Colon festival founder was master showman and trick artist!
From the Kalamazoo Gazette, August 7, 1982: by Robert Warner: “Magic is imagination
What an imagination Percy Abbott had.
Abbott died in 1960, but his magic tricks are still on sale at the Abbott Magic Co. the firm he founded on his way to making Colon famous as the “Magic Capitol of the World.”
A native of Sydney, Australia, Abbott came her in 1925 at the invitation of top magician Harry Blackstone, who summered in Colon. There he met his future wife, Gladys, with whom he toured the world performing magic after their marriage in 1929. When Gladys was expecting the couple’s first child, they decided to come back to Colon and settle down – a little.
His daughter, Marilyn Richards of Kalamazoo, remembers the days of constant excitement that accompanied Abbott’s annual Magic Get-Together, a combination magic convention and all-star show. Magicians still swarm to Colon each year to be part of the biggest event in the kingdom of magic.
“The Get-Together was the wildest time,” said Mrs. Richards. “It used to be in September, so we kids used to skip the first week of school to help out.”
Mrs. Richards and her sister and two brothers would participate in stage shows featuring the top Magic stars of the day. Together, they shared in their father’s love for the entertainer’s life, complete with its many surprises.
“Our house was never locked,” she said, “and one day I came home from school and saw state police cars and a limousine parked in front of the house. Unimpressed, I walked right past Edgar Bergen sitting on the porch, and my mother had to tell me he was here.”
Bergen, a Decatur native then at the peak of his career as a ventriloquist, had come to Colon to see his old friend Percy Abbott. He decided to stay long enough to perform at the Get-Together, and Abbott worked up an introduction for the surprise guest star that had the unsuspecting audience completely snowed.
“My father stood up and told the audience he had a young local man who had been working hard to put an act together.” Mrs. Richards said. Abbott told the crowd to take it easy on the new kid, and out came Bergen, stunning the audience.
Bergen also took time to entertain the neighbor children with his sidekicks Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, and put on a show for a group of wounded World War II veterans.
Mrs. Richards, named after vaudevillian toe dance Marilyn Miller, a family friend, recalled the scene of the first Get-Together in 1937. “The shows were held on the second floor of a buggy factory. The audience could use the inside stairway to get to their seats, but the performers made their entrances by going up a ladder and climbing in a window.”
The Get-Together quickly gained national prominence among magic enthusiasts, and the gatherings were soon moved to a huge tent, where the shows were held until a fire destroyed the Abbott factory and the tent in 1952.
After the fire, the Get-Together was held in Sturgis, Three Rivers, Battle Creek, and Coldwater. But the magicians were really thrilled when we brought it back to Colon. It’s a lovely old town as appealing to the magicians as the Get-Together is. It was the place they went for a vacation.
This will be the first Get-together without the familiar presence of Recil Bordner, Abbott’s sidekick for the last 21 years. The man who tuned the difficult trick of making the Get-Together work. He was the president of the Abbott company at the time of his death. Greg Bordner took over the company after his father’s death.
“They were complementary personalities,” Mrs. Richards said of the 30-year relationship between Abbott and Recil Bordner. “My father was the boisterous showman, and Recil was quiet – but the wheels were always turning.”
Not as successful was the partnership between Abbott and magic king Harry Blackstone. “That was short-lived operation.” Mrs. Richards said of that team’s fledgling trick-production business.
Abbott began his magic business with a trick called “Squash,” I which a shot glass disappeared. Soon, Bordner arrived with the financial backing, and the two moved their business to a rented shop over a grocery store in downtown Colon.
Ever since those days Abbott Magic Co. has been recognized as the world’s largest maker of magic paraphernalia. The Get-Together serves as an opportunity to display the company’s wares for its best customers.
After the evening show, Mrs. Richards said, her father and the managers of Abbott retail outlets in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis and Hollywood would demonstrate new tricks for the professional magicians in the crowd until 2 a.m.
The hijinks were hardly limited to the Get-Together stage, however. “There was magic on every street corner,” said Mrs. Richards. Magicians are die-hard showmen, she said, and are always obliging those who would thrill to their feats of prestidigitations. School kids were easy prey for the masters of illusion, but one amateur met with a cruel fate when he tried his stuff on the pros.
The rookie was hypnotizing everyone in sight, a practice resented as unprofessional by the veteran hypnotists on the street. They set up the amateur, siccing him on another hypnotist who pretended to slip under his spell. The amateur found he was unable to rouse his victim, and left town in a panic, never to be seen again.
“It’s interesting that hypnotism, see as ‘magi’ in the old days, today can be put to such good use,” said Mrs. Richards.
“The thing I’ve always appreciated about magic is that it is universal.” Mrs. Richards said. “There are no language or race barriers. You’re either a good entertainer or you’re bad.”
Mrs. Richards observes the code of ethics among professional magicians, refusing to explain any trade secrets behind magic illusions. Under pressure, however, she revealed that the secret of the old sword-through-the-body trick is no illusion, but rather a combination of well-aimed swords and luck.
“My father used to do that trick with me, and tell me to really scream,” she said. “So I really screamed my head off and one time when I came out of the box, I was bleeding. He’d grazed me with a sword.”