Michigan’s Magic Brain Trust by Gabe Fajuri

Michigan’s Magic Brain Trust

From Magicol magazine, May 2008, by Gabe Fajuri: “The opening pages of Abbott’s Catalog # 6 are filled with photos. Images of the Abbott plant, where devices of deception were cranked out in assembly-line style, crowd the pages. Cleverly staged snapshots show various departments, including the offices, print shop, art department and the front façade of the building. More tantalizing, grainy images show off the “enormous stocks” always on hand. Books bulge over shelves, feather flowers droop from the ceiling in fat bunches, and worktables in the paint shop are cluttered with the nuts and bolts of the miracle making business. Nesting bottles, polished Lotas, chrome-finished clock dials and skeleton-frame houlettes crowd Abbott’s glass display cases.

Customers might have peered at those photos wishing to pluck a prop or two right off the pages. There was so much apparatus on hand; surely Percy Abbott wouldn’t miss a piece here or there. After all, Abbott’s was such a grand operation that it didn’t just have a front door – the catalog proclaimed this a business with an entrance hall.

The third page of pictures displays images of Abbott’s demonstration stage. The platform, so crowded with illusions, had barely enough room for a demonstrator. Perhaps that’s why only one member of the Abbott staff – and a short-term one, at that – was able to pose for the photo. His name was U. F. Grant.

Grant (1901–1978) worked for Abbott’s for less than 24 months, perhaps the victim of “Boris Zola syndrome.” A Saginaw, Michigan dentist, Zola was indirectly responsible for the company’s initial success. Squash, the barehanded vanish of a shot glass full of liquid, is now a classic pocket trick. The effect was the first ever advertised by Abbott’s in the December 1933 issue of The Linking Ring. Zola dreamed it up, and Abbott’s marketed it. Even though the trick was Zola’s, in the recent catalog (#26) the trick bears the name of its ersatz creator, Percy Abbott.

Abbott was the pitchman and drum-beater. His salesmanship and savvy in marketing of what could have been nothing more that a rubber ball stung on a piece of elastic, sent Squash over the moon and made it a bestseller. This one dollar pocket trick (“We pay the postage,” the ads proclaimed), paved the way for the development of what Robert Lund called “the General Motors of the hocus-pocus business” and, with it, the development of a magical brain trust.

While no one knows the terms of the deal between Abbott and Zola (it must have been amicable, for Zola released other tricks through Abbott’s over the years), the reasons behind U. F. Grant’s departure from Colon, Michigan, in 1941 seem easier to determine. Between trick developing tricks like the Modernistic Amputation (though some believe this periscopic miracle was actually the brainchild of Winston Freer) and his Diminishing Cards (“Fastest, Cleanest and Most Perfect on the Market,” claimed the catalog), for which he received full credit, Grant conceived one of the most practical and affordable small illusions in magic: the Super-X Levitation. It became an Abbott’s bestseller.

The problem, from Grant’s perspective, was that Percy Abbott received credit for inventing the trick (and in Catalog # 7, the Super-X was given an even more pompous endorsement than Grant’s diminishing card trick: “It’s Abbott’s Greatest Release in the Magic World and Will Make Magic History”) No wonder Grant was miffed.

Lack of credit didn’t keep Percy from attracting dozens of inventors and mechanics to the fold. Two brothers came from the Cincinnati area, George (1912–1997) and Glen (1910–1991) McElroy, began working at Abbott’s in the 1930s. Expert marionette makers, the young men had a gift for all things mechanical and, at Percy’s insistence, designed puppets of every description, from talking skulls to elaborate dummies with as many as 11 or 12 operations (including a light-up  nose). For a brief period, from their home workshop, the McElroys offered their remarkable vent figures for a staggering $115 in 1912. (The price? Why, that should be the least of your worries,” stated Catalog # 4.) A more moderately priced “standard” McElroy figure listed for $55, still more than double the price of several small illusions, including Lester Lake’s Chinese Chopper.

Lake (c. 1905–1977) an Indiana native who later settled in Ohio, made his living defying the laws of nature as a magician and defying death at carnivals and on fairgrounds, by being buried, burned and, on rare occasions, staging a “boiled alive.” His capacity for inventing marketable magic was also great, and some of his innovations, like the Chinese Chopper, remained stalwarts of the Abbott’s line for decades. Long-time Abbott employee Patrick ‘Bud’ West related a tale of how Lake spent a week in residence at the Abbott house in Colon, dreaming up a minimum of one new and salable idea each day, at Percy’s insistence.

