Bill O’Leary, wearing an old faded green buttoner for St. Patrick’s Day, leaned on the store’s counter watching my demonstration of the Color Changing Knives as if seeing the demo for the first time, which was not the case. “Wouldn’t it be grand if your color changing knives were green just for today,” he commented to no one in particular. Finally scanning the store’s magic inventory he voiced aloud with an added Irish brogue “Isn’t it nice to see your production feather bouquets and spring flowers all green today for St. Patrick.”
Having now thanked my customer for their purchase of the Color Changing Knives I turned and looked at this very bright eyed, yet somewhat disheveled magician now into his senior years. I knew practically nothing about Bill except that he had been hanging out in the magic store since it’s opening. Where as other of the store’s regular magicians ignored me (a kid behind the counter), Bill gave me regular attention and seemed to actually enjoy our exchanges. He seldom missed anything of what went on inside or immediately outside the store on the street. His knowledge of magic, especially manipulation, was on par with the best of them. While the other magicians who hung out in the store regularly encouraged his sharing of magic, he did so only when he felt like it and always on his own terms.
Looking outside at the street filled with soldiers, Bill said to me, “You know I used to entertain soldiers like those, officers too. You had to be on your toes to entertain them, what with wars on in both the Pacific and Europe, all the drinking you did, the all night crap games with all that cash and the girls it attracted. You had to be real careful with yourself. That’s where I perfected my best trick, my knife trick.”
Looking directly at me he said, with an uncharacteristic seriousness, “You know on account of St. Patrick I’m going to do you the biggest favor of your magic life. Not only am I going to perform my best knife trick for you, I’m also going to teach you how to do it.”
Stepping back from the counter he paused for merely a second when he began to move back forward like a ballet dancer imitating a butterfly. It was only then that I realized that a large shiny knife had now appeared in his right hand as if by real magic. In fact it was a folding Buck 110 lock back with its blade fully opened and its tip pointing menacingly at my chest!
Without hesitation Bill said aloud with a glint of St. Patrick in his eyes, “I see you like the effect. Want to learn it ?”
Being a normal 16 year old big city kid of my era and environment I couldn’t say yes fast enough. Bill then proceeded to take from his pocket a paper book of matches. He tore off its cover and retained it, re-pocketing the matches. Tapping the corner of the cover on the counter he split it like one does a playing card. He then wrapped the now split and thinned down match cover around the sharpened edge of the knife blade. He then proceeded to close the knife blade back into its hollow handle, (being sure the paper match book cover extended high above the now folded blade, thus now protruding out of the knife’s handle). Bill then placed the folded knife on the left side of his body between his pants and belt, the protruding match cover now facing forward.
Looking at Bill, I could not see the closed knife in its concealed position. Watching carefully, I saw how at a time of Bill’s choosing, using the thumb and forefinger of either hand, he would simply grasp both sides of the protruding exposed match book cover enveloping the blade and come forward with the knife thus held. Its blade opening was accomplished simply by the quick and sharp snapping of his wrist and hand downward. This resulted in the heavy handle of the knife opening up into its locked position leaving the knife blade extended pointing forward, still enveloped in its match cover. At this time Bill would simply tilt his hand backward allowing for the open bladed knife to fall into his palm’s grasp while allowing the paper match cover to fall to the floor.
“Great trick” I said enthusiastically.
Looking out the door once again, Bill said aloud (to no one in particular as he put the knife with its folded match cover back between his pants and belt), “You know, you just never know who you’re going to have to perform for!”
It was some 40 years later that I came across the displayed advertising program promoting the act of a very young and elegant “Bill O’Leary, The Irish Magician”. Those 40 years have only strengthened the truth of Bill’s words spoken aloud to no one in particular that St. Patrick’s day “You know, you just never know who you’re going to have to perform for.”
It was towards the end of the 1960′s and Emile who was a trained draftsmen was presently unemployed in his profession, leading him to driving a taxi in order to make ends meet. Though Emile was getting booked as an entertainer, it was not nearly enough to cover his expenses.
