I was born in L.A. Calif. and grew up in Baldwin Park, then moved to Northridge. I didn’t become interested in Magic until I met a kindly old gentleman in front of the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. I used to go to Hollywood on weekends to buy incense and hippy stuff. Hollywood Blvd. was strewn with head shops and the like and it was a fun place to hang out. I got to see and meet all kinds of unusual people so the following event didn’t seem out of place. Well, this old gentleman asked if I would like to see some Magic. He had a deck of cards in his hand, a length of rope and a wooden block under his arm. He performed about three tricks with the deck then had me lace the rope through the block and while I held onto both ends he pulled the block free! This was the first time I had ever seen magic close up. It was quite a thrill. He asked if I would like to learn Magic to which I replied yes. He then led me down the street to Burt Wheeler’s Magic Shop and introduced me to Louis St. Pierre Sr. and a short, long-haired gentleman named Irving. He told Irving to “take care of this lad, he’s going to be a famous magician some day”, and with that he left.
Irving showed me three effects, the Color Cube, the Drawer Box and the Hindu Prayer Vase. I bought the Color Cube and the vase and went home to learn them. Irving told me that he wouldn’t sell me another ‘secret’ until I learned those two and showed him I could perform them, which is what I did.
The following weekend found me in front of the Magic counter again. I passed the test and Irving sold me another trick. The old gentleman that brought me to the shop the week earlier was there and he seemed to be real pleased that I was back. That was the last time I would see my magical benefactor. Some months later I saw a huge poster on the wall in the back of the store and I asked Irving who that man was. He said, “That’s the Great Blackstone. He’s the one who brought you in here. You’re very lucky he took a liking to you.” I always regretted not searching him out. A year latter I saw that he had passed away.
Visiting Burt Wheeler’s I met many of the greats and soon to be greats. Jules Lenier taught me Thimble Magic although he taught many and would never remember me. I met Lou Derman, who told me to add comedy to what ever I did; Charlie Miller, Kuda Bux, and many others. One day Charlie Miller suggested I go see Joe Berg down the street. He said, “that’s where the real Magic was”.
Joe turned out to be a great friend and although selling Magic was his life, he always had time to just sit and chat. I spent all day at Joe’s and visited him every weekend, arriving at 10am and leaving around 6pm. I couldn’t get enough. While there I would see guys going in the back room. They would stay for hours, then leave. Some would come and go. I asked Joe what was going on and he said that I hadn’t paid my dues yet. That I couldn’t go in there until I was ready. That privilege was for the pro’s. Well,, now I was determined to get into that back room so I came every weekend and bought Magic, performed for Joe and even helped clean the shop a bit. His son Ronnie was there and while few got along with him, I did and every once in a while he would give me a discount or throw something into the pot like a silk or fanning deck or something.
Finally, a couple of years went by and I was allowed to go into the back room. Was I disappointed! Well, sort of. All that was going on was card games. Miller and Vernon and some of the others were playing hearts and stuff. That was it. The room had a drill press, card cutter and odds and ends tools where Joe would make loaded dice, shaved cards, etc. but no secret society like I thought. But hey, I got to go in there and that was the point!
Later I joined the Navy and became a signalman on the USS Koiner. We patrolled the South Seas off the coast of Viet Nam during the war. Part of my duties was to go along with the brass when they went on shore in Viet Nam to act as communications between them and our ship. I spent two years there as well as traveling to Hong Kong, Thailand, Guam, the Philippines and Japan. I spent another year in and out of Taiwan. During my stint I would perform Magic for my shipmates and people on the islands. One night in Kaohsiung, a girl I knew took me to an out of bounds club that was strictly for the locals. I was the only round-eye in the place. There were guards everywhere. We sat down to watch the floor show and later she left and came back asking me to perform some magic for a man at the end of a large table. I guessed he was someone important due to all the guards. I did a few card effects and some coin stuff. He seemed impressed and thanked me and paid for our dinner. Later I found out it was Chan Kai Chek the exiled President of China.
Once I was discharged I returned to the San Fernando Valley. Early on I performed for Southern School Assemblies but that was really a grind. They had me running all over the place and it didn’t matter that I had to back-track 50 miles to do a second show, etc. That lasted about a year and I gave it up. I went to work for a furniture company and did shows on the weekends and nights.
