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Linking Ring Review of Pleasant Nightmares

Dennis’ Deliberations……

“I always drank, from when it was legal for me to drink. And there was never a time for me when the goal wasn't to get as hammered as I could possibly afford to. I never understood social drinking, that's always seemed to me like kissing your sister”.

Horror-story author, STEPHEN KING, in an interview, Sept. 14, 2000

I just finished reading my copy of Reverend William Rauscher’s new book, “Pleasant Nightmares”, about the horror-show Illusionist and alcoholic Bill Neff. (The book is available from all major magic dealers)  It is a valuable look at Neff’s tormented and twisted life and the personal psychological carnage to his family and others he left behind.

It contains much of Neff’s unique magic, rare photos, lists of props and routines. There is also a heartbreaking interview with his abandoned son.  Rauscher is an Episcopal Canon and Priest and his writing reflects a pastoral style of literary expression.  The book itself is a kind of Midrash on the tragedy of Neff’s alcoholism. Neff was a haunting and gaunt stage personality who created and performed the finest themed illusion show of the “Ghost Show” era. His show was almost always a late night stage show built around ghosts and horror. The plot was simple and yet complex: He would introduce you to ghosts, ghouls and goblins and, at first, protect you from them. Over the course of the show he slowly became one of them until at the end, the stage went dark and “all hell broke loose” in his final classic “blackout” sequence.

The Midnight Ghost or Spook show was one way to profitably play a magic stage show from the late 1920s until the early 1960s.  Mark Walker did a comprehensive review of many of these touring shows in his book, “Ghostmasters”.  These shows mostly played aging urban theaters and small town theaters that still had stages from the vaudeville era.  Radio and then later television severely hurt box office receipts.  This was especially true in the 40s and 50s.  As suburban migration began in the early 50s in the post war baby-boom, inner city theaters saw fewer patrons.

The business was relatively easy to understand.  The magician-illusionist heavily advertised with over-the-top exaggerated claims about how ghosts and ghouls and fresh blood would fill the theater. The stage show was booked with an inexpensive “B” horror movie and began at 11pm or midnight after the final regular feature. The show consisted of a magician with a few comedy effects and illusions and ended with a “black out” where all the lights were turned off and the magician and his crew played loud music and waved luminous cloth which provided “a visit with the spooks”. After the black out was over, the “B” movie would begin. The business angle was that the event, if a sell out-and they frequently were-, was a significant profit boost for the theater.  Here is a note for some of you who are not old enough to remember the Hollywood studio system: They were motion picture factories and continuously cranked out feature films to fill their company-owned theaters (The Warner, The Fox, The Paramount, The RKO, and others).

The big studios made expensive and top billing movies (The “A” films) with name stars along with cheaper films with lesser stars (The “B” films). The whole idea was to keep film product coming out of the studios to fill their screens.  When the Federal government forced film companies (known as The Paramount Case of the 1940s) to sell their company theaters, the “B” film pretty much came to an end. Every film was sold by bidding and the industry was opened up to Independent producers.  The last vestiges of the old “Studio System” came to an end about 1960.

I am mentioned in Rauscher’s book.  Rauscher used me as a source on Chuck Windley’s background. Chuck, my old 1950s boyhood friend from Norfolk, Virginia, had moved to New York City in the early ‘60s and was one of Neff’s last assistants. In the late 60s, when I lived near Washington, D.C., I built and repaired many of Chuck’s illusions. He worked full time doing school shows and amusement parks with his wife Shirley and daughters. Chuck is now semi-retired and lives again in his boyhood hometown in Norfolk, Virginia.

Roy Huston is extensively mentioned. Huston had been the named successor by Neff. This was not to be since Neff had no route or business to assume and in his alcoholic stupor did not really want to quit the business. Roy did, however, create his own Spook Show that played after Neff died in 1967.  Roy now lives in Sarasota and has been a fixture with his magic on circuses, carnivals and what is left of ghost shows. He recently appeared at several Florida magic conventions. I saw his show again at “Magic by the Bay” In Tampa this last winter. Roy is, of course, much older and a lot slower but the old spark of fun made his act a pleasure to watch.    I first saw Roy with his big illusion show at the MAES in 1964. In his younger years he looked a lot like a young John Moehring.  Roy details his fascinating story to Rauscher about how he retrieved Neff’s illusions from Neff’s old dilapidated truck in New York City.

I saw Neff perform in New York the early 60s and again briefly met him in the mid 60s while I was in New York with my family.

The saddest part of the book is how Neff was furious with his first wife when she became pregnant with his only child.  Neff arranged for her to get an abortion, which she refused, and then he horribly abused his son during his years as he was in a continuous alcoholic fog and psychotic madness.  His first wife stayed married to Neff until the beginning of the 50s even though he had been living with Evelyn, his younger assistant, for most of the 1940s and had totally abandoned his wife and his only son.

Neff was living in a residential hotel in New York and somehow was known to an uncle of mine. This is what originally led to me knowing more about Neff other than just his famous Necktie and Rope trick or as the creator of “The Frame of Life and Death” illusion, which was justifiably promoted in old Abbott’s catalog.

