Jay Marshall and I are sitting at a card table in the back of his magic store at 5082 N. Lincoln. In front of me he lays out ten playing cards. A surreptitious grin crosses his face as he asks me to take one of the cards. I choose the eight of hearts. He hands me a marker and tells me to draw all over the face of the card so I can see which one was mine. I comply.

He takes the card in his hand and rips it into halves and then into quarters. He shows me the pieces one after another. I am watching him to make sure that nothing escapes me. He closes his fist and reproduces the eight of hearts, my eight of hearts with the markings all over it.

“You don’t have to ask. Nothing will explain that,” Marshall smiles. “No need racking your brains about it. There’s no explanation for it.”

“How do you do that?” I ask.

“Magic,” he shrugs.

Magic Inc. has been around Chicago since 1926. From outside it looks just like any other little shop with interesting knickknacks and antiques in the window. But inside the place is huge. There is an endless network of hallways, closets, and storage rooms. In the back there are a couple of printing presses, which print up phony headlines. There are old files containing hundreds of magic tricks with names like “Pretty Sneaky,” “Atomic Magic,” “Dr. Clutterhouse,” and “Rubber Circus.”

In the basement there are huge boxes filled with pamphlets explaining magic tricks and countless lengths of rope. Down here is where tricks are assembled. The basement is dank and musty and reminded me of a Sam’s Liquors for magicians.

Marshall, a professional magician and president of Magic Inc., leads me into a large, dimly lit hall in back of the shop. The walls here are adorned with a number of antique magic tricks and magician posters. There are lines of framed photos of magicians that are so old they’re no longer glossy, but rather faded and yellowed. A number of folding chairs have been set up in front of a small stage that is hidden by a dark green curtain.

We sit in front of the stage and Marshall begins to tell me about his tremendously successful career, which landed him appearances on Broadway, at Radio City Music Hall, and on the Ed Sullivan Show. He is a lanky man who speaks in a rich, contemplative voice. He wears a dark green shirt with a wide collar, striped pants, and brown shoes that look more like slippers.

JM: It wasn’t the first thing I did, but I was in Ziegfeld Follies, which when you say it seems to put you before the beginning of time, but that’s not true. It was in 1957 and that’s within living memory, and there was a girl named Lawrence who came from Melrose Park and the only thing she did for the Follies one night was to assist me in an act. Then, she became a star in West Side Story.

AL: Carol Lawrence?

JM: [nodding] Carol Lawrence.

AL: What was your act in Ziegfeld Follies?

JM: Sang. Danced. Also, in that show was Sinatra’s son-in-law, who unfortunately died a couple years ago, and I worked with Sinatra in 1953 out in Las Vegas at the Desert Inn.

AL: How’d you start out?

JM: I was a kid in grammar school doing magic in Connecticut, invented what I thought were a couple of pretty clever tricks and found out they’d been invented 100 years before I was born.

AL: What interested you in magic?

JM: Well, I mean, nowadays I can look back and say I was a small kid and I thought it would give me a feeling of superiority. This is in retrospect, of course, but I could fool people and they didn’t know how it was done. I enjoyed doing it.

AL: Can you tell me a little bit about some of the highlights of your career? The high points, the biggies.

JM: I played the London Palladium, the Savoy, the Collegiate Theatre in London, Radio City Music Hall, the Palace in New York, the Capitol theater, which is torn down, the Roxy, which is torn down, the Paramount, which is torn down. I was on the Show of Shows, which was the Sid Caesar show. As a matter of fact, if you saw the film clip of the Caesar show there was a sequence where they were doing This Is Your Life and Sid Caesar didn’t want to be on This Is Your Life and they chased him all through the audience. It was hilarious. The audience screamed. And I had to follow that. I eventually got through, but they were still laughing about the previous piece during my introduction. I did the Ed Sullivan Show 14 times. My agent was Mark Leddy, and Mark Leddy was the booker of the Sullivan show, so when I say 14 times, a couple of those appearances were caused by the fact that he’d say on Friday, “What’re you doing Sunday?” And I’d say, “Nothing,” and he’d say, “Why don’t you come over to the theater,” and I’d go over there and a couple times I got booked to do a four-minute act.

