Nothing Up My Sleeve
By Jon Gallagher
A Skelton in my Closet
January 31, 2009
Over the past 30 some years, I’ve been a magician, sometimes performing as a hobby, and sometimes performing for a living. I’ve had the good fortune to meet a lot of interesting people including famous magicians like David Copperfield, Harry Blackstone Jr., and Marshall Brodien. I’ve also met a lot of people that are just as fascinating, if not more so, who you’ve never heard of.
One person whose friendship I will always treasure was an elderly lady who lived in Monmouth named Leola LaWain. A widow, she lived in a small, nondescript grey house, a few blocks south of Monmouth College. Her husband, Jack, had passed away by the time I’d met her but she continued to operate the business out of her home that he had started several years earlier.
No, he wasn’t Jack LaLane, the guy who did (or does) jumping jacks on TV; he was Jack LaWain, and in his own way, just as famous as the fitness expert.
Jack had been a magician in his lifetime too. He wasn’t the guy who shows up at birthday parties with a rabbit that pops out of a hat. He didn’t do shows for the local Moose Lodge or the women’s group down at the church. Jack spent his life in Vaudeville, travelling and performing with the likes of Nicola (another very famous magician who hailed from Monmouth) and Howard Thurston, one of the biggest names in magic from the early part of last century.
After retiring, Jack set up a magic shop in his home. Mrs. LaWain continued the business after Jack was gone, selling mostly used magic apparatus, books (back then there wasn’t any VHS tapes or DVDs on magic), along with a few new items that she could order from magic supply companies. Mrs. LaWain was quite well known throughout the magic community and whenever a magician was passing through Illinois, it was almost mandatory to stop by and visit with her for a while.
Mrs. LaWain received visitors by appointment only, and it was her steadfast rule that she would not host two magicians at the same time.
I first met her when I was in my early 20s, and just getting a good start into doing birthday parties and club shows. I had a long way to go and a lot to learn, but at the time, I really didn’t know this. Heck, I could do magic tricks that fooled people. I was good! People told me so!
I was also an egotistical, pompous ass who had a lot to learn both professionally, and personally.
Mrs. LaWain sort of took me under her wing and explained to me that it wasn’t just being able to do a trick; it was being able to entertain people while doing the trick. It took a long time to get this through my thick skull, but it finally sank in, and my shows improved.
Every few months Mrs. LaWain would send out a newsletter filled with page after page of magic equipment that she had taken in. The procedure to order anything from the list was simple: you just called her, told her you wanted it, and she’d wait for you to send a check. In my case, since I was local, I could have her hold the item and I’d drive over to Monmouth and pick it up. This allowed both of us to set aside an hour or two so that we could sit and visit.
During those visits, she’d entertain me with stories from her days assisting her husband while they toured the world with their magic. Jack would do a ventriloquist act with a dummy named “Jimmy,” while Mrs. LaWain would perform some sort of act where she made pictures out of rags (I never quite understood this, but pretended I did). And of course, they performed all the “standard” magic tricks.
Her connections with the rest of the world became obvious to me on one of my first visits to her home. Her living room was decorated with pictures of all the famous and not so famous people she and Jack had come to know over the years. Jay Marshall, a regular on the Ed Sullivan show, was featured on the wall with his famous sock puppet “Lefty.” Another photo showed her late husband shaking hands with Frank Sinatra.
As I was looking at the photos one afternoon, I did a double take. “Hey!” I said, gaping at a newer photo (it was color). “That’s President Ford!” I took a closer look. “And that’s your couch!” Holy Cow! President Ford was sitting there on the very couch that I was sitting on (in all fairness, he was former President Ford by this time).
“Oh yes,” she said with a nonchalant wave of her hand. “We’ve known Jerry since he was a freshman Congressman.”
I continued to look over the photos and saw another color photograph, this one of Red Skelton sitting on her couch. “Oh my gosh! I used to watch him on TV all the time!” Actually, he was my parents’ favorite comedian and since we only had one TV in the house, I was basically forced to watch his show. He grew on me quickly, and I became a big fan of Red and all his characters like Clem Kaddiddlehopper, and Sherriff Deadeye. His catch phrases like “Give me my hat, give me my hat,” or “Two seagulls, Gertrude and Heathcliff….” were staples of primetime TV in the 1960s.
Again, Mrs. LaWain passed it off as if Red was a guy who lived down the street. “He stops by whenever he’s in Macomb, doing Western (Illinois University) on his college circuit.”
I went on and on about him, telling her that I practically idolized the guy and his wonderful sense of humor. She just smiled and nodded as I gushed.
I got to be such a good customer that she would call me from time to time to let me know that she’d taken in an item that might fit well with my show. She had taken the time to attend one of my public performances, so she had a pretty good idea of what would fit with my personality and what wouldn’t. Sometimes I’d call her about an item that she had listed and she’d try to talk me out of it because it “didn’t fit.”
One afternoon, I got a call from Mrs. LaWain telling me that she had something she’d like me to take a look at. As usual, she wouldn’t tell me what it was; she wanted a chance to demonstrate it for me. She also didn’t bother to tell me how much it was, but she always managed to keep things in my price range. The only problem with this particular item was that I had to look at it that afternoon.
I dropped what I was doing (which was probably nothing more than reading a comic book), hopped in my van, and headed for Monmouth. I didn’t have a lot of cash in my pocket so I was hoping that whatever she had didn’t cost too much.
What she had was, as the commercial says, priceless.
She met me at the door, ushered me into the house and said, “Jon, I’d like you to meet Red Skelton.”
Red stood up and extended his hand while I did my best impression of Fred Flintstone meets Elmer Fudd. I literally could not speak.
Red hunched his shoulders up and down, and in his trademark voice said to Mrs. LaWain, “Don’t talk much, does he?”
I got to spend about an hour with him. When my power of speech returned, I was able to ask him questions and share some stories. I brought back innumerable bits of advice from him, but there are three that stand out in my mind.
First, he told me that there were a lot of comedians out there who thought you had to be “blue” to be funny. He told me that the funniest comedians were those who didn’t have to resort to jokes about sex or body fluids in order to be successful. He told me that if I pretended that my grandmother was sitting in the front row for my shows, and not do anything that would embarrass her, then I would be a success.
I asked him about being nervous before a show and asked if and when the butterflies would ever migrate out of my stomach.
He told me that he still got nervous before each and every show. He called it “getting up the sweat.” He said that the butterflies had to be there for him to do a good show. When they weren’t there, he knew he was going to fall flat on his face.
Finally, I remember him telling me that there’s no such thing as a bad audience. I started to correct him on that point when he went on to say, “No audience gets together before a show and says, ‘let’s be bad tonight.’” Instead, there are bad performances and that leads to bad audiences. If the performer is good, he’ll bring the audience around.
That day was more than 30 years ago now. But to this day, whenever I do a magic show, I keep those three things in mind.
And before a show, even a birthday party, you can usually find me pacing around, trying to get those darn butterflies to go away.
Red Skelton died in 1997 at the age of 84. Mrs. LaWain passed away in 2002 at the age of 96. I wish I could have spent more time with either or both of them, but I’ll forever cherish the memories that Mrs. LaWain created for me all those years ago.