“Inside Magic” by George Boston with Robert Parrish

Years ago Eugene Burger loaned me a book by an author I’d never heard of. It was Inside Magic by George Boston, a wonderful portrait of magic and magicians in the early part of the twentieth century, a time when Chicago was often at the center of magic in the United States. I devoured every word and thoroughly enjoyed it. There was just one problem: Eugene wanted his book back. After sadly parting with this enchanting little gem of magic literature, you can imagine how thrilled I was to find a copy of my very own at a recent magic convention.

You may not have heard of George Boston either, but he was chief assistant and stage manager to many of the last great performers of magic’s Golden Age. He shared the stage with Harry Thurston and his more famous brother, Howard. He wandered the globe with Carter and Nicola, worked the West-Coast circuit with Virgil, did a brief stint with Willard the Wizard, toured the U.S. on the U.S.O. with Blackstone, Sr., and when Will Rock rescued Thurston’s equipment from the scrap heap, he joined the revival of Thurston’s “Mysteries of India” show. What I find astonishing about this is that not only did George Boston appear onstage in every show of these performers’ rigorous schedules, it was his duty to help build their equipment, to haul it from place to place, to test it, maintain it, and repair it if necessary; to set it up, run it through its paces, and then, when the last show was over, pack it all up again and move it somewhere else.

Inside Magic gives the real inside scoop on touring with a working illusion show, complete with equipment failures, performer lapses, injuries and disasters of all sorts, large and small. (How’s this for a nightmare scenario: Imagine arriving at the gig with your fabulous illusion show, and discovering that the “theater” is nothing but a bare platform — no lights, no lightboard, no rigging, no curtains. You essentially have to build a stage — for that night’s show! George Boston faced this situation again and again when he toured with Blackstone.) I think the true test of a performer is in how well he or she copes with mistakes and mishaps and twists of fate, and it’s clear from this book that Mr. Boston not only worked with some of the best, he was one of the best.

But Inside Magic is not just about the grungy day-to-day grind of taking a magic show on the road, it’s about the glories and glamour of magic as well. The book tells a story familiar to all magicians: It’s about a strange spell that captured a young child’s imagination when he paid a quarter to see a magic show (Howard Thurston at the National Theater in Chicago) and decided then and there that he had to learn magic. It’s about the boy’s first trips to the local magic shop, and the characters he met there. It’s about being ushered into a world of miracles and secrets and hidden knowledge. George Boston devoted his entire life to magic, not to become famous — he never starred in his own show, and never wanted to — but for sheer love of the craft.

And that’s not even the best part. Among the many delights of Inside Magic is a chapter near the end of the book titled “What the Tricks Are About.” In this chapter, my favorite in the book, George Boston proposes that the perennial appeal of magic lies not in clever gimmicks and confounding tricks, but in what they symbolize. This was 1947, mind you, and Mr. Boston was saying things that may have sounded a bit weird to magicians of the time — namely that while “audiences may not sense it consciously,” magic tricks are fascinating to them because they symbolically refer to natural wonders such as “birth, death and the rotation of the seasons.”

I think George Boston would have fit right in at Mystery School.

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