I Sold My Linking Rings!
By William V. Rauscher
A hobby is a controlled obsession which can be harnessed at will to do one's bidding for the moment or stabled and stalled to await one's pleasure. It should dominate only when leisure, time and inclination call it forth. A hobby ceases to be such when it usurps the place of one's serious vocation and interferes with life's real duties. Magic is the most entrancing of all hobbies. Make certain that you hold the reins of control or it will run away with you, and dire will be the result of your business or profession.
A sign depicting a rabbit holding a wand hung at the entrance to Stuart Robson's Conjuror's Shop alongside a translucent glass panel door on the upper floors of a New York office building at 130 West 42nd Street. I remember opening that door, and entering into the wonderful world of magic. Before me lay a colorful mysterious sight with boxes, tubes, strange-looking devices, cages, and blazing color spectrums of silk scarves. Presiding over all was a cigar-smoking gentleman named Stuart Robson.
My grandfather knew about the shop through Robson's relative, who lived in my hometown of Highlands, New Jersey. My father took me to Robson's shop to buy a puppet rabbit in a hat for me. Robson ushered me into the "secret" backroom, and patiently showed me how to do "Charles - Out Of My Hat," and another trick with ink-stained handkerchiefs in a Lux Soapbox called "Soft Soap." I still do those tricks.
In fact, my interest in magic began before my visit to Robson's shop, but I cannot remember exactly when I was smitten. I think my interest in the art was just always there.
The real beginning of my journey into the world of magic started when a Gilbert microscope set, given to me for my tenth birthday, had a mechanical failure. We returned the set to Tetley's Toy Shop in Red Bank, New Jersey, and as we entered the shop, I spied a Gilbert Mysto Magic set. I wanted that set! I even felt I was meant to have that magic set! And then I knew - the microscope was a mistake. So in place of the microscope I got the magic set, and still have some of the tricks from it.
Next, my grandfather told me about Sam Adams, who had a magic and joke factory in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Immediately I began to plan a visit to the factory. However, while my father was commuting to work in Newark, New Jersey, he discovered a joke shop in the Newark train station. He brought home to me an occasional effect - a wooden ball vase, a wooden red snapper, a vanishing coin in a glass, a squirting ring, smoke from the fingertips, a dribble glass - and last, but not least, a small set of cups and balls. It was always a great day when my father got off the train with a package for me from the magic shop. The best package from those years was a bright red P&L Phantom Tube. From that tube with paper covered ends you could produce silk streamers. An orange crate from my grandfather's grocery store, covered with a colored cloth, became my magic table. The Mysto Set symbol, cut from the box cover, became the emblem on the front of the table. Presto! I was a magician.
There were no magicians where I lived. No clubs. No lectures. No magic shops. No one-day conventions. It was my entire private world, enhanced by my own search. I discovered several things: (1) Popular Mechanics Magazine had a classified advertisement for Magic, Tricks, Jokes and Puzzles; (2) I could send ten cents to a place called Douglas Magicland in Dallas, Texas, and receive a catalog (which I did); and (3) For twenty-five cents I could own a remarkable book called The Johnson-Smith Catalog. This book contained countless intriguing items, and a magic section where many products were offered as "best experienced rather than described."
Now, the mail became very important to me. Waiting for the postman seemed interminable. Sometimes I would walk by the ocean on the rock wall of Sea Bright and Sandy Hook, just to pass time while I waited for the mail to come. I rushed home from school every day, hoping the catalog had arrived. But ordering through the mail was not always satisfactory. For two dollars I once received a half page of instructions and two rubber bands.
I had discovered a secret world. Magic was exciting! The first magic book I owned was Modern Magic, written by Professor Hoffman. Magic was not only an anxious interest, but it also required money to own the smallest trick or book. I earned a few dollars for the book working in my grandfather's grocery store.
The second magic book I read was written by Walter B. Gibson. Long live the memory of that wonderful man! Gibson was a master writer of magic, and the authority on legerdemain. Young people still read his books today, and always will. He was a one-man literary world of magic. He himself was a magical person. Could he have known Houdini, Thurston, and all the greats? Could Gibson have written books for them? He did. I know of no person today, or even in years gone by, who has not been touched by Walter Gibson's magic wand. I waited every month for Gibson's Conjuror's Magazine. I traveled with him in those pages "on the road with Blackstone." I bought Blackstone comic books.
My grandfather had memories of Herrmann and Thurston, and he told me about Houdini doing the milk can escape. During our chats, I discovered my grandfather had a real interest in hypnosis. In the office of his store, under the stairwell to the apartment above, was a thin book entitled Practical Hypnotism, written by Ed Wolft.
