The Knickerbocker caught up with Society of American Magicians "dean" George Schindler and his wife Nina on Wednesday amid the cornfields of Michigan at the Magic Get-Together hosted by Abbott's Magic Company. What brought these Brooklyn residents to the southwest Michigan town of Colon (population: 1227), known as the "magic capital of the world" where signs have images of top hats?
In addition to his ventriloquist performance at this 68th annual magic celebration, Mr. Schindler, author of a shelf of magic books, is at work on a concise historical guide to the more than 20 magicians interred in the Colon Lakeside Cemetery. Those buried there include New York magician and pickpocket comedian Ricki Dunn (1929-99), and famed conjurer Harry Blackstone Sr. (1885-1965), who early in his career performed for children on the Lower East Side at the Educational Alliance. He and his son Harry Blackstone Jr. (1934-97) shared signature acts such as the dancing handkerchief, vanishing birdcage, and floating light bulb.
"Colon has been called the Mecca of magic," said Greg Bordner, president of Abbott's Magic. Since 1934, New York magicians have enjoyed fellowship and shared trade secrets with their Midwestern counterparts in the tiny hamlet of Colon, named for the punctuation mark. The town became a hub for thaumaturgists after Percy Abbott, an Australian-born magician and vaudevillian who toured under the name "The White Mahatma," settled there. His eponymous company, with its Sears, Roebuck-size catalog, became a staple of mail-order magic merchandise.
Blackstone, who was briefly a business partner of Abbott, settled in Colon and used the town as his summer retreat, drawn to its quaint lakeside beauty. The town was a spur on New York Central's main-line railroad, and lay halfway between Chicago and Detroit, 150 miles in either direction.
Each year, this much-anticipated annual convention of magicians recalls a time when people relied on each other for amusement, before the ascendance of the sit-back-and-best-upefied television era. Over the years, the homespun environs, where visitors are billeted in the homes of hospitable townsfolk, has provided an opportunity for Abbott's to showcase their alluringly named products: "Hand of the Caliph," "Palanquin Illusion," "Cassadega Propaganda Cabinet," and the "Asrah Levitation." Abbott's illusions have been performed on New York stages, such as Milbourne Christopher's enactment of Abbott's Hindu Basket illusion for a CBS nationally televised Christmas special at the Ed Sullivan Theater. More recently, an Abbott's production number dazzled New York theatergoers as the first act finale of Ricky Jay's long-running show "On the Stem."
In the 1940s, Abbott's had a New York branch on West 42nd Street run by magicians Ken Allen and Jim Reneaux. The latter performed magic with doves. After the shop closed, Abbott's customers patronized the Magic Center, a store in the theater district run by Russell Delmar, who used to dance with Gene Kelly. In his store, Delmar had a cat named Eggbag, who assisted in the performance of a card trick. The cat would identify a card previously selected by a customer by pawing and chewing on it.
Walking along East State Street on Thursday at dusk was a youth with a rabbit on a leash. In other towns, people walk their dogs at that hour. Here in Colon, where magicians flourish, it is fitting to see this particular pet on parade.
MARSHALL'S MAGIC Houdini's milk-can escape and Harry Blackstone's packing trunks are among the striking artifacts that grab visitors' attention about an hour's drive from Colon at the American Museum of Magic, a repository of this continent's heritage of prestidigitation. Founded by the late Robert Lund and his wife Elaine, the museum is located in the historic district of Marshall, Mich., and has a special focus on small town, itinerant magic practitioners of the past.
On the first floor, one sees a poster of New Yorker and mind reader Joseph Dunninger, "The Mastermind of Modern Mystery," performing at the Eden Musee on 23rd Street. Another poster featured Dunninger's later performance in April 1921 at the Hippodrome with guest Babe Ruth. "It is possible," the poster announces, that Dunninger "will tell how many home runs" Ruth would hit that season.
The museum contains props belonging to Harry Blackstone. A magic buff named Dan Waldron bought the remnants of Harry Blackstone's show from George Hippisley, who had them in storage in Weedsport, N.Y. This is characteristic of how materials of historical importance can migrate into a museum in a roundabout fashion.
In the museum is a large, weathered trunk of tools belonging to Blackstone's brother and stage partner, Pete Bouton, who repaired tricks at a moment's notice. "Pre-Black & Decker," quipped Ron Geoffries, a magic comedian from Cherry Hill, N.J. Also seen was a wand belonging to the French performer Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, who is considered the father of modern magic. Ehrich Weiss later appropriated his name in the New World, attaining fame as Houdini.
Assembling the above collection was the longtime avocation of Hearst editor and writer Robert Lund, a Michigan resident who had lived in New York during the late 1940s. He once worked for the New York Journal of Commerce. The museum opened on April Fools' Day in 1978, charging the following admission: Adults could enter for $2, children for $1. Amusingly, doctors and lawyers were each charged $10 admission.