1955 - 2010
Posted: Aug 10, 2005 8:29pm
I thought I'd share a few stories to get this column started. Jerry Camaro was a terrific subject. Billy McComb, though, is legendary! I think anyone who's ever met Billy has a story to tell! As it happens, I have several...
I worked for Marvin "Buma" Burger at the House of Magic, in San Francisco, during the seventies. That is where I met so many of the greats in magic. Buma had been in magic for fifty years by the time I met him, and knew just about everyone. He was also an expert on rare and old magic. He could tell you who made something with just a glance. I got to handle thousands of pieces of rare magic over the years I spent with Buma, and my magical education is much the better for it. Not only did I learn how things worked, but I learned new principles, old ones', I saw one of a kind items, I saw what real craftsmanship was...
P&L, Floyd Thayer, the Owens Brothers, National Magic, Joe Berg, Ireland, Martinka, Hornmann, Loyd, Jon Martin, Klingl, Bartl, Conradi, Willmann, Merv Taylor, Rutherford, Star Magic, Okito, Don Redmon, Sedghill, Connie Haden, Brema, John Snyder, Chambers, Bob Kline, Anverdi, Davenport, Burtini, Abbott, Tannen, Himber, and on, and on, and on!
Then there were the tricks: rare Okito, like a Rice, Orange and Checkers, P&L Candle Tubes, or Fairy Ribbon Shears, or a one-of-a-kind Appeaaring Candleabra, made for Dell O'Dell. Thayer's Locking Flap Card Boxes, in hand-rubbed mahogany, or a beautiful Handkerchief Frame, Merv Taylor's Card Sword, or his Haskell Gambling Act, or the Prooduction Tambors, or his Orb Eternal Linking Rings. A Willmann Flash Pull, pre-dating Ring Flight by a century. Rutherfords Rising Cigarette Pack, a mechanical marvel, or Stan Payne's original Wandering Lipsticks, the best Rattle Bar set ever made. I had, at one time, EIGHT of the Neyhart Houlettes in Greater Magic that allow you to "rise" any card called for, on command! A Stull Fishbowl, Loyd's Multiplying Candles, or his beautiful Sand Canisters. A set of Kuma Tubes, something rarely seen, even then. And illusions, John Gaughan built beauties. But, some old one's too! I even had the entire act, made by hand, of Hoyam. It was so novel that Tannen did a book called The Magic of Hoyam, and it was his entire stage act including how to manufacture the props yourself. I had the actual act, in 27 trunks! Bill Mayoh was his real name, by the way.
So, where the heck is Billy McComb in all this? Well, I'll tell you in a minute. First, how did I meet Billy? Well, that's easy. Every time he worked a cruise that came thru SF, Billy made his way down to the magic shop. So, the first time he appeared while I was working, Buma introduced us and it was "off to the races"!
Billy would talk magic all night if you wanted, and he can tell stories 'til the cows GO home! That first day I was in the shop, and a student I'd taken on was there, too. Billy was in rare form, and we had a blast. The shop closed at five, and Billy wanted to keep going. So, we went next door, to Original Joe's, for drinks. After that, We went to dinner. We ate at the Top of the Mark, a famous SF restaurant, because Josh, my student wanted to treat! He was Josh Ets-Hokin, of the SF Ets-Hokins, a very wealthy SF family. In fact, they sold the land for Candlestick Park to the city. During dinner Billy asked Josh what he did for work and Josh explained. He was in the Coast Guard, he'd signed on for two years while he decided what he really wanted to do with his life. Well, Billy turned that into a story about me that is STILL going on, almost thirty years later! But, I'll tell that later. First, the story I started, which has to do with Rare Magic, Buma, and Billy's devilish ways!
After dinner we went to the Magic Cellar Saloon to see the best magic shows in town. I don't recall who was on the bill that night, but Martin Lewis, Vic Kirk, Daryl, Matt Corin, Frank Shields, Paul Svengari, Harry Anderson, Dr. Lovecraft, Rich Marotta, and Professor Tai King Lee were all regulars, so you were guaranteed a good show! We saw the close-up, and the stand-up shows, met with the performers afterward and visited, had a few drinks and talked more magic. Finally, the night was drawing to a close, and Billy had to return to the ship. He said his goodbyes to friends, then to Josh. Finally, Billy asked me if I would get him back to the wharf. I thought it strange, since he'd been in SF many times, and knew his way around, but I agreed. Turns out he didn't want to hurt Josh's feelings, but he wanted to invite me on board alone. You see, it had come up in conversation that I had never been on a cruise ship...
What a thrill for a young guy. I was in the company of a great magician, and boarding a Luxury Liner to see how things worked if you could get a booking on cruise ships. Billy showed me around the ship, bought me another drink, took me to his stateroom and let me see just how the other half lives. It was great! And then, he lowered the boom!
