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.”

Gordon Miller’s Eulogy to Neil Foster

Eulogy to Neil Foster

 

 

Prepared and delivered by Gordon Miller, March 16, 1988, Colon, Michigan: “I deem it an honor to have been asked and to be allowed to deliver this eulogy for my friend, Neil Foster.

A eulogy is nothing more than a personal recollection. During his lifetime, Neil Foster touched everyone here in attendance, and thousands more who are here in spirit, with his presence. To some he was a casual acquaintance or a customer or a neighbor. To others he was a co-worker, a teacher, a relative or a friend. He was all these things and more.

Any man fills many roles during his lifetime. He is first a boy and then a man and, if providence allows, a husband and possibly a father. My first recollection of Neil was in the role of The Idol. Neil was an almost legendary figure in his chosen field of magic. He was respected and revered for his high level of skill, his masterly presentations and his superb showmanship. I knew of him first only through the writings of others.

While Neil and his wife Jeanne were traveling the school assembly entertainement circuit, a complex series of circumstances resulted in their retiring from that nomadic life and ended with them settling here in Colon. The Fosters joined the staff of the Abbott Magic Company. My idol now stood across the showroom counter from me. we were now Casual Acquaintances.

During one of our conversations I managed to convince Neil to act as my instructor – a dream come true for a young man bewitched by the art of magic. And Neil’s role changed to that of The Teacher. I shall always remember those evenings, first at the little house on Romine Street and later at the house on Goodell Avenue. I paid for one hour’s instruction and usually spent over three hours each night once a week, talking, listening and learning. As others had discovered before me and still others had discovered after me, Neil Foster was incomparable as a teacher. Just as he was as a performer – he was the best.

It was certainly during this time that Neil became my Friend. When Neil became the

Editor of The NEW TOPS magic magazine, I joined the staff of the Abbott Magic Company and we became Co-workers – a condition that lasted until his retirement in 1979.

All hiis life Neil pursued a variety of interests, in addition to those we have briefly touched upon. He was an artist and an illustrator whose talents range from catalog line drawings to oil portraits. He edited a magazine, which his wife typeset, for over nineteen years. Both he and his wife were voracious readers; Jeanne favored detective mysteries, Neil devoured biographies and travel books. Both were addicted to late night television, expecially old movies. The house on Goodell Avenue was justly famous for the gardening and landscaping efforts the Neil created. The lush flower arrangements, the thick shrubbery and hedges and the great variety of trees formed a safe haven for all the neighborhood birds, squirrels and rabbits – and a natural and relaxing retreat for the Fosters and their friends.

I am grateful for my priviliged position. I was a frined to both Neil and Jeanne for over a quarter of a century. I saw them as man and woman, as husband and wife and as surrogate father and mother. We traveled together frequently and often performed on the same show. What an advantage to see the best in the business hundreds of times! What a collection of memories!

This, then, was Neil Foster. Idol, Acquaintance, Co-Worker, Teacher, Role Model and Friend. I often had the enjoyable task of introducing Neil to an audience. It was the easiest job in the world. All I had to say was: Ladies and Gentlemen … Neil Foster … the best!”

 

Gordon Miller has appeared at Abbott’s Get-Together in 1966, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Della Coppin (Sally Banks)

Della Coppin

Della Coppin (Sally Banks)

The Express, August 17, 1977, By Monk Watson: “I only knew Sally as “Sally Banks” because that was the stage name of her husband, Edward Coppin. He was one of the group who came to America with Charlie Chaplin, and on his own was a very funny man. Soon he joined the Blackstone show and was with it until he died, after the fire in the Lincoln Square theatre in Decatur, Ill. When Edward and Sally were married, she took the name of Coppin, but when he changed his name to the stage name of Banks, she took that name also. So for all those years she has been Sally Banks to all of us in Colon.

For years Sally was the “Avon Lady” who called on so many with a smile. I don’t recall ever seeing Sally without a smile, even when it might have been put on. She was generous with her flowers, putting them on the graves of those she knew. I recall one morning when I asked Sally where I could get some of the old clay flowerpots that were hard to find. The next morning there was a bag on our front porch, with six large pots made of clay. I could not pay her for them, because they were her gift to Mary and Monk.

We will all miss that happy smile, but we also know that he is now resting with the greats of the world, just as she worked with and entertained them in life.

