all began May 20th, 2011 on the Chicago “El”. Mike Caveney, Bill Smith and I were riding the train
from the Magic Collectors’ Weekend convention near O’Hare Airport to a White Sox versus L.A. Dodgers baseball
game at U.S. Cellular Field. During the trip, Mike and Bill looked at each other and then at me and said: “Blackstone!”
die was cast.
That one word sets in motion a string of events that culminated in my performance of
Blackstone’s Buzz Saw illusion at the recent MAGIC Live! It was one of the most challenging
and exciting performances of my life.
Growing up as a teenaged magician in the 1970’s,
I remember when Harry Blackstone, Jr. brought his huge illusion show to the Seattle Opera House. It was a spectacle. But like
everyone who ever saw Harry, it was his commanding stage presence and voice that stuck in my memory. Over the following years
I not only had the opportunity to meet Harry, but to perform on several convention shows with him. We became friends. I last
saw him in May of 1996 when I emceed and he headlined the show at Stan Kramien’s Northwest Magic Jamboree. We shared
a dressing room and joked about many things. It was hard to believe that in a year he would be gone. Harry died May 14, 1997
at age 62.
Left: Harry Blackstone Jr. & David Charvet
- May, 1996. Center: Charvet as Blackstone in his original costume. Right: The cast who recreated the Buzz Saw Illusion -
Allen Bracken, Gay Blackstone, David Charvet, Melanie Kramer, Bill Smith, Ron Anderson. Orleans Theater, Las Vegas. August,
Since I was about 16 years old,
friends have always told me I sounded like Blackstone. I never consciously tried to imitate him, but that deep, baritone voice
just came out of me. Like Harry, in my early days I also hosted a radio show and my voice eventually led me to a career in
radio and television advertising, as well as performing a stand-up corporate magic act and later, a full-evening show of classical
illusions. I had never expected to impersonate Blackstone, but throughout my life, the groundwork had subconsciously been
laid. Coincidentally, at the request of my wife this past December, I had grown a goatee, something I had not sported on my
face in 25 years.
After Stan Allen called
me in June to confirm the appearance, I began studying. On YouTube.com there are three videos of Harry performing the Buzz
Saw illusion. Each is slightly different but from them, and after conversations with Bill Smith (who had assisted Harry for
10 years), I distilled what I felt was the standard routine. I transcribed the words and began memorizing the lines. After
committing the script to memory, it was then a matter of adding the vocal inflections, pauses and pacing that were so uniquely
Harry’s. This went on for weeks and really, up until I stepped on stage in Las Vegas.
During all of this preparation, there was one element I had not seen: the Buzz Saw.
At my home in Portland, I blocked my on-stage movements with my couch playing the part of the saw. It was not until the day
before the performances that I first laid my hands on the actual prop, which had been supplied by John Walton. It was a bit
Years ago I had toured with
Stan Kramien’s illusion show and while Stan had performed a Buzz Saw for several seasons, it was before my time with
the show. But Stan had told me about several close-calls he had with the prop and I remember whenever another magician would
ask Stan about the idea of them performing the illusion, he would always say three words: “Don’t do it!”
So, it was with a bit of trepidation that I approached Harry’s prop.
Thankfully, Bill Smith and Allan Bracken (who had assisted Harry for 15 years) both agreed to be
onboard for this performance. I would have never attempted it without them. They had performed the routine with Harry literally
hundreds of times and knew the prop inside and out. Safety was foremost in their minds. Not content to trust the power switch
on the prop, Bill physically plugged and unplugged the power cord to the saw three times during the routine, eliminating any
chance of the motor and blade starting accidentally. It was things like this that instilled confidence in me and allowed me
to relax and concentrate on the performance. (Still, despite all of the precautions, during our first show Bill got a little
too close to the stopped saw blade and it tore a hole in his shirt sleeve. It reaffirmed to everyone that around the Buzz
Saw you can never let your guard down for even a second. Bill, however considered the tear his “badge of honor”
for the night!)