Now remember, I worked for Marvin "Buma" Burger, dealer in antiquities, rare magic expert, and NOT a collector. In fact, much as Buma loved magic, he used to say, "You can't be a dealer and a collector, too!" He knew that if he started collecting he'd never make a dime! There was just too much wonderful magic out there! (Look at Dr. Albo's collection, later sold to David Copperfield. I actually handled at least 60% of that material. Buma was Doc's mentor from the time Doc was 14 years old!).
Occasionally Buma would find something so wonderful he couldn't bear to part with it right away. He'd play with it for six months, a year even, teasing collectors he knew, until he finally tired of the thing. THEN he'd sell it to the right home. And believe me, lots of things went to the "right home", NOT the highest bidder. Buma really loved magic, and though he made a living at it, he wanted certain things to go to certain collectors. So, Bob Albo got special consideration. So did lots of other guys. John Gaughan collected Martin, and Buma would always call him with a new Martin piece. Well, almost always...
When I got to Billy's stateroom on that fateful night there was something brewing. I could see it in Billy's eyes. A twinkle. If you know Billy, you'll know what I mean. That twinkle!
"Paul, have you ever seen a Martin Fishing Pole?" he asked me as I sat on the bed in his cabin. "A Jon Martin Fishing Pole? For the Aerial Fishing?", I asked. "Exactly..", Billy said.
Well, I hadn't, but I was about to. And it was Beautiful! Made like everything Martin made, just spectacular. Billy had the whole rig, the pole, the special handle with chambers, the bait and line, the SHOOTING MECHANISM that no other pole had ever had. And the carrying case, canvas, made to absorb the water and protect the pole. And it was one of only two known to exist!
"Billy", I asked, "why didn't you bring this to the shop today?" "Well, I hadn't made up my mind what I was going to do with it yet. Now I know. I had a great time tonight, so I want you to take this back with you and give it to Buma..."
I was practically beside myself. I was salivating. And quickly counting mentally. How much money did I have with me? Would Billy take a check? What should I do if he wouldn't? Buma would kill me if I let this "Fishing Pole" get away! So, I asked. Just like that, I asked, "How much, Billy?" And then the twinkle in his eyes brightened, just a bit. And the trouble began...
"How much? Don't insult me Paul. It's a gift. Give it to Buma with my best wishes, tell him to enjoy it!" Ahhh! This was the worst! I was stuck! "Please Billy, let me pay you for it, please!" "No, Paul, it's a gift. Take it with you..." "I can't do that Billy, it is much too generous. Buma will kill me, please let me pay you something..." "Take it with you, or I'll throw it out the porthole!"
Well, the Fishing Pole went home with me that night, and into the shop the next morning. And there was Buma, waiting when I arrived.
"How did it go last night? Did you have a good time with McComb?" "Oh yeah", I said, "He's a great guy!" "What that you've got, Paul?" "Well, Marv, It's a gift for you from Billy!" That's how I broke the news...
"A gift? What is it?" "Open it and see...", I said. He did. And he knew right away what he had. "How much did you pay him?" Buma asked. And again, I said, "It's a gift..." "Oh that rat!" Buma screamed. "I'll kill him!"
And then he played with the pole, wrote a thank-you note to Billy, and laughed, because Billy McComb had "gotten Buma", but good!
You see, Billy knew what a soft touch Burger really was. And how sentimental. He knew that Marvin would NEVER, EVER, sell a gift! And you know what? All that money, that rare, rare, "Martin Aerial Fishing Pole", the deals he could have made, ah, it killed him! He knew that he could sell it, but guess what? He never did...
I've told that story lots of times, and Billy has too, I'm sure. It was really great, because it was a terrific joke to pull on Buma, "the dealer who wouldn't collect". And at the same time, it was the greatest of gestures, a gift from one friend to another, a gift that Buma treasured, and one that he never forgot. Niether have I...
Oh, there is an addendum: Since it really WAS one of only two known to exist, and since Dr. Albo was doing his now-famous series on rare magic, it had to go "in the book". So Buma let Doc take it to do the write-up, and to photograph, but he refused to sell it to him. Marvin never relenquished ownership, but he managed to share it with the magic world none-the-less, a fitting tribute to Buma, Billy, and Jon Martin.
P.S. Next, the other McComb story, the one about me, the Coast Guard, and the suicide leapers on the Golden Gate Bridge...
"You can't steal a gift..." Dizzy Gillespie
1955 - 2010
Posted: May 1, 2006 3:05pm
It is a very sad day for me...
