Legend has it that Colon, Michigan, doesn’t exist, except for four days each August, when the magicians appear. More than a thousand magicians from all over the world have been congregating here for the past 54 years, doubling the population of Colon, a town named after the punctuation mark. Colon is one of those places you stop and rest in—but not with quite the same conviction and duration as you would, say, at a period.
In Colon there are no traffic lights, no fast food chains, no shopping malls, and No Parking on Any Street from 2 a.m. until 6 a.m., the signs say. There is a hardware store (Magic City Hardware), a beauty parlor (Illusions Hair Care), a defunct health club (Magic City Fitness Centre), a baseball team called the Magi, and a main street lined with flower pots that look like giant top hats. Colon also has a museum where you can see pictures of Harry Blackstone Sr., the late, great, world-famous magician who lived here from 1925 until 1965. Blackstone attracted a following of magicians, and he helped start what is now Abbott’s Magic Manufacturing Co., the largest magic manufacturer in the world. It’s still here in Colon, inside a low black building decorated with dancing skeletons.
Thanks to Blackstone, and thanks to Abbott’s, Colon became known as the Magic Capital of the World.
The magicians come here as if it were their mecca, raising Cain for four days, and then they all vanish. When that happens, some say, Colon vanishes too, only to reappear the following August when the magicians return.
People who live here say that’s not true. (People who live here do one of two things when the magicians arrive-: skip town, or rent out their extra bedrooms to magicians. Colon has no hotels.)
But then again, what do they know? Maybe the locals don’t exist either, except for four days each August. Life in Colon is mysterious, all right. Mystery is what lends significance to this seemingly insignificant town, a compact town, threaded by Route 86, and bordered on either end by giant water sprinklers shooting in spasms over cornfields headed forever into the horizon.
“Now, remember, I’m not God,” is a common disclaimer you hear in Colon during the Magic Get-Together. This is important. A magician will say this before performing a trick so as to assure you of his flesh-and-blood status. Magicians consider themselves entertainers, nothing more. None of these people pretend to have supernatural powers. People who make such claims are not allowed into the brotherhood of magicians, because they are not abiding by the honor code, inside the brotherhood, magicians share tricks with generosity and pride. The reason they never reveal tricks to outsiders is, simply, because they have sworn to one another that they never would. Magicians have a heightened sense of honor. Magicians are some of the happiest people you will ever meet.
“Hey, watch this,” is another common thing you hear in Colon during the Magic Get-Together.
“Hey, watch this,” says a man who blows a bubble, then catches the bubble, turns the bubble into a solid ball, bounces the ball, turns it back into a bubble, and pops it. And then he leaves.
“Hey, watch this,” says another, who takes a quarter from you, sticks his cigarette through it, smokes the cigarette as it sits there stuck through your quarter, returns your quarter, and then he leaves.
“Hey, watch this,” says yet another, who performs a simple sponge ball routine, and then, just as he is about to leave, reveals the fact that your wrist watch is inside his pocket.
It goes on like this. There are magic shows, magic lectures, magic tricks for sale, jugglers, ventriloquists, and levitating bodies all over the streets and diners and lawns of Colon. Still, most of the action happens in the high school, which is air conditioned.
“It’s cute, I’m telling you,” says Jack Bridwell, a magic salesman. He is out here just across from the home-ec room, where tables have been set up for people to sell tricks. He is demonstrating a flower routine to Aaron Olson, a 16-year-old magician from Ripon, Wisconsin.
“This bo-kay comes loose, see?” says Jack. “Now you say, Tm going to water the plant’ . . . and three snakes pop out! Oh, it’s a beautiful thing. ‘Abbott’s Gufus Plant’ we call it. Whoops, just a little dust on that, see, it comes right off. . . .”
Aaron is not convinced. He’s looking for something a little more dramatic.
“Last month I vanished a fire truck,” announces Aaron. (The word “vanish” enjoys a special usage in magic language. One does not “make something vanish.” One “vanishes something.”) Aaron has been doing magic tricks since he was 3 years old. “And I can’t stop. Its almost like a drug. I won’t be able to stop. I’ll be doing tricks until the day I die.” Vanishing the fire truck—which he did in front of 4,000 people—was a lifetime achievement. “I cried,” he says. “I cried for two days. I was just so moved.”
Next year, Aaron hopes to saw a fire truck in half.
“Cool,” says Franz Harary, a 30-year-old magician standing by. The two have just met. Franz is famous. Franz did all of the effects for Michael Jackson’s “Victory” tour. Soon, Franz hopes to vanish a Las Vegas casino, saying he’s using a new technique that enables him to vanish virtually anything. “I could vanish Long Island,” says Franz.
“Cool,” says Aaron.
Franz says Aaron shouldn’t saw a fire truck in half, though. “You’ll get known as ‘that fire truck guy’,” says Franz. “You should do a ship or a chopper.”
Aaron considers this. “How about the Concorde?”
