Michael Lauck is a columnist for iTricks. His work appears on Mondays. Blackstone’s life and career has proven too large for just one column, so part two will appear next Monday.

Throughout the 20th century, Harry Blackstone was a household name.

The last of America’s big stage show magicians, he toured for decades. His real success came from creating a multimedia image.

Harry Boughton, the man who would eventually become Blackstone, was born in Chicago in the fall of 1885. His father operated a flower shop and young Harry had an interest in art and woodworking, thinking that he may one day become a cabinet maker. Magic entered into young Harry’s life around the age of 13 when he attended a performance of Harry Kellar. Some accounts mention that he was brought on stage as part of a witness committee and was amazed that even on stage he could not explain the feats performed. The Kellar show drove young Harry to find magic books and start practicing.

When Harry was 15 his father died, so the young man went to work. He continued to practice his magic, though, and a couple of years later he was working as a pattern maker and lathe operator for a woodworking shop. As luck would have it, the shop created pieces for August Roterberg’s magic company and Harry would always make an extra copy of the Roterberg items for himself! He continued to practice his magic while he worked and studied art for a year. It was not until 1908 that he would leap into show business.

Joining the Famous Byrne Brothers acrobatic team, Harry would perform gymnastic stunts and do quick bits of magic to fill in gaps during the act. By the next year, though, he was performing solely as a magician in an acted called Martini and Maxmillian. He would perform standard magic while his partner, a clown, parodied he effect. The next year he had his own version of the act, which he called Harry Bouton and Company Present Straight and Crooked Magic. Pressing his brother Pete into service, Harry again provided the straight magic while Pete clowned around. They boys toured the Sullivan-Considine Circuit for the 1910-1911 season. Also on the bill was an English music hall act that included Charles Chaplin, Stan Laurel and Ted Banks, who would serve for years as stage manager for Blackstone’s show.

The Boughton brothers continued to work in show business for the next few years, sometimes in vaudeville and other times as part of circuses. They even did a stint on the Goldenrod Showboat based in St. Louis. According to Harry Blackstone Jr. in The Blackstone Book of Magic and Illusion, his father would eventually perform as not only Harry Bouton but as LeRoy Boughton, The Great Stanley, Francisco, Harry Ceejo, Mr. Quick, C. Peter Norton and Beaumont the Great. When offered the chance to purchase a huge quantity of posters that another magician had never picked up at a steep discount, he became Frederik the Great. The Harry Bouton Company, as Frederik the Great, had started to find success. In addition to Pete and other assistants, Harry had even hired musician Inez Nourse as an assistant and musical director in 1916. She would also become his wife in 1919.

The American entry into World War I lead to an unexpected setback for Harry and company. Audiences were assuming, given the spelling, that Frederik the Great was a German! Even though Harry’s family was originally French and he and his brother were sons of Chicago, the perception was hurting box office. The ever practical Harry Boughton changed his name once again, this time to Blackstone (supposedly his manager was inspired by a hotel). Whatever the origin, Harry Blackstone stuck and would serve not himself but his son for decades to come.

Blackstone’s career continued to flourish. His show became larger and larger and he gained a reputation throughout the country. Interestingly enough, Blackstone confined his career to North America. While others toured Europe, Australia and even Asia, Harry Blackstone Jr. wrote that his father only played one engagement outside of the United States or Canada in the nearby island of Bermuda. But his lack of global bookings did not mean that Blackstone was not successful or ambitious. He bought land in Michigan with enough space for a house, a large barn that allowed for prop construction and even a small mint farm. Blackstone Island, as it was known, was not only a home during the off season, it was a profitable venture in its own right (and years before Copperfield got into the island business).

When Blackstone’s career began to take off Howard Thurston and Harry Houdini were still working. He seemed to have gotten along well enough with Thurston and even Houdini’s brother Hardeen but he supposedly referred to himself and Houdini as “friendly enemies.” At one point, Houdini was angry because Blackstone was performing underwater escapes to promote his shows. He threatened various legal and professional actions although he only seems to have filed a complaint with the National Variety Artists.

According to the Blackstone Book of Magic and Illusion, Blackstone had been performing this type of act for decades, originally a specially constructed box and later in locally constructed crates. Although Blackstone was able to prove that his performances predated Houdini’s to the NVA investigation, he found that his original box was missing. Years later Joseph Dunninger purchased some equipment from Bess Houdini and packed them an odd box he thought was some type of gimmicked escape piece. Taking it to Walter Gibson (who ghost wrote material for Dunninger, Houdini and Blackstone), he was told that it was indeed an escape gimmick but it was not Houdini’s. It was Harry Blackstone’s missing original underwater escape box!

By and large, the magic magazines of the day have positive reviews of Blackstone as a magician and as a man. He was a bit of a ladies’ man (he and Inez divorced in 1926, and he married assistant Billie Mathews in 1933, which would also end in divorce). He was also cocky and, according to some (particularly Ted Annemann), a self promoter. Many magic clubs and magicians, though, write of meeting Blackstone and speak glowingly of him. There were also stories of him pulling illusions from his own show so that friends could borrow the equipment for their bookings. Blackstone also bought 45 railroad tickets for every trip even though his company was not that large. With every 15 tickets a group purchased, though, they were given half of a railroad car for storage and the car and a half was used to haul the troop’s equipment. He frequently used the extra tickets to have friends and acquaintances travel with the show (supposedly including magic enthusiast, Prince of Wales and future King of England Edward VIII, who had snuck off during a state visit to Canada). At one point, Blackstone would also be caught up in accusations of exposing magic’s secrets.

Much like other great magicians, Harry Blackstone was not a great magician but a great performer. Robert Lund wrote that about one-fourth of the Americans dabbling in magic were better magicians than Blackstone. “But,” Lund wrote, “none can match his amazing showmanship.” He also described Blackstone’s stage persona, saying he transformed from “murderous mage to an impish Merlin. He scares the hell out of his audience, charms a group of youngsters with a Grimm fairy tale and lecherously ogles his girl assistants. He is at once a tragedian and a clown.”

Others describe Blackstone as a traditional grand magician, dressed in tails and surrounded by elaborate stage dressings (including a camel who had been demoted after refusing to properly vanish), telling silly jokes and even poking fun at himself and his magic. He vanished a horse, for example, but left himself with an empty saddle stuck between his legs. The Blackstone show made extensive use of animals, including the horse, camel, possibly an occasional elephant, donkeys, doves, canaries and, of course, rabbits. Blackstone was famous for giving away rabbits during children’s matinees to onstage volunteers (including a young Ray Bradbury). Harry Blackstone Jr. wrote that his father gave away over 150,000 bunnies over his career!

Blackstone worked during the demise of vaudeville and managed to keep his stage show alive, and in demand, until his retirement in 1960. Part of his longevity was because managed to appeal to both children and adults. He could, as Lund mentioned, leer at his comely assistants to bond with the fathers in the audience as the children laughed as his antics. Blackstone was also not afraid to market himself in a variety of ways which contributed greatly to his fame.

Come back next Monday to learn about Blackstone’s forays into print, radio and more…