Today Sally will rest with Ted Banks and The Great Blackstone in Lakeside cemetery, in Colon she loved so well. Sleep well, dear Sally.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monk Watson Goes Home

‘Monk” Goes Home

 

From “The Colon Express”, December 1963, By Monk Watson: “Really, my home is right here in Colon, and how glad I am that we live here and not in the city of Detroit. Getting in and out of that city via the rat race of the heavy freeway traffic is not worth the effort anymore. However, on this last trip, I took Neil Foster with me for a show, and we made it a sightseeing trip as well as business. So that is the reason I said that I went home again.

Home, in this case, meant that I returned to the place of my great success on the stage in Detroit. We visited the Riviera theatre. Known in the Twenties as the Grand Riviera.

 

 

Grand Riviera Theatre Detroit, Michigan in 1970. It was demolished in 1996.

How it has changed, not on the outside, but on the inside! When I went there in 1926 it was the most beautiful theatre in the Midwest … nothing like it west of New York City. It was the first of the large movie theatres and money meant nothing in making it a place of beauty. Two thousand seats, and all were filled every night of the week with many standing in lines waiting to see a good stage show with a big band and lots o people working front of it. In those days I had a band of 18 men and a line of 12 dancing girls and three or four acts, so it was a fine show to look at and enjoy. I first signed a contract to work a two-week engagement and it turned into more than four years so you see it was like a home in the theatre.

My dressing room was a thing of beauty, with a full-length mirror as well as one on the dressing table. Pictures of acts were hung on the walls, and a couple of easy chairs welcomed visitors. I had it painted to my liking, and that means that it wasn’t drab but very bright to brighten every day that I had to spend in it. Those were the days of the first radios, and I had to run a wire from my car through the window to a speaker on my dressing room table. Programs were not too good, but I was doing a radio show at the time, so we had to listen to see what the people wanted. My radio program was broadcast from the Fisher building, WJR, and we’d have to make it a hurried trip to the studio once a week, and back again, for the evening show at the theatre, so that meant a real fast drive. In order to make such a trip, I had to have a police escort, or a motorcycle policeman in front and one in back of my group of three or four cars. The police department was very glad to do this for me because I was always willing to help out with the Police Day benefits. So, with sirens screaming, we’d make the run each week until “Here Comes Monk and his Gang” was a household password. Another household slogan was, “Let’s go and see what Monk is doing tonight”, not just, “let’s go see the show”.

Neil Foster had heard me talk about the Good Old Days, and I’m sure he could hardly believe all of the stories I told, but they were all true and that is my reason for taking him to this fine old theatre where I could show him around. I had a few lumps in my throat as I walked across stage (in back of the movie screen). Of the many young men I had in the band only three or four are still living. These boys were like my own family. It was a great, great band that made records whenever we played THE LONGEST RUN IN SHOW BUSINESS – that’s ours to look back on!

As I walked on the darkened stage I could hear the Boswell Sisters singing in their dressing room, and I remembered how I told them that they should do a singing act and not an instrumental act, as they were then doing; how they went from there to the Paramount theatre to follow me across the country where I was playing a short engagement of 12 weeks. Their success is history now.

Boswell Sisters, Martha, Vet and Connee

 

I could hear Martha Ray singing in a family act, and how I told her that she was too good for this act and should do a single. She did, and her success is history.

I could hear Joe Penner asking me for a chance to go out on my show and sing his little song and do a little dance, and I remembered how we worked up a talking act to do together for several weeks, and then how he went to the highest paid act on radio.

I could see a dancer doing the very funny dance, and not speaking a line, until we worked up a couple of running jokes together (and he has never forgotten). He has done pretty well, Bob Hope has.

I could go on and on namedropping because many more played in that good old theatre in front of my band in my stage show.

With Christmas coming along in a few days I also recalled one of my Christmas shows. I had the painters make a lovely stage set with candy canes and fireplaces, with steps coming down from the back of the stage, with some beds across the stage with children in them (my chorus girls dressed as little girls). With the lights dimmed we’d play Christmas music and you could hear the sleigh bells come closer until down into one of the fireplaces would come old, fat Santa. I’ll never forget one night when he couldn’t get out until some of the boys helped him. Each of the girls got a big doll as a gift, and as they would dance, these dolls, dressed like the chorus girls, would dance along, too. They were the most beautiful dolls I have ever seen, and could only be rented from the theatre supply house in Chicago. I have never seen any like them since.

