I take great pleasure in presenting this column, properly titled, “The Funny Side Of Magic.”
The history of magic is very important as we know. Tony Gerard has compiled precious historical funny “true” stories of magic worlds past great legends and those who are today’s legends for all of us to enjoy today. This was a great effort on Tony’s part and we are so appreciative of his meticulous habits of always writing down stories that he has heard in his magic life.
Needless to say, there is a large crowd of young magic enthusiasts who are not even familiar with the names that are incorporated in these stories, but we are sure the time will come when they do become familiar with some of these giants of magic and will then appreciate the funny bits that are in this column. Those of us who remember them well will relive the stories that, some of which we’ve heard of.
We plan to publish some of these “bits” for you to enjoy on going for several columns and we want to thank Tony Gerard for giving us permission to publish these stores as well. These bits have come from his book of the same title and he has the second volume in preparation as well.
Tony Gerard (Magic Masquerade)
2011 West Main St
Kalamzoo, MI 49007
Now onto true stories from the past…
Flipping Your Way To The Top
Nate Leipzig was one of the greatest magicians of the 20th century. His skill with a pack of cards gained him national recognition in the magic community. However, it was his accidental discovery of a coin flourish that made the name Nate Leipzig known worldwide.
Nate was constantly practicing so that he would always be ready to do a magic effect with little or no notice. One of the things he practiced often was his palming techniques. He would cause coins, buttons, rings, etc to appear as if by real magic. After the production of an item he would frequently toss or flip the item into the air and catch it on the back of his hand. A clever stunt that amused his audiences.
It was during one of his practice sessions that he produced a coin and tossed it into the air. He shot his hand out to catch the coin on the back of his hand, but when it landed it rolled across his fingers as if trying to get away. The sight of the coin rolling across his hand in this manner amused Nate and motivated him to develop this accidental flourish into a part of his act. Little did he know that “The Leipzig Coin Roll” would become one of the tests of a real coin worker. Sadly, today few people know that it was Nate Leipzig who (accidentally) discovered the now famous flourish.
Shanghaied To Stardom
Back in 1988 the write received an invitation to the Stewart James Courtright Canada magic gathering. At the time I was the youngest invitee to attend. I believe the next youngest magician there was 20 to 30 years my elder. The attendee list read like a who’s who in magic. Ross Bertram, Bill Elliot, June and Sam Horowitz, Reggie Holden, Stewart James, Little Johnny Jones, Willie Kennedy, Milton Kort, Peter Layne, Sid Lorraine, Jay Marshall, Al Munro, Mike O’Dowd, Bruce Posgate, Allan Slaight, Warren Stephens, Mel Stover, Walley Wilson and the list goes on. It was at this gathering that Stewart James told me this tale.
Stewart started the story—Many years before you were born, there were these two friends who would get-together almost weekly for a magic session. At one of these get-togethers one of the friends told his buddy that he had the good fortune of being booked to perform in the Americas. The booking would take him away from home and the weekly get-togethers for at least a year, maybe two. He was to leave, by ship, the following week and every day from now until then he had scheduled appointments. The only time available to him for another get-together was the day his ship was to leave port.
They decided to meet onboard ship for a farewell get-together and to toast the friend’s good fortune. They toasted the ship, the trip, their friendship, the weather and just about anything else that came to mind. Apparently a few too many toasts were made because when they woke they found that the ship was four hours out of port. Our inadvertent stowaway thought to himself, “I’ve been shanghaied”. With hours of water between him and the shoreline, he was left with two options, either jump into shark infested waters and swim back home or enjoy a trip to America. Seeing that he had no pressing business at home and the fact that he didn’t like the idea of swimming with the sharks, he decided that a trip to America might not be so bad.
This magician, Stewart said, landed in America with the clothing on his back and the money in his pockets. Because the friend could not afford another member in his entourage, they parted company. It was not long, though, before the resourceful magician found some magical work. From what Stewart told me, (and here is your first clue as to who this mystery magician is), the first job he received here in America involved his hands. Just his hands. You see his hands were the hands photographed and used by Doc Harlan Tarbell in the now famous Tarbell Course. This same magician was credited for contributing all of the Oriental magic found in the course. You won’t find his name credited in the reprints though because he was only credited in the original course.
Do you know who it is? If not here are a few additional clues. A short time later, this magician, along with another professional magician, opened a magic manufacturing company that is still open today. Ah, the list is thinning, but do you know him yet? He also published a magic magazine from 1936 through 1987. (I sense there are still some puzzled readers out there so another clue may be in order). His partner in the magic company was “Frederick The Great” aka: Henri Boughton, aka: Harry Burton, aka: Harry Blackstone Sr.
Yes, believe it or not, the magician who got here by accident, was a partner with The Great Blackstone, published a magical trade magazine for over four decades, and put the little town of Colon, Michigan on the map is none other than Percy Abbott of Abbott’s Magic and Tops Magic Magazine fame. He came to us with nothing in his pockets but left us as owner of a magical empire.
