Elmer Gylleck was a Chicago architect who did a bumbling
comedy-magic act built around a character he called Dr. Clutterhouse. Dr. Clutterhouse would come on stage clutching a briefcase and carrying
an umbrella. The briefcase was possessed, full of odd spirits; ghosts
would fly from it, and gunshots would ring out whenever Clutterhouse
opened the thing. When the briefcase wasn’t bedeviling him, the Doctor
would be having table problems (he invented a wonderful collapsing
table prop) or any of a number of other slapstick scenarios that were
reliable crowd pleasers. Gylleck had a nice, clean act, with solid
magic chops and plenty of laughs. Very influential. I’ve seen I don’t
know how many third-rate Clutterhouse knock-offs over the years.
In the ’60s there was a shift, and the theatrically baroque Clutterhouse sort of thing pretty much disappeared. There were all of a sudden these balloon workers all over
town. A guy named Jim Davis was working Old Town, making thousands of
balloon animals a week and drawing crowds and making lots of money.
This fella was actually pretty good. He’d make giraffes, elephants, all
sorts of interesting stuff. He actually wrote a useful little book on
the subject —One Balloon Zoo, I think it was called. And
there was another guy, Jack Dennerlein, an ad-man who also did good
balloon work –tremendous birds– and he did a book, New Twists For Balloon Workers.
Don Allen was one more Chicago magician who cashed in on the whole
balloon thing. He’d gotten his start, I seem to remember, as a
bartender who did magic tricks for the customers, which is something I
don’t believe you see much anymore. Which is really a shame, because
little pocket and card tricks are things that can help a bartender pick
up a few extra tips, not to mention the occasional private party or
corporate gig on the side. Anyway, I think Don Allen did a book on
balloon tricks as well, Don Allen‘s Balloon Work…or, no, it was Don Allen‘s Rubber Circus. That’s right. That’s exactly what it was.
For a long time I was kicking around the idea of doing a little book
of my own, something more like a history of balloon work, maybe even a
historical overview of balloons in general, but to be honest with you
it just seemed like too much fucking work. Steve Martin, of course, had
some wild early success with balloon work. Everybody knows Steve
Martin, but guys like Jim Davis and Jack Dennerlein are pretty much
When I graduated from college I used to hang out at magic shops,
great old places like Magic, Inc. in Chicago, or Eagle Magic in
Minneapolis. I was never really much of a magician myself; I didn’t
really have the discipline to get much beyond the hobbyist stage. But I
always loved the whole culture of magic, and for a number of years I saw as
many magicians as I could, and for a time I got steady, small-paying
work writing patter lines for a number of magicians around the Midwest.
I also did a short-lived newsletter that ran profiles of regional
magicians, history pieces, a patter column, and a lot of
advertisements for mail order gags and pocket tricks. We had quite an
impressive roster of subscribers and the thing made money on a
shoestring, but it just got to be too much work for me, and I’ll be the
first guy to admit that work has never been my strong suit.
When it comes to magic buffs I’m kind of an oddball in that I’m
happy as a fucking clam if I have no idea how a guy did what he just
did, if you see what I’m saying. I don’t want to know. I still like to
be fooled. That’s the appeal of it for me. I want to be one of the
slack-jawed yokels in the crowd, shaking my head in dumb amazement. I
like the history more than the how-to; the history of magic is full of
tremendous characters, genuine oddballs, and, frankly, a number of guys
who were crazy as shithouse rats. I like a magician who has a spooky
little something in his eyes; the very look of the guy should raise a
few questions in the mind of the audience. If the guy’s already got you
wondering before he’s even done a single trick, well, hey boy, he’s
got you right where he wants you.
Magic’s an amazing thing. The same basic repertoire of tricks has
been baffling and entertaining people for generations, and precisely
because the majority of the people in the audience feel exactly like I do –they
don’t want to know how all those old tricks are done. Which is why
you’ll still see these characters in tuxedos doing tricks with scarves
and pigeons, and sawing women in half and pulling rabbits out of hats.
If Joe Blow really wanted to he could figure out how every one of these
tricks is accomplished with one visit to a library or a little poking around on the internet, but he doesn’t want
to. And that’s a beautiful thing. That’s the real magic.
The other thing I like to tell people is that magic is a whole lot
more than just the usual elaborate smoke and mirrors productions you see
so often these days. A great magician can still blow your mind with
nothing but a quarter or a deck of cards. I remember Max Holden, a hand
shadow artist who could hold an audience and mesmerize them every bit
as effectively as these guys who move Winnebagos or make elephants
disappear. I never did figure out how Holden did his famous "Monkey in
the Bellfry" number. And for my money there’s still nothing better than
a real professional close-up man like Milton Kort, a cups- and-balls
fella who was also a virtuoso with coins and a deck of cards. A man like that
could fool and entertain an audience in even the most casual and
intimate of settings.
Another terrific old
balloon performer who I should mention just came to mind: Jim Sommers, who used to do a
routine with balloon animals at the Pickle Barrel North in Chicago, and
also, I seem to recall, did his own little book on balloon magic, Blow By Blow.
I’ve also seen some dandy cigarette acts in my time. That sort of thing is, of course, taboo these days,
what with attitudes about smoking being what they are. But I still
remember a fat redhead –for some damn reason I can’t recall the
fellow’s name to save my soul– who did a masterful bit he eventually
marketed to the trade with the high-falutin’ title, "Ireland Simplex
Cigarette Production." And then there was Ed Marlo’s brilliant "Cigars,
Cigarettes, and Pipes" routine, which I saw a half dozen times in the
early ’70s. That guy did things with a cigarette I still can’t believe
are possible. As I was saying, I’ve always admired a man who can work
without fancy props, stooges, or floozies.
And despite what some of the Bible-bangers might think, magic
doesn’t have to be at odds with the teachings of the Good Book. I have
fond memories of a fellow by the name of Joseph White, a magician who
called himself "God’s Magical Midget." This guy did an entire act built
around Bible stories and religious lessons. A very effective little
production all around, a dynamite show, and I’ll be the first to admit
that I’m not exactly a holy man. A fellow who could learn to perform basic
routines with a Biblical theme or religious patter was guaranteed
steady work at chuch functions, socials, and Bible schools.
I still remember when "Industrial Magic" was a new concept, and guys
were learning that they could use magic presentations to sell product.
In the mid-’60s it seemed like every trade show, convention, sales
meeting, and grand opening featured a magic act. It was damn good
business all around until the bottom pretty much fell out of the whole
thing. These days they hire motivational speakers or they get
half-dressed broads to stand around their booths to hand out
I have a precise memory of the very moment magic first got me in its
clutches. I was at a little carnival somewhere with my grandparents,
and there was an aging illusionist who broke a slab of granite over the
body of a purportedly catalepsed subject who was suspended from the backs of two
"Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Human Bridge!" the old magician shouted, and then he swung his sledge hammer.
This was a long time ago, of course, and I think what I saw that night was magic. Like I say, though, that’s the beauty of the racket. All these years later I still don’t know, but I remember that moment like it was yesterday.