Christmas was just another day of hard work for everyone in the show; acts, hands and all. So, after the last show we’d have our own tree and gifts were exchanged. I made an effort to get each of the boys something that they’d keep as long as they lived, and all these years we’ve remembered, I’m sure, each other, and these wonderful good times. Each year would find every member of the band marching in the Old Newsboy parade, and I’m still a member of the Old Newsboys of Detroit. Each year I would see to it that the policeman of my precinct received a gift of a box of cigars, or candy for his family, remembering how they made it possible for me to race through the streets, to do charity shows, so others could have a nice Christmas.

They have roped off the first five rows of the theater and the entire balcony now, so that the kids won’t tear the picture screen apart and rip up the seats.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grand Rivera Rotunda 1970

Pete Bouton by George Johnstone 1968

From the ‘TOPS” Magazine, June 1968. By George Johnstone: “Golly, it’s hard t realize that ole Pete is gone. He was the fun-type character that you thought would always be around.

Pete Bouton used to be my “grandpa” image when I was a kid on the Blackstone show. With his wonderful sense of humor he used to turn my problems into laughter as he showed me the solution. He had been with the show so many years and had run into so many varied situations that he just knew all the answers.

I can see him now, bustling around the stage with his funny little hop-and-skip walk. Pete was the union stage carpenter with the show and I had the depression-days awe of his wage scale of over $100 a week. He was a hard worker and being Blackstone’s brother was no excuse to pick the easy jobs or sluff off the rough assignments.

On opening day Pete was usually up by five so that he could get out to the freight yards to unload the crates and trunks from the baggage car onto the trucks for transportation to the theatre. After this backbreaking task was completed, usually about 10 a. m., then came the job of setting up the illusions, which ran practically right up to show time.

Pete’s first job before any illusion could be set up was to lay the rug. Few people remember or even know that our stage was completely covered with a sound-deadening rug that ran right up to the opening curtain (the traveler). When folded and rolled it made a bundle about five feet high and about three feet across and weighed close to 600 pounds. It had to be laid just right to compensate for the stage traps. While Harry worked in ‘one’ the heavy illusions could be rolled and set up without distracting noises.

The rug was old and Pete could always be found between shows, sitting on the floor in the semi-darkness while the motion picture was on, sewing his rug. “Mother” Bouton, we used to kid him.

Pete was also responsible for the largest and the smallest tricks on the show, the Floating Lady and the Dancing Hanky. The Dancing Hanky setup did not take too long and he also worked it, during the performance. The Levitation (or ‘levi,’ as we called it), took anywhere from three hours on to set up … depending on the condition and layout of the theatre.

Pete also worked the ‘levi’ during the performance, winding the winch to make the lady ‘float’ to Harry’s gestures. Maybe once or twice a season the cables in the flyloft would jump a pulley and the curtain would have to close in with the lady remaining “suspended in mid-air.” Pete was always a pretty frantic fellow when this happened. The ‘levi’ was Harry’s baby and Pete was always given a beautiful “chewing out”: when this happened, tho it was no fault of Pete’s.

Pete also caught hell occasionally when one of us fellows fouled up on the job. While Harry was bawling one of us out and Pete happened to walk by or was within earshot, Harry would say, “Dammit, Pete, why don’t you watch these fellows. If I can’t depend on them at least I should be able to depend on you.” Later, after Harry left, Pete would wink at us and say, “C’mon, you goof-offs, do you want me to get fired?”

Harry and Pete got along like any two brothers. There was mutual love and respect but there was the occasional flare-up, which always concerned an illusion or the show, never personal matters. These things died a natural death after a day or so, neither apologizing to the other or admitting one was right or wrong.

As a whole it was a smooth running, very efficient show, both troupe and illusion-wise. I had heard reports on some of the other big illusion shows, both from magic old-timers and the theatre stagehands … Some shows had crew dissention, fights, firings and tricks falling apart for lack of care, from opening day to the end of the season.

Last fall Pete took me out to Harry’s grave. As he stood there with his head lowered and a tear streaming down his cheek I wondered now many wonderful memories of the golden days of magic were flowing through his mind … the early days, the struggles for recognition, the salad \days of Bouton & Co., 10.000 Laughs as they present Straight and Crooked Magic. A 1913 review of this act reads: “With banty roosters, a duck, a rabbit and a cat moving about the stage, the act of Harry Bouton and his well selected company of one, closed the present bill at the Varieties, leaving the audience in a rather pleasant state of mind. Mr. Bouton is a magician and a comedian. His associate is somewhat of a magician, too, and he does funny falls and cuts other capers to add to his value as an entertainer. It isn’t exactly the mystifying nature of the stunts enacted by Mr. Bouton and his associate that makes the act a winner, but rather the manner of their doing.”

