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Welcome to Colon, Magic Capital of the World

On a high school auditorium stage in front of a packed house on the evening of August 6th, a goth magician named Dan Sperry dressed in ripped black jeans and platform boots swallowed a few razor blades, then pulled them from his mouth daisy-chained on a string. He picked up a grotesque baby doll, made it pee on his face, then spat the pee back on the baby before throwing it away. Doves appeared from nowhere, vanishing to bursts of flame and a grinding soundtrack of Incubus. During the finale, Sperry sawed through his own neck with a piece of floss. At some point during the emo-metal haze, it occurred to me that I might actually prefer a stuffy old man in a tuxedo waving a magic wand.

This surreal performance happened in Colon, Michigan, a sleepy, one-streetlight town somewhere between Detroit and Chicago that proudly bills itself as "The Magic Capital of the World." (The name comes from a pair of nearby lakes shaped like the punctuation mark.) It's home to around 1,000 residents and holds at least 30 dead magicians in its single small graveyard. The Colon High School mascot is a giant bunny rabbit. Though it lacks the soaring Gothic cathedrals of Hogwarts, it just might be the most magical place in the United States.

For the past 80 years, Colon has hosted Abbott’s Magic Get Together, an annual gathering of several hundred magicians from all over the world who convene for a week of shows, lectures, and trick-jamming. At night, tipsy magicians mingle in bars and restaurants along Colon’s single block of downtown, practicing their craft on passersby. The Get Together is less a conference and more a "family reunion," as nearly every person I spoke to there referred to it.

Doves appeared from nowhere, vanishing to bursts of flame and a grinding soundtrack of Incubus

But like any good family reunion, the Get Together has its share of drama. Infighting over the town’s magical heritage has made it harder for aging magicians to cooperate in attracting new members to their community. And modern, everyday technology — not to mention the proliferation of the internet — has made it harder for magic to seem... well, magical.

Still, when you throw hundreds of born-and-bred entertainers into this mecca of illusions, you’re bound to get a party.

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The facade of Abbott's, Colon's oldest manufacturer of magic supplies.

Magic is to Colon what fog is to San Francisco: it forms a kind of omnipresent backdrop to the place. There are flags emblazoned with "The Magic Capital of the World" hanging from every streetlamp, street-side planters shaped like rabbits coming out of hats, and a Hollywood-style magician walk-of-fame on the town’s short stretch of sidewalk. The local pizza shop’s signboard menu advises visitors to "have a magical day."

The town’s history museum, a small converted church just off the downtown strip, has a wall covered in black-and-white photos of magicians that the town historian, Joe Ganger, proudly pointed to as he made the case for its Magic Capital status. Colon attracts obsessives of a single genre. "If they have a magic interest, they have to come through this dinky little town," he says.

The town’s first celebrity magician, Harry Bouton — you might know him better by his stage name, Harry Blackstone — came to Colon in 1926 after developing his act in his hometown of Chicago. Before the advent of air conditioning, touring performers took the summers off. The story goes that during one such break, Blackstone’s wife was driving through Michigan in search of a place the troupe could settle during the warmer months. She stumbled across Colon. "Colon had everything they needed," Ganger explains: an opera house to rehearse in, a railroad to ship out on tour, and lakes perfect for "escape act preparations."

Blackstone bought up 200 acres of land on one of Colon’s lakes, renamed it Blackstone Island, and set about inviting other itinerant magicians to join him. In 1927, an Australian magician named Percy Abbott came to town to do some fishing and never left — he married one of Blackstone’s showgirls, 21 years his junior. Blackstone and Abbott went into the magic manufacturing business together, creating the Blackstone Magic Company in 1929, but the partnership dissolved within 18 months. "Big egos don’t mix," Gabe Fajuri, the proprietor of the Potter & Potter magic memorabilia auction house and a longtime veteran of the Get Together, tells me.

Even as Blackstone and Abbott went their separate ways, business grew, and Colon became a factory town serving the magic industry. At its peak in the mid-1900s, Abbott Magic Company had 10 stores around the country and employed 60 different people in jobs like painting sets and manufacturing feather flowers, according to Ganger. Today, the 90-year-old Bud West is one of the few workers left who experienced the heyday. I met him on the porch of his son’s home next to a serene patch of Colon lake.