AL: What was your act?

JM: Well, I was known for a thing I do with a glove. It’s a ventriloquist’s act with a glove, and the glove has two ears in back so it looks like a rabbit, and it was caused by when I went into the Army in the 40s you couldn’t carry a dummy in a barracks bag, so consequently I put together a glove with two buttons and a painted mouth. A talking glove was a funny thing in the Army. I also did an Army routine–you had to do military jokes. Terrible things like “My sister married a second lieutenant; the first one got away.” Before I was in the Army I did USO, the USO camp shows so I really got an extra large dose of the military. I got out in February of ’46. A week after I got out my son was born. I went into a place called Spivvy’s Roof which was on 57th and Lexington on the top of an office building there, met a lot of prominent people there, and from then on I worked. In 1947 I worked 54 weeks; I doubled for two weeks working two different jobs.

AL: Has magic changed since then? Are the acts different now or more complicated?

JM: Of course they have. For one thing, in the old days–let’s take vaudeville for example–I played here. I played the Oriental and the Chicago Theater. In 1951 I was at the Chicago Theatre and we did four shows a day. When you do four shows a day and you work 15 minutes each show your timing is good. You’re only really working an hour a day and that’s fine. Any time you can make a living working an hour a day, that’s wonderful. Nowadays you do TV and you only get one shot. Nowadays there are comedy clubs. You see, nightclubs have changed. You can go see somebody telling jokes and unfortunately you see the same jokes being done by different comics. You try and do things that are topical. They’re doing jokes that are topical. Like “Thank God for Gary Hart . . .” or you can do a joke about Tammy Bakker–“She took off her left eyelash and broke her foot. Took off her makeup and they found it was Jimmy Hoffa.” “Thank God for Gary Hart. He got sex back into politics and out of religion and politics is where it belongs.” Everybody does those same jokes. Now Oliver North is going to be the next one.

AL: Have your acts ever been stolen?

JM: Sure.

AL: What did you think about that?

JM: I was not fond of it.

Marshall’s wife, Frances, comes in and informs us that George Johnstone, another magician, will be coming by momentarily. Johnstone started off working as an assistant to Harry Blackstone Sr., the father of the currently popular magician. Johnstone enters wearing a brightly colored shirt and shorts. He is on the roly-poly side, sports a mustache, and speaks quite rapidly. He takes a seat at the card table across from Marshall.

JM: You see, George here works the nightclubs. You don’t work the nightclubs for a month at a time. The young people are working the comedy clubs. For big money.

GJ: Big money to them.

JM: It’s big money, George.

AL: How does a magic store stay in business?

JM: Well, it’s largely mail order. There are probably 15 or 20 thousand magicians in this country, and if we get 10 percent of that we do OK. But we’re not looking to make money. We’re old people. What the hell, it keeps us out of the nursing home. All this catalog does is sell tricks. You keep the best things for yourself.

GJ: The personality, the charisma.

JM: Tell him about the old days, George. About when we used to ride around in covered wagons.

GJ: Yeah?

JM: Yeah. Go ahead.

GJ: Well, I picked up magic when I was about nine years old. When I was about 13 or 14 years old, I played these amateur shows in church basements and I played theater amateur shows.

JM: There used to be vaudeville theaters all over America. There was a fellow named Major Bowes who had a radio show–Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour. He was a fellow with glasses, very pompous. He spoke in a very smooth voice and he’d say “All right. All right.”

GJ: [interjecting] GONG! If the act wasn’t good enough.

JM: People would call in with votes and at the end they would tabulate the votes and somebody would come out with a fairly sizable sum of money.

GJ: It was a very popular show, so as a result a lot of the local theaters used to have amateur nights. The amateurs would go from theater to theater and work. The ones I was playing for made it a racket. What it was was you were working for a booking agency and he gave you a dollar for the show plus 20 cents carfare, and your contract was a postcard which said “Be at the Gaiety theater at 7 o’clock.” Now, what would happen was the people in the theater would think they picked the winners and the manager of the theater would hold an envelope over the winner’s head and if you won the envelope was supposed to have 15 dollars in it. Actually, the envelopes were empty because you were already paid. You already had your dollar and 20 cents carfare. But yet, people in the audience said “Hey! He got 15 dollars!”

