When my buddy Carl Von Papp told me Bert Wheeler's Magic Shop had a small
stage in the back, and that amateur magicians were welcome to put on shows,
I quickly asked, "Even kids?"
"Sure," he replied. "It's open to anyone who wants to show his stuff."
I could hardly wait till Saturday night. Carl and I went together. Well, I
was impressed. A debonair young man who called himself The Amazing Aubrey
did some marvelous sleight-of-hand with a variety of small items, including
cards, coins, thimbles, and even some lighted cigarettes. He was a very
polished performer who made everything look so easy. I wanted to be just
like him (except maybe for the cigarettes).
The other performer that evening seemed less impressive. He was a
middle-aged band leader named Richard Himber who seemed to specialize in
doing mechanical tricks that anybody could have done right out of the box.
However, he did have one trick that looked like it might have been an
original (something about making a pack of cigarettes disappear) and when
Carl saw it he about had a fit.
"Will you look at that!" he said, trying to
keep his voice down (which for Carl has never been easy under the best of
circumstances). "I invented that trick. I showed it to him a few weeks
ago - and now he's swiped it!"
Well, Mr. Himber disappeared right after the show. He was gone before Carl
could get hold of him, and I don't think Carl ever saw him after that. But
every now and then we'd hear his music on late-night radio, and Carl would
get incensed all over again, announcing indignantly, "That's the crook who
stole my trick!" This would usually be followed by something like, "And
listen to that - his music stinks, too."
Actually, I have some 1939/1940 Richard Himber music and I enjoy it very
much. It has sort of a Paul Whiteman sound that's a lot of fun. I've also
since discovered that Mr. Himber went on to become a successful professional
magician, and eventually came to be better known as a magician than as a
Well, I was no Amazing Aubrey, but was sure that with a little practice I
could put on a fairly respectable show. I asked Carl if he had thought about
doing a show. No, he said, he wasn't quite ready for that-but he'd be glad
to help me with mine. One of the things he wanted to help me with was
programming the music that would accompany my act. Carl loved classical
music, and I had recently acquired a small portable phonograph, along with a
few classical records, some of which Carl thought would make perfect
background music. So we went to work on creating an act.
Disappearing Alarm Clock
I planned to do some sleight-of-hand along with a couple of homemade
illusions. (They had to be homemade, because I couldn't afford any of the
"professional" paraphernalia sold at Bert Wheeler's.) One illusion would be
a "disappearing alarm clock." The effect was that an old-fashioned wind-up
clock (the noisy type with a bell on top) would be placed on a serving tray
and set to ringing. And, while it was sounding off, the clock would be held
high for everyone to see, and then covered with a "foulard" (sort of a
fringed silk shawl).
The magician would then grasp the clock through the foulard with one hand
while using the other to remove the tray, which would be casually tossed to
someone in the wings. After holding the silk-covered ringing clock aloft for
a few seconds, he would thrust the foulard toward the startled
spectators-and the clock would appear to have vanished into thin air. Then,
of course, the amazed audience would reward the bowing performer with a lot
of well-deserved applause (that is, if everything worked right).
While I concentrated on making sure the various tricks would come off
smoothly, Mr. Sound Engineer Carl concentrated on coordinating the music
that would accompany the performance.
I decided to start my act by making a walking stick (the kind Fred Astaire
used to twirl in the movies) disappear into thin air after being twirled a
few times-and then to follow that by making some colorful silk scarves and
floral bouquets materialize out of the same thin air.
This would then be followed by the amazing alarm clock trick. Carl thought
all this would come off well accompanied by the exhilarating strains of
Jaques Offenbach's Gaite Parisienne overture.
Bewitched Billiard Balls
Then would come a more difficult routine. The "Multiplying Billiard Balls"
has been a requisite part of any true sleight-of-hand artist's repertoire
ever since-I don't know-probably since the invention of the billiard ball.
The effect is to start with a bare hand and then to make a cue ball
magically appear between the thumb and forefinger-and then to have
additional balls appear, just as mysteriously, between the other fingers.
The billiard balls would then disappear and reappear in a variety of
wondrous ways, and eventually vanish altogether.
Although there is one tiny "gimmick" used in this illusion, 99% of it is
accomplished by skillful manual manipulation.
Carl decided that the melodic
strains of the Waltz of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker would be
the ideal accompaniment for this routine.
After several weeks of diligent rehearsing, we finally decided it was time
to tell Bert Wheeler we'd like to put on a show. He said the stage would be
ours the following Saturday night.
Well, backstage I was as nervous as a long-tailed cat next to a rocking
chair. I had done magic before, but it had always been a few simple tricks
for friends and family. Now, with the big Saturday night finally here, I
found myself peeking out through the curtains at an audience of
strangers - and I was thinking maybe we should have rehearsed this thing for a
few more months. But the master of ceremonies had already given me a nice
introduction and Carl had already cued the Offenbach-so it was too late to
back out now.
Hearing the rousing Gaite restored my confidence somewhat - so I walked
bravely onto the stage, twirling the walking stick, and trying hard to
conceal my nervousness. The "Walsh Cane" was a store-bought trick that Carl
had loaned me, and it disappeared into thin air right on schedule. Producing
the bouquets and multiple silks was something I had done before, so that,
too, came off quite smoothly.
Next would be the vanishing alarm clock. I placed the clock on the tray and
moved the minute hand to engage the alarm. As the clock began to ring, I
held the tray high. As planned, I covered all with the foulard, and then
removed the tray, which I tossed to Carl, who was waiting in the wings. This
was supposed to be a casual gesture, but my nervousness affected my aim-and
Carl had to scramble to keep the tray from landing on the floor. (Had it
done so, the whole trick would have been given away right there.)
After holding the "ringing clock" high for a few suspenseful moments, I
triumphantly thrust the foulard toward the astonished audience. As planned,
the ringing had stopped and the clock had vanished. The magnanimous round of
applause I received helped allay my fears about going into the billiard ball
Well, as we had planned, the Offenbach overture faded out and I was now
anxiously awaiting the muted horns and caressing woodwinds of the
Tchaikovsky waltz. But suddenly the Offenbach overture was back on-and
louder than before. I couldn't believe what I was hearing-and didn't know
what to do. (One does not finesse billiard balls to this kind of
I tried to peek backstage to see if I could figure out what was happening,
but Carl and the record player were out of view. I was about to walk back
there when I heard some angry voices being raised, followed by some
scuffling sounds. Next I heard a needle being scraped across a record-and
then some more bellicose voices. I'd just reached the wings, when suddenly
the correct music came on, followed by the sound of a slamming door.
Well, I shook my head in disbelief and walked back to the center of the
stage, where I went unsteadily into the billiard ball routine. As you can
probably imagine, I couldn't wait to finish up and get backstage to find out
what the heck had been going on. When I got there I found Carl, looking
about as frustrated as I was feeling, hovering protectively over the record
Even before I could ask what happened, he was saying, "Can you believe that?
Some idiot said he liked the Gaite overture so much he didn't want me to
stop it. We practically got into a fist fight over it."
Well, I've long since forgotten the Offenbach-lover's name, but whoever he
was, he finally acquiesced to Carl and then stormed out the back door. But
the whole experience kind of soured me on ever doing another show at Bert
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