IF YOU'VE READ MY "EARLY YEARS" SECTION, here on the Website, you know that my first venture into showbiz was as an Amateur Magician, and that from 1953 to 1957 I worked as an assistant & floor manager to St. Louis Magician, ERNIE HELDMAN, on his "PARADE OF MAGIC" TV show broadcast every week on KSD-TV/St. Louis.
Through the years, many have asked me about that early part of my career and how it all happened. I've told a few how a part of the story unfolded, but, until now, I've never shared the entire story.
What follows, then, is the complete history of not only how it all began, but how important it was in helping to form the ideas, principles, and a professional work-ethic that would be with me throughout the varied, multi-layered, portions of my career.
It is also a Tribute to those who helped me, encouraged me, and, nurtured the talents they saw within me at a very early age, and I dedicate this Page to them. If it were not for them helping me, believing in me, and showing me the right way to accomplish what needed to be done, you might not be reading this today. Always Remember: You Never Do It Alone.
READY ? OKAY, LET'S GO BACK TO THE VERY BEGINNING...
TELEVISION...AND "THE WORLD OF TOMORROW" !
THE 1939 NEW YORK WORLD'S FAIR, like the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, was an event of major proportions. It was scheduled so that it came just after 'The Great Depression' that we had experienced...a time of hardship, struggle, and tears for, not only America, but much of the World. It was called "The World Of Tomorrow", and was meant to show how bright the future would be for all of us in the year's to come.
This '39 NYWF is one that I've loved, studied about, researched, and, have collected memorablia from, for over 30 years. Its eye-popping Art Deco images, the futuristic concepts, the simplicity and 'heart' of those who came to the Fair from far-and-wide trying to get a grasp on what the Future held for them, and the hope of a better life they thought they'd find in that Future, has always touched me very deeply. And, if you know me at all, you can't imagine how many times through the years that I've wished I could travel back in time to visit that Fair myself .
NOW, AS WITH ALL 'Looks Into The Future', not all of the ideas, concepts, and, prognostications, that were predicted at the Fair came true. But one new form of communication completely overwhelmed those that experienced it, and eventually would become one of the most powerful broadcasting tools ever invented...it was called: TELEVISION !
At that 1939 New York World's Fair, RCA, General Electric, Crosley, and, Westinghouse, all had exhibits demonstrating television. Even General Motors got into the got into the act by showing their "Picturephone", which was a 1939 version of a telephone/webcam, or, an early iPhone, as shown here. (Photo courtesy of GM Archives.) It was the very first "mass demonstration" of this new form of communication by these major corporations ever held.
Those who visited the Fair were sometimes invited to stand in front of the TV cameras so they and their friends & families could see them on TV. When asked what he thought of "TV", one visitor said: "It's okay ! It's like a radio...with pictures." He wasn't wrong.
Of course, most of the futuristic highways, electronic devices, bridges, cities, and, forms of air travel that were predicted, never made it past the gates of the '39 NYWF. Television, however, would eventually find its way into everyone's home...but that wouldn't happen till a few years later, after the Second World War was over.
SHORTLY AFTER WW II, the forward-thinking owner's / manager's of the Pulitzer Publishing Company in St. Louis, Missouri, owner's of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and KSD Radio, figured they should enter this new world of communication so they could have a complete package: a Newspaper/Radio/TV Unit to completely cover the market. They were right, and they did.
BUT, NOT SO FAST ! First there was the process of getting a license, adapting their facility, buying the equipment, teaching engineers how to use the cameras, getting a staff & crew together...and, then actually getting something programming-wise to put on the new TV station to keep it on-the-air.
That's when "The Parade Of Magic" would come in to help a few seasons later, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. First we have to get KSD-TV on-the-air, and the FCC had only granted 7 Licenses for Television stations in the U.S. at that point in time. Could Pulitzer get "Number 8" ?
(The beautiful Art Deco building shown above is the Westinghouse Building at the NYWF designed by Architects Skidmore & Owings. I have a NYWF Album that has that image in it, but this exact same view is from a Postcard. Courtesy of Andrew Wood, SJSU.)
MAGIC IN THE AIR...ON-THE-AIR !
THE ANSWER TO THE ABOVE QUESTION was a resounding YES ! ON FEBRUARY 8th, 1947, KSD-TV/CHANNEL 5 , became the very first Television station in St. Louis, and, became only the 8th Licensed Television station in the U.S.A. In fact, it was also the only TV station in St. Louis until August 10th, 1953 ! ( KSD-TV, due to the fact that it was a long-standing affiliate of the NBC Radio Network, also became the St. Louis NBC-TV affiliate, and later became the first TV station in the city to broadcast in COLOR ! )
In addition, this all happened at a time when the Art of Magic was having a resurgence which was partially due to television. Why ?
IT WAS SIMPLE: The number of households with TV sets had mushroomed since the end of World War II. TV, itself, was a form of "magic" ! Only a few years earlier, the average homeowner owned a radio, yes, and getting "pictures through the air" was something they had heard about, read about, but it was still like "Buck Rogers" or "Flash Gordon" technology to the common man. And when he finally did purchase one of those new "windows to the world" - like the beautiful 1948 Motorola TV shown here - plugged it in, and sat down to watch it...well, he expected something to be there ! (This is an actual photo of my personal 1948 Motorola TV ! I owned it until a few years ago.)
BELOW IS AN ACTUAL KSD-TV PROGRAM SCHEDULE from my Archives. It's from the week of December 8th to December 14th, 1947. You'll note that the Broadcast Day starts at 3pm and ends at approximately 10pm, Monday to Saturday, and starts at 8pm Sunday, ending at 10:15pm. You'll also notice that there is nothing on the list for TUESDAY & WEDNESDAY, they weren't on-the-air for those two days...that's the way it was in 1947 !
AND, here's another interesting fact: The management of KSD-TV wanted to make sure that everyone who owned a set in 1947 would know when to turn it on ! So if you were signed up on KSD-TV's Mailing List, they would send you a copy of their weekly schedule ! The one you're looking at was sent to the family of a friend of mine who had a TV then. Year's later he gave it to me for my collection.
