Conklin; a Magical Life

Reflecting on a magical life

From the Kalamazoo Gazette Newspaper, July 25, 1998, by Lynette Kalsnes: “ Mystery has been a part of Jerry Conklin’s life since he was 14.

COLON – If someone didn’t know what Jerry Conklin did for a living, his living room would be a dead giveaway.

Two giant black dice serve as end tables, holding up lamps with red and black shades that match the shag carpeting. Old posters featuring magicians under words like “thrill after thrill,” “all the sparkle and dazzle of Arabian Nights” and “company of 30 mostly gorgeous girls!” color his walls. Magic kits cover a table.

And above his fireplace, a wall is plastered with the black-and-white photographs of his magician friends, many of whom has stayed with him.

The 70-year-old magician has turned hi living room into a museum – only with comfortable easy chairs and a couch – filled with the remnants of a life dedicated to magic.

Conklin started performing 56 years ago and toured the United States and Canada with his wife, children and grandchildren as “The Amazing Conklins.”

Although semi-retired now, he still performs three to four times a month and hosts several magicians in his Colon home during the annual Abbott Magic Get-Together. The convention and nightly magic shows will draw about 1,00 magicians here August 6 – 8.

“He’s had Doug Henning sleep on his couch,” said Abbott’s Magic Co. owner Greg Bordner.

“That’s kind of cool.”

Quite simply, magic has been Conklin’s career and his life since he got hooked at a backyard circus at 14.

Conklin hosted the circus with his friends, using a show curtain made of old bedspreads. Conklin supplied marionettes, one of his friends in magic – he revealed the secret as he did each trick.

Young Conklin told his friend that was no way to do magic. The mystery, he still says today, is the point.

“When you take the mystery away, the fascination for magic goes away, too. If all the tricks were exposed to the public, magic would be dead. Why go to a magic show when you’re not going to be fooled?”

Conklin went out and bought a magic kit of his own, and he was hooked. He performed all through high school, earning 50 cents for his first official show.

Although he loved magic, he planned on following in his mother’s footsteps in the more practical career choice of teaching.

The U.S. Army got in the way of those plans. Conklin enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1946 and was assigned to Special Services because of his unique gift. His job? To travel all over Europe with Army Special Services entertaining the troops as a magician.

When he returned home, he did a show at his old Battle Creek High School. A teen girl in the high school decided he was the man she would marry.

He avoided the teen he still saw as a kid, but she persisted long enough to grow into a young woman and they married in 1952.

“She chased me until I caught her,” he said. “Most wonderful thing that ever happened to me.”

Each time Conklin got discouraged and was ready to quit magic, his wife, Shirley, was the one who kept him going.

“She was my biggest supporter all the way through life.” He said. She died of cancer in 1967.

Conklin’s son, Mike, and daughter Cindy, joined the family act at the tender age of 7 and 5. Like Conklin’s wife, they served as his assistants.

He still remembers the day he performed a new illusion, unsure of why the audience was giggling. He finally looked up and saw two small faces peeking out through holes in the curtain, watching the show.

At its peak, the show had 18 illusions and required five trucks to carry all the lights, scenery and sound gear. The Amazing Conklins traveled up to 40 weeks a year with a cast and crew of 11 people, plus six doves, four rabbits, three ducks, a goose and a St. Bernard.

When his wife died, Conklin scaled back the show, then cut it back again when he had a heart attack a few years later.

Conklin usually does a one-man show now, but his granddaughter Stacy occasionally performs with him.

Having people like Conklin and fellow longtime magicians Dick Oslund settle here adds to the self proclaimed “Magic Capitol of the World’s” rich history, Bordner said.

Conklin moved to Colon in 1961 when he got a job as an Abbott’s sales clerk and magic demonstrator after opening a show here for Blackstone and vaudeville illusionist Jack Gwynne, who would become his mentor.

Conklin steeped himself in magic history and patterned himself after Gwynne, who was known for his flourish and style, Bordner said.

Although Conklin has scaled back his performances, he doubts he’ll ever fully retire.

“I think if I do, it will kill me.” he said.

Magic keeps his mind alive and keeps him young.

“I like to see the reactions,” he said. “For a short period of time I take their minds off of their problems they have. You can’t think about your problems and enjoy magic at the same time. It’s the same with performing … It’s good therapy.”