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Don Edrington
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Harry Blackstone

1940s - Hollywood Prestidigitation


Carl Von Papp

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."

AUBREY magician

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).

Richard Himber

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 band leader.

Boy magician

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

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.

Radio-Phonograph

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.

magical billiard balls

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 routine.

Backstage Brouhaha

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 high-spirited music.)

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 player.

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 Wheeler's.

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