Pete Biro – The Magic Place

Columnist:
Pete Biro

IMHO there is (was) only ONE Magic Place… and that was at 145 Wardour Street, London, W1-Ken Brooke’s Magic Place.

On a recent trip to London, I had to go by 145 to see what was now at that location (Ken had passed on years ago and closed “The Place”). What I found was The Zoo Studio.

I have no idea what the Zoo Studio is, or might be, but it isn’t “The Magic Place.” Not only was Ken Brooke at that address in those days, but one flight up (“We shared the Loo,” Ken said) was the office of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice. Lot’s of real Magic came from that address.

Ken Brooke was an unusual dealer in magic. He was totally honest, paid the creators well for their efforts, wrote the most comprehensive, practical instruction sheets ever, and was one of the funniest, best, demonstrators I have ever seen.

A practical joker, Ken would go to any lengths for a laugh. My favorite was the Wallpaper bit. Ken would go to Woolworths and buy the ugliest, cheapest roll of wallpaper he could find. He’d then go to a bus stop, and when a Double-Deck London Bus arrived, Ken would climb up the back stairs, stop and let the paper unroll. He then beckon the people getting on, to, “Come on up, it’s ok you can step on the paper, its just for my little boy’s room. What do you think? Do you think he’ll like it?” He would continue to motion people to come on up the steps.

Most of the pros of the time would “hang” at The Magic Place when in town. You would almost always see someone like Fred Kaps, Jay Marshall, Johnny Paul, Finn Jon, Dany Ray and Paul Daniels there.

Paul was a student of Ken’s and will always credit Ken’s teaching that led him to his fame and fortune in magic. Kaps and Jon would only let Ken market their ideas, as he would treat them with respect, make sure the quality was he best possible, and sell them on an “exclusive” basis. This is what led to Ken’s bad health (he had a terrible stroke and lost his ability to speak clearly), worrying about the unscrupulous dealers that would knock off his material at the first opportunity.

Ken grew up in the streets of Leeds in Northern England, and started in the tailoring trade, but soon found he could make more money pitching items on the streets. He wouldn’t sell something the “Punters” (customers) couldn’t do… hence no Svengali decks, or Wonder Mice.

“If a man buys something from me and when he gets home can’t do it, I can’t justify selling it,” he would say. So, he sold the “Flick Book,” a small book that you could show with blank pages, or pictures of birds, or stamps, whatever. Something anyone could do.

Ken was funny about selling something too hard to do to a customer. I saw him on several occasions turn down a sale when someone came in and asked for a particular trick. Ken knew it was beyond the Punter’s ability so he’d say, “No, but here’s something you can do.”

He also knew how to build a sale. I remember one day a guy came in and wanted to by trick A, and Ken wouldn’t sell it to him. He threw it in the trash! Then the guy wanted trick B, same thing… on and on, but then by the end of the day Ken had sold him both and almost everything else in the shop! He really knew how to demonstrate and sell.

In addition to Paul Daniels, Nick Lewin studied under Ken. Nicky just completed a huge, successful run in Las Vegas and is now working the cruise lines.

Ken was a great teacher. Half of my act came from sessions with him on the egg bag, linking rings, Chase the Ace, the chop cup, and others. Ken used to close with the multiplying bottles and he taught the routine to me as well. I had a question for Ken about how he got “off” at the finish, as the table is full with 9 bottles, 2 tubes and 2 glasses. It is pretty difficult to carry it offstage. He said, “I just pick it up, walk to the wings, stumble and nearly fall, but don’t drop anything.”

This I couldn’t believe. I know the “false” stumble. Ken taught it to me many years before (as well as the duck walk and the crooked stance). But how to do it with a table full of fragile props?

Ken said, “Here I’ll teach you.” He picket up a tray with a teapot and several cups, etc. (there was always a pot of tea in the afternoon at Ken’s), closed the shop and we went for a walk in the neighborhood.

