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The Magic Capital of the World - Page 2

Written by Patrick West
(A thesis for graduate history at Central Michigan University, 1976)

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In an attempt to increase lagging sales, the partners decided to hold an open house on Saturday, Sept. 15, 1934. Advertisements were placed in trade journals. The event was attended by 80 magicians and sales totaled $88.00. Magicians came from Kalamazoo, South Bend, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Cincinnatti, Toledo, and Fort Wayne to watch two hours of magic performed by several magicians including Recil Bordner. Abbott acted as master of ceremonies, and his wife, Gladys, accompanied the performers on the piano. Following the show, a buffet luncheon was served to the performers and audience. The open house was closed to the public in general. However, several local dignitaries were invited, including Dr. Niendorf and his wife and the Superintendent of Schools, A. Jaffe and his wife.
Considering the one dayís sales of $88.00, the occasion had been a financial, as well as a social, success for the new partners. Encouraged by the success of their open house, the partners gave public performances on Nov. 3 and 4 that Autumn. Children were admitted for 10 cents and adults for 35 cents. The show was again two hours in length, but this time only two outside acts were booked. Abbott and Bordner were the main attractions. Bordner performed "Paintings from the Great Beyond" and Percy presented the companyís "latest magic creations". The success of the two public shows and that of the open house convinced the partners to host the first annual Abbott Get-Together in the autumn of 1935. That year it was still a one-night affair, held in the tiny Abbott Theater which could accommodate an audience of only about 100 people. Again, only magicians were invited. It was during this convention that Lester Lake (Marvelo), an escape artist, coined the phrase "Magic Capital of the World". He chose this phrase to describe Colon because Abbottís Magic Novelty company was fast becoming a leading producer of magical apparatus in the United States; because the Great Blackstone made his home in Colon; and because the Abbott Get-Together was becoming a major attraction for magicians. The phrase caught on and is still being used today.
The 1936 Get-Together was held Sept. 12th at the Abbott factory and was referred to as the Third Annual Get-together. The partners counted the open house of 1934 as having been the first. The Saturday night show had been increased to 14 acts and the theater was enlarged. Some of the more famous magicians of the day were present in 1936, including the "Great Nichola Marvelo", Lester Lake, who had the "biggest show in America" that year. Lake, a good friend of Abbott, directed an impromptu performance outside the magic shop on Saturday afternoon, which the public was allowed to view. The following acts appeared: Geo. Paxton, Ed Little, Bob Gysel, Al Saal, John Skinta, Percy Abbott, F. W., Thomas, Dr. Zola, Jimmy Trimble, L. L. Ireland, Joe Bert, C. L. Breindenstien, Mahendra, and Dave Coleman.
In that year another aspect of the Get-Together developed when there was an extemporaneous performance for early arrivals on Friday evening. This became a standard feature of the Get-Together and is now called the Night Before Party. Two hundred and fifty magicians registered for the 1936 convention. The Saturday night show, the largest yet, included the following acts: Sid Loraine, emcee; Bob Wedertz, Recil Bordner and Percy Abbott, creations; Harry Cecil, George Paxton, illusions: Ralph W. Hull, cards; Lyman, originalities; Kathryn Elliott and Marvelo of "Burned Alive" fame; Doc Coleman in Hokum; Jimmy Trumble, artist magician; The Great Nicola.
The popularity of the Get-Together was growing at a rapid rate and Colonís name was becoming associated with magic by a growing number of magicians. Following the Get-Together of 1936, the local newspaper, The Colon Express, referred to Colon as the "Magic Capital of the World" for the first time. The paper justified the boast stating that, "Abbottís original made magic is supplied to magicians in all parts of the world, and through the activities of the Abbott Magic Novelty Company, Colon, Michigan is recognized as "The Magic Capital of the World."
The Abbott Theater proved to be inadequately small in 1936 and the Saturday evening show was followed by many impromptu performances on the sidewalks and in the street in front of the magic factory. Because of the increase of attendance and public interest, the partners rented the high school gymnasium for the 1937 Get-Together.
Over 500 magicians were registered in 1937 and the pubic was invited for the first time to an Abbott Get-Together. There was a special performance staged at the auditorium for the public on Saturday afternoon. A portion of the public must have obtained admittance to the evening performance as well, because there were over 1,000 spectators crowded into the auditorium, which had an official capacity of only 800. There were many "on the spot" antics that year, including one magician who was suspended upside down from a downtown fire escape in a straight jacket from which he escaped.
In addition to the Night Before Show, which was held at the factory for magicians only, there were lectures, discussions, and demonstrations at the Abbott factory all day Saturday and late into the night following the evening performance. The Abbott Get-Together had come of age as a major convention for magicians from all over the United States.
Obviously, the influx of 500 people into a village with a population of 1,000 was an exciting event and the local merchants and residents of Colon looked forward to the Abbott Get-Together. Many of the magicians arrived a day or two early and stayed until late Sunday. While some of the magicians stayed in motels in Sturgis, Coldwater, and Battle Creek, a large proportion rented rooms from local residents at one dollar per night. Merchants, naturally enjoyed good business during the festive week end and the event was given much coverage by the local newspaper.
The success of the 1936 and 1937 Get-Together was augmented by the establishment, in January of 1936 of The Tops - An Independent Magazine of Magic. The monthly magazine was printed by the Abbott Magic Novelty Company on a press purchased from Frank Damon, publisher of The Colon Express. Paul Goss, who worked for Damon, set type for the magazine at night. Percy was the editor of the magazine until 1941, when he turned the job over to Mel Melson, an artist from New York who was hired in 1940 to do the artistic illustrations for the Abbott catalogue.
The magazine, which was from 40 to 60 pages in length, was filled with articles written by magicians giving instructions for performing their favorite tricks; gripe columns; advertisements for all types of tricks; and written materials concerning the presentation of magic. The magazine differed from other magic magazines in that membership in a fraternal magicians organization was not necessary in order to obtain a subscription. Subscription for the year was reasonably priced at one dollar. The magazine brought to the company increased status as a leading producer of magical effect. It has continued to be published to the present time with the exception of a four-year period, 1957 through 1960, which will be discussed later.
Today, Tops has a circulation of more than 4,000 and is mailed to countries throughout the world with the exception of Red China and the Soviet Union. The magazine is now under its third editor, Neil Foster. Foster, a professional magician, settled in Colon following the 1959 Get-Together to work for Abbottís as the artist for the catalogue, which had grown to over 400 pages in length. When Tops resumed publication in January of 1961, Foster became the editor. The present $9.00-a-year subscription, and advertisement sales do not make the magazine a profit-making venture, but the president of Abbottís (Recil Bordner) feels that it is worthwhile because it distinguishes Abbottís Magic company from all other smaller manufacturers of magic and provides valuable publicity for the company.
Following the financial success and expansion of the business in 1936 and 1937, Abbott and Bordner anticipated an equally good year in 1938. The first eight months of 1938 did bring good fortune. The partners purchased the building that they had been leasing since 1934. The 1938 Get-Together was a repeat of the successful 1937 Get-Together with over 500 magicians in attendance. There were hours of magical performances at the factory and impromptu acts on main street of Colon all day Saturday, culminating with the big public show at the high school auditorium on Saturday night. Then fortune changed for the Abbott Magic Novelty Company. The week end after the 1938 Get-Together found Recil Bordner and Percy Abbott both out of town on well-deserved vacations. That Saturday night disaster struck when fire gutted the frame building housing the magic company. Nothing but a shell was left. The local fire department was able to save some of the files, but the loss of stock and the building was still estimated at $10.000.
The partners were faced with a grim, but not hopeless, situation. The loss was only partially covered by insurance, but the Abbott Magic companyís reputation and credit were both very sound. Percy was able to negotiate a loan from a personal friend in Jackson, Michigan. Jessey Dowly, a magician and a owner of a spring factory, loaned the money for rebuilding, with the understanding the Percy would teach Dowlyís two sons to be magicians.
Blackstone's famous 'singing' high ball glass