My grandmother did not approve of him "dabbling in trances." I later learned that she came down from the apartment one evening to check the locks in the garage storerooms, and found a group of people watching my grandfather place a man under hypnosis. The man was lying between two chairs, while another man stood on his middle. When I heard of that incident, my grandfather suddenly became a very interesting and intriguing man to me. It was whispered in the town that Grandfather once put a man to sleep in the drug store window in Highlands, New Jersey. His own business - THE PROSPECT MARKET - Where Price Figures, But Quality Is The Real Test Of Cheapness - might suffer because of his "strange powers." Hypnosis was later treated as a secret interest.
I attended my first magic show while in grade school when Edd Patterson, "America's Master of Amazement," appeared with his wife. During their act she popped out of a dollhouse, and Edd produced flowers. I was the kid who went on stage to help with the cut and restored Hindu Turban. Even though I was only ten years old, I remember their gray Mercury car, packed with magic equipment. I even remember Mrs. Patterson wore a pink gown with a black top, with black rosettes on the skirt. He became the only magic friend of my youth. I have always thought of him as the par excellence of school performers. Incidentally, Edd Patterson is still performing.
Now I was really hooked on magic. In the late 1940's, J. B. Bobo came to my high school. Volta appeared with his Mystery Bar Act in a fund raising show at the high school. Dr. Neff appeared at the Carlton Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey with his Madhouse of Mystery Show, which was a midnight spook show. John Calvert and his Magic and Models Show also played at the Carlton Theater. Calvert was a suave gentleman with true charisma, who made an indelible impression upon me. He autographed his picture for me, which I still have. I later persuaded my father and grandfather to take me to Lowe's State in New York to see Calvert again.
The P.T.A. in Red Bank once sponsored John Mulholland. It was not a visual memory, but rather like going to school and watching a demonstration. His manner was professorial, and I remember seeing him bring The Linking Rings out of his briefcase. A man named Kara-Kum played a local school. The show started late. People whistled and stomped their feet. Many tricks went wrong. Assistants appeared before they should.
A magician named Dagmar appeared in Red Bank, and I was right there to watch. I saw Dagmar, wearing a white turban, standing in the lobby watching people arrive and buy their tickets. (Actually, he was counting the house!) I wondered, "How could Dagmar appear in an empty cabinet on stage from nowhere when he was already there?" Dagmar's equipment was impressive. He did the Sands of the Desert - placing handfuls of colored sand in water. The water turned red, then black, and then he removed each colored sand dry. During a blackout for spooks to appear, eggs appeared instead, hitting the stage and the performers. Dagmar stopped the show.
Dr. Neff did not have that problem. Neff appeared from a mummy case in a puff of smoke, and no one had seen Neff until that moment. Neff had command and mystery - he didn't need to wear a turban.
And then a minor miracle happened. My grandfather said, "Billy, we are going to meet this man." We did, and so Neff was the first magician that I had ever visited backstage. Neff was very kind, and I followed his career until he died.
During my boyhood, I was able to attend only one convention, which was a small gathering in Plainfield, New Jersey, sponsored by the Magician's Alliance of Eastern States. I remember seeing a magician named Leslie Guest, who did hand shadows. He wore a dress suit of long ago. Jack Chanin performed a Chinese act. The most important person to appear that day was Walter Gibson. I heard others saying, "Gibson is coming - Walter is here."
My grandfather drove his delivery truck regularly to Newark for store supplies. One day I went with him, and while he was buying beef, I wandered around the nearby area and found a magic shop close by. From then on I wanted to ride with him to Newark, especially when I knew Blackstone, the Master Magician and his show of 1001 Wonders was scheduled to appear. I waited every day for that big event.
Blackstone looked like a magician - at least he looked like what I thought a magician should look like. He had white hair and a sensitive face, with commanding eyes. He appeared on stage in full dress - white tie and tails. The excitement mounted when the orchestra played "Strike Up The Band," the opening music. The anticipation grew until the curtains parted. And there was Blackstone, wearing a cape and white gloves. The theater was filled, and the crowd greeted him as a friend, with thunderous applause. The large gold initial B on the black backdrop gave a rather aristocratic stamp to the appearance of this distinguished conjuror as he stepped from the wings.
Then it happened. Many things happened. Two and one half-hours of magic happened. The cape was removed; the gloves turned into birds; flowers sprang from nowhere - and finally a donkey and a spurting fountain appeared on the stage. From nowhere! Blackstone had come to town!
I could not forget that show. I still cannot forget that show. It was big and it was exciting. It was magic in a grand manner! Blackstone was not someone trying to keep a show for 1500 people going for two hours with some paper and envelopes. There were rabbits, girls, floating ladies, light bulbs piercing human bodies, people appearing and disappearing, ducks leaping from a tub filled with water and disappearing into a little house called "Duck Inn," girls changing into rose bushes and vanishing from chests and trunks, while yards and yards of streamers materialized from an empty drum covered with paper. And Blackstone! One minute here, and the next minute somewhere else where he could not possibly be! There were thirty assistants. There were crates piled high outside the theater, cages of rabbits, and trunks of costumes.
