Will Rock Presents ... by Leo Behnke
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 2007)
Will Rock of the last magicians who toured with a full-length magic show in the waning years of what is now often referred to as the "golden age of magic." In the pantheon of great names of that period, Rock's is less well known, yet he purchased much of the Thurston show (and the right to invoke his name in advertising) and performed during the years of the Great Depression and afterward. Who was Will Rock?
That question can now be better answered thanks to Rock's daughter, Gretchen who proposed that a book be writ-ten based on a substantial quantity of her father's gathered memorabilia and to Leo Behnke, who agreed to take that resource material and write this charming volume.
Emigrating from Lithuania at the age of five, Will Rock —the family name was Raskauskas performed his first full-length magic show in 1930, at the age of 23. Although he would have to take many jobs, both in and out of show business, before he would eventually fulfill the dream of touring his own show, his story is one of a tenacity a man who would not relinquish that dream, no matter what he had to do to fulfill it. Thanks to a fortuitous introduction by "Dorny" (Werner F. Dornfield), and a serendipitous car accident which abruptly took three of (Maurice) The Great Raymond's staff members out of commission, Rock went to work for Raymond, embarking on a post-graduate course in the working world of magic. Raymond had been in the business for four decades when Rock came on board as secretary and chief assistant in 1931; by then, Raymond was being buffeted by the challenges of the Depression, as well as the sea changes underway in the business of show.
Rock learned from Raymond, often surviving lean spots between shows thanks to dinner and occasional hand-outs from his kindly mentor. When, two years after Howard Thurston died, Jane Thurston put many of his props up for sale, Rock manages to purchase nine major illusions from her. Several months later Rock negotiated with Thurston's brother, Harry, to purchase the entire remainder of the Thurston show for the sum of $1,000 a lot of money for the time, but a meager sum in comparison to the value and size of the catalog. Adding all this to other illusions he had been accumulating including the Abbott guillotine he made a trademark along with cast, crew, financial backing and business organization, Will Rock set out on tour, selling the show with the help of the Thurston name.
(I am compelled to offer a brief aside here concerning the citing of historical financial figures. Author Leo Behnke mentions that in 1932 "a train reservation from Seattle to New York City ... would only be $75..." Notice the modifier, "only." However, a quick check with an Internet inflation calculator reveals that, corrected for inflation, that $75 train trip would cost "only" about $961 in 2006 dollars far more than a transatlantic flight today! Please if you are going to discuss financial matters in a historical context invariably an interesting and useful aspect of any historical account such numbers are useless unless the reader is provided with accurate evaluations that have been properly corrected.)
One can only admire Rock's determination and flexibility. Trying to survive in the midst of the Depression, Rock would do daytime mind-reading shows for the ladies' market, read palms in department stores, and perform suspended upside-down straitjacket escapes to garner publicity. But with the loss of five male assistants to the military in the midst of World War II, Rock's major touring career comes at the end of 1941, when he closes the show and returns to yet another day job to pay the bills.
But Will Rock wasn't through with magic or perhaps magic was not yet through with him. In 1943, Rock was inducted into the Army and immediately pressed into service as a performer. Although he was regular Army, eventually advancing to a rank of Sergeant, Rock man-aged to mount all sorts of shows under challenging conditions both to entertain the troops and sometimes to assist in training. He developed tricks with military and patriotic themes, continued to give palm readings and astrological readings in addition to performing on stage (or what passed for stages), and filled much of his military time with magic.
Two weeks after Japan surrendered in 1945, Rock was honorably discharged. So much had changed in the business by the time that Rock returned to civilian life, he was unwilling to attempt to tour again. He needed a stable income to help him support and raise a family, and so he sold the Thurston show and rights to Kirk Kirkham in 1953.
Although Rock never toured again, he remained socially attached to the world of magic, speaking at the Magic Collectors Association gathering in 1984 and receiving an Honorary Life Membership at The Magic Castle in 1987. It is gratifying to know that Rock's achievements were acknowledged, and satisfying to know that they have been recorded in this worthy book. The book concludes with 38 pages of photographs and other ephemera; frankly, the story, and the reader, would have been a bit better served had these materials been better integrated, and future researchers would have greatly appreciated an index which is unfortunately lacking. But the dependable Mr. Behnke is to be thanked for bringing this work to fruition, as is Will Rock's daughter for honoring his memory—and Will Rock deserves a nod of our appreciation for managing to bring his own brand of magic to the world.