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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Now You See It

Out of the Hat Dept.: Harry Blackstone Jr. carried his father’s famous name into the second half of the 20th century, but without using the routines that made the first Blackstone one of the world’s most famous magicians. The younger prestidigitator invented a slew of his own, most of which are still in use today. Below is my review of Blackstone’s 1990 Schenectady appearance, followed by a preview piece. I remember the interview well, as the magician was one of the most gracious people I’ve ever spoken with.


“HERE’S SOMETHING my father told me,” Harry Blackstone told a young admirer backstage at Proctor’s Theatre Saturday night. “Every boy between the ages of six and 16 wants to be magician. The ones who go on to do so are the ones who never grow up.” He flashed the Blackstone smile, a benevolent grin tinged with devilment.

Harry Blackstone, Jr.
It’s easy to believe that Blackstone heeded that advice. After all, during the course of his two-hour show he’d swiped a volunteer’s watch and wallet, savaged his wife with fierce-looking blades and turned a boy’s prize rabbit into a box of chocolates, insulting another area newspaper in the process (“See? There’s nothing in it!”)

Then there were the simply astonishing things he does, like causing a lightbulb to float into the house, right over the heads of the audience, and predicting randomly-chosen playing cards. He even predicted a gastronomically-awful, randomly-chosen menu.

But his most impressive power, for my money, is his ability to levitate kids out of their seats. The audience was filled with youngsters eager to take part in anything he had in mind for them: an early request for young volunteers swamped the aisles with a most unbashful assortment.

This was my first exposure to Blackstone’s brand of magical entertainment, and it came at a good time: during the past few months I’ve seen more than my share of Las Vegas-style revues featuring a magician/illusionist performing tired old routines with swords and saws and baskets and bespangled assistants.

Blackstone has the bespangled assistants – he’s married to one of them – and the accessories (no thanks to United Airlines, which stranded his stuff in Chicago for several days. It arrived at the theater two hours before curtain time). But he also has something else those magicians manqué were lacking: a personality that sets the style of his performance.

The personality is a mixture of calm self-assurance and a wicked sense of humor. He strides onstage with the cheerfulness of a slightly naughty uncle whose absurd and wonderful stories conquer even your parents’ resistance.

This kind of trustworthy presence is the product of a vaudeville tradition. It requires lots of travel and experience with all kinds of audiences. And it also requires a sincere appreciation of that audience. Only a second-rate performer treats a crowd with contempt.

Blackstone is not only appreciative – he’s also the most gracious performer I’ve ever seen. His onstage volunteers may look ridiculous during the course of a routine, but they don’t leave the stage with any shred of that remaining.

I think it’s the kids who have the best time at the show. Don’t get me wrong – there’s plenty for the adult audience to enjoy (Blackstone even works in the slyly prurient without exploiting it for its own sake). But kids believe in powers of magic in a way that unfortunately disappears over the years. They surrounded Blackstone at the beginning of the show to watch as he made a birdcage disappear.

They tell you never to do the same trick twice, so Blackstone, who slyly defies some of the very traditions he embraces, did just that. The birdcage vanished once. The kids were summoned, and surrounded him. The cage vanished again. It was just as astonishing.

Then there was the lucky fellow chosen to get that rabbit. Not without a whole lot of instruction and parental approval. And not without enduring the change from bunny to candy and the rabbits’s eventual reappearance. The sequence was as meaningful as it was funny, and I’m sure Blackstone is right in predicting that the young fellow won’t ever forget it.

It’s not important to detail just what tricks and illusions were performed. There were surprisingly few considering the length of the show, and yet that underscores the real magic about it: Blackstone presents a program that is entertaining above all else. Had his props failed to arrive in time, he was planning to go on anyway. And I’m sure the show would have been just as good.

Even as the Las Vegas theaters move into canned music, Blackstone still performs with a band. It makes a big difference, and musical director Chuck Bird deserves a lot of credit. Hats off, too, to high-spirited Gay Blackstone and the personable crew of assistants, who dashed madly about  onstage for the Hellzapoppin’-like finale.

