Necessity in the House of Illusion

by John-Ivan Palmer


As a magician’s kid I grew up in a trailer, a 22-foot 1949 Travelo Model 20, pulled by a series of Hudsons worn out in a year. The first thing my father did after buying a new car was throw away the back seat so there was just enough space between the wardrobe and the dove cage for me to fit. After parking the trailer somewhere, he showed up at the local the­ater or school gymnasium all smiles and charm in his pencil-thin mustache and black fedora, accompanied by my mother in costume jewelry and redolent furs. They were big time stuff in places like Newkirk, or Turon, or Yates Center.

My mother never threw anything away, so some of the route sheets from that period still survive as rare documents in the history of oblivion, fourth or fifth level carbon copies typed on onion skin. It's the only evidence I have that I grew up in Fowler, Ashland, Hugoton, Medicine Lodge and Kiowa one week, and Turpin, Dodge City, Stafford, Pond Creek, Welling­ton and Helena the next. Then it was off to Anthony, Cheney, Augusta, Moline, Newton and Pratt, where I might attend school for a few days, then push on to Pretty Prairie, Sedan, Independence, Eureka, Cedarvale and Neodesha, where we might layover in a trailer park and I'd go to another school.

Nabokov once stated that he detested "floor shows" fea­turing magicians, ventriloquists and dog acts. They were beneath his refined sensibilities. Philip Carey, Maughm's alter ego in Of Human Bondage, looked down with "scornful eyes" on "conjurers and trick-cyclists." In "The Circus Animals' Deser­tion" Yeats called his inferior work a kind of animal act on a "painted stage" featuring the "stilted boys" and the "Lion and woman and the Lord knows what." They weren't real people but mere "emblems" from his "rag and bone shop." The impli­cation is that variety performers are something "mere", the adjective that predictably comes before the word "entertain­ment". They appeal not to the imagination or the intellect but the vulgar taste of the masses.

Ironically, allusions relating to "mere entertainment" (tra­ditionally known as commedia dell'arte) are common throughout a long list of 20th century artists, including Picasso, Stravinski, Balanchine, the Sitwells—and Nabokov. Is this a form of the Madonna / whore complex, where the Lord knows what is ele­vated to the level of metaphor (when convenient), while other­wise denied respect?

After World War II Minneapolis was the theatrical town where agencies like Al Sheehan Productions, Glyde Snyder Entertainment, Juanita Keldahl & Associates, Petey Peterson's Cavalcade of Attractions* and many others booked three, five and ten-act shows in a wide radius around North America. Acts and agents alike were subject to the strict union rules of the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA). Each night the dogs and the jugglers and the Lord knows what performed on a multitude of stages across the country.

International Harvester Company, the farm implement dealer, sponsored traveling variety shows in small towns across the Grain Belt as a way to attract a crowd in the middle of win­ter to view their products. These shows were highly organized tours called "units" set up by one or more theatrical agencies in Minneapolis. Competing agricultural dealers like John Deere did the same thing and because of the high demand, acts were sometimes in short supply.

When he was playing the show business role, my father flashed a suave smile that looked, as one agent put it, "like he had a million teeth." He resembled a matinee idol of the 1930s. But, during those longer intervals between shows, he slowly mutated into a frightening presence, letting his whiskers grow out and losing himself in a bug-eyed stare of waiting. There was nothing to be suave for. I'd come back to the trailer park from whatever school I was attending that week to find him inside the Travelo, robotically practicing card manipula­tions while my mother would be at the laundry room hanging sheets on a clothesline. Eventually the laundry came down, the whiskers came off, the tour started up, the suit of tails went on and the smiles and the shows and the suaveness continued.

Once the audience was seated there was a commercial film about farm machinery advertised in the brochures at the back of the room. Then came the 60-minute variety show fea­turing such eminent obscurities as Mirna Tell, the sheltered accordionist who was afraid an Indian would scalp her. Larry Thompson was the bar-brawling juggler good at hitting bellig­erents at a distance with perfectly aimed bottles and glasses. There was Ramon Some­body-Or-Other from Argen­tina who became so intoxicated before the show that his wife had to slap him out of a drunken stupor and push him out on stage to do his knife-throwing act, and Billy Papon the cornball har­monica player whose car was loaded down with hundreds of pounds of round stones he believed were dinosaur eggs. The legendary Tom Gary was a blustery character who did a "drunk act" with a talking dog. He cracked the tip of a lit cigarette out of his wife's mouth with a bullwhip, sometimes taking the skin off her nose. It was said he won her in a card game. The way he talked it up you'd think the dog could recite the Gettysburg Address, but apparently it "talked" by reacting to specific pitches with howling and whining. So when he used his voice in a certain frequency he could manipu­late the dog's howl into what someone—with sufficient sus­pension of disbelief—might think were words more or less like "How are you?" "Who?" or "Why?" Tom Gary played the straight man crooning various questions, and the dog howled back the punch line. That's what passed for entertainment in small towns during those long winters before television.

