Blackstone’s home base still has the tricks of his trade up his sleeve
From The Detroit Free Press, October 30, 1987, by Neal Rubin: “COLON – Little Johnny Jones, The Conjuring Humorist, remains alive and tricking at 89. The magician’s gravestone has already been erected, though, at Lakeview Cemetery.
“Now,” it says, “I have to fool St. Peter.”
Jones will eventually rest alongside William T. Keckritz, 1914-1978, who performed as Bill Baird. The Magnificent Fraud, Keckritz hailed from Lansing, Jones from Bangor, but both chose to have the curtain fall at Lakeview, not 30 yards from the handsome granite marker of the great Harry Blackstone Sr.
Just about everyone who ever pulled a rabbit out of a hat wanted to be close to Blackstone, it seems, which is why signs at the borders of a town of about 1,200 people say, “Welcome to Colon, Magic Capitol of the World.”
IT’S WHY posters bearing the football schedule of the Colon High Magi are taped to windows of places like Magic City Hardware, the Magic City Café and the Blackstone Inn bar and restaurant. It’s why teachers use magic in classrooms and 1,000 magicians materialize every August for Abbott’s Magic Get-Together.
It’s why Colon, 16 miles west of Coldwater, stands at the center of a magical mystery tour of southwestern Michigan. There’s Marshall, home of the American Museum of Magic, run by Blackstone’s friend Robert Lund. There’s Battle Creek, where Neil Foster operates the Chavez Collage of Manual Dexterity and Prestidigitation.
MOST IMPORTANT, there is the Abbott Magic Co., a link to the past and a bridge to magic’s future. Blackstone drew Percy Abbott to Colon more than 50 years ago. As National Magic Week winds down – it ends on Halloween, the day Harry Houdini died at Detroit’s Grace Hospital 61 years ago – the company bearing Abbott’s name stands as the world’s largest maker and supplier of magic tricks.
The black cinder block building with the silver skeletons on the front holds the secrets of the Hippity-Hop Rabbits, Feather Flowers From Nowhere and Hong Kong Dove Production. Abbott supplies illusionists, mentalists, bizzarists and other enthusiasts worldwide with all the tricks of the trade – the Floating Table, the Squeezaway Block, the Routined Manipulation Finale and the Chinatown Quarter.
Greg Bordner, son of the co-founder, presides over 17 full-time employees and sales of nearly $1 million a year. And it’s all because one day 60 years ago, Inez Blackstone decided to take a drive.
HARRY BLACKSTONE Sr. was appearing – and presumably disappearing – in Kalamazoo. His wife set out to find them a summer home and came back with what became known as Blackstone Island, 72 ¾ acres of a Sturgeon Lake peninsula.
Their home evolved into a retreat for friends in the trade, many of whom also began to make Colon their base. Australian Abbott came to visit, met a local woman named Gladys Goodrich, got married and stayed.
Abbott was touring with a tent show in Edon, Ohio, in 1934 when he agreed to give local farmer Recil Bordner a few lessons. “The show closed early and Percy came back to Colon,” Greg Bordner says, “My dad had already paid for the lessons, so he had to come here to get the rest of them.”
With Bordner supplying the money and Abbott the expertise, they opened a magic shop in a second-floor room in Colon’s abbreviated downtown. By 1937, business was good enough that they moved to the former carriage factory on St. Joseph, a block from Blackstone Avenue, that still serves as a showroom, office, mailroom, warehouse, print shop and workroom.
Its walls and ceiling are covered with still photos and posters of magicians. The floors aren’t covered at all; weathered hardwood creaks underfoot. Smaller tricks are displayed in counters and on shelves. Large items like the Temple of Benares (41,350, including swords) and Buzz Saw Illusion ($4,000 including buzz saw) are in a 506-page catalog which begins, “Open Sesame!”
The company produces only one or two new tricks a year, Bodner says. Its wares are hand-made and laboriously detailed, and “It’s all we can do to fill the orders for the old ones.”
He recently bought a Commodore 128 computer to handle mailings, but employees still print tissue-paper rabbits for the Foxy Paper Tear at about three per minute on a letterpress that pre-dates World War I.
The largest magic firm in the world also does wedding invitations. “Obviously,” Bordner says, “we’re not getting rich.” Not when a worked in the auxiliary shop a few blocks away – next to the supermarket with an Amish farmer’s horse-and-buggy in the lot – has to spend 5 minutes painting a strip of black tape green to match the leaves of the vibrantly colored flowers that spring from an effect.
A popular item like the Disecto, a $65 arm-chopper that slices carrots placed above and below a volunteers arm but leaves the appendage intact, might draw a 100 orders over many years.
“It’s like being the world’s largest manufacturer of buggy whips,” Bordner says, “It’s not a big market.”
BORDNER, 35, has never tired of magic even as he grew up behind the counter. He earned a degree in political science at Michigan State, but always assumed he would take over the business from his father, who died five years ago.
His two children enjoy the craft, but at ages 7 and 10, neither seems inclined to make a career of performing. Someone in Colon will, though; “You always seem to get about one in every generation who will put together an act. We’re just about due to have a high school kid come in and start showing some interest.
David Tomlinson was that kid in the 1960s. A friend’s older brother gave him a few tricks in the third grade, at which point “I started haunting Abbott’s”
“I had the outlet,” says Tomlinson, 36, now one of Colon’s two lawyers. “Anyplace else, where would you go? Here, it’s half the town. Many members of his troupe settled down and retired here. Pete Bouton, his brother, used to always be down at Abbott’s. There’s nowhere else you could get that kid of exposure to it.”
Phyllis Harrington, a substitute teacher from nearby Sturgis, bout a magic coloring book this week to use in class. Riffle through it once and the pages are blank. Do it again and there are outlines. On the third pass, the pictures are colored in.
“I had never realized the potential until I saw another teacher use it.” She says, “She told the class, ‘Everybody starts with blank pages. Then these are the ideas, and these are the colorful ideas.’ She said, ‘Anyone who has written a book or had a great idea started with a blank piece of paper.’”
EVERYBODY IN town knows an old magician, or maybe even a working act like Jerry and Shirley Conklin, who have “The Amazing Conklins” stenciled on their porch steps on Maple Street. Ask in any restaurant, Bordner says, and a waitress or two will have dated or assisted a magician.
The people who make things vanish for a living are surprisingly visible themselves. Even Blackstone would offer tips and advice to anyone who asked.
Chan Shedelbower, 75, began vacationing in Colon in 1933. he lives her now, on Blackstone Island. “The first time I saw Harry Sr. was up there on Miller’s Landing,” he says, “There used to be a peach tree. He was picking pennies off the trees and giving them to kids. He was a regular guy with those of us who knew him well. Otherwise, he was always on, always putting on a show.”
In a sense that hasn’t changed, even 22 years after his death. Tourists, some almost reverent, come year-round to see the grave. “Blackstone,” it says, and beneath that is his real name, Harry Bouton.
Atop the pedestal stands a fluted sculpture. “Some say it’s a rose,” Bordner says, “Some say it’s a flame.” It could even be a tulip.
In Colon, Harry Blackstone still has them guessing.