To multiple generations of Americans, the name Blackstone conjures instant thoughts about the finest most spectacular presentations of magic and illusion of all time.
Harry Blackstone, Sr. - The Great Blackstone - started it all near the beginning of the 20th Century. The tradition was magnificently carried on by his son, Harry Blackstone Jr., who was continentally celebrated for the most lush and lavish stage illusion show seen since his father's retirement.
The elder Blackstone was born Harry Bouton in Chicago in 1885. Like many youngsters of the age, he received a magic trick as a birthday gift at the age of eight. Later that year, 1893, he did his first amateur performances in a church basement for members of the family congregation, thus embarking upon a magical tradition that dates back 100 years. At the age of twelve, the youngster stood in front of Chicago's McVickers Theater, gazing in complete fascination at the colorful lithographs heralding the Great Kellar, the era's most famous illusionist. The young man was so impressed that he plunked down the few pennies in his pocket for a seat in the theater's topmost gallery. For Harry, the next few hours were pure enchantment. When he climbed down the stairs that long-ago day, the youngster vowed that some day he, too, would be a great magician.
Many children nourish such ambitions but Harry was determined. His father suggested a visit to the local library for magic books. He came across several conjuring classics and diligently rehearsed and perfected many of their tricks.
As he learned more and more about magic, the youngster ascertained that there were two separate and distinct ways to master the field. One was to spend the hours necessary to perfect difficult slight-of-hand moves with balls, ropes, coins and similar small objects. The other was to build or buy the complicated apparatus needed for a full-scale stage performance. With wisdom that belied his years, he decided to attempt both types of magic, thus inaugurating a unique and very personal style that was to become his trademark throughout his 65-year professional career.
While diligently rehearsing slight-of-hand, Harry secured a series of jobs with cabinet makers and other craftsmen in his neighborhood to perfect the skills needed to construct his own props. Until his retirement, Blackstone and his brother, Pete, a gifted technical genius, designed and built almost every piece of equipment required for the lavish Blackstone show.
In 1899 came his first opportunity for a paid engagement. He and his brother, Pete, became regular performers on the club and party circuit, perfecting their art and helping to pay the bills at home.
Around 1904, the brothers put together a vaudeville act entitled "Straight and Cr ooked Magic." Later they appeared under the billing "Fredrik, the Great & Co.," chosen because they were able to purchase, at cut-rates, some fancy lithographs bearing that name. As World War I loomed, Germanic names became quite unpopular. The Bouton brothers changed their names to Blackstone and the rest, as they say, is history!
Around 1915-16, Harry and Pete put together their largest illusion show to date. During a Los Angeles engagement, their show was seen by none other than the Great Kellar himself. The older magician was so impressed by the Blackstone show that he came backstage to tell the younger conjurer that he was the best all-around magician he'd ever seen! Quite a compliment from the man who had inspired Blackstone's interest in magic in the first place.
The two men became friends and Kellar revealed to Blackstone quite a few of his greatest mysteries. Many were later incorporated into the Blackstone show.
As the years passed, the Blackstone Magic Show grew and grew and became more famous. Harry Blackstone, Sr. continued to devise a series of amazing and baffling effects: The Vanishing Birdcage, Dancing Handkerchief, Floating Light Bulb, and countless others, which challenged audiences' disbelief across the country. Harry Blackstone Jr. recreated many of his father's most celebrated mind-bogglers, utilizing in several instances the original equipment and props that Harry, Sr. developed and constructed.
Throughout his long career, Harry, Sr. always included examples of the difficult art of slight-of-hand, involving small objects, in his shows. Harry Jr. did the same - he was also an accomplished manipulator, adding a delightful and amazing pickpocket routine that never failed to dazzle his audience.
During World War II, under USO auspices, Blackstone, Sr. toured his big illusion show to one hundred and sixty-five military bases. Since many of the camps had no theatrical equipment, the master magician trouped everything from lights to ladders to curtains. It was a rigorous, demanding tour, but one of the show business accomplishments of which Harry Blackstone, Sr. was most proud.
In 1942, The Great Blackstone performed what many people consider his greatest trick: The Vanishing Audience. In Decatur, Illinois, during a performance it was announced that the next trick was so large and spectacular that members of the audience would have to adjourn to the street to see it. The magician supervised an orderly, row-by-row exit of the theater. When they reached the street, the crowd instantly saw what Blackstone had known all along: The theater was on fire! His coolness averted panic and surely saved many lives.
When he finally hung up his white tie and tails and put his rabbits out to pasture after 65 years on the road, Blackstone settled in Hollywood. His was hardly an idle retirement. The legendary magician was in constant demand for TV appearances, including "Producer's Showcase," the "Ernie Kovac Show," the early Steve Allen "Tonight Show," a memorable chat with Edward R. Murrow on "Person to Person" and a delightful half-hour as a surprise subject of "This is Your Life."
He was also a frequent visitor to Hollywood's famous Magic Castle where demonstrations of his close-up magic, first mastered at the turn of the century, still baffled and amazed the younger magicians who crowded around the Master.
Harry Blackstone, Sr. passed away in Hollywood, November 16, 1965. Paying tribute to the timeless greatness of the celebrated conjurer, The New Tops, a magician's magazine, wrote: "Harry Blackstone, age 80; occupation: Legend."
Harry Blackstone Jr., schooled by his father in the myriad aspects of magic, illusion and showmanship, and an original, gifted performer in his own right, brilliantly continued that legend and an American theatrical tradition.