Of Pete Bouton by Daniel Waldron

 

Of Pete Bouton

 

From “Tops” Magazine, August 1968; By Daniel Waldron: “The things that escape you when you’re young. Like coming to Colon for your first magic Get-Together in 1941 and not knowing, as you wander dazed and a little drunk from so much magic, why it should all take place her, in this little village so far away from it all.

You do not know about the tiny colony over on “The Island” – that height of land beyond the dip in the hill, across the railroad tracks, and up the winding road where the Blackstone settlement lies.

You do not know how Harry Blackstone came to Colon, invited Percy Abbott to visit, and how together they founded the magic company which now bears Abbott’s name.

So the music of Duke Stern’s band echoes in your ears, the free buffet that Percy has spread on picnic tables in the street gladdens your heart, and the abundance of magical happenings fires your brain. But you do know that the most enduring of magical extravaganzas has its center, its heart, its home, a mere stone’s throw from where you are.

Then there is the time at Keith’s Theatre, Grand Rapids, Michigan 1942. You have just seen the one-hour whirlwind that Blackstone is performing four times daily, between movies. Afterwards you have managed to get backstage. The glitter-sprinkled tables, the props, the people who are handling them seem to be moving in every direction.

You are about to ask the way to Mr. Blackstone’s dressing room when your eyes stop you cold! Here is a man who looks so much like the Great Magician it is uncanny. Yet he is not Harry. Who is he? He directs you to the dressing room and you have your interview with Blackstone, still wondering.

It takes twenty years or so before you find out. You are in Colon again; and you drive up the winding road to “The Island,” pull into the curved drive before a neat, snug bungalow, knock at the door and wait. In a moment a pleasant woman opens the door  — this is Millie – and from an inner room emerges that man you had seen backstage.

His hair is snow-white now, but his eyes, large and blue, twinkle with good humor as he greets you. This is Blackstone’s brother. This is Pete Bouton.

You’ve come to see him, you explain, because you are writing a book about the Blackstone show, and you understand that he was with it for many years.

With it! How little you know. He was of the show, heart and soul, its warp and woof, its very fiber.

But this you deduce only bit by bit over many other visits which are to follow for the next few years. You get to know Pete and Millie; you listen, entranced, to the stories, experiences, adventures of his fifty years in show business with his brother. Not told with bombast and brag, but with the bright spontaneity of sudden remembrance.

 

Harry Blackstone and Pete Bouton

 

As the incidents unfold those days live again; for weariness is not a part of the Bouton make-up, and zest in the telling brings the past vividly alive. Curtains rise. Music plays. The “Muldoon” character from “Straight And Crooked Magic” days clowns anew. A young, agile Pete stands by alert and watchful as “Fredrick The Great” escapes from underwater packing boxes in a hundred towns. Then the “Blackstone” years, and the old man with the whiskers makes the switch. The horse vanishes. The cannon roars. And in a thousand theaters where Pete’s saw has cut the perfect trap, once more the Princess floats in mid-air “where she can remain for a thousand years” (because Pete’s careful rigging has done the trick!)

And the animal stories: Kaaba, the camel, refusing to enter the baggage car, and Pete in a midnight comedy of block and tackle, getting the beast aboard. Conchita, the burro, saved from death in traffic by Pete’s flying tackle. The great white goose that gloried in the spotlight.

And the show … always the show … trundling across the length and breadth of America in its 90-foot railroad car, drawn by a locomotive, to be sure, but propelled into theaters and out again, and made to work before the eyes of enthralled thousands, because of Pete’s boundless energy and enthusiasm.

In Pete’s hand the physical equipment of the show appeared like new. And summer — the layoff time — was only half-a-layoff for Pete. New illusions took shape in the Blackstone barn at Colon. Equipment, drops, and props were refurbished for the September re-launching on the road. No effort was too great to give the show its characteristic luster.

In the fall, when the trouping commenced again, it was, for those along the route, a time of reunion. As the years passed, stagehands, theater managers, and others in show business came to look upon the return of the show in the spirit of “old home week.” And Pete, who, by the end, was a 50-year member of IATSE, the stagehands’ union, was as loved a personality as anyone who came through the doors. He wouldn’t admit this, himself, of course, but theater people were          quick to make it clear.

Listening to his words, you cannot get enough of those great, barnstorming years. You drive up that hillside to Blackstone Island again and again. You begin to get the picture. You begin to see what it was like. Millie, his beloved wife, adds her own gems.

 

 

 

Between your visits Pete fights battles with monsters of illness and hospitalization. The trials might have overcome men half his age, but each time Pete bounces back.

Then comes you last visit – the one to Sturgis, Michigan this year. It is the first of May and outside the hospital the trees are in their youth of green and blossoms are everywhere. But inside, Pete lies dying. At the age of 81 his days of earth are to be through. At 8:57 PM he is gone. The hands that made the handkerchief dance, built the vanishing birdcages, and created wonders for the world to look on with delight, are stilled.

You drive back to Colon underneath the wide, transparent sunset sky. A twilight hush has fallen. The lake gives back an almost supernatural calm, and clear, untroubled light permeates the air. In gathering dusk you turn down the street named “Blackstone Avenue” and you think back to the first time. How much escapes you when you’re young. How many years you might have spent with Pete and Millie and the rest. If only you had known.

The tales of Pete told would fill a book. One day soon, God willing, they shall. But you will understand when I tell you that this year, though coming to Colon will be a joy – it will not be the joy it always was.