Blackstone by George Florida

The Last “Great” Doesn’t Bother To Say so

 

 

From TOPS Magazine, August 1961, by George ‘Alabama’ Florida: “Time was, and it  is still within the memory of most of today’s theatre-goers, when any magician who wasn’t either the Great So-and-So or So-and-So the Great wasn’t patently worth the hat he pulled his rabbit out of.

It was as much the magic that surrounded their names – Herrman the Great, The Great Kellar, Great Houdini, Thurston the Great, The Great Dante, The Great Blackstone – as the magic they put on the stage that made the decades around the turn of the century the golden age of magicians in the theatre.

One of the great Greats, which really meant the magicians who could put together a full two-and-one-half-hour show and tour regular legitimate theatres, all but one have passed into the greatest mystery of all. The youngest, HARRY BLACKSTONE is the last.

Fashions in theatrical billings change even as fashions in theatrical presentations. “The Great”, even in the lexicon of press agentry, has long since been relegated to the unique and unparalleled  personalities who lay claim to being the only person-to-accomplish-this-feat in the world of the circus, the carnival and the tented side-show.

It is no longer the Great Blackstone. It is simply “BLACKSTONE” – THE WORLD’S FOREMOST MAGICIAN.”

Harry Blackstone’s real name is Harry Bouton, and he was born on the south side of Chicago. During his early vaudeville days he and his brother, Pete, did a burlesque magic act under their right name. When they decided to go in for serious magicianship, Harry figured that Bouton would hardly stand against their rivals at the time.

While pondering a change, he chanced to pick up a batch of ready-made posters for defunct magician known as Frederick the Great. It looked like a perfect deal at the time and proved so for several years.

“I had to give up when World War I came along,” Blackstone said, “It would have been like calling yourself “The Great Kaiser Wilhelm’.”

Where did he get the name Blackstone?

That’s Blackstone’s secret until he decides to change it again. The last time he was asked the answer ran like this, “Well, I tell you son, the best explanation I ever heard was that I got it off a cigar band” … but personally, I don’t believe it.”

A Blackstone Story, George Johnstone

A Blackstone Story

 

 

From TOPS Magazine, December 1974, by George Johnstone: “We get letters asking for more “Blackstone Show Adventures.” So Salla reminds me of my first visit there … we had loaded most of the show into the theater. Since it was a hot day we left the animal cages out in the stage door alley. While waiting for another load of illusions to arrive from the baggage car we and the stage crew retired to a small coffee shop up the street. Upon returning, when the truck arrived, we found to our utter dismay that the ducks were missing. Eight ducks had been stolen from the cage crates. Since some of these tough old ducks had been with the show for years, God help the thief when he tried to sink his teeth into them.

Now came the mad scramble to replace them. At a stagehand’s suggestion I was sent by cab out to the local zoo. They refused to sell or loan out zoo property for a career in the show business world … The cab driver suggested that I try a farmer’s market at the edge of the city. Off we went. They had ducks but Blackstone’s efficient assistant had neglected to bring sufficient funds to buy them. With the promise of prompt payment the minute we returned to the theatre, the cab driver loaned me the money. Now another problem that the efficient assistant forgot to anticipate. How do we transport eight writhering, flapping, quacking ducks? Again the cab driver came to the rescue by driving to the nearest grocery store and returning with cardboard cartons.

Back at the theatre the ducks were tossed into the cages as I began the hectic prop set-up in a race with show time. The ducks made their appearance from an illusion about midway during the show. Our old ducks had been loaded and unloaded so many times that they were fairly docile. The new ones … Oh, Boy!! They fanned out, half running, half flying, all over the stage, over the orchestra boys in the pit and out into the audience. Blackstone stood aghast with his mouth hanging open. The animal man had neglected, or didn’t have the time, to clip the wing feathers. Harry also raised hell because the ducks were so filthy. The old ducks were washed periodically and were a snowy white. The ducks that made their appearance might have been born white but now they ran the gamut from a dingy gray to mucky brown … It goes without saying that there was a lot of “chewing-out” after that first show in San Diego.”

 

George Johnstone (1919 – 2004) was a magician, entertainer, book collector and painter. He started out in magic as a leading assistant in The Blackstone Sr. magic show from 1939 until he got drafted in World War II in 1943. He met and married his wife Betty while they were both assistants on the Blackstone show. After the war, he went on to a career as a comedy magician and later as a stand-up entertainer. He wrote for TOPS magazine for many years.

