It was September 2nd 1942 in Decatur Illinois at the Lincoln Theater and the second stop of the Great Blackstone’s 1942 tour. The theater was set for the matinee performance with a sold-out house. The movie “The Affairs of Martha” was nearing its end and the excitement in the theater building as the Great Blackstone would soon make his appearance on stage. A rumor began to swirl backstage about smoke coming from next door at Rambo’s Drug Store. A half hour or so passed when the fire marshal entered the theater and whispered to the Great Blackstone that the Theater would have to be emptied as soon as possible for there were some chemicals burning bellowing smoke and this could create not only panic but a real issue for the safety of the theater patrons.
Blackstone had seen theater fires before and knew what panic could do to an auditorium. He paced back and forth and then told his staff “I have got it!” With that he grabbed his tailcoat and headed to the stage. We will let Ed Lewis on the Lincoln Theater staff tell the story from here: “Children” said Blackstone,” I’m going to perform a few tricks for you, the first will be one you have never seen before and will never see again. You have to go outside for it slowly. First this section. When you are out, there’s a surprise for you. Look up in the sky and you will see it”.
“All exit doors were opened” continues Mr. Lewis, “and the entire staff was on alert. Blackstone kept up his chatter and stories and did a few hand tricks. The children went our as orderly as you please, all full of curiosity. After the first section was out the second and then the third went, the downstairs audience through the alley door and the upstairs crowd down the fire escape. There wasn’t a flutter”.
According to George Johnstone who was there as an assistant on the show, after the theater cleared Harry went to his dressing room and sobbed.
By now the fire was a multiple alarm fire and fire trucks and responders everywhere. The Blackstone crew (and yes even Harry) began to move the show into the alley to protect it from the fire. The fire came under control about 4 pm and other than some smoke getting into the theater lobby the Lincoln Theater was unharmed.
The Theater and the Blackstone cast had lost $2,000 worth of revenue loss due to the cancellation so the next day they added a fifth show in the morning to allow those people who had tickets the day of the fire to attend. Nearing show time, the stage manager Ted Banks had not appeared. The hotel was called and when the hotel staff entered the room they found Ted had died of a heart attack. Seems there was a casualty from the fire after all. The news was given to the Blackstone Show members one half hour before curtain time.
The show went on with tears streaming down the face of the Master Magician and his Crew while they struggled to conceal their grief at the loss. As George Johnstone reported “there were sobs emitting from behind the curtains and from supposedly empty boxes”.
The story is a moving one but how does all this tie in to the theme “A Few of My Favorite things”?
I was able to obtain all of George Johnstone’s personal photographs, documents and notes on the subject of the Decatur Fire. But that still does not answer the question of what is my favorite thing and how does it apply to this story. For that you have to go back to September 23rd, 2000 to a warehouse in the middle of nowhere in a small town called New Oxford, Pennsylvania.
I was there along with every known collector in the United States and most from abroad. It was the most unimaginable magic sale and auction you could ever witness. It was completely mind blowing! The Egyptian Hall Museum Sale and auction was occurring on that weekend. And that is where on the second sale day I was able to acquire the Blackstone Performance Tails that are the subject of this article and truly one of my most favorite things.
Harry received his new set of tails in June of 1942. These were the tails that would travel to Decatur Illinois with him heading towards that fateful afternoon. How do I know these were the tails he wore while making the announcement and was photographed outside of the Theater that day? I guess I don’t; for sure. I do know that the likelihood is strong as this was only the second stop on the tour and generally you would always wear your new costumes as much as you could. So, until I figure out some way to determine definitely I guess I just tell the story with conviction as that is what Harry would have done!
I guess I could have taken one other path. When discussing my acquisition with my friend Mike Caveney he suggested I blow smoke all over the tails. Just a thought, but maybe a good one.