Columnist Billy McComb
THE HISTORY OF A STANDARD TRICK WHICH LOST THE ORIGINATOR IN TIME
We have to go back to the early ’50s to begin this epic.
My wife, June, who worked her magic act as June Merlin, had a vanish of several big foam-filled rabbits and when a suspicious hump was seen under the table-cloth it was removed to reveal a white fur coat. We first used a box which bore a resemblance to the familiar “Where do the Ducks Go to?” It had the load of the rabbits in the lid. Robert Harbin made it for her out of the original “hanging bag” vanish put out by Max Andrews. This was useless for cabaret work. As time went by I was a bit worried about the load in the lid showing when she worked a venue such as The Savoy Hotel where there were actually patrons behind the performer. Another aspect was that other performers had copied the “Rabbits to Fur Coat” theme very quickly.
In 1952 I approached my good friend Gil Leaney, who by then had branched out on his own as a maker of props with his workshop behind the news agent shop he owned in Kenton. I had an idea which I had drawn out with approximate measurements and he decided it was a workable proposition so he made it.
It was a box which could be revolved. The front was opened and it was shown empty. This door was then closed. The big rabbits (by now both bigger and with colorful ribbons around their necks) were placed into the box through a lid on the top. The box was spun around and the lid removed. The four sides of the box dropped down and the white fur coat was seen on the bottom of the box. The lid was placed down on the bottom and the fur coat was donned for the exit.
The working was such that when the front was opened showing the inside, you were actually looking at a panel which extended across the back of the box and from top to bottom hiding the fur coat behind it. This, like the rest of the inside was decorated white with gold vertical stripes (June’s whole act was in white and gold). When the rabbits were being packed into the box they were actually packed into the base and this back panel was pushed down on top of them and locked into place. Because the rabbits were foam inside, but nevertheless huge, they had to be pushed down and locked down.
There was one unique feature to the original box which was provided by the painting. If you will, imagine a large ‘Noughts & Crosses” square
(“Tic-Tac-Toe” in the USA). This is painted on the outside of the box on each side panel BUT the center square is much larger than the other squares and the HINGE of the ‘drop-down’ panel was right on this lower horizontal line. To the audience it gave the impression that, when the sides fell down suddenly, the fake bottom of the box they were looking at appeared to be the actual bottom. Though, in fact, there was a whole area of concealment hidden by the four sides which had fallen down.
In 1957 Milbourne Christopher booked June Merlin along with Robert Harbin, Cardini, Sorcar and others for the NBC “Producer’s Showcase.” This was the first coast-to-coast television program in the United States and seen by some 60 million viewers.
The producers changed many of the acts to suit their theme of magicians from all parts of the world. Harbin had to do his bit in a safari suit since he was billed as coming from his country of origin, South Africa. June had to change her whole ‘glamour-type act’ to an Irish castle setting, with an attendant leprechaun capering about her, to underscore her “from Ireland” billing. The box was used to change the fur coat (produced in the original “Where do the Ducks go to ?” fashion) into a long flowing robe to fit her period costume with a wimple hat and accessories. Due to the exigencies of television at that time all her props were covered in adhesive cloth and painted pink. The deceptive painting of the ‘drop-down’ sided box was lost completely by this. Besides which it was hell getting the adhesive stuff off the props, without ruining the paint job, when she returned to our home in London. If it hadn’t been for the kindness of John Fisher I would never have seen the kine-to-video of that show as it was only available for viewing in the Museum of Radio and Television in New York.
Ten years afterward (1967) Milbourne was discussing transformation props with Abbott’s in Colon when he happened to mention June’s trick. Abbott’s decided to make it up. It was advertised in TOPS as “Milbourne Christopher’s Rabbit to Duck”. I didn’t see that advert as I didn’t get TOPS at that time. In the middle ’70s ‘Supreme’ started to advertise a box similar to June’s. Edwin was an old friend and I’d just given him a hard time trying to get his “Hot Book” advertised with my name on it as it came from “The First Book of William” published by Goodliffe way back in 1946; so I didn’t kick up a row.
Around this time, someone in the USA made up the same box and started to call it the “BLAMMO” Box. I see Repro has it in their current catalogue as the “Bim Bam Box’ or “Doves to Rabbit.”
I always called it the ‘McCOMBination Box”, because it is both a Vanish and a Production. Actually, it is a Transformation.
The next development was when the owner of Chalet Magic noted a box made by (I think) Jimmy King as a Dove Vanish. This was just a box with a flap which fell down hiding the birds. However the front of the box was either fretted or clear plastic. Either way it was a VANISH. This he added to the ‘drop-down sided’ box. Now it becomes a TRANSFORMATION. Whatever was put into the box (and it had to be easily laid in the base for the panel to fall cleanly into the base) was seen until the last moment and then when the lid was lifted the sides fell down revealing the new object. But it was still June’s original “drop-down sided box” only with the object seen until the lid was lifted. It had to have a thick base to hide the bottom compartment because the deceptive painting wasn’t used to give the idea that the dropped-down sides were showing the bottom of the box. Also, by not opening the front and showing the inside empty you couldn’t pack any bulky object into the front part and lock it down. The mere falling forward of the back flap had to cover the object placed inside.
Later when its uses were being discovered, the box was made larger to hold a girl (I believe Bill Smith of “Magical Ventures,” now in Las Vegas, was the first to make it this way) and perform the change of an animal or feather boa to a living girl. However, it was still June’s “drop-down-sided” box. It is now being featured in the “Pendragon” act.
The deceptive painting which was on the original box isn’t on any of the boxes I have seen lately. I think it added a tremendous amount to the making of a unique piece of magic.
The original box is in Terry Seabrooke’s possession at the moment. It is still in good condition and has had some 45 years of usage.
So when you see someone put something in a box, lift the lid and the four sides drop down revealing something different, cast your mind back to a young William McComb walking into Gil Leaney’s place with a sheaf of drawings 45 years ago.