JM: Well, where I worked, in Connecticut you got the actual pay. Plus the carfare.

GJ: Really?

JM: Yep.

GJ: Well, anyway I’d play all over Boston and there were amateurs there who knew all the tricks. There used to be one kid there who used to drag his leg. A crippled kid. This guy used to play the mandolin and he’d limp off and drag his leg and the audience used to go crazy for this poor crippled kid. But the minute he walked offstage he walked as good as you and I. Another thing was you’d have a Jewish kid who’d play the north end of Boston, which was all Italian. Now for his songs he’d sing “O sole mio,” and he’d go under the name of Giuseppe Zaldo. Then when he worked the German neighborhoods he’d be Karl Bruno. Then he works the Jewish neighborhoods and he’s Abe Goldstein. It was just the pride he’d have because he could win. But it was a racket.

JM: You see in the old days you’d have some place you could go and be lousy.

GJ: That’s how you developed.

AL: So there’s no place where you can go and be lousy now?

JM: Well there’re the comedy clubs. They tried to open one at the Hyatt Lincolnwood and they’re being lousy about what they’re charging for it.

GJ: I think the kids today are much more talented.

JM: I was just in Las Vegas. There’s a fellow out there named Anthony Gatto who’s 13 years of age and probably the world’s greatest juggler. He juggles seven clubs. Hoops you can do. He comes on doing patterns with five. This may not impress you, but if you’ve ever tried to juggle three lousy balls you know clubs are different. You have to turn it in a certain way and catch them by the handle. How the hell can you put them in the air? In order to put one of them in the air he has one on his head. In our day I wanted to see Cardini. Like I wanted to see Blackstone in Boston. I got there on Friday. I’d catch the night show on Friday, four shows Saturday, four shows on Sunday, so I saw Blackstone working ten times. So that meant I’d sit in the theater all day. I got in at the early price.

GJ: [interrupting] In the morning. See, they used to run a feature picture and a cartoon and maybe the news, then the stage show. Then they’d run the whole thing over and kids like Jay and myself who loved magic–we’d get in in the morning, get there at the early price, and watch the picture over and over because we wanted to see the magician. I had seen Blackstone before, but then when he came back to Boston two years later I was over at the magic shop and I heard he needed a fellow to assist him. So I ran over there. He said he didn’t want to hire me because I was too skinny. He said, “This is a tough racket.” I didn’t know what he was talking about. I’d seen the show so many times and I’d see a tray with a gun on it or they’d push a cabinet around, and I said, “What do you mean I’m too skinny?” On closing night I found out.

JM: You had to shift heavy cases. They have to pack it up and move offstage.

GJ: There were trunks and trunks and lifting onto the truck which went to the train to the baggage car. Then you had to run home, shave, and clean up, and maybe go to the train and ride all night and get up early the next morning in the next town and go check into a hotel and go directly to the theater when the trucks come in and start unloading again. It took three hours to set up the show with the floating lady and the vanishing horse, and that was with five guys working and about four or five girls who’d set up the wardrobe. So that’s what he meant when he said I was too skinny.

JM: [laughing] He found out.

AL: Did you learn your magic from Blackstone?

GJ: No. I’d already been doing magic. I used to go to the library when I was a kid and check out all the books and stuff I could on it. What I learned from the old man was showmanship.

Marshall stands up and walks over to the wall filled with framed photographs and uses a pointer to indicate some pictures. He points to a rather crazed mad-scientist type who he tells me is Blackstone. Then he turns to a picture of a clean-cut, dashing young man who he identifies as George Johnstone.

JM: This is a picture of George–the same guy you’re talking to, that fat man.

GJ: That’s when I was young and sanitary.

AL: Do either of you have kids who are involved in show business? Anyone you’ve taught magic to?

JM: Well George has two daughters and his son died of cystic fibrosis. How long ago? Ten years?

GJ: Eighteen years.

JM: Eighteen years ago?

GJ: Yeah, but he wasn’t too inclined to magic. I think the kids were too close to the forest.

JM: [smiling knowingly] Yep.

