by John-Ivan Palmer
Famous rabbits, from the Easter Bunny to Bugs Bunny and the Energizer Bunny, from Peter Rabbit to Roger Rabbit and Alice's (and Grace Slick's) White Rabbit, are famous for not being rabbits at all. They are cartoons with personalities completely foreign to the creatures they barely resemble. Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, even Sea Biscuit and Mr. Ed the talking horse are at least real animals. The reason why rabbits become abstracted so completely from their true nature is clear to anyone who has raised them. Although they have their quirks and personalities, rabbits are basically furry dullards. It's hard to relate to a rabbit. They are blank slates on which to project whatever personality you want.
Rabbit drabness is a desirable quality for magicians who use them in their performances because once concealed in whatever bag or secret compartment, their instinct is to huddle until the big surprise, which is what happened to Nancy on that fateful night at 4 a.m. in rural Wyandott County, Kansas. My father's twenty-pound, all-white New Zealand doe became world-famous, not by dancing or philosophizing or pulling out a pocket watch, but simply being a rabbit.
My father made his living as a stage magician, a "commercial act" known as the "Master of Deception," who worked through theatrical agencies across the country, performing upwards of 200 shows a year at hotel banquets, fairs and nightclubs. He was successful but not famous. By 1968 he'd been at it a long time. Forty years of hard work got him less fame than his rabbit who did absolutely nothing. Even though it's the universal stereotype, I have never known a magician to actually pull one out of a hat. They typically come from flaming "dove pans" or out of piles of silk handkerchiefs as the unexpected end to another trick. No less dull in their own mindless instincts, audiences ooh and ah when a cute bunny appears on stage.
My father went for a different kind of surprise. For concealment purposes (including ease of transfer in and out of the venue) magician's rabbits are usually smaller, but he fed his own unlimited food pellets until they reached enormous size. At the end of a pickpocket routine involving a man and a woman from the audience, the Master of Deception stole, with exquisite misdirection, the camouflaged rabbit bag from a nearby prop case and at precisely the right moment, eek! thrust the twenty pound clutch of kicking fur into the woman's face. The idea was to scare the life out of her and make her scream, something audiences found hilarious. Essential to the trick was choosing the right female "volunteer," someone easily excited. It was his trademark stunt.
All his rabbits had the same name, Nancy, after an accordionist he knew after the war. He never allowed himself to get attached to them, which I think may have been the case with the accordionist. They were merely livestock. Life on the road was hardly less grueling for a rabbit than for the magician who owned it. After a couple of years confined to a moving car and spending nights in hotel bathtubs, the overweight creatures started losing fur as well as control of their bladders. Entertainment value diminishes when a magician holds up a mangy animal that kicks in a cloud of shed fur and pees all over a shrieking stooge. When things got that bad the next step was euthanasia. After the veterinarian's chore was done he looked for the nearest farm with a sign on the mailbox that said, "rabbits for sale."
He used does because they have more skin to grab in the neck area and their temperaments are more docile than bucks. He found that farmers could be less than trustworthy when it came to assuring him the animal had not been bred and occasionally he'd get stuck with a pregnant one, which could lead to embarrassment even worse than the bladder problem. He found it more reliable to get his rabbits whenever possible from companies that supplied laboratory animals.
As was routine for commercial entertainers, he'd been driving all night to his next engagement in Kansas City. Exhausted from lack of sleep, he drove off the pavement and became straddled on a Union Pacific railroad tracks. A sheriff's patrolman saw the situation and tried to help budge the car. A second deputy arrived and warned that a train was coming. They tried contacting the Union Pacific dispatcher and when that failed they attempted to stop the train by waving their flashlights. That failed too and the train plowed at full speed into his new 1968 Buick Riviera sending it flying through the air end over end for 225 feet, with magic props and silks and cards ejected in all directions. It was only then my father was awake enough to remember, "My God, I left Nancy in the back seat!"
The sheriff's deputy thought he might be referring to his sleeping wife, so they all ran like Keystone Kops down the tracks, past the scattered magic debris to the twisted wreckage. Inside he found the black salesman's case where he kept the rabbit while he traveled. He opened it and there she was, nose twitching, completely unharmed. The Associated Press and United Press International wire services picked up the story and it was printed as a human-interest piece in newspapers from Houston to Hong Kong, full of clever headlines like "Magician's Act Saved by a Hare's Breath."
Although my father was ordinarily indifferent to animals, he and this particular Nancy grew very close after the train wreck. In nightclubs he went back in the kitchen to get her dinner buns and gave her treats of carrot strips picked out of banquet salads. He let her run around his 19th floor luxury apartment on Marine Drive in Chicago even though she chewed the telephone cords and ate away large portions of the shower curtain. He kept her longer than usual after the inevitable fur and bladder problems until she not only peed all over his screaming volunteer, but released a generous load of droppings on the stage, something not appreciated by the next act. By this time Nancy looked like an aging entertainer, ragged, sick and lifeless. All she was missing was alcohol on her breath. When he finally put her to sleep the old magician had tears in his eyes.
A few Nancys followed after that and not only did they get kitchen treats but a bigger cage and regular brushing. He inspected their ears more often and kept a bottle of carbolic acid and sweet oil in the glove compartment for use at the first sign of ear mites. Running loose in his penthouse they gnawed away the floor molding and the legs of his desk. When the inevitable time came he could barely bring himself to the vet.
Eventually Nancy disappeared from his act completely. As an alternative closing to his pickpocket routine he used his legerdemain to make it look like he'd stolen his female stooge's brassiere. The shriek was just as loud if not louder. He became fonder of animals after that and even had a pet parakeet for while, a nasty little monster that tore off a piece of his nostril. But he cared for it lovingly until it died of natural causes.