Before I begin this episode or at least that portion of the episode which will permit printing, I want to give a small preview of the happenings which led up to the forming of the Thurston Show under Canvas. Howard Thurston and Harry Thurston, although brothers, were two completely distinct and different individuals. I understand that their environmental upbringing had a great deal to do with the fact that they were men of almost complete opposite characteristics. Howard had been provided with more of an education and had become a “gentleman” in every sense of the word, capable of conversation on many subjects, a dynamic performer, a man well-respected and admired by all who knew him. He attained a pinnacle of greatness in the Show World. Harry, on the other hand, was a product of South State Street in Chicago, a regular deeze, dem and doze guy. His life had been one of daily contact with characters of the underworld. His fortune had been made in a burlesque house on this same street.
Now, through the years, Howard had at times been a very poor manager of money, and found himself in financial straits, unable to “move his show.” At such times he had called upon brother Harry to help. In return for this help, he had placed in Harry’s keeping various illusions as security. After a number of years of an ill spent life, coupled with sheer disgust at his own source of income and wanting desperately to leave to a then living daughter some semblance of decently acquired earnings, Harry conceived the notion to use the illusions, put the show under canvas, calling it THURSTON’S MYSTERIES OF INDIA, capitalizing upon the hard-earned and fine reputation of his brother Howard, and thus salve his wounded pride in his own achievements.
All this, without the faintest knowledge of magic or illusions, how they worked, how they ought to be presented or anything pertaining to them. You can well imagine the fear, heartache and rebellion that was experienced by Howard when he realized what Harry’s plans were. In my first season on the show, which was a short one, I remember hearing many conversations between these two men — going on and on, far into the night. Conversations involving fabulous offers from Howard if only Harry would agree not to go through with his ideas and perhaps tarnish forever the name which Howard had built.
Before these mentioned conversations, Howard had instinctively known that his pleas were lost and in order to justify the show as much as possible, he had inserted an ad in the Billboard, asking me, wherever I was, to contact him as soon as possible. This was in the first years of the depression — 1930-1931. Mrs. Abbott and I were playing school and auditorium shows in and around Hillsboro, Ohio. We received the message and found that Howard was soon to play a leading theatre in Cincinnati, so went there for an interview with him. He argued that Harry must not be allowed to actually do the illusions – that there must be someone capable of presenting them. It was his reason for making contact with me. However, at this interview I was supposedly to go on in the show in a very minor capacity – doing one act … an act of the black art Spirit Cabinet and it was understood that Howard was going to start out working the illusions, thus attempting to save his valuable reputation. We proceeded to Hammond, Indiana, there to meet Mr. Harry Thurston, owner of a huge collection of trucks, tent, illusions, theatrical equipment of all kinds. Hammond was the chosen winter quarters for the show. Harry, already fearful of his own ability to “act” had hired another magician by the name of Levante, to present the forepart of the show. The actual happenings were, if nothing else, completely confusing, so to repeat it here again I find my mind cluttered with thousands of “incidents.” In relating some of these they may not appear in chronological order. The first surprise came when only days before the opening of the show I was advised that I and not Mr. Howard Thurston was to present the major illusion, a la Thurston the Great, the Sawing a Woman in Halves. During the stay in winter quarters I had had the job of handling the rehearsals of the illusions, but I had not dreamed that the duty of performing them and in particular this one that was so much a part of the repertoire of the Great Thurston, would fall on me.
The season was very short. I believe we played three towns and then ended in utter failure with a short version of the show on a carnival lot for a run of two weeks, working ten to fifteen shows a day. Because of my previous experience, I also worked the “bally” on the front of the show.