 

Following Blackstone by Monk Watson

Following Blackstone

 

From TOPS Magazine, October, 1961, by Monk Watson: “This should not be hard to write because it is pretty close to my heart, and also close to the hearts of many who were lucky enough to

see Blackstone at our Get-Together.

There are some few things I would like to clear up for our younger generation at this time. Perhaps some were a little disappointed with Blackstone’s performance on one of those nights. This would have been on Thursday night.  I anyone of our Magicians had followed Blackstone that day, I’m sure he would have stayed in bed for days to come. Let me outline the activities for that day. First, he had to come over from Battle Creek, where he was staying to keep a date with a writer and photographer sent in to cover the story for The Saturday Evening Post. The photographer had spent the day before cleaning out the stage, footlights, brass railings, and seats in the old Opera House so he could pl

ace Blackstone on the stage where so many of his tours started. Blackstone appeared on the scene at a very early hour, and for the next ten hours he was standing, setting, standing, leaning, in every pose known to for writers and photographers for Seven Hundred pictures.

Late in the afternoon he had to change into dry clothing for the night show. He was tired just as anyone of us would have been. He was pent up with emotion at the thought of coming home to Colon to friend of years gone by. Friends who knew him when. When he was the GREATEST Magician in the World, showing to packed houses across the country, in a Full evening show, with big, big, big, illusions that filled several baggage cars. A stage full of people (who knew their work, without a miss) to do some simple little tricks in front of the front curtain wh

ile the stage was being set for the next big act.

These little fillers,

or small tricks, were what we saw at the Get-Together. However, lets not sell the Bird Cage, Danci

ng Handkerchief, and Floating Light bulb, short.  In the hands of so many these would look like just another little trick. But in the hands of Blackstone (with the Professional Touch) they were Masterpieces long to be remembered. So, on the first night he faltered a bit, broke the light bulb, covered it up with a grin saying, “Accidents will happen.” Walking across the stage with his head held high as if nothing had happened. Then the rope tie with the laughs, and don’t tell me he didn’t get them … the Ace of Spades routine … boring to some, but as a breather to others, who would like to do it so well.

Now comes Friday, the second day of our Get-Together,

and again we find another photographer wanting hundreds of pictures for another magazine (Show Business Illustrated … by Playboy), of Blackstone in the Opera House, local papers from nearby towns wanting to get in for some shots. That is when Watson stepped into the picture, both literally and otherwise. I did have a couple of shots made with me and my pal for my Grandchildren to gloat over in years to come, “Granddaddy knew Blackstone!”  I put the boom down around noon and said, “Harry, lets go and get some coffee.” He was thrilled to get away from it all. So, for the next few minutes I drove him around the little town he loved so much and then home to my little kitchen, where we visited about Showmanship for an hour. All of this time I had my hard shelled Portable tape recorder, that had seen action on the front line, taking down notes for me to use at a later date. With his tails hanging on a hanger in my car I drove him to the High School where I had placed my cot in his dressing room. Not long he was off on another cloud dreaming, perhaps of years of his Big Show, but resting for the first time in days

.

That night he did a grand show, with the old spark coming through for all to see and light their own light with. His smile, his bows (never bending, but with head held high) saying without words, “There you have had what I have to sell! Like it?” They loved it to the point of tears, laughs, and most of all, STANDING OVATIONS. So for you youngsters, you’ll brag one day about even seeing the Great Blackstone in action. When you see some fellows who so much as use “The World’s Greatest Magician” you’ll see how they suffer by comparison. So much for Blackstone, may he live on and on in our hearts forever. PS: I saw some great comics crying like babies, showing their big hearts, thinking, “Wish I had it like that.”

Monk Watson and Harry Blackstone at the Hill Opera House in Colon

Modesty almost got in my way here, but I brushed it aside and with a capital “I”, I want to say a few thousand words about the “Night Before Party Show.” From others I quote, “Other such shows have been full of sick comedy, cluttered up stages full of nonsense, but this was a real great show!”  Men who had been to most of the Night Before Parties across the nation. Made me feel real good because that was the way I wanted it. With Neil Foster and Monk Watson heading the bill, Jimmy Shannon stopping the show, the German Band opening, The Whistlers getting belly laughs, Jack Ricketts (Laughing like Watson) Gordon Miller (Abbott Company), HOW COULD IT FAIL?”

