Harry Blackstone, Sr.
When Harry Met Harry
Harry Blackstone, Sr.
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It's hard to pinpoint the time of the first performing magicians. But they certainly go back a ways. We do know that the earliest written description of a magical performance staged for entertainment was from Ancient Egypt. In the Westcar papyrus, written around 1400 BC, we read the that famous Pharaoh Khufu (also known as Cheops) got bored. So he called a court magician to do some wonders. Khufu lived 4500 years ago.
As far as performances at fairs and on market days, we have paintings that go back to Ancient Rome (you'll never guess what the acrobats did while balancing on the wire). Whether there was anything mystical about the performances was never an issue. Magical tricks were an accepted part of all religions and - as we see in the story of Moses and the Magicians - everyone did the same tricks. So up until the Middle Ages, there was never much of a problem with performing tricks as entertainment.
But when the Middle Ages hit, and with no separation of Church and state, a lot of people - or at least the politicians and clergymen - began to take Exodus 22:18, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live", literally. Of course, apologists now claim that the word rendered as "witch" is a mistranslation for the Hebrew (מְכַשֵׁפָה or mekhashephah) and so it really doesn't mean a witch as we take the word. But scholars can't really decide on what the word really means or why a mekhashephah shouldn't be allowed to go about their business.
In any case, the authorities in the Middle Ages ultimately decided that a conjurer who did not think the way they did might be a witch. But if the beliefs were d'accord with the establishment, witches were "prophets", "healers", or "miracle workers". So unless a performer could convince everyone that their magic was "good" magic, there was a a possibility of getting charged with witchcraft.
Such accusations have a surprisingly long history. The famous Salem Witch Trials were held in 1692 - more than sixty years after the founding of Jamestown - and what has sometimes been called the last witchcraft trial in America was in 1878. This, though, is a bit of a misnomer as the case was dismissed before going to trial. Still, in some countries today "sorcery" remains a serious - and even capital - offense.
However in the 1500's there was the emerging of some doubting Thomases who said that so-called witches were not doing anything supernatural. It was just a trick. In general, the government and church didn't agree and ultimately it took the Enlightenment of the 1700's to put the brakes on the criminalization of magic.
Magical shows got a shot in the arm with the advent of a new style of commercial theaters. Rather than perform on the "thrust" stages as in Greece or Rome (where the audience was on three sides) or in "arena" theaters (such as in Shakespeare's day when the audience completely surrounded the stage) magicians now had the newer "proscenium" stage.
With a proscenium stage, the audience could see the performers from only one direction. Naturally this was a perfect set-up for performing increasingly complex magical tricks. The first such theater appeared in Italy the late 1500's but they really began to take off in the late 18th and early 19th century. So began the era of modern stage conjurers.
Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805 - 1871) is often credited as being the first great illusionist to achieve an international reputation. His fame was not just due to his performances but also because of the popularity of his memoirs which were translated into a number of languages.
Jean-Eugène had a number of illusions that in various versions are still performed. Others have vanished (no joking intended). One of Jean-Eugène's most famous tricks was to make a strong man weak. He would have a burly volunteer come on stage and then lift a small wooden box by a handle attached on the top. After the box was placed back on stage, Jean-Eugène would indulge in typical hocus-pocus. Then struggle as he might, the volunteer couldn't lift the box.
This trick, though, is no longer performed because most people 1) know how it's done or 2) could figure it out anyway. The box had a metal base and beneath the stage Jean-Eugène had planted a strong electromagnet. Yes, electromagnets were around then.
When the juice was off the volunteer would lift the box with ease. Then when the box was placed on the stage and the current turned on, no one could lift it. Supposedly this trick convinced the people of Algiers that the French had great powers and prevented a revolt. That's the story, at least, as Jean-Eugène told it.
But today Jean-Eugène is mostly remembered because the American magician and escape artist Harry Houdini borrowed his name - an affectation which irritated Jean-Eugène's wife and daughter. Their later snubbing of Harry led to his writing a spittle flinging diatribe The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin where Harry claimed Jean-Eugène wasn't so hot after all.