Lake’s Disecto and chopper, goofily named, garishly painted and cleverly gimmicked, is perhaps one of the firm’s best-selling parlor tricks of all time. So popular was the chopping and lopping illusion (“To compare it to anything else of similar nature is like comparing a Model T to a luxury liner”)  that it spawned at least one variant tin moth method and make-up. (“New” Disectos, with green, gold and black lacquered finish, are difficult to find these days.) The original version remains in the Abbott line (as does the Chinese Chopper) to this day.

Lake’s other popular item was a pocket trick known as Wa-Ter-Lu. A metal canister the size of a tuna can was filled with water, covered with a playing card and inverted over the head of a spectator. When the card was removed from the mouth of the can, the water remained suspended inside. The effect was clever enough in method and easy to perform. (“Read the instructions, fill the container with water, and do the trick. That’s all!”) that the Tenyo Company of Japan released its own version in the late 1960s under the blasé name “Water Suspension.”

From the moment Recil Bordner partnered with Percy, he played ringmaster to the behind-the-scenes work at the Abbott plant. Part mechanic, part humble farm boy and part aspiring magician, Bordner (1910–1981) supervised a crew consisting of ex-vaudevillians and troupers, as well as craftspeople at every skill level. Bordner and crew made the tricks while Percy Abbott trod the boards and took the bows.

In the postwar years, the ranks of the Abbott staff swelled to more than 50. With that sizable staff came a capacity equaled by few magic factories in the history of the art. Many magic manufacturers were actually

re-manufacturers. They modified playing cards and dime store goods into salable tricks. Abbott’s did this, too, but to a much greater extent. Bordner’s methodical eye supervised the transformation of raw materials into magic tricks. Lumber, lacquer and sheet metal filtered through the Abbott plant at one end, coming out the other as finished goods. Train cars full of glassware were deposited behind the magic factory where they were turned into C-Through Mirror Tumblers (“Worked in the Middle of the Floor While surrouned”) Ink to Goldfish tricks (early models with a hand blown glass gimmick). Modern Water Bowls (a la Al Baker’s Naomi Goldfish Bowl). And the now sought-after Silk Flash. (“It is self-contained! No mirrors! No threads!”)

After his career as a small-town showman came to and end, Gus Rapp (1871–1961) worked for a time at Abbott’s, manufacturing puppets and other ‘soft’ goods in the magic factory. He was supervised by a man named Good, a self-proclaimed “tack-spitter,” in charge of Abbott’s cadre of seamstresses. The tack-spitter term came about because much of what Good worked on was upholstery-like in composition: outfitting illusions with hidden pockets and bags, making up baffling bra tricks and the like.

Good was also the worker who made and pulled saltwater taffy in the basement of the magic factory during the company’s annual Abbott Get-Togethers. Percy and his cohort Howard Strickler pitched the candy in the big circus tent before the evening shows. (“You may find valuable prizes in some of these boxes! A gold watch! A five dollar bill!”) Strickler’s  obsession was magic, his profession was in the automotive industry. He worked for Autolite, a spark plug manufacturer still in business today. Strickler’s salary kept him more than financially solvent and made him one of Abbott’s best customers and an occasional demonstrator at the Get-Togethers.

Even Si Stebbins (William Henry Coffrin, (1867–1950) briefly worked for Abbott’s before moving to Wisconsin, itinerant tendencies getting the best of him. Stebbins had been at times a circus performer, a pitchman and a vaudevillian. In the early 1940s, finding himself in Detroit with few if any prospects for employment, he called on Percy Abbott, who offered him a position at his magic factory. While at Abbott’s Stebbins not only lent a hand in the workshop, but also pecked out varied accounts of his career as a rube, a vaudevillian and a circus performer on a spare Corona typewriter. Thankfully, the Stebbins manuscripts have survived the years.

Jesse Thornton (1901-1943) was another vaudevillian who found a second career behind the workbench at Abbott’s. his mechanical talking skull, offered for $95 in the 1947 Abbott’s Catalog # 9, was considered the poor man’s version of Joseffy’s famous Balsamo. (“We do not guarantee this trick for a year, but we gurantee it forever.”) For a time, Virgil the Great used the prop in his show. Today, the Thornton-engineered Abbott skulls are prized by the few that own them, almost as hotly as another Thornton conception, the Watch Ladder.

