Monday, April 27, 2009

The 40th Annual Magic Collectors’ Weekend

An Overview

The weekend unofficially starts on Wednesday with the Knights of Sleight Annual Flea Market. While attendance was down by almost half, lucky buyers got to take advantage of some incredible buys. I purchased a $100 book for $20 from Fred Zimmerman’s table. I thought I did okay sales wise until I heard stories of dealers doing up to $2000 in sales. If you didn’t make it, you missed it.

Due to my current circumstances, I did not attend the whole weekend. I will report on the Friday sessions that I did get to see. Also, some general observations on the event as a whole.

The attendance was shamefully sparse. I am continually amazed that more Chicago magicians do not support a convention in their own backyard.

We can blame the economy for some of the shortage of bodies, but not all. I heard a rumor of some boycotting by long time members. Much of this grumbling is inside political stuff that I am not involved with. Some of it is personal which I cannot even say if it is true. I will say it speaks volumes of the perception of certain people and creates a disturbing impression that my ultimately destroy this event if no addressed. I will not go into specifics here. If the right person asks me the right questions, I will answer them honestly.

Once again, the hotel is less than adequate. The bar situation being one of, and one of my, complaints. In a town of many options, why isn’t there any others?

The dealers’ room was large and spacious. Unfortunately, this magnified the lack of buyers. It was still the right choice. If attendance met expectations, the room provided all the comfort needed.

The events were held in a pavilion tent outside the hotel. Many seemed upset by this, especially on first hearing such. I was. I was wrong. I liked the tent and no apologizes such be needed. The tent was an improvement over the banquet room. Perhaps it was the vaulted ceiling or the intimacy, but I liked the “feel” of it. The one drawback I did not experience, but I heard that when it rained, the rat-a-tat drowned out the speakers.

The Guest of Honor

Last year, many thought that Harry Anderson was the wrong choice for the guest of honor. He really has little if anything to do with collecting or the history of magic. This year, the guest was Johnny Thompson. Again, there were grumblings. They hold less water this time. I agree Johnny has little to do with collecting. However, this weekend is not just about props. It is about the stories those props engender. Johnny is living history, a prop creator and a link to some of the great magicians of the past. Something we are rapidly losing. He deserves to be honored.

The Friday Morning Sessions

As I mentioned last year, the sessions started too early. Not this year, the 11 A. M. start time worked. Plenty of time to recover from a late night and fuel up for the day.

Jim Alfredson started the day. He is the president for life of the Collectors’ Association. I like that. As a side note, I like this man immensely. At my first LA conference I really didn’t know anyone, Jim befriended me and made me feel welcome in a place I wasn’t sure I belonged. Whenever I see him, I try to give him the respect a man of his character deserves.

His talk was on the infancy of the Magic Collectors’ Weekend in the back room of Magic, Inc. It was an interesting reminiscence with pictures. He spoke of the tight quarters and informal nature of the event. It was a bit of show and tell. Something the modern weekend could use, a sense of community.

It was a time of our history being an oral tradition, perhaps the end of it. The stories told there became the foundations of Ricky Jay’s and Jim Steinmeyer’s books. Where else could you talk to a man-Dorny-who attended Houdini’s wake and could describe the condition of the corpse-overly made up to the point of clownishness.

There were “bedroom” dealers at the hotels with “milk house” room heaters on Lincoln Ave. where, back and forth from Magic, Inc., most of the magicians dodged the “working” girls that walked that street. That neighborhood has changed since then.

After Jim, came Tad Ware, who did a talk on the magician Nicola. He touched any many points in Nicola’s life, a few that stick out are:

Nicola, faced with being unable to use a particular theater during his tour, in five days had a 2000 seat pavilion built. He sold out the run. He excellent reviews and many of his performance in the states were standing room only also.

He repeatedly used Houdini’s publicity ploy of using large public escapes to promote his shows. Including at least once doing an upside down straitjacket escape from a balloon.

The talk ended with the dramatic story of Nicola and his staff being shipwrecked in the port of Shanghai. Two of his assistants were refused a lifeboat. They ended up helping to save many of the steerage passengers. They also took photos until the last minute when the finally jumped from the sinking ship. They survived, as did the amazing photos.


One of the best things about the Weekend is spending time with friends. Gordon Meyer and David Solomon invited me to lunch. We went to Ted’s Montana Grill. Delicious. And some good talk also.

The Afternoon Sessions

The first speaker scheduled did not speak. If he is the cancellation I heard about, there was plenty of time to replace him. Apparently, the effort was not made.

Phil Schwartz started the session with a talk about the magic dealer Thayer at war. Spanning from the Spanish-American war to World War 2, he covered not only Thayer’s personal involvement but also anyone associated with the business. He spoke of prices increasing due to material shortages; the efforts of Thayer to sell war bonds; and the erasure of the once religious swastika image from the tricks now that it was a symbol of evil.