He borrowed the name.
Houdini is a name everyone knows. Ask someone to name a famous magician and they'll say Houdini.
But during Harry's lifetime there were many magicians of equal or even greater stature. When Harry started out in vaudeville in the late 1890's, the most famous American magician - or "illusionist" as many prefer - was another Harry - Harry Kellar.
Harry Kellar, although successful, was not the most skilled performer and sometimes his tricks fell flat. But he had a knack of turning a botched trick into a joke even though after the show he might go back stage and in a rage completely destroy the defective prop. It has been noted that Harry was also famous for using the tricks he - well - "borrowed" from other magicians.
The two most famous contemporaries of Harry were Howard Thurston and Harry Blackstone. Howard had toured with Kellar and when Kellar retired in 1908 Howard took over the show.
It's hard to give an exact date that Harry Blackstone began performing professionally. He had become interested in magic as a kid and as a teenager, he had perfromed at various functions - small theaters, church functions, lodge halls, and the like. But it wasn't until 1910 that he and his brother really made it as professionals when they signed up with the Sullivan-Considine Vaudeville Circuit.
Today professional stage magicians command top billing in Las Vegas and yet it's remains a style of entertainment that is almost by definition old fashioned. That's because there are rules you are supposed to follow to call yourself a true prestidigitator.
First, even if the magicians appear on television they are not supposed to use any in-camera effects. What you see on the tube is supposed to be what you'd see if you were actually there (how rigorously this standard is maintained is, of course, a matter of some debate.)
Secondly, it is OK to have some stooges - sorry, that's "confederates" - as part of the act. That is, a magician can have assistants who are posing as members of the audience. But you're also supposed to have volunteers who are bonafide audience members. I mean, a row of volunteers who are all disguised assistants would be a bit tacky.
Finally, if the magicians perform old standards, they should add something new. And that's one thing that Harry Blackstone did.
That said, revealing how tricks are done is a controversial area. Magicians are never supposed to tell their secrets. But in today's world of massive dissemination of information, this rule has been relaxed a bit. For instance, there is a website which discusses the magician's oath of secrecy and yet the same website provides instruction how to perform the tricks.
Of course some tricks can be figured out if you just see them. Everyone has seen the trick where the magician saws a lady in half. You put the gal in a box constructed in two separate sections where the lady can stretch out supine. The magician then passes a carpenter's or crosscut saw through the intersection of the two sections. The magician then slides some metal plates through the cut and spreads the sections apart. The lady's feet - often wiggling - now appear to be separated from her torso.
Everyone knows pretty much how it's done. The lady just scrunches up and another lady - crouched in the other section (or concealed in the thick table) supplies the feet.
But Harry Blackstone, Senior, did better. He cut through the lady using a buzzsaw - and with no cabinet either. Yes, we said it was Harry Blackstone, Senior, who first performed this trick.
Today people who remember the name Blackstone are likely recalling the performances of Harry Blackstone, Junior. And yes, Harry, Jr. was the son of Harry, Sr. When he was young, Harry, Jr. had sometimes appeared as part of his dad's act but he later became a television producer. Then after his dad died in 1965, Harry Jr. decided to carry on the family legacy and returned to the stage.
Harry, Jr. followed the rules. Although he borrowed tricks from his dad he improved on them. In his dad's buzz-saw illusion, the lady kept her back covered with her costume. So it's actually pretty evident the cuts are through a false back. But Harry, Jr. modified the trick so it looked like the blade actually penetrated the bare back of his assistant (who also happened to be his wife, Gay).
But Harry, Jr.'s best trick - again a variant of one of his dad's - was the "Floating Light Bulb". Harry, Jr. levitates an incandescent bulb which, although unconnected to any source, nevertheless emits light. He "proves" there are no wires with the usual hoops and hand waves. Then he walks down the theater aisle with the bulb suspended before him. At some point he'll take the bulb from the air and hand it to a member of the audience showing there is nothing attached. Then he'll then take the bulb back and then put it back in the air and have it float some more.
