Blackstone’s Magic

Blackstone’s Magic

 

From The Detroit News Michigan, March 2, 1986:

The great magician has had his share of tragedy, so he has few illusio0ns about life, Maybe that’s why he works so hard at making things disappear.

By Richard Willing

 

The band plays and the lights come up and suddenly the folks who have bused in from Allentown aren’t staring anymore at the bright orange trunk dangling from a mesh of chains, 20 feet in the air and stage right.

They are looking instead at the big box, hollow and black, being opened to reveal its emptiness by the provincial beautiful assistant at stage center. “What the hell, there’s nothing in there,” says the guy who retired from Pennsylvania Bell but now comes down to Atlantic City “regular, to see the shows.”

Ah, but is there really nothing? Faster than it takes to describe this, the drummer goes into a roll, the announcer announces the “world’s most famous magician” and – buh-wham! – he’s there, opera cape, goatee, rhinestone studded tuxedo and a sanctifying smile which is somewhere between Siddhartha and a smirk.

Harry Blackstone Jr., a 51-year-old frame built on 100 years of magic lore, is appearing (and disappearing) once again in magic show number who knows-how-many. In the 90 minutes that are to come, the audience – several thousand retirees, their grandchildren and curious gamblers who have decided to give the dice and slots a rest – will be invited into the charming world Blackstone is creating – from nothing – on the Tropical Hotel stage.

It is a world in which flowers spring full bloom from empty pots, where handkerchiefs dance across the stage and disembodied light bulbs float above it, where beautiful ladies are vanished, transformed, dismembered and reassembled, where the magician’s lovely wife herself is changed into a Bengal tiger, if that isn’t redundant, while Blackstone stands by cracking wise. It is a world where anything that seems to be hollow, empty or insubstantial is shown, through the magician’s art, to contain ribbons, prizes and wonder. And it is a world, as the magus is about to explain, that cannot be conjured up by magic words alone.

“Ladies and Gentlemen – dear friends,” Blackstone says by way of preface to each and every show, “I’m going to ask you now to willingly suspend your belief in reality. For it is only through your imagination that what we do becomes real,”

That is a very old lesson, one that Harry Blackstone Jr. learned as a child in Colon, Mich. His father, Harry Blackstone Sr., eminent vaudevillian, contemporary of Thurston and Dunninger, great rival of Houdini (“he couldn’t put his hand into Central Park without rustling the leaves,” a contemptuous Blackstone St. once said of the escape artist), moved his personal and professional families to the sleepy mint farming community in the 1920s.

Harry Jr. spent his formative years there in the company of mentalists and musicians, animal handlers and showgirls and his father’s brother, Pete Bouton, a former magician who served as the Blackstone show’s stage carpenter, trick rigger and unofficial historian.

With that kind of upbringing, Blackstone the younger learned early, as he puts it, that “where the trick really occurs is in the mind of the audience.”

“I could show you how every trick is done, but that would only spoil it for you,” he says, “What I deal in, I suppose, is the capacity to wonder. That is something very ancient and at the same time very relevant and important to life.”

Three hundred days a year, in casino showrooms and college theaters, in surviving relics like Detroit’s Music Hall and in spiffy modern nightclubs, at trade shows and conventions and occasionally on Broadway, Blackstone and his ménage – tigers, camels, elephants, bunnies, reindeer and ducks and, as often as not, 16 dancers and an orchestra – ply their ancient craft. On a trail where many once traveled, they are now almost alone.

“There are tens of thousands of (amateur) magicians worldwide, and thousands more who make at least a little bit of their living performing magic,” says Bob Lund, curator of the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Mich. “But there are only perhaps two dozen anywhere who perform magic full time. And really, among these there are only three – (David) Copperfield, (Doug) Henning and Blackstone – who are at the very top.”

The hours are long – 13 shows a week during a recent Atlantic City run – and all the bouncing around takes its toll on a body. Blackstone recently underwent arthroscopy surgery, running-back style, on a right knee weakened by thousands of hours of being bent, folded and mutilated onstage.

And the pressure – unlike the bunnies and babes and birdcages in Blackstone’s act, never disappears.

“This is not a movie, not a past event that he is presenting,” Lund notes, “This is a live performance. At 8 o’clock tonight, Harry Blackstone is going to make you wonder. And he’s going to be on demand. That’s asking a lot.”

But membership in magic’s charmed circle is not without its rewards. Blackstone himself, a witty, warm and occasionally melancholy man, earns enough to afford a comfortable (“and I hope to get to visit it someday”) home in Los Angeles suburbs. He has the pleasure (“it is exactly that”) of “doing well at something I’m good at” And never underestimate the warming influence of applause.