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Blackstone in Three Rivers

HARRY BLACKSTONE SR.

 

From the Sturgis Journal newspaper, June 11, 1931: “A crowd lined the Wood Street Bridge and the banks of the river saw Harry Blackstone make his escape from a nailed casket lowered 14 feet into the water in only a few seconds Thursday afternoon. Blackstone clad in a bathing suit, was bound and placed in the casket which was nailed shut, then lowered into the stream. He reappeared almost immediately. Blackstone’s exhibition opened the three-day convention of world magicians, members of the International Magic Circle in Three Rivers.”

 

 

Billie Blackstone by George Johnstone

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!”

Father and Son

Blackstones, Father And Son, Warmly Remembered in Colon

 

 

Sturgis Journal, 1979:

“Magician recalls childhood, early times

By Jacque Malesh

COLON – Blackstone. The name alone conjures up magic, with visions of impossible illusions. The name is and always will be the epitome of magic, especially for the people of Colon, for they consider the two Harry Blackstones, father and son, as Colon citizens. .

Harry Blackstone, Jr., is home. Home means his late father’s residence on Blackstone Island in Colon.

Forced to move to California in 1949 because of his health, Blackstone, Sr. sold the property shortly after, but always said he would rather live in Colon than anywhere else.

It’s easy to understand why. At the time Blackstone Sr., owned the property, only one other house stood on the island. Deep woods surrounded the house, and orchards grew where cottages crowd the shore of Sturgeon Lake today.

The present owner of the property rented it to Blackstone Jr., for Magic Week.

As he sat on the lawn in a concrete chair, crafted by his father to look surprisingly like wood, Blackstone. Jr. watched two of his four children struggle to launch a rowboat. Other than the girl’s laughter, the only sounds to be heard were those made by an occasional fish jumping in the lake, and the wind blowing through the towering oak trees.

“Isn’t this beautiful” he remarked.

“This was called a summer home,” stated Blackstone, “but this was the only permanent home we had. We were on the road from Labor Day until Memorial Day every year.”

“I was born June 30, 1934, and started touring the very next season. My father kept a scrapbook and by the time I was six years old, he had a picture of me standing on the state capital steps of all 48 states.”

The house and grounds have been changed greatly since Blackstone, Sr., lived here. Although it is still impressive, the house no longer is surrounded by the stately formal gardens which Blackstone loved almost as much as magic.

Blackstone, Jr., walked about the lawn and described how everything used to look. He pointed to trees his father had planted, one of them a willow at least 30 feet high.

He walked towards Sturgeon Lake, at the edge of the property line. “Here on the lake, dad had a botanical garden,” he stated. “He grew dozens of varieties of water lilies in all colors, pink, white, gold. He had cut a path through them to get the canoe out onto the lake.”

A few feet away an ornate gazebo used to stand. “My parents were married in that gazebo,” Blackstone said.

Clearly this place means as much to him as it did to his father.

When his stay in Colon is over, Blackstone will go back on tour. His father’s genius still influences Blackstone, Jr.’s act.

“Probably 30 – 40 percent of my act consists of illusions created and performed by my father,” he stated. “Very few magicians do them, largely out of respect for my father. Sometimes, too, they think that it takes something away from their own performance to admit that they are recreating my father’s illusion.”

“I have the strongest moral and legal right to do his illusions. I always acknowledge they were created by him, or I give something of the history of the illusion.”

Blackstone, Jr., has created startlingly original illusions himself.

“Two weeks before Easter, I open on Broadway. I have a new illusion utilizing a laser beam. In it, I burn a hole through my assistant with the laser. Then I pass a light bulb through her. You can actually see it come out the other side of her. Then the laser shines on me, and comes out the other side as a fabulous light show.”

He isn’t reluctant to change his act whenever it seems necessary. “It isn’t for me to decide what’s good and what isn’t,” he declared. “My purpose is to entertain. If something is entertaining and enjoyable to the audience, it stays in the act. If it ceases to entertain or to be enjoyed, it is dropped.”