Later came the many changes of name, eventually ending up with The Great Blackstone & Co. the building of the show, the larger illusions, the increasing of the troupe. The hectic vaudeville struggles, always working in the shadows of Houdini and Thurston … The day Houdini sent a stagehand over to warn Blackstone that if he went through with a proposed publicity stunt involving an outdoor escape that a few boys would “come over and take care of him.” Harry threw the fellow out the stage door and Pete picked up a two-by-four and told the fellow to tell Houdini to bring his boys over and “we’ll be waiting for ‘em!” Needless to say, Houdini never showed up and the gutsy Blackstone went through with his publicity stunt.

Thurston also warned Blackstone of legal action if he continued to us a “rabbit tray” similar to the one used by him … I guess you’re bound to trod on a few toes, create a few apprehensive hostilities as you battle towards the top rung.

Pete used to spend his summers in a small cottage near the ‘barn.’ This was the old storage place for retired and unused illusions. The lower floor was the workshop that used to hum with activity the last two weeks before the show went back on the road. Crates and trunks were fixed and repainted. The illusions were refurbished, new ones built and painted. Pete worked from dawn to dusk and then some. His wife Millie, the wardrobe mistress on the show, would send the costumes to the cleaners, then sew spangles, repair wear and tears, all in time for the opening.

The whole area was a beehive of activities. Pete took pride in his work, as if it was his show … and I guess it was, in a way. If I did a partic8ularly good job of painting or decorating an illusion, he never got through complimenting me … Even in the middle of the season, as we were rolling an illusion out on the stage he would look at my handiwork and remark, “Damn, you did a good job on this thing … you must have been drunk!”
Talking about drinking, Pete was a great party-goer. Over the years he made many friends around the country and they always waited for him and Millie to come back in town. Harry was a very moderate drinker and Pete used to say, “I have to drink to make up for Harry’s end.” Outside of an occasional Beer Box illusion, Pete never drank during the working day, but at night, if there was a party, he swung pretty good. He was a happy drinker, fun to be around; the more he drank the funnier he got … the next day we had to put up with his moping around and “never agains.” That is, until a couple of weeks later we’d hit a town and some old friends would show up at the theatre … I used to love to sit with Pete and Millie and let him ramble and reminisce over a glass of beer. Millie would be the incident reminder and Pete would be the elaborator. I wish I had taken notes … we’d have a couple of volumes of magical nostalgia.”

 

 

Percy Abbott

Percy Abbott lived an illusion most of his life. It wasn’t discovered until after his death. In 1960.

From a page clipped out of an Australian Magazine; no date or identification:

“Marjorie Abbott and her mother, Rose, strolled along the busy Oxford St., Sydney, sidewalk.

Passing by a newsagent, Rose glanced at a poster advertising the Pocket Book Weekly’s stories.

Australian starts wackiest town in America” It proclaimed.

‘That’d be your father,’ Rose remarked calmly.

‘You’re joking!’ Marjorie, 20, laughed. Her dad, magician Percy Abbott, had left Rose and moved to America when Marjorie was seven and her sister, Vida, eight.

Marjorie bought the book and opened it. ‘It is Dad!’ she gasped.

The story said Percy, 50, had turned the township of Colon in Michigan into an illusion trade fair, where magicians could buy and sell tricks ranging from a magic wand to a box that could make an elephant disappear.

It was the first time Marjorie had heard any news of Percy since he’d left 12 years earlier. The girls hadn’t missed him at all. Their doting mother had more than made up for his absence.

But, as she read in the article, the few memories she had of Percy flowed clearly into her mind. He was an eccentric magician and loved performing. He was always dreaming up a new illusion…

Marjorie, four, crouched inside the box with Vida, five. It was covered in thick chains.

Percy carefully wheeled the box onto the stage and opened it to show the crowd that it was empty.

‘When I clap three times, two girls will magically appear in the box,” Percy announced.

Vida and Marjorie were hidden in the box’s special compartment.

Then Percy turned back to face the audience and clapped once.

Using the secret door, Marjorie and Vida stuck their heads out of the box and appeared to the crowd.

The crowd cheered, but Percy swiveled round. “Wait until I clap three times,’ he reminded the girls.

