John Fisher on Blackstone 1997

Harry Blackstone Junior 1934 – 1997

An appreciation by John Fisher: “Harry Blackstone Junior began his career as a professional magician with the greatest of handicaps. The son of the man who personified magic in America during the middle years of this century, he was intelligent enough to realize his challenge. Show business has so frequently been embarrassed by those offspring who think they can emulate the success and stardom of their parents, yet lack the charisma, let alone talent to achieve their goal. It seldom happens. But the Blackstones were special and it did.

Having spent a large part of his early career in broadcasting as both producer and announcer, Harry timed the decision to follow in father’s footsteps with uncanny foresight. In the early seventies critics were coming around to the feeling that it was about time for magic to be taken seriously again. The watershed event would be the 1974 Broadway opening of The Magic Show, a musical with a magic theme starring the then unknown Doug Henning. Henning’s image was a culture shock when set against the preconceived notion of how a magician should look and behave. The idea of a flower child as wizard nevertheless had a telling charm. Magic became respectable again, the irony being that in the process the public still craved for a magician of more conventional attitude. Harry Blackstone, who had turned pro soon after his father died in 1965, was waiting in the wings to fulfill that role.

By 1980 he was starring on Broadway himself in his own full evening, record-breaking show in the Majestic Theatre. No longer was it necessary for a magic show to pose as a musical or even a specialized kind of vaudeville offering. My own memory of seeing the production remains vivid. Within one crowded matinee day I caught both Harry’s show and the new musical Barnum playing across 44th Street at the St. Jame’s Theatre. Only in later years when Michael Crawford joined the London cast of the musical did the latter achieve its full promise. For the moment, as distinguished theatre critic Brendan Gill took pains to point out in The New Yorker, there was more of the true spirit of Barnum, the razzmatazz and razzle dazzle of the authentic American carnival tradition, in Blackstone! Than in the all-singing, all-dancing tribute to America’s circus hero.

His friend and creative associate Charles Reynolds once described Blackstone as the greatest contemporary magician in the classical tradition. Since his death others have more glibly referred to him as the last in that line. I hope this is not the case. His legacy is too special to think that it cannot be handed down to another aspiring performer. Blackstone was certainly the modern magician who corresponded most neatly to what the public expected a magician to be, the contemporary approximation of the storybook wizard, in line with Merlin through Herrmann to Dante. In this respect he differed, I sense, from Blackstone Senior. His father’s image was not a domineering one. He was an engaging guy from Middle America who happened to get a kick out of laughs out of performing his tricks. The American public took him to its heart, as forty years later the British would take Paul Daniels to theirs. Their performances would be grand, but not their manner. Blackstone Junior brilliantly found a middle course. The homespun moments of the more intimate items would continue to enchant and amuse; the more elaborate, dramatic items now arguably had an even stronger, more commanding presentation.

History will doubtless pass judgment on his relative stature vis-à-vis his several contemporary rivals at the top of the magic profession, a more crowded elite than his father knew. It is a fair criticism that at a technological level his full evening show did come to fall behind those of some of his peers. But this is to talk of method and perhaps means little to the audience who have paid to be baffled and entertained by a master showman. Had his health allowed, I am convinced that he had another fifteen years of performing ahead of him, not least because Blackstone at his quintessential best was timeless. His performance owed nothing to the ersatz application of contemporary rock culture or the need to sacrifice wonder for laughter in order to be entertaining, although at the right moments he could be hilarious. His was an honest talent in the he pretended to be neither Liberace nor Fred Astaire, neither Marcel Marceau nor Elvis Presley. He was quite simply himself, a striking presence with the most distinctive speaking voice in magic since Orson Welles. Blackstone, like his father, was nothing if not his own man. The performer you saw was the person you met.

It is cliché to say of stage illusionist that the greatest moments of their shows features their smallest magic. It is nevertheless one key similarity between the two Blackstones, string all those more intimate moments together and you had a Blackstone performance that with the Buzz Saw and maybe another illusion would condense into about an hour, the traditional length of act for a headline star and the format with which the jet-setting Blackstone was most in demand, while so many of his contemporaries were rooted to the more rigid, less adaptable demands of staging and technology. He once joked to me that he clocked up more air miles than any one in American show business. It was probably the truth. His routines with the Vanishing Bird Cage, the Dancing Handkerchief, the Committee – his unique combination of card tricks, Kellar rope tie and pocket picking – were the ultimate in audience participation. His sequence with the boy or girl from the audience and the rabbit was the most engaging example of theatrical rapport between adult and child that I have witnessed; only Paul’s Linking Ring routine comes close. During this sequence the walls of the largest of theatres would close in to become the warmest and coziest of parlors. You might be in the back row of the auditorium, but you felt only a few feet away. This ability to play tricks with space and dimension, of course, informed his absolute masterpiece, the Floating Lightbulb.

