Thoughts on Magic by Mel Melson

     Thoughts on Magic

 

From Abbott’s TOPS Magazine, April 1945; by Mel Melson: ”Just a few rambling thoughts:  How many amateur and semi-professional Magicians lose sight of the fact that, after all, Magic should be a means of entertainment, that its mysteries should be entertaining as well as baffling to the spectators!

I have in mind a chap who has mastered the techniques of his profession in a very high degree, and who even goes farther in his baffling procedures and learns to do some of his tricks the hard way in order to amaze and fool his fellow Magicians. The result is a fine technical display, but repetitious to the point where it becomes boring to the average audience, and even to Magicians.

This chap is unusually intelligent but he is so obsessed with producing amazing and apparently miraculous feats that he forgets that fooling people with Magic is not enough to keep them interested. And some folks get really disinterested in Magic generally after they witness the performance of a Magician whose only purpose in appearing before them is fooling them. Some people don’t like to be fooled. They may accept the fooling, however, when it is sugar-coated or disguised by a bit of showmanship, clever patter or a touch of comedy, all of which serve to entertain.

Entertainment is the major function of Magic as it is performed today. Time was when it was used to inspire religious awe or respect for religious leaders. That was long ago. Since, it has progressed along with other elements of intellectuality. To the masses, Magicians no longer are real wonder workers. They are entertainers and are sought as such, for most of their audiences are aware that, regardless of how miraculous this or that effect may appear, “There is a trick to it.” But they demand entertainment.

Inattention to the entertainment functions of his art by the Magician too often makes a Magic performance a boring affair. It is quite true that with Magic, the job of keeping audiences interested is simpler than with other turns, but tricks and their accomplishment are not enough.

Of course there are some tricks in which the mystery of their working is in itself entertainment if properly presented, but these are not too numerous. Certain illusions are in this category. The discerning Magician will gauge all his tricks for their entertaining value and if it is not inherent in the mystery itself, he will amplify it with the necessary showmanship.

The Magician who thinks that the baffling aspects of Magic are sufficient to successful performance is fooling himself. If his performances are not entertaining as well, he is doing harm to other Magicians as well as himself, and, indeed to Magic in general. “Another Magician!” folks who have seen such a Magician, have said, do say, and will say. “Ye gods! Do we have to sit through that again!”

Sure you can do Magic tricks, you can make your audiences’ eyes bug out with wonder as you do them, but do you entertain? Ask yourself this. It is the entertaining factor that brings in repeat dates most of the time.”

 

Browsing through the old issues of TOPS always has a lesson in history. This edition was in April of 1945 and the war was still going on in both the east and the west. The paper is very cheap quality. The best that could be had at the time. An advertisement for one trick caught my eye.
It was for Abbott’s Victory Poster Trick:

“MAGICIANS: Here’s Your Chance to Help, at the same time you have a new good applause-winning hit for your program.

Performer displays two paper flags, one with the Swastika and other with Rising Sun of Japan. He says: “These symbols and all who follow them will vanish because each of you will do his part. Here is a way in which each of us, young and old can make them vanish forever.” As he says this he tears up the flags, bunches them up and on opening them out they have changed into a Minute Man Poster promoting sale of war bonds and stamps.

You can get into the newspapers working this for the War Bond authorities in your city. ($1.50 a dozen).”

 

 

Howard “Mel” Melson by Gene Gordon

Howard Melson, Gone But Never Forgotten

From TOPS Magazine, January 1961, by Gene Gordon:  “Magicians are always intimating that the spirits do return to the scenes of their past triumphs. If such a thing is possible, then our new Editor, Neil Foster, can be sure that he will have spiritual aid in publishing this magazine from its former Editor, Howard Melson or as he was know to all of us, Mel. He loved his work as editor and he should be very happy to know that it will be carried on by a young man that he admired very much. Mel passed away on December 12th, 1958, in the Veteran’s Hospital at Ann Arbor, Michigan. Mel’s association with the Abbott Company begin in 1940 when he left the excitement of New York to go out to Colon on a six week’s assignment to do art work for the next catalog. The six weeks stretched out to eighteen years. He was a sophisticate and remained one to his death … but he was charmed by the small town life of Colon and was never happier than being there with real friends. Witty and often cynical, his plans to improve on life were not so materialistic as idealistic. He knew that he could only sleep on one bed and only eat three meals a day so money could buy no more,

His thoughts always followed a clear and personal logic. They were no mere fantasies but were founded on reason. He would argue against his own beliefs to hear what others had to say and then draw conclusions to make his own decisions. His great sense of humor drew him to Humorous people. He respected anyone who had independence of thought and he had little use for conformists. With restrained enthusiasm, he liked to speak of his projective thinking.

