Sunday, February 5, 2012

Meeting the Elusive Moth

The greatest trick ever performed by a magician is to inspire others to take up the art.  Each of us who has ever dabbled with a Svengali deck or the Ball and Vase has been engaged by seeing another performer.  While the bulk of the audience may be fooled, there are always a few in every audience who become motivated to learn the secrets and possibly even become performers themselves.

In my case, it was from seeing Magic Tom on local TV in Montreal, seeing Mark Wilson on the talk shows and watching The Amazing Kreskin who, in those days, had a weekly TV show.  For those who have come after me, those inspirations might be David Blaine and David Copperfield.  For those who came before, it was for several generations, Blackstone.
Harry Blackstone, Sr. was among the last of the great touring magicians.  Each summer, he and his company would set out from their summer quarters in Michigan to work the circuit of theatres and auditoria throughout the United States and Canada.

Blackstone was a popular name because he put on a popular, fast moving show that was a hit with children and their parents.  Perhaps the most accurate measure of his popularity was that he became the subject of both a comic book series and a weekly radio program.

Blackstone represents a link to the days of Thurston and Houdini, of Carter and Kellar.

One of the classic effects in magic is the Linking Rings.  Like the soliloquies of Shakespeare, this is one of those effects that tests the mettle of every performer.  Though well-known, the effect still has the capacity to inspire and amaze.  Done poorly, the Rings can speak volumes about missed opportunities and misunderstanding.

The Linking Rings are also an appropriate metaphor for the history and culture of magic itself.  Each period in magic is its own closed loop that is seemingly impossible to penetrate.  These rings overlap with each new generation and there inevitably arrives students who seek out the wisdom of their predecessors and use that knowledge to create their own period.  And like that, the rings become linked.

Lance Burton promoted his show as being of a tradition that stretched back through Lee Grabel to Dante, to Howard Thurstan to Harry Kellar to Alexander Hermann.

* * *

I recently attended Magi-Fest in Columbus. 

For 81 years, magicians from all over the middle of the country have gathered in Columbus to talk magic and learn from its leading practitioners.  There is camaraderie, competition, conversation and lots and lots of magic.

A focal point of this, or any other magic convention, is the dealer room.  This is an opportunity to sample the wares of leading manufacturers and resellers from around the country.  In the absence of access to a real brick and mortar magic shop, this is when you can actually put your hands on the latest and the newest that you may have only read about online or in your favorite magazine.

The days are filled with lectures by visiting experts and the evenings are taken up with performances. 

At the Friday night show, a number of notables were introduced from the audience and this was how I learned that Adele Friel Rhindress was at the convention.

Adele was an assistant with Blackstone during the last years of his two-and-a-half-hour evening show, is one of only 5 people from that period who is still alive and, as she said, "the only one who's talking."  She feels a real responsibility to make sure that history records the experience accurately.

When they introduced her from the stage I was impressed, but I thought that I would never get a chance to meet her, or talk to her.  I am a shy person.

The next afternoon--the last day of the convention--and after making a final pass through the dealer room during which I purchased a copy of Adele's memoir from Abbott's Magic, a company that was founded by Percy Abbott who used to work with Blackstone, I went into the common area to examine my purchases and figure out what session I would go to next.

Across the room from me, I noticed Adele seated at a table with maybe four conventioneers.  She was signing copies of her book and telling stories.

One of the guys at the table was keeping an eye on a video camera that was running in the background.

They were getting their books signed.  I would like to have my book signed.  How could I ask her to sign my book?

She was right there, a link to another ring and I didn't know how to ask her to sign my book.

Should I ask?  Is it too rude?

I packed up my purchases and walked across the foyer to stand at her table.

She was in the middle of a story and I didn't want to interrupt.

I stood there a little longer.

I think she noticed me and was about to speak to me when a couple of guys came out of the dealer room and she knew one of them who quickly introduced her to the other and they were off into a whole different conversation.

I decided to go get a coffee.

When I came back, Adele was still there talking and signing.

What to do?

Finally, I got up the gumption to approach one of the other guys who was waiting to have his book signed and asked him if it would be too rude to have her sign mine.

How pathetic is that?

He invited me to join the line.

As it turned out, Adele was not just repeating the same anonymous inscription from one book to the next, but rather she was interviewing each person to find out about their connection to magic so that she could write something personal in each one.  And in the course of each of these mini-interviews she would connect to some aspect of her personal story and she would share an anecdote either from her days with the Blackstone show, or from her re-entry to the world of magic.

She talked about being energized by being with "her people."

The Blackstone show as she knew it closed in 1950 and it wasn't until 2006 that she returned to magic and began thinking about telling her story.  She read a book about her old boss and noticed a number of errors and omissions.  She contacted the author and he managed to persuade her to relate some of her stories.  Unbeknownst to her, he had those reminiscences assembled into a manuscript and set the pages to Adele to edit.  And, as if by magic, her book appeared late last year.

Adele spoke of her "best friend in magic," Terry Evanswood and how he brought her to Magi-Fest and provided her with a hotel room and how he was going to put her in his performance for the conference's closing night.  She met him, almost by accident, at another convention in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.  He is a magician and, as it would turn out, a huge collector of Blackstoniana--if there is such a word.

As I waited my turn to have my book signed, I heard her make several references to the slight breakfast she had had many hours earlier and that she need to have something to eat before that night's performance.

It seemed the least I could do to take charge of making sure she got something to eat and, as a result, I got to be her lunch date.

What an honor!
* * *

At one point, while I was standing at a respectful distance from the table, I watched a couple of young guys walk out of the dealer room and past Adele's table.  They both took note of the table and the video camera and one of them turned to the other and said, "What's that?"  The other guy took a second look and said, "I don't know," and they walked on without ever breaking stride.

Adele and her colleagues are the reason those two and every other person was at this convention.  Through her work, she lit a spark in someone who kept the spirit of magic alive so hat it could be passed from one generation to the next.

With so many discovering magic through the Internet it is all to easy to lose sight of what came before.  With the latest custom printed playing cards and transistorized trickery in hand, we stop thinking about those who came before and were able to make a living with a bit of thread and some wax.

It is fitting that Adele's book is called "Memoirs of an Elusive Moth."  The "Elusive Moth" was a signature illusion in the Blackstone show but the moth is also an appropriate metaphor for magic and its history.

Not only is it ephemeral and difficult to capture, but it can be easy to overlook and gone before you know it.

At 86, Adele spoke of preferring to be around "her people" than those "old fogeys," but it is all of us who are moths to the flame of magic that she and those like her kept alight.

1 comment:

  1. I got an important detail wrong. I could go into the text and change it, repost and no one would be the wiser, but, instead, I want you to see this part of a note that I received from Adele this evening:

    "You gave me credit for living longer that I actually have.  And extra four years.  I am 82 years old! "

    Long live the Elusive Moth!