Recalling The Blackstones
From a January 1966 TOPS Magazine column by Clarke Crandall: “I don’t know who started the rumor that The Great Blackstone had died. I assure you it isn’t true. A nice man by the name of Harry Bouton passed away recently at the age of four score and a few days, after a full and rewarding life. The Great Blackstone isn’t dead. He will never die as long as a single magician lives. I actually didn’t actually know Harry Bouton but I met The Great Blackstone over twenty years ago at the Chicago Round Table. With his was a small boy, resplendent in Military School uniform. The small boy exuded good manners and poise in keeping with the uniform he wore. The boy isn’t small anymore but he still retains the good manners and poise and is a credit to the name Blackstone.
After the Great Blackstone had semi-retired and was making occasional appearances at magician’s Conventions I worked several times on the same bill with him. Once at a convention in Buffalo he was to close the banquet show. It was a huge room and the acoustics were atrocious. I sat in the back of the room with Jay Marshall and a few other cronies and watched most of the audience of magicians dribble out during Blackstone’s performance. It was a shameful and regrettable exhibition of bad manners. I said so to several in the lobby after the show. It didn’t endear me to them, I’m sure. I couldn’t care less. I still think it was one of the most impolite demonstrations I’ve ever seen. It may not have been the Great Blackstone on the stage that night. Perhaps it was Harry Bouton trying to impersonate Blackstone, who knows.
I recall a convention in Willkes-Barre. I was to M.C. a badly arranged show with too many acts booked. I knew it would run overtime considerable. I was trying to get the running time of each ask when the amateur convention chairman told me Harry had promised to do only fifteen minutes. I put him down for thirty. He did nearly forty. Backstage, during Blackstone’s act, the chairman said to me, “”Go out there and get him off.” I’ve done many foolish things in my life. Interrupting Blackstone in the middle of his act wasn’t going to be one of them. The audience was laughing; they were enjoying it. Harry was enjoying it and I certainly wasn’t going out and stop it. They were watching the Great Blackstone perform and so was I.
After the show the two-faced chairman, the man who told me to “get him off,” had cornered Harry and was telling how much he enjoyed his act. He asked Blackstone if he could have an autograph “for his grandson.” I’ll give you odds the grandson never got the autograph and the chairman still has it.
Later I was sitting with Blackstone in his hotel room. “I ran over a little, didn’t I, Senator?” he asked. “Why didn’t you come out and get me off?” “Harry,” I told him. “I fell asleep during your act and didn’t notice the time.” He told me if he’d known I was asleep he’s have gone another thirty minutes. A few years ago in New York I was visiting a friend, Mack Beresford, at the Royalton Hotel. Harry also lived there at the time. Mack called him and asked him to come down. In a few minutes Harry came in, took out a Brain Wave deck and said, “Let me show you one of the greatest tricks I’ve ever seen.” He was entranced with the possibilities of the deck. “If I had known about this forty years ago I’d be famous today,” he told us. “How come you never became famous, Harry?” I asked him. He answered, “Maybe it’s because nobody ever heard of me.”
Three years ago at the Abbott Get-Together Blackstone closed out each of the three public shows. Well-meaning friends predicted he’d never make it. “He doesn’t have enough small stuff for three shows, “ they said. The first two nights he didn’t do too badly but seemed tired and somewhat apathetic. The third night he was the Great Blackstone and tore them up. He had the audience in the proverbial palm of his hand. The prolonged applause and the standing ovation must have thrilled him. I know it did because I was backstage when he came off and I saw the moist twinkle in his eye. The line outside the stage door waiting to congratulate him was four wide and a block long.
A few nights before Harry Jr. opened at the Conrad Hilton he came out to the tavern with Ricki Dunn to see me. Harry Senior had planned to come to Chicago and catch Junior’s opening. Harry Jr. called his father in California and was very disappointed. His father wasn’t feeling well enough to make the trip, Junior said. “My father told me to invite you and Dorny to be my guests on opening night and for me to listen if you guys offered any criticism as you both know the business.” I consider it the greatest compliment I’ve ever received. So, as far as I’m concerned, the Great Blackstone will never die. He’s just been booked on the longest run of his career and I won’t see him again but I’ll remember him like it was yesterday. I have no doubt he’ll kill them upstairs with the birdcage, the dancing hank and the buzz saw. Long live the Great Blackstone.
By the way, the piece on Harry by George Johnstone in last month’s TOPS was one of the finest tributes I’ve ever read. This compliment doesn’t mean I’ve mellowed. It just means I think it was a well-written gesture of esteem and a sincere appreciation of the man by one who knew him and loved him.
Johnstone tried to pull a fast one on me a few weeks ago. He came out to the joint with R. Dunn, the pocket picker, and two other nondescripts. One of the pair was a tall and sad-faced character with a fur cap. He looked like Stan Laurel after a hard night. George introduced me to the limpet-faced one as the entertainment chairman of a show George had just done. It didn’t ring true as I know the habits of entertainment chairmen. They don’t take magicians out after a show. They just promise the rest of the lodge members that, “next month we’ll have entertainment.”
They sat around awhile. I did a few routines and finally succeeded in breaking up the lugubrious one with an unprintable line that caused Ricki to fall off the barstool. This isn’t easy as Rick drinks nothing but Seven Up spiked with Squirt. As they started to leave, Johnstone said, “Senator, let me introduce Dick Drake.” What a laugh. Imagine the nerve of the guy, still trying to keep up the Dick Drake illusion. I know there is no Dick Drake, except in Johnstone’s unfertile imagination. Anyone who would try to palm off a mournful-looking, sad faced mandolin player as actually being the real Dick Drake would stoop to any subterfuge in order to lend credence to this charade. Johnstone said some pretty disparaging things about me in last month’s column and if they weren’t true I’d sue him and Neil Foster, the editor of this magazine, at the drop of Dick Drake’s hat.”