The Magic Capital of the World - Page 3

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

colored line

During the war years, Abbottís continued to host the Get-Togethers, which had become too large for the high school auditorium. In 1942, there were three public shows held in the opera house. Also in that year Skippy LaMore died, and Abbottís purchased the tent theater used by the road show. The 1943 and 1944 Get-Togethers were hosted in this tent. The tent theater was set up on a vacant lot. The work was supervised by the "boss canvas man" who had worked with the Skippy LaMore Show, Harley Otis from Hodunk, Michigan.
In 1945 the Get-Togetherís public performances were canceled due to "uncertain conditions" concerning the end of the war. However, there was a one-night open house, for magicians only, at the Abbott plant where a small tent was set up to accommodate the crowd. With the end of the war, the partners anticipated a return to the pre-war prosperity which the company had experienced.
The post-war era proved to be one of boom and expansion for the Abbott Magic Novelty Company. Abbott and Bordner increased the size of their building almost once and again with a $2,600.00 addition. The Get-Together, which had grown to three public shows, plus the Night Before Show for magicians only, was more successful than ever before. The big tent was especially suited for the Get-Together activities, and helped to create a carnival atmosphere. Saturday night performances were followed by special midnight spook shows. The official capacity of the tent was 1,100, consisting of 700 folding canvas seats and 400 bleacher seats. Actually, however, by show time, the audience surpassed this number when an extra 100 folding chairs were crowded into the tent and standing admissions were sold.
The gross sales for the business surpassed $200,000 for the first time in 1946. This increase in sales was due in part to a renewed interest in magic following the war and more directly to the expansion activities of the Abbott firm which had opened branch retail shops across the country. The New York shop was managed by Jim Renaux and Ken Allen. Karrell Fox and Ron Kissel ran the Detroit shop. In Indianapolis, Duke Stern was manager and salesman. George Coon and Doug OíDay operated the Chicago outlet. The Los Angeles store was managed by Geo. Boston. The late forties were indeed exciting and prosperous years for the partners in magic.
The hopes and expectations of the late forties dispersed in the first years of the fifties. The magic business declined for assorted reasons to the end of the decade. In 1950, a dance instructor in Los Angeles, purchased a device called "Pufferoo" from Abbottís branch store located there. The device was operated by a foot pedal which ignited black powder producing a harmless puff of smoke. It was used by magicians for flash appearances. This Pufferoo was to be used to enhance a dance recital. It seems that the customer was not satisfied with the amount of smoke produced and, thus, a stage hand added either more powder that was recommended or perhaps some other material to increase the flash. The result was a large flash of fire which badly burned the legs of a 13-year-old student dancer. The studentís parents filed a damage suit against Percy Abbott and Recil Bordner for $52,000. The suit dragged out over the nest two years. The partners had no insurance to cover such an incident. They could not find a carrier for their unusual business. Only Lloyds of London would consider a policy and the partners had found the premium too expensive. Needless to say, such a sum as asked for in the suit would have been a great loss to the company and Percy feared that it would actually mean the end of the business. This uncertainty led the partners to cancel plans for the 1950 and 1951 Get-Togethers. Finally, the case was settled out of court with a considerably smaller judgment award to the family.
With the anxiety of the law suit behind them, the partners decided to host a Get-Together once again in 1952. The convention, which was held in the tent theater, was well attended with over 600 magicians registered. Magicians were eager to attend, and those appearing on the programs for the public performances were happy to have been booked. Following the event, however, Percy vowed not to have another Get-Together in Colon because he felt the local citizens had taken advantage of the magicians by raising room rents from $1.00 to $2.00 a night. Percy also expressed disappointment with the lack of cooperation on the part of local businessmen, whom he felt should cosponsor the event. After all, the local businessmen did benefit by the tourist trade during the week of the Get-Together. Businessmen in nearby towns had made offers to cosponsor the event, and in October, 1952 Percy and Recil accepted such an offer from the Three Rivers Chamber of Commerce for the 1953 Get-Together. The "Magic Capital of the World" had lost the most prestigious gathering in magical circles.
Misfortune again struck the Abbott Magic company in the early morning hours of Saturday, November 15, 1952. Once again, it came in the form of a fire which leveled a building that had been recently purchased to house the metal shop. In addition to losing the stock and some of the metal working equipment, the firm lost the tent theater and stage equipment which had been stored in the building. The cause of the fire was never fully discovered, but faulty wiring was suspected. The building was only partly covered by insurance and, because of the faltering financial situation of the business, the partners decided not to replace the structure. The metal shop tools were moved into the basement of the cement block building.
A period of decline in the popularity of magic set in, and the expansion of the late 1940ís were contrasted by the atrophy of the business in the early 1950ís. The business was failing to get the orders it had in the past. Magicians were not buying new tricks. Some magicians were not even replacing worn out equipment. Magicians, in general, were finding it difficult to find bookings. Some professional magicians were forced into other lines of work to earn a living. One major reason for all this, as explained by Percy, was the advent of television. When he found out that one of his employees had purchased a television set, he exclaimed, "Donít you know that is bad for business?" In his opinion (Bordner concurred), people would simply not turn out to see a live entertainment when they could sit in the comfort of their own homes and be entertained by the "magic box". He was correct. Working magicians became fewer and fewer. The ultimate "trick" could be purchased at the electrical appliance store. How could pulling a rabbit out of a hat compete with a magical tube that could transport the viewer into fantasy land?
The orders continued to decline and business fell off. The branch and retail stores were closed. Gradually, Abbott and Bordner were forced to lay-off many of their employees. Though not a large number, under normal circumstances about 30, the number of employees dropped to an all-time low in 1957. There were two people in the wood shop, one painter, one printer, and one employee in the sewing department. Recil and Percy handled all the office work, including the shipping. In March of 1957, the last issue of Tops was published and the following year the annual Abbott catalogue was simply a reissue of the 1957 edition with no new material. Gross sales in 1959 had dropped to $55,000.00.
The only bright spot for the magical enterprise during these years was the Get-together, which brought many magicians into contact with Abbott merchandise. These Get-Togethers were held in various nearby cities including Sturgis in 1955, Battle Creek in 1956, Niles in 1957 and 1958, and Coldwater in 1959. Regardless of the good attendance at the Get-Togethers, Colon had suffered greatly during the decade which some writers now characterize as the "Good Times" era.
Percy Abbott had arrived in the United States in 1926, enroute to England. He had never completed his journey. Following the Get-Together of 1959, he decided the time had come, not only to finish the journey, but also to retire from the business which he had founded. Percyís partner from the beginning, Recil Bordner, purchased Abbottís half of the business and became sole owner of the worldís largest magical apparatus manufacturing firm. Percy Abbott, with his wife, Gladys, left for the long-awaited visit to England.
Percy Abbott finally arrives in England in 1959

