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The Great Blackstone's performance at the Mabel Tainter

This article by Steve Russell was posted on the Old Menomonie Wisconsin Facebook page. He was gracious enough to let me share it here. Thank you Steve!

By Steve Russell

I made a joyful historical discovery, recently. I was surprised by the ending. I hope you will be, too.

I enjoy reading the Dunn County Historical Society Facebook posts. Quite often, they feature newspaper clippings of various performers who came through Menomonie in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And when they do, I like to follow up and see if I can find more information about those acts and artists.

My interests are always with variety and circus performers, so I got on the newspaper archives and searched for magicians who had found their way to Dunn County.

There were several illusionists who came through town. One that stood out to me was “Fredrik the Great” who performed at the Mabel Tainter Memorial on February 4th and 5th, 1917.

He had a rough set-up, arriving in a gale of a blizzard which piled up 10-foot drifts over the railway tracks. Fredrik's Sunday morning train car made it as far as Elk Mound before it was stopped by the snow. The performers had to wait in -22-degree weather for a replacement locomotive. What should have been a 9 a.m. arrival came to the Menomonie station at 2 p.m. But they had a full day to settle in before their Monday and Tuesday night performances. And all seemed to go well. The Dunn County News reported that he “lived up to his name”.

I wanted to know more about him. Luckily, he had an unusual spelling of his name. The lack of the letter “c” made him a bit more searchable.

I just wasn't prepared for the fun twists and turns along the way...

Alexander Fredrik was an illusionist with a very large-scale production. He worked the Lyceum circuit with a full evening performance of magic. There was a lot of money poured into the “Fredrik the Great” show – onstage, with props and a cast of performers, and offstage, with some beautiful showcards and promotional posters. Too much money, it turns out.

After years of performing, by 1913, Fredrik was broke. His old-school, formal style was no longer what people wanted to see. He would have to let go of his cast and end his career. But he had just invested in a large amount of promotional stock. Full-color lithographed posters, flyers, and newspaper ads were already printed for a show that had to close. He had no money left, and the printer was demanding payment.

It turns out, all he had left of any value was his name – and those posters. So, in a deal with the printer, his debt would be erased if he would let the lithographer sell the materials to other magicians. The printer basically held the rights to the name “Fredrik the Great” and could bestow it upon any person who wanted to buy up the unused stock.

So, while the name was the same, this “Fredrik the Great” - Alexander Fredrik - wasn't the performer who played in Menomonie in 1917.

Who was it?

Two different magicians bought up the posters. Two different performers began performing as “Fredrik the Great”. It was just that easy – buy a poster and claim a new identity!

One of the men was named Harry Willard. He did shows under a circus tent, mostly in the southern states. Harry Boughton, however, was a magician based in Chicago, and was just starting to do theater shows. I started to suspect that Harry Boughton was most likely the “Fredrik the Great” that wowed the Menomonie crowds.

Harry Boughton went by many names. That wasn't unusual for magicians, who often brand and rebrand themselves, searching for the one that will stick. He had tried “Beaumont the Great”, “Mr. Quick”, LeRoy Boughton, and the rather unimpressive choice: “The Great Stanley”. He even changed his non-stage name to Bouton, just to make it easier to spell.

So, the name Fredrik came to him in 1913. Another odd circumstance happened that year that helped Harry along the way. A traveling magician known as “The Great Albini” died on the road in his hotel room after a show. Boughton purchased the entire act. It was an entire make-over.

With a new act and a new name, “Fredrik the Great” started getting noticed.

By the time he played Menomonie in 1917, he had developed a 2-hour show. Many routines were reworked, and Harry created some original illusions. He hired his brother as a manager and on-stage assistant. There were also some female assistants in the show, who were levitated, vanished, and sawn in half. It was an impressive show.

Harry hired Inez Nourse to be the musical director. In each town, she would hire local musicians, and put them through their paces to accompany the magic on stage. She also was featured just after intermission, billed as The Banjo Specialist. As time passed, her nickname changed to “The Banjo Phiend!”

I became fairly obsessed with knowing more about the show. I spent many hours combing the internet for more. And that work paid off.

I found (and purchased) the actual program for the show at the Mabel Tainter in 1917!

In those days, the theater was known as “The Memorial”. The manager was Wm. F. Schaefer, and it was common for tickets to be sold at Ingraham Brothers' Jewelry, which was across the street from the Memorial, in the Arcade Building. It all added up. This was the 1917 show at the Mabel Tainter Theatre.

The final piece came into the Fredrik puzzle when I researched Inez Nourse. In 1919, The Banjo Phiend married magician Harry Blackstone.

“Fredrik the Great” was Harry Boughton. And Harry Boughton was The Great Blackstone!

The Great Blackstone became one of the biggest names (and one of the largest touring shows) in magic from the 1930s to the 1960s. He appeared on national TV, including The Tonight Show, Ed Sullivan, and the Jackie Gleason Show. There were tours of all of the big theaters of the U.S. and Canada. He had his own radio show. A couple of comic books were written about him. He performed more than 165 USO shows. He was considered a national treasure.

He had many signature tricks, including The Vanishing Birdcage, The Dancing Handkerchief, and The Floating Lightbulb (which was designed for him by Thomas Edison, personally).

But why the name change?

World War I.

In 1917, it started being unfashionable to be German, let alone having the name of a Prussian monarch. On April 6, the United States entered the War. “Fredrik” was not good for ticket sales. Many names were considered and rejected. Finally, in October of 1917, when he was performing in Ohio, Inez saw an advertisement for Blackstone Cigars. She reportedly shouted, “That's it! That's the name!”.

My dad was always a fan of magic, and he talked about having seen The Great Blackstone in Milwaukee. My dad was born in 1925. I don't think he ever knew that the steps to Blackstone's greatness included stepping on the stage of the Memorial. If he had known that Blackstone was here, he would have told EVERYBODY! He would have been very proud of that fact.

Me? I'm astounded to find this connection. Maybe it's just because I'm in that showbiz world, but I think you should be impressed, too!


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