“Excellent,” says Franz. “Saw the Concorde in half and then you’ll be somebody.”
Aaron walks away, shaking his head, saying you just can’t get advice like this in Ripon, Wisconsin.
Later, Franz goes out and levitates a lady over a lake.
Young magicians come to Colon to meet their idols, to get energized, to plan newer and more amazing feats. Old magicians
come to Colon to look back and revel in a life worth living.
Both forces come together at the cemetery, where old and young alike congregate. Just off Route 86, the cemetery is generally considered Colon s main attraction. Magicians are buried here, all of their gravestones spread out like an audience surrounding the great stone of Harry Blackstone himself.
“It’s a flame.”
“It’s a tulip.”
“It’s a phallic symbol.”
“No, it’s a flame.” People wonder what Blackstone’s gravestone is actually supposed to represent. It’s a big oval thing sticking up in the air. Terry Seabrooke, a veteran British magician, is out here taking pictures of it. Most magicians who come to Colon do this. Terry does magic tricks for, among other audiences, the Queen of England. Dukes and princes and princesses gather around the Buckingham Palace ballroom and sit at Terry’s feet. Still, his favorite place to come is Colon.
“Because this is more off-the-wall than anything that ever was,” says Terry. His two friends, Mercer Helms and George Jackstone, agree. Mercer used to do the warm-up show for Phyllis Diller. George got his training as an assistant to Blackstone, and then went on to do the warm-up show for Elvis Presley.
The three aging magicians wander through the cemetery, looking for their friends: Here’s the “Amazing Conklins,” here’s “Shorty,” here’s “Bill Baird the Magnificent Fraud.”
George says he wants to end up here, too. “With me, they’re going to split my ashes,” he says. “Half is going in Chicago with my wife, and then somebody’s going to do a dirty trick with a spade and dump the rest of me here with Harry.”
Terry: “I’ll pour a bottle of scotch over you.”
Mercer: “Hey, here’s a stone for Little Johnny Jones … He’s not even dead yet.”
Terry: “Poor bloke. He must be very uncomfortable.”
The three men continue to poke through the cemetery, sharing memories, kidding one another, at times doubling over with laughter in the dry August air. Mercer bends down, arranges some flowers around a friend. “The thing is,” he says, “it’s the only happy cemetery I’ve ever been to. Have you noticed the happiness here?”
When the big evening magic show finally begins, all the bleachers and the entire basketball court of the Colon high school gym are filled with people. This house has been sold out, in fact, for years. Young people in the back. Old people up front. The generations move this way. You wait until someone dies to get closer up. Looking from back to front is like looking at the movement of time.
Backstage is a manic scene of glitter and gold and rabbits in cages and doves in cages, and people sweating, and giant boxes and chain saws whizzing to and fro. There are dogs dressed as tigers. And a pig dressed as a rhinoceros. And two men dressed in drag poking these animals around, their magic act based on the theory that everyone loves an identity crisis.
Standing alone, ready to go on, is Earl Ray Wilcox. His small table rests on a few rickety wheels. He has a top hat, and no other props. He is an old man who still looks young and it is in this solitary figure that you can get a glimpse of why, in the end, magicians have such happy souls.
“I don’t have anything hooked on my body or nothing,” explains Earl. “Fifteen years ago I had an act with gadgets all over me. But I scrapped it. Too much crap to deal with. I thought, ‘Hey, a real magician wouldn’t do that.’”
Sandwiched between acts of fire and glitter and birds and hidden wires, Earl comes on stage alone.
He says nothing. He looks at his audience. Suddenly, he pulls a coin out of the air, looking himself surprised to find it there. He pulls more coins out of the air, more, and more, and more, filling up an entire bucket with half-dollars. He pulls cards out of the, air. He pulls coins and cards from his feet. He is graceful. He is balletic. He pulls cards from his mouth, turns them into giant cards, turns them into jumbo cards. Flawlessly, Earl seems to dance with his own magic.
The people applaud respectfully, like you do at the symphony.
“Well, I’m done,” says Earl, coming backstage. “I’m relieved. I’m hungry. I want a drink. Oh, it’s a big happiness.” He is dripping with
sweat. One drop hangs on the end of each ear lobe. “You actually get yourself into a high out there, doing magic,” he says.’*I do. It’s a hard feeling to describe. It’s unique. I go out there and I say, ‘Hey, I’m a magician.’ I am going to do things that can’t be done. I say ‘Hey, I am going to pull coins out of the air.’ And I really believe I’m doing it.
“For 11 minutes I actually believe in myself.”
Afterward, all the magicians go to the Legion, Post 454. They drink beer out of plastic cups, and eat hamburgers presented to them on paper plates each garnished with a cherry tomato rolling uncontrollably. And long into the night everyone does magic tricks—Aaron, Franz, Terry, George, Mercer—all the magicians are here. Except for Earl Ray Wilcox, who is done, this day, believing in himself.
Maybe Earl doesn’t exist, except during those 11 minutes of belief. Maybe it all works this way.