MOTOR CITY "MAGIC"
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Then there were the standards, Joy Buzzers, a package of fake Chewing Gum with a label that proclaimed it had a “Snappy Flavor”, and if somebody took a piece, a hidden mouse trap snapped their finger, Hot Toothpicks, Stink Bombs, Dribble Glasses, Exploding Matches, Itching Powder, and a whole arsenal of “Whoopee Cushions.” There were also the ever popular Cigarette Loads. These came in two variations, both were little sticks of chemical soaked wood to insert into the tip of a victim’s cigarette. One merely made it smell bad, the other strove to create an explosion. Of course, at one time or another, I had almost all of the above, all except for the cigarette load that exploded, but I had the other, and my mother didn’t even notice the bad odor.
The pitchman also intimated that the bag contained un-retouched, yet artistic, photographs of people in the altogether, some of whom were indulging in acts of pleasure. And it did! The half a dozen photographs were everything he claimed they’d be. Nonetheless, they were both a disappointment and a hardy laugh. The joke was on me. For the exact same photographs were available in any book on Ancient Roman Statuary, from which, no doubt, these had been copied. And the young lady locked in a passionate embrace, as promised, went by the name of “Leda”. Her lover was “The Swan”! I had been conned, rather exquisitely, a victim of my own curiosity and eighteen year old dirty mind.
Such sights as these remained for me to see when I was older. For now, at ten years old, these “Burly-Qs” and their mind boggling marquees were simply scary to me. I wondered if this was what was in store for me, when I reached puberty.
Meanwhile I was content to limit my prurient curiosity to a certain department in the second “magic store”. I can’t remember the store’s name, but it had Magic in the title, too. This shop sold merchandise of a cruder nature, and it wasn’t all about Magic either, unless one is inclined to see magic in rubber vomit and painted plaster dog poop.
Lest you think I am being snobbish, and demeaning this high-class merchandise, let me confess that I was a willing customer for the plaster dog poop, in particular. Its official title was “Doggie Dood It!” And there was a rather humorous illustration of a doggie dooin’ it on the box cover, surrounded by humans, looking shocked. Several times, I carefully placed this piece of crap under a chair at my parent’s get-togethers. I’d also deposit a small puddle of water there, thinking that made it more realistic. Alas, like most of my efforts to do “magic”, nobody noticed, not even my dog, Snauzer!
This store also sold rubber masks. The repertoire of these, unlike today, was very limited. The classic items were Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, as well as characters from Li'l Abner, and the Frankenstein Monster. Naturally, I had the latter, and wore it, occasionally, while riding in the back seat of my parent’s car, sweating profusely. Eventually, I realized that no one, seeing a fat Frankenstein, sitting in the back seat of a Cadillac, was going to be scared to death. If anything, they might die laughing!
The most shocking of these novelties was a small book, simply titled “Human Sexuality”. These words were printed most discreetly in black letters on the tin foil covered cover. It was, in fact, not a book at all, but actually a box crafted to look like one. Inside, there was a rather ominous device that included a tube, wrapped with coils of copper wire, and a sort of spring loaded “twanger”, powered by a pair of penlight batteries. When the unsuspecting victim spotted this provocative volume, casually lying on a table, he would, hopefully, be overcome by curiosity and inconspicuously lift it up to check it out. Surprise! When he opened the cover, which was gently held shut by a magnet connected to the twanger, a stunningly strong jolt of vibrating electricity would surge through his body. Ha Ha! So Funny!
But what really fired my imagination was the stuff under the counter, a glass top showcase that contained merchandise that was “forbidden”. Every mysterious object in it was provocatively displayed, just enough to tease the viewer, but reveal nothing. To purchase, or even “look at” anything in this showcase, one was required to be 18. Wondering what this stuff was, and what it did, was a source of endless Fascination! At ten years old, in 1948, I didn’t have a clue! Unfortunately, today, I could ask my six year old grandson, Sammy, and he, no doubt, could explain it to me, in a heartbeat!
Miraculously, I actually got one of the most tantalizing items. This was a little folder with an inviting cover that showed a lady in a black negligee. Inside was a similar image, printed on two sheets of acetate. From staring at this item through the glass of the showcase, I could figure out that the black negligee was printed on the background. The first layer of acetate was printed with a bra and panties, and the top layer was the lady in the highly retouched altogether. When two small cards were inserted, the first covers the negligee, which disappears, the next obscures the bra and panties, and, Presto! There she is, as revealing as the airbrushed photos in a sunbathing magazine!
This, to me, was the most intriguing object in the showcase. I figured out, in theory, how it would operate. But, I longed to get my hands on one, just to test my theory, and see what would be revealed when I put those cards in place.