“My mother (former magic show girl Billie Mathews) took me on stage with her for the first time at age three months in Chicago,” Blackstone says. “My father used to say that I cried and cried until the lights hit me and the audience began to applaud. Then I started to coo. Right then he knew I was a trooper.”

But at least as important as all that, say magic’s historians, is this: In the 10 years since he began to tour, Blackstone Jr. has earned a place alongside his magician father – the “Great Blackstone” – in the pantheon of prestidigitation, Blackstone Sr., on the road from the first years since this century until shortly before his death in 1965, was referred to as the “Last of the Great Magicians.” That was until Harry Jr. came along.

“Harry Jr.’s road show gave magic a great resurgence,” Lund says. “With the tuxedo and the goatee and that rich voice of his, which is the best voice I’ve ever heard on a magician, and a whole bag of illusions which the current generation had never seen, he really touched a nerve. And there’s that rapport he has with the audience and the obvious enjoyment he derives from interacting with people. That may be old-fashioned, but Blackstone has proved that it is not out of style. He has the kind of chemistry, which comes across best in an old-time, live performance. That’s Harry’s magic.”

Blackstone is flattered, but insists that the basis of his art is quite simple.

“All good magic is rooted in reality and in the mind’s ability, at least momentarily, to escape it,” he says. “Audiences know I’m not really sawing my wife in half or firing her out of a cannon, but if they can have the ability to let that knowledge go for a while, then some of the unpleasant things may be let go for awhile, too.

“But the magic itself has to be rooted in reality to make the whole thing work. Unless you understand reality, you can’t understand magic.”

But up on the Tropicana stage, it is illusion, not reality, that is the order of the day. Blackstone has swung into some “silent magic,” meaning that the tricks themselves do the talking for him. Dressed in a conjurere in the court of a Chinese empress, he converts a woman on a trapeze into a giant stone Buddha, and vice versa. Birds appear; objects are shredded into bits, then restored to wholeness; confetti flies from a teapot, and the stage is a colored storm. It seems that every time something hollow, empty or otherwise incomplete is presented it is destined, in very short order,, to be filled,

“The trick is to keep it moving,” Blackstone explains later. “We do far more in the time allotted than the old-timers used to. Houdini used to draw out his escapes by getting out of the locks, then sitting backstage reading the paper. If the turning of the pages threatened to alert the audience, he would tell the band to play louder.

“Audiences today are too sophisticated for that.”

Perhaps, but not too sophisticated for the patented Blackstone humor, which gives portions of the show a decidedly corny flavoring. Purists say that Harry Jr. is merely emulating his famous father, who used folksy jokes to counterbalance his magisterial stage presence. Harry Jr. says it’s a duplication as well as homage – some of the jokes go right back to Harry Sr.’s day.

“Meet my wife, Gay, mother of our four children and co-producer in life as well as in this show.” He will say, “I never do a trick without her – anymore.”

Or: “We traveled all over the world performing magic, .. Those who have seen the show before will understand why we must travel so much.”

Or, as he hands the empty tutu of a freshly vanished lady to an assistant: “Have this refilled and back in time for the 8 o’clock show.”

Charles Reynolds, a production consultant who helped stage Harry Jr.’s show on Broadway and who co-authored Blackstone’s Book of Magic and Illusion, calls Blackstone’s asides “just another form of stage craft.”

“There aren’t any throwaways with Harry,” Reynolds says, “Everything is worked out to contribute to the desired effect.”

Reynolds points to Blackstone’s patter during a recent Atlantic City performance. After inviting children from the audience on stage to “better observe” the disappearance of a birdcage, Blackstone suddenly stopped one small girl.

“Look,” he said, pointing to her white-gold hair,” A little Carole Lombard”.

Notes Reynolds: “That’s the kind of reference that an audience of a particular age could relate well to. And Harry is quite aware of who is in his audience.”

By way of postscript, Blackstone acknowledges tailoring his patter to an audience when the occasion is right. But this situation, as he recalls it, was different.

“The miniature Carole Lombard was our 5-year-old, Bellamie,” he says. “Her grandmother had just dressed her up and done her hair, and I hadn’t seen her that way in a little while. When she bounced up on stage, the thought of Carole Lombard just came to me.”

The magic was in him early, and when he left his father’s magic show the show’s magic never went out of him. As a college student, in the Army, in business and just in real life, this want and the need to suspend reality came roaring out of Harry Blackstone Jr. at the oddest of times.

As a freshman at Pennsylvania’s prestigious Swarthmore College, he used an old mentalist’s trick to convince a psychology professor that he could “read” through the covers of learned tomes. The dean, un-amused, convinced him to become an ex-freshman.