January 3, 1938...The narrative is from the Crosley Radio Corporation: " Harry Blackstone, world's greatest magician, was in Cincinnati during†† Christmas week. Here he is shown making a high-ball sing in the glass,†† while a group of envious eyes looked on. Offered a highball to drink and "cheer up", Blackstone replied, "Cheer me†† up, nothing! I'll cheer the highball up and make it sing!" And that's what he did before a group of skeptical onlookers, as he took†† up his magic wand and touching it to the glass, bringing forth in all†† distinctness of tone a program coming from the WLW transmitter at Mason."

During the days immediately following the fire, the partners received many offers from surrounding cities to relocate their business. Some proposals were very generous, offering such inducements as free rent on building that could be occupied by the firm. However, for various reasons, the partners never gave serious consideration to these proposals. Most of the employees were local residents. Abbott and Bordner themselves had established homes in Colon and had become personally attached to the village. Therefore, once the loan had been acquired, a contractor was hired immediately to construct a new cement block building on the site of the original shop.
During the interim, the Abbott Magic company was relocated in temporary quarters. The office and showroom were set up in the warehouse of the Lamb Knit Goods Company and the workshop and printing shop in the vacant S. G. Snyder building across town. The conditions of these buildings were less than ideal. Because of insurance difficulties, there could be no fire for heat in the warehouse and the only warmth that October and November came from a hotplate beside the typewriter of the office manager. The situation was only slightly better in the workshop where a small wood stove was installed. These hardships were of short term, however, and the new $3,600.00 cement block building was ready for the company to occupy by December.
The year of 1939 was a hectic one for the magic firm which had to rebuild its inventory of tricks, fill standard orders, and make preparations for the coming Get-Together. The sixth annual Get-Together was a one-day affair and somewhat smaller than the previous year with the demonstrations and impromptu performances taking place in the basement of the new building.
The year of 1940 found the Abbott Magic Novelty Company on the road to recovery from the setback of 1938, and the Get-Together that September was attended by nearly 500 magicians. The Night Before Show was held at the Abbott plant and Percy demonstrated the latest Abbott effects with such intriguing titles as "Phantasmo: an illusion in which a girlís head became invisible. The first year of the new decade indicated good things to come for the magic business in Colon.
December 1941, however, brought bad news for the nation and difficult times for the Abbott Magic Novelty Company. Young men volunteered for the armed forces and others were drafted. Abbottís lost several craftsmen, including Paul Goss, the printer, and Wake Drake, business manager. Unlike other builders of magical apparatus at that time, however, Abbottís managed to adjust and improvise. Retired men who had worked at Abbottís returned to help out. While some companies had trouble obtaining raw materials, Abbottís did not. The Magic company had obtained a government rating as a vital industry. The special rating was granted because the company supplied books on slight-of-hand for the Army, which used the books in their recreational programs for soldiers.
Because of this, the company was able to buy surplus and scrap metal. The firm improvised and many tricks were built from materials that would not have been considered worth using before the war. The company "made do" and survived the war years.


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