Blackstone made Colon his summer home
From The Sturgis Journal newspaper, August 8, 1990, by Mike Dunn: “The date was Oct. 21, 1941, Harry Blackstone, one of the most prominent magician/illusionist in the world, opened his national touring show before a capacity crowd at the Hill Opera House in Colon.
The opera house, constructed in 1897, had been closed for a number of years prior to ’41. The days when live shows were the main source of entertainment in the country had long been past, replaced by radio serials and the silver screen. The opera house had flourished in its time, but its time was past and now it was a landmark in town, a reminder of what once was.
That was going to change, however, for one fall evening in 1941. the opera house would be alive with activity once more; its 600 seats would be filled and memories of the past would be evoked. The famous Blackstone, who had petitioned to reopen the opera hours for this one show, would see to that.
“Blackstone wanted to have the show there as a favor to the people of Colon,” recalled Ken Murray, a Sturgis resident who worked with Blackstone for several years. “He loved Colon and he thought it was a shame that the opera house was closed down. So he decided to kick off his tour there in 1941.
Getting the opera house prepared for the show was easier said than done. It took a lot of work.
“It was quite a task to get things set up in the old opera house,” Murray said. “The stage was small and it was on the second floor above E. H. Hill & Sons Bank. Everything had to be carted up the stairs.”
Blackstone first came to Colon in May 1926. H purchased what became known as “Blackstone Island” and spent the summers in Colon for the next 34 years.
Blackstone traveled around the country with his 25-member troupe, playing to large audiences in all the major cities, usually for a week at a time. Since theaters were not air conditioned in those days, the summer months were generally spent developing new acts, fixing and preparing props, and taking a needed rest from the rigors of life on the road.
Murray began touring with Blackstone in 1925. He was involved with public relations and also took part in some of the illusions.
“I looked like Blackstone,” Murray explained, “I had the same build, the same hair, so I stood in sometimes as his double.
Murray would not reveal the secret to any of Blackstone’s illusions, however.
“There’s an understanding in the business that you never divulge anything,” he said, “It wouldn’t be right.”
Murray met Blackstone while the illusionist was performing at the Lerner Theater in Elkhart, Ind. In the early 1920s, Murray, who had an interest in learning the profession, was subsequently invited to Blackstone’s summer headquarters on West Lake.
“I went there for a few days on my vacation,” said Murray, show was employed by Kirsch Co. at the time. “Harry and I became very well acquainted while I was there. He was very friendly to me.”
Some time later, Murray received a telegram from Blackstone, inviting him to join the touring troupe. Murray gave a two-week notice at his job and joined the show at Schenectady, N.Y.
“I never had any regrets,” Murray said, “It was a wonderful experience. I got to see the world and being with Blackstone and the show was tremendous. Harry was the best friend I ever had in my life.”
Murray remembers the day in May 1926 that Blackstone decided to move his summer headquarters from West Lake to Colon.
“He confided to me that West Lake was too noisy.” Murray said. “He wanted someplace that would be convenient but quieter. He heard about Colon, and when he looked it up on the road map and saw the lakes there, he decided to check it out.”
“It was May of 1926 and we were playing the Shubert Theater in Detroit,” Murray added. “Harry sent (his wife) Inez down to look over Colon. He bought the island and moved the show there after the tour closed up that year. Harry eventually built a house of his own there.”
Blackstone’s influence is still being felt in Colon today. The town became known as “The Magic Capitol” and the school’s nickname became the Magi as a direct result of Blackstone’s presence. In addition, the opening of Abbott’s Magic Factory and the annual Magic Festival which is hosted by Colon each summer can be traced to Blackstone’s decision to relocate his summer headquarters there in 1926.
“The Saturday Evening Post sent a man all the way from California to do a story about Harry being in Colon,” Murray said, “I guess they thought it was a big deal, or they wouldn’t have done that.”
The Hill Opera House (destroyed by fire in 2006)
It was also a “big deal” when Blackstone approached banker Edward Hill with the proposal of reopening the opera house for one night in October 1941.
“There was a great response from the people,” Murray said, “It was a packed house that night. I don’t remember that much about the show itself except that it was well received.”