Percy Abbott finally arrives in England in 1959...
greeted by fellow magicians. Only 32 years late!!!

Picture of Ralph Edwards, Sally Banks and Harry Blackstone

Television's "This is Your Life Blackstone", was aired March 9, 1960.†† Pictured here is Ralph Edwards interviewing Sally Banks, while a†† surprised Mr. Blackstone looks on. Sally became a nanny for the†† Blackstones.

In an effort to re-vitalize the business, Bordner embarked on an advertising campaign in several magic magazines. He made plans to resume the Get-Together in 1960. He planned to host it once again in Colon, but canceled the event when his former partner died in August. Throughout the remaining months of 1960, Bordner continued his advertising campaign, and in January of 1961 the company resumed publication of its magazine under the title of The New Tops.
At the same time, Bordner had a catalogue printed with over 450 pages containing more than 100 magical items, including a substantial number of new effects offered for the first time. All of this activity pointed toward August of 1961 and the resumption of the Get-Together. Bordner had patched the breach between the company and local businessmen. Plans were made to stage the event in the gymnasium of the new high school with the Lions Club as cosponsor. The stage of the new facility was adequately equipped and extra bleachers set up at the rear, making the seating capacity nearly 2,000.
The success of the 1961 Get-Together was insured when Bordner made arrangements for Harry Blackstone to perform for the first time at a Get-Together. The elderly Blackstone, as previously stated, had not been invited to past Get-Togethers because of the long standing disagreement between him and Percy Abbott.
Blackstoneís appearance at the 1961 Get-Together was a smashing success, as the magicians watched him with nostalgia as he re-created the illusion of the "Dancing Handkerchief".
The Great Blackstone received a standing ovation from the audience of conjurers and laymen. The Get-Together had returned as the greatest magic convention of them all and Colon was truly the "Magic Capital of the World". Blackstone died a short while after the 1961 Get-Together and was buried in the Colon Lakeside Cemetery. Thus, the first two giants of Colonís magical experience were gone, but the third carried on with renewed vigor. The 1961 Get-Together was a great success and Recil Bordnerís magic manufacturing company was on the road to economic recovery.
Bordner continued to invest in advertising and throughout the 1960ís the company received additional free advertising from the local and national news media. The company was featured on television in a program called, "Industry on Parade". The Saturday Evening Post ran a story on the business, and Recil Bordner appeared on the television program "To Tell the Truth". The publicity for the company was tremendous and sales continued to rise.
Percy and Gladys Abbott

