How Harry Blackstone brought magic to Michigan

Harry Blackstone, right, pulls the disembodied head of his assistant Betty from a cylinder, much to the amazement of an audience member.

      Known variously through the ages as necromancers, wizards, witches, conjurors, medicine men, soothsayers or diviners, these practitioners claimed powers to summon the spirit world, foretelling the future, or reading the secrets of the past.

      Their dabblings in magic frequently led to important scientific discoveries. While devising magic potions sorcerers often made discoveries in the field of chemistry. Those who studied the influence of the stars on human life, the astrologers, learned many valuable facts about astronomy.

Magicians and sorcerers have been practicing their art since the dawn of time.

      Magic as a form of entertainment, was popular in India and other Asian countries for centuries. It was also known to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. In the Bible, Moses and Aaron turned their magic wands into serpents which then ate serpents conjured up by Egyptian magicians.

      During the Middle Ages, street entertainers amused the masses in market places and performed in castles for kings and nobility.

      Today, magicians entertain like theatrical performers, pretending to be doing the impossible. The most common trick is to make objects seem to appear from nowhere and then to disappear. Such tricks are called sleight of hand, or legerdemain. The magician who practices them is sometimes called a prestidigitator, from the Latin words presto meaning “ready, “and digitus, “finger.”

      Michigan’s most famous magician was not born here, and did not die here, although he is buried here. Harry Blackstone called Colon, Mich., his home and made the small hamlet a world famous center of secretive art.

Blackstone and partner Percy Abbott established the Blackstone Magic Company in Colon, Mich., which later became Abbott’s Magic Company. That’s Recil Bordner, Abbott’s partner, entering the plant in 1956.

      Blackstone was one of the nation’s foremost magicians for years. The speed and flash of his performing made his act legendary. Only Harry Houdini enjoyed greater popularity.

      Blackstone, a tall, impeccably groomed man with perfect diction, cut an imposing figure on the. Called the “last of the great magicians,” Blackstone regarded magic as the science of mis-direction. The wiry, fluffy-haired magician once said: “Magic overcomes frustration. It doesn’t need to be sleight of hand. It’s nothing but pure psychology applied in the right place. If the leaders of the world would turn their talents to a little more magic — or psychology — there wouldn’t be so much hurt and misery. Politicians are nothing more than magicians anyhow. They put people under a spell.”

      Blackstone’s charismatic personality enthralled his audiences with scantily-clad showgirl assistants who incidentally offered appealing distractions to his illusions. Among his famous acts were “The Jungle Mystery,” The Vanishing Donkey,” “The India Rope Trick” and “The Dream of Princess Karmac,” all accompanied by mysterious music.

      Blackstone, whose real name was Boughton, was born in 1885 and grew up in the Chicago area with six siblings. After fifth grade, Harry dropped out of school and spent his free time putting on shows with his brothers.

      While a teenager, his father committed suicide and Blackstone took a job to help support his family. He kept on practicing his tricks whenever possible.

      He teamed up with his brother, Peter, and started doing sleight-of-hand tricks in beer halls in 1905. Throughout his career, his brother Pete remained at his side.

      By 1911, having formulated a regular act, the young magician adopted the name Blackstone, after a cigar which he felt was a name of quality.

      For some years Blackstone was the No 2. man in the magic business, playing vaudeville while Howard Thurston took over in the big-time legitimate theaters. In the late 1920’s, however, Blackstone’s suave style began to pay off and he became a top box office attraction.

      Up until Thurston died in 1933, the two went to great lengths to outdo each other. One time, Thurston accused Blackstone of imitating his new act of sawing a women in half. “It’s true,” Blackstone wired back. “I did catch your act in Philadelphia. But you did it so poorly, I wouldn’t try to imitate you.”

      He didn’t either, at least in a technical sense. Blackstone used a buzz saw instead of a regular saw.

Blackstone, center, on stage during his act. At right, dressed like a cat, is Harry Blackstone, Jr.