Believing that the show had been such a failure, we returned to our own little mode of showing — schools and auditoriums, but it appeared that Harry refused to accept this initial trial as a failure and began more extensive preparations for the following season. During the early spring months Gladys and I received a visit in Colon from Mr. and Mrs. Harry Thurston. We were treated most cordially and invited to make a trip in a new flashy CORD car to Toledo, Ohio to see the THURSTON (Howard) Show. Upon arrival in Toledo, however, Mrs. Abbott was instructed to sit near the front in the theatre and to take down, as closely as possible, the patter used by Thurston in his presentation of two major illusions — Sawing a Woman and the Asrah-Aga (a very specially constructed illusion, a masterpiece in the hands of Howard and an illusion which incidentally I was given personal permission to reproduce if I ever desired to do so, by the master — Thurston himself.) While Gladys, seemingly unbeknown to the performer, took down the word for word patter — I was instructed in the actual working of the Asrah-Aga … so this too was to become a part of the THURSTON’S MYSTERIES OF INDIA.
We left Toledo after the show and drove through to Chicago. The following day we were shown the storage place of the illusions, a third floor over the famed Burlesque House. We were then cautiously approached with the idea of living on this third floor — a bedroom and kitchen facilities were in the throes of being completed — and I was to oversee the final stages of building and renewing the illusions that were to appear on the “show under canvas.”
Both Gladys and I remember this period as a most unpleasant sojourn, but at last everything was ready to move it to the larger winter quarters and thence to the first location for a show which was Defiance, Ohio.
Thus began a strange kind of orgy in Show Business, terrible but unique, which we were to remember always and which we were to walk away from before the summer season had run its course, with a feeling of having escaped Alcatraz.
It would be utterly impossible to put down in writing, in any order whatsoever, the happenings of these few weeks. I can only make here disjointed notes as these memories roll back. The dual personality of the man Harry, his ignorance, his dictator complex, his strange kindness, his joviality and his disgusting mental concepts are all mingled in the day to day occurrences. It was impossible to tell what his reaction would be to anything. His treatment of others ranged from rank cruelty to a maudlin emotionalism, but always unpredictable. I have seen him mistreat with words, beyond any imagination, one of the many “shady” characters that were forever underfoot, confidence men, dope addicts, drunkards. One or more of these individuals from his past would suddenly spring up and accompany the show until his anger had sent them on their way. A short week after such a deluge against a broken-down dope addict, I saw him weep copiously at the receipt of a telegram received from this very individual who, it appears, had sustained multiple injuries in an accident and was in a hospital, friendless and without funds. The appeal so struck Harry’s heart that he immediately wired the man money and sobbed out his feelings to all. He would literally NOT kill a fly, yet his abuse of those people who worked for him was, at times, beyond belief. He attempted to operate the show on a kind of institutional system. No one of the assistants (mainly the girls) were allowed to leave the tent lot without permission. They were instructed that they were not to have conversation with certain others on the show, etc., etc., etc.
His fears and phobias were intense. I have heard him talk for hours about a few brown (liver) spots on the backs of his hands — alarmed that he might have contracted “leprosy.” His kindness was evidenced only in his spasmodic generosity only to be followed by absurd stinginess. The hiring and firing of assistants (men) was a daily occurrence. This made my work almost impossible, for as one assistant received my tutoring and instruction to help the show move smoothly, suddenly he was fired and another new recruit was there for me to cope with. The assistants were not, in reality, assistants. They were mostly roughnecks capable of putting up and taking down the huge tent. At this time we were playing two night stands. This meant that when the show finished, at perhaps 10:30, it was 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning before it moved out to the next location, a matter of 70, 80 or 90 miles. We arrived in the wee small hours. Without sleep, the men were to erect the tent, the stage, all the equipment for the two hour evening show. This sometimes took as late as 3:00 to 4:00 in the afternoon. Often times these poor boys had barely sufficient time to change into the clothes they were to wear, as assistants and stagger (literally) onto the stage behind the footlights.