GJ: They’d hear me come home from a banquet and I’d be complaining about working to a bunch of drunks and how noisy they were. Once I worked a country club, right in back of the Elmhurst country club. It was a big golf outing for masonry workers, so there was going to be a golf game, dinner, and a show. So it rains in the afternoon.

JM: [guessing] And they’re all inside drinking.

GJ: So they go back to the clubhouse and they start nipping. When the rain stops they go back to finish so they’re two hours behind. And by that time they’re . . .

JM: Bombed.

GJ: Schnockered. And there’re 600 guys. So instead of putting the show on, now they have the awards, the golf prizes. And as soon as the guy wins his prize he goes home. When the prizes are through they get up by 20s and 30s and start heading for the exit. Then there’re 150 guys left. Then the opening guy comes on; more people leave so there’re maybe 30 or 40 left and they’re spread out all over. Some over here, five over here, and I’d have to work. So I’d come home and bitch to my wife and the kids used to hear me. And they’d say “I don’t want any part of that business.”

AL: Did you two ever work together?

JM: Oh sure. On magicians’ shows.

GJ: I remember one time when he took my place.

JM: Oh. [laughs] I worked as the Great Johnstone.

GJ: I had five days at the Iowa State Fair for International Harvester, and they had a corral with bleachers on either side. I’d come out wearing a cape driving a little tractor. Now that was supposed to be for five days, but it overlapped with the Minnesota State Fair, so that meant I had to go up to Minneapolis, but I needed a magician to fill out Saturday and Sunday. And we’d known each other for years, so he came in early on the morning I was supposed to leave and I showed him the tricks I was doing and I took off.

JM: Now a couple of funny things happened. . . . We did four or five shows a day driving the tractor. So the last day, the last show they took the steering wheel off and hung it on the side. They didn’t tell me. I jump on and there’s no steering wheel. The thing is going and it goes around and heads for the bandstand where all the musicians are. And I can’t find the steering wheel. The thing knocks off one leg of the bandstand and the whole thing tips.

GJ: They were shouting at you when you were about to hit the bandstand. Guys were shouting “On the side! On the side!”

JM: I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.

GJ: Now Jay always says to me, “That’s why International Harvester never books you for other shows.” But I did do shows for them afterwards, but they said “Why don’t you get a new funny finish like that guy who took your place.”

AL: Have either of you ever had any magic screwups? Like a floating lady that drops or a lady who’s been sawed in half?

JM: Well everybody in the business has had a screwup. I don’t need to tell any of those stories to encourage the young.

GJ: Once we had a floating lady. We got her up there, but we couldn’t bring her down. The thing locked. This guy’s shouting, “Can you get her down? Can you get her down? Come on. Work on it!” Finally Harry just bowed, took a step forward, and we closed the curtain. We left her floating in the air.

AL: So what was life like traveling from show to show in those days?

JM: [laughing] Well in those covered wagon days . . .

GJ: It was fun, wasn’t it?

JM: Yeah. We were young.

GJ: Every city was a new adventure and we were in the business we loved: show business. We loved magic and it was just one great ball.

JM: Also, you were young–it was easy to chase broads in those days. And we caught a few of them.

AL: Did you use your magic on them?

JM: Oh sure.

GJ: You know the story “Come up to my room and look at my etchings?” I said “I got some new magic tricks. Why don’t you come up and see ’em? Come up to my room; I’ll show you some card tricks.”

Marshall stands up and leaves the room in order to check out how business is progressing in the front of the store. I pause and look around the hall, which is literally filled with stuff. Old posters, signs that say “Chicago Wizards Club,” a glass case filled with antique tricks. It looks like a set from the play Sleuth, which takes place in a room filled with toys and games. Johnstone leans over to me and starts telling me about the “covered wagon days of show business.”

