YOU’VE GOT TO HAVE A MAGIC HAT!
In the sixth grade I became a professional magician. I was stupendous, colossal, spellbinding and magnificently mesmerizing, which is not bad for being twelve years old. No – for real. I was not little Stevie Scott performing tricks for family and friends with my Gilbert Magic Set on Christmas morning. I was actually a professional magician!
Back when I was in elementary school in Fairhope, Alabama, there wasn’t a whole lot to do for adventure, and one of the most exciting things was when the Filipino yo-yo man came to Walker’s Five and Dime and demonstrated amazing tricks unimaginable to us country boys. We’d line up to get a palm tree carved into our recently purchased yo-yo, or if you had been saving your pennies, a bright green one with FOUR diamonds embedded in each side.
Other sources of excitement were the traveling shows that came to the elementary school. Posters would appear in the halls far in advance so you could salivate for months over such thrilling acts as “Uncle Billy and his Performing Pekes,” “Victor the Ventriloquist and Stumpy,” and sundry other acts rarely seen in Fairhope.
But of all the magical mystery performances we witnessed, the one that has stuck in my mind forever was “Ambrose the Magician.” The poster was brightly colorful in a circus poster style with hieroglyphic-like symbols and other eye-catching and mysterious graphics. It was in fourth grade that this life-changing event occurred. I was already interested in the occult and magic, and my hero was Harry Houdini. I pored over books on magic, hypnosis and mystery. So when my eyes first lit upon the exotic Ambrose poster, I was indeed mesmerized. I quickly saved up my twenty-five cent admission and then had to wait an interminable two months or so until the special day.
When the big day of a show came, each class would be called from their respective rooms and we’d go single file down the wood-floored halls that always smelled of the cedar oil and sawdust they were cleaned with. The air was electric and some of us were so excited that we almost wet our pants. We’d march into the auditorium belting our songs like “If You Knew Susie, Like I Know Susie,” loudly accompanied by the enthusiastic piano banging of Miss Beatty. “You’re a Grand Old Flag” was my favorite: “You’re a grand old flag, you’re a high-flying flag, and forever in peace may you wave. You’re the emblem of, the land I love, the home of the free and the brave, ta-da-dah, ta-da-dah!!”
On the day of the show I was walking on air and couldn’t shut up about getting to see “Ambrose the Magician.” You could say I was about to jump out of my skin! When the curtain opened and I was face-to-face with my idol I let out a high-pitched shriek, much to the distain of the teachers standing guard in the aisles. With piercing-eye concentration I followed his every move and dissected each with engineering precision. I managed to figure out how they were done and committed it to memory and these revelations would come in handy at a later day. The whole show was over in a flash and long before I was ready to surrender the magical feeling. Ambrose vanished into the ether, but his vision was seared into my impressionable brain tissue.
I was hooked! First to the World Book encyclopedia, then to libraries and musty old bookstores, I read anything I could on magic. I went through many catalogs and ordered books on magic, and some were given to me which were nearly 100 years old, their pages yellowed and brittle. Slowly and carefully I perused all these tomes seeking the secrets of the ancients. Each day I practiced prestidigitation. When the sleight of hand is quicker than the eye then magic occurs. I used coins, little red balls, silk scarves and feathers. I became adept at the palm and back palm, Dovetail shuffle, pass, French drop, misdirection and the steal. Magic paraphernalia such as the wand, thumb tip, sponge balls, silk handkerchiefs, magician’s wax, flash paper, dove pan, the Chinese Rings and the egg bag became my closest friends.
Since I was just a kid and dirt poor, I used everything within reach to make my own tricks – lard cans, shortbread tins, old British Jamaican colony half-pennies, and even an occasional bird or hamster. When my mother saw that all this hysteria was not a passing fancy she told my grandfather and he worked some magic of his own. He eventually purchased the Tarbell Course on Magic for me and introduced me to a golfing friend of his – Mr. Withers. I can’t remember Mr. Withers’ profession but for years he had dabbled in magic himself and had become regionally well known. He had several thousands of dollars in equipment, a considerable sum for 1955. At my grandfather’s urging, he agreed to meet with me at the Country Club of Mobile to determine my sincerity. After my running the gauntlet of three interviews, Mr. Withers accepted the challenge of working with me. I would travel to his house in Mobile weekly for magic lessons. He was a tough taskmaster but I stayed the course.
I became popular at talent shows, birthday parties and rest homes and also became quite proficient. I was able to learn better and more challenging tricks under Mr. Wither’s tutelage and he even let me borrow equipment like the rabbit in the hat trick. Even though I was riding the crest of a wave of popularity, every so often I would experience a let down. One such happening was when I was grandly holding forth at the Colonial Inn in Fairhope to a very appreciative audience of blue-haired ladies. I was both baffling and amazing and to add to the mystique, my mother’s spinster friend old Miss Toby had agreed to play some exotic and mystifying music for me. With moustache and swirling cape, I thrust my wand like Zeus toward poor Miss Toby and commanded, “Play.” My mother said, “Now say please, dear.” It somewhat brought me down (along with the house). Although mortified, I finished the show to great acclaim. After the show a man approached me and said, “You are quite marvelous.” “You have music, a moustache, a wand, and even a cape.” “But there is one thing you do not have, and that is a magic hat.” He then disappeared into the crowd.
My obsession with needing a hat certainly began obsessing my mother and she did a little research of her own. After much detective work she found a little old widow on Fish River in Barnwell, Baldwin County, Alabama. I think her name was Mrs. Gerschner – she was in her late eighties and just happened to possess the perfect magic hat – a tall black silk top hat. And this was not just any hat. It was indeed a magic hat with a fascinating history. Mr. Gerschner, having long since departed this earth, had been born in 1856. At the age of fifteen he received severe burns to his hands during the Chicago fire of 1871 but survived and later became an undertaker. Mrs. Gerschner remembered his buying the hat around 1877 so it is now 139 years old (2016).
Mother somehow overcame the old widow’s reluctance and convinced her of my genuine desire and need for the hat. She finally agreed to part with said hat for five dollars, a considerable sum for an twelve-year old in 1955. As part of the deal, she made me promise, with hand on heart, that as long as I lived, I would never, ever sell the hat or give it away.
With the addition of the hat, my mysterious magical persona was complete and I went on to a short-lived fame in magic and traveled throughout the county. Perhaps I could have gone on to great heights. However, at the arrival of teen hormones, the image of playing drums in a marching band (in front of swooning girls) soon replaced my fascination with magic and I put up my toys of legerdemain and set my joy of magic aside.
Remembering back on my faithful promise to Mrs. Gerschner as a sixth-grader, at my current age of 73, I still have the hat. After all, a promise is a promise. I even let it out of its storage box from time to time and we recall the good old days, making me feel like that sixth-grader again. It has followed me all over the earth and has survived many moves. I think it inherited travel lust and longs to go back on the road. Who knows, maybe I’ll dust off some tricks and try to get my arthritic hands to prestidigitate quickly enough to at least fool some kindergarteners.
Stephen K. Scott – All rights reserved 2014