And the security guys at Tokyo’s famed Mikimoto pearl store didn’t laugh when a pearl being examined by a young American soldier suddenly disappeared. Boy the Japanese have a strange sense of humor. Some of them are pretty big, too.

There were better audiences to play. An Italian shop clerk got a hoot out of the tall stranger who cut American dollars from a large sheet, crushed them into his hand, then pulled lire notes out to clinch a sale. And back stateside in the mid-1950s, a small magic show helped pay the way through the theater arts programs of the University of Southern California.

“I had the idea of working in the theater in the production end of things,” Blackstone recalls. “My father actively discouraged me from pursuing magic as a career – not because he didn’t approve or disliked what he did. It was just the financial uncertainty of it all. Some weeks his pockets were so full of money he could hardly walk. Other weeks, when he got through paying the company off and all the bills and taking care of the people who put the touch on him, there was nothing left for himself.”

After USC, Blackstone conjured up a fellowship at the University of Texas cataloging magic artifacts for the Library of Congress while working on his master’s. his dissertation subject – tah dah! – was the art and science of levitating a woman.

“The thesis was in the form of a performance, in a theater with a live audience, so of course I threw in a few more tricks and made a little show out of it.” Blackstone recalls, “The applause I got was quite gratifying, but then from the back of the hall came the sound of a very unusual whistle. It was the whistle my father used to call me when I was a boy! He was there, in the audience, flown in unbeknownst to me.

“I stood in the center of the stage and froze. I felt as if I’d been stabbed in the neck with a giant icicle. It was only gradually, and much later, that I realized what had happened: I was frightened absolutely petrified of performing in front of my father.”

It was the father – the Great Blackstone – who did the performing at first. During the summers at Colon – we went out Labor Day, came back home Decoration Day” – and later on the road, Harry Jr. picked up the tricks, the techniques and the stagecraft Harry St. had spent a lifetime learning.

The dancing handkerchief, still in the act today, was called “Cassadaga Propaganda,” after the New York headquarters of the American Spiritualist Movement. “Multum in Parvo” was self-explanatory after you saw Harry Sr. pour pitcher after pitcher of beer into a single beer glass, and then use that single glass to pour back dozens of glasses for thirsty audience members. That dazzling series of vanishes and reappearances, of transformations of man into beast and back again which closes the modern Blackstone show – it was called “Who Wears the Whiskers?” when Harry Sr. did it beginning in the 1920s.

“There only are 10 basic tricks in magic – period,” Blackstone says. “Everything that’s done, everything you see is a version or a combination of one of those tricks. But it’s how you present that trick that’s the secret. Dad taught me that.”

Blackstone Sr., almost 50 when his first and only child was born, labored mightily to be the textbook “good father.”

“Dad had left school himself in the seventh grade and he was always on me about getting an education.” Blackstone Jr. recalls. “He would point to his head and say, “They can’t take away what you have up here.”

Around the house, Blackstone Sr. kept the conjuring to a minimum “unless of course he had an audience.”

“Even when it was just the two of us, sometimes he couldn’t resist, “ Blackstone recalls. “If you were eating breakfast, for instance, and he said, “Harry, isn’t that a beautiful bird flying by the window?” you could pretty much be sure that when you turned back to the table, the plates would be gone or something.”

Blackstone’s parents divorced when he was 7, and he divided his time thereafter between a succession of military schools and the Blackstone show. During school vacations the doting father worked his little cadet, uniform, and all, into the act, introducing him as a “midget Turkish general” or the “commander of an army of Lilliputians.” Harry Jr., in turn, came to regard the show wherever it happened to be playing as “home.”

“Each holiday I still associate with a particular theater and a particular hotel in a particular city,” he remembers, “You know – Easter in Boston, Christmas in Philadelphia. I remember one Christmas in Detroit. I was about 12 or 13, he gave me a chemistry set and I nearly burned down the Fort Shelby Hotel. I hid out in all-nigh movies for two days. He put a notice in the paper: “Come home, Harry, all is forgiven’ … It was that kind of relationship. He was my friend as well as my father.”

But life on the road wasn’t always a magical existence for a boy growing up without brothers or sisters. Blackstone remembers that his nearest contemporaries often were dancers or stagehands already in their 20s. “They were friends, I suppose, but I was more like the kid brother they were adopting,” he recalls,

His harshest memory involves an attempt to attract friends. One day in Atlanta, the 9-year-old Blackstone donned an oversized cape and hat and stood at the stage door after the matinee, giving away rabbits to all comers. Eventually the Blackstone show’s entire rabbit supply was handed out.