GJ: You know, I was with Blackstone four years and after I got out of the Army, Blackstone wanted me to come back. But vaudeville was dying. You’d work a week in a big town like Pittsburgh, then you’d have four or five days off and you’d go to Dayton. We were playing theaters for the last time. The managers would say “Well, this is the last year for vaudeville. Next year we’re going to a straight picture policy.” Vaudeville was dying, but nightclubs were booming. There was a lot of money around because people were working defense plants. They had a lot of money and they had to blow it. Hard working, long hours, so they would go to nightclubs. I started working little clubs around Chicago and we were doing shows with the last show at 2 or 2:30 in the morning because defense plants were still going. The war was over, but the defense plants were still running. People would come off the late shift and they’d go to a nightclub. Today you can’t picture a stage show going on at 2 o’clock in the morning in one of these places and have it packed with people. People’re afraid to walk the streets now too, but you can’t fault it because 2:30 when the show went on, the place was packed. It was a great audience to work to, but those days are gone. Today, kids have a lot of advantages, too, though. We used to do a trick on the Blackstone show where I’d put a girl in a cabinet and instead of swords they’d have all these light bulbs and we’d shove them right through the girl so you could see the light beams coming out. Now that thing was made of iron, and god it was heavy.

JM: [reentering] They have much lighter materials today.

GJ: They’re all made of aluminum now or plastic. When we packed this thing we had a big coffinlike crate, and we had to lift that thing. Now you can carry it around in the backseat of your car in a suitcase. Those are the improvements of the day, plus the kids–why do you account for they’re so damn clever, Jay?

JM: They’ve got youth on their side.

GJ: We had youth on our side too. I mean, these kids today. You see these kids sit down at a table and do these things that are absolutely flabbergasting. Maybe they practice more.

JM: They also can sit around and watch a videotape of how magic’s done. You can sit down and watch a tape of how the greatest tricks are done.

AL: Can you tell me how you came to open this place?

GJ: He opened it because he wouldn’t listen to me.

JM: Well, my wife’s first husband opened it as a part-time thing when he was living in Oak Park. In 1926. That means the business is 61 years old.

GJ: 1926–that was the year Houdini died.

AL: Did you ever see him work?

JM: I did. I fell asleep. I was a kid.

GJ: I saw him at Central Square in Cambridge. And they had a new type of electric light that they were going to turn on for that night. So he came over and he did an upside-down straitjacket escape. And I was just a kid. My mom and dad took me, and all I can remember is this guy twirling around. I never knew it was Houdini until later on.

Magic Inc. moved from Oak Park to Clark Street, then to Dearborn, near the Picasso, before moving to its present location on Lincoln Avenue. Johnstone keeps telling me he thinks Marshall is too old to run a business. Marshall tells me the business is stronger than ever and that they’ve had to expand into several new buildings in order to store everything.

AL: Your place is loaded with stuff.

JM: Yeah well, it’s junky stuff. It’s like a hardware store.

GJ: And he’s got stuff that belonged to many famous magicians. It’s an antique shop too.

AL: What kind of antiques?

JM: Well, the oldest trick in the world is called “Cups and Balls.” It’s like the three-shell game. I have one whole case filled with variations on the “Cups and Balls” trick. They’re little artifacts that magicians know about. Gimmicks.

AL: Are there any tricks around here that you invented?

JM: Not really. No.

GJ: Magicians lie a lot about that. You’ll see a guy do a fantastic trick and say “Damn! I invented that ten years ago.”

JM: I put a pamphlet out in 1940 called “The Japanese Thumb Tie.” It’s a variation of an old Japanese trick where you tie your thumbs together and catch rings and go through ropes, and that was 47 years ago: good god. That’s the only thing I ever really devised. I’ve improved a lot of old tricks.

GJ: This guy’s been in Broadway musicals.

AL: Like what?

JM: Ziegfeld Follies, Great to Be Alive, Alive and Kicking, and Love Life. I was the magician in Love Life. It was written by Alan Lerner and Kurt Weill.

AL: Is working on a scripted show different from doing your own act?

JM: Oh yes. It’s rigid in a scripted show. I mean, doing my own act I can ad lib. The only time you do that in a legit show is when something goes wrong.

GJ: We were talking last night about some of the new problems in doing shows. Remember when we used to work nightclubs and we used to do gags like somebody’s smoking a cigarette and you take a guy’s cigarette and you break it open or something, or you take a guy’s drink and say, “Ecch. What a lousy brand.” And you’d drink it. You can’t do that anymore with herpes and AIDS. You don’t go over and drink out of someone’s drink and say, “Hey! Buy some better stuff!” Comics used to do that stuff.