Neff could not have performed enough magic to have made a decent living after the mid 50s so he had to have been doing something else or a part of some scheme to have been able to live in New York. Chuck said he did a few private parties and “had family money”. Phil Morris believes he was busking on occasion. Neff’s father, I am sure, helped support him. According to Rauscher, Evelyn worked as a concierge for the Hotel Taft and that explains some of the connection to my uncle who handled limos and entertainment transportation through The Teamsters in New York. I seem to remember that Evelyn was mostly a PBX (the old telephone switchboard) operator at their hotel to help pay the rent.    When I saw Neff in about 1960, he was doing a run at The Paramount Theater in New York. When I visited New York the year of The World’s Fair in 1964 Neff was in pretty bad shape. He was very brief but formally friendly.

It took me many years to realize that Neff’s show was his own metaphor on getting intoxicated… At first your mind sends you warnings that you really don’t want to ‘tie one on’, the fear and painful recollections resurface in fleeting glimpses.  Neff peppered the beginning of his show with illusions and effects that seemed to foreshadow the last part of the show. But you ignore the warnings and engage in the playful nonsense and fun of getting high. At the beginning of a drunken escapade, everything is a laugh. Neff’s silly jokes and playfulness with the near naked women were very much the actions of the early stages of an uninhibited drunk. Finally you get seriously intoxicated. The pace slows and everything becomes a deliberate calculated struggle.  In Neff’s show, fear and loss of control took over with the presentation of the Noma. You are transformed into a monster. The dark pall of unconsciousness finally descends.  In the end, you pass out (The Black Out!)  Bill Neff then wishes you “Pleasant Nightmares!”

Bill Neff’s influence can be seen in the collection of illusions I perform.  I supplied the details and photos of the Noma Illusion that Paul Osborne published in Genii Magazine in the August 2005 issue. I have performed that illusion which is now on loan to the Vince Carmen Show at Houdini’s Showplace in Sarasota, Florida. I still own and perform The Frame of Life and Death. Mine was made by Abbotts and came to me by way of the Harry Wise Ghost Show collection.  I have reworked and improved the Bill Neff Rope Trick and it is a regular feature of my stage show. Neff used a very simple “Hold out” and I was never happy with his set up.  I created a hold- out that is weighted so the effect can be performed anywhere within the show by simply dropping my right hand and letting it fall into my palm.

Canon Rauscher has contributed a valuable text for the history of magic and for understanding the tragedy of alcoholism and drug abuse (chemical addictions). He hints at some possible psychological heartache that Neff had.  Bill Neff has been the boyhood friend of film actor Jimmy Stewart. They lived in the same town and grew up together and Stewart was Neff’s early partner in magic. Was Neff disappointed at Stewart’s fame and his own obscurity?  Neff’s father was as financially successful as possible as Bill Neff came of age in The Great Depression. Bill Neff psychologically struggled to be happy selling Insurance. Did his marriage to a wonderfully domestic wife who wanted a home life and was not interested in show business, tip him over the edge?   Did Neff turn to the Occult as a means of finding psychological certainty? Was his second wife Evelyn an “enabler” and contribution to his problem?

Modern psychology can offer a lot of insight into human motivations. The last 50 years have seen developments in understanding the role of brain chemicals that also offer clues at what motivates people.  Sadly, the help we have today was not available to Neff in his prime years.   Before the modern era of neuroleptics, starting with chlorpromazine in the 1950s, positive long-term results for psychotic patients were limited.

French chemist, Paul Charpentier, synthesized a phenothiazine antipsychotic, Chlorpromazine (Later sold in the U.S. as Thorazine) in December of 1950. Clinical trials in Paris France in 1953 (Jean Delay and Pierre Deniker) almost seemed miraculous in showing improvements in thinking and emotional behavior among psychotics. Chlorpromazine became favored over the previous therapies of electro convulsive and insulin shocks and psychosurgical treatment (lobotomy) which caused permanent brain damage. Ironically this was about the time that Neff was irreversibly sliding into the final stages of his alcoholism.

Quickly from the late 1950s until today, the psychiatrist’s tool chest filled with better potentially helpful drugs.  (tricyclic antidepressants, monoamine oxidase inhibitors, benzodiazepines ,selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, atypicals, glutaminergic blockers, Naltrexone, Topiramate). Not much in Neff’s time was known about the psychology and brain chemistry behind addiction. More importantly, the social and family aspects of mental illnesses were not understood well and the stigma of those illnesses prevented many people from getting help.   Today we can read about them and understand much from the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). 

The personal moral lesson you can take from all of this is to learn from the Bill Neff tragedy. If you are in show business, keep your thinking clear and keep your emotional health.  If you have other friends in show business (or any other business) with problems realize that a lot of help is available today.  Our local Orlando Episcopal Diocese (and other religious denominations) has mental health counseling available without prohibitive costs.  There are other low cost secular mental health professionals available.

Betty Ford, First Lady of President Gerald Ford, and others have helped to remove the stigma from the term “rehab”. Kitty Dukakis, wife of 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis tells about her treatments in her autobiography.  In the mid 1990s Presidential Candidate John McCain’s wife Cindy told the late Phoenix Gazette political columnist John Kolbe that she finally entered The Meadows, a drug-treatment center in Wickenburg, Arizona and went to anti-dependency meetings twice a week. His Aug. 25, 1994, column was headlined and led with a quote from her: "I'm Cindy, and I'm an addict." Kolbe also drew a straight line between Cindy's drug predicament and the stressful life of being a politician’s wife.

There should be no stigma and only praise in anyone recognizing mental health problems and getting treatment for themselves or others. Politics, show business and just the stress of modern life can create emotional havoc.   Sadly, the very talented and creative Bill Neff was overcome by his problems. Rauscher has given us the tragic story and the lesson to be learned.

Dennis Phillips