When you arrived at an Abbott Get-Together, Mel was one of the first to greet you and his welcome was as warm for a first time visitor as for a big name performer. When I would get worn out just watching Percy travel from dawn to dusk at break-neck speed, I would recuperate by spending a few minutes in the quiet serenity of Mel’s company. It was hard for me to look over the book display at the last gathering and not see Mel behind the counter.

He was born in Steubenville, Ohio, on January 6th, 1890, but moved at an early age to Buffalo where he attended grade and high school as well as the Chown School of business. And early bent for cartooning won him a first prize in a contest conducted by a breakfast food company. This led to his enrollment in the Buffalo Art Institute and later Cleveland’s Landon School of Cartooning. He was not a boy magician … his real interest started not long before he went to Colon.

Mel spent many years in the reportorial and editorial end of newspaper work. He was Art Director for the Magazine of Wall Street and his creations appeared in many other magazines. His work brought him into close friendship with many prominent figures in the theatrical world such as Bob Hope, Olson & Johnson, Edgar Bergen, Al Jolson, Rosa Ponsell and many others. Since he passed away just before Christmas, it was my sad duty to help his family here in Buffalo sort the magic greetings from his personal cards and I was amazed at the wide scope of friends that he had made over the years.

He enlisted in the U.S. Army March 8th, 1918, where he served at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas. He later toured with the Kelly Field Players over the Pantages and Gus Sun Circuits as Mel, the Chalk Cartoonist. He also did a sand painting act and also appeared at many magical conclaves around the country. I always looked forward to his annual visit to Buffalo where he came to be with his family — three brothers named Jim, Bill and Dr. Oliver and a sister Mrs. Marie Jones. I know Jim’s Son Doug and I know that in his estimation, his uncle was TOPS.

A sad part of his passing was that within a few days he would have been married to Sally Banks, formerly of the Blackstone show and well-known to many Colon visitors at the Get-Togethers.

Mel was buried in Buffalo’s Forest Lawn, Cemetery on December 14, 1958 and Ring 12 Members attended the services. His body is there but the real Mel will always be in Colon, enshrined in the hearts and memories of his friends.

 

Skippy LaMore

     Skippy LaMore!

 

June 18, 1942, The Colon Express: “Skippy LaMore’s Comedians are showing this week in Vicksburg. Skippy is carrying on with his part in the regular performance, but is unable to do his specialties. That theatrical people really cooperate when emergencies arise was proven this week. Blackstone, the magician, went over to Vicksburg Monday night and put on an act of magic between the acts of the regular show, and Monk Watson assisted another night, taking Skippy’s place with a specialty. Mel Melson and another Colon theatrical people are standing by to do a bit any night they are needed.

Blackstone will appear again on the show Friday night and Monk will probably do another act before the show leaves Vicksburg. The show is billed for Hillsdale next week.

***

July 2, 1942, The Colon Express: “Skippy LaMore, who collapsed on the show at Angola, Ind. Monday night, was taken to the University hospital in Ann Arbor this forenoon.

The opening night of the show in Vicksburg, June 1st, Skippy collapsed after doing his specialty and was taken to the Vicksburg hospital where he remained for nearly two weeks. He recovered to the extent he was able to carry on and the show played two weeks ago in Vicksburg and last week in Hillsdale. The company moved on to Angola over the week and, billed there for all this week.

Monday night, after the first act, Skippy collapsed and could not carry on. He was taken to Angola hospital. This morning he was taken by the Conklin ambulance to the University Hospital and is in very critical condition.

The show was compelled to close and there is very little chance it will be taken out again this season.

***

July 9, 1942, The Colon Express: “SKIPPY LaMORE DIES AT U. OF M. HOSPITAL. Earl “Skippy” LaMore, widely known comedian and entertainer, passed away at the University Hospital at Ann Arbor, Wednesday, July 8th, at 9:15 a.m. When the word reached the home folks here in Colon Wednesday afternoon it cast a pall of sadness along the business section and in every home. It was difficult to believe this man who was a friend to everyone, young and old, and who had lived to make others happy, and as a comedian had created a million laughs, had been taken from us.

It was known by intimate friends that Skippy was not in the best of health before going out on the road this summer, however no one realized his condition was serious until his collapse on the show. The opening night of the show in Vicksburg on June 1st, he became suddenly ill, and he was confined to the hospital for three weeks. Being true to the showman tradition, “the show must go on”, Skippy and his company fulfilled their engagement the third week under most adverse conditions.