DUE TO THE INCREASED SALE OF TV SETS by the 1949-1950 time frame, TV stations had to add longer hours to their schedules, were starved for progam content, and it was then that almost every major city in the U.S.A. added a Magic Show to their schedule...because every major city had some great local magicians who could fill the bill and work their magic on this magical new "home entertainment device"...TELEVISION ! So, working at KSD-TV was quite a prestigious accomplishment in those days. For me it was a particularly great honor.
The Parade Of Magic had been a Saturday Afternoon mainstay and commercial success on KSD-TV since 1950, so what I learned during those four years of actual on-the-job experience working in a professional TV studio every week could never be duplicated by any College or University Course on "TV" you could ever sign-up for.
ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS I noticed when I started working at Channel 5 was that all of the on-camera stars, hosts, and, announcers always wore suits and ties...very classy indeed. BUT, they wore light blue or powder blue shirts with their suits, or, sportcoats...never white shirts.
One day I asked Ernie Heldman about that. Why light blue instead of the normal white shirt ? After all, no one could see the difference since the shows were in Black & White...this was many year's before Color TV. The answer - for TV in 1953 - was very logical:
The cameras during that time-period needed so much light, some of it very intense, even harsh, for the lense and the "eye of the camera" to relay and send the picture/signal out correctly. And, white shirts, especially starched white shirts, would cause a glare, or burn, in the camera lense that would be relayed in its signal...and you'd see the glare/burn on your TV screen. Light blue shirts created a "buffer" for the camera. No glare and a softer hue for the lense to photograph. Simple, but effective and true.
Like I said: The experience and knowledge I acquired during those four years at KSD-TV has stayed with me for a lifetime. JK
"THERE IS NOTHING UP MY SLEEVE !"...
MY INTEREST IN MAGIC STARTED at an early age, and when I was about ten got my first magic tricks...which I promptly started practicing on my friends and relatives. I became pretty proficient, and was "hired" to do my first show for an organization that one of our family friends belonged to...the man's daughter, Mary Lois, served as my assistant. Oh, I was paid the princely sum of five-dollars for my exhibit of legerdemain, the word spread and I became the most in-demand "five dollar" amateur magician in the City !
That's a flyer from my October 3rd, 1954 appearance at the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in St.Louis shown above. In the lower section, in caps, it states: ENTERTAINMENT & MAGIC SHOW. The "magic show" was me. It was a great Fall Afternoon, my act worked out perfectly, and I actually got a raise for this show...they gave me ten bucks !
The "Mandrake The Magician" Magic Kit shown here is like one I got for a Christmas present when I was ten. Oh ! And, before you ask, yes I still have all my tricks, props, my Official Magic Wand, and my custom-made Magician's Cape, plus a tuxedo-with-tails that Ernie Heldman gave me as a gift, all safely packed away in my basement. You never know when they'll come in handy. Hey, five bucks is five bucks !
THE SATURDAY AFTERNOON THAT CHANGED MY LIFE FOREVER...
I HAD FREQUENTED LOCAL MAGIC SHOPS LIKE Bev Taylor's Town House Magic, and, Will Lindhorst's Magic Den (which was later owned by magician Gene Devoe after Will died in 1954) to purchase various tricks for my act, and became known to some of the Pros in town. That's why, on a Saturday afternoon in August when my parents and I were downtown, my Dad suggested that to celebrate my birthday (which had been two days earlier) we go down the street to the KSD-TV Studios and see if we could get in to meet Ernie Heldman and see "The Parade Of Magic" in-person. We did.
After the show, as we were about to leave, Ernie & Arlene came out into the Lobby. My Dad then introduced himself, and told Ernie that they had brought me down to see the show as sort of a special "birthday surprise" as I was an amateur magician. Ernie congratulated me, wished me a "Happy Birthday", and I told him that I always watched the show, and really was glad that I had gotten to see it and meet him
Ernie couldn't have been nicer, liked me, asked me some questions about the tricks I had and where I bought them, was very kind to my parents and myself, and invited me to come back anytime we were downtown.
That next Saturday I showed-up again and Ernie said he was glad I was there ! One of his Crew had to cancel-out that week and he asked me if I'd like to help him with the show. I said: "Of course ! ", and he put me to work bringing in the Cub Scout/Boy Scout troop, along with others, that were visiting and would be in the audience that day.
Things worked-out so well, that Ernie asked me if I'd be able to come back that next week. I was, I did...and that's when my four year tenure on "The Parade Of Magic" began.
THE PARADE OF MAGIC: 1953-1957...
I WAS JUST TWELVE YEARS OLD when Ernie asked me to join his Crew, and it was a wonderful adventure during those formative years of my life. Working in early television was a true learning experience and I could write an entire book about it !
"THE PARADE OF MAGIC" show had begun in 1950...and, it's long-run would continue until 1962. The main reason for that was Ernie. He had a long career as a magician, and was respected nationwide by his peers for his expertise and knowledge in his craft. He was an expert at putting a show together, keeping an audience involved, working with his sponsor's, and doing all forms of Magic: close-up, sleight-of-hand, major illusions...Ernie was a master at what he did and could do it all. And, with Arlene addng her beauty and charm to the act, it was a proven formula that couldn't miss ! Together, they became a part of the earliest "Pioneers of Magic" during the Golden Age of Television.
Again, we're talking "early TV", and everything we did was live ! If there was a mistake, you had to "live with it"or figure how to get out of it. There was no "pre-taping", no CGI, a trick either worked or it didn't...you were at the mercy of your own creativity and professional ability to finish and look good at doing it. In all honesty, I think that during the four years I was with the show, maybe only once or twice was there a problem...and it was quickly solved. Like I said, Ernie & Arlene were PROS !
NOW, YOU HAVE TO UNDERSTAND how exciting it was for me to be a part of all that ! I worked with Ernie from 1953 to 1957...every Saturday afternoon at the KSD-TV studios at 12th & Olive. I became his Floor Manager which entailed many things including: bringing in the kids & adults that were a part of our live audience, helping Ernie with the pre-show warm-up with the audience, explaining to them what my cues for "applause", "quiet", etc., meant, and making sure that the kids behaved and that everything backstage was running smoothly. And, most importantly, using a stopwatch, timing the show and cueing Ernie when it was time to get it closed out on schedule. Quite a responsibility for a kid my age, but Ernie had full confidence in me and I never let him down.