Harry Blackstone Sr.
I Think We Need A Locksmith
Harry Blackstone Sr.
There was another incident involving an automobile where Blackstone, Dunninger and Houdini were going to visit a friend. When the three greats got to the automobile, Blackstone, the driver, could not find his keys. Dunninger and Houdini joked about The Great Blackstone not being to produce his keys. Blackstone then turned to Houdini and said, “OK mister world’s greatest escape artist and lock picker, why don’t you pick the lock so that we may get out of here.” Houdini agreed and proceeded to try and pick the lock, but after many failed attempts, The Great Houdini gave up.
In the meantime, Dunninger was heard chuckling in the background. Blackstone turned to Dunninger and said, “OK mister, the Master Mentalist, why don’t you deduce where the keys are.” He also failed to locate the illusive keys. So there the three stood, Blackstone (the world’s greatest magician who could not produce the keys), Dunninger (the world’s greatest mentalist who could not foresee where the keys were) and Houdini (the world’s greatest lock picker who could not pick the lock). Did they ever arrive at the friend’s house? Yes, but by taxi.
The Wizard Of Oz
Heinrich Keller was born in 1849. He is credited as being the founder of what has been described as the Royal Dynasty of American Magicians. And it is speculated that his stage personality was the inspiration for the Wizard in The Wizard Of Oz.
Early in Heinrich’s career he was informed by a few spectators that they could not understand him. He told a thespian friend about the spectator’s comments and asked if he would sit with the audience during the next show and report back to him with his critique. The friend agreed and after the show he returned with his response. He told Heinrich that he could hardly understand a word that he said. This caused Heinrich to turn purple with rage. Not wanting to lose Heinrich as a friend, he suggested that the problem may lie in his large bushy moustache. It, the moustache, may be the cause of the problem in that it may be acting as a muffler.
That evening Heinrich shaved the moustache and as if by magic the problem was solved. In Heinrich’s mind the problem was the moustache, but the friend knew that it was in his making Heinrich conscious of the problem with his diction that caused him to enunciate and speak up. The friend made sure that Heinrich was none the wiser.
When the young Erich Weiss was looking for a stage name, he took the last name from French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin and added an “i” to the name. Erich thought that in France that meant the same as. Then he took the first name from Heinrich (Harry) Keller to create the now world famous name Harry Houdini.
I’m sure that by now you have guessed what Heinrich Keller’s stage name is. He was referred to as the Dean of American Magicians — Harry Kellar.
The Dove Do-Doed It
The Great Tomsoni & Company
Speaking of “The Great Tomsoni”, I have an amusing story pertaining to him. When John started to do the dove act, it was a straight act, no comedy. Then in 1955, John saw Channing Pollock do his dove act, and he said, “There’s no room for two dove acts” and he quit magic for about seven years.
It was seven years later and John got the idea to do a dove parody dove act ala Channing Pollock. Some of the material and gags in the new comedy act came from other performers such as Tom Palmer. But many came from experiences on the stage, like the time one of John’s doves defecated on his shoulder. It got strong laughs from the audience and the bit stayed in. So, to, was the open fly gag. During one of John’s shows he was getting laughs where on previous shows there was silence. Afterwards a member of the cast informed John of the inadvertent open-fly mistake, and it stayed in.
Pam’s funny walk came about similarly. Tomsoni and Company were hired to perform at a Magic Castle banquet and when it was time for Pam to enter she slipped on her shoes and found that they were too tight. Ah, but the show must go on, and so it did, complete with a painfully funny walk that also stayed in the act. Even though John Thompson did not create his whole act, he did take each donated piece and reworked it until it fitted the Tomsoni character like a glove.
What Flash Paper?
Before Joe Berg opened his magic ship in Hollywood, he had one in Chicago. At the Chicago shop, Joe would quite often make his own flash paper. After acid treating the sheets, Berg would lay the sheets out on the magic shop counters to dry. While the sheets were drying he would work on the other aspects in the shop. On one of the flash paper drying days Joe was in the back room of the shop when Clark “The Senator” Crandall came in. (Before I go any further, I feel that a bit of background information is needed. Crandall was a cigar smoking magician who always had a lit cigar in his mouth.)
Clark “The Senator” Crandall
The story that Jay Marshall told me had Crandall leaning over the counter and looking at some of the new magic props when an ash from his cigar fell off and landed on top of one of the sheets of flash paper. In a flash every sheet went up in flames. Apparently Crandall let out quite a loud yell as the paper went up in flames causing Berg to rush back into the shop to see who was there and what all the commotion was about. He found Crandall in front of the counter with a very startled expression on his face. Berg’s attention quickly shifted from Crandall to the now empty counter tops. Turning back to Crandall he asked, “What happened to all the flash paper?” To which Senator Crandall replied, “What flash paper?”