Sometime later, Nirvana! My wish was granted! A friend of my parents’ son, Gary Plotkin, who, eight years later, briefly became my college roommate, had a birthday party. His mother took a group of four of us downtown to a movie, and afterwards, she escorted us to that very Magic shop, and told us we could each choose one thing, under a dollar, as a party favor! She had no idea what our choice might be. We all chose the same thing! Guess what we got!
So that was the World that I grew up in. My family, well, mainly, my father’s seven lawyer brothers, all members of the Law Firm, to which my Pop also belonged: Birnkrant, Birnkrant, Birnkrant, Birnkrant, Birnkrant, Birnkrant, Birnkrant, Birnkrant, and Grant, expected me to be a lawyer. I, on the other hand, aspired to become an artist, in one form, or another. In the end, we were all surprised! Who would have guessed that with an elegant uplifting upbringing, like mine, I would end up inventing toys?
Seven Mile Road and Woodward Avenue were the most important streets in my young life. They intersected just a few blocks from my home. Seven Mile Road was the street, on which I lived, and Woodward Avenue, was my highway to Adventure. I could walk to where these two roads met, easily, and often did, to visit the Cunningham’s Drug Store on the corner.
Cunningham’s was a place of wonderment to me. If by some miracle or, perhaps, a time machine, I could enter its welcoming front doors, again, even after all these years, I would know, instantly, that I was there, for the unmistakable intoxicating scent of freshly minted comic books filled the air. I loved to inhale that exhilarating aroma, aware that it held the promise of the latest issues and adventures of my favorite comic heroes. It is one of those unique odors, along with the scent of dime stores that had wooden floors, and chili dogs at Woolworth’s, that the World will never smell again. Kids could hang out at Cunningham’s for hours, unattended. And if they didn’t have a dime, or simply couldn’t make up their minds which comic book to buy, they were allowed to sit right on the stacks of books and magazines, and read them all, for free.
Along one entire wall, Cunningham’s had a Soda Fountain, with tall chrome stools and a marble counter. It was claimed that the Ice cream soda was invented in Detroit by Fred Saunders, founder of Saunders’ Chocolates, a Detroit tradition. Saunders’ “Fudge Sauce” was one of my all-time favorite foods. A “soda” in the Motor City meant Coke or Pepsi, combined with ice-cream. I was surprised to later learn that a soda in the East is just a carbonated beverage. That’s what we used to call “a bottle of Pop” in my hometown. Sodas, malts, and milkshakes, hot fudge sundaes, and banana splits; were all part of the familiar repertoire at the counter at Cunningham’s, served up by a “soda jerk”. Enjoying any of the above, and handling the comic books, at the same time, was strictly forbidden.
The drug store also featured a small forest of cylindrical rotating racks, displaying all the latest paperbacks. Their ultra-realistically rendered covers painted an ominous portrait of adulthood. Most of them were murder mysteries. The protagonists were usually private detectives, and, judging from the cover art, the women were all “babes” or “tarts”. Everybody else was either the victim of a homicide, or the perpetrator of the same.
Most reputable works of literature had hard covers, in those days, and were sold in bookstore’s like Doubleday’s. But these uniformly sized editions, printed on the cheapest paper, were sold only in the drug store. They were considered the lowest form of literature. And Mickey Spillane was king. As an author, he was pulp fiction’s equivalent of William Shakespeare, and it was all downhill from there. Cunningham’s was my mother’s library. She got all her reading matter there. In the days before TV, she would relax in her red leather recliner, with a cigarette dangling from her lower lip, and consume one of these inexpensive novels in an evening, two or three times a week, and then, throw it away.
On the Monopoly game board of my life, this intersection, with the bright green Cunningham’s store on one corner, and a gas station, on the other, was the “GO-Square”! And most of the adventures of my youth began there. For this was the starting point, from which my friend Bucky and I would catch the trolley, nearly every Saturday, and take the seven mile long journey southward to the heart of Downtown Detroit, in the Golden days, when the Motor City was still Great!
I knew the route by heart, every shop, and monument, and movie house, and vacant lot, along the way, through Highland Park, which was just a name, for there was really no park there, as far as I could see, past the the Detroit Institute of Arts on the left, and the majestic Public Library on the right, then straight ahead to Never Land. A day of freedom lay before us, for we were Downtown bound. Our trolley headed down, down, down, following its predetermined route, on tracks imbedded in the roadway, so it could not stray. And thus, our parents considered this a safe journey, and let us wander where we may, in the Big City, just seven miles away. I can’t believe that’s all it was. Between the frequent stops, and the Motor City traffic, it seemed to take an eternity to arrive at the stop where we got out, “Grand Circus Park”!