JM: [mimes puffing a cigarette] “You’re under arrest.” Like that.

GJ: Comics have to watch out for their health today.

JM: The biggest laugh ever on the Carson show was a guy named Bill Mann who did a line–“I’d like to meet an old-fashioned girl: one with gonorrhea.” The longest single laugh recorded on the Carson show–over a minute.

GJ: That’s what you’re facing today–all those weird diseases.

AL: You think times are less innocent than they used to be?

JM: Considerably.

GJ: Oh yeah. The only thing people in my day had to worry about was clap. You had to be careful, but today, my god. How can young guys sow their wild oats today? God, I’d be afraid–you’ve got so many diseases. You have to practically be a priest.

AL: I’ve been to a lot of clubs and it seems like the material seems to be getting a lot dirtier.

GJ: Oh sure–and you know what the hell of it is? They don’t have to work dirty.

JM: A guy named Mack King worked the Funny Bone in Schaumburg. Mack King does not have a dirty word in his whole act and he got a standing ovation. He does magic.

GJ: I can’t figure these young fellas today. They are working these comedy clubs because they want to get established in show business and they’re working with these filthy routines. Now supposing a client takes his wife because they have a ladies’ night coming up at the Elks Club and they want to book an act. The first thing they hear is the comic walking up saying, “Mother this! Mother that!” Right away, boom! He’s lost a crack at a job. He’s not going to get hired. I can’t see their reasoning.

JM: For the younger generation, anyone who doesn’t say “fuck” or “shit”–they’re not a comic anymore.

GJ: Look at Eddie Murphy. To me, he’s not a funny comic. He’s a great actor. I’ve seen him in pictures and he’s great, but to me he’s not a stand-up comic. You take away his “mother this” and “mother that,” he has no act. But I can’t knock him; he’s making a hell of a living out there.

JM: We should do as well.

GJ: I guess the young comics say, “Hey, that’s the route to go! He’s succeeding doing that stuff!” But they’re never going to be working banquets–the corporate banquets are pretty rigid. I don’t even say hell or damn in my act. I’m no prude, but I know that some old biddy of either sex sitting in the back is gonna come up and say, “I like him, but he gets dirty.”

The two of them look at me and laugh. For a moment, they had forgotten that I had been observing their conversation.

GJ: You tell him your greatest thrill in show business and I’ll tell him what mine was.

JM: One of the top nights for me was going to London and playing the Palladium. Opening night at the Palladium was a magician named Val Parnell, and he was a famous ventriloquist and I met him. Plus, I did very well. There was an English comic on the bill named Ted Ray, who was a famous English comedian, and he had not worked in six weeks and I had just finished two weeks at the Savoy, and when you’re working the timing is right, and when you lay off it falls apart. So having laid around for six weeks he wasn’t as good on opening night as I was. Now he got better. I never got any better, but opening night was a big deal then.

GJ: My biggest thrill was playing the Palace theater in New York. The Palace was long past its prime, but we did a club night at the Terrace Casino, and there was a guy who came in to catch a girl who was an acrobatic dancer and he was a scout for the pictures.

JM: Twentieth Century Fox.

GJ: Right, so he came back after the show and he said, “I want to talk to you about playing the Sullivan show. I also got some other stuff in mind. There’s gonna be another picture made about Al Jolson,” and I was supposed to be a nightclub comic. It would’ve been a great thing, but the picture never took place because Larry Parks [who played the title role in The Jolson Story] got indicted for being a red, so I played the Sullivan show. And at that time that show was the variety show. And then I had four days open, so my agent told me I’d play the Palace. Well, in the old days if you could play the Palace, that was it. I’m talking about the real vaudeville days. I played the Palace and that was a bigger thrill than playing the Ed Sullivan Show, which was seen all over the country. Walking out onstage at the Palace and sitting upstairs in the dressing room, I said, “Gee. I wonder how many great artists have used this dressing room?” I looked in the mirror and when I walked out on the stage I thought, “Gee. Al Jolson played here.”

JM: Jolson never played there.

GJ: Didn’t he?

JM: He was in the Palace and some girl he was going with was onstage and he stood up in the audience and sang a song. He never actually played the Palace.

GJ: Really?

JM: Yeah.