Our sponsor for most of the run on The Parade Of Magic was Pepsi-Cola, and the local rep that was in charge was Jimm Daugherty. I met him on a number of occasions...always just a very nice man. Also, the Old Vienna Company, sponsored us with their Korn Kurls Brand. The above photos show Ernie & Arlene with Pepsi Ad Displays.
IT'S A FAMILY AFFAIR...DREAMS DO COME TRUE !
ERNIE & ARLENE WERE JUST WONDERFUL TO ME for the entire time I was with them...treated me like I was a part of their family, and, being with them for four years, we'll we actually became like "family". They invited me to go with them to dinners, meetings, parties, and always made sure that I was introduced as a part of their TV show team. I ended-up working for them longer than anyone else on the Crew...in fact, many weeks I was the "Crew" !
Here's an example of how great Ernie & Arlene were: When we went to any of the above-mentioned functions, they would always drive me home to make sure I got there safe-and-sound. And, during the run-of-the-show, if I didn't have a ride home or it was too late/dark for me to catch a bus, again, Ernie would always take the time to drive me...my safety was their highest concern, and my parents always knew that I was in good hands. They too respected Ernie & Arlene for being the caring, thoughtful, people that they were.
In reality, I literally grew-up working on "The Parade Of Magic". Starting at the age of 12, and being with the show until I was 16, I'd changed from a novice to a pro during those four exciting, fun-packed, star-filled years.
I'd had adventures, been places with Ernie & Arlene, met people & entertainers that I'd never met otherwise. Worked at the first TV Station in St. Louis, became known to most of the Staff at that Station, could come-and-go as I pleased in and out of the Station anytime I wanted, often traveling down there to meet many personalities that were in town...even on days during the week when I wasn't "on duty". In short, it was my first experience of having a "Dream Come True".
I had also become a "celebrity" to my classmates at school, although in those days I never thought about what I was doing in that way at all. However, awhile back I had lunch with a couple of my old neighborhood schoolmates that I hadn't seen in year's and one of them brought up that subject, and how he had gone down to Channel 5 with me one afternoon and was just impressed and amazed that I had control over all of what was going on at the Parade Of Magic TV Show !
He said that all-these-year's-later he still vividly remembers that day, but I told him that I was just doing my job, doing what I had learned to do. Ernie & Arlene were the stars of the show, and it was my job to see that everything ran smoothly, was timed-to-the-minute, and to make them look good...that was what was important to the success of the show. He still thought is was one of the coolest things he'd seen and thanked me, again, for letting him come with me.
(The photo shown above was taken by my Dad in the Lobby of the KSD Studios and autographed for me by Ernie. It's Ernie, Arlene, and, daughter, Carol.)
Above Left: That is a view of our early on-the-air Studio. The door at the back of the photo is where you entered. This is an earlier picture, but the Studio was the pretty much th same when I was there. Center: A "Parade Of Magic" ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch . (Photo courtesy of Tim Neeley, In Hollywood Productions, St. Louis, MO.); Above Right: That's a very cute, very pretty Arlene having some fun with one of the KSD-TV cameras. This photo is from the time-period I was there as you can see by the newer, larger camera she's using.
ANNOUNCER INFO: AS IS STILL THE CUSTOM on many shows today, the Parade Of Magic always had an announcer to open & close the show. At KSD-TV the "announcer's booth" was just outside of the entrance door to the studio. You can see that door in the rear of the studio in the photo above-left.
The announcer's that worked with us were GEORGE ABEL, and, KEITH GUNTHER. Both real pro's; George was very personable with a great sense-of-humour. Later, Clif St. James did some work with us and gave me pointer's on a dressing room superstion that I reminded him of a few year's ago when we met again. Clif was truly one of the classiest in the business and always nice to me.
SPECIAL NOTE: Sadly, my friend & mentor, ERNIE HELDMAN, passed away in 1977, and, ARLENE MARDEL (BIONDO), died May 9, 2010. R.I.P. and my thanks to you both for being so kind to me during our years together, giving me the start that I needed, helping me learn from the best, and making me a part of your family. JK
(My sincere thoughts and warm memories of Ernie & Arlene go out to Ernie's son, Dan. C. Heldman, and, daughters' Carol Grotrian of Cambridge, Mass., Kathleen Neason, Boone County, MO., and, Cindy Piper, St. Louis County, MO. )
ENTER, BLACKSTONE: THE WORLD'S GREATEST LIVING MAGICIAN !
WORKING WITH ERNIE, AND HIS LOVELY WIFE, ARLENE MARDEL, I met and became acquainted with not just the workings of TV, but all of the magical secrets of a real pro (which I would never divulge), and met all of the guest magicians that were on the show. One of those who was the kindest to me was the legendary HARRY BLACKSTONE.
BLACKSTONE WAS IN ST. LOUIS for a two week engagement at the beautiful American Theater and was gracious enough to be a guest on our show...which also tied-in with, and helped promote, his appearances.
After the show was over and the audience had gone, Ernie, Arlene, and myself, talked to Blackstone for awhile and before he left I asked him if he'd be kind enough to give me his autograph on the back of the ticket he had given me to see his show. He said "Well, for a fellow magician, how could I refuse !" He then proceeded to give me the autograph by drawing the caricature of himself that you see below...which to this young, "fellow magician", was truly treasured gift ! My Dad & I saw the show on Opening Night, Monday, February 21st 1954. It was a packed-house, a spectacular event like I had never experienced before, and Blackstone was FANTASTIC !
MANY YEARS LATER, when I was living in Hollywood in 1964, I happened on a magic shop that was on Hollywood Boulevard. I entered to look around, and who did I see behind the counter...BLACKSTONE ! I waited until he wasn't busy, then introduced myself and told him about meeting him in St. Louis ten years earlier, told him I still had that autographed ticket that he had given me, and thanked him for his kindness to that young "fellow magician" that I was at the time. He was amazed that I remembered that, and thanked me for taking the time to stop in and talk to him.
He didn't look well, and as I left I was sincerely worried about his health. My fears were well founded, as just a little over a year later, November 16, 1965, he passed away at the age of 80.
