Neil Foster by John Sherwood
Feature by John Sherwood about Neil Foster,
published August 9, 1981, in the Battle Creek (MI) Enquirer
Early inspiration lured Foster to lifetime in magic
About 1929, one of the great touring magicians of the day, the late Harry Blackstone Sr., performed his stage shows of illusions in Aurora, Ill.
Edgar Neil Foster Jr. then was just 9 years old, and was enthralled as Blackstone — the first magician he ever had seen — stepped on stage.
“He had black hair then. That was before he became the ‘white-maned magician,'” Foster recalled.
Blackstone’s visit to Foster’s hometown had a lasting effect:
“Some people make their decision about their life’s work when they reach college, and that’s the most important decision of their lives,” Foster said. “For me, the only thing I *ever* wanted to be was a magician.”
During the ensuing 18 years, Foster worked various jobs around Aurora as he developed his own magical repertoire of effects and illusions, devised by himself or purchased from magic stores, including the then-new Abbott Magic Co. in Colon.
Foster first assumed the magical *nom de guerre* “Retsof,” but had second thoughts a few years later when he was billed rather unflatteringly as “Ratsof,” so about 1938 he dropped his first name to differentiate himself from his father, and became Neil Foster.
In 1940, Foster’s fascination took a new turn when he saw a performance by Cardini, a monocle-sporting manipulator of coins, cigarettes and balls. Cardini entertained audiences nationwide on the theater circuit with a sophisticated, urbane characterization of a slightly tipsy magician.
Reflecting on that experience, Foster said, “The parallel is very strong to that of a pianist. He may play popular jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, but he may find that fine, classical music stirs him. When I saw magicians like Cardini and Okito perform, I knew that had to be my kind of magic — with the hands, the finer essence of magic.”
On the two occasions they were to meet, Foster found Cardini distant and aloof, but Foster still considers him the greatest manipulator who ever lived.
Even as Foster reached his 20s in Illinois, two people he had yet to meet were establishing in California the first major school for magicians. They were Ben and Marian Chavez, who had been vaudeville and touring performers since the 1920s. Together, they set up in 1941 a state-licensed school, the College of Manual Dexterity and Prestidigitation, also known as the Chavez School of Magic.
In 1947, Foster went to California, enrolled in the Chavez course and demonstrated a flair for precise dexterity and creative skill that impressed Chavez. When Foster graduated from the course, Chavez hired him to tutor new students.
“My teacher, Ben Chavez,” Foster once wrote, “taught me that magic is just an excuse for being before and audience, for it matters little what you do, it’s how you do it. You first must become an accomplished performer, then a super salesman.”
In 1951, Foster left the Chavez school to work the magic field, and was chosen in 1953 to be one of the performers at the Gala Coronation Convivialities in London, England, when Elizabeth II was crowned queen.
During that show, he performed a floating-ball illusion which he not only had mastered but which had become his trademark. Apparently young Elizabeth was impressed, for Foster got to meet her during an intermission. And a few years later, Cardini himself saw Foster perform the illusion and applauded it enthusiastically.
In his book, “The New Modern Coin Magic,” magician J.B. Bobo wrote: “Cardini’s magic and Neil Foster’s beautiful magic are rare treats, to be enjoyed time after time. Who could ever tire of watching an artist work?”
In 1955, Foster married an Ohio native, the former Jeanne Hammond, while both were working in Florida. As a magical team, the Fosters toured for several years under the sponsorship of the lecture bureaus of the universities of Wisconsin, Minnesota and North and South Dakota, performing on the demanding school-assembly circuit.
The Fosters had a lifetime contract with their sponsors, but the work often meant performing daily — sometimes several shows each day. The grind taxed Jeanne’s health, leading Foster to seek more stationary magical employment.
After a stint for the Ireland Magic Co. in Chicago, Foster came to Colon in 1959 at the request of Recil Bordner, president of the Abbott firm. Foster became the company’s chief magician-in-residence and its vice president.
In 1960, Foster revived the firm’s magazine, “The Tops,” which had been defunct for several years. With Foster as editor, the monthly periodical was retitled “The New Tops” and eventually achieved worldwide distribution among magicians.
Foster invented many of his own effects. In particular, he sought to make difficult magic tricks achievable by those whose sleight-of-hand gifts were less distinguished. Many of these simplified effects with cigarettes, balls and coins — as well as many other advanced tricks with doves, flowers and other materials — are manufactured and distributed by the Abbott firm. Foster also is the editor of several Abbott magic books.
Foster never left the stage, though, and played many dates with his wife and with another Colon resident, the late “Monk” Watson. It was not unusual, when Foster presented his floating ball at Abbott get-togethers in Colon — as he will during a public performance during the annual magicians’ convention this August — for hundreds of magicians to give him a standing ovation.
Foster has logged performances in 28 countries in Europe and North and South America. In 1977, at a ceremony in California, the Academy of magical Arts presented Foster with a Performing Fellowship Award, honoring his creativity and contributions in teaching magic and in editing the Abbott publication.
After Ben Chavez’s death in 1962, Marian Chavez continued to teach the course and arranged with Foster and one of his own proteges, Dale Salwak of California, eventually to take over the enterprise. She died in 1978.
Shortly after his wife’s death in 1979, Foster retired from full-time work at the Abbott firm and now instructs students who reside chiefly east of the Mississippi. Salwak, a professor of English literature at Citrus College in Azusa, Calif., tutors magic students at his own studio at Pasadena and distributes the Chavez correspondence course.
Neil Foster died on March 11, 1988.