In 1947, dancer Adele Friel, at the age of 17, was hired and became a part of Blackstone’s world of magic. For the next three seasons, she trouped with Blackstone, playing an integral role in his show, both on-stage and backstage. Her book, “Memoirs of an Elusive Moth,” provides a rare and intimate first-person account of one of America’s greatest touring magic shows. Laid bare in its pages are many of the secrets behind Blackstone’s magic, as well as details of life in the theater, behind the scenes, on the road, and more - all told for the first time.
What’s fascinating about the book is to read of Blackstone’s show and to view that magic world from an insider’s viewpoint. Many of Blackstone’s illusions and set-pieces have been described in several sources and one can even view footage of Blackstone Junior performing the very same illusions that include the famous vanishing birdcage, the dancing or "spirit" handkerchief, the floating light bulb and "The Living Miracle," an open sawing in half with an intimidating buzz saw blade and more. (Footage of Blackstone Senior, however, are rare.) But here, one can see the show from a different perspective.
Amazingly, Friel, an accomplished and successful dancer, is brought in touch with Blackstone via her agent, and after a 10-minute interview and meet and greet with her fellow assistants, she’s hired. She is not only going to be working in the show, she’s appearing that very night. So begins her baptism in magic.
The book is a backstage and on-the-road look at life with Blackstone as a key member of the show (Friel was one of six female assistants-there were 12 total). From applying make-up before the show (dipping a mascara brush in hot wax and applying it to her eyelashes?) to costume changes (there were some 15 for her in each show).
I found the descriptions of Friel’s role the most interesting, a a step-by-step, on-stage description of where she was at each phase of a routine: hiding in one compartment, moving to another, secretly signaling Blackstone or an assistant, then climbing onto a moving trapeze and more. Interestingly, because Friel was so involved in the performance and inner workings of an illusion, she doesn’t know how it appeared to the audience because she was never given an opportunity to watch. Many key Blackstone illusions are barely mentioned and described because Friel didn’t play a role in the performance of them. Those looking for insight on every illusion in Blackstone’s show will not find them here.
Also intriguing is learning of the considerable work, the nuts and bolts of packing and moving such a large stage show. You learn about Blackstone’s brother, Pete Bouton, who was instrumental in Blackstone’s success and who designed and built many of the illusions, made the necessary changes to each stage on the tour with his mobile workshop and managed the entire production. There’s a couple of pages on the legendary Del Ray, who worked for a time as an assistant on the show before skyrocketing to success on his own.
Some chapters are almost random memories. Friel talks about spending a season in Colon, Michigan (“Blackstone Island”) and life on the road. I found fascinating an episode where Friel realizes that she is sitting in the wrong area of a public bus in Atlanta - a mistake for a Northerner of the era. There’s also a brief mention of Blackstone’s female pursuits.
Overall, “Memoirs of an Elusive Moth” is an easy, pleasant read. I finished it in a single evening. (I also enjoyed the introduction written by Dick Cavett who always manages to convey a childhood-like wonder to our art of magic.) I suppose that the mark of a good book is whether it leaves you wanting more. Yes, this one did. However, it's partially due to the fact that it's a very brief book.
There are insights to be gained in "Memoirs of an Elusive Moth" that are to my knowledge unique to the book, but they do leave you wanting lots more. But hey, it’s perhaps all that we’ve got from a bygone, legendary magic era.