BLACKSTONE WAS TRULY A GIANT IN HIS DAY...a world-reknowned magician of the highest caliber, and one of the most-famous performers in his field to ever take the stage. His contemporaries were Houdini, Thurston, Dante, Cardini, Dunninger, Carter, and others, but Blackstone's shows were always among the best of all. He had a large troupe of male and female assistant's, and put on huge, beautiful stage shows.
IN FACT, Blackstone was so popular that he became a "cottage industry" on his own with not only his magic shows, but with a radio program in 1948-1950 that aired on the Mutual Broadcasting System entitled "Blackstone, The Magic Detective". They were 15-minute shows aired on Sunday afternoons at 2:45pm.
Blackstone, billed as "The World's Greatest Living Magician", was portrayed on-the-air by Ed Jerome, along with him were his assistant "Rhoda Brent", played by Fran Carlon, and friend "John", Ted Osborne. The first announcer for the show was Don Hancock, and later, Alan Kent took over the duties. The scripts were penned by Walter B. Gibson.
There were also Blackstone books on the art of magic, and some basic magic tricks, "ghost written" by the equally-legendary WALTER B. GIBSON. Gibson, himself, was a magician and a friend of Blackstone, Houdini, Thurston, Dunninger, and others in the field of magic. He became famous for writing "The Shadow" Pulp Magazine stories for Street & Smith, under the pen name "Maxell Grant". In addition, Gibson created comic books called "Blackstone The Magician Detective", and "Blackstone Master Magician" Comics, both would tie-in with the radio show.
BLACKSTONE'S SON, HARRY BLACKSTONE, JR., carried on his Dad's tradition of magic and was a true class-act. I always enjoyed his shows & appearances, and I know his Dad would have been proud. He became not only a well-known Award Winning performer, but was greatly respected by his peers and deserved all the credit that he got.
Sadly, Harry Blackstone, Jr., passed-away way too early. He died May 14th, 1997, at the age of 62 from pancreatic cancer. His wife, Gay Blackstone, is a former president of Hollywood's legendary "Magic Castle" and has also produced & created some fantastic shows having to do with "Magic" like "Masters Of Illusion"...which featured some of the greatest professionals in the business.
THE MAGIC CASTLE, BLACKSTONE, AND, ME, 1964...
AS YOU MAY HAVE READ in the "Pasadena Playhouse" Section of the Website, or, in my "Tribute To Criswell", when I was living in Hollywood, I lived in the Highland Towers Apartments, shown here, which were at the corner of Highland & Franklin Avenues.
Now, the world-famous MAGIC CASTLE was located a few blocks down on Franklin Avenue...7001 Franklin Avenue to be exact. The Castle was originally a great Victorian Mansion built in 1909. It opened as an elaborate club/showcase for magicians in 1963.
THIS IS A LEGENDARY CLUB known world-wide run by magicians, for magicians, teaching magicians, and, starring magicians. In short, if you don't have a connection with a magician who's a member of, or, involved in the Magic Castle, or someone who's an associate member, you can't get in to see the shows, have dinner, buy MC merch, or anything else !
Ironically, at the time I was living in Hollywood in 1964, Blackstone had retired from shows & touring, also lived nearby, was doing some work at the magic shop I had seen him in on Hollywood Boulevard, and was often at the Magic Castle visitng, helping, and supporting some of the newer magicians that could learn from him....and still astounded them with some of his sleight-of-hand tricks. However, due to my schedule at the time, and not knowing a direct-connection to get into the Castle, I never had gotten to visit there.
And, as I stated above, Blackstone passed away about a year after I left L.A. to return to St. Louis, but I always wished I could gotten in to see him again, and the Magic Castle.
FAST-FORWARD TO JULY, 1972...
ONE OF THE BEST VACATION'S I EVER HAD in my life was in 1972. I was the Music Director and the Mid-Day Air Personality at KAAY Radio, the 50,000 Watt Giant from Little Rock, Arkansas, and my vacation had started the night of June 23rd and would last until July 10th. It was truly a whirlwind, multi-layered trip !
I traveled from Little Rock to New Orleans, then to Nashville for the "Rolling Stones American Tour 1972" Concert, and finally, on to Los Angeles where I would be meeting with some of the reps & promo people from record companies, spending time with my old friend Don "Johnny Rabbitt" Pietromonaco, and spending the 4th of July at the legendary Casey Kasem's house on Pyramid Place in the Hollywood Hills...then going to the Watermark Studios with Casey to sit-in with him while he was in a recording session for his weekly "American Top 40" radio show. Yes, life was good...but it was about to get better !!
NOTE: THE ABOVE PIC IS ONE OF MY FAVORITES ! Here's the story... it was the night is June 26, 1972, at the New Orleans Playboy Club. It was late, but my friend from Columbia Records, Sam Harrell, who was Columbia's Regional Promo Rep. lived in N.O. and said I just "had to go to the N.O.P.B.C. before I left town". We did and he introduced me to the N.O. Bunnies. As you can see, they gave me one of those warm Southern "Welcomes", and a night to remember ! They were beautiful & sweet...each and every one.
ONE OF THE MAIN HIGHLIGHTS of that 1972 trip to L.A. was finally being a guest at THE MAGIC CASTLE in Hollywood ! Like I said, I used to see it all the time when I was living just down the street in the Highland Towers Apartments. But, as I mentioned, you have to be a member or, know a member, to get in. So it was fantastic for this "former magician" to at last be able to have an evening in this legendary Magician's Club due to a connection of my friend Don !
The man responsible for all the fun that night was TRUSTIN HOWARD. Trustin was a writer, entertainer, comedian, singer...you name it and Trustin had the talent to do it ! He's also mentioned in my "Tribute To Criswell" Section of the Website, as he introduced me to Cris, but this was a couple of nights earlier, Wednesday, July 5th, 1972, and Trustin made arrangements for Don, myself, and our party to visit the Magic Castle.
INSIDE THE CASTLE...
ONCE INSIDE THE HALLOWED WALLS OF THE MAGIC CASTLE, I was completely overwhelmed ! It was an experience that I'll never forget, and since I was the 'honored guest' it was up to me to get us into the Castle's "inner sanctum". You did that by walking up to what looked like a solid wall that was a part of a library with floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Placed in a ledge on one of the bookcase shelves was the Castle's iconic 'Magic Owl'.