Percy and Gladys Abbott, at their home in Colon

By the mid-sixties, Abbottís business was back to its previous level of prosperity and continued to grow. Each year brought more magicians to the Abbott convention than the previous one. New attendance records were set at the public shows. The magic business, in general, experienced a renaissance.
Magicians were being booked to entertain at all types of events, from childrenís parties to business trade shows, where magical effects are used to demonstrate new products. Television, one the enemy of magic, now proved to be a tremendous promoter for conjurers. There were weekly childrenís magic shows and magicians appeared on late night talk shows.
A great boost to Bordnerís business was the building of the props for the "Ice Capades" show which featured Harry Blackstone, Jr. in a magical extravaganza. The special equipment which had to be custom built, took several weeks to construct and the total income
to the company was several thousand dollars. Just as the business was thriving and new goals were being considered, Recil Bordner was hospitalized in the spring of 1967. He had suffered a stroke as the result of pain from ulcers. The 1967 Get-Together was canceled, but Bordnerís recovery was swift and the 1968 Get-Together was a complete success. By 1970, Recil was again looking forward to expanding the business.
Bordner purchased a building on the main street of Colon to use as a retail outlet, but more important as a diversionary device to keep the curiosity seekers at bay during the chaotic month of August when tourists swell the population of the town to twice its normal size. It was not that Recil did not like people to visit the showroom at the factory, but August is the month when preparation for the Get-Together is at its frantic peak. Unless a "customer " is seriously interested in buying magical equipment, there is little time for sales people or Recil himself to spend time socializing. Therefore, Recil decided it would best suit his purposes to open the store "downtown" during the summer months to accommodate the curiosity seekers and beginning magicians. It was better to have one salesman occupied than disrupt four or five employees at the main showroom.
In 1973, Bordner decided to make another sizable investment by paying one-half the expense for having the high school gymnasium air-conditioned. His share was $9,000. The other half of the money came from the school board, the Lions Club, American Legion, and individual contributions. The air-conditioning system was installed in record time and was ready for use during the 1973 Get-Together, making conditions in the gymnasium much more comfortable. Previously, the audience and performers had suffered greatly as the August temperatures had made the gymnasium virtually a giant sauna. The spectators for the public performances, by 1973, numbered over 1600 each night, and they did not seem to mind paying more for their tickets, considering the new comfort of the gymnasium.
In 1974, Bordner began to make plans for further physical expansion, by purchasing a relatively new building just outside the city limits. This building, recently vacated by a plastics molding company, was twice the size of the original factory. Bordnerís plan was to relocate his wood shop, which makes the custom-built illusions, in the new building. This would allow the metal shop to expand into the space previously occupied by the wood shop. The new building would also be altered to accommodate a paint room, where spray-painting and silk-screening could be done. All painting had previously been done in a small two-room building beside the original factory. This building, by 1974, was simply
Percy Abbott and Recil Bordner, partners

Partners, Percy Abbott and Recil Bordner.

not large enough to do all the work being produced by the metal, plastic and wood departments. Now, painting would be done at both locations. A great deal of new equipment, such as power table saws, band saws, drill presses, drum sanders, and routers, was purchased and installed. The new building was occupied in June of 1975.
Today, Abbottís Magic Manufacturing Company is in better financial shape than ever before. The 1975 Get-Together set new all-time records for both magicians registered and public attendance at the four evening performances, where over 1800 people were entertained each night. The elementary gymnasium was packed from early in the morning until late afternoon each day, with magicians watching demonstrations of new tricks, discussing old and new techniques, and remembering the greats and near greats.

