The most common question I get from people after they’ve seen my show is, “What are the secrets to the illusions in your show?” Everybody wants to know the secrets. This past week I read a book that actually tells a few of them. Not my secrets – better – The Great Blackstone’s! Told through the yarn of his chief assistant, Memoirs Of An Elusive Moth, takes you through the secret underground world of a magic assistant. It’s illustrated and filled with photographs and memorabilia. Dick Cavett did the introduction and I found it alive and fun.
Some of you Alexandrites might recall a blog my wife/chief assistant wrote called The Assistant, where she described some of the trials and tribulations of performing in my show. Incidentally, there’s a wonderful documentary about the assistant world called Women In Boxes that’s worth a look. Some of you Alexandrites might be too young to know the name Harry Blackstone. He presented a full-evening production called “The Show of 1001 Wonders.” Although I never saw it, I’m sure it lived up to that billing, as a stage-filling spectacle combining spectacular illusions, magnificent costumes, gorgeous girls, a corps of assistants, humor, dancing, and intimate conjuring. Harry Blackstone, a rival to Houdini, toured North America ceaselessly and had a professional career that spanned some 65 years. He is undoubtedly one of the most famous magicians of all time, and today, many magic historians consider Blackstone to be the most popular magician of his era, particularly, during the 1930’s. He was one of America’s greatest and best-known magicians.
Back in 1947, at the tender age of 17, dancer Adele Friel was hired to become part of Blackstone’s world of magic. For the next three seasons, she trouped with Blackstone, playing an integral role in his show, both on-stage and backstage. She joined the ranks of his show unexpectedly, making the transition from solo song-and-dance act to one of “Mr. B’s gorgeous girls” in the blink of an eye. It was a decision that would change her life forever.
Amazingly Friel, already an accomplished, successful dancer, was put in touch with Blackstone through her agent, and after a 10-minute interview and meet-and-greet with other assistants, she was hired on the spot as was asked to appear on stage that very night! So began her baptism into magic. The book is a backstage, on-the-road look at life with Blackstone as a key member of the show. Friel was one of six female assistants. There were 12 total. From applying make-up before the show (dipping a mascara brush in hot wax and applying it to her eyelashes?) to costume changes (there were some 15 for her in each show), the descriptions of Friel’s role are really intriguing. She gives a step-by-step, on-stage description of where she was at each phase of a routine: hiding in one compartment, moving to another, secretly signaling Blackstone or an assistant, then climbing onto a moving trapeze, and more. Interestingly, because Friel was so involved in the performance and inner workings of an illusion, she doesn’t know how it appeared to the audience because she was never given the opportunity to watch the show as we would. Still, she offers some of the secrets behind Blackstone’s magic, as well as details of life in the theater, behind the scenes, on the road, and more – all being revealed for the first time. What I liked most about the book was to read of Blackstone’s show from an insider’s viewpoint. In many other magic books, this great show is told from the eyes of the beguiled spectators. While that’s cool too, I have often wondered what it was really like as I read some of Blackstone’s magic and saw his son, Blackstone, Jr. perform.
Many of Blackstone’s illusions and set-pieces have been described in several other sources. You can even view footage of Blackstone, Jr. performing the very same illusions on YouTube. Some of these include the famous vanishing birdcage, the dancing or “spirit” handkerchief, the floating light bulb, and “The Living Miracle,” an open sawing in half with an intimidating Buzz Saw. Footage of Blackstone Senior is more rare. Careful observers can discover one recent Blackstone Senior montage that did make its way onto YouTube. Andrew Martin cleverly pasted this together from old film footage.
The book barely mentions some key Blackstone illusions because Friel didn’t play a role in the performance of them. Although it does expose some of Blackstone’s secrets, historians looking for exhaustive, blow by blow insight into every Blackstone illusion will be disappointed. But I think that’s a fair trade to get to see the show from a such a unique perspective, including all the grueling hard work, nuts and bolts of packing and the task of moving such a large stage show from one town to the next (sometimes on railroad cars). I had even heard that in his later days Blackstone did as many as five shows a day in front of the screen at movie theaters between the movies. That’s true. Here you get a rare look at what unique challenges that presented as well as some unpleasant experiences that you’d think The Great Blackstone would be above.
For example, in 1942 Blackstone performed what many people consider his greatest trick: The Vanishing Audience. In Decatur, IL, during a performance it was announced that the next trick was so large and spectacular that members of the audience would have to adjourn to the street to see it. The magician supervised an orderly, row-by-row exit of the theater. When they reached the street, the crowd instantly saw what Blackstone had known all along: The theater was on fire! His coolness averted panic and surely saved many lives. What showmanship! He finally hung up his white tie and tails and put his rabbits out to pasture after 65 years on the road, Blackstone settled in Hollywood. His was hardly an idle retirement. The legendary magician was in constant demand for TV appearances, including “Producer’s Showcase, “the “Ernie Kovac Show,” the early Steve Allen “Tonight Show,” a memorable chat with Edward R. Murrow on “Person to Person” and a delightful half-hour as a surprise subject of “This is Your Life.”
This book also tells of Blackstone’s brother, Pete Bouton, who was instrumental in Blackstone’s success and who designed and built many of the illusions, made the necessary changes to each stage on the tour with his mobile workshop, and managed the entire production. There’s a couple of pages on the legendary Del Ray, who worked for a time as an assistant on the show before skyrocketing to success on his own.
Some chapters seem to be almost random memories. Friel talks about spending a season in Colon, Michigan (“Blackstone Island”) and life on the road. I found fascinating an episode where Friel realizes that she is sitting in the wrong area of a public bus in Atlanta – a mistake for a Northerner of that era. There’s also a brief mention of Blackstone’s female pursuits. This alone would make a fascinating book.
Overall, “Memoirs of an Elusive Moth” is an easy, pleasant read. I finished it in a single evening. I also enjoyed the introduction written by Dick Cavett, who always manages to convey a childhood-like wonder to our art of magic. I suppose that the mark of a good book is whether it leaves you wanting more. Yes, this one did. However, it’s partially due to the fact that it’s a very brief book. There are insights to be gained in “Memoirs of an Elusive Moth” that are to my knowledge unique to the book, but they do leave you wanting lots more. But hey, it’s perhaps all that we’ve got from a bygone, legendary magic era.