When you approached the owl you uttered the secret words, the passwords that would get you into the heart of the Castle, "Open Sesame !", and clapped your hands. With that, the bookcases parted, slid open, and through that opening you gained entrance into a marvelous world of magic, fantasy, fun...and true adventure. I was in heaven !
WHEN WE GOT INSIDE, we were shown all of the different rooms, showcase theatres - like the one you see here - and all of the beautiful areas that comprise the facility. As we had decided to go to a show in the lower area of the Castle, we went down a set of stairs and approached the entrance to that specific theater. As I got to the entrance door I was completely shocked ! Standing there, one of the Hosts at the Magic Castle greeting us, was an old friend of mine from St. Louis: Magician DON LAWTON !
THE MAGIC CASTLE-ST. LOUIS CONNECTION...
DON LAWTON WAS A MAINSTAY IN ST. LOUIS for over 20 years, was a guest on "The Parade Of Magic", did many shows locally, was known for his TV commercials for Old Judge Coffee, as "The Old Judge Coffee Magician", and was one of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet ! I had originally met him when I was about 11 years old and he was at Town House Magic. (That's Don on the cover of the April, 1956 Issue of one of magic's longest-running magazines: "Genii the Conjuror's Magazine")
Don lived on Strodtman Place in St. Louis. Town House, which I frequented more than the others in town, was located in a small building at the rear of 1377 Union Blvd. Don always made me feel at home there and he also put me on his mailing list for a Magician's Newsletter that he published called "Lines From Lawton". It kept me up-to-date on what was going on in the area, and some of the new products that were available. I saved Don's card that he gave me all those year's ago...that's it shown here.
I WAS SURPRISED TO SEE DON at the Magic Castle, never knew he was there ! I re-introduced myself...after all, I hadn't seen him since 1957 when I was just a youngster. We had a nice talk about the "old days" at KSD-TV, "THE PARADE OF MAGIC", and his old shop days. We said how good it was to see each other again after all those years !
Don looked great and had established himself firmly in the L.A. scene and with The Magic Castle. He'd created a whole new world for himself with his move to California and I was truly so proud of him and what he'd accomplished including, in 1970, the Academy Of Magical Arts having voted Don the "Stage Magician of the Year" Award. ( He would later earn the prestigious AMA 1986 "Lifetime Achievement Fellowship" Award. )
Then Don told me that my former "boss" on The Parade Of Magic, ERNIE HELDMAN, had moved to New Orleans and had a shop in the French Quarter. I was dumbfounded at that statement ! I told Don that I had just been in New Orleans the week before, stayed in the French Quarter, was just a few blocks away, and had no idea that I was that close to where Ernie was ! Strange things DO happen in this world.
ABOVE FROM THE LEFT...1: A copy of "Don Lawton's Autograph Book" containing a lifetime of signature's of some of the greatest magician's to ever take the stage, including Blackstone, and Walter Gibson. (A custom-made, high-quality, reproduction of this rare book is available from The Magic Castle); 2: A great caricature of Don by Ted Salter from 1969. (Courtesy of Michael Johnson); 3: Don was the "Old Judge Coffee Magician" in TV ads in St. Louis for many years. Old Judge Coffee was a St. Louis brand which had begun production in 1858; 4: "Bev Taylor's Town House Magic" Book, By Bruce Hetzler. I bought just about all of my trick's & props from Don & Bev in those days...still have 'em ! The quality of Bev's work was excellent and these items are now highly collectible, but mine aren't for sale at any price. Town House was where I first met Don Lawton, and you'd always run into some local magician's gathered there whenever you stopped by.
SPECIAL NOTE: DON LAWTON passed away at the age of 66 on June 12th, 1988. Just as he had a great career in St. Louis, he had an equally good one in California, becoming a fixture at the Magic Castle for many years. He was a true gentleman, respected by his peers, an award winning magician, very humorous in his act (and in real life), and just a pleasure to know. He was always kind to this "young magician", and I've never forgotten that.
R.I.P. Don...and many, many thanks for your kindness, help, and, encouragement. JK
THE MAGIC CASTLE AND "THE MAGICIAN" ON TV...
BILL BIXBY'S "THE MAGICIAN" TV SHOW, aired on NBC-TV during the 1973-1974 Season. The early Episodes had him living in his private mansion, but that was later changed and he took up residence in an apartment in The Magic Castle. Doing that led to much of the filming being done actually at the Castle, and Bixby's character "Tony Blake", sometimes performing on a stage there during the TV run.
Since the show was L.A.-based most of the shooting was on-location in-and-around the city. Everytime I watched it it made me homesick for my old neighborhood...Hollywood, and, the Highland Towers Apartments.
Bixby insisted on doing all of the tricks on the show himself, and the shows Advisor, veteran magician/TV magician, MARK WILSON, assisted in teaching him how to do it.
The photo shown above is courtesy of an Official NBC-TV Press Kit for "The Magician". Bill Bixby is shown doing one of most iconic of all magic illusions "The Floating Zombie Ball"...one of my personal all-time favorites. Gotta get me one of those someday !
(The Magic Castle Logo, and, inside Theatre Photo, courtesy of The Magic Castle. The Magic Castle Website will give you much information on how it was created, what's available today, how to become a member, and, how to get there. Here's that Link: www.magiccastle.com )
SOME FINAL WORDS ON A LIFELONG CAREER...
AT AN AGE WHEN other kids were playing softball, riding their bikes around the block, or, heading for the community swimming pool, I was working with, and a part of, a long-running TV Show on a Major Television Station in one of America's Top Ten Cities...and it was the beginning of a career that's never stopped. It's truly been a "Dream That Came True".
SINCE 1953, through all of the various forms my multi-leveled career has taken, I've truly 'lived my dream' day-in-day-out. I've done exactly what I wanted to do every step of the way in every phase of my career. Irving Berlin said it best when he penned "There's No Business Like Show Business"...no matter what form it takes.