After practicing magic to entertain fellow troops on ship during World War II, West joined up with Abbott’s to design tricks. "Illusions were our calling card," he says. "You dream up an illusion, tell us what you would like to do, and we would do it." For Siegfried & Roy, West created an apparatus that turned a girl into a gorilla. "Nothing to it," he boasts.

These days, "the guys that I knew, they’re all dead and gone," West says. In 1959, Abbott himself was having heart problems and decided to retire. He sold the entirety of the company to Recil Bordner, an Ohio farmer and hobbyist magician who was an early partner in the venture. Shortly thereafter, Abbott died of a heart attack.

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Rick Fisher demonstrates a vanishing ball illusion at the counter of his shop, FAB Magic Company.

Bordner ran Abbott’s and the Get Together peacefully for decades, growing it into a kind of mafia meeting where elder magicians passed on their skills and business strategies to the youth, anointing the new kingpins of their calling. One such beneficiary was Lance Burton, whose performances made him one of the most recognizable illusionists in the world after he won the Get Together magic competition in 1977. Recil Bordner died in 1981 and his son Greg took over. Today he can be found in the back workshop of Abbott’s, a meandering store with glass cases of tricks arranged around wooden bleachers where a matinee ventriloquist act was chattering on as part of the festival.

When any curious kid can look up how to do a magic trick on YouTube rather than buy one of his props, "magic is a tough business," Bordner says. "If you want to know how to do cups and balls, you just Google it, bingo! You don’t have to send $5 to Greg Bordner!" But the internet is also helping profits. Sales are "more online everyday; PayPal has taken over," Bordner explains. "We still have a showroom that’s open to the public," he says, but he admits that demonstrating tricks for a few bucks’ profit is "sometimes a distraction." The majority of his orders come from middle-aged men, nostalgic for their youthful hobbies. He also mentions a $5,000 order from Disney.

Margins are thin, so when a competing magic shop opened in Colon 11 years ago, Bordner was spooked. It didn’t help that Percy Abbott’s children, who no longer owned any of their father’s business, helped former pharmaceutical sales rep and amateur magician Rick Fisher open the new store. "I feel animosity," Bordner says. Colon is "where I grew up; I played on the football team with a fighting rabbit on my helmet. I know the people in the cemetery personally."

Fisher’s shop, just a few minutes’ walk away from Abbott’s, is called FAB Magic Company, short for Fisher-Abbott. "We don’t want people to get confused," Fisher says while seated in the shop one afternoon, a hint of sarcasm playing through the friendliness of his voice. The thing is, the situation is confusing, and it doesn’t help that the two shops look incredibly similar, with the same musty glass cases and scattered props. Fisher originally tried to buy back Abbott’s but the attempt failed, and so the neo-Abbott team decided to start fresh.

Why would Fisher intentionally pick a fight in Colon? "For crying out loud, this is the magic capital of the world!" he says. "You oughta have a magic shop on every corner!" As Fisher sees it, the more magic, the better, especially for the town. "For a while there was cooperation [with Abbott’s], we don’t see that cooperation now, and that’s too bad," he says. "Everybody wants to grow, but you gotta get Colon to grow with you." Bordner, the senior magic salesman, takes a dimmer view. "If I don’t get the $5 from that ball vase, someone else will, so I have to be nice to people," he says.

"Everybody wants to grow, but you gotta get Colon to grow with you."

Amidst the bad blood, John Sterlini stands behind the counter of Sterlini Magic Manufacturing, Colon’s third magic shop, like a retired Elvis, dressed in a monochromatic bowling shirt with his dyed-black hair poofed loftily upward. Of the three salesmen he is the friendliest; he just wants everyone to get along. He’s also the most active as a practicing magician — he performed at the Colon high school show alongside Dan Sperry, though Sterlini wore far more traditional apparel: a tux.

Sterlini has nothing to do with the Abbott or Bordner families, though the Abbott’s catalog was "like my bible" as a young magician, he says. His shop, which opened three years ago after he moved his magic prop building business from Detroit, sets itself apart by looking less like a grandparent’s basement and more like a softcore interpretation of a BDSM dungeon: the walls are covered in faux stone blocks, there’s a stockade in one corner, and a shimmering curtain of ticker tape twinkles behind the counter. "If Disney were to build a magic shop, what would it be?" Sterlini wonders aloud while manning the obligatory glass cases of merchandise during the Get Together. "This is what I envisioned."

Sterlini comes down on Fisher’s side of the argument. "What better place to open up another magic shop?" he says of Colon. "I’d rather put my efforts to building more of a community."

