Foster Is Good For Nothing!


From The “TOPS” Magazine, October 1967. By Monk Watson: “Now that you’ve picked yourselves up off of the floor and are saying, “What has happened to Monk and Neil Foster?”, really, that was a compliment. Foster was better than most anyone could be under the conditions of the stage, lighting and all that it takes to make a good setting for a show. It was a lecture, but not the kind that magicians are used to seeing or hearing. I’ve seen lectures of all kinds and most of them bore me pretty much. It seems that some are made up of nice men who have spent some time in magic and now they feel that they know it all and want to tell others just how much the know, or think they know. Some simple little tricks are brought out and you are told that these you can pick up at the Ten Cent store and always have them handy because you can never tell when you’re going to be asked to do a show. Then you are given a lesson on how to do a FREE SHOW in most cases. How was Foster different?

Let’s start at the first and not jump right into the meat of this lecture. This year there was no registration fee so everything was free, free, free! Yet some had some pretty nasty thing to say, like “Why do people come to Colon?” I’d like to be able to answer that question myself but I hardly know the answer. Why will a fellow fly in from California just to visit around with some of his friends, drink some coffee, go into the showroom and watch some of the new tricks being shown by the best salesmen in the business, or stay up all night at the Legion and watch card men at work with the best in card magic? Just to watch Edward Mario and Joe Berg showing each other tricks that thrill them, Jimmy Thompson and Jim Ryan doing close-up, Karrell Fox doing his favorite tricks that took down the house in other conventions, Duke selling tricks like crazy over the counter or in his White House when he has some old magic that has been turned in for new. This guy worked night and day just to please the magicians who came from far and near looking for something different. A lecture in Vent with people carrying their Vent figures in all kinds of cases and talking to themselves, or a watch with a built-in tape recorder (really a great Vent voice doing the talking but fooling even me). People setting on hard benches in front of the factory visiting into the night. Why do they still come year after year? I guess it is because they want to get away from the cities and just relax for a few days.

Talent like one could never see, like Bob Lewis and his lovely Ginny, ‘The Senator’ and George Johnstone, Jay Marshall, all just relaxing and hearing stories about the good Old Days, from an Old Timer like me, with tall tales about the days of great Show Business when the Palace was the Palace and one could stay busy fifty-two weeks each year with the same gags and dances and songs. Bob Lewis never gets tired of hearing about those wonderful days and how he’d like to live in those days. I never get tired of talking about them and how lucky I was to be a part of that great age of Show Business, There were over Five Hundred people attending the ‘Open House’ this year, and I don’t believe very many will be sorry when they look back on the good times they had. Bob and Mary Lynn, from New Jersey, have already rented their cottage for a full month next year. They helped me with a small show for the Vets and what great people they are. Bob also did a lecture showing his skill with ropes. I had to miss his lecture and I had to miss Duke’s also but I did get a chance to introduce Duke before leaving town for my golf match in Battle Creek.

Now back to Foster and his lecture (to stop all lectures, in my book). Here is a man who can perform any trick in magic and make it look good. But what did he do? First he walked on the stage looking like a professional. He showed how he built his suitcase so he could do a show out of it and still be packed at the end of his act so he could grab it and run to another show. Out of this case came his hank in cane, card fans, loads like you’ve never seen before from under silks that were just single silks to start with. Every trick was taken apart and shown so anyone could do it (or at least try to do it). Why he showed a few of his own ways of doing Zombie I’ll never know, but he did and that will start a new run on Zombies across the country. However, there is more to it than just holding it right … Foster has to do it, to make it look like it floats. At the end of his ACT he folded up his case, on the cue the music took up his exit and you left feeling that you had seen a MASTER at work with no flaws to cover up. If you see him billed for a lecture and you hadn’t planned on going, even if you have to pay for it, GO! GO! GO!,

I might add that I called on Foster several times in the past two months only to find him locked up in his home theatre, rehearsing over and over again his routine to show to the visiting magicians who ask the question, “Why did I ever come to Colon?” Now they know the answer I’m sure, and if they didn’t get their money’s worth it was because they didn’t spend any in the first place.”

Magic’s a Class Act

Chavez College of Manual Dexterity and Prestidigitation

 

From The Detroit News Michigan, March 2, 1986:

In Colon, Mich., Magic’s a Class Act

 

Just about every semester somebody asks Neil Foster, dean, chancellor and principal faculty member at America’s only college of performing magic, whether his curriculum includes “how to pull a rabbit out of a hat.”

The answer, Foster says, sums up what the “Chavez College of Manual Dexterity and Prestidigitation” in Colon, Mich., is all about. “I tell ‘em that getting the rabbit out of the hat is the easy part,” says the 65-year-old Foster. “Getting it into the hat in the first place, without anybody seeing you – that’s the trick.’

The trick is the thing at Chevez College, which, with its branch campus in Pasadena, Calif., is the nation’s only school training performing magicians. Twice a year, magic majors from across the United States, Canada, Mexico and as far away as Bombay, India, show up to take Professor Foster’s 20-week course.

Foster, who retired as an active performer after a 35-year-career, covers sleight-of-hand, card tricks and basic vanishes and transformations which can be performed without elaborate apparatus or expensive assistants. Then it’s out into the world of stage shoes, conventions, and cruise line gigs. Or, more likely, birthday parties, school assemblies and Kiwanis benefits.