There are hints that Blackstone will put together a big vaudeville-style show, elephants and all, for next year’s tour. Let’s hope we get them back at Proctor’s, where vaudeville belongs.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 5 March 1990


“THERE ARE ONLY 17 scenarios in magic,” says Harry Blackstone, “just as there are only eight notes in a scale. But look at all the music that gets created!”

Eleven years ago, Blackstone inaugurated the refurbished Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady with his special blend of illusion and showmanship. He returns at 8 p.m. Saturday with many old favorites and several new routines.

David Copperfield is known as the magician who made the Statue of Liberty disappear and who walked through the Great Wall of China, both performed on network TV specials. Although the routines on his latest tour don’t involve any national monuments, it’s still a hefty load-in.

The Blackstone Dynasty
“We’re carrying a brand-new show,” he says, “and it requires three 48-foot trucks just to haul the equipment.” He’ll be performing at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 13 at the Palace Theatre in Albany.

Both performers are among the very few of the world’s greatest magicians, but they offer divergent points of view when discussing their craft.

“Since the beginning of my career,” says Copperfield, “my goal has been to take magic out of the vaudeville house and circus tent and make it as contemporary, as current as possible. I just can’t see making things vanish on a little black table with a fleur-de-lis on it.”

Copperfield has conquered what used to be the bane of touring performers, who lamented that a single television appearance would make their most tried and true material seem overexposed. During a touring schedule that can include up to 500 shows each year, Copperfield introduces and refines new material which will go into his annual TV special – he’s done one each year for 12 years.

He names not magicians as his boyhood heroes, but dancers: “I love the movies of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly,” he says, “and I decided early on that I wanted to do with magic what they did with dance.”

Blackstone comes from a family tradition of magic – the father he was named for had a reputation rivalled only by Houdini’s. But the young Blackstone didn’t automatically follow in Dad’s footsteps. It took many years of work in various aspects of the entertainment business before a long association with the Smothers Brothers and Tommy’s fascination with magic led Blackstone back into the illusion business.

“A magician is an actor,” Blackstone explains. “And it’s not unusual to find the two overlapping.” (Orson Welles and Bill Bixby gained reputations in both fields.) “People don’t go to a magic show to be fooled – they go to explore a natural desire to enjoy wonderment.” Blackstone rolls the word musically in a well-modulated basso. “The magician is only a conduit. We’re purveyors of that wonderment – you, the audience, provide the magic.”

Of the aforementioned scenarios, Blackstone carries on a tradition that includes some spectacular variations of many of them. “We’ll arrive with our usual miracles,” he says with a sardonic ho-hum. “Appearances, disappearances; mutilations, restorations, incantations ...”

He promises to float a lighted bulb into the audience; he’ll also be applying a bloodthirsty-looking buzz saw to an assistant. He gives a macabre chuckle as the implicit gruesomeness is suggested.

That scary edge is a vital aspect of illusions. Copperfield likes his work not only to the special-effects style of Disney and Spielberg, but to the frightening undercurrent of stories by Stephen King. “What I do is give people an escape,” he says. “We all know that E.T. is really a puppet, but we’re willing to suspend that knowledge in exchange for that couple of hours of pleasure.”

Look for music and choreography in the Copperfield show. “We use a lot of lighting and scenic effects, too. It helps create more substance that if I simply were presenting a trick. Magic motivates the storyline of each scene, but it also includes characterizations and a lot of music.”

Tickets for “The Magic of David Copperfield” are $19.50 and $17.50 and are available at the Palace Theatre box office, Drome Sound and all Ticketron outlets.

Tickets for “An Evening with the Magic of Harry Blackstone” are priced from $22.50 to $11.25 with discounts for people under 18. They’re available at the Proctor’s Theatre box office and all Community Box Office outlets.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 1 March 1990

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