Not only were what we called “assistants” required to do the work of roughnecks, but even the orchestra was expected to do their share in the “tearing down” and “setting up.” Here an incident happened that expresses more fully than any other I can conjure in my mind at the present, not only the existing situations but the ignorance and stupidity of the man Harry Thurston. Oh, the orchestras changed too — they were hired and fired at the whim of the “boss.” The orchestra that was “in vogue” during the time of this incident was a four-piece affair, quite good and quite adequate. It consisted of a piano player, violinist, drummer and sax-player. This night in question the “tearing down” operations were in full swing when Mr. Harry walked on the lot and discovered that the violinist was not doing his duty in this work. The violinist received a severe tongue lashing and was told that he was to help take down the stage equipment. Although beautifully constructed, the stage equipment for the hanging of the curtains, lights, etc., was made of extremely heavy steel rods and it required real he-man strength to unscrew these jointed rods and take them down systematically. The poor violinist complained in answer to his tongue lashing that he could not do this hard labor because it affected his TECHNIQUE. Harry’s reply was “What the H— do I care about your technique.” The poor man Harry had not the faintest notion of the meaning of the word “technique.” He probably assumed it was part of the man’s anatomy.
Volumes of satire could be written on the misery, the arguments, the dissension and the work that was involved in all this. It culminated, for the record, in Pomeroy, Ohio where Gladys and I drove away from that tent, that lot, feeling as freed prisoners must feel as they breathe in for the first time the free air of release. It had all happened because of the insidious cruel treatment against these boys — assistants or roughnecks whichever you choose to call them, but men from whom every ounce of strength was sapped and who received the unbelievable cash of $5.00 per week plus food in a “cookhouse” that was part of the outfit and a few hours sleep in whatever dirty corner they might find. All this was bad enough, but eventually the food in the cookhouse became so foul (Gladys and I had for weeks eaten in restaurants because we could not tolerate it), when suddenly he decided to cut the food intake of these hard-working men to two meals a day — one meal consisting of rolls and coffee (and then they were asked to PAY 5c for the coffee). Up until this time, although inwardly I had revolted at such treatment, I had managed to stay clear of it. This verdict, about the men, I could not conscientiously tolerate, therefore, taking their part, I went to Mr. Thurston and tried to settle this very unfair situation, pointing out that the quality of the food and its preparation was terrible enough but to limit the quantity that these boys had was unthinkable. We had our conversation in the “cook house.” The cook was disgruntled at my insinuations of the food and the entire affair ended with a demand on the part of the cook that I apologize for the statement regarding the food. This I refused to do. The situation had the appearance that somewhere along the line this cook held an axe of some kind over the head of Herr Thurston, for Thurston simperingly asked that I make the apology. Again I refused and with the refusal I gave, more fairly than I believed was required, a two weeks notice, a promise to break in another magician and we were FREE.
Situations which though serious at their time of existence became, in later years, and during conversations with others who knew of this ordeal, almost humorous. Mrs. Thurston, who had a degree of stage deportment, worked (with Harry as the performer), the famed Asrah Aga illusion. Their quarrels were violent and continuous. Working like this, they were of course at high pitch. Often, unprintable words, flying back and forth between Harry and Rae as she floated upward on the cradle of the Aga, could be heard on the audience side of the footlights — an extremely disgraceful thing.
Before the show had opened that year it was made clear to me that it was Harry’s idea to be THE MR. THURSTON of the show and in consequence to work the real Thurston illusions, Sawing a Woman and Asrah-Aga. I worked out two very necessary things for the show, an Indian street scene with illusions which would alibi the billing MYSTERIES OF INDIA and the other a very plausible, splendid introduction for the appearance of Mr. Harry Thurston, brother to and collaborator with the famous Howard. After this tremendous build-up in the introduction, my star, Harry would saunter on stage, impeccably dressed but with a lighted cigarette dangling from his mouth. He would then proceed to talk — ad lib — often for fifteen minutes. His nasal deeze, dem and doze dialect would drone on during this time on such topics as the depression, the bonus bill for the soldiers, a carnival that he was with at one time, a celebrity in the audience such as the local “sheriff.” His ignorance was blatantly displayed so much so that the introduction was completely a lost cause.
