Thursday, November 02, 2006

A Paradoxical Encounter with the Inimitable Illusionist - Master Magician Will Rock

circa 1988
pictured left to right:

Will and Ruth Rock

Milt and Reva Kort

Clare (Milky the Clown) and Peg Cummings

Al The Only and Lori Ulman

The year was 1980; I was 22 years old and had been in love with magic since I was 12. That was the year I met the illustrious Will Rock (William George Rakauskas, April 25, 1907 - May 4, 1995), but first allow me to digress.

In 1972 I received a magicians’ pictorial book, as a gift, from an amateur magician, Joe Tomasik (July 3, 1903 - November 16, 1985) who lived in Wyandotte, Michigan. Mr. Joe was a friendly gentleman who worked in the steel mills downriver from Detroit. Even though Mr. Joe never did magic full time he loved to perform magic for family, friends and at church functions. My oldest brother, Stan, who, at the time was a priest at Mt. Carmel Catholic Church where Mr. Joe was a parishioner, told Mr. Joe that one of his younger brothers was an aspiring magician. Mr. Joe extended an invitation to me come over and visit. He had a basement full of magic tricks, props, books and memorabilia. It was a magician’s playroom and Mr. Joe delighted in showing me trick after trick. I had the pleasure of subsequent visits and each time was sent home with a trick to learn. Our friendship grew and on one visit while perusing through Mr. Joe’s library I came across a book published by the
Abbott’s Magic Manufacturing Company out of Colon, Michigan. The book “Tops Pictorial Album of Magicians” was published in 1966. Basically it was a compilation of photos of magicians who graced the cover and pages of “The Tops” and “The New Tops” magazines. There are pictures of the well known greats like Houdini, Blackstone, Sr. and Jr., Dante, Keller, Carter and Thurston, just to name a few; ninety-two pages of the world famous and local greats. By the time I received the book some of these prestidigitators had passed but many of them were still alive. I took it upon myself to get as many autographs as possible. I carried the book around to magic meetings, conventions and of course to the Abbott’s Magic Get-Together every August, in Colon, Michigan where many of these folks still attended each year.

As the years passed, more and more of these wonderful people were leaving this worldly stage. On a chance meeting in 1980, with a magician friend, Warren Stephens (December 13, 1931 - April 6, 2006), from Roseville, Michigan, I found out some wonderful news. Warren, a magic inventor, manufacturer, lecturer and historian, was paging through my book, admiring some of the autographs I’d collected. He told me stories of many of the magicians pictured in the book. He also told me of who was still around and who was gone. I put a cross next to the names of those who had departed, hoping it would be awhile before I met them. As we leafed through the pages we came upon Will Rock’s picture. Warren told me that Will was still alive. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know much about Will Rock but I knew he had purchased the Thurston show and that he traveled with a full evening show. He was of iconic class in the magic community, a legend, one of magic’s unsung heroes. I HAD TO MEET THIS MAN! Warren told me that Will Rock lived in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, was retired from magic, hated magicians and wanted to be left alone. I didn’t care. All I wanted was an autograph, one minute of the man’s time and I wouldn’t bother him after that. I wouldn’t pester him. I simply wanted an autograph. Warren told me to leave him alone. He told me that if I called Will and Will found out that I was a magician, he would hang up on me. If I showed up at his door he would slam the door in my face. This was the furthest thing from the truth but I didn’t know it at the time. I was young, persistent and had to meet Will Rock, albeit for an autograph.

It just so happened that my then girlfriend and now my wife, Lori, lived in St. Clair Shores. Not that St. Clair Shores is a small city but I assumed that it would be easy to find Will. I called the local Catholic church to see if Will was registered there. No luck. Then by a stroke of genius I decided to look in the phone book and there he was.

What to do? I was told to leave him alone. I was told that once he found out I was a magician he wouldn’t have anything to do with me, but I couldn’t resist. All I wanted was Will Rock’s autograph. I thought of sending Lori in my place, there’s no way he could have said no to that beautiful brunette. Instead, I mustered up all the courage I could find to call him. I tried to fit in two minutes of an introduction into five seconds. I was afraid that as soon as Will knew I was a magician, he would certainly hang the phone up on me.

I placed the call. “Hello? Is this Will Rock?” I asked as the person answered the phone.

“Yes,” he replied.

“My name is Al, please don’t hang up on me. I’m a local professional magician. I’d love to meet you. I have a book with your picture that I would love to have you autograph. That’s all I want. My girlfriend lives here in St. Clair Shores, I’m not too far away. I promise not to bother you after that. Please, can I meet you?” I’m sure I said more and didn’t take a breath in between the sentences.

Will interrupted me and I was afraid that was it. He was going to hang up on me. He knew I was a magician. This was the end. Instead, he said, “I’m very busy right now and need to get going, but if you call me tomorrow, I’d be happy to talk to you.”

“I can call you tomorrow?” I asked surprisingly.

“Yes, please do,” the wonderful voice said on the other end of the phone.

“Really, I can call you back tomorrow?” I asked or begged, I’m not sure which.

“Of course, I’d love to talk to you,” said Will.

What just happened? Will I be able to live until tomorrow, I thought. Seriously, I could call Will Rock back the following day. What will he tell me tomorrow, I asked myself. All I wanted was an autograph.