Billy McComb has passed away, and with him another link to the magic history we all treasure so very much. I've told one story about Billy, and I promised another. Here it is:
Remember Josh Ets-Hokin? I mentioned him earlier. He was, at the time I first met him, in the Coast Guard. And he was along for the ride during one of Billy's visits, the one I recounted earlier. During the evening we spent together, Billy, ever gracious, showed a lot of interest in Josh. He asked him about what kind of magic he liked, talked about the things he thought would help Josh, etc. He told some funny stories, and he asked a lot of questions. Billy always knew how to make a person feel at ease. He was truly interested in what Josh did. Josh was on a patrol boat that covered San Francisco Bay and the coastline. They helped vessels in trouble, checked when things didn't look right, wrote "tickets" if boaters were violating the "rules of the road", etc. And they recovered bodies - dead bodies. Not very often, mind you, but it did happen. The idea of suicides came up, and Billy asked about the bridge-jumpers. The folks that jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. Josh told Billy that yes, occasionally, the Coast Guard had to recover those bodies too. That was it. That was the entire story on bridge-jumping suicides and the Coast Guard. But it was too good a start for Billy to leave it alone. So, fade out...
Fade in, years later...
Billy is at a "Convention at the Capital", I think it was. I ran into him, and he was with a group of guys, some I knew, others not. Billy introduced me, "Here's Paul Chosse. Wonderful fellow, Paul is, works for "Buma". But do you know what Paul used to do? He worked for the Coast Guard, and recovered the bodies of the poor souls that jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge..."
Well, that was the first time I'd heard that, and I thought that maybe Billy didn't recall things quite right, he obviously had me confused with Josh. I didn't want to correct him in front of folks, so I let it be. Fade out...
Fade in, another year or two has passed...
I'm at the Castle, and I run into Billy. He is with a group I don't know at all. "Well, here's Paul Chosse. Wonderful fellow, Paul is, worked for "Buma" for years. But you know what Paul used to do? He worked for the Coast Guard, and they used to go out in thier boats, and when a "jumper" went off the Golden Gate Bridge it was Paul's job to get the body out of the water. Horrible really, he had to throw a rope around the remains and drag the poor soul aboard and bring it in to port..."
Years later, another convention, another group, and there is Billy. "Here's Paul Chosse! Wonderful fellow, worked for Buma, for years. But you know what Paul used to do? Well, he worked for the Coast Guard, and when someone jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge..."
And so it went, for years. The last time I heard the story it went like this, as told to Dorian Rhodell, Steve Brooks, and a slew of other folks. I wasn't even there for this recounting, I had told them to say hello to Billy for me when they saw him at the Desert Magic Seminar they were attending. This is what he said:
"Ah, Paul Chosse! Wonderful fellow, used to work for Buma. But do you know what Paul used to do for a living? He worked for the Coast Guard. And it was his special duty to recover the bodies of the suicides, the jumpers off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco..."
"It was a horrible job, poor fellow. You see, those jumpers, they caused all sorts of problems. They would drive out onto the bridge, then stop in the middle and get out of thier cars, climb up on the rails, and jump to thier deaths."
"The trouble, though, is that they'd leave thier cars on the bridge blocking traffic! And most of them took the keys with them to thier deaths. The Coast Guard would go out and find the body. But the currents are very bad there in the San Francisco Bay. So, over the side Paul would go, in his wetsuit and oxygen tanks. He'd find the body."
"Meanwhile, up on the bridge the police would have a fishing pole, with extra line and a heavy lead weight on it. The winds over the bridge are ferocious there in the Bay. So the police would lower down the fishing line, and Paul is in the water you see, trying to find the body of the jumper. Now he'd find the body, and then the rough part, poor Paul. In that current, in the water, he'd have to go thru the dead man's pockets, looking for the automobile keys, you know the ignition key?"
"Because you see, the car is stuck on the bridge and it's blocking the traffic and they've got to get it off the bridge. So Paul would find the keys, and then he'd have to snag the fishing line that the policeman on the bridge was lowering, and he would tie the keys to the jumper's car to the fishing line so that the policeman on the bridge could reel it in, you know, reel in the keys. Then they could start the car and clear the bridge and get the traffic going. Then Paul could drag the body back to the Coast Guard boat, load him on-board, and motor back to port! What a job, no wonder the fellow took up magic!"
And that, is Sir William, at his finest! He'd refined and honed that story over the years, making me more and more outrageous, and taking everybody in as he went! It's amazing, but you know I never heard anyone ask why they didn't just tow the car! But lots of them have asked me over the years, how long I did that job! And the looks on the faces of magicians when they finally got the "leg-pull" was priceless. Billy sure could tell a story...
I'm sure there are other stories just as wonderful. Billy touched everyone he met in his own special way. He had that great gift, he made you feel like you were someone that mattered, that he appreciated you, that he was truly interested in what you thought and did. And that's because he WAS truly interested, he DID truly care about his fellows. God Bless Billy McComb...
"You can't steal a gift..." Dizzy Gillespie
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