Kirsten Voris followed with a talk on Gene Dennis, the girl who knows. Many will remember Gene from the David Abbott book published by The Miracle Factory. She was one of the many popular psychics of the times. Perhaps one of the most famous. She caused a panic in California with one of her, ultimately false, predictions. She gruesomely solved a crime that was never committed. Gene tried to stick to stage entertainments, but the lure of money caused her to be busted for breaking the fortune telling statute in New York.

Gene may be a very early media whore. She made product endorsements. She allowed the press to follow her everywhere. She often showed up at police stations, with press in tow, to give her uninvited advice of cases. In her case, the medium was the message as she wrote a newspaper advice column, did radio shows, and published her own magazine. She was Oprah before Oprah. Mixing dubious advice with mystical nonsense.

Kirsten’s talk was good and interesting. She is an excellent writer. I have no doubts her book on Gene Dennis will be excellent. She does need to work on her speaking skills because she just read her script and never engaged or connected with the audience.

There was to be a presentation of films from the Nicola collection, but technical difficulties prevented this and we were left with about 4 hours for dinner.


So full from lunch, I hung out in the dealers’ room where I spent $130 on a couple of broadsides that the estimable Robert Olsen was selling. On John Greget's table was a Disecto painted with a bright sky and puffy clouds. What the hell? Gordon guested correctly that it was painted in tribute to Doug Henning. Just exactly how do you present the dangerous arm chopping Disecto when it is painted sky blue with clouds?

I then headed to the bar where I got to hang with a few friends, Gordon, Brad, David, David, Dan, P. T., Ross, and Boz. It was also nice to see Frances Mai-ling and family. It was a great time, especially with Boz, one of my crazy uncles. Boz is an endlessly fascinating gentleman who is a terrific storyteller. He is a close friend of 46 years with Johnny Thompson. While he waited for Johnny, he got to talk diving with David and magic with Brad. I am glad I made the introduction. I think they are also.

The Evening Sessions

David Ben started the session with a collection of films from the collection of Sid Lorraine. The films were interesting to watch. They covered the years from the 30s to the 50s. David asked the audience to yell out magicians they recognized but few were forth coming. It would have been better for him to narrate. Some of the magic notables mugging for the camera were Percy Abbott, Mel Stover, T. Nelson Downs, Joe Ovette, Harlan Tarbell, John Ramsey, Bill Neff, Ted Anneman, and Edgar Bergen.

David then took the role of interview and sat down Johnny Thompson for a talk. I hope Jamy Ian Swiss will cover much of this in the new book on Johnny.

In no particular order just like the interview:
At 16, Johnny became a member of the Harmonicats.
He did his Vernon impression as Vernon insulted a bad act at the Magic Castle.
His acting teacher was Uta Hagen.
He was Frank Everhart’s fill in at the Ivanhoe and had to out Tullock Eddie Tullock at a trade show. Marshall Brodien faked a broken arm to get him into trade shows.
Of all the things doing bar magic in Chicago taught him, it was stamina that was most important.
Penn and Teller are the most fun and most challenging to work with. He spoke briefly of his work at Riverview Amusement Park and the 80s boob movie Lunch Wagon.

Final Thoughts

There are continually things missing at this convention. The Old and Seldom seen session was not restored. There was no museum type display ala the LA conference. The show was not relevant to the theme of the weekend.

There was a huge break midday, which should have been partially eaten up by presentations. Instead the preview the Jay Marshall auction which does not belong as part of the convention schedule, took attention. I hope the Magic Collectors’ Association is being reimbursed for the time spent on the auction. The attendees should not be paying to have that as part of their schedule.

This was to the 40th anniversary. There was only one talk on the MCA. Not much of an anniversary party. I hope there is more thought put to the 50th. The Weekend will have to survive until then.

Ultimately, if the Weekend is to survive, serious changes will need to be made. An improvement in the economy will not save this event.

I do look forward to the Weekend every year. I enjoy the talks. I do love that this weekend brings me near some friends I don’t normally see. Being able to send time with Mark and Sue was the best part of the whole weekend. Meeting Gale and Carol was a treat. I’m a lucky guy.


mai-ling said...

Gabe said that if he brings back Old and Seldom Seen he was going to re-format it. I heard similar grumblings plus much more. I had mixed feelings on the entire weekend. At first I did not understand Johnny Thompson being honored but more I read about him the better I understood. And seeing how excited he was to see dad Friday night (since we didn't stay for his part), made it all the better. They go back 50 years plus. When Johnny was 13, as he said. So if anything that was a treat for both parts.

I have a lot of thoughts about the weekend too and many other things as well. I'm waiting for some photos to re-cap the entire week.

It was good seeing you and all others as well.

Gordon said...

This was my 3rd Collectors' Weekend. The first time I attended was exactly for the reason you cited, to support my friends in the local magic scene. I've enjoyed them all in different ways, but since I have no history with the show, the only thing that stands out to me is the relative lack of actual magic that happens during the event. Don't get me wrong, I love the history, but remain somewhat perplexed by the collector mindset.

The Magician said...

nice write up - thanks
nice to meet you too.