I remember Blackstone saying, "I should like to borrow a gentleman's handkerchief, a clean one, preferably folded." The handkerchief was knotted at the top, and he made it dance in an eerie light. Blackstone had turned the handkerchief into a spook before my eyes!. He also made a light bulb float. Blackstone not only did magic - he WAS magic!
One day my grandfather took me to Al Flosso's Magic Shop, but I did not buy anything. This shop was dusty, crammed with used magic and very disorganized. It had a feeling of the past - a haunted feeling. Flosso was a small man who wore wide suspenders, and presided over the shop by himself. Talking with Flosso was like talking to a carnival pitchman up close. He would bellow, "Look at this, kid; look at the workmanship. This was made by Thayer, you know. Whatta ya mean, kid, 'it's too much money.' I'm practically giving it to you. Stand up straight my boy." Eventually his son Jack took over and ran the shop, which is now only a memory.
Another time my grandfather took me to Tannen's Magic Shop in New York. Lou Tannen, the founder, was always gracious. When I was fourteen years old, I remember seeing a pretty lady wearing a full skirt and a large Spanish hat enter the shop. She carried a shoulder bag, and in it was a live trained chicken named Chinaboy. This lady was Litzka Raymond. When I arrived back home I shouted, "Mom! Guess who I saw today at the magic shop? Litzka Raymond! She's the wife of The Great Raymond. Didn't you know that, Mom? And you know what? She had a chicken with her. Yeah, a real live chicken. She was there, really she was there. Boy, that was something.!
I was awed by a man who "lived" at Tannen's Shop called Professor Jack Miller. Professor Miller dressed in a black suit, vest, and bow tie. He wore a pair of pincher glasses on a black ribbon about his neck. And now I thought I wanted to be a magician for life. After all, I felt I was born to do magic.
I saved enough money to journey twice to New York City by bus to take two lessons from Professor Miller. He wanted to sell me his famous "Holdout." I could not afford it, and besides every time he dropped a billiard ball from his sleeve on a rope pulley, he tilted to the side. I had not yet learned to see beyond the talent.
My family began to worry about my future. Magic was becoming a problem. One day my grandfather looked at me and said, "Billy, look at Professor Miller's cuffs. Look at his coat." When I looked - really looked - I saw his clothes were shabby and worn. Then my grandfather asked me, "How much money do you think Professor Miller has in the bank?" I thought to myself, "What difference does that make?" Professor Miller was kind and happy, or at least he appeared to be happy. But he acted like a professor without a classroom or a university.
It was then I realized it might be difficult to earn a living from magic. My relatives said, "Billy, keep it as a hobby. Don't let it become work." That was hard advice to accept as a teenager, particularly after I had already received money for performing birthday party shows.
Other factors were beginning to tug at my life, but still I kept acquiring magic. One evening when I was fifteen years old my father drove me to Jersey City. There in a small apartment I met and watched John Scarne perform card magic for a group of men from the company where my father worked. One of these men had known Scarne from meeting him in a diner, and invited him to perform.
When I was sixteen years old, I learned from a printed article that a great illusionist named Servais LeRoy lived near my home. Finally, I met his sister-in-law after hearing about her from the Episcopal vicar in Keansburg, New Jersey, where she attended church. She was a lovely English lady named Elizabeth Ford. Elizabeth worked in a small eatery in Red Bank to earn enough money to support LeRoy, who was then aged and infirm.
(Incidentally, I never met LeRoy, but I did see him once as he walked slowly down the road, carrying a cane, and wearing a gray Homburg hat and Chesterfield coat. I remember the striking appearance of his long mustache. Outside of his small house was a rusty lion's cage, formerly used in one of his old illusions, and one day I secretly took a picture of the cage. Many years later after his death LeRoy's papers were given to me, and his story has since been told.)
Have you ever considered that magic is the only hobby that is both introverted and extroverted? A magician must turn inward. He must protect his secrets, or he will not be a magician for long. He must also present his mysteries. The urge to show others what you have learned is a factor in helping to express your own personality. Magic helped my shyness as a boy, and enabled me to gain respect. It allowed me to express the person within me. Stamps cannot do this, because collecting stamps is introverted. Collecting baseball cards is introverted, and so is coin collecting. Books are introverted -- but magic books are special. They are extroverted, because you can show someone what you have read and learned by demonstrating it. Magic books are extroverted. Magic unfolds personality. Listen to a child who has just discovered magic as he exclaims, "Hey Mom - pick a card." "Have you seen this one?" "Watch this coin."