This was the first time her father had used Marjorie in his magic act. He was touring from Sydney to Cairns, Qld, in a horse-drawn caravan. In every small town Percy found a hall to perform in. People flocked to see him.

After the show had finished, Percy said to Rose. ‘I won’t use them again. They’re too young.’

A few month later Percy winked at Marjorie. ‘The audience is quiet,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you three pence if you’ll go out there and sing Twenty-one Today.’

‘OK,’ Marjorie said, her eyes lighting up. Percy ushered her out onto the stage.

The crowd clapped as Marjorie shyly stepped forward and sang: “I’m 21 today …’

As she sang, the crowd threw coins onto the stage.

Elated, Marjorie picked up fistfuls of coins. Then she ran offstage with the delighted crowd’s cheers in her ears.

‘We’ll never see a cent of the money he’s making,’ Marjorie heard Rose say as they stood in the street. Her memories vanished and she turned to her mother. The Great Depression was at its height and Marjorie and Rose lived on Marjorie’s modest wage as a seamstress.

They walked home to their Paddington terrace. Marjorie tossed the book down and forgot all about it.

Marjorie’s boyfriend, Peter Rice, proposed three years later. At the small wedding her mum gave her away.

Over the next 10 years Marjorie had two daughters, Marilyn and Susan. With the years, Percy’s fame grew and Marjorie saw countless newsreels that featured Percy performing levitations and putting swords through women in boxes.

‘That’s your other grandpa there,’ Marjorie pointed to Marilyn and Susan. ‘He’s a famous magician.’ The girls would chuckle at his tricks and antics.

One morning, when the girls were teenagers, Marjorie read in the newspaper: Percy Abbott, 77, renowned magician, has died from natural causes in Colon, Michigan. The obituary gave the name of Percy’s solicitor.

‘Maybe he left something for Mum,’ Marjorie suggested to Vida that day. Neither woman felt any grief for the eccentric father they hadn’t seen for nearly 40 years.

‘Let’s find out,’ Vida agreed.

Marjorie wrote that week. The solicitor replied, saying Percy had left no provisions in his will for them … or for his four kids by his second wife, Gladys!

Marjorie and Vida stared at each other in amazement. ‘He’s got another family!’ they said almost in unison.

Neither had any idea Percy had remarried, but both were excited to learn they had half-siblings.

Soon after, Marjorie received a letter from Gladys: Percy told me he had no obligations in Australia. So I was surprised to hear about you and Vida. You have four half-sisters and half-brothers: Marilyn, Linda, Sydney and Jules.

Thrilled to have heard from Percy’s second wife, Marjorie wrote back without delay.

Soon the pair was exchanging long letters about Percy’s life in America and Australia. Marjorie learnt Percy’s other children had also participated in his illusions.

‘I corresponded with Gladys for many, many years,’ Marjorie, now 85, says from her Tuggerwong, NSW, home.

‘Gladys even visited us in Australia and, after she died, I began writing to my half-sisters.

‘Our father was a born magician – definitely the wackiest Australian in America!’

Monk Watson

Donald (Monk) Watson was born in Jackson Michigan in 1894. When his mother became terminally ill, he was sent to live with his grandmother here in Colon. It was through magic that he got into show business as a boy. “My first show was almost my last,” Monk once said. “The druggist who sold me the ingredients for the “wine to water” trick forgot to tell me not to drink the stuff. I darn near died!”

Donald Watson (March 23, 1894 – March, 1981), was a vaudeville performer, acrobat, magician, radio personality, musician and emcee. Monk Watson fought on each of the five fronts in World War I. It was during his time as a soldier that he first met Elsie Janis while she was touring Europe. He joined her “Elsie Janis and Her Gang” for two years and then spent three years doing a farcical skit with a man named Benjamin Kubelsky (Jack Benny).

In 1926, after Monk assembled his 18-piece stage band, “The Keystone Serenaders,” he hired Bob Hope (“then a poor prize fighter known as Packy East”) to work in front of the band as a dancer. Another he helped along was Ginger Rogers.

After his band disbanded (in 1932) and he left the stage in 1940, Monk Watson spent two years as an Air Force morale and entertainment director during World War II. Later, he had a television show in Cleveland on WNKB-TV, and appeared as a guest star on television shows across the country. Monk took up Magic again, and put it to work by selling. He played every high school and also every good-sized garage in the country with the Casite Corporation

Monk returned to Colon and spent his last years in the small town where he grew up.

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.