By Frances Ireland Marshall
”Did you ever notice that the people who stand out in history aren’t the most beloved, the gentlest, or the meekest? Those are the ones who will inherit the earth. The folks who brighten history’s pages with their deeds are generally the battlers, the strong in heart, the Alamo type, the Napoleons. Magic has its own small history, of which we are all a part, and the pages of the last 30 years have caught fire a number of times from the conflagrations set by that man with a purpose, Percy Abbott. We say, as a mourning gesture over many a friend, “his place cannot be filled.” I put it to you; all of you who knew him well, can his place be filled?
Percy had enough drive, enough strategy, and enough singleness of purpose to have led an army. He began a small business without funds, without stock, with a young family to provide for, in a remote town with neither past nor future (or so it seemed then). He had a trick, a trifle involving a whiskey glass and a ball, and he parlayed it into a business worth a fortune. The sleepy Colon, Michigan post office handled about a dozen letters a week; he caused it to spring to life with mailbags of correspondence and packages.
The big national magical organizations went to great trouble and expense to put on conventions that drew a few hundred people to big city centers. Percy, almost single-handed launched a series of “Get-Togethers” in a town with one restaurant and no hotel, exceeding the attendance of the official conventions almost from the first. He led in bringing “big names” from far off places; coaxed celebrities to Colon who wouldn’t accept money to go elsewhere and when he had all this great mass of magical humanity together, he sold them magic by the barrelful.
He had the “Big” catalogs long before any one else. He advertised that he paid the postage, a clever move, while all the stupid rest of us just paid it and said nothing. Manufacturing on a large scale, he sometimes took short cuts on equipment that caused a few yips, but nowhere could you see a show without seeing Abbott tricks. He had the new ones, he had the exciting ones, he had his own September showcase every year to show them off. And he had name performers doing the showing. Ah, but Percy was a shrewd one!
None of us left in the magic dealing business has the outright courage to attempt things on the scale Percy did; none of us has the business brains to think thru. We don’t think big; we tread much too softly. My old friend Percy (because he was my friend, although we sparked at one another now and then) – once afire with an idea, let nothing stop him. He was not one for worrying about what people thought, but a man out founding a small magical empire has no time for such as that.
I go on record saying I think Percy did a great deal to keep magic alive and active during those years when others felt it was a dying art. When vaudeville was fading into oblivion, when live shows were getting fewer, Percy was creating more and more magicians – and if they had no place else to play, then by Heaven, they went to Colon and worked on the Get-Together! We dealers owe him a great tribute for his part in our long battle to keep magics a living art.
No other dealer, anywhere, ever managed to have five branch stores. Yet Percy, standing with a squash string under his coat, ended up with stores in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Indianapolis and Chicago. They were all business enterprises that were sold intact eventually to others, but he did it, and that’s the big thing. I remember writing in this column, when he opened his Chicago Branch in April, 1947; “For three weeks Chicago magicdom had watched with delight or alarm (depending on who was doing the watching) the preparations for the opening of magic tycoon Percy Abbott’s fourth emporium … Chicago dealers (Berg, Berland, Sherman, Miller, Ireland) wondered how much further the counter business could be divided and still pay off. Jim Sherman lengthened his Mexico stay, Sam Berland took on a new line of printing, Ed Miller moved after 15 years in one place, Laurie Ireland arranged a fishing trip, and Joe Berg said: “Let’s be real quiet and maybe he’ll go away.’”
That was a long while ago, and as the years went by, Percy mellowed. He still dearly loved the excitement of performing; showed his really great ability by stopping the show in Chicago during the last Combined Convention, a show loaded with stars. I think he still dearly loved a challenge and a battle, and the only one he ever lost was the last one, a few weeks ago. He lived a full, dedicated life, did all the things he set out to do, and made a name for himself from one end of this earth to the other. What showman could ask more? My deepest sympathy to his family, and to all the magic world, because it has lost one of its most outstanding characters.”