IF YOU'VE READ THE "ALL ABOUT" SECTION YOU'LL KNOW THAT for almost all of my life my "professions' " were pretty much pre-ordained at the time of my birth. Radio, and, music were the foundation of my early llfe, followed closely by my love of magic, as well as acting. In other words, much to my parents chagrin: show business was in my blood !___________________________________________________________________________________________
AT CHRISTMAS OF 1950 I scored really big ! I not only got a Lionel Train Set, I also got my ventriloquist dummy that I named "Pecos Pete", that's us on the left. He and I wore almost-matching flannel shirts. Sadly, or maybe for the better, my ventriloquist act didn't go over too well: Pete was getting all the laughs, so I decided to break up the team and let him go his own way. (The last time I heard from him, Pete was somewhere in Union, New Jersey playing a benefit at a retirement home for old ventriloquists.)
HOWEVER, my magic act was another story ! I got to be pretty proficient as an amateur magician. So much so that, in 1953 during a visit with St. Louis Magician Ernie Heldman on his "Parade Of Magic" TV show on KSD-TV, I was asked to be a part of his backstage crew.
You have to understand how exciting that was for a 12 year old kid ! I worked with Ernie from 1953 to 1957...every Saturday afternoon at the KSD-TV studios at 12th & Olive. I became his floor manager: timing the show to get it closed out on-time, bringing in the kids that were a part of our live audience, explaining to them what my cues for "applause", "quiet", etc., meant, and, just making sure everything backstage was running smoothly. Quite a responsibility for a kid my age, but Ernie had full confidence in me and I never let him down.
KSD-TV WAS THE NBC AFFILIATE in St. Louis, and was also the very first Television station in town. The Parade Of Magic had been a Saturday Afternoon mainstay and commercial success on KSD-TV since 1950, so what I learned during those four years of actual on-the-job experience working in a professional TV studio every week could never be duplicated by any College or University Course on "TV" you could ever sign-up for.
I MET ALL OF THE FAMOUS Guest Star magicians that we had on the show. One of my favorites was the Legendary Harry Blackstone. He was so very nice to me...giving me tickets to see his show and, when I asked for his autograph, he autographed the back of one of the tickets for me. BUT Blackstone's autograph was not the ordinary run-of-the-mill signature: he actually drew a caricature of himself as you can see below !
NOTE: YEARS LATER when I was living in Hollywood, I met Blackstone again at a Magic Shop he was working at on Hollywood Boulevard and got to thank him for his kindness and the autograph. He was astounded that I would remember the incident after so many years. And I told him that it was something that a young, aspiring, magician could never forget.
ABOVE Left: One of my FIRST paid jobs in Show Biz ! It was at the St. Nicholas Greek Church in St. Louis. You can see the listing on the lower portion of the flyer: "Entertainment & Magic Show"...I was the magic show. I was paid the fantastic sum of $5.00 for the show, and after that I was in high demand ! (Even then there weren't too many "Five Dollar Magicians" around...so I stayed busy.)
ABOVE Center: My friend, and early show biz mentor, magician Ernie Heldman. With him are his wife, Arlene Mardel, and, daughter Carol. This picture was taken by my Dad in the lobby at KSD-TV in 1953.
ABOVE Right: A St. Louis Post-Dispatch Ad for the "Parade Of Magic" from the early-1950's. (Image courtesy of Tim Neeley, In Hollywood Productions, St. Louis, MO.)
[R.I.P. My Dear Friends: Ernie passed away in 1977, and, Arlene Mardel (Biondo) died May 9, 2010. My sincere thoughts and warm memories of Ernie & Arlene go out to Ernie's son, Dan C. Heldman, and daughters' Carol Grotrian of Cambridge, Mass., Kathleen Neason, Boone County, MO., and, Cindy Piper, St. Louis County, MO. PS: That's a great picture of Arlene with a KSD-TV Camera that you see above.]
SPECIAL NOTE: BE SURE TO SEE THE COMPLETE STORY about this Magical Journey that I was privileged to ba a part of, and all who made that journey with me, in Television's "Golden Age": "THE EARLY YEAR'S ON TV: "IT WAS MAGIC !" Simply Click-On-Here and you'll be there before you can say "Ali Kazam ! Bippity, Boppity, Boo !"
ONCE I GOT FIRMLY ENTRENCHED IN HIGH SCHOOL, magic took a back seat to my wanting to be a musician. Drums were my weapon of choice and I studied them, took lessons, and was in the school bands of both high schools I attended. And, I was also taking Drama & Speech courses...acting in school plays at every chance I got.
After high school I got my own set of drums. They were Ludwig Oyster Blue Pearl, and they were beautiful ! A few years later, when the Beatles hit in 1964, everyone marveled at Ringo's drum kit. WELL, it was a Ludwig Oyster Blue Pearl set...the same set I had in 1959, and that's the cover of my Original Ludwig Drum Catalog that you see pictured here.
I played in St. Louis with a number of groups: Tom Kirgin & The Renegades, Eddie Thomas & The Blue Lights, and others. What was always cool, was when you visited another group playing at a different club and they'd ask you to sit-in. That really was a compliment.
AS I MENTIONED EARLIER, the "acting bug" kept showing up in my life. I had my first taste of it in grammer school, then that continued in high school. So, I gradually phased-out playing drums, and started to work with local little theater groups.
First there was The Carrollton Players, based in the Carrollton Subdivision in St. Louis. What a wonderful, fun group ! I proved my talents with them, and then was asked to do some plays with the Alpha Players of Florissant, MO. Another superb, talented bunch of actors that I really enjoyed being a part of.
The thing about working in many different productions with various actors and directors is that, if you're good at what you do, when they're casting for a new play they may have a role that they want YOU to do. It's the same thing that goes on in Hollywood, and later I found out that the same logic also tranfers itself to the Broadcasting Industry. I'll say this modestly, because of my age, experience, and, "type" that I was at the time, I was constantly working...sometimes doing two shows for two different groups at the same time !
It got to the point that I could almost pick-and-choose the plays that I wanted to do. And, it was at that point that I decided to take the next step. The REALLY big one.
NEXT: THE EARLY YEAR'S ON TV: "IT WAS MAGIC" !