The original Blackstone musical
arrangements had been transcribed and recorded by Michael Close, and they were perfect. When it came to wardrobe, about three
weeks before the show, Stan Allen contacted Gay Blackstone (yes, this performance – like all of Magic Live! –
was kept a deep, dark secret from everyone except those directly involved.) Gay was very gracious to loan me one of Harry’s
trademark sequined tuxedos for the performance. In talking with her, I found that to my surprise, Harry and I were exactly
the same size. Spooky. The finishing touch came when my optometrist supplied me with a pair of glasses similar in style to
those worn by Harry. I now had the Blackstone look.
Smith also recruited Ron Anderson to assist and most importantly, Melanie Kramer to be the “victim.” Melanie
is a veteran assistant on the Las Vegas scene, having performed in the acts of many of the strip’s top illusionists.
She jumped right into this rather scary role without batting an eyelash. Like me, she had complete faith in Bill, Allan,
Ron and the saw. Sunday,
August 14th, we all gathered for a rehearsal on stage in the Orleans showroom. Bill told me that earlier in the
day the saw had fallen off the truck when being unloaded at the stage door, but other than that(!), everything was fine.
We ran the routine once and it was rocky, to say the least. Allan could not be there for the first rehearsal. Bill was remembering
what he had done 20 years ago, while Ron, Melanie and I tried to get comfortable with the prop. We planned to reconvene
Monday for the final rehearsal, a few hours before the actual show.
The two rehearsals on Monday went well, with the last one ending
about one hour before show time. Just enough time to get into the wardrobe and put on makeup. It took me about 30 minutes
to make the transformation into Harry, including applying a temporary black hair dye. As I stepped from the dressing room
into the green room backstage, Bill Smith did a double-take. “My God, I thought you were Harry,” he said.
The show was now on, with Mike Caveney expertly
and entertainingly weaving the history of the sawing around the performances of Jonathan Pendragon and Liberty Larsen, Mark
Kalin and Jinger, Greg Wilson and Company and Kevin James and his crew. While I knew everyone on the show, most of the cast
only knew me as a writer and historian and not a performer. While they all wished me well before I stepped on stage, I could
tell that they were a bit skeptical if I could pull it off.
The red plush curtains parted and as I walked downstage I could hear the murmurs in
the audience. I then spoke Harry’s opening line, “And now presenting the most sense-confounding problem upon the
stage today,” the music began and we were off and running. Everything went like clockwork. Bill, Alan and Ron were right
on the mark. Melanie was hypnotized and placed beneath the menacing blade. The switch was thrown and the
table inched forward, slicing her neatly in two; or so it appeared. At the finale, she was lifted from the table, awakened,
and stepped forward for the bow. The audience response was extremely flattering, as was the reception from the other members
of the cast when I stepped off stage and back to the green room. Mark and Nani Wilson were especially gracious and told me
of when they worked with Harry the first time he performed the sawing on Dick Cavett’s HBO cable TV special in 1976.
Bill Smith had also been there for that first performance and now here he was, preparing for the last one.
The second performance that night at Magic
Live! was equally well-received , and if anything, our timing and pacing were better. Hey, after all, we had now performed
it together a total of five times, including the rehearsals! For the final bow, we brought on Gay Blackstone to accept the
plaudits of the audience. Like all of us, she was visibly moved up by the reception.
During the rest of the week, the number of magicians and convention
attendees who came up to me and said how much they enjoyed the performances was truly amazing. I am still flattered and humbled
that this recreation meant so much to so many. My thanks go to everyone who helped make it happen, and most of all to the
man who inspired it all, Harry Blackstone, Jr.
Will I ever perform the Buzz Saw again? Most likely, no. As Mike Caveney told me after the show, “It
will never look as good anywhere else as it did here.” Probably true. I have already been approached with the idea of
appearing as Blackstone at other conventions and shows, but at this point I have not committed to anything definitely.
Regardless of whether I again step on stage as Harry, these performances at Magic Live! truly were, “Something
I’ll remember to the longest day I live.”
©2011 David Charvet
/ MAGIC magazine. Reprinted with permission.