Percy Abbott (1886-1960) was an Australian magician and magic dealer who founded Abbott's Magic Novelty Company in Colon, Michigan. In his prime, Abbott's business was the largest manufacturer and retailer of magic tricks and stage illusions in the world.
|Born||May 3, 1886|
|Died||August 26, 1960 (age 74) |
|Known for||Abbott Magic & Novelty Co.|
Abbott was born in Braidwood, Australia on May 3, 1886, one of four children. Orphaned as a youngster, Abbott and his siblings moved in with an aunt who charged the children for room and board.Early interests included theatre and magic; Abbott took part in amateur theatrical productions as a boy, and soon thereafter, discovered magic; it was the latter pursuit, along with its allied art, ventriloquism, to which he would devote the balance of his life. In his early 20s, Abbott found himself performing regularly in Sydney and other Australian towns, eventually taking a position with the New York Novelty Co., a firm that supplied magicians with the tricks of their trade. Abbott eventually broke away from the firm to open his own supply house for conjurers, called Abbott's Magic Novelty Co., located on Pitt St. in downtown Sydney. He continued performing locally and through the Pacific, and was reportedly one of the first magicians to perform the Sawing a Woman in Halves illusion in Australia.
After a short time, Abbott turned the reins of his magic shop over to his brother Frank and left Australia permanently. He toured the Orient, and eventually landed in America, in 1926, and attended the first annual conventions of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. It was at one of these affairs that Abbott met Harry Blackstone, Sr. The two men agreed to form a partnership and thereby established the Blackstone Magic Co. in the small village of Colon, Michigan.
The Blackstone Magic Co. lasted for only 18 months, closing its doors in 1929. Four years later, after working on Coney Island with Jean Hugard, playing school shows throughout the Midwest, and marrying a girl from Colon named Gladys Goodrich, Abbott opened another magic shop in the small Michigan town, this one bearing his name. The Abbott Magic Novelty Company began advertising in trade journals in 1933, and by 1934, was a going concern, having introduced a successful magic trick to the fraternity that sold well enough to keep the small business solvent. The effect, suggested to Abbott by a dentist from Saginaw, Michigan, Dr. Boris Zola, was the barehanded vanish of a shot glass full of whiskey, and was called "Squash."
1934 also marked the introduction of a new partner into the firm. Recil Bordner, a magic enthusiast, mentalist, sometime pupil of Percy Abbott, and son of successful farmers from Edon, Ohio, bought into the company with a $1000 investment that year. Together, Abbott and Bordner moved the shop into larger premises in Colon, at 124 St. Joseph St., and celebrated the event by hosting the first annual Abbott Magic Get-Together that fall. The event would become an annual tradition for the company -- one that continues to this day.
Percy Abbott's reputation as a demonstrator and salesman grew as he established his firm in Colon, and his natural ability to showcase the wooden, metal, printed, and plastic products his craftsmen made rewarded him amply. He was an able copywriter, and founded the Abbott Magic Co.'s magazine, Tops, in January 1936. He edited it for several years, finally turning the reins over to an employee and the Abbott company's staff artist, Howard "Mel" Melson, who ran Tops from 1936 to 1957.
Abbott's catalogs -- for which he wrote most of the text -- were also integral to the success of the business. Distributed free of charge, the description of each trick was tantalizing, original, and illustrated with artwork rendered specifically for Abbott's, by Melson and Sid Lorraine, another staff artist. The catalogs advertised another main selling point in the Abbott marketing scheme: all tricks were sold post paid. There was no need to include an extra fee for shipping the item, as every Abbott advertisement stated the company slogan clearly: "We pay the postage." It was a catch phrase that many an Abbott customer would come to count on.
By the end of 1945, Percy Abbott managed a small empire in southern Michigan. His magic business was spread over the small town in some seven buildings, and employed 54 or more workers. Facilities to transform nearly any raw material into a magic trick were at hand, and Abbott branch stores were established in Detroit, Indianapolis, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Percy Abbott enlisted well-known magicians to manage these outlets, and often appeared at the stores himself. He also became a fixture at magic conventions in the USA, putting his abilities as an outstanding demonstrator of Abbott-made tricks to good use.
In addition to producing new magic tricks monthly, by the mid-1940s, the Abbott Get-Togethers were drawing in excess of 800 magicians annually, and the firm expanded its publishing operations by releasing classic instructional textbooks including Abbott's Encyclopedia of Rope Tricks, How to Pick Pockets by Eddie Joseph, and The Encyclopedia of Stage Hypnotism by Ormond McGill. In 1947, Abbott's issued the largest magic catalog of all time, some 832 pages long, and featuring over 1800 different products, most of which were manufactured at the Abbott factories.
The post-war years were some of the firm's most profitable. It manufactured stage-filling illusions for touring shows as well as movies (among them the Houdini film starring Tony Curtis). Unfortunately, a lawsuit filed against the firm in 1953 dealt Abbott and Bordner a crippling blow. A young dancer in California had been injured by one of Abbott's products - a flash pot - procured at Abbott's branch store in Hollywood. She was badly burned by it. The settlement was a great setback for the firm and ostensibly caused the closing of the various branch stores.
The 1950s also marked a change for the Abbott company's Get-Togethers, which were held outside of Colon from 1953 to 1959. The circus tent in which the Get-Together performances were held for a number of years was lost in a fire in 1952, forcing the company to find other venues in which to hold the annual convention. For that reason (among others, including a reported feud between Abbott and the townspeople of Colon), in those years, the Get-Together was staged in neaby Michigan towns including Coldwater, Three Rivers, Niles, Battle Creek and Sturgis.
Percy Abbott maintained an active interest in the magic business he founded until his retirement in 1959. At that time, he sold his share of the company to his long time partner, Recil Bordner. It was in 1959 that Abbott wrote a memoir, A Lifetime of Magic. It was published in 1960, just months before he died, on August 26, 1960, from a heart attack. He was 74 years old. He was survived by his wife, Gladys, and four children, Marilyn, Sydney, Jules and Linda.
The Abbott Magic Co. is still operating today, manufacturing magic from its 124 St. Joseph St. address in Colon, and hosting its annual Get-Togethers. It its owned and operated by Recil Bordner's youngest son, Greg, who has been president of the firm since 1981.
Awards and Honors
- Cover of The Linking Ring, May 1959
- Cover of The Linking Ring, October 1959
- Abbott's Encyclopedia of Rope Tricks For Magicians, Vol. 1 (1941) compiled by Stewart James
- Rice's Encyclopedia of Silks, Vol. 1, (1948) by Harold Rice
- Brief Biography at The Magic Nook
- Programmes of Famous Magicians, 1937.