I have said before that this one item remains the greatest single piece of magic I have ever seen. All of these routines had their basis in the performance of Harry Senior. However, it was the lightbulb, originally performed by father with a glass of milk that Harry developed into his own most original offering. I have known no other feat of magic elicit the veritable orgasm of surprise that occurred in the audience when the first spectator released his grip on the bulb for it to hover eerily out of his reach. The Harry – ‘perhaps you over there would like to see it too’ – subsequently sent it soaring over the heads of the crowd to satisfy the curiosity of these at the rear of the theatre on either side, hearts would fill with emotion reserved for performers on a different level from mere vaudeville magicians. A simple everyday object that we all take for granted had reawakened in us the awe that an increasingly technological era has eroded.

It was my privilege to work with this great magician on many occasions, from the special in which he appeared alongside Robert Harbin in 1977, through The Paul Daniels Magic Show, The Best of Magic, and a Royal Gala, to the Disney special of a few years ago. I will miss the professionalism of the performer who agreed to perform the Dancing Handkerchief out of doors at night in front of the Haunted Mansion on the Disney lot; we had not reckoned with wind and rain, but we got the take after goodness knows how many tries. I will miss the stature and dignity he showed in that same show as he rode onto the set on that Arabian steed – as Charles Reynolds said, a magician had never looked more in command. I will miss the challenge of capturing the magic of the lightbulb for television; we did it three times all told, both knowing it was never meant as a television trick at all; by the time we got to Disney we had acquired the best television light man in the UK, but there was always the challenge of high-definition cameras! Most of all I will miss the camaraderie of all those meals at coffee shops and diners at assorted spots on the American map.

Enjoy a relaxed meal with Harry and the conversation would inevitably lead to his father. He was rightly proud of his parentage and the anecdotes would tumble forth. They are not for telling here, but any aficionado of magic at its quirkiest should be able to regale the reader of the doughnut story and the technique for bringing a dead fly back to life (sic!) and the method used by Harry Senior to save a whole theatre audience from a fire. The son relished telling these tales of the father offstage, as much as he was proud of keeping ablaze that spotlight in which the older man had basked before him. Commenting on his Broadway season, an achievement not enjoyed by Blackstone Senior in a conventional theatre show, he declared with characteristic generosity, ‘I wish my father could have played there, but I brought so much of him with me that I feel we both played there together.’ As Ray Bradbury, the great science fiction writer who was inspired by the Blackstone show as a boy, once wrote, ‘Where Harry Senior left off, Harry Junior began. They are a magical ribbon with no seam.’ One will never forget Harry’s remorse and subsequent courage when his only son, Harry III was killed in an accident in the early years of his father’s success. Sadly, the ribbon would not unfurl a third time. The tragedy had a devastating effect on the inner man, but his outward showman’ resolve and bravado remained intact.

If Harry represented anything, it was America itself. Both father and son with their complementary styles typified the land of county fairs and clambakes, strawberry shortcake and the fourth of July, in a way that none of their respective contemporaries did. For this alone, he could well justify the billing of ‘America’s Premier Prestidigitator’. There was always something reassuring about going to see the Blackstone show, like watching reruns of Bilko and I Love Lucy. Harry was rightly proud of the caricature drawn of him by the legendary theatrical cartoonist, Al Hirshfeld. All of America’s theatre guests come to receive the accolade of being captured by the deft black and white cross-hatching technique of this artist’s pen. However, Hirshfeld was not the most obvious artist to capture the Blackstone style. That should have been the equally distinctive Norman Rockwell whose full color paintings of American life at its most basic adorned the covers of magazines like the Saturday Evening Post for years. No one caught more vividly than Rockwell the wonder of the moment, whether a child’s glee upon unwrapping a Christmas toy for the magic of the homecoming of a loved one long absent. If only we had the Rockwell version of the child receiving the rabbit from the master magician or the look of amazement in the eyes of the audience when the lightbulb hovered for the first time!

Harry Blackstone Junior died during the early hours of 14th May 1997 from, the medical report says, bacterial infections and the complications of an aneurysm. As I write these words I still cannot bring myself to believe in their reality. You do not realize the importance of an individual in you life until such a moment. We can only feel for his wife and partner Gay and for their daughter Bellamie, as well as for his other daughters Cynthia, Adrienne, and Tracey, at this time. He was a valued friend, a kindly man, and one of the classiest acts magic has had in its entire history. If you ever saw him perform you will remember him for the last day you live.