The Watch Ladder was a centerpiece of Abbott’s Catalog # 6. A combination billiard ball stand/coin ladder for seven pocket watches, this effect (recently recreated by Nick Ruggiero in a limited edition) was a feature of Thornton’s vaudeville act and was much like Gus Fowler’s better-known version using only watches. Thornton produced seven watches which he displayed on a stand on top of the ladder. On his command, the watches vanished one at a time from the stand, cascading down the ladder, click-clacking back and forth between a series of staggered brass pegs. At the base of the ladder sat and empty top hat, into which the timepieces fell. When Thornton lifted the hat from its resting place, he produced from it ringing alarm clocks, bringing the act to a close. “In this effect you have everything – Flash – Mystery – Action” went the line from the Abbott catalog.

Recil Bordner also supervised the assembly and packaging of tricks built for Abbott’s by outside inventors and manufacturers. In the very first years of the business, Al Caroselli (1888-1950) manufactured brass props, holdouts and gimmicked coin tricks for Abbott’s from his Detroit shop (he also played the banjo semi-professionally). Caroselli’s work is hard to identify these days, as many of his items were simply repackaged under the Abbott name.

Another Detroit firm, A&B Magic, was represented by Abbott’s for a time, post-World War II. Ads in The Spinx proclaimed each new A&B release as an “Abbott Exclusive.” The firm manufactured metal products, including a kid-friendly  version of the P&L Firecracker trick painted to look like a jumbo peppermint candy stick (which turned into peanuts when placed in a chromed tube: “the suggested routine is bound to bring laughs and applause”), as well as coin tricks and other bench-made metal props for Abbott’s. The jumbo Squirting Wand made by A&B and sold through Abbott’s was popular in Loring Campbell’s school shows. Today, the wands are difficult to find.

The Cadillac of magic metalworkers, Brema’s, was also associated with the Abbott business for a time. After the doors of their Walnut Street shop in Philadelphia were shut, the famous brass creations of the father-and-son team, Carl and Bill Brema, were manufactured, though for less than two years, in Colon. In addition, the well-known effects like the Ball Thru Bolt, Locking Bill Tube and Nickels to Dimes, Brema turned out several new (and now hard-to-find) props that can only be described as downright goofy: Brema’s Fountain Candle. The prop is similar to the A&B Squirting Wand. A lit imitation candle reposing is a brass candelabra contained a load of water which shot into a high arc while held by a spectator over his head. (“Remember! It’s not just a squirt of water but a continued stream.”)

An alchemist with materials of a different nature, and a one-time Abbott employee, was the enigmatic Winston Freer (1910-1981). His lengthy correspondence with Stewart James (1908-1996), another stalwart of Tops and the Abbott catalogs, led to the inclusion of several Freer originals in the Abbott published Encyclopedia of Rope Tricks, and his tenure in Colon in the late 1930s resulted in the release of unique effects including The Bedeviled Egg, in which a gigantic egg visibly diminished while held on the magician’s outstretched palm. It was as if the Thayer Diminishing Billiard Ball trick were performed without the clever mechanical apparatus and in full view. Due to its fragile nature, no examples of the apparatus for the egg trick exists today (though reports of one unit in a California collection have made it to this writer’s ears).

Success breeds success. As Abbott’s business grew, the company expanded like no other magic retailer before it, opening branches across the nation. Magicians, often hungry for notoriety amongst their peers, submitted ideas, half-baked and otherwise, to Abbott’s for consideration. Some, like Eddie Joseph (1899-1974), and Englishman living in Calcutta, India, became stalwarts of the Abbott enterprise. Joseph’s name was introduced to the magic community by Abbott’s in the late 1930s with the publication of his manuscripts on Cups and Balls. In addition to authoring seminal (if sketchy) tracts on pick pocketing, card magic, mentalism and body loading, he contributed endlessly to both Tops and later, The New Tops. His output of marketed magic was so prodigious that an entire section of Abbott’s Catalog # 13 was devoted to his creations.

While Joseph’s magic was not big, bulky or liberally coated with crackle-finish lacquer (most of it was of the close-up and parlor variety, sold in manuscript form for with inexpensive gimmicks), it did provide Abbott’s with material that made for good advertising copy. Based on the catalog write-up, Joseph’s card trick Premonition seemed too good to be true. A spectator’s freely named card was the only one missing from a deck. To wit: “At no time does the magician ever touch the cards. THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO FORCE OF CHOICE. This miracle works 100%!”

Some Joseph effects, however, were not well received, and consequently are hard to come by today. Take, for example, Vasudeo’s Pyala, in which a small brass bowl with an “Indian” fugure in the center could seemingly absorb a healthy quantity of water. Today, prop qualifies as “scarce,” and examples have fetched as much as $275. Reason being? The rick was lousy, and not many were sold.

