Magicians have a tradition of outdoing one another, much in the way that sports figures try to set new world records. Who can escape from the most chains, or hold their breath underwater the longest… or produce the most coins from thin air—there’s a competition and one-upmanship that promotes the performer and furthers the art.
But to date, there’s a routine that’s been done only once, and it is arguably the greatest magic trick ever performed.
It was 1942, in September. Harry Blackstone, already a legendary performer, was on stage at a sold out performance. The venue was Decatur, Illinois’ legendary Lincoln Theater, a place associated with hauntings now. But that’s not because of Blackstone… if anything, he helped prevent some ghost stories.
While waiting to start his performance, someone whispered to him backstage. That whisper caused Blackstone to conceive of an entirely new trick on the spot, a trick so large, that it would involve the entire audience.
He walked to the front of the stage with his complete stage crew and announced “Boys and girls, today I’m going to do the most spectacular trick ever seen, and it is so big that you will have to step outside to see it!” Full of smiles and excitement, he asked the 1,000 children in the audience to exit the theater through the side doors in an orderly fashion so that they might see the illusion properly. When some of the adults suggested that they’d just wait inside, Blackstone insisted that they wouldn’t want to miss this, and urged them outside as well.
Once everyone was safely outside, Blackstone returned to his dressing room and cried. The illusion had already been performed. After recomposing himself, he joined the audience on the sidewalk across the street from the theater for the “prestige” portion of his act.
Those 1,000 kids stood in awe as they watched the buildings surrounding the theater engulfed in an inferno. The little whisper that Blackstone received was from the fire marshall telling him that a fire had broken out in the adjacent drugstore, and that they needed to evacuate the theater. Blackstone, a creature of theater, knew very well the horrors of panicked audiences rushing the doors, so he told the most exquisite lie of his career and saw 1,000 children safely out of a dangerous situation.
In the end, the Lincoln Theater didn’t burn to the ground. Changes made in public hall construction after the Iroquois Theater disaster helped avert its burning, but it was Blackstone’s quick thinking and showmanship that prevented a possible stampede.
Other tricks may be more amazing or spectacular, but none have come close to saving the lives of 1,000 children on a September afternoon.
It turns out that there’s even more to this story, but I’ll leave that for you to discover. The best telling is in my friend and mentor James “The Amazing” Randi’s book, Conjuring.