GJ: All the greats played the Palace. That was the ultimate. You could play on the west coast, play all the circuits, but to go in New York and play the Palace–that was the big thing.

JM: I played it ten times.

GJ: And you played the Sullivan show how many times?

JM: Fourteen. And . . . the Bozo show. I lived 20 blocks from WGN and they would call and say, “Is Jay home?” “Yes.” “Tell him to shave. He may be on Bozo. The act hasn’t shown up.”

AL: Did you always want to be magicians?

JM: Yeah. Sort of.

GJ: Some kind of show business.

JM: Show business. Some aspect of show business.

GJ: Would you ever want to be an actor?

JM: I wanted to for a while, but I found out I was in a Broadway show called Love Life, and in this show I was complaining about what a small salary I was making, and I found out I was the third highest paid player in the cast. Ray Middleton and Nanette Fabray were the only two making more money than me. I was making 175 a week. That was in 1948.

GJ: Even today, stars are making it, but supporting actors don’t.

JM: It’s always that way.

GJ: Well, when you leave nightclubs and go into the business we’re in now, which is the private banquet thing, you’re gonna forget ever having your name up in lights or being famous. That’s gone. You’re swapping that for more money. You can play Vegas and get your name up in lights, but then where’re you gonna go? So this field we’re in all expenses are paid.

JM: There’s no fame, but there’s money.

GJ: You get airfare and hotel paid. The only thing you have to worry about is food.

JM: [confidentially] Don’t say that too loud. This guy might hear what you’re saying, tear up his pad, and go into show business.

GJ: It’s a great business.

AL: So you’d recommend it as a career?

GJ: Yeah, tear up that pad and start practicing magic or work on a comedy routine.

JM: Look, I’ve worked for Franklin Roosevelt doing a ventriloquist bit. I entertained Harry Truman at a White House party. I’ve been all over the English-speaking world. I played Australia. I’ve done everything I wanted to do.

GJ: What other business could give you that? I went on tour with Elvis Presley, and today you mention that and people’s jaws drop. Remember that book that came out a couple years ago by that guy Goldman called Elvis? He heard I was on the bill with Elvis. He wanted to know about the early days trooping with Elvis. What he wanted, though, was something sensational. He said, “I’ve heard Elvis was a sexpot. You haven’t mentioned anything about that.” In those days he wasn’t. He sat around with the musicians and he wouldn’t drink.

JM: Although, one of the things that happened was that George would come on after him and the pretty girls in front would pull their blouses up showing their tits. Made it tough for him to do his act.

GJ: You know, that wasn’t done by the younger girls, the screamers. It was done by the older gals in their late twenties and thirties.

JM: Older girls? Late twenties?

GJ: Yeah, but the older girls, the minute Elvis came on you could look right down and see their belly buttons. I was sitting in the dressing room before the show, and we hear this woman yelling “Elvis! Elvis!” He looked and said, “Where the hell’s that coming from?” We looked all around trying to find it and it was coming from an air vent. Some gal was crawling around through the air vents trying to find his dressing room. They finally had to call the fire department to get that poor girl out of there. But this guy Goldman who wrote the book wanted real slime. I couldn’t give him any because at that time Elvis was a little backwoods guy, very reticent, and he knew how stupid he was because he didn’t talk too much to prove it. But he never smoked, never drank. He drank Cokes. He had two cousins up from Mississippi who had such thick hillbilly accents that nobody could understand them. The band boys used to call them the “Hillbilly Creeps.” But I liked Elvis. I didn’t like some of the things he did, like when he went like this [mimes flicking sweat off his brow] and all the girls would go, “Ahhhh!” But that was the forerunner of the thing where he’d pull a scarf and wipe his head and throw it. But these are things that no other business could offer you. It’s been a great life, a great business.

JM: It isn’t over yet.

GJ: It isn’t over yet? [laughs]

Jay Marshall leads me out of Magic Inc. and shows me some other storage rooms that I haven’t seen before. He introduces me to his wife and sister-in-law, who also help run the place. He takes me out in front and points out some local magicians who come here for their supplies. I pass by posters of magicians and rings and rabbits and wands and walk out the door. I still can’t figure out how he pulled that damn card trick on me.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.