“The business has changed since the days of vaudeville,” Foster says, “There’s still a living to be made in magic, but there’s really no middle ground between the starting out level and the top right now … Some go on and hit it big with the $4,000-a-week jobs in Las Vegas, while many others make a lifetime career out of school assemblies. I know some who have made a very nice living at the latter.”

Foster himself may be the school’s best advertisement. He took the course in 1947, when the school was Los Angeles-based and run by Ben and Marian Chavez, a pair of old vaudeville hands. Upon graduation he took a job as an instructor, and later kept in close touch with his alma mater after striking out on his own.

In 1979, after a career that took him to 27 countries, he bought the college name and opened a campus in Colon. It seemed only right. The southwestern Michigan town has billed itself as the “Magic Capital of the World” since the 1930s, when Harry Blackstone settle there and Blackstone colleague Percy Abbott opened his magic store, which continues in business to this day.

“The funny thing is, I took the course myself under the GI Bill,” Foster says. “Magic qualified as a manual trade. And today, that’s right what we start with; working on sleight-of-hand.”

Today’s students, who pay an average of $50 an hour in tuition fees, are also interested in basic, good old-fashioned showmanship, Foster says.

“We teach silent magic so that our graduates can work abroad without a language barrier,” he says, “Learning showmanship, which is really just another word for salesmanship, is what this is all about.

Foster is learning a few new wrinkles himself these days. The college, which limits class size to four pupils, has lately begun to enroll female interns, giving rise to “sawing the gentleman in half” and other possibilities.

“We encourage them to work in sleeveless evening gowns,” Foster says, “Even though we men don’t use our sleeves anyway, people still think we do. But what do you say to a woman in an evening gown?”

Neil Foster by Dorny

Neil Foster by “Dorny”

 

Important to Abbott Magic Company history and the village of Colon, Michigan is a man by the name of Neil Foster (1921 – 1988). Dorny writes about Neil in his Entre Nous Column in the February 1965 issue of TOPS magazine. Neil Foster was editor at the time. “Altho it is the right and privilege of a magazine or newspaper editor to eliminate, change or entirely omit any of his contributor’s efforts, I sincerely hope that Neil Foster will NOT exercise this royal right in this particular article for I feel that one should issue forth with the bouquets while his subject is still living. And to make it easier for our general editor to cooperate with me in this request I will save the name of the aforementioned subject for the end of the column.

Let me begin by saying that our hero this month is one of the latter day’s most modern performers. Born and raised in Aurora, Illinois, he became addicted to the practice and presentation of magical finger flinging at a very early age. But he never essayed a public appearance until AFTER he had spent many arduous hours practicing and developing any and all trix he presented. Altho he was exceptionally clever with playing card manipulations, he was never quite satisfied. To further develop his latent talents he enrolled in the Chaves School of Magic in Los Angeles. Here he graduated cum laude and was immediately hired by Ben Chaves to become one of his teachers. In this way he not only was one of the most proficient of all digital dexterity exponents but helped a great many others who subsequently went on to becoming recognized standard theatrical artistes. After a spell of magical “Pedagogging” he came back to the old hometown and for a time worked as a clerk in his brother’s grocery store. Although he was now eating regularly, he was never happy “in trade”. So he began to work casual club dates, nite clubs, etc. and while in Florida he met and married his wife, Jeanne. She became his assistant and after showing his wares to a flock of agents he landed a long contract to play the so-called University Lyceum Courses. This being a very rugged way of making a living, it affected Jeanne’s health and reluctantly they had to give up all this lengthy booking. “Our hero” now went to work in the Ireland Magic Company’s Chicago Magic shop. Here he demonstrated and sold tricks to the aspiring tyros of the Windy City. Then, receiving a very fine offer from Recil Bordner, the owner and former partner of the late Percy Abbott, he moved to Colon where he was, and still is gainfully employed as super salesman and vice president of the Abbott Magic Co. Here he revived the long defunct “TOPS” magazine, which in a very short time has become one of the very best of all good contributions to magical journalism.

Has a nice home in Colon and besides having agile fingers he also has a “Green Thumb”. His flower garden is one of the show places of the town.

To see him perform at any kind of a public show is to witness an exhibition of the excellence of stage magic. Albeit he employs no big effects or illusions, his every effort with cards, cigarettes, etc., can be seen and enjoyed in the largest of modern show shops. Has a magnificent sense of timing and a most pleasing personality as well. Has taken up one of the more recent magical effects and made it a masterpiece of beautiful mystery. This of course, is his version of the much-abused “Zombie”. This stunt, unless handled by a master performer can be a total loss to a mediocre magician’s reputation. But when it is shown by a real artiste it can make the reputation of anyone who has the ability, showmanship, skill and charm of this month’s subject, NEIL FOSTER. And I KNOW that anyone who ever has see Neil in action will agree with me that I am right.”

When Ben Chavez died in 1961, Marian Chavez continued to operate the school. When she died in 1978, it was her wish that Neil Foster and Dale Salwak become the co-owners of the Chavez school. Together over the next nine years they made every effort to carry on the training school. When Neil died in 1988, it left Chris Jakway Dean of the Midwest Studio (along with instructor Larry Wirtz) and the East Coast. Dale Salwak still continues the tradition at the west coast branch.