Once an audience responds, the magician wants even more. First you show a trick to your aunt, uncle or girlfriend. Then you proceed to a larger audience. The courage it takes to perform is encouraged by the conviction that you can fool your audience, and they will enjoy it. You soon learn that you know things other people do not know. Now you can enjoy the inner strength your feats provide. You see your acceptance in the eyes of others.
The hardest lesson is to decide if you are a really good magician. Time, trial, error, failure and practice level off at some point, and even the worst magicians keep on performing magic.
Magic remained my hobby throughout high school, college and seminary. When I graduated from high school in a senior class of only 40 students, I was the only "magician" in school. During 1950 - 1954, my college years spent at Glassboro State College in Glassboro, New Jersey (now Rowan University), I journeyed to Philadelphia, Penna. to Kanter's Magic Shop. I remember customers could not touch anything in the shop. Kanter always wore a work apron, and asked, "If you mark or bend the cover of that book, who will buy it?"
There was also an elderly man in the shop, who wore an apron and sat on a stool in a side room, mailing packages. This was Kanter's man, Brema, who also did his metal work. It was Brema who made up Walter Gibson's invention of "Nickels to Dimes," and "The Double Bill Tube."
My most unpleasant experience in a magic shop was during the demonstration of an arm guillotine that jammed. The dull blade hit my wrist, and I had a red slice mark on my arm for two days. The demonstrator turned pale when it happened!
After graduating from college, I went on to seminary and was ordained in 1957 to the Episcopal priesthood. Following ordination, I took up my duties in a small church in Florence, New Jersey. In 1960, I became the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Woodbury, New Jersey. When that happened, I did a strange thing. I sold my Linking Rings. I also sold all my magic books, magazines, equipment, collection, and even the remains of my Mysto Magic Set. However, I retained my subscriptions to magic magazines and my initial 1949 membership in the International Brotherhood of Magicians. Since I was planning to travel abroad, I wanted a new type of camera. I needed money, and my salary scale was a low $3,000 annually. At that time I did not want to mix magic with my ministry, and besides I never performed Gospel magic. I wanted my people to respond to Rauscher the clergyman, not Rauscher the magician.
Now I could no longer open my copy of Modern Magic, Thurston's 400 Tricks You Can Do, or Tarbell No. 1. Gone were my glistening P&L Tables with the green felt table covers and gold fringe, lovingly sewn by my mother. My red velvet change bag, my multicolored mutilated parasol, my tin cake pan, my faded flesh painted thumb tip, and countless items that were part of my private world of magic were no longer there for me. I disposed of everything from my Milk Pitcher to my yellow labeled worn box containing my first nickel-plated set of S. S. Adams Co. Linking Rings, -- "The Eighth Wonder of the Universe." I sold the entire collection to a teacher I knew in college for $100. This teacher liked magic, and dated by college girl assistant, whom he later married.
At first I did not miss my treasures at all. The years passed, and only a literary association with magic through magazines remained. I read The Linking Ring, Genii, and Tops. Personalities that I read about as a boy now appeared in the obituary column. Reviews of the shows I had loved came and went. New names appeared on the stages of magic. Plastic replaced wood in the magic dealer ads, and magicians began to appear more frequently on television.
Then twenty years later something happened that proved the lasting, lingering effect magic can have for those who have considered it a friend. I began to miss those items that were so much a part of me. And I began to think again about those Linking Rings. Those two tables set for the show grew magnified in my mind. That red velvet change bag seemed brighter and more appealing than ever.
Finally, I decided to telephone my friend, the teacher to whom I had sold my magic. I asked, "How are you doing? Are you still doing magic? Do you still have the equipment I sold you? Is the stuff in the same suitcases? Do you want to sell it back?" He told me the magic had been used only several times over the years. By a sheer stroke of luck it was all there - from the black thread to the dried-up magician's wax to the crumbled Buddah Papers where you place a coin on the open pink inner paper and fold up the others, then open it, and it is gone. Even the pencil was there with the string that you put through a buttonhole, which the spectator is unable to remove. All my magic was packed away, just waiting to come home!
My friend, the teacher said I could have all my props back for $100 - the price he had paid me years before. Late one night I bought back every item, and brought everything home where it belonged - from dirty left-over rope to tarnished Mysto Palming coins. I repaired the broken P&L table. I polished my Linking Rings. I looked at the bent Merv Taylor Tambour and my tattered feather bouquet. Now I could put it all to work again for the pleasure of others - and for myself.
There is one sad memory of magic which will never leave me, and I offer the memory to you. The unhappiest memory I have of magic is the day I sold my magic. And now, in its place I offer you the happiest memory - the day I was able to buy it back.
I dare you to give up magic. You may be tempted. Go ahead and sell your Linking Rings - but first think about what you are doing. I defy you to sell ALL your props. If you are a true magician, you are the victim of a strange, benign and wonderful obsession. You were born with an affinity to magic. Presto! You are a magician.