On the topic of Colon, Harry Blackstone, Jr., has definite opinions. “Colon is the magic capital of the world. Magic conventions are held all over the world, but the locations and dates are always different. The only place I know of that approaches the intensity of Abbott’s Get-Together is the Magic Castle, a private club in Los Angeles that is devoted to magic performances.”

“There is nothing in the world that compares to Magic Week in Colon. Magicians everywhere know that the second week of August in Colon is the biggest magic event of the year.”

 

 

Sally Banks on Blackstone

Sally Banks and Harry Blackstone

From the Battle Creek Enquirer and News, August 13, 1972

Sally Banks: “Girl Friday” for late Harry Blackstone

By Amy South. “Everybody in this town remembers Harry Blackstone,” I was told when I stopped at a small store in the famous hocus-pocus village of Colon. But, as I found out, nobody knew Harry Blackstone, “The World’s Greatest Magician,” as well as Sally Banks knew him.

Sally now lives in a trailer overlooking home and summer headquarters of  Harry Blackstone and his “Show of One Thousand and One Wonders.” For many years Sally had been Harry’s special assistant and when she thought she was too old for the stage he put her in charge of headquarters in Colon and even let her raise his young son, Harry Blackstone, Jr.

Sally Banks was born Della Coppin near Pittsburgh in 1900. Her career in show business started at the age of 8. In 1927 she was working in Chicago for Ernie Young’s Revue. They had finished rehearsing and she had a couple of weeks off when she met a man who was looking for girls to work in Harry Blackstone’s Magic show.

Sally went to Colon for her vacation, not to get a job but just to see what these tricks were all about. She was so fascinated with Blackstone that she never went back to Ernie Young’s Revue. Instead she became a box hopper for Harry Blackstone. A box hopper is a girl who crawls into a box and disappears, or she might crawl into a box and get sawed in half. But Sally didn’t like the buzz-saw trick. “It looked too dangerous,” she remembers. “Besides, I was too small.”

That following summer Sally married Blackstone’s stage manager, Ted Banks. Ted was from England. He had come to the United States with Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy.

Their three-man act broke up after Chaplin was called to California and later Laurel followed him. Ted might have gone too, but he threw up his hands and said, “Ah, that silent picture stuff is just a fad. It’ll wear off.”

He took a job with Blackstone. After Ted and Sally were married, they continued with the show traveling with 37 people, three carloads of tricks and a menagerie of animals. Sally assisted in acts and even made her own costumes. September through May they traveled throughout the United States and Canada. Summers they returned to Colon, making plans and props for the next year’s show.

In the fall of 1942 Sally said she wasn’t feeling well. Blackstone suggested she stay in Colon and close up the cottages for the winter and join them in a couple of weeks. Sally had taken care of business and had purchased her ticket to join the troupe but never got that far.

The show had been on the road only two weeks when they opened in Decatur, Illinois. They were playing to a crowd of 3,000, mostly children. Ted Banks came on stage and whispered into Blackstone’s ear that a serious fire had started backstage and the fire chief had ordered everyone out of the building.

Harry went on with the show, “For my next act,” he told the audience, “I want everyone to follow me outside where I will perform the greatest trick you have ever seen.” Everyone followed him outside and watched the burning of what proved finally to be five buildings.

Ted Banks helped fight the fire and went to bed that night exhausted. He never got up. Sally had no need for her ticket after she got the call that Ted had died of a heart attack. At 42 she decided that she was too old to go back on stage. Blackstone then asked her to care for the property in Colon and gave her the responsibility of raising Harry Blackstone, Jr.

Her face may be lined and her brown hair turning gray but Sally Banks can still give you the air of a showgirl. Her eyes sparkle when she remembers Blackstone and the good times of the theater, but they cloud up when she remembers the bad.

She anxiously awaits the yearly Abbott magic get-together that will be held August 16 through 19. For Sally it means seeing a lot of her old friends of the magic business. Again this year Sally Banks will be just another spectator. “Oh, I could still crawl into those boxes,” she laughs, “But I’m afraid I couldn’t get back out.”

Sally Banks with Harry Blackstone on This Is Your Life with Ralph Edwards.

Blackstone Equipment

     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.

***

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.