CONCLUSIONS

In the production of magic, Colon has a unique place in Michigan history. No other town its size can claim such wide-spread notoriety. No matter where you go, it seems that someone has heard or read about Colon, "The Magic Capital of the World". Just whether this is a legitimate claim or not, is answered only in the affirmative by the citizens of Colon. It appears to this writer that such a claim is valid. The 1600-plus magicians registered for the 1975 Get-Together in Colon, demonstrated by their attendance, that Abbottís Magic Manufacturing Company is the oldest and most reliable source of magical effects in the world.
To illustrate: F. A. Peller from Nigeria first came to Colon in August of 1972 and returned to the 1975 Get-Together. His trip to Colon in 1975 was primarily a business excursion. He ordered a number of large illusions valued at several thousand dollars. When asked why he had traveled all the way to Colon, Michigan to buy his magical effects, he replied: "Abbottís is the oldest company and has a reputation for building the best magical equipment in the world."
What lies ahead for the magic business in Colon? This question has been asked more frequently in the last couple of years. Considering the success of the Get-Togethers and recent expansion of the workshops, it is evident that the business is economically sound. At the time of the preparation of this paper, sales for the company were at an all-time high and there were no signs indicating a tapering off. The business provides employment for about 35 local people and has substantial influence on the economy of Colon. In addition to providing a livelihood for its own employees, Abbott's is a principal customer for the local hardware store and lumber year. During the Get-together, all businesses in Colon had an added opportunity for profit because of the influx of people attending the event. Recil Bordner has brought his son, Greg (a business school graduate from Michigan State University) into the firm. Some rumors indicate that Recil will soon retire. Regardless of his retirement date, it appears that the magic industry will continue in Colon for many years and Recil will undoubtedly be involved directly or indirectly with the magic business.
The Abbott company has brought several professional magicians to Colon who have decided to make their homes in the serene little town. At the time of this writing, there were no fewer than 12 professional magicians residing in Colon. Through the work of these men and the efforts of Recil Bordner and all the employees at Abbottís Magic Manufacturing Company, Colonís reputations as the "Magic Capital of the World" will be sustained for many years to come.

BIBLIOGRAPHIC ESSAY

Fortunately for the study of the History of the "Magic Capital of the World", there is a wealth of primary sources. The best is Recil Bordner, present owner of the Abbott Magic Manufacturing Company. Bordner is also a good source concerning Percy Abbott. For contemporary accounts of Harry Blackstone for the years 1917 through 1927, Inez Blackstone, his first wife, is the most reliable source. Sally Banks, box hopper (a girl who appears and disappears in illusions), a nanny for Harry, Jr. and a personal friend of Harry Blackstone, is a good source for the years 1927 through 1949. Good material on Blackstone can also be obtained from Monk Watson, a contemporary entertainer of Blackstoneís era who was acquainted with him at the early date of 1917. Wade Drake, the companyís first bookkeeper, is useful for details about the business from 1934 through 1941. The most knowledgeable source for material concerning Tops is Neil Foster, the magazineís present editor. Arthur West, the longest active employee of the magic company, is the best source for material concerning details of the Get-Togethers and on construction of special effects. Information concerning all areas of the business and men who made it can be gleaned from The Colon ExpressL. Percy Abbottís biography, A lifetime In Magic, is a good source for personal background material, but unfortunately it stops with the founding of the business. Articles appearing in other magazines and newspapers must be scrutinized carefully, to separate fact from fiction.


The author of this work can currently be contacted at:
Patrick West / 203 N Athletic / White Pigeon, MI 49099 / (616) 483-7358

[top of page]

The content of these pages was thoughtfully submitted by Joe Ganger, President of the Colon Community Historical Society after permission was granted by the author, Patrick West.
Many thanks!

Return to: St. Joseph Co., MI USGenWeb Page
This page was created 30 Sep 1997 and updated 4 Aug 1998
Design and updates of this page are by Denise Frederick / Copyright © 1997-2000
This Page Has Been Visited times....since since 30 Sep 1997