Blackstone’s Home Base

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.

 

 

 

Salute to Harry Blackstone

Salute to Harry Blackstone Sr.

Harry Bouton (Blackstone) 1885-1965

 

From “The Express” newspaper, November 17, 1965: “He put Colon on the map, and now he’s gone. This wouldn’t be the Magic Capital of the World; possibly it wouldn’t even be a town anymore, if Harry Blackstone hadn’t “discovered” it in 1925.

He was one of the greatest magicians of all times, and he was looking for a place, away from but accessible to the cities, where his troupe could work and he could be at home. In ’26 he bought what has since always been known as Blackstone island, all 200 acres of it. He built his home here and quartered his troupe, between 25 and 30 people here. He was a performing magician for 64 years, and a headliner for over half a century.

Harry Blackstone was called the Ziegfield of Magic. In 1914 he began giving full evening shows, completely renovating the pace of the times with fast action, lots of color and many beautiful girls. His was the last of the really big shows.

Among his most famous illusions were the “Vanishing Horse” and the “Flying Bird Cage”

Harry Blackstone was born in Chicago on September 27, 1885. His legal name was Harry Bouton. He took the name of Blackstone for stage purposes. Blackstone was the name of one of his grandparents. He leaves a brother in Colon, Pete Bouton, who worked as his right hand man backstage, a son, Harry Jr., who has been doing a show in Florida, other relatives and friends all around the world, and the proud village of Colon.

He died peacefully a 10 p.m. California time, Tuesday night in his Hollywood home.”

“The Floating Light Bulb,” was perhaps his signature piece. In a darkened theatre, Blackstone would take a lighted bulb from a lamp and float it, still glowing, through a small hoop. He would then come down from the stage and the lamp would float out over the heads of the audience.

In 1985, on the 100th anniversary of his father’s birth, Harry Blackstone, Jr. donated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. the original floating light bulb – Thomas Edison designed and built it – and the original Casadega Cabinet, used in the “Dancing Handkerchief” illusion. This was the first ever donation accepted by the Smithsonian in the field of magic.

 

Blackstone’s Summer Home

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.”

Blackstone and Colon

Harry Blackstone’s wife, Inez, drove her car south (by chance) from Kalamazoo through Leonidas and into Colon. At the western edge of the village she noticed an Island on Sturgeon Lake. Upon investigation, she found that the island was for sale, and she placed a down payment on the property. Harry found that the island was ideally suited for his purposes. In those days there were no summer shows (no air conditioning) so that was the time to prepare for a new season.

There was a frame house and a large barn where the stage equipment could be stored and many animals that were used in the show could be kept. The barn would also serve as a workshop. There were several cottages that could be used to house the crew. Blackstone purchased the island that summer and from then until 1949 Blackstone called Colon his home.

There was a railroad station in town. Blackstone utilized a Pullman car for the crew and one or two freight cars for his equipment. The town also had an opera house for rehearsals. Of course, it helped that Harry liked to fish and there was a river and lake in the front of the house.