My dad (father #2) loved the grandiosity of staged illusion and made it a major part of his performing repertoire. When he spoke of the history of magic and magicians it was with great reverence for the craft and he worked hard to hone his own skills so that they were a worthy contribution to the greats that came before him.
He made himself, Frederick the Great, and while that smells a little like Michael Jackson dubbing himself the “King of Pop”, my dad realized the marketability of ‘sounds like’, ‘acts like’, ‘is like’. So, he was Frederick the Great and all his promotional material lauded his superior feats of prestidigitation.
My mother was his assistant and between the two of them, they cornered the market in the looks department; she, statuesque and beautiful and he, dashing and debonair. Coupling that asset with my dad’s work ethic to the act and they had a very successful regional show.
The legendary illusionist, Harry Blackstone (from the same state), was his benchmark and he carried himself with as much class as the great master, decked out in tucks and moving through his routines like a ballet dancer. He was serious about this art and meticulous with detail, and before long they were not only working locally but traveling to other cities to open for other, bigger acts.
To my dad, this was show biz on a grand scale and, while I never asked my her if she really enjoyed this act, I have the feeling that my mother joined him in the small scale glory that was theirs. As good as my dad got, however, he still ran into the same road block that always seemed to arrest his dreams.
The nearby bar.
On the road or 500 feet from our house, the challenge was always the same…how to keep Frederick the Great out of the bar and going on with the show. Sometimes he just didn’t make it because he tried to mix the two worlds and they would, like a bad lab accident, create a cloud of mayhem.
They performed a large illusion surrounding a wooden coffin on wheels that my mother would lie down in and then the Great one would light the thing on fire and the audience would eventually see her skeleton ablaze, Frederick hunched maniacally over the charbroil, madly dumping more lighter fluid onto the remains. This was a real crowd pleaser and he would take bow after bow, the crowd cheering over my mother the ember.
The only problem was that, one night, in a less than sober state he had gone a little too theatrical with the lighter fluid and some had leaked into the chamber below where my mother actually was lying and her dress caught on fire. Frederick the Great wouldn’t notice this because he was still in the process of soaking up the adulation.
Fortunately for my mother, an off-stage hand saw the smoke and tore into the box, getting my mother out before she suffered additional burns and this, to my dad’s dismay, took a little of the sheen off of the illusion.
Another time, during an Elks Lodge performance, Frederick found the lounge before finding the stage and was so besotted that he, for one of the rare times, couldn’t go on. What to do? They’d already been paid, the audience was primed and so my mother, thinking quickly and taking stock of what she knew and didn’t know, assembled every trick she thought she could handle, made up a story about Frederick and went out on stage and did a show.
At this point in time, the fabulous 50’s, there were no female magicians on the circuit and her appearance got a little more attention than normal that evening. Not only that but she pulled off what she could with enough style, having watched my dad rehearse, that the show was a smashing success and the Lodge owner deliriously happy.
Several days later, the Lodge owner called our house, not to re-hire my dad but to check on my mother’s availability. This struck a mortal blow to the ego of the Great Frederick and he made my mother come up with an excuse why she couldn’t make it.
It was hardly a surprise, then, that when Frederick was hired to levitate a woman on top of a downtown building to celebrate the grand opening of a hardware store, my mother politely declined the gig and dad had to find another assistant for the day. She hasn’t lived a long life because of bad judgment. Yes, the fill-in survived but my mother recognized a gamble when she saw one; tall building, levitating on a board, nearby tavern.
On those days, though, when all his brain cells were in line, for the relatively small man he was, his skill level was exceptional. His hands were so small that those tricks, like handling ping pong balls, coins or other small props, requiring such agile manipulation, were made even more impressive by the constant work he put in to making it look that good.
Although unintentional, perhaps his greatest moment was in Milwaukee at a large hall, opening for Jack Benny. He was in the middle of one of his tricks where a chaffing dish was lit on fire (a dangerous running theme), the top of the metal dish was put on to smother the flame then lifted off to reveal a live dove who would be taken out of the dish and quickly placed in a cage.
Nifty trick, except this time the dove, sensing opportunity, took off into the auditorium, eventually landing on a rafter at the top of the building. Since this wasn’t in the script, neither my dad or mother knew what to do to get the dove back to the stage.
Finally, just taking a stab in the dark, my dad pulled out his blank revolver and fired a shot in the direction of the dove. The bird jumped and, probably sensing familiarity, flew straight back to my dad and landed on his finger. The audience, amazed at Frederick’s aviary mastery, burst into tumultuous applause, thereby deifying what was essentially dumb luck.
Ah, the occasional randomness of show biz.
In later years when his lavish visions succumbed to the reality of his lack of motivation, a few cans of Stroh’s would get him to talking about putting together a traveling 1920’s style Chautauqua, complete with musicians, jugglers, magicians and other assorted entertainers and tour the countryside, moving through hundreds of little towns.
Even though he’d constantly revisit this idea when I’d go over to his house after my parents divorce, I think we both knew that it was never going to happen and the magic equipment would remain in mothballs.
In many ways it was ridiculous that he gave up so easily but he was a chain-smoking, full fledged alcoholic in a mind-deadening job and, regardless of his bravado, he would never give that up until the day he crapped out on his sofa at age 57.
If you’d seen him through my eyes when I was growing up, you’d have seen how great he really could have been. You’d have seen that his pretentious moniker had tremendous potential. He was Frederick the Great and if only he could have gotten past his own demons and not drifted into hopelessness, sky was the limit for that guy.