Blackstone equipment being reconstructed
From The Ingham County News, September 23, 1970, by Jim Walker: “Detroit magic lovers work to bring Harry back”
Outside the Bijou theatre in downtown Lansing, the snow was falling quickly on this cold December night in 1920. A marquee light hits the ad sheet behind glass. “The Great Blackstone and his All Star Company featuring The Tub of Diogenes, The Casadega Propaganda, The Man With the Whiskers, The $25,000 Bridal Chamber Illusion, The Map of Europe, Extra added attraction, Inez Nourse, The Little Banjophiend.”
Inside the theatre, the cold of the night outside is forgotten as the pit orchestra begins its drum roll introduction of the star performer, Harry
BLACKSTONE STRIDES ONSTAGE with his inimitable walk, removes his gleaming white gloves and throws them into the audience. But suddenly, the gloves become a white dove that flies into the balcony. After removing the traditional magician’s cape, he shows the audience that both sides of the cape are empty, and drapes it across his arm. From the cape he then draws bouquet after bouquet of brilliantly colored flowers, tossing them to the floor of the stage and gradually filling the entire area behind the footlights.
That scene was repeated every night during Blackstone’s performing career, a career that lasted 60 years, right up to his death in 1965. For Blackstone was the ultimate magician. Others were better than he at the various arts of magic. Houdini was a better escape man, others did a more mystifying levitation or were better technicians, but none were the consummate showman that Blackstone was.
Now, five years after his death, a small group of Michigan men are reconstructing his act from apparatus and material obtained from a former associate who had stored it for 15 years.
ROBERT LUND, Daniel Waldron, and Jack Curtis are three Detroit – area men who love magic. Lund and Waldron are life-long Blackstone fans. In a barn somewhere in Ingham County, they are reconstructing the equipment found in crates that were stored by a Weedsport, N.Y. man, George Hippisley. Hippisley was a long-time friend of Blackstone and had been storing the material for 15 years.
Lund, who is the Detroit editor of Popular Mechanics magazine and considers himself a magic historian, says the immediate plans are to simply repair the equipment. “Our long range plans are to try and start a museum of magic,” he said. “To get funds for this we hope to put together a small magic show, about an hour long, and present it. The proceeds would go towards the museum.”
Waldron, a TV commercial producer for a Detroit ad agency, has spent eight years researching a book on Blackstone and his career. “Blackstone was known as the greatest showman,” Waldron asserted, “among all the magicians. He used such lavish costumes that he was sometimes called the “Ziegfeld of Magicians.” Much of Waldron’s research has been conducted at the annual magicians’ convention held in August in Colon, south of Battle Creek. Colon is known as the “Magic Capitol of the World.” Colon was also Harry Blackstone’s home for many years.
LUND AND WALDRON brought the huge shipping crates of equipment to Michigan in early July. They are stored in a barn in Ingham County because of lack of space in the Detroit area. “We have a great deal of work yet to do,” Lund commented. “As you can see, we have only just begun to take the apparatus from the packing crates. We had to do some work on the barn’s second floor first,” he added.
Jack Curtis, a Wayne State University professor, is helping the two men repair the equipment. “Jack’s a big help,” Waldron noted, “because he is about the only man we could find who knows about old clock works, which Blackstone used in some tricks.”
The bottom floor of the barn, about 20 by 30 feet, is packed from floor to ceiling with orange train crates. Blackstone had all his crates painted orange and left standing orders with his stage crews to grab anything painted orange after a show and put it on his baggage car, according to Waldron. Blackstone’s show in it prime, used an entire baggage car to pack his apparatus. Those shows, Waldron said, “ran two and a half hours, and had almost 200 tricks.” Blackstone’s last big tour was in 1950, with “a company of 30, mostly girls,” as he billed it. He continued to perform occasionally until his death.
“MOST PEOPLE WON’T believe that they can go to the library and read a book about how any of Blackstone’s tricks are done,” Waldron said. “The important thing is not how the trick is actually worked, but how it was presented.” He added, “Blackstone’s fame and greatness came from his showmanship. When you went to a Blackstone show you saw two and one half hours of wonder, and you left the theatre in awe.”
With a two and a half hour show, the tricks were constantly being refined. As Lund said, “while the basic tricks didn’t change too much from year to year, there were always subtle refinements, changes in costuming or titles that left the impression Blackstone lived up to his ads to “present an entirely new show” each year.
An example of the refinement Blackstone would add to a trick is the Sawing-A-Woman-in-Half illusion. The British magician Selbit developed this illusion. Many American magicians copied it, but Blackstone added a touch of his own. Instead of a handsaw to cut through the pretty young lady, he used a huge buzz saw, which made a horrendous noise and had an even greater impact on the audience.
Blackstone used many beautiful women in his show. However, most of these were quite petite, never exceeding 5’ 3” or 105 pounds. Most were also young, between 17 and 26, according to Waldron, although there were exceptions. Small girls were used in the illusions since they could be more easily hidden or made to disappear. Lund and Waldron had two young girls with them, 13 and 16, to demonstrate how small Blackstone’s girls were.
BLACKSTONE GOT HIS start when he was 15 in Chicago. His real name was Harry Boughton, which his father had changed to Bouton. He used Bouton when he played the smaller theatres of Wisconsin, northern Indiana, and Southeastern Michigan. When he began touring the larger houses, he changed his name to Blackstone. His brother, Peter, built most of the apparatus now being restored, and also appeared in the show.
Blackstone was more noted for his illusions than for any escape tricks similar to Houdini’s. Yet, according to Waldron, during his early years, he would invite local carpenters to construct a box from which he would escape. Often, he would have himself bound and chained, nailed into the box, and the box dropped into a nearby river or lake. Within 45 seconds, Blackstone would bob to the top, amazing all and ensuring sufficient publicity for his show.
“There was one time,” Waldron related, “that Blackstone’s press agent got him into some trouble. Blackstone normally had an illusion where he made a horse disappear. He would come on stage, step up on a platform and walk through the small area enclosed by four posts, step down and lower a curtain in front. A horse and rider would then ride in front of the side, up a ramp, and behind the curtain. As soon as they had disappeared, Blackstone would raise the curtain quickly, and the rider and the horse had disappeared!”
“THIS ONCE,” Waldron continued, “the press agent had committed Blackstone to making a camel disappear. Blackstone agreed to try, but when the camel and its rider trotted onstage, only the first three-fourths of the camel and rider could be placed behind the curtain. Thus, when Blackstone raised the curtain, thee-fourths of the camel had disappeared, with only the rump sticking out from the curtain visible. Needless to say that was the last time a camel was used.”
Waldron has been researching a book on Blackstone for the past eight years. He is attempting to document every show date the “World’s Greatest Magician” had.