I've always tried to be a visionary, taking whatever I'm doing to "the next level" and beyond...and doing it better than anyone else could ever hope to. And, in the process, use all of the expertise, knowledge, and skills I've acquired through the years in every area I've worked in to make the new project the best it could possibly be. Yes, I'll admit I've been called a "perfectionist"...but that's never been a negative word to me. It's just the opposite...it's a challenge for me to always be way ahead of whatever's in "Second Place".
But, dear reader, it's because of you that I've done it. Without you, those like you, my wonderful parents, and all of those I've mentioned in these stories on all of the Pages of this Website, being there for me and with me through the many various stages of this career that began so "magically", there would be no need for me.
I hope that the history, the information, the stories I've shared, and, what you've seen and read about here, has given you some insight into what truly was a simpler, less complicated time period. It was the dawning of a new era in Communication. It was called TELEVISION... and its impact still reverberates to this very day in the technology of the screen you're using to read these words.
"THE WORLD OF TOMORROW" from that 1939 New York World's Fair had finally been electronically transported into your home. "The Future" was now. You plugged a simple electric cord into the socket on the wall and pictures magically appeared out-of-thin-air on the screen of that glass-tubed wooden box in your living room. You were then ready to be amazed, excited, and, entertained.
A sense of wonder and innocence still existed, and that's how those pioneering Wizards who created the mystifying feats of legerdemain, those seemingly miraculous illusions that floated beautiful women in the air, sawed a woman in half, made a lion in a cage vanish right-before-your-very-eyes, and, yes, pulled a rabbit right out of a hat...blended-in so perfectly with the "Golden Age Of Television": IT WAS MAGIC !
More than anything though, I sincerely hope you've learned something about those wonderful people that I've paid Tribute to here who were a part of my life in those early years, and how they so generously brought the young man that I was into their world of wonderment & magic, shared with me their knowledge & creativity, and, in so doing, let me become a member of that exclusive group of those who actually were there at that time...and, in the process, 60 years ago I too became a part of the history of that "Golden Age".
I've always known: You Never Do It Alone... so I thank you, each and every one, from the bottom of my heart.
Jonnie King (August 13, 2013)
"You don't know you're making History until it's over with."
ABOUT THE POSTERS OF THE LEGENDARY MAGICIANS SHOWN AT THE TOP OF THIS PAGE, AND THOSE SHOWN ABOVE...
TOP OF THE PAGE: Howard Thurston (1869-1936) This is my favourite Thurston poster, I have a copy of it on my living room wall ! ; Harry Houdini (Eric Weiss / 1874-1926) ; Charles Joseph Carter (1874-1936) ; BLACKSTONE (Harry Bouton / 1885-1965)
SHOWN ABOVE: DANTE (Harry August Jansen / 1883-1955) ; Harry Kellar (1849-1922) ; Alexander Herrmann (1844-1896) ; KARLINI (Ludwig Trinka / 1907-1963)
NOTE: Many of the images/photographs on this page are from my personal Archives/Collections. All others are courtesy of their original owners/copyright holders...with sincere thanks.
Transportation Building "Rocket Port", shown above, designed by Raymond Lowey for the 1939 New York World's Fair. Postcard/image courtesy of Andrew Wood, SJSU.
The cover of GENII Magazine, January, 1951, featuring Blackstone, is from my personal collection.
The cover of GENII Magazine, April, 1956, featuring Don Lawton, courtesy of www.geniimagazine.com
REVIEWS OF FOUR OF THE HOTTEST BOOKS ON MAGIC !
"HIDING THE ELEPHANT", By Jim Steinmeyer. Foreword By Teller. Da Capo Press, Pub. (2004)
I ALWAYS LIKE Jim Steinmeyer's books because of the amount of work and research he puts into each volume...and this one is no exception. In fact, I must say that with my almost-lifetime love of magic - in all of its various forms - this book certainly sheds "new light" on the subject, and gave me a very sobering look into the "back stories" of the art. And, it has a Foreword by Teller of the magic-duo "Penn & Teller"...that's a great read all by itself.
The book's title, "Hiding The Elephant", is based on the infamous 1918 illusion that Harry Houdini did on the stage at the New York Hippodrome, when he caused "Jennie The Elephant" to vanish into thin air. Or, did he ? That's what this book is all about, and the well-known term "Smoke & Mirrors" comes into play throughout the books 362 Pages, proving that "the hand may be quicker than the eye", but it's deception, and, misdirection that makes the trick - or, illusion - work.
Steinmeyer takes a chronological look at the history of these, sometimes, seemingly impossible vanishing illusions, as well as the tricks used by those who caused disembodied heads to appear, ghosts to float, ladies to be sawed-in-half...and, donkeys, cars, and, elephants, and almost anything else you can name, to disappear.
THE NAMES OF THOSE chronicled within the book are some of the most-famous of all-time: Kellar, Herrmann, Dante, Houdini, Bamberg, the Davenport Brothers, Robert-Houdin, Thurston, the Maskelynes', Goldin...well, you get the picture. But I was a little upset that Blackstone, as well as "Carter The Great" weren't profiled in here. Both had superb careers, and Blackstone was one of Houdini's greatest rivals, and in-reality a better magician & illusionist than Houdini, who excelled more as an escape artist than as a magician.
Speaking of "rivalry", this is the part of the book that I hadn't fully known about. I didn't realize the backstabbing, the belittling, the thievery that went on behind-the-scenes of these legendary icons...with almost all of those mentioned, taking part in those activities. Page-after-page stories of tricks, illusions, designs of apparatus, and, sometimes actual items, being stolen by one illusionist/magician from the other ! I was shocked at this new light that was shed on a profession I have loved, followed, and, at one time, participated-in myself...it gave me new insight and soured me on those who took part in any of the above-mentioned callous deeds.
As the well-known magician/actor/writer, Ricky Jay states, Steinmeyer's book is "An enthralling history of great illusionists that reveals not only how magicians act but how they think."
"HIDING THE ELEPHANT", by Jim Steinmeyer, has 362 Pages that contain 16 Chapters, 65 Illustrations, 8 Pages of rare photos, and, a great section on Acknowledgements & Notes. In reading it, prepare yourself for a look back at Magic's History going from the 1800's-to-today, and learn, as I did, that in the World of Magic not everything is as it seems: On Stage, OR, Off.
"THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI", By William Kalush and Larry Sloman. ATRIA Books, Pub. (2007)
AS YOU PROBABLY KNOW by now, my personal library is filled with books covering a multitude of subjects. Of course, many are on "The Art Of Magic"...and Houdini. I've studied much about this "legendary icon" who thrilled & mystified audiences for decades with his Masterful Illusions, Torturous Water Escapes, and, his uncanny Straight-Jacket Routines...that all continued until his untimely death over 90 years ago on October 31st, 1926: Halloween. So, I've always thought I pretty much knew most of Houdini's history. Boy, was I wrong !
In this meticulously researched & documented volume, The Secret Life Of Houdini, Kalush & Sloman have unearthed much info that's never before seen the light of day. This is a massive work containing 592 Pages, 26 Chapters and an Epilogue...needless to say, this is not a "weekend read" !
The books subtitle is "The Making Of America's First Superhero", and to that end, the authors' have given Houdini's background as a poor young man who started life as Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary. Later, his family moved to America as his father, Mayer Samuel Weisz, a Rabbi, sought a better life for them. But, after his father died, young Erich was the one who helped support his family...keeping a death-bed promise he made to his father, he would take care of his loving mother, Cecelia, for the rest of her life.
In his youth Houdini was always athletic...first becoming a trapeze artist, later a champion cross-country track star & amateur boxer. That early training would be just what he needed for his career as a magician & escape artist. And, yes, he developed an early love for magic; his name "Houdini" was a tribute to his early magician-hero, the French magician Robert-Houdin; he loved his wife, Bess, even though he sometimes had trouble coping with her moods. This I had previously known.
What I didn't know was: His involvement with the U.S. Government & the Secret Service; much of the "back-story" about his brother, Theo, who became a magician in his own right using the name "Hardeen"; his devouting almost all his later years in life to unmasking spiritualists, mentalists, fortune tellers, around the world...causing him much stress - mentally & physically - along with the outlay of time & cash it took to do this...and, how, after his death, his wife Bess tried for years to contact him through the same channels he had tried to defeat...until she too learned that they were frauds. So, this book covers much ground between-the-covers...that we've never known before.
It also documents his long, ever-changing relationship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the esteemed writer and creator of "Sherlock Holmes", and, his career as a film star...making a very early Serial & some Features. Too, Houdini was an accomplished pilot which many never knew. The photos within the book are fantastic...many never seen before.
In addition, it gives copius amounts of information about Houdini's fellow-magicians and his trusted aides. It expands in its final pages, on Bess and how she handled herself after his death, and does the same regarding Hardeen and his career. It also states in the Introduction that "Every fact in this book has been substantiated, but the notes are so extensive that we have decided to publish them online instead at, www.conjuringarts.org . "
If I were to fault the book on anything, it would be that it deals with too many "flashbacks", sometimes jumping from one-time-period-to-the-other, and then back again. And, yes, it could be about 50 to 100 Pages shorter, if the editor would have trimmed it a bit.
BUT THE ONE THING I take issue with is the books subtitle "The Making Of America's First Superhero". America's own born-and-bred, first "Superhero" of the 20th Century was TOM MIX. Born in Mix Run, Pennsylvania, in 1880, Mix became Hollywood's first western Superstar, making 291 films. He was also a stuntman, circus performer, owned his own circus, had the "Tom Mix & The Ralston Straightshooter's" Radio show that was sponsored by St. Louis' Ralston-Purina Company from 1933 to 1950, and, had the first "Superhorse" in the Industry with his "Wonder Horse": Tony.
Tom Mix's impact was felt throughout the World ! Toys, Clothing, Comic Books, Photographs, Bracelets, Rings, Badges, Hats, Guns, Boots, and much more, helped to ring-up at cash registers all-over, bringing in extra income to add to Tom's movie salary. Tom's weekly salary at Fox Pictures during the 1920's was $7,500.00 A WEEK, when the average person working during that time-period here in America brought home less than $1,500.00 A YEAR !! During his 26 year career in films, Tom Mix made over $6,000,000...in our 21st Century, that would equate to roughly $400,000,000 ! SO, let's compromise and say that Harry Houdini was "America's First Truly Magical Superhero"...I'll fully agree to that.
BACK TO THE BOOK...yes, by all means, if you want to learn facts never before unearthed about Harry Houdini...you need this book ! Rare photos, information you'll never find elsewhere, and two authors - William Kalush & Larry Sloman - who put their heart, soul, and, talent into producing this superb book "The Secret Life Of Harry Houdini". You will be amazed (no pun intended) at what you'll learn !
"THE LAST GREATEST MAGICIAN IN THE WORLD", By Jim Steinmeyer. Tarcher/Penquin, Pub. (2012)
THE STORY OF THE LEGENDARY HOWARD THURSTON, as told in this book, is one of the most historically-accurate biographies, encompassing not only Thurston, but his contemporaries such as Kellar, Houdini, Dante, Blackstone, et al. It is one of the most comprehensive volumes on magic, the art of magic, the building of magical illusions, the early Super Stars of magic, and the histories of those involved, that you'll ever read !
The reason the book is important for anyone who's even remotely interested in "magic", or, those professional wizards who set-the-pace for all others during "The Golden Age Of Magic", is due to the author JIM STEINMEYER's meticulous research and writing ability... he is an expert on the subject.
Steinmeyer is, himself, a magician, a respected author, and, a designer of illusions that have been used by many famous magicians throughout the years. Accordingly, his love for "The Art Of Magic", and, those pioneers who practiced it, shows on each-and-every page of this wonderful book.
HARRY HOUDINI, HAS ALWAYS BEEN one of the best-remembered professionals in the field of magic. And, I, like others, have studied his career and his legacy for many years. But Houdini's specialty was that of an 'escape artist'. Therefore, due to the thrilling hang-by-your-nails, edge-of-your-seat, well-promoted, escapes - and escape challenges - that he performed, the publicity garnered from those events ended-up giving him the reputation and long-lasting legendary status that still exists in the minds of most today.
BUT WHAT OF HOWARD THURSTON ? I will admit that, although I've always been familiar with his name and his excellent reputation, I knew very little about the man or his background. That all changed with this book, as Steinmeyer sets the scenes, the various time periods, the thrills, the agonies, the triumphs & tragedies, into words that become 'visions'. And, the importance of Thurston is 'locked-in' forever for all to read about and understand.