The following day came. I don’t know why I was nervous. I was invited to call this person back. I wanted to meet him but I was uncertain if he would give me the opportunity. The next day came and I made the call. I was so nervous. Once again I was talking a mile a minute. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to plead my case before being hung up on. As I was rattling off my litany I was sure to be cut off and hung up on. In the middle of a sentence Will told me to slow down. I took a deep breathe. I explained to Will that I had a book that I would love to have him autograph. He sounded trilled and invited me to come over. Really? I thought. “Can I bring my girlfriend with me?” I asked. This entire scenario was going in a different direction than I had expected.

Will gave me his schedule and told me what day would be the best for him. He literally lived within a half mile from Lori’s home. We made a date and Lori and I went to meet Will Rock.

Will and Ruth Rock lived in a nice condominium on Jefferson Avenue in St. Clair Shores. They had a swimming pool outside their front door. Will Rock, a short, white haired, white handle bar mustachioed gentleman answered his door.

“Hi, I’m
Al The Only and this is my girlfriend, Lori,” I said.

When Lori and I arrived we were made very welcome by our gracious hosts.

We were quickly invited in and introduced to Ruth.

Ruth was a petite, pretty lady. The couple would have looked perfect on a wedding cake. They were delightful.

“This is the book I told you about, can I please have your autograph?” I asked.

We were invited to sit down. “Would you like anything to drink?” we were asked. Graciously we accepted and all sat down.

I have to admit, I was expecting an ogre, a bitter old man, who without knowing me would hate me just because I was a magician. It was the furthest thing from the truth. Will and Ruth were superb hosts. We talked about magic, magicians and how Lori and I fit into the mix. Will graciously autographed my book and gave me a few souvenirs of his show biz days. Will had put together a little surprise package for me complete with 8x10s, throw out cards, news articles and assorted memorabilia. This was far and beyond anything I had expected. The thing that startled me the most was when we were leaving--- he invited us back!

I still wasn’t sure where I stood in all this. I promised Warren Stephens I wouldn’t bother Will Rock but then Will invited me back, what to do? I didn’t want to bother Will and Ruth but they seemed genuinely sincere about inviting us back.

I had the pleasure of visiting with Will and Ruth on a few more occasions. Each time we grew a little closer. Each time, new and exciting stories where told to me. Stories of how magicians made it through the depression. Stories of how Will used his brother in certain illusions and finally the story of how it was time to pack up the show, settle down with his family and put that chapter of his life behind him.

I found Will and Ruth to be a fun, wholesome, wonderful couple. They lived two separate lives, the life of show biz and the life on regular city folk. I respected their privacy and relished in their company. There was always a cocktail to be had and a story to be told. They were comfortable with both.

On August 31, 1988, Lori and I hosted a luncheon for a few of Detroit’s Magic Elite. As a full time pro, I was very fortunate to know and hold as friends some of the greats in our industry. Two of my dear friends included Milt Kort (October 13, 1917 – August 1, 2003) and Clare Cummings (February 4, 1912 - October 31, 1994).

Milt Kort was a pharmacist by trade but was probably one of the best coin men in our industry. Milt co-authored Bobo’s “Modern Coin Magic.” Clare Cummings worked for Dupont but every Saturday morning on local televison he was
the original Milky the Twin Pines Dairy Magic Clown. There was a waiting list of kids who wanted to be on his TV show. To this day if you ask a 50 year old who grew up in Detroit what the magic words are, he’ll exclaim, “Twin Pines!” (Side note: Clare Cummings’ caricature of Milky the Clown is still on the milk cartons of Twin Pines Dairy. Karrell Fox was the second Milky.)

Milt and Clare knew I was in contact with Will Rock. Neither had ever met him. Lori and I decided to have a little luncheon and invite all three couples to attend. The Rocks graciously accepted and were enthusiastic to meet Milt and Clare but you would have thought Milt and Clare were star stricken kids (as I was, too) when they found out they were going to meet Will Rock. I understood they’re excitement because I couldn’t contain mine. I was having lunch with these three notable gentlemen and their spouses in my home! It was a delightful afternoon. I just wish I had a video camera to film them as the stories abounded that afternoon.

Will Rock was a warm, gentle man. He loved magic. He loved talking about magic, the good and the bad. He loved reminiscing about life on the road and he wasn’t shy about explaining why his wife, daughter and personal life determined that it was time to stop traveling. I didn’t realize what a special friendship I had with Will until his death in 1995. Lori and I were two of only three magicians invited to attend Will’s memorial service. Of all the people Will had entertained and all the magicians he had touched, I was flattered to be invited. What overwhelmed me was that the family asked me to perform some magic as a tribute to Will, as his eulogy. You cannot imagine my esteemed honor. What surprised me is that many of Will’s recent friends didn’t know anything about Will’s life as a magician. They didn’t even address him as Will, to them he was Bill. Will Rock who toured with a full evening magic show; Will Rock who followed in the footsteps of Howard Thurston; Will Rock who left the stage to be a father and family man; Will Rock who was revered by magicians from around the world; Will Rock who silently disappeared from magic; and I was asked to perform at his memorial, an honor I humbly accepted.

I will always cherish my friendship with Will and Ruth Rock and now their daughter Gretchen. I will not forget the warm and endearing man who toured with a full evening magic show but still took the time to autograph a book for a young aspiring magician. This handsome, white haired, handlebar mustachioed, short-in-stature person (who) by being humble and sincere was larger than life.

I miss you Bill and Ruth, may you rest in peace.


Al The Only

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