At times, Emile was driving two back-to-back shifts and using the street curb in front of the magic store as a taxi stand. It was not an unusual sight to find Emile asleep in his cab curbside when we arrived at 7:30 am to prep the store for opening.
It was on one such morning that we found Emile pacing back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the store clearly highly agitated. Upon seeing us he immediately ran in our direction. “Buma I need an appearing cane. In fact two I need two appearing canes one for each pants front pocket. Wait a minute Buma, maybe I need four appearing canes! Two for my pants and two for the pockets of the jacket I wear in the cab.”
As his hands moved along his body, obviously counting the pockets he was seeing in his mind, he said aloud to himself, “Damn too many pockets!” After only a slight pause to ponder, Emile began again. “Money clip!” he shouted. “I use a money clip!” By this time Buma was looking at Emile with grave concern, for he had known Emile since the 1940′s and couldn’t fathom the Emile standing before us.
Having unlocked the store’s door to begin our morning routine we all entered the store and its warmth. Once inside we learned the source of Emile’s agitation and his sudden desire for as many appearing canes as he had pockets.
Driving the graveyard shift in the San Francisco of the late 1960′s was inherently dangerous. Thus Emile like all taxi drivers lived in the constant fear that one night his number would inevitably come up and he would be the victim of a robbery or something even worse.
It just so happened that his number had come up just 4 hours earlier.
No sooner had the fare gotten into his cab at Aquatic park then Emile’s throat was the recipient of a knife blade being held to it. Its holder instructed Emile to drive straight out third street bridge to what then was San Francisco’s no man’s land of those days. Though Emile did as instructed the knife pressure against his throat never let up. Third street of those years was nothing but abandoned infrastructure and urban blight. It was in this area Emile was told to: pull up an alley, get out of the car, hand over his cash and prepare to die. It was at this moment in the process of grasping his pocketed money clip containing his night’s receipts that he inadvertently also grasped the silk attached to his pocketed Walsh appearing cane. As his hand thrust forth with the cash, the silk attached appearing cane somehow triggered and expanded directly into the assailant’s face, startling him into a shocked state. Emile immediately retreated to his taxi and drove back to the curb in front of the magic store where he had been reliving the incident over and over in his mind, addled in the knowing that the inadvertent triggering of the Walsh appearing cane had saved his life.
Reaching for the Walsh appearing canes Buma handed over, pro bono, two to Emile. He briefly examined them and shook his head pocketing only one. Emile said “to replace the one I left on third street.” Walking out the door to his parked taxi he added looking over his shoulder “no more graveyard shifts for me”.
It was 1967 and I was 13 years old. A hand painted sign (pictured above) had found its place positioned above the front door of the House of Magic. For the next 38 years it was destined to witness the comings, goings, and business dealings of magicians from near and far alike.
Despite what corner of the earth these magicians came from, they all found their way to the House of Magic with one sole purpose in mind: to talk magic with Buma. For some, these chats led to the local bookings of their acts, as Buma had those connections. For others, it resulted in the borrowing of props, at no charge of course, as they had run into a string of what they described as” bad luck,” more often than not, the result of booze, a divorce, a jail sentence or, at times, a combination of all three. Finally, there were the regular cash customers who desired nothing more than to personally meet and buy props from Buma himself. Some of these customers had been in correspondence with Buma dating back to the 1950′s as a result of his advertised offerings of used magic props via post.
For many of these visiting performers their active careers were well behind them, whether from being advanced in years or for their having lived a life of magic performances that had run out of bookings, in some cases decades before, never having been replaced with a different career. On the other hand there were others who were actively benefiting from well established careers in magic. Occasionally there was even the performer whose career was in a rapid ascendancy to eventual international stardom.
This repository of magical knowledge, bestowed upon me by all the magicians who visited the House of Magic is unprecedented in my life for the insight it has given me into our world of magic and its caretakers.
As the sign stated the world’s greatest magicians did indeed pass through the portals of the House of Magic between the years of 1967 to 2005. This I know for certain, as I met them there.
I’ll introduce you to one of them in my next blog. There”ll be others later. I’ll begin with Emile Clifton, a close friend of Buma’s and a most accomplished performer.