From Vicksburg the show moved to Hillsdale the following week, and then went on to fill the booking for a week at Angola, Ind. On the opening night, Monday, June 29th, after the first act, Skippy became suddenly ill and was again taken to the hospital. On Wednesday, July 1st, his condition became most serious and he was taken to the University Hospital in Ann Arbor for observation in charge of the country’s most noted brain specialist. He died of a repeated cerebral hemorrhage.”

***

Extract from The Sturgis Journal, July 9, 1942: “Funeral services for Earl (Skippy) LaMore, veteran showman and a resident of Colon since 1929, will be held Sunday at 2 p. m. from the Conklin Funeral home here. Burial will be in Lakeside Cemetery here, where the Masonic Lodge will conduct it rituals.

Lamore was born in Ohio, Oct 17, 1894. his mother died when he was only two and a half years old. On Dec. 11, 1913, he married Miss Jean Rozelle and they worked together in vaudeville, as a team, for 12 years, touring all over the United States and Canada on “big time”, and playing in New York City for several seasons. In 1930 Mr. and Mrs. Lamore opened their own show and have since covered Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. Mr. LaMore paid his first visit to Colon 27 years ago as a vaudeville entertainer. Traveling through here on the train they saw the beautiful lakes and attractive surroundings and decided to stop for a day. That was 27 years ago and they have made their home here since 1929.

LaMore shared the Michigan Tent Show Circuit with four other dramatic companies.

Beside his wife Mr. LaMore leaves his aged father in Dayton, O. He had no children.”

 

Skippy LaMore by Monk Watson

Final Curtain Skippy LaMore

 

August 1942, by Monk Watson: “”The show must go on” is a pet saying by a lot of people who, if they were ever put to the test, would fold up like an old umbrella, and high tail for a soft spot. Such, however, was not the case with the late Skippy LaMore.

In my last column I mentioned that Harry Blackstone, Mel Melson and myself had gone over to Vicksburg to help him out. Skippy was so bent on putting on his show, so that the others could go along without a layoff, that he overdid it. They placed his cot up on the stage and he would relax on it between his lines. He did this for two weeks, and every­one seemed to think he was getting better, but after his first show in Angola, Ind., he fell again. He was rushed to the hospital in Ann Arbor, where the best brain specialists could study his case. Skippy passed away last Wed­nesday morning, July 8. Sunday he was buried in the Lakeside cemetery here in Colon.

One of the fine things I have to remember was how he pulled his cot up in the entrance so that he could watch me do my act. He laughed so loud, and when I came off stage he told me that it was the best laugh he had had in years. That was better than all he could have ever paid me.

I believe in the saying “The show must go on,” but, when it is liable to cut your own life string just a little shorter, then I say, “Think well before going on.”

I was mighty glad to see J. Elder Blackledge walk in on my show in Traverse City the other night, and we had a nice chat after the show. We are going to trade a couple of tricks in the near future, and I’m sure that I’ll come out best. However, I have one for him that will fit his kind of work. I’d be very happy to see him in action, because I have heard noth­ing but good about J. Elder Blackledge.

I drove up to Allegan last Sunday to see Lewis Bros. Circus. Paul Lewis and I have been pals for years, and I thought it would be a good idea to see what he had to offer.

This will sound like a Ringling billing, and it was for a while, but Lewis is presenting Dorothy Herbert, the world’s greatest rider. I’ve watched this girl for a long time and have marveled at the way she takes the jumps, with head back on the horse and both hands free. She takes the horse over a six-foot jump with top pole burning. I understand that she had a buster one day and broke her leg. This didn’t stop her, as she finished the season with one leg in a cast and riding sidesaddle over the jumps. She took my daughter, Marnie, back to her dressing room and they had a long talk about circus life. Whitey Ford, “The Duke of Paducah”, is on the show, leaving it on Friday night to fly to Chicago for his broadcast. Whitey is a swell chap and does a fine act on the show. This is without a doubt the best little show on the road. They have five or six other acts that would be a credit on any circus.

