Of Pete Bouton by Daniel Waldron

 

Of Pete Bouton

 

From “Tops” Magazine, August 1968; By Daniel Waldron: “The things that escape you when you’re young. Like coming to Colon for your first magic Get-Together in 1941 and not knowing, as you wander dazed and a little drunk from so much magic, why it should all take place her, in this little village so far away from it all.

You do not know about the tiny colony over on “The Island” – that height of land beyond the dip in the hill, across the railroad tracks, and up the winding road where the Blackstone settlement lies.

You do not know how Harry Blackstone came to Colon, invited Percy Abbott to visit, and how together they founded the magic company which now bears Abbott’s name.

So the music of Duke Stern’s band echoes in your ears, the free buffet that Percy has spread on picnic tables in the street gladdens your heart, and the abundance of magical happenings fires your brain. But you do know that the most enduring of magical extravaganzas has its center, its heart, its home, a mere stone’s throw from where you are.

Then there is the time at Keith’s Theatre, Grand Rapids, Michigan 1942. You have just seen the one-hour whirlwind that Blackstone is performing four times daily, between movies. Afterwards you have managed to get backstage. The glitter-sprinkled tables, the props, the people who are handling them seem to be moving in every direction.

You are about to ask the way to Mr. Blackstone’s dressing room when your eyes stop you cold! Here is a man who looks so much like the Great Magician it is uncanny. Yet he is not Harry. Who is he? He directs you to the dressing room and you have your interview with Blackstone, still wondering.

It takes twenty years or so before you find out. You are in Colon again; and you drive up the winding road to “The Island,” pull into the curved drive before a neat, snug bungalow, knock at the door and wait. In a moment a pleasant woman opens the door  — this is Millie – and from an inner room emerges that man you had seen backstage.

His hair is snow-white now, but his eyes, large and blue, twinkle with good humor as he greets you. This is Blackstone’s brother. This is Pete Bouton.

You’ve come to see him, you explain, because you are writing a book about the Blackstone show, and you understand that he was with it for many years.

With it! How little you know. He was of the show, heart and soul, its warp and woof, its very fiber.

But this you deduce only bit by bit over many other visits which are to follow for the next few years. You get to know Pete and Millie; you listen, entranced, to the stories, experiences, adventures of his fifty years in show business with his brother. Not told with bombast and brag, but with the bright spontaneity of sudden remembrance.

 

Harry Blackstone and Pete Bouton

 

As the incidents unfold those days live again; for weariness is not a part of the Bouton make-up, and zest in the telling brings the past vividly alive. Curtains rise. Music plays. The “Muldoon” character from “Straight And Crooked Magic” days clowns anew. A young, agile Pete stands by alert and watchful as “Fredrick The Great” escapes from underwater packing boxes in a hundred towns. Then the “Blackstone” years, and the old man with the whiskers makes the switch. The horse vanishes. The cannon roars. And in a thousand theaters where Pete’s saw has cut the perfect trap, once more the Princess floats in mid-air “where she can remain for a thousand years” (because Pete’s careful rigging has done the trick!)

And the animal stories: Kaaba, the camel, refusing to enter the baggage car, and Pete in a midnight comedy of block and tackle, getting the beast aboard. Conchita, the burro, saved from death in traffic by Pete’s flying tackle. The great white goose that gloried in the spotlight.

And the show … always the show … trundling across the length and breadth of America in its 90-foot railroad car, drawn by a locomotive, to be sure, but propelled into theaters and out again, and made to work before the eyes of enthralled thousands, because of Pete’s boundless energy and enthusiasm.

In Pete’s hand the physical equipment of the show appeared like new. And summer — the layoff time — was only half-a-layoff for Pete. New illusions took shape in the Blackstone barn at Colon. Equipment, drops, and props were refurbished for the September re-launching on the road. No effort was too great to give the show its characteristic luster.

In the fall, when the trouping commenced again, it was, for those along the route, a time of reunion. As the years passed, stagehands, theater managers, and others in show business came to look upon the return of the show in the spirit of “old home week.” And Pete, who, by the end, was a 50-year member of IATSE, the stagehands’ union, was as loved a personality as anyone who came through the doors. He wouldn’t admit this, himself, of course, but theater people were          quick to make it clear.

Listening to his words, you cannot get enough of those great, barnstorming years. You drive up that hillside to Blackstone Island again and again. You begin to get the picture. You begin to see what it was like. Millie, his beloved wife, adds her own gems.

 

 

 

Between your visits Pete fights battles with monsters of illness and hospitalization. The trials might have overcome men half his age, but each time Pete bounces back.

Then comes you last visit – the one to Sturgis, Michigan this year. It is the first of May and outside the hospital the trees are in their youth of green and blossoms are everywhere. But inside, Pete lies dying. At the age of 81 his days of earth are to be through. At 8:57 PM he is gone. The hands that made the handkerchief dance, built the vanishing birdcages, and created wonders for the world to look on with delight, are stilled.

You drive back to Colon underneath the wide, transparent sunset sky. A twilight hush has fallen. The lake gives back an almost supernatural calm, and clear, untroubled light permeates the air. In gathering dusk you turn down the street named “Blackstone Avenue” and you think back to the first time. How much escapes you when you’re young. How many years you might have spent with Pete and Millie and the rest. If only you had known.

The tales of Pete told would fill a book. One day soon, God willing, they shall. But you will understand when I tell you that this year, though coming to Colon will be a joy – it will not be the joy it always was.

 

Pete Bouton by George Johnstone

Peter A. Bouton

Pete and Millie Bouton

 

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.”

 

 

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.”