In late1969 I met my future wife and partner Carl Keyes. I don’t think she realized what she was in for, but it didn’t take long. About a month into our courtship she found herself spending her weekends at Joe Berg’s and helping me with my magic shows. In 1970 we moved to Hillsboro, Ore. and there we met a great group of magicians. We would meet at Vernon Cook’s home and everyone performed. Duane Duvall taught me some great coin stuff; Will Desmond gave me tips on manipulation, and black art. Tom Arnt was kind of a mysterious guy, a bit dark with off-beat ideas. I really enjoyed his creativity. He taught me to turn my first woodworking project.
From Oregon we moved to McAllen, Texas. My daughter Kimberly was just a few months old and I didn’t want to troop with a baby so I decided to open a Magic store. Why McAllen? My parents had moved there in ’68 and I figured if the shop failed, at least we would have someone to feed us. I opened Viking Magic Co. in Sept. 1972 and we have been here ever since. We were the only Magic store for 250 miles in any direction and being close to the Mexican boarder was a plus. We did well and expanded into manufacturing purely by accident.
I was buying from many of the early great magic makers, Berg, Kline, Resor, Haenchen, Bergson and many others. One day I told Fred Haenchen that if he ever wanted to retire, I would take over his business. Well, two years later Fred called my bluff and asked me to make him an offer. The problem was, I didn’t know anything about making magic, least of all wood working. I had never ever turned on a saw but I didn’t want to loose face so I told Fred to give me a year to get the money together. The truth was, I needed to learn how to do wood working. I went to work for free at various cabinet shops in the area. I cleaned up, schlepped plywood and assembled cabinets all for free on the condition that they would teach me to use the machines. A year later I was ready and Fred never knew that I began as a phony.
We moved the shop to Mission, Texas and Fred and Vida worked with me and taught me all they could for 6 months. Even after that, I kept learning from Fred and others. Fred was a great teacher with real bottom-line knowledge. If he didn’t know how to do something, he would make it up. If he needed a special tool, knife, what ever, he would make it himself. He taught me to make what we needed rather than to buy it, if at all possible. He even made his own wood screws and nails if he was in a pinch. If you look at Maggie’s Night Out you’ll notice that the door pulls are actually 22 bullet casings. He would target shoot, then save the casings and make knobs out of them. A tradition we continue to this day, now going on over 60 years! Fred always stressed quality above profit, but he was frugal. One day he purchased a load of Gum wood. When it arrived, it was as plain as butter. Not a bit of grain. He couldn’t throw it out so Vida began drawing in the grain with colored paints and stains. She turned 50 feet of plain white wood into some beautifully grained exotic looking wood. Everyone that saw it never failed to ask what kind of wood is that, and Fred would say, ‘it’s Vida-wood from Kingston. He always let them fill in their own conclusions.
Fred taught me that a man was measured by how he treated people and what he left behind, and he didn’t want people looking at his efforts thinking he did something just half way. All of the early Haenchen products are now highly sought-after collectables, a tribute to his efforts.
In the ensuing years I purchased the Resor Magic Co. from Richard Resor, Brema and Co. from Art Felderman, the designer of the CBS logo for Brema and the last legal owner. I picked up parts of the Berg/Okito line, the Massey line, House of Enchantment, Hughes House of Magic, Don Potts Magic Co. and a few more. Most recently I made arrangements to continue the Gem Mfg. line of my good friend John Pomeroy. Here was a craftsman and genius that really hide his talent under a bushel.
June of 2000 brought an exciting opportunity. The founders and operators of the world famous Collectors’ Workshop, Rich Bloch and Nick Rugierro decided that it was time to pass on the mantle. Nick no longer wanted the long hours and rigors of maintaining a large shop, basically single-handed, that produced over 100 of the worlds most complicated and demanding magical props. They contacted me with the idea of possibly forming a partnership. The shop would be moved to Texas and I would be in charge of production, etc. Nick and Rich would continue on as advisors and designers. Then on a whim, I suggested that I simply buy them out. They looked at each other, smiled and the deal was made.
Thirty days later a huge extended 18 wheeler showed up at the Viking facility. It was packed from stem to stern without as much as a thimble full of space to spare. It took two days to unload the truck and many weeks to find space to house it all. We still don’t have enough room. It has been a struggle to keep up with the production of the Viking line as well as the highly demanding CW line, but we are gaining ground and slowly moving forward. We have made a great effort to maintain and even improve upon the quality and creativity that has made Collectors’ Workshop the number one magical manufacturing facility in the world.
In closing I must make sure that you know that I did not do this all by myself. Carol, my wife of 43 years has been by my side working day and night to help guide and maintain the dream that began so many years ago. She does it all, mother, wife, partner, bookkeeper, shipping clerk, and friend. Without her there would be no Viking. She is that person behind the curtain. She is the keeper of the flame and my first love. Magic comes a close second.