I’ll never forget how I ran away from home, at the age of fifteen, to join up with a circus, and how I traveled all over Michigan, feeding the animals, and sleeping on the flat cars under the parade wagons. Spot Jerome was a clown from Jackson, and he was on the show, so he took me under his wing and before I left them I could turn almost any kind of a flip-flop, and had made a couple of dives in the high net. What a kick I get out of being able to recall some of my pals of those days, who are still headliners. Last year I saw “Blutch”, the Hippodrome clown. He looked at me and said, “I know you.” He should, too, because we were good friends back in the old days. I guess I’d better stop here or I’ll be out smell­ing some barn yard ere I go to bed tonight, just to get that old feeling again. Haw!

Mel and I are going over to do a show for the boys in Fort Custer tomorrow night. We’ll either give them some laughs or make them so mad they’ll want to go out and fight. Enough for now, I’ve got to write to Ed Little, and thank him for a nice letter, also Larry (Capt.) Niendorf. Bye Again, and Buy Again.”

 

Madame Marantette; Ralph Clement

Madame Marantette

Written by Ralph Clement

“Madame Marantette, probably the greatest horsewoman of all time, was born in 1848 and was raised on a farm between Colon and Mendon. She was born Emma Peek. She and her sister, Myrtle, also a professional horsewoman, rode at the County Fairs and races as girls. The Madame married Charles Marantette but after a short time, they were divorced and Emma kept on riding.

It was in 1862 that D. H. Harris, a “Kentucky Colonel”, came to Mendon from southern Illinois and took her from the ranks of the amateur to become a profession.

Colonel Harris and Madame Marantette were married and the Colonel acquired the Kentucky bred High School (educated) horse. “Woodlawn” and the high jumper, “Filemaker”, and got bookings for the Madame to exhibit them in front of the grandstand at County Fairs in Illinois and Michigan. This was the start of a long and successful career.

“Woodlawn” was chestnut color and the most beautiful horse I have ever seen. He would trot, pace and single foot. He had five gaits in all. When the Madame wanted to mount, he would get down on his knees and she would sit in the saddle. She dismounted by reversing the process. His principal set was “waltzing” to the music of the band.

“Filemaker”, the high jumper, was a thrilling performer. He usually made three jumps; for the first jump he cleared the bar at 6’0”. His best record was 6’4 ½”. The Madame always rode him. They showed for a number of years throughout the Middle West with great success. Then, they reorganized the show and added a new act. They purchased two thoroughbreds, (running horses) “Major Banks” and “Evergreen”, (the horse “Evergreen” had been developed by Lillburn Mellon of Colon). Both horses had great speed. These two were broken to drive in double harness and hitched to a skeleton wagon, a four-wheeled rig with a single seat. They would run an exhibition mile to show their speed. They also replaced d”Woodlawn” with another High School horse, “Chief Geronimo”, a beautiful Arabian. “Filemaker” was replaced by “St. Patrick”, a noted jumper that held the world record by clearing the bar at 7’ 6 ½”.

Also, the Colonel acquired a private Pullman car, which was rebuilt on the inside into living quarters. The car was painted a bright yellow on the outside with the name “Madame Marantette” painted in large bold letters on both sides.

With this new setup, the Colonel got booking on the Grand Circuit, starting at Detroit about the 1st of July. There, they put on their usual high school and high jumping acts and then they went on with the thoroughbreds, “Major Banks” and “Evergreen”, hitched double and they ran the mile in 1: 45 ¼ ; this drew front page headlines in the Detroit papers. They continued on, playing the large cities throughout the East until the racing season closed.


Now they were nationally known, and joined the “Great Barnum & Bailey Circus” touring the United States, and then with them to England. After one season with them, they were forced to quit as their horses, “St. Patrick” and “Chief Geronimo” could not stand working two shows every day and “St. Patrick” refused to take jumps.

 

They returned to the farm home near Mendon and bought the trotting ostrich, “Gaucho”, and harnessed him with the running horse “Bonnie Ann” and made the half-mile in 1: 02 ½.

This new attraction, along with the old favorites, “St. Patrick” and “Chief Geronimo” were ready to again show at the County Fairs in Illinois and Michigan, which they did for several years until the death of Colonel Harris.

Madame Marantette’s brilliance never faded. She grew regal as she grew old. Discarding spangle and glitter as her hair turned white, she gowned herself in black or cadet blue velvet and piled her snow-white hair on her head. After the death of her husband, Colonel Harris, about 1920, she retired to her farm home near Mendon.

One day after her retirement, she drove to Colon to see my father and mother, both of whom she had known in girlhood. She died shortly thereafter, about 1922, and was buried in the Mendon cemetery.

A year or so later the Barnum and Bailey Circus train passed through Mendon and stopped there for an hour while the performers marched out to the cemetery and placed a wreath on her grave.”