Even professional illusionists are not really sure how Harry did this one. Harry was reported to say that there was nothing in the trick that was actually new. But it was - like a doctor's prescription - a combination of ingredients.
The truth is that there are few tricks you can point to as totally new. Like other inventors, magicians usually build on what has come before. It's quite common for magicians to purchase a trick from another magician or even from a commercial firm that specializes in selling magician's equipment.
One example of modifying a commercial trick to suit the performer is the famous "Metamorphosis" trick which is also known by the more descriptive but less flamboyant "Trunk Substitution Trick". "Metamorphosis" was made most famous by Harry Houdini, and you still see the trick performed today.
"Metamorphosis" was a favorite of Doug Henning. Doug would handcuff an assistant and then put her in a large bag which was then tied shut. The bagged-up assistant was placed in a trunk which was then locked and chained shut. Doug would next stand on the trunk and hold up a curtain. In the next second the curtain would drop, revealing not Doug, but the assistant free of bags and bonds. Then when she unlocked the trunk and opened the bag, there would be Doug in the handcuffs.
This is the way the trick is usually performed. That is, the assistant in the trunk is switched for the magician. But Houdini did it the reverse. His assistant - his wife, Bess - would handcuff Harry and put him in the bag and trunk. Then Harry would get out and be replaced by Bess.
Doug said that the reason most magicians did the trick like he, Doug, did was because the applause would coincide with the reappearance of the magician - ergo, the star of the show. On the other hand, Harry was an escape artist. So it made sense for Harry to do the escaping.
Doug also had another addition. When he was released from the trunk, he would have a new change of clothes.
But what made Harry Blackstone, Sr. notable was not just his tricks. Harry, Sr., was the one magician whose career transversed the classical stage era where the performer had to play before live audiences to the days where the magician stood before a television camera.
Although Harry B., Sr. (as we'll call him) was about ten years younger than Harry H. (as we'll call him), there was about twenty years when their careers overlapped, ten of which when Harry B., Sr. was also a major performer. And since at that time Howard Thurston was also touring, you had a triumvirate competition for who was the Top Magician of All Time.
You might think that there was no real conflict with the two Harrys. And Harry B., Sr. said they were "friendly enemies". After all Harry H. was an escape artist and Harry B., Sr. was an illusionist. But on the other hand Harry H. also did standard magic tricks and Harry B., Sr. did escapes.
Yes, Harry B., Sr. did escapes. And one of his favorites was escaping from a locked and chained trunk under water.
And yes again. We said Harry Blackstone, Sr.escaped from a locked chained trunk underwater.
Of course, that's what was one of Harry H.'s favorite tricks. Originally, Harry H. supplied his own crate. But then people realized the prop could be rigged so Harry could get out. So Harry began to have local craftsmen construct the crate. This not only made it harder to claim the crate was fixed, but Harry didn't have to haul a large crate along on his tour. Soon Harry B., Sr. also began to have the crates built locally as well.
This is one thing that infuriated Harry H. He hated it when people "stole" his tricks. So when Harry B., Sr. started having locally made crates as well, that was too much. Harry H. filed a complaint with the National Variety Artists Association and also demanded that Harry B., Sr. be expelled from the Society of American Magicians.
Harry B., Sr. denied any impropriety. He said he had been performing the underwater crate escape before 1912 - which was when Harry first did the trick. The idea had come from an article in Popular Mechanics. Harry B., Sr. said he would prove his case by having a committee go to the warehouse where he had been storing his original crate for years.
But when they got there, there was no crate. The committee, though, agreed that perhaps it had been misplaced. Or maybe it had even been thrown out by the warehouse owners. No action was ever taken against Harry B., Sr.
So things remained. Then on October 31, 1926 Harry died of a ruptured appendix.
Some years later, Joseph Dunninger, who performed a mind reading act, purchased some of Harry H.'s magical props. He asked Bess, Harry's widow, for a box to carry them in. Bess said there were plenty in the basement. Joseph could have the box as well.
He picked out an interesting looking crate which he suspected was something Harry H. used in his show. Later Joseph showed the crate to the writer and magician, Walter Gibson, who had been a friend of both Harry H. and Harry B., Sr.