“I can’t ever seeing my father angrier,” Blackstone recalls, “He wasn’t mad at me for showing off, or even about the expense of replacing the rabbits. What he said was this: “Harry, people will come to see me perform the rabbit trick tonight and there won’t be any rabbits to do the trick with. What you have done has reflected poorly on the profession of magic, and that is something that cannot be allowed to happen.”

“God how that hurt! He never laid a hand on me, but the bruises to my ego were deep.”

But it’s physical pain that Harry Blackstone Jr. is feeling just now. The time is shortly after 7 a.m. and that surgical knee, still throbbing from last night’s casino show, is about to accompany its very tired owner to a promotional appearance in nearby Philadelphia.

“There are,” he says, a pained expression crossing his face, “exactly 166 steps from the Tropicana stage to my room on the fifth floor. Today, I can feel them all.”

The promotional appearance, on a daytime TV talk show, goes well, Blackstone does a few bits of stand-up magic – making a birdcage vanish, moving a marked card from his hand to a zipped wallet in his breast pocket – for an astonished early morning audience of retirees and school children. Then its into “The Committee,” his father’s patented rope trick. The magician slips out of double knots tied to both wrists and around one leg faster than the audience can say “Blackstone!” along the way, he somehow has lifted a wallet from one bystander and a watch from another, while simultaneously unbuttoning and removing the dress shirt of a third nearby man without disturbing his suit vest.

It’s buffo stuff, but back in his hotel suite in Atlantic City, minus the magic of makeup and short a good night’s sleep, Blackstone is anything but the magus triumphant.

“Sometimes I wonder whether it’s worth it – the big show, I mean,” he says, and his dark eyes close into dark, deepening circles. “There’s a guy out of Pittsburg who does better than any of us working just trade shows. No camels, no dancers, no $65,000 a week in expenses … God, I’m tired.

And sad. The talk has turned to fathers and sons, and friends have warned that Blackstone is still deeply affected by the loss of his only son (he has four daughters by his three marriages) in a construction accident in August of 1983.

“Yes, it’s been an awful blow,” he says, and in the manner of the newly grieved begins a description of the minutiae of the time, place and manner of death.

“… And Stanford University saved the vital organs, the skin, the ear on the side of Harry’s head that wasn’t crushed. “It’s truly amazing what they can do with organ restoration, isn’t it.”

“Harry and I were apart a lot, but we had such great times when we were together. He was a lot like me, you know – into the marines, then onto a job in South America where he used his Spanish, then doing his own thing with a rock band for awhile. But what do you know; he decided he wanted to give the magic show a try. He was on his way to join the show, just doing a favor for a friend, in fact, when it happened.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about it. Maybe it’s the male ego thing, you know, having a son to carry on you name and the family tradition. But there isn’t a day goes by …”

A voice interrupts to urge Blackstone to prepare for the afternoon show. Another exhorts him to “knock ‘em dead.”

“Yes,” says Harry Blackstone Jr., sinking deeper into an armchair. “It’s just that sometimes it’s a tough knock.”

The band plays and the lights come up once more and this time everybody who has bused in for the day is looking at that bright orange trunk dangling from a mesh of chains, 20 feet up now, and stage right, Harry Blackstone is dressed like a circus ringmaster now, and in a minute he’ll use that dangling trunk and our suspended belief and a whole lot of those things he learned from his father to vanish the reality that smashes bodies and wears down souls.

But right now, Harry Blackstone Jr. – the Great Blackstone – is having one hell of a time. He’s pumping his arms and waving his head and blowing his whistle in time with the music. His eyes are dancing and his feet are following along and he’s pointing at that box and whistling, whistling, whistling. All signs of pain, of the knee, the heart, the spirit, have – buh-wham! – done a vanish. He is smiling that sanctified smile.

How does he do it? Ladies and gentlemen – “dear friends” – it would spoil it for you if you knew. For here is the grandest and most sublime illusion the Great Blackstone can perform. It’s the trick of doing the trick – night after night, state after state, generation after generation – like it was the first time ever for you, for me and for him.

A lot of Harry’s friends think it’s the best trick they’ve seen him do. This is the trick he taught himself.”

 

“Colon? Of course I remember Colon (Mich.)! I could find my father’s house in my sleep, even now. Down the main street past the bank, over the railroad tracks and down the long road and a right at the end of it along the lake to Blackstone Island … It’s where it all began, for me. It’s where my father and my Uncle Pete are buried. It’s where I buried my son.”`1

 

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When I first met Harry Blackstone about 20 years ago, he was selling Muzak to the office buildings of Austin (Tex.). But I wouldn’t say I knew him before he was a magician. I think deep down Harry always was a magician …”

Lee Swift, attorney and friend