What a magical and provocative name! It conjured up images of Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey, and the possibility that, any minute, there might be a glorious Grand Circus Parade. Well, that never happened, as far as I’m aware. Nonetheless, the J.L. Hudson Thanksgiving Parade did pass by there, once a year, and that was good enough for me!
There were several “Magic Shops” in Detroit, in those days, enough to convince a couple kids of ten that Magic was both important and commonplace. And two of these establishments, in particular, always figured high on our itinerary. The most amazing one was “Adams Magic”. It was located in an elegant location, albeit sort of in a basement, under-looking ”Grand Circus Park”, not far from where we disembarked.
Adams Magic was a serious store, a place where Real Magicians purchased their supplies. Bucky and I would often hang around there on a Saturday, waiting for them to drop by. I kid you not! and when they did, they would talk shop, and actually perform some tricks. The place also sold stuff geared to the abilities and price range of kids, although, now that I think of it, (I’m in the store, right now, looking around) I never saw any other kids there, only us. And I often spent my allowance on some bit of minor magic, standard stuff, like what came in every Gilbert Mysto Magic Set, but one step up. Eventually, I had them all, cups n’ balls, rubber fruit to squash and crumple up, unseen, inside a paper bag, and then see seemingly reappear, inside a box made out of glass, with a secret mirrored flap in the back, trick decks of cards, and spongy little multiplying rabbits. Some of this was rather naughty, the rabbits start out as two adults; and then, with some amusing patter about what bunnies do, like bunnies, they multiply, like Magic!
One slightly risqué trick that I managed to master was the Magic Paddle. This actually required sleight of hand. It consisted of a metal paddle that you secretly rotated by its narrow handle, as you dramatically flipped it up and down to show both sides to be the same, a decal of a lovely lady in an evening gown. Then, as you passed your free hand over the paddle, the picture appeared to magically change. Well, that is to say, the lady was still there, only her clothing disappeared! Again you could show that both sides were the same. Then, with one more magic pass, you could put her clothes back on again, only on one side; the other still displayed her bare behind. At this point, it was safe to pass the paddle around, for close inspection.
But, all this stuff was elementary, compared to the awesome wonders that filled the shelves of Adams Magic. These were real magician’s props, fantastic and flamboyant, everything from actual guillotines that reached the ceiling to menacing cross saws with alligator teeth that, along with decoratively stenciled boxes, were designed for sawing women in half. There were other magic boxes, too. One resembled a giant cube of Swiss cheese with silver plated swords protruding from the many holes. All these props were decorated with bold and garish magic symbols, many of which appeared to be Chinese, spray-painted on with stencils.
One object that fascinated me was a talking scull, crudely made of papier mache, and mounted on a pedestal. It had a bold intensity about it, that resembled Mexican folk art, and held an oversized playing card, the ace of spades, between its teeth. The jaw bone was articulated, and it could move to speak to you, from some distance away. I figured it must be operated by a hidden string, for radio control was not on the menu, in those days. But it was not what it did that spoke to me. (I wanted it desperately) It was the biting power of its imagery.
Sometimes, when the store was empty, the proprietor would demonstrate a prop or two, and show us what they did, but never how they did it. To glean that information, one had to actually buy the trick. The paraphernalia was only secondary. Adams Magic was really selling secrets!
On a less elegant street, behind the J.L. Hudson Company, there was a second Magic store. It too was in a basement, sunk into the ground, some feet below street level. This one was of a different nature. The word that, perhaps, describes it best is “sleazy”! I began to itch just looking in the window. There were forbidden things in there that I was itching to see. The store was, in fact, more in the order of what one would call a “novelty shop”, of which Detroit had plenty. The Downtown streets were lined with them, interspersed with Burlesque theatres.
The Burlesque houses were awesomely intimidating. Their grotesquely overwrought exteriors were brightly lit, even by day. Huge photographic, almost pornographic figures, tinted in outrageous abstract colors, and mounted on heavy cardboard, cut out and freestanding, stood right out there on the street. They promised much more than the show, itself, could possibly deliver.
Years later, when I was in college, I actually went to one of these, one afternoon in broad daylight. The broads inside were past their prime, and the show was constantly interrupted by painfully unfunny comedy routines. Bottom line: I saw more skits than ... what the French refer to as “poitrines”, or as my mother used to say, “It was not what it was cracked up to be”. Between the “acts” a barker walked around the audience and peddled small brown paper sandwich bags, guaranteed to contain a cornucopia of naughty novelties and filthy pictures. Believe it or not, I still have mine. Actually, I know exactly where it is. I came across it, just last week, and I can share with you the item that was the most risqué! You need only print it out and fold it over. Then, hold it up to a bright light to witness what the butler saw, while peeking through a keyhole.