      Another story tells of Blackstone’s appearance at the White House during Calvin Coolidge’s administration. For the show he pulled a rabbit out of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon’s pocket, stole Coolidge’s fountain pen and made away with Secretary of State Frank Kellogg’s wallet. He climaxed the show by stealing a bodyguard’s pistol. With the understatement for which he was famous, Coolidge dryly remarked: “That man’s a magician!” To Blackstone it was one of the greatest compliments he ever received.

      Blackstone made many appearances on the Detroit stage. In 1946, Detroit News writer John Finlayson reported: “The top man in the magic business is indisputably Blackstone, who opened an engagement at the Lafayette Theater. Blackstone has a lot of tricks up his sleeve, and they flow from him in seemingly endless profusion. He keeps his corps of assistants hopping and the audience in a constant state of bewilderment.

      “Walking in and out of the wings, disappearing and reappearing, are scantily clad young ladies who smile benignly at the boss’ customers and dash into pleasant nothingess their faint hopes of cracking Mr. Blackstone’s professional secrets.

      “Blackstone’s dexterity is something out of this world, but for magical extravaganza his feat of sawing a pretty young assistant in two, and at the same time, a piece of raspy cordwood; his levitation specialty and his floating light bulb are the best production specialties.

      “These are all old tricks in the magic game, but Blackstone gives them original touches…Blackstone proved all over again that the art of the magician makes children of us all.”

      His performances brought him to Michigan many times during his career.

      In he bought 208 acres of wooded lands in Colon including footage on Sturgeon Lake. It would become his headquarters, workshop and home where he and his company of performers could relax each summer from their grueling schedule. This was a time when air conditioning was a luxury and most theaters had a limited run of shows during the dog days of summer. Fellow magicians and entertainers often summered with the Blackstones, basking in the lifestyle that a small town can offer weary travelers tired of hotel and restaurant meals.

      In 1927, Harry invited a visitor who would have further impact on the town and the world of magic. Percy Abbott came for the fishing and relaxation, but stayed and helped form the Blackstone Magic Company, and when the partnership dissolved, stayed on to continue the business. Today, Abbott’s Magic Manufacturing Company is the largest manufacturer of magical implements in the world. Colon is also host to the world’s largest annual convention of magicians.

Harry Blackstone in 1957.

      During the Depression, Blackstone scaled down his show but continued performing. In 1934, his son, Harry Blackstone Jr. was born. He would later also earn for himself the title of one of the world’s greatest prestidigitators.

      At the onset of World War II, the Blackstone Show was the first group to entertain the troops at USO camp shows.

      After the war, Blackstone was suffering from asthma and retired to Hollywood, near the Magic Castle, a private club for magicians.

      He died on Nov. 16, 1965, at the age of 80, but some sources indicated that the magician, always evasive about his birth age, was actually 89–or perhaps even older. A few days later his ashes were interred at Lakeside Cemetery, just across the water from his old residence in Colon.

      Robert Lund, owner of the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Mich., in a lecture to the Michigan Historical Society, summed up the hold magicians have over their audiences:

      “He reawakens a sense of wonder in us when we are no longer children. He is the only one who does that for us. Of all the professions and callings in the world, the magician is the only one who evokes a sense of wonder in us on demand. When you go to see a magician, you do so with the understanding and expectation that you will be mystified, that you will wonder. The manufacturers of Cracker Jacks and breakfast cereals promise a surprise in every box. But they do not promise wonder.

      “And so we come to this rather ludicrous figure, a leftover from childhood, out of sync and out of time. There he stands in his Sunday-best suit, a little slick’em on his hair and smiling his please-like-me-smile. And we say to him, “Please, I haven’t wondered in a long time. I haven’t experienced that emotion for many years. Could you make me wonder again?”

      “And he hauls out his toys and makes us wonder…..That is the real secret of magic, that magic is wonder. The magician is the last link between the earliest intellectual experience we have as children — of wondering — and the blase adults we become. He rekindles a sense of wonder in us when we are beyond the age of wondering, giving us back a part of our humanity that we thought we would never know again.”

Blackstone made many appearances in Detroit. Here he amazes actress Jane Powell and entertainer Tennessee Ernie Ford at a dinner for Ford dealers at the Light Guard Armory.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)