Harry Blackstone Sr.
Suzy Wandas Bennett
Harry Blackstone Sr. (1885 – 1965)
For multiple generations of Americans, the name Blackstone conjures memories of some of the most amazing magical performances of all time. Harry Blackstone, Sr. was one of history’s premiere illusionists who spent much of his life wowing audiences with his spectacular company and stage show.
Harry Blackstone, Sr. was born Harry Bouton in Chicago in 1885. On his eighth birthday, he received, as children often do, a magic trick as a gift. But, whereas for many children the magic trick is merely a toy, for Harry, magic would become his life’s work. That same year, in 1893, he held his first amateur performances in a church basement for members of the congregation. In addition to performing magic, Harry took an interest in the great illusionists. At the age of twelve, he stood in front of Chicago’s McVicker’s Theater, admiring the colorful lithographs heralding the Great Kellar, the era’s most famous illusionist. The young man was so enticed that he purchased a good seat for the show. For Harry, the magic show motivated him to want to become a great magician. While such thoughts tend to occur to children, the idea stuck with Harry. To guide Harry on his mission, his father suggested that he visit the local library to start his research. Harry found books on magic, took home several conjuring classics, and began practicing his art.
In his studies, Harry found two distinct ways approach magic: close-up magic and illusions. Close-up tricks would require him to spend the hours necessary to perfect his prestidigitation with small objects such as cups, balls, and coins. The other approach, illusions, would require building and buying complicated apparatus needed for a full-scale stage performance. Harry made a rare decision to pursue both magical avenues, thus creating his unique style that was to become his trademark throughout his 65-year, professional career.
While diligently rehearsing sleight-of-hand, Harry secured a series of jobs with cabinetmakers and other craftsmen in his neighborhood in order to develop the construction skills needed to build his own magic equipment. Throughout his career, Blackstone and his technically talented brother, Pete, designed and built nearly every piece of equipment required for the lavish Blackstone show. Some of their tools and creations can been seen on exhibit at the American Museum of Magic.
In 1899, Harry and Pete found their first opportunity for a paid engagement. Together they became regular performers on the club and party circuit where they could refine their art and help pay the bills at home. Around 1904, the brothers developed a vaudeville act called “Straight and Crooked Magic.” Later they appeared under the billing “Fredrik, the Great & Co.,” chosen because they were able to purchase, at discounted rates, some fancy lithographs bearing that name. As World War I loomed, German-associated names were not a popular draw in American culture. 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, the very magician that inspired Harry as a boy. The legendary magician was impressed by the Blackstone show that he came backstage to tell the young performer that he was the best all-around magician he’d ever seen. The two men became friends and Kellar revealed some of his trade secrets to Blackstone and the secrets would find new life in the Blackstone shows.
As the years passed, the Blackstone magic show continued to grow in size and fame. Harry was a master front man while Pete decided he preferred life behind the scenes. With the growing company, the Blackstone show moved to Colon, Michigan. Harry’s first wife, Inez, found a 208-acre mint farm and lake-front property on Sturgeon Lake that would be known as Blackstone Island. It was the company’s summer home where Harry Blackstone and friends could relax, recuperate, and prepare for the next tour. It was on this farm in Michigan where show animals were reared and illusions devised to wow people across the country.
During World War II, under USO auspices, Blackstone and company toured to 165 military bases. Since many of the camps had no theatrical equipment, the magician trouped everything from lights to ladders to curtains. It was a fast-paced, physically demanding tour, but it was also a show business accomplishment of which Harry Blackstone, Sr. was proud.
In 1942, The Great Blackstone performed what many people consider his greatest, most spontaneous and most ingenuitive illusion: The Vanishing Audience. During a show in Decatur, Illinois, Blackstone announced that his next illusion was so large and spectacular that the audience would have to go outside the theater to see it. Blackstone then proceeded to conduct an orderly, row-by-row exit of the theater. When they reached the street, the crowd became aware of Blackstone’s real motivation to empty the theater: There was a fire in the neighboring building! Blackstone’s quick thinking and composure averted a panic that could have lead to crushing deaths if the exits had been rushed, such as in the 1913 Italian Hall disaster of Calumet, Michigan.
After 45 years, Harry Blackstone decided to retire from life on the road and move to Hollywood, California. During these years on the West Coast, Blackstone was featured in several television appearances and he frequented The Magic Castle where he demonstrated his close-up magic for his fellow magicians. On November 16, 1965, Harry Blackstone died in California. His body was returned home to Colon, Michigan where he was laid to rest at Lakeside Cemetery. “The New Tops” magazine, a publication of Abbott Magic, paid tribute to the late magician stating: “Harry Blackstone, age 80; occupation, Legend.”