On Harvester shows there were always tables in the back of the armory or gymnasium piled with brochures on the latest harrows, hay bailers and corn pickers. This was my first read­ing material. I didn't like the usual children's literature because the stories were about worlds that weren't mine: Pinnochio's nose problem (all entertainers are liars), Uncle Remus's laugh­ing place (isn't that the point?), the little engine that could (day-to-day routine). So I cut out the pictures of these mythical people in farm brochures and made up my own stories, some­times drawing wheels on the houses. I took naturally to the pens and pads given away by International Harvester and it was in a moving car that I first began to write of "emblems" that passed before me, like people coming from a place called a "house" and going to other places called "schools", "churches", or other "houses". Best of all, from my father's point of view, these pages of words and pictures were dispos­able playthings that did not create a weight or space problem, since every­thing we owned had to be stowed and pulled to the next town.

In some ways my life wasn't that much different from other kids’. I had my chores like retrieving the doves that flew off the stage, and sometimes I had to shovel mayflies away from the footlights at outdoor shows in towns along rivers. Whether it was a county fair, a Harvester show, or a hotel ban­quet, one assignment was always the same—to repack my father's props in a meticulously precise order, folding silks, stacking dove bags, breaking down illusions (taking care not to lose the nuts and washers) and carrying it all out to the car for equally precise stowage. In the illusion business there's no allowance for devia­tion because one misplaced part could threaten the show, and that would gravely clash with the absolute certainty that it must go on. It was not easy carrying the prop cases up and down stairs and trying to hold a door open with your foot against the cold prairie winds.

We were pulling our trailer house during a blizzard one day from Prairie City to Ft. Pierre. I was about three or four. All the other acts had somehow gotten through except us. I remember my father out in the lethal chill factor with clumps of frost clinging to his Clark Gable mustache still darkened with eyebrow pencil from the last show. He was clearly not happy throwing metal treads under the tires of our 3,600 pound home (plus props and possessions) and proceeding to Fr. Pierre ten feet at a time. Tom Gary stopped to help us, but it was no use. He held onto his hat as powerful gusts whipped around his huge body, flapping his pants like boat sails. His talking dog wailed plaintively, "Whyyyyy," apparently set off by the pitch of the whistling wind.

Finally there was no choice but to leave the trailer. To complicate matters I was running a high fever and so the hard choice was either bring me to Ft. Pierre or leave me behind with my mother. Either way, the show had to go on. While I sat on her lap wrapped in a blanket, watching the ice-laden wipers groan and struggle across the windshield, my father unhitched the trailer in a snowdrift on the side of the highway. It had a kerosene stove so we could eventually have heat. In a car full of wardrobe, props and birds, he disappeared into the whiteout.

Inside the trailer I watched steam blow out of my mother's mouth like clouds of dragon smoke as she made a horrifying discovery. In the urgency to get to Ft. Pierre my father had neglected to check the kerosene can, which was almost empty. That meant no heat.

She cried and wailed like Tom Gary's dog as she carried me through the swirling snow. Never leave your vehicle is the age-old advice to surviving a blizzard. She knew all about people getting lost and freezing to death between a house and a barn, but my mother never paid much attention to age-old wisdom, preferring the riskier tactics of her own. So she walked away from the trailer on the side of the highway and carried me thorough the blizzard toward what she thought was the direc­tion of town. At that point my continued existence was a low-probability event. If it weren't for her easy navigation through storms of mischance she might not have found her way into the shack of the Oglala Sioux family where we stayed the night.

After his show in Ft. Pierre my father drove back to reattach the trailer and con­tinue the tour. There was just one problem. He had failed to make note of where he left it. There were many little towns covered in snow and they all looked the same. Was it east of Eagle Butte or west of Ridgeview? I'm sure there was no lack of wisecracks and laughter as the magician, still in stage make-up, went through the embarrassment of ask­ing around in town after town—some of which he had performed in only days ear­lier—if anyone had seen a trailer that seemed to have disappeared on the highway with his wife and kid.

He finally got word of our whereabouts from the National Guard. With their help he extracted our home from a huge drift under which it was almost completely buried, and pulled it, piled high with snow, to the next town on the tour, which was Sioux City. That's when I first learned the word "doghouse".

In defense my father claimed the reason he had to cut loose from the trailer in the first place was because it was over­loaded with all my mother's clothes and the Lord knows what. This from a man who went through life with only a tux, a bag of tricks, and a wad of cash. But it wasn't just that one incident. She had reason to resent everything.

Art deals in possibilities. Acts deal in certainties. The show must go on because your existence depends on it. There are no safety nets because the entertainment business is the safety net, the final one for those who will never fit into the world of the audience. To the extent that certainty must occur onstage, is the extent to which anything may happen offstage. Endless driving, bad food, lack of sleep, nicotine addiction, neglected dentistry, living in a cold (or hot) trailer with no bathroom and using a bucket for a toilet, anything as long as the show goes on. Entertainer's wives are often bitter about this kind of life. What at first sounds glamorous turns out to be anything but. They are not the center of attention and the paychecks are not made out to them. If something goes wrong, as it always does, they somehow get blamed. Their bodies and smiles are important decoration on stage, but the applause is never for them.

Divorce lawyers eventually clear-cut our family's assets, earned through just the sort of hardship that led to the action in the first place. Long after my father was dead, my mother, who became a real estate agent selling houses (and living in one), still inveighed against the Lord knows what for leaving her and me "to die" in a South Dakota blizzard. Words and expla­nations went on for decades in her mind as well as mine. And still do.

But the show went on that night in Ft. Pierre.

* Because variety entertainment has little, if any, written history, correct spell­ings cannot always be verified.