“Watch,” he said, heading toward a group of ladies. “Oooops,” he said, stumbling, almost falling forward on his face with the tray. The ladies screamed, and jumped out of the way. Ken “recovered” and kept right on going. He did this half a dozen times and when we went back to the Place, he said, “That’s how you do it. Practice.”

Never did get it down.

One night Ken was about to close and Del Cartier and his wife, Rhoda, came in. Del was from New York, and a good friend of Ken. Del was the “original” source in magic for the Invisible Thread that Fred Kaps used in the Floating and Dancing Cork.

Anyway it was decided we’d all go to dinner. It was getting late and Rhoda said, “You know Ken, in all the years we’ve been coming here, we have never seen you do a show.”

Ken said, “Really?” and went into the back room. About 10 minutes later Ken came back into the Studio in his tux, with his table and “The Act.”

He then did his complete act, Dancing Cane, Rings, Bottles, Sucker Silk, the lot… for the three of us, as if we were an audience of 1,000. It was amazing. All the gags, bits and magic, like a real show. It was! Ken was maybe the best I ever saw with the dancing cane. Why? He DANCED with it… a very funny, eccentric dance. No one, no one even thought thread, or cared. It was a very funny routine. He would finish it, when doing a cabaret (dance floor) show by throwing to a waiter off to one side, saying, “Sell it.”

On one trip to Ken’s Ricky Jay was with me. At that time Ricky was studying the cups and balls and was talking about how the Paul Fox cups were best because of the size/shape. “The final load balls look bigger than the cups,” Ricky said.

Ken disagreed. “Size doesn’t matter,” said Ken, “it’s the change. I’ll show you.” Ken grabbed his cups, closed the shop and we went to the market and got three very small lemons. We then went to the Dog and Duck Pub, Ken sized up a table (with 3 couples) and went over. He started to do the cups and balls (and believe me, next to Bob Read and maybe Gazzo I have never seen a more entertaining performance) and at the “Death” (Ken always called the climax, the Death), and Ken lifted the cups to reveal the three small lemons, the crowed roared. Ken turned to Ricky and said, “Y’see, size doesn’t matter.”

For years we could never get Ken to come to the States. Finally, he told me why. “I had such a bad experience when I went over before. Harry Stanley (Ken was working for Stanley’s Unique Studio at the time) brought me over to an IBM Convention in Florida. I performed on one of the shows and Jay Marshall and Al Flosso’s agent, Mark Leddy saw me. Leddy booked acts for the Ed Sullivan show. Leddy said he wanted me to fly to New York and do the Sullivan show. Harry said I couldn’t do it, I had to stay with him in Florida and do a lecture that night. It broke my heart, but I was bound, by contract, to Stanley.”

Some years later, however, we were able to talk Ken into coming to the U.S. to the Desert Magic Seminar, where Siegfried and Roy had a party at their home honoring Ken. It was one of the most touching moments in magic I have ever experienced. Ken could barely speak (following his stroke) but we all knew what he was trying to say, and we all just stood there with tears rolling down our cheeks.

Ken had gone bankrupt years before with a small magic business in Leeds, and according to British Law (which I like) you can never open another business until you pay back all you owe. So Ken moved to London and went to work for Stanley, and eventually paid off al his debts, then left Stanley to open “Ken Brooke’s Magic Place,” with Frank Farrow as his partner and Jim Hooper (Nemo) as his mechanic. I had the thrill of being the “witness” to the signing of the agreement with Farrow and Ken.

Jim Hooper was one of the real unsung heroes in magic. Jim was a brilliant mind. He was an engineer with the London Underground, but found time to create and make props for Ken. Many of the items called “Nemo” were Hooper’s creations. Ken also had one of the great metalworkers doing reels, pulls, holdouts, card swords, etc. by the name of George Hammerton. Many say Hammerton’s work far exceeded that of Jon Martin.

So, Ken Brooke’s Magic Place is not at 145 Wardour Street anymore. It is in the minds and hearts of those fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to visit there when it was “The Place.” There is no other Place anywhere like it.