It was, Walter said, the crate that Harry B., Sr. had first used in his underwater escapes.
Harry B., Sr. had an unusual style for a stage conjurer. Howard Thurston was calm and stolid. Houdini had a syllable-accenting flamboyance.
Harry B., Sr., though, was relaxed and affable. When he performed he made an effort to make the audience feel they were participating in the show. When he pulled rabbits out of his hats he would have kids came on stage. When the trick was over, he would give his young helpers the rabbits to take home. He estimated he gave away over 150,000 rabbits in the course of his career.
The year after Houdini died The Jazz Singer killed off silent films almost immediately. With the advent of "talkies" motion pictures not only could complete in all aspects with live performances but had distinct advantages. Theater owners no longer needed to hire actors, musicians, or stage hands. There was no need for props or stage designers or sets. You just got a projector and rented the film. With the lower overhead, theater owners could charge less per person and so the attendance went up. In 1930 more than 60 % of Americans were going to the movies at least once a week.
Of course, live theater didn't vanish. Many of the earliest movies lasted only minutes and so were often a part of a longer entertainment which included live performers as well. Even when movies became the featured attraction it was common to have a performer show up on stage as a warm-up act. Harry Sr., appeared in such live performances cum movies as early as 1908.
But from 1900 to the 1930's it was really Howard Thurston who was America's top magician. To keep himself looking young he reportedly also pioneered another celebrity idiosyncratic affectation that has become de rigueur today - repeated plastic surgeries. But youthful appearance or not, Howard died in 1936 and that left Harry Blackstone as the last of the big name illusionists.
During the 1940's, Harry (we can now drop the "B., Sr." stuff) was very much part of popular culture. There was a selection of successful Blackstone comic books written by Walter Gibson and drawn by various artists. They had the expected titles like Blackstone the Magician, Blackstone Master Magician, and even Blackstone the Magician Detective. Harry even appeared as a character in the comic strip L'il Abner as "Whackstone the Magician".
And of course, there was television.
Just as movies didn't completely kill live performances, television didn't kill the movies. It's just that people could now watch movies on the tube. Early on there were the late night movies - usually edited down to squeeze into an hour and a half slot but still have commercials. Later there was Saturday Night at the Movies which was the first primetime show to broadcast the movies as the theatrical cuts. The show was so successful that uncut movies began to be shown in other primetime slots on other days as well.
Originally movies and television were seen as a curse for magicians. All the tricks that had required fancy equipment and skilled prestidigitation could now be achieved with special effects - then called "trick photography". So why do you need magicians?
But soon it became accepted that if a magician performed on camera, then there would not be any "trick photography". And over the years, there have been a slew of television magicians - or rather magicians who appear on television. There was even a series about a fictitious magician/detective starring Bill Bixby. Commonsensically named The Magician each week the show displayed the disclaimer that all the "magic" on the show was done without trick photography.
The show lasted only one year, perhaps because of the sameness to the plots. You'd have something that was stolen and it turned out it really wasn't stolen. Instead, the apparent theft was some illusionistic trick that some crook had pulled off. Of course, at the end of the show Bill would explain to a group of astonished people how it was all done. Some of the explanations, though, were a bit of a stretch.
With the advent of television and the continuing decline (and increasing expense) of live theater, Harry curtailed the frequency and magnitude of his stage show. By 1955, Harry had quit the road altogether. He did, though, continue to appear on television. In 1956, he was interviewed by Edward R. Murrow - a tribute to Harry's fame - and in 1964 he had a guest slot on the popular - albeit rather nonsensical - show Mr. Ed..
Harry's last years were spent performing at The Magic Castle a still-extant private club in Hollywood which features top-notch magicians both as members and entertainment. This was by no means the worst way to end up an illustrious performing career. Harry died in 1965. Then Harry, Jr. stepped in and carried on the family tradition until 1997.
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Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live: A Murderous Mistranslation?", Elizabeth Sloane, Haarretz, August 17, 2017
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