 

I Remember Harry Blackstone, David Price

 

 

 

I remember Harry Blackstone

 

From “The TOPS Magazine, November 1969, by David Price: “Every magician has his own recollections of Blackstone. Perhaps my earliest such recollection is of being passed in through the stage entrance by the great one himself about ten or twelve times during a single week. This occurred at a time when I could ill afford more than one ticket during the week’s run in Nashville.

Another early recollection is that I was the butt of one of Mr. Blackstone’s favorite backstage jokes. Harry introduced me to an older man with, “Meet my father, Dave.” I shook hands and with a show of inside knowledge said, “How-do-you-do Mr. Boughton.” I had the right name (Boughton not Bouton) but the “father” turned out to be a fellow selling the show a week’s supply of rabbits. After that, I saw many “father” introductions by Harry and in the end was even introduced myself as Harry’s father and who could believe that possible.

Throughout the years, there were many Blackstone shows and I am often asked which show was the greatest. My choice of Blackstone shows is the 1930 edition. Never before or since, or so it seems to me, did Blackstone ever reach such heights. That magnificent opening was never so crowded with so many whirlwind tricks as in 1930. This was before flower darts were used in the opening sequence. The most barefaced production of a stack of bowls I ever saw was performed without anyone in the audience being the wiser. And then, a small goat was produced by the same method. Can an audience be taken in twice in quick succession by the same audacious ruse? They can and they were! Blackstone was a master of bold magical misdirection as all magicians familiar with the Blackstone show will agree. Duck Inn is the prime example. It would take another Alexander Hernmann to equal that trick for pure audacity.

I have long believed that the big levi is the greatest trick ever performed by a magician. I am not referring to just any levitation, an Aga or an Asrah, but the really “big one” where the magician hoists a lady without covering to a height of six feet or more and then walks freely away even walking behind the floating lady. I refer to the Maskelyne-Kellar levitation and Blackstone performed it beautifully. However, it was not in his 1930 show and even without the levi, 1930 was Blackstone’s greatest year.

 

 

 

One of the tricks that made Blackstone great is what some of us called “The Bear Illusion,” Blackstone used it to close the show over a period of many, many years. It was really so strong the nothing could follow it. The curtain HAD to come down.

The effect of The Bear Illusion is as follows: Blackstone showed the big box empty, closed it, fired a pistol shot, and Mr. Whiskers jumped from what appeared to be an empty box. Mr. Whiskers began dancing around the stage and threatening Blackstone who moved to the back of the stage, picked up a shield and hiding behind it began to advance toward the audience. Mr. Whiskers then fired a shot at the shield, which dropped to the stage revealing, not Blackstone, but the bear. As the tempo of the music increased, the Bear and Mr. Whiskers danced together as partners in a ballroom. Then Mr. Whiskers advanced to the footlights, removed his disguise, and was revealed to be Blackstone himself. Impossibility, you say? The audience gasped as Blackstone waiting for the applause, which, after a few moments of stunned silence, came thundering across the footlights. It was sure fire. It always knocked the audience into the aisles, what could any magician do to top that dramatic transformation. It was the greatest change trick that I ever witnessed and will forever remain one of my most pleasant memories of Harry Blackstone, who passed away just four years ago this month.”

 

Blackstone Sells Property

Blackstone Sell Colon Property

 

 

From The Colon Express, January 25, 1951: “Harry Blackstone, the noted magician who has had much to do in publicizing Colon, has sold his home and property here to Mrs. Alma M. Anderson of Chicago.

Blackstone first came to Colon 28 years ago, buying what has been known for many years as the island property, located on the east shore of Sturgeon lake, the St. Joseph river flowing along the north border of the property and a creek winds around the east and south line of the tract of land. Since he purchased the property it has been known as Blackstone’s Island.

Mr. and Mrs. Blackstone were here over the week end, closing the transaction Monday, they giving immediate possession. Mr. and Mrs. Blackstone will make their home in Hollywood, Calif. Blackstone is negotiating a contract to do magic by television.

Blackstone’s brother, Pete Bouton, who have a home next to the former Blackstone property, will continue to make Colon their home. At present they are in Detroit.

Blackstone said he liked Colon and its people but being afflicted with asthma deemed it best for his health to go to a warmer climate. He said that Mrs. Anderson plans to develop the island as a summer resort.

The sale of the Blackstone estate was made through Realtor Claude Snook of Nottawa.