During Abbott’s “golden age” (in other words, its most profitable years, approximately 1939-1952), the firm operated a number of branch stores in major cities across the country. Duke Stern, (1913-1998), who would later move to Colon and act as a pitchman and producer of tricks, headed up the Abbot store in Indianapolis. Karrell Fox (1928-1998) managed an Abbott outlet in Detroit at the Tuller Hotel Building. In Los Angeles, George Boston (1905-1975) managed the Abbott’s branch at Sunset and Wilcox. On and off for a number of years, Stewart James ran a small Abbott dealer outpost from his home in Courtright, Ontario, Canada (he had stationary printed to prove it). The New York City operation was staffed by Ken Allen and, later, James Reneaux (both gentlemen are still living). In Chicago, at the Woods Building, George Coon, a local magician, minded the store.

A number of branch managers were successful performers in their own right; Fox went on to success in the industrial entertainment field as both producer and performer. Reneaux headlined at the prestigious Blue Angel in New York City. George Boston, before working for Abbott’s, had been hired and fired by most of the great magicians of his era, including Thurston, Blackstone and Will Rock.

Just as important as their pedigrees as presenters of underhanded entertainment were the managers’ contribution to the Abbott’s catalogs. Coon manufactured a small line of tricks with light bulbs and sold them through Abbott’s. Fox released a number of parlor effects through the company and, with Duke Stern, became an unforgettable fixture at the company’s annual Get-Togethers. Stern pitched magic a mile a minute at conventions and, while he lived in Colon, in the Abbott’s showroom. Over the years Stewart James released several fine ideas in both manuscript and manufactured form under the auspices of Abbott’s.

Many other now forgotten inventors also released their pet effects to the market through Abbott’s. Who today remembers these one-hit wonders: Billy Powell, Al Zink, Eldon Nichols and Roy Shrimplin? Each of these men provided grist for Abbott’s mill of magic mongering in the form of Crystal Coin Ladders, Color-Spheres, Krazy Kubes and the like.

More familiar are the names of Jack Hughes and his Attaboy, Norman and his Elusive (Hippity Hop) Rabbits, and Bill Neff and his Miracle Rope Trick. Through an arrangement with the firm of Hughes-Dowler and Harry Standly (this was a pre-Unique Magic Studio), Abbott’s secured the rights to these and other popular products. The combination of clever methodology, bright lacquer and funny-looking props thickened Abbott’s catalogs and Percy’s wallet. Many effects in the Hughes line and those tricks brought to the States by Abbott’s in the 1940s were best sellers for the business.

Another well-remembered member of the Michigan brain trust was Neil Foster (1920-1988). He joined the company as vice president in 1959, just before Percy’s death, and stayed on as editor of The New Tops, master demonstrator, illustrator, author and inventor of tricks. His Center Tear effect is used every night in Lance Burton’s Las Vegas extravaganza. In many ways, Foster was the heir apparent to Howard Melson (1890-1958), former Abbott’s staff artist and editor of Tops; but Foster, a gifted performer, was much more. While Melson invented a few tricks and was an entertainer (he performed a chalk talk act with some regularity), he was primarily a pen-and-ink man. Although Foster was more than capable at the draftsman’s table, he was first and foremost a polished, poised magician.

When Percy Abbott retired in 1959, passing control of the company to Recil Bordner, the magic business – show business, in general – was in a state of flux. Nightclubs had long since replaced vaudeville. Television sets were cheaper than ever before and on their way to becoming fixtures in every American home. Abbott’s business was in decline. Its branch stores had been closed or sold, one by one, until the Colon plant and store were all that remained.

The other element that remained, and perhaps what attracted Neil Foster to the sleepy Michigan village in the first place, was intangible; a magnetism created by Percy Abbott himself. That the man was a deft salesman, a publicity-maker and a natural born hustler – the likes of which magicdom had not seen, and has not seen since – in undeniable. Though 47 years old when Squash became a best seller, Abbott realized that he was finally. After years of trouping and touring, on the right path. He not only survived the Great Depression of the 1930s, he built a profitable, viable magic business during that period. He created a company that set a standard seldom equaled by other magic companies, attracting idea men – dreamers, really – to his fold. And along the way he put the small town of Colon, Michigan on the map as “the magic capital of the world.”

Gabe Fajuri’s new book, Mr. Mysterio’s Encyclopedia of Magic & Conjuring, will be available from Quirk Books this fall.