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March 29 - April 4, 2004
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Here's to Henry Duncklee...


(March 29, 2004) LAS VEGAS - Coincidences in life are meaningful, and some say, there are no such things as coincidences. Whatever you believe, when things happen that might be considered such, it makes you stop and contemplate life.

When I was a little lad, about 8, my dad took me to a place just outside of Worcester, Massachusetts called Wayland to see a miniature circus. Little did I know that this visit would become such an important milestone in my life. The circus was situated in a large gift shop, an old fashioned general store sort of a joint, in the back room, a full-scale miniature version of the old Ringling Brothers Circus, made by hand by one Henry Duncklee. Seems that Henry actually worked for the circus, was hired by John Ringling himself, and spent many years living in a circus wagon as the show traversed the country. His official job: sign painter. But he did so many other things, worked with the clowns and magicians, building and decorating their props.

A lady (Ruth, Henry's wife) collected a dollar at the door, then she grabbed a microphone and conducted a tour of the incredible display, pointing out various features of the circus, from the moving figures in the back lot rehearsing their routines, to the animals under the big top going through their paces. The room itself was covered with circus posters and magic posters, all authentic, although at the time I had no idea of their worth or origins.


It seems that Henry's health forced him to quit the circus after 25 years, so he retired to Massachusetts where he quickly became bored with life, missing his days on the road with the big show. He decided to write a letter to John Ringling, asking if he might send him the plans for the circus wagon that he lived and traveled in for so long. He wanted to build a scale model of the wagon to pass the time and keep his mind and hands working.

A couple of weeks later, a truck pulled up to Henry's house and the driver came to the door, asking Henry where he wanted the stuff that John Ringling had sent to him. Turns out John Ringling sent him the plans for the circus wagon - along with the plans for every wagon, truck, tent and trailer in the entire circus! It took the truck driver over an hour to unload the huge rolls of plans, which filled Henry's garage in no time.

Henry searched through the pile and found his circus wagon and using wood and cloth, he painstakingly carved out the pieces and carefully painted it. It took him a couple of weeks to complete this scale model of his wagon. He placed it on the mantle and sat there, looking at it. After a few days, he went out to the garage and pulled out another one of the giant drawings and decided to build another one of the wagons. Then he wondered if he could build one of the small side show tents.

Little by little, he kept unrolling the plans for various trucks, tents and wagons, and piece by piece, he decided he would build the whole bloody circus, a project that took him over 5 years to complete! He used tiny motors mounted under the massive boards that held the circus to animate many of the elements, then he made a soundtrack of circus music and created the display as an attraction for people to view.

So, here I was, with my dad, walking around this miniature circus, listening to the tour guide, taking it all in. When she was done explaining things, we were free to walk around and look at everything. The magic posters caught my eye and I studied each one of them closely. Then I spotted a man sitting behind a counter, watching a football game on a TV and shuffling a deck of cards with one hand. The man spotted me, stood up and came to the counter and introduced himself, Henry Duncklee.


"You like magic, son?"

"Oh, yes, I know a lot of tricks", I said.

"You do? Ever see this one?" With that he did a beautiful color change with the cards. My eyes popped. Then he handed me a Tannen's Magic catalog and said, "Here, take this and look it over, pick out one trick and I will buy it for you. But make sure it's a sleight of hand trick, that's the real magic, sleight of hand. These are just regular cards, I never would use a trick deck."

I spent the next hour with him as he pointed out tricks for me to consider. I settled on the Benson Bowl routine, and he took my name and address and said it would arrive soon, and told me to practice it until I was really good at it, then told me to return to demonstrate it for him.

Well, after an agonizing week of running to the mail box, the package finally arrived and I locked myself in my room and practiced my first sponge ball moves and rehearsed the routine until I was ready to show my parents, then I made my father drive me back to the miniature circus place where I proudly performed it for Henry Duncklee. He nodded and smiled and said I was on my way to greatness. Then he handed me the catalog and said, "Here. You keep this. And remember, study sleight of hand, okay?" I thanked him profusely and we left.


Fast forward ELEVEN YEARS. I had been taking Henry's advice, studying cards, coins, sponges and other sleight of hand tricks, and performing magic shows everywhere I could. I was invited to appear on a popular TV show in Boston, to perform live. I did coins across, coins through the table, signed card in my mouth and I levitated the host. I was invited back many times, and I got lots of paying jobs as a result. About a week after the show aired, I received a letter, forwarded to me from the TV show.


I still have the letter. Here's a small part of it:

"Today I watched an amazing display of sleight of hand on television. T. Nelson Downs would have been impressed with your coin work, and your card moves were flawless. You have become a fine entertainer, and you will no doubt have a long and impressive career in magic, I am sure of it. I remember when you visited my circus eleven years ago with your father, and I told you to study sleight of hand. I am sure of it. I am happy that you took my advice....signed, Henry Duncklee."

I called to thank him, and we got together shortly after. We became good friends. A couple of years later, I opened my first magic shop, and I called Henry to invite him to the opening. As it turned out, he had since sold the circus to a museum, and was now retired again and hating it. I offered him a job running the magic department. He worked for us for quite a while, sitting behind the counter, talking magic with the boys, demonstrating tricks and sharing stories with us. He also painted all of the shop's signs.

Years later, when I had become friends with Dai Vernon, Henry told me that it would mean a great deal to him if he could actually meet Vernon. So, during one of Vernon's visits to my house, I arranged a dinner, and Henry got a chance to spend the afternoon with the Professor. It was a very special day, as you can imagine.

Here's to Henry Duncklee, an artist and lover of magic. He left this earth many years ago, but I still remember the twinkle in his eye and the generosity of his spirit, and the guidance he gave me when I was just a little punk. On the wall of my living room hangs a huge circus poster, a precious gift from Henry that serves as a daily reminder of a very special man.

Magically yours,


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