You follow along as you watch Thurston change from his youthful brushes with the law and becoming a 'con man', to his first taste of 'Magic', his becoming a professional with his own traveling troupe in Europe and America, his family situations, his marriages, his stubborness, and, eventually his death in 1936.
The book's time-travel's shift back-and-forth from the 19th Century to the 20th Century with smoothness and purpose. Introducing us to the others involved in the story: Alexander Herrmann, T. Nelson Downs, Kellar, Houdini, Blackstone, Dante, and all the magicians' that touched the life of Thurston. His brother, Harry Thurston, who had a totally different personality than Howard, and fluctuated back-and-forth with largess, rudeness, and, opportunism as his basic life-style patterns. His beautiful daughter, Jane, who became a performer in her own right. His conflicts, and partnerships, with others in his profession. The rivalries & deceit that were a part of the game...they're all in there.
The twenty-four chapters are laid-out perfectly and the lives of Howard Thurston, and all of those within his sphere, are brought to life with a clarity that makes them leap off the page. If you had never even heard the name 'Thurston', this is a book that would keep you interested from start-to-finish.
I came away with an understanding of the man that I never would have imagined. I felt all of the confusion, elation, pity, and, strength that coarsed through his veins and touched his life. And, through it all, I wondered to myself: What would I have done if I was born in another Century as Howard Thurston was ?
Being born, July 20th, 1869, Thurston, and those born in that time period, grew up in the 19th Century, and saw the "Rise Of The Machines" that would fully come in the 20th Century: Automobiles, Airplanes, Telephones, Electric Lights, Silent Movies, Phonographs, Radio, Talking Movies, the glint of the coming "Communication Changer" Television, Electric Washers, Electric Vacuum Cleaners...well, the list goes on. But, the principle remains the same...would you be a different person than you are today if you were born in another era ?
Accordingly, no matter what negative things I found in Thurston's personality while reading the book, I tended to cut him a little slack on those items. For, as a professional in his chosen field, he truly became a master of illusion, a creator of some of the finest tricks and illusions of magic ever seen, was a showman without peer...and, finally, has been given the respect he deserves in this massive, photo-filled, written "Work Of Art" by Jim Steinmeyer.
IN SHORT, HOWARD THURSTON really was "The Last Greatest Magician In The World". Period.
PS: This is a book that you must read from start-to-finish...without many breaks ! Read it over the course of a weekend. Start on Friday Night; you'll probably be finished by Sunday Night. Turn off the phone, don't answer the door, stop only when you're really hungry, and, make sure you keep track of all the names and places mentioned in there...they're all important, and I may give you a 'pop quiz' on Monday, so be prepared ! JK
(Note: The Thurston poster shown above is a favorite of mine....a copy of it hangs in my living room. It's from around 1910, and was produced by the Strobridge Lithographic Company of Cincinnati, Ohio.)
"CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL", By Glen David Gold. Hyperion Books, Pub. (2001)
IF YOU'VE READ EVERYTHING on this page so far, you already know that I've always had an interest in the art of magic and magicians...and 'Carter the Great' was one of them. Well, I'd heard reports that this book was going to be published and bought the original hardcover in the Fall of 2001. I actually re-read it again recently and was amazed at how well it's held up.
I'll tell you at the outset that this is a novel...not a biography or history of Carter. BUT, it is well-researched with authentic historical facts, ties-in with the Roaring 20's era perfectly, gives a look at how life was for the traveling performers in those days, and gives some real-life, iconic, historical characters like Houdini, Philo Farnsworth, President Harding, Thurston, and many others, an addition to their resume' by inserting them into this fictional mystery.
Granted, it is overly long, with many paragraphs that could have been excluded, but if you like Classic/Early Magic, or have dabbled in Magic yourself, I think you'll find it a good read. What it does have is some real mystery & intrigue that will keep you guessing to the end !
BTW: I too fell in love with Phoebe Kyle...what a well-written, beautiful character ! She has a fantastic sense of humour, the beauty of a Venus, and the soul of an angel...if that's humanly possible. And I, like Carter, would have married her as fast as "humanly possible" !
Enjoy ! But, a word of caution: Don't give away the secrets or 'Baby' may get you !! JK
IF YOU HAVEN'T TAKEN a peek inside my Private Library...well, make sure you go there before you leave this site ! All types of Reviews are available there: Books, CD's, DVD's, well, you get the picture. Here's the Link that will take you right there: Simply Click-On-Here !
AND, TO ACCESS MANY, MANY MORE of my REVIEWS on ALL subjects be sure to look for them on the Amazon Website: www.Amazon.com . They're listed simply under "Jonnie King".
THERE ARE COMPLETE REVIEWS on "Time And Again", By Jack Finney; "Ads That Put America On Wheels", By, Eric Dregni & Karl Hagstrom Miller; "Marilyn Monroe: Metamorphosis", By David Wills; "The Rock 'N' Roll Age: The Music, The Culture, The Generation", By Mike Evans; "Wasn't The Future Wonderful", By Tim Onosko; "Sunkissed: Sunwear And The Hollywood Beauty 1930-1950", By Joshua James Curtis, and lots more books, movies, DVD's, and CD's, that you'll love...over 3 Pages of Reviews on Amazon !
Just go to the Amazon Website, select "Books", type in anyone of the above Titles, select "Customer Reviews", select "Newest First", scroll-down till you see my name and my Review for that book, then Click-On the "See All My Reviews" Link...that will take you to my entire Amazon Review History on Books/Movies/DVD's/CD's, and you can read them all at one-place-at-one time ! www.Amazon.com
ALSO, IF YOU'RE INTO CARS, both Classics, and Rods & Customs, you have to check-out my "HOT OFF THE PRESS" Section of the Hall Of Fame Legends Website ! It's truly become one of the most-viewed Sections of the Site. Out of over 375 Pages on the Site it is always in the TOP TEN !
Here's the Link that will take you directly to it: http://www.legends.thewwbc.net/gpage112.html
Thanks again...and, ENJOY ! JK
NEXT: THE PASADENA PLAYHOUSE...PASADENA, CALIFORNIA