house and up at the barn repairing crates and illusions, she would keep the house in order with dusting and making beds. She had only one bed to make as Eddie and I slept on twin beds in the made-over garage adjoining the house. We had been offered twin beds in a small room on the second floor of the house. Since that room was next to the master bedroom, we adopted the garage as our abode so that Harry would never know at what time of night we were coming home after an evening in swinging Colon. Harry really didn’t care but it would have left us open to his raunchy accusations as to why we were out half the night.
During the summer, Billie’s mother came in from Buffalo, New York for a two-week vacation. She was a nice, roly-poly ole gal who loved to cook. When she heard I was from Boson we all ate real, molasses baked beans twice a week. This was a welcome change as Harry was a steak man. It’s amazing how fast you can get tired of steak night after night. Even hot dogs and spaghetti would have been a super meal. (In those days it was spaghetti or noodles. We never knew what pasta was. Y’know, pasta does, in fact, taste like spaghetti or noodles.)
Harry Jr. was with us that summer in Colon. There were no kids his age on the island. Just old, retired duffers and vacationing fisherman in Miller’s Landing cottages next to Blackstone’s property. There was no TV, so in the evening I’d sit around reading magic books or magazines (bought clandestinely at Abbott’s Magic Company). At that time the Blackstone/Abbot feud was at its pinnacle so it wasn’t kosher for the Blackstone employees to visit the Abbott plant. Sometimes Harry, Jr. and I would use a whole yellow pad of paper making sketches and cartoons. Sometimes Harry, Sr. would join us in a sketching session. He had a flair. I wished he had signed them and I had saved them. Peddling them off at the Collectors’ Convention would have paid putting my kids through college.
I forget the name but we were playing some dinky little town in the Midwest. I believe it was a two-day engagement. After the engagement we were supposed to pull out about 7:00 A. M. in the morning. The train depot was about the size of a Chic Sales outhouse. When I arrived, the show troupe looked very depressed, huddled there on the station platform. Way down the track, our boss, Blackstone, was pacing back and forth kicking stones ahead of himself. I asked “What’s wrong with Harry?” I was informed, “He had a big fight with Billie last night and she’s left him.”
From that time on, for a month or more, Harry was hell to be around. He was grouchy, crabby and very morose. A couple of times, bringing props into his dressing room, I caught him crying. We loved the guy and hated to see what was happening to him but what could we kids on the show say or do to console him? Eventually he pulled out of his depression and began to spark an interest in women again … especially the young ones. Because of his age we were applauding.
This May (1992) the Cleveland; Ohio I.B.M. Ring (also known as the Blackstone Ring) celebrated its 50th Anniversary. Despite just returning from Spain and being on a very tight schedule, Harry Blackstone, Jr., flew in for the occasion, keeping a promise he had made months earlier. I was brought in to work the banquet show.
They had a great turnout and after the dinner Harry, Jr. was given an award for his magical accomplishments. Club President Neil Rozum introduced me and as I walked out carrying my table the audience, en masse, got up and started to leave. At first I thought it was some of the older folks heading for their early bedtime. I started to shout, “Hey, wait! Don’t go! I’ve got a lotta new stuff you’ll love. Come back.” Then I spotted Harry, Jr., Howard Flint (and his lovely Veronica) heading for the door along with the crowd. It then dawned on me that I was the victim of a setup. After their belly laughs at my expense, they all returned to their seats and I looked over at Harry as if to say, “Et tu, Brutus.”
They turned out to be a great audience. I guess I did enough new junk to keep them happy. Harry then returned to the stage and did the vanishing bird cage while a bunch of us were holding it.
Both Harry and I came into the Cleveland area the day before the banquet. Howard flint and Veronica were our hosts for the two nights at their home in Chagrin Falls. (Ain’t that an awful name for a city?) The morning after the I.B.M. function, Harry had an 8:20 A. M. flight to San Diego. Since the airport was right along my way back to Chicago, we got up in the wee hours and took off with little more than an hour to spare. Somewhere along the way between gabbing and reminiscing I happened to glance at a sign that indicated that we were heading towards New York and not west towards the airport and Chicago. Good thing it was a Sunday morning and no traffic (and no cops). I made a U-turn and flew low about 80 miles an hour and got Harry to the airport fifteen minutes before flight time. On the flight to San Diego I imagined Harry mumbling, “I’ve know that George Johnstone for over fifty years and he’s still a damned idiot!”