Bordner, of course, sees it differently. "They’re the new kids, trespassing if you will, but I guess it’s just too big, I can’t stop it," he says. "Magic is bigger than you might think."

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Sean Bogunia poses with his "Blackstone's Dancing Hanky" trick.

The truth is that magic is both big and small. The art gathers a niche crowd, of course. But despite Bordner’s protests, I saw a community that welcomed diversity and provided plenty of space for coexistence. The variety was particularly apparent in the stage performances.

At the high school show that Dan Sperry headlined, there was a traditional levitating-ball and vanishing-dove act performed by Alexander Boyce, an 18-year-old magician from upstate New York who performed in a dashing gray suit. "I really like the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra, all those guys; shows like Mad Men," he tells me backstage after the show. "’80s magic is a thing, ’90s magic is a thing," Boyce says, but he chose to take on the classy, ’60s-era minimalism of a magician like Channing Pollock. (Pollock had a magic act so elegant — check out his appearance in the 1959 movie European Nights in which the magician is as poised as a silent film star — that he later became an actor.) I ask if Boyce’s skills help him get girls, Don Draper-style. "The magic doesn’t hurt," he says. "At the most simple level it’s a display of power, so if you’re into that…"

The most mind-blowing magic in Colon, however, happens not on stage but right in front of you. Boyce contrasts with someone like Ron Jaxon, a goateed man in a loose collared shirt, jeans, and fedora. Jaxon stopped by my table at the Colon American Legion — a wood-paneled cavern that’s a Get Together favorite for its cheeseburgers and $7 pitchers of beer — where magicians stroll the floor, pausing to perform. Jaxon tossed quarters from hand to hand, but they somehow disappeared in mid-flight. He moved the top half of a deck of cards with the shadow of his hand. One of the tenets of magical commerce is "we ain’t tellin’ if we ain’t sellin’," as Greg Bordner put it, but a quick Google search reveals that the trick can be performed with Silly Putty and some magician-standard invisible thread. Nevertheless, it looked amazing.

Jaxon first turned to magic in his teenage years as a distraction from the death of his brother, but then he became completely deaf. Magic became a way to cope with his condition and interact with people in public. "If I didn’t go deaf, I probably wouldn’t be a magician right now," he says. Two years ago he got a cochlear implant, and now he’s suddenly a deaf magician who can hear.

Though Jaxon depends on technology for his hearing, he’s a little disdainful of those who count on it for magic. "A lot of the younger magicians learn on YouTube," he says, lamenting that they’re "more about showing off." It’s not about the devices you have, according to Jaxon, but how you can perform. A good magician should be able to "buy a trick for $5… go into a competition and maybe not win it, but get a good reaction."

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Antony Gerard, a phenomenal card forcer, spent his week dazzling attendees with his skills.

Meanwhile, Sean Bogunia, who I caught standing outside the American Legion, might be the most tech-savvy magician around — and his tricks cost far more than $5. After dropping out of school in eighth grade, Bogunia taught himself electrical engineering, CAD, and, later on, 3D printing, which lets him prototype trick designs in a day rather than weeks. "I picked the perfect art, because magic is science," he says.

Bogunia was carrying around a cartoonishly large plastic jar with a white handkerchief inside and a cork plugging the top. "This is Blackstone’s Dancing Hanky, created by Sean Bogunia," he says, proudly introducing the device to a gathered crowd. The hanky inside started leaping around of its own accord, hovering, and playing dead when bystanders shot at it with an imaginary gun. The trick, which was pioneered by Harry Blackstone in its original form, depends on technology of Bogunia’s own. He’ll never reveal exactly how it works, though he holds a programmable wireless controller in the hand that’s not supporting the jar.

"There are many old-school magicians who will not use tech," but younger magicians are "doing stuff with their iPhones and things like that," Bogunia says. "I don’t really like that because the phone is already very magical. The best way to use technology in magic is to hide it in a way that’s unsuspected, just like this."

It’s difficult to combine technology and magic in a convincing, seamless way; perhaps that’s why the world of magic tech is so high-stakes. Bogunia is one of its stars. After his demonstration, a Get Together attendee quietly approached Bogunia about buying one of the hanky tricks — only 50 of which will ever be made — for thousands of dollars in cash. "I wanted you to know I’m serious," he murmured. Any potential buyer would have to be. Bogunia was contacted by perhaps the world’s most famous living magician, David Copperfield, about acquiring the trick. "He offers me a nice chunk of cash, but I can never do [the trick] myself, only he can do it, and there’s a very good chance that it may stay in his warehouse and never be used. Sometimes he’ll buy a trick just so other people don’t do it," Bogunia recalls. "I almost said yes, finally said no."