These things, however important, were the least of my many problems and responsibilities. After weeks of practice and rehearsal, I discovered that it was utterly impossible for Harry to memorize even as much as three words of patter. What was I to do. My only recourse was, through- out both illusions, to either mill on the stage with the other performers or to remain in the wings as close to the performing Harry as possible, cueing him not words but entire sentences. The rough and uncouth word which he employed when he was at a loss as to what to say next was “Crack.” Often the word was followed by “Crack, you G.D. so and so Crack.” Show upon show, each word and each gesture had to be fed to him from me. He never learned, it only became a repetition night after night.
There is a degree of imagination required in the working of magic to provide smooth work. There is a romance and a glamour that must be produced and held, so it has to be prevalent in the mind of the performer in order that it can be conveyed to an audience. Harry had none of this. The following illustrates. In the set-up of the Asrah Aga, the girl is introduced — she lies on the couch and then slowly rises (this was the part where all the furious conversation took place), then the final phase . . . the girl is removed via the couch and assistants bring in a silk quilted cover under which, unknown to the audience, is a wire form representing the girl so that when the cover is placed over the couch (at which time the girl conceals herself) the appearance from the audience point of view is that the girl has been covered with the silk. In Harry’s mind, this form was NOT a girl, it was a wire form. Could he be called a realist? Now, in the working, fine threads lead from this form through a complicated hook-up in the flys and offstage. The frame is very light, therefore it can be raised easily. Harry experienced difficulty because these small strong threads cut into his finger and he could never locate them easily. It was necessary that the thread ride easily between the performer’s fingers so that he could, to a degree, control the figure until the time for the disappearance was reached. To overcome this we affixed buttons on short threads on the cover of this frame, so that he could easily find the buttons and use these to locate the threads running to the upper gear. Even with continued admonitions, this figure was always a wire, never a girl, to Harry, so as he searched for the buttons his hands felt around the entire surface of what, to the audience, was a LIVE GIRL. Humorous, but a killing presentation to a magnificent illusion.
Throughout my days of showing and even through the years of business that I have known I have always had both the desire and the ability to make sudden and quick decisions. For myself, I have always found this a successful thing to do. The decision was not always the right one but the mental attitude of making a quick decision was important to me for I did not waste time on regret. I made the decision and proceeded to carry it out. So, in this same manner, in the year 1925 while talking with two other performers in a bar in the Savoy Hotel in Shanghai we suddenly decided to come to the United States. This was my second trip to this country. Within hours we made the necessary arrangements. Being a British subject my passport read ENGLAND, VIA THE UNITED STATES. Thus, when I landed in San Francisco, I paid the required poll tax and received permission to remain in the United States for six months. This is 1959 and I am still here, but that is another story.
As usual, I preferred to work alone. One of the first things I did was to buy a car because even in those days I realized the necessity for a car in this vast country. I proceeded to play independent dates through many of the western states. As months went on I worked east as far as Chicago. I had dispensed with the car and decided to remain in Chicago for some time and perhaps pick up some vaudeville dates. At this time, I lived in what was known as Australian House. Here I was to meet friends and spend a number of weeks which will never be forgotten. I had an apartment in this building and learned to do some cooking for myself. I have never been too happy about the system of vaudeville in this country, even in the days when vaudeville was at its height. I had been brought up to do seven shows a week. This included one matinee and no Sunday show. My introduction to American vaudeville started in Chicago on my first visit to the United States. The Carrell Agency booked me a Sunday date at Milwaukee. I had explained that I wanted to become Americanized. As I was breaking in a new act, the first two shows were interesting, the third and fourth shows somewhat tiring. By the time I had done seven shows in ONE day, it was downright monotonous. For this engagement I received $25.00, less agent commission and expenses. The following day the agent gave me better contracts as I informed him that, show wise, I was now Americanized.