The Colon kind of magic inspires awe because we know it’s fooling us

As I watched the hanky dance, I couldn't help but agree with Bogunia's feelings on technology in his craft: our phones make things appear and disappear all the time as if by magic, but an iPhone is meant to be a tool, not a stage act. The Colon kind of magic — the kind I was seeing all around me — inspires awe because we know it’s fooling us. The doves don’t actually spring forth from nothingness; they’re hidden in sleeves and pockets. The coin doesn’t disappear; it’s still enclosed in the hand you’re not looking at. For Bogunia, technology simply helps that magical trick of perception along.

But tomorrow’s magicians couldn’t care less about the arbitrary lines drawn between magic shops, styles, and philosophies. 19-year-old Trino (his stage name) and his 17-year-old partner Trent James were rehearsing their act, "Partners in Deception," at the small theater attached to Sterlini’s store, forcing cards into balloons without popping them and escaping from straitjackets. When Colon’s feuds were developing, "we weren’t even born, so we have no sides," James says. For them, it’s more about survival — they just want to keep magic going. "Magic as an art isn’t going away, but it’s declining; less kids are doing it," James continued. "The generation above us is definitely helping us more than generations in the past, just because there are so few younger magicians," Trino adds.

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A cage filled with white doves sits on a Colon lawn.

After the second night of shows at the Colon high school auditorium, magicians gathered around downtown for pizza and burgers. A palpable buzz grew in the minutes before a close-up magic contest at Curly’s, a barn-like bar that is the newest and largest watering hole in town.

The sign-up list for the magical equivalent of a rap battle kept growing over the course of the night, presided over by Dynamike, the contest’s emcee, a towering man in a bright red suit known for performing tricks with an albino rabbit. The frantic showcase included cup-and-ball routines, mime impressions, a man named Maniacal Mike (no relation to Dyna) attempting a complex mind-reading trick that got lost in the bar noise, a shoddy arm-cutter, Ron Jaxon making a card appear in a bottle of beer, and Dynamike himself levitating an audience member on a chair. One 15-year-old magician, Tyler Nygren, had palmed cards into the back pockets of two audience members in preparation for a trick and anxiously watched to see if his victims had caught on. "This particular trick gives me a heart attack every time," he confides to me before going into the spotlight.

The trick eventually succeeded ("people seemed amazed," the young magician tells me afterward) and Nygren stood alongside Jaxon and several others in the winners’ circle while Dynamike praised them loudly. The magicians and spectators gradually filtered out of the bar toward several boxes of old decks of cards, the ingredients for another Colon tradition. Magicians tore open the decks and began throwing cards into the street, flicking their wrists so the white rectangles spun out into the darkness and fluttered to a rest on the sidewalk opposite, some colliding with streetlamps, cars, or innocent pedestrians.

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The aftermath of a Get Together tradition, playing cards litter the street.

Every magician took part in the cannonade, no matter FAB or Abbott’s, young or old, goth or engineer. The Get Together community united in a single joyful act. Dan Sperry joined in with shadows of his stage makeup still applied. Boyce threw cards when he wasn’t entertaining several local young women. Toddlers ran to pick up the closest cards and toss them again. Even one of the local cops was chucking aces. The scene was beautiful, surreal, surprising — in a word, magical.

Magic is "all about catching their attention and keeping it, making them laugh or cry or deliver whatever emotion you want to give them," Jaxon says. "It’s like a movie, but you’re actually in it." The scene that night was just that cinematic, with cards covering the street like a brushing of snow.

I left Colon no surer that the stage act — the prototypical tuxedoed man making rabbits appear from a hat — still had a place in a world of YouTubes, Snapchats, and iPhones. Yet all that uncertainty, all that apparent obsolescence disappears in this sleepy Midwestern town, even if for just a single week a year. In fact, Colon's single best trick might be the community that had gathered on that sidewalk that evening. "If this got canceled, we would still just come here to hang out for a week in August," Trino says. "These are the people you see on TV, these are the people touring around the world, and these are the people you